The Worst Best Friend – A Small Town Romance Read Online Nicole Snow

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Drama, New Adult, Romance, Suspense Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 144635 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 723(@200wpm)___ 579(@250wpm)___ 482(@300wpm)
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The Worst Best Friend - A Small Town Romance

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Nicole Snow

Language:
English
Book Information:

Wall Street Journal bestselling author Nicole Snow returns with a hilariously uplifting standalone romance where two jaded friends next door bring their lost hearts home.
It's all sunshine and butterflies until your brother's best friend dropkicks your heart. I knew I had it coming with Weston McKnight.
The Adonis next door. The fever crush. The always protector. The man who walked away after pulverizing my soul.
Seven years ago, he left our little town with a promise he couldn't keep. I waited. I worried. I suffered.
I stopped chasing dreams built on that boy's mile-wide shoulders. Then I found the pig—and sweet chaos found me.
I had to rescue that poor squealing baby before he was roadkill. I didn't know he belonged to Captain McGrumpy.
I never guessed I'd collide with a scowling, moody, scary-hot West again. Same man. New secrets. Oh, but that all too familiar tension...
****Full-length romance thriller with a sticky sweet Happily Ever After forged from friends-to-lovers madness. Witness one broken man's redemption quest to claim the girl he shouldn't with so many small-town hijinks, countless dad jokes, and a little help from a bad-tempered pig.
Books by Author:

Nicole Snow



1

Keep Calm And Oink (Rachel)

This is so not my thing.

My butt already hurts from sitting on this wooden bench and the muggy air pulls sweat down my back in sticky streams. It’s hotter than the devil’s kitchen, which seems like a sacrilege for late September.

Mostly, it’s the noise that makes me question my life decisions.

The clamor from the outrageously huge trucks filling the arena could rival an elephant stampede. I’m just waiting for their belching exhaust fumes to send half the town to the ER, sputtering for oxygen.

I don’t know how Marty talked me into this.

God, why did I let my dork of a brother drag me here?

Granted, it’s a nice break from managing the B&B and worrying about Gram, even if I know she’s getting the best care possible at the hospital in Dickinson.

Her surgery went well. She was nervous before it happened, but went under the knife smiling, and woke up wearing the same defiant grin with a shiny new hip.

I hope her recovery goes just as smoothly.

She’ll be home tomorrow with a bundle of everything she’ll need for the next few weeks. Namely, a walker and cane. She’d scoffed at the idea of needing either.

Convincing her to rein it in so she can heal is going to be rough. I’m not sure she’s taken a day off life ever since Marty and I were dropped in her lap after our parents died.

I smile as I recall her last words before we left the hospital this afternoon.

“Just you wait and see,” Gram said. “By this time next week, young lady, I’ll be doing the strawberry sprint, racing Granny Coffey down the aisles.”

That got a laugh. Apparently, even a hip replacement won’t keep her away from her longtime arch-rivalry over fresh fruit with the only other senior in town as feisty as she is.

Honestly, feisty or not, I doubt Gram will be racing anyone next week.

The surgeon insisted it’ll be a good six to eight weeks before she’s back to normal. Even with two years of nagging pain, she wouldn’t book the procedure until I promised I’d come home to lend a hand at Amelia’s B&B.

So I’d packed my bags, caught the earliest flight out of D.C. yesterday morning, and left behind an intern gig with the Smithsonian for an all-too-familiar slice of nowhere on the plains.

Hello, North Dakota, here I am.

Watching these four-wheeled monsters huffing and puffing like they’re ready to blow everybody’s house down.

The town’s always liked its races and car shows, but I guess they’ve turned into a big deal ever since I’ve been away. I don’t remember monster trucks being a thing—or my grown brother reverting to a bouncy twelve-year-old over it.

It’s already been a long, strange homecoming to Dallas, North Dakota, where life couldn’t be more different from the nation’s bustling capital.

A loud whoop ringing out makes me jump, a reminder of just how different this place can be.

I glance at the crowd behind me. There must be twenty-five solid rows of benches overflowing with people wearing cowboy hats and mud-spattered boots.

They’re trying to outdo the trucks in the noise department, cheering and roaring like they’ve just struck gold. Though I guess black gold wouldn’t be out of place in this dusty little oil town.

Sighing, I turn back around.

I’ve been back here a few times over the years for holidays and such. But if it wasn’t for Gram’s health, I know I wouldn’t be basking in the evening sun, watching these obnoxious, hulking trucks climbing over the tops of old cars, squashing them flatter than cardboard boxes.

“Pop goes the weasel!” Marty gushes, elbowing me playfully in the side as a monster truck blows out the windows of a rusted van. “How are you not screaming, Shelly?”

I roll my eyes.

“I’ll leave the sore larynx to you,” I mouth back.

Yeah, I’m not blowing my voice out for this craziness.

At least the animals before the show were cute.

The petting zoo outside the arena at the edge of the parking lot was a welcome break from the carnage. I wish I’d been able to hang out there longer with the horses and goats, but my idiot brother practically frog-marched me to our front row seats.

Why? Old Edison dolled up in an oversized cowboy hat and doing laps was way more fun than this. I even got to feed the town’s horse genius a carrot to distract him while his owners checked the locks on his pen a dozen times.

No matter how long I’ve been away, Edison remains a master escape artist, even in his twilight years.

The actual demo event just seems so wasteful, the insane crunch of metal and blown glass and ginormous spinning wheels, all to the delight of the happy heathens shouting their heads off behind us.

Pop! goes another car’s hood under a tire that looks like it could crush a bus.

The crowd freaks out, leaping to their feet, making a sound that could rival every circus monkey ever born.

My poor ears.

If only to distract myself, I follow their lead, standing to look around the arena for familiar faces. A huge blue truck is up next, coming up behind the black beast that’s murdered a few old station wagons. The monster truck lurches to a stop like it’s getting ready to tear over a row of at least a dozen junk cars.

Even in the madness, I smile.

I can’t help but think of Grandpa and his love of cars. He’d be beside himself to see so many destroyed just for entertainment.

Sure, they’re basically scrap metal. I get it. But this still would’ve seemed like an abomination to a man who could fix anything.

I think I’m the only one who cares.

Marty lets loose one of his loud wolf-whistles next to my ear, and I shove him back a step.

It’s all I can do not to punch him in the gut like I used to do when we were kids.

Men and their testosterone. That’s what this is really about.

“Holy shit, they’re on fire today! Did ya see that?”

“I’m not blind!” I throw back, giving him another eye roll worthy of every high school cheerleader combined.

I’m rewarded with a crooked grin.

He’s the proverbial big brother, four years older than me. Though he can drive me crazy anytime, I love him to death. He stayed here in Dallas for the oil fields...and so Gram wouldn’t go crazy all by her lonesome while I left town to chase my dreams.

This big dumb monster truck rally is a new thing for Dallas. This is the second one, apparently, and from what Marty says, there might be one or two more before winter blows in.

This will definitely be the only monster truck rally I’ll be subjected to before heading back to D.C.

I let out a loud sneeze as Marty laughs over the noise.

Dust puffs across the arena, coiling into the air. When one of those trucks drives closer to the stands, it romps over a muddy patch, dangerously close to spraying muck on the bystanders through the meager chainlink fence separating us from the action.

I wrinkle my nose.

A wave of shame washes over me for being so bitchy, even if I’m trying to hold it in.

It’s not like I’m covered in mud. A little sunshine won’t send me to an early grave.

And if I’m abso-brutally honest, there’s another reason why I let Marty sweet-talk me here.

Weston McKnight.

Marty’s lifelong best friend and once the bane of my heart. When I heard he’d be here, supposedly driving in the event...I let my curiosity take the wheel.

And from the way Marty starts shouting and whistling and waving, I’m ninety-nine percent sure Weston must be driving that big blue truck that’s about to start pulverizing cars like stuck beetles.

Fitting.

Because I know a thing or two about Weston stomping things flat. Once upon a rotten time, I was the one under him. I was only sixteen then.

Too young, too innocent, too trusting, and yes, too stupid.

I thought I had a life mapped out that included him. Then he ran off to join the Army with a promise to write, to check in on me, to care.

Not a single word came back.

That’s not the kinda letdown you expect from your best friend, your guardian, your teenage everything.

For years, everyone teased me, saying I had two big brothers in Marty and Weston. They were only half right.

To the outside world, it looked like I had two big brothers.

To me, the difference was stark raving clear.

One young man was my brother. The other was just the love of my life.

Every future I’d etched out, imagined, or dreamed included Weston damn McKnight. He was a pillar and a gateway, an anchor and the sea itself, a miracle I was foolish enough to believe I deserved—and a miracle I could keep.

The day I stopped expecting a single letter wasn’t just soul-crushing.

It was a lesson.

Weston McHeartbreaking Asshole taught me not to hang a life on dreams about anyone else.

Oh, don’t get me wrong; this isn’t some bitter rant. No woe-is-me grudge. No awful regret.

My curiosity here today doesn’t mean I’m not safely over him.

I came up with a new blueprint years ago—a very good one—that doesn’t need his stupid handsome face in my life. Frankly, it’s all turning out better than I’d planned.

I’ve got the degree and the experience to match my passion. And I’ll pick up right where I left off at a world-class museum after this odd little detour through old stomping grounds.

As soon as Gram is back on her feet—hopefully dancing on them with her new hip—I’ll be back at the Smithsonian for my first paid position.

I’ve got up to eight weeks until then. Just a couple months to help, to revisit, to stroll down memory lane. A rare chance to make peace with the harsher parts of my past like Weston the heart thief.

But can I when my heart dives?

When just being in the same vicinity as him still twists my pulse into an anxious pitter-patter?

For a second, I almost duck back down on the bench.

I don’t want to see Weston’s truck drive by, much less cheer for him.

Like I said, I’ve moved on.

Yes, I’m living out my dreams.

Hell yes, I’m still mad as hell at him for ghosting younger me like a bad match on a screen when I knew him most of my life.

But I don’t sit down.

I make myself look at the arena, fixing my eyes on it like I’m staring down the gates of hell.

“Here he comes!” Marty bellows, elbowing me in the side again. Yeah, he’s got to stop doing that. “C’mon, Shel. Put those lungs to work. I’ve heard how you sing in the shower, belting out tunes.”

“Idiot,” I mouth back, shaking my head and pushing at him.

It’s doubly awkward when my big brother is so oblivious to my awkward history with his bestie.

Sure enough, Weston’s snorting blue truck plows ahead, lunging at the first car like a lion tackling a helpless gazelle. The big wheels bounce high in the air, tilting the monster truck for an uncertain second.

But the car gives way beneath his massive weight in two seconds flat.

Pop goes the weasel, as my dumb brother likes to say.

The glass.

The metal.

Me.

My heart soars into my throat as my nerves come alive, forcing me to look away.

That truck could roll over at any moment, hurting him, or worse. It seems so dangerous, so reckless, but what do I know?

I don’t need to dredge up bad thoughts again—the infinite nightmares I had about him being killed overseas. For the first year, I thought it was the reason he didn’t write.

There had to be something outside his control, right?

He wouldn’t just abandon me...

...until he did.

Don’t look at his truck again, I tell myself, pinching my eyes shut as the crowd releases another explosive, delighted roar.

When the noise dies down an agonizing minute later, my eyes flick back to the action. The monster truck is gone, making its way around the long lap, trailing behind the first vehicle.

There’s a new dragon on wheels, this tall front-end loader thing piling up crushed cars on top of each other for the next round of “entertainment” on the opposite end of the arena.

I follow it with my gaze, listening to a group of young boys behind me screech about how they’ll be driving next year after they get their licenses.

Anything to get my thoughts off Weston.

Whatever. If I was in a better mood, I might admit the atmosphere has a certain charm.

All the cheering, whooping, and banshee hollering is the soul of Dallas.

This town doesn’t need fancy concerts or endless rows of glassy shopping centers branded with famous logos to have fun. The people here make their own.

And when they’re not busy cooking up creative ways to obliterate tons of steel and glass, they’re pretty down-to-earth and kind to each other. Everyone still loves his neighbor—or affectionately tolerates him—and even in the recent situations I heard about that involved bad actors creeping into town, a helping hand was never far.

I’ve missed that.

Missed the wide-open spaces when I’m used to crowded city streets.

Missed the quiet nights where crickets and night birds sing softly through open windows. A soothing contrast with shrill sirens and bleating horns punching through closed windows, distorting my sweetest dreams.

All whining aside, I’d be having a little fun right now if it wasn’t for Weston living rent-free in my head.

The worst part is, I can’t even blame him. Not when it’s my unwelcome feels ruining this.

I’m over him, dammit.

The schoolgirl crush I nurtured died eons ago...didn’t it?

So maybe I’m just not done being mad at him. That’s what’s got me knotted up tonight.

I look at Marty as he tips his oversized red beer cup back, chugging the remnants. He wipes at the excess that slips down his chin with his arm before flashing me another goofy grin.

“Dude. Mind your manners. We have napkins,” I whisper, scrounging one from my purse and pushing it into his hand. “Just because Gram’s laid up doesn’t mean I won’t tell her you gave those cute pigs at the petting zoo up front a run for their money.”

“Like hell,” he mutters, flipping me off, pushing up his nose with his middle finger.

Then he shifts seamlessly into this wild oinking sound that’s so middle school I laugh.

Big brothers. Gotta love ’em, right?

Because we’d be killing them otherwise.

For everyone’s sake, I should lighten up and enjoy my time here.

Who knows when I’ll be back after I start my new job. It could be years before I see Dallas again.

By then, Marty might be less of an overgrown kid and well on his way to married with 2.5 kids like legions of other good-hearted small-town guys.

So will Weston, I think bitterly. Are you even a memory?

My stomach sinks into a pit.

While I’m fighting not to let my eyes wander to Weston’s big blue truck, something else catches my eye. Something moving, blackish and mottled white, too round to be a missed car part and—are those four legs?

A pig!

Oh my God.

It’s definitely a stray pig, maybe one of the porkers from the petting zoo, and it’s blundering into a commotion that’ll make it a ham sandwich any second.

I jump up for a better look, straining on my toes. Next thing I know, my hands are around my mouth, and I’m shouting, “Hey, hey! Somebody stop them! There’s a pig down there, a pig in the arena!”

Of course, I’m drowned out by the incessant loud chatter and unhinged cheering when the front-end loader starts moving again.

I smack Marty’s arm, but it’s too noisy for him to hear me and he’s too drunk to comprehend my wild gesturing.

“I know. Pretty freakin’ cool, huh?” he mouths back, nodding with a lazy wag of his eyebrows. He lets out another loud wolf-whistle as my eyes flick over the scene frantically.

Sweet Jesus. There has to be some way I can signal an emergency.

Before I can even think, Weston’s navy-blue truck rolls back in action, preparing to climb over the old school bus parked at the end of the row of cars he’s already crushed.

Holy crap, no.

I have to do something.

Grabbing Marty’s arm, I scream in his ear again, but all he does is nod and grin.

“Jeez, I know, Shelly! He’s gonna squash that bus like a stuck hog,” Marty says with a messy laugh.

Yikes. I can’t let that very real, almost stuck pig get pulverized into a sausage patty.

“Think, Rachel,” I whisper to myself. “Think.”

With few choices in my scrambled brain, I do what everybody in Dallas would if they spotted a helpless creature in peril.

I haul butt before my mind catches up, racing forward and vaulting over the chainlink fence in front of us.

It’s the only tall barrier keeping the bystanders from the action, besides some generous spacing.

I hit the ground running. Pulling off the pastel-pink open button-down shirt I’m wearing over the matching tank top, I start flicking the shirt at the pig, trying like hell to catch its attention.

Are pig matadors a thing?

If they never were before, they’re about to be, invented right here in this little town with one helpless oinker and one insanely desperate me.

The closer I get, I see the pig’s roughly dog-sized, probably over a hundred pounds. His chubby face turns and sees me—I hope—but rather than running away, he just skids to a stop in the mud and stares.

He’s squinting like I’m the one in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Dude.

He doesn’t have a clue he’s in major danger.

There’s a noise just behind me then. The front-end loader backs up with an impatient growl, and the pig is still straight in its path.

“Get out of there! Get, get, get!” I bellow, snapping my shirt over my head and out in front of me like a crude whip, tearing up dirt. “Shoo, pig! Go home, little dude.”

The ginormous machine doesn’t slow.

The loader’s operator can’t see the pig from his height, I’m sure. I’m not even certain he can see me.

So I leap up and down like a monkey on a sugar high, waving my arms and yelling at the driver, even though I know he can’t hear diddly. Not over the hooting crowd and the massive diesel engine. I’m sure a few people have noticed I’ve run into the arena like a lunatic, but the shocked screeching over a girl on the field! only adds to the noise level.

“Shoo! Shoo!” I shout again, turning to the pig and flapping my shirt as I charge at him, desperate to scare him away. “Go on, get!”

It’s slow going, approaching him, when the traction sucks.

Every other step makes me slide on the mud, threatening to tumble me over.

If that happens, Saving Private Porky is an insta-fail mission.

Predictably, the little ham doesn’t move.

A defeated sigh rolls out of me as I realize what it’s coming down to. I’m going to have to push this freaking stubborn little hog out of the way.

Still running, I hold out my arms, preparing to plow into his side with all my strength.

I’ll have to hope the churned-butter mud will work to my benefit when it comes to moving the pig.

Here. We. Go!

I’m off to a great start, flying forward, head dipped and arms out like I’m chucking a bowling ball down the world’s longest alley.

...only, the second I impact the grunting beast with a vibration that knocks my breath out, nothing moves.

He’s a two-foot rock, a brick wall of fat and fur and muscle.

The collision drops me on my knees. I keep trying to shove him, but he just sticks his snout in my face with a smug snort, sniffing at my hair.

“Come on!” I yell, looking up just in time to see several men gathering at the fence, ready to climb over it and join me in the fray.

But something growls behind me like a bear on a warpath.

I push at the pig’s snout and twist my neck, only to see the huge tires on the loader are a few feet away, rolling closer.

Oh, shit.

I throw myself forward, but the mud is so slick.

Jesus, I can’t.

I can’t catch my footing to save my life—to my horror, literally.

My heart pounds in my throat.

My life strobes before my eyes in spinning flashes.

This is so not how I wanted to die—sacrificing myself for porkball who’s still blissfully clueless about the imminent doom.

He nuzzles my hair like an overgrown dog, unfazed by the noise, which sounds like a tornado moving over us.

But there’s another noise then.

Loud shouting, and something hits me—hard.

A second later, I’m rolling, over and over. I think the pig is actually running after me as the whole world spins.

Sky. Dirt. Pig. More sky?

Tires.

More dirt. Mud. Sooo much mud.

Something grabs me—something steel-solid—and despite the dirt, the mud, and choking diesel fuel stink in the air, I swear to God I can smell something weirdly familiar.

A woodsy scent I’ve always liked.

I’m trying to place it when the mad roll finally stops. I may be boneless but at least nothing hurts.

I’m just...spent? Worn out? Or am I dead after all?

For a second, I wonder if the full-body tingling coursing through me is some kind of bizarre out-of-body experience.

Maybe I got squished by the loader after all.

But would I still hear men shouting if I’d thrown off my mortal coil like dirty socks world? The wild yelling definitely feels real.

And I feel something moving.

A person?

Hard, strangled breaths steam under me, kissing my neck. A pair of bulging arms hugs me tight, pinning me against a shield of a chest.

The pig?

Nah, pigs can’t hug.

And no pig feels like this, burly and strong and spectacularly man-shaped.

When I crack an eye open and my vision stops whirling, I see Porky again. He’s next to me, pushing a concerned grunt in my ear.

Dang. I’ve definitely fallen on top of somebody.

My cheek is on their chest. I can hear a heartbeat, thrumming madly, as fast as mine.

Then there’s that familiar smell, this brash mix of haughty pine and sandalwood and something more primal. It fills my nostrils and reminds me why my body likes it and my brain yells panic.

Like I’ve ever forgotten anything about this disappearing bastard of a man.

Oh, God. Why does he have to be my hero? Again?

Maybe I’m wrong. There’s the teensiest chance it could be someone else.

Not wanting to face him to confirm my fears, I pinch my eyes shut and lift my head, just enough to gaze in the other direction.

There’s the front-end loader, all right. Halted barely a few feet away, nightmarishly close to mashing me into Shelly jam.

Next to those mammoth wheels is that big, blue elephant truck with tires almost as menacingly large as the loader’s.

Sigh. What more do I need to confirm my worst fear?

I don’t want to face him.

I don’t want to say a word.

I don’t want to have to thank him, even though I damned well should for saving my bacon and making such a silly pun real.

But I’m shaking as the brush with death sinks in. Also, there’s a crowd of people still ambling over the fence, surrounding us, led by Marty who’s screaming his drunken head off.

There’s nothing I can do. Nothing except plant my hands on my awful savior’s chest and push up, so I can gawk at Weston’s awestruck face.

Yikes!

Same old Weston, just a hundred times more handsome and intense than I remember, and a lot more unforgivable.

His hair is still sandy brown-blond, tucked up in a bandana tied around his head, sculpted like a lion’s proud mane.

His eyes are still an unforgettable shade of dusky blue, the beautiful sort of shade that rolls out like a welcome mat for the tinsel stars and silver moon.

His aquiline nose is the same, and so is his jaw, a forged block of clenched, bony steel peppered with a shroud of dark five-o’clock shadow, and—holy God.

I watch a face that leaves mere mortals in the dust ignite with recognition as it dawns on him just who he’s rescued.

Exactly who would be so dumb they’d fly out on a field of prowling monster trucks to save a clumsy pig.

“Shelly? Shel?” he whispers, repeating my name like a sailor’s curse and an apostle’s blessing in one.

The air seeps out of my lungs in a sharp, deflating hiss.

I hate how his lips are close enough to kiss.

I only dreamed of surrendering to that mouth a thousand times.

It hurts to rip my gaze off him, to meet him eyeball to eyeball. My gut sinks clear to my toes at the hot glare filling his eyes. A very harsh, disapproving glare.

Those kissable lips peel back in a cruel grimace as he says, “You’ve got to be shitting me, Shel. All these years and you’re still more trouble than you’re worth.”

2

Pigheaded (Weston)

Controlled anger has always been my shield, for better or worse, and right now I’m stone-cold pissed.

I have to hold it in, keep it in my head, focus.

Because it’s either hold the fuck on to this outrage—Option A—or kiss those angelic lips of hers until my demon tongue leaves them a smoldering wreck.

Yeah, I sure as hell can’t take Option B.

Dammit. Damn her.

She looks up at me through her lashes like she doesn’t realize she just came within a spitting inch of losing her life.

I was already reminded of her the instant I saw that fluttering mass of ginger-red curls flying in the wind as a strange woman came bounding through the mud, waving a pastel-pink shirt, trying to move Hercules the boulder-pig.

Believe me, he’ll get a well-deserved chewing out later. He must be taking escape lessons from Edison the horse. For now, I can’t decide if it’s the hog or her who’s got me seeing blood-red.

Rachel.

Shel.

Shelly.

My heart slammed into my throat and choked me at the sight of her and that damn pig, both of them trapped in Karl’s path as he’d steered the loader forward.

I was scared shitless I wouldn’t reach them in time.

I had to.

Call it fucked up kiss of fate.

Isn’t saving Shel Simon what I’ve always done? Ever since the bygone days when she was just Marty’s kid sister, a giggling shortstack tagging along behind us.

I’ve always looked out for her.

I’ve always been her friend, the older boy she needed growing up, until I couldn’t be anything at all.

What the hell are the odds I’d meet her again like this?

After this, I feel like I’ve got the universe wagging a judgmental finger at me, reminding me it’s not done hurling Shel into my life. Hell, maybe into the next life, too.

My throat burns as I blink at her, thinking about how I’d watched her grow from a rangy little nerd-girl into a lithe, excitable, blossoming dork of a teenager.

Does she still run her mouth a mile a minute when she’s playing history professor?

Does she still lay the law down on Marty like any know-it-all brat sister should?

But hell...where, oh where did she get those curves?

The friend—the girl—I left behind when she was sixteen didn’t feel anything like this.

The grown woman flopped down on top of me, caught in my arms, sure doesn’t feel like the Shelly Simon I knew.

She’s been away a good while. Long enough to transform her familiar wiry thinness into the perfect firm, yet supple curves.

Despite the clothes, the dirt, and the mad adrenaline darting through my veins, she fits like she was made to be my second skin.

Fuck.

Even with mud smudged on her cheeks and more clumped in that tangle of glorious red-brown curls, she’s dangerously adorable.

I only wish I could quit staring—gawking, really—or at least stop thanking everything holy that I arrived in time, shoving her away from the loader’s tires that would have surely killed her.

Hot anger lashes through me, mixed with a gratitude like nothing I’ve ever known.

Call me insane.

Right now, half of me wants to spank her senseless for endangering her life, while the rest of me never wants to let her fucking go.

Hercules has something to say about that. The beast jabs his muddy wrinkled snout between our faces, snuffling and screeching like a dying boat engine.

“Not funny, buddy. Not at all. Get the hell out of here, Herc!” I give him a firm shove with one hand.

I’ll never admit I’m almost as upset over the pig nearly dying as I am over Shel getting flattened right along with him.

He lets out an offended squeal and backs up on four wobbly legs.

Shel huffs.

The glare she’s been holding on me softens as she looks at Herc.

“Don’t mind him, you poor thing. That’s just West, grumpy and short-fused as ever.”

I bite back a smile.

She always called me West before it caught on with everybody else. That’s half the reason why I called her Shel. The rest of her family called her Shelly before, and at first it irritated her when I shortened it to Shel, Seashell, or even Clam. That last one really pissed her off.

“I always had a reason to be pissed, didn’t I?” I remind her.

She graces me with another hate-glare.

Curious, Herc trots closer again, his snout sniffing overtime. I shove at him again.

“Back off, you conniving little hog. You were almost a pile of bacon,” I grind out.

“Conniving?” Shel shakes her head. “He’s too cute for that. Pigs can’t scheme, West. People, on the other hand...”

Damn her mouth. Again.

Besides being prickly as I expected and on point, she’s too sweet for her own good, even when she’s trying to insult me.

“Same goes for stupid, Rachel. What the hell were you thinking, rushing out here like this?” I wave a hand at the loader’s tires, now stopped only a few feet away. “Karl couldn’t see you. You would’ve been slaughtered.”

“Well, he couldn’t see the pig, either, could he? I had to do something. Nobody could hear me over the noise. Should I have just stood by while your friend turned this little guy into shredded pork?”

“Yes. You should’ve stayed the fuck out of the way. I would’ve seen the pig and intervened,” I say sharply like it’s gospel truth.

My stomach twists with uncertainty.

She might have a point but that doesn’t excuse her antics.

Without her calling attention to Herc, I honestly have no clue what might’ve happened.

I hate how she affects me, even after all this time apart.

We’ve only been thrown together for a panicked minute, but it needles my body like it’s been far longer. Her soft weight ignites every blood cell in my body, turning my veins into lava tubes.

I should ask if she’s okay, but if she was truly hurt, I’d know it by now.

Instead, I grab her waist, helping her scramble up while I find my own balance.

As soon as she’s standing again, that traitor pig is at her side, rubbing his thick hide against her leg and butting his snout beneath her hand like an overfriendly dog.

Fucking lovely.

The self-propelled stomach from hell picked a great time to make new friends.

Herc normally doesn’t get along with anyone, human or animal. Besides Aunt Faye, I mean, who graciously bestowed the little monster on me not so long ago, claiming Herc always had a soft spot for me.

Yeah. About that...

He also picked a hell of a time to demonstrate his ever-evolving escape artist talents. If he keeps it up, he’ll outshine Edison and his Houdini feats so the old stallion can retire.

“What are you doing out of your pen, guy?” I ask Herc miserably, swiping a hand over my face.

“Don’t sound so angry!” Shel hisses, leaning down to pet the pig. “He needs a little comfort.”

“He almost got flattened. So did you,” I grumble.

“Yeah, well, I’m not dead.”

“Thank God for small miracles,” I reply, venom in my voice. I can’t help the frustration boiling over.

“Drop dead, West,” she flings back.

I stare. It’s harsher than the tone I remember.

She’d say that to me years ago, jokingly, and I’d always replied with, “Why? So you’ll have nobody but Marty for help?"

We trade glares, our old cliché turned nasty and too close for comfort.

“I see you’re just like the rest of Dallas. You never change,” she tells me.

“And I see you’re Miss Big City now. Congratu-fucking-lations.”

“Thanks. Jealous much?” she quips.

I let out a harsh laugh.

“Jealous of being a snob? Hardly.”

Christ. This little reunion is worse than anything I ever imagined.

I always knew seeing her again would be hell.

Even when I left town years ago, I seesawed between wishing I had that hell and avoiding it like the plague. Shel was ultimately the reason I made my choice to enlist and blow town.

She was a complication, catching feelings chemically designed to detonate our lives if either of us ever acted on them.

I knew there could never be anything between us from day one.

She clung to a high school crush she should’ve saved for boys in her class.

We were certain doom, and I knew it, the minute I ever let those inklings I started to get for her transform into anything real.

She was my best friend’s little sister, for fuck’s sake.

I couldn’t let that happen back then, and that goes double for now. Not that she looks like she’s aiming to do anything except spit in my face.

I just hate that she’s turned into a full-blown woman with the same sharp words and rocking new curves in all the right places. This woman is a tactical nuke, and I didn’t get trained on identifying radiological threats for nothing.

Hell, I wanted her to leave Dallas, didn’t I? I begged her to expand her horizons, to see the world outside of this place, to crawl into the catapult that would launch her into her headiest dreams.

I knew she’d make something out of her life if she had nothing binding her here.

Aside from this pig stunt, everything I’ve heard from Marty tells me she’s well on her way to doing just that.

“I guess I should thank you for rescuing me. You’re hardly a gentleman, but you did save my life, so...thanks, West.” Using one hand, she flicks her dirt-flecked hair away from her face, her evergreen eyes guarded.

I shrug. “I had a pig to rescue, didn’t I?”

Her lip curls as she glares at me.

Swallowing a chuckle, I reach forward to pinch her cheek.

That always annoyed her enough to get a laugh in the past.

Looks like it still works. She holds her ragey face for two more seconds before a pained laugh claws its way out.

I regret how transfixed I am on her smile, her face lighting up in this hot flush of laughter and sheer irritation.

“Whatever!” She slaps my hand away, adding under her breath, “Jerk.”

“Brat,” I fire back.

“Somehow I don’t think you even like the pig,” she says.

I lift a brow. One that says maybe I don’t like her much, either, and knowing full well I’m lying to myself about both of them.

“God, Weston. I forgot how big an ass you can be,” she says, wrinkling her face up.

“And you, Shel, are still a royal pain in mine.”

“What the hell, guys? Are you okay?” Marty shouts as he comes rushing in, followed by a smattering of bystanders who were happily glued to the stands only minutes ago.

Before either of us can answer, Marty levels a gaze on her.

“Sis, what were you thinking? Scaling the fence to save Hercules? He’s been around the block at the county fair with tons of noise and farm equipment. He’d have gotten out of the way!” Marty waves his arms frantically, throwing us both a wild-eyed look.

Leave it to my buddy to blow my cover story about saving the pig and not her.

“The only reason he didn’t move sooner was because you distracted him, running up with your shirt twirling over your head like some crazy cowgirl. Shit.” Marty blabs on, letting out a loud beer hiccup.

“Whose pig is he, anyway?” She huffs out a breath.

Marty points at me with a grin. “You’re looking at the owner.”

She levels another one of her snarky-ass evil eyes on me. I shouldn’t let those emerald eyes of hers rouse this heat in my blood, even stronger than before.

Marty slaps my shoulder, snapping me out of my dumb trance.

“See, Weston? It’s just like I told you. Some things never change. She’s barely been back for a day and she already needed you to come charging in like Batman. Just like old times, dude.”

I nod slowly, watching Shel’s face turn to red.

Old times indeed.

Times I don’t want to deal with while she’s back in town—briefly, I hope.

“You guys can both suck a rotten egg,” she snaps under her breath.

Yep. Same old Shel, underneath her tempting new assets. I only wish her little fit helped me get my head screwed on tight enough to ignore said assets.

Other people arrive, swarming us like bees, and unlike her, I don’t care who’s listening.

“Think the egg sucking started the minute you blew back into town, lady,” I growl.

“Whatevs. Pig saved. Mission accomplished. I’m leaving.” She pivots on one mud-covered white tennis shoe and starts marching away.

Hercules grunts and starts following.

“Herc, no!” I shout after him.

The pig stops for a split second and gives me a look that’s too human. As if to say, You think I’ll just up and start taking orders today, funny man?

I stare back, silently letting him know he’ll be pork chops, ham, and sausage for the next year in my freezer if he doesn’t listen.

I’d never truly butcher him, but I can’t let him know. He’s already ornery and proud enough.

“Better give her a ride home so she can take a shower,” Marty says. “Sorry about the interruption, man. We kinda blew the big finish for you.”

Interruption? It was a hell of a lot more than that.

After what just happened, the show’s toast. It might be the last one of the year, even, with autumn in full swing, but I can’t blame Marty for that.

Can’t even blame Herc or Shel.

This bullheaded pig has a terrible habit of jailbreaking his pen, and she was just out to save his crazy butt.

“There was only one heat left and a bus to stomp,” I say with a sigh. “No big loss. We’ll make it up to folks at the next rally.”

Marty slaps my shoulder again.

“Well, sorry again. Sucks to leave everybody with blue balls. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I tell him.

He takes off jogging to catch up with Shel, yelling “Wait up!” after her.

While I play catch-up with the wonder pig, Shel hurls me a final screw-you glare over one shoulder, her reddish curls rippling in the wind.

I should look the hell away. Avert my eyes. Every glance feels like staring directly into the sun.

Instead, I blow her a kiss, just to piss her off more.

The way she flips her head back around and shakes it with disbelief tells me it worked.

Some things never change.

I just wish this jousting was all in good fun like it used to be.

While I’m lost in my head, Hercules arrives at my side with a disinterested grunt that makes me roll my eyes.

“Don’t even start, drama king,” I warn him.

His next grunt sounds like exasperation.

I didn’t know pigs could sigh.

On the other hand, I know exactly how he feels and push the air from my own lungs.

Waving a hand toward the announcement booth, I wait for Reggie to flash a thumbs-up, acknowledging my signal that everyone’s fine.

His little spiel revs up fast, echoing over the arena and ending with, “Thank you all for coming out today, folks. Another Dallas crisis averted—and we didn’t even have a tiger on the loose this time!”

I snort, grateful he’s a people pleaser. Though I guess his callback to the time my uncle rescued a stray zoologist will always win some grins.

Bruce the tiger might be the most popular creature in Dallas short of Edison these days. And hell no, I’m not interested in giving Herc a chance to grow his fame.

As the crowd erupts in applause and people start exiting, heading for snacks and friendly critters to pet, I tell Karl to clean everything up. I also catch a glimpse of a worn, raised up scrap of chainlink fence—clearly the section Herc found and dug under after he broke out of his petting zoo pen.

I knew it was a bad idea bringing him out here, even if Aunt Faye insisted.

Just socialize him, she said.

He’s a darling, friendly boy, she said.

Right. My aunt is either a bald-faced liar or she owns the strongest rose-colored glasses in the world when it comes to her precious hog baby. Bottle feeding him since he was a baby must’ve done funny things to her head.

If only I’d let my gut do the talking.

With the pig still at my side, I stop by the ticket table to apologize for the interruption and explain that we’re ending the show for the night. Everyone who asks will get a refund for tonight’s tickets.

That’s only fair.

Although it is disappointing to know I won’t be able to donate as much as I’d planned to the sobriety and detox program at the vet’s rehab center.

That place is half the reason I’m walking and talking right now, much less organizing monster truck rallies. I owe them more than I’ll ever be able to give back.

The other half is Uncle Grady.

Without him, I’d have never contacted them, let alone found the balls to get help.

I wish Shelly was right about that shit she said.

I wish I’d stayed the same.

On some dark nights when I wake up in a cold sweat, I wish I’d never left Dallas—or her—at all.

* * *

Later, at home, I find out Herc’s outburst wasn’t limited to the rally.

There’s a new hole in his pen—the same one I fixed barely two weeks ago—suggesting he’s more than ready to keep raising hell.

When did my life become this?

Constant babysitter to a four-legged wrecking ball who cries like the world’s saddest baby.

Muttering to myself, I find a couple cement blocks to reinforce the area till I can give it a proper fix.

In theory, it should make it impossible for him to dig out again. In practice, it’s frigging Hercules.

I hold up a carrot to get his attention, holding it just out of his snout’s reach.

“Not yet. First, you’re gonna hear me out. You used to be Aunt Faye’s little angel, so I know you can behave,” I say, trying not to think about the fact that I’m having a heart-to-heart talk with a damn pig. “No more causing trouble for this town, you hear? The good folks of Dallas keep you fed, warm, and watered. They keep me working on their cars so I can keep you happy and buy you more crap to chew up, Herc. No more trouble. Capeesh?”

His demanding grunt turns into a loud squeal.

“No more trouble,” I repeat slowly, touching the tip of the carrot to his nose before snatching it away. “Not for me. Not for Marty. Not for Uncle Grady and his family. Not even for Shel Simon. She may deserve you acting out more than anybody, but you owe her one.”

Staring into his beady little eyes, I lower the carrot, shaking my head as he inhales it.

Satisfied—for now—he grunts and plops down on the hay in the corner while I spruce up his pen and get him watered for the night. He’s snoring before I put away the shovel.

Yeah, so this is my ridiculous, pig-haunted life.

And I’m almost afraid to ask what that life means now after meeting Shelly again the way I did.

Stopping to give Herc a parting pat on the head before I leave his enclosure and triple-check the gate behind me, I sigh.

“Night, Herc.”

He’s a stubborn pain in the ass, but I like him. Sometimes.

As I head into the house, I stop and stare past it, the yard, and at the backside of Amelia’s B&B. Our properties share borders on the edge of town.

The houses are old renovated farms, mostly. Roomy enough with plenty of land around them, and they’ve always butted up against each other.

Though I think if I had a hundred acres, it still wouldn’t be enough to keep my mind off that infuriating woman.

My parents sold off the rest of our land for proper farming before I was born, and so did Doug Simon, Thelma’s deceased husband and the Simon kids’ grandfather. Old Thelma opened Amelia’s Bed & Breakfast after he’d died, while I was still in the Army, not long after Shel left for college and Marty bought his own fixer-upper a few miles away.

Marty’s done well for himself working for North Earhart Oil. He’s a field supervisor now, and still helping Thelma with odds and ends around the bed and breakfast.

I knew this was coming, ever since I heard Thelma had her surgery booked. Marty was excited to have Shel coming home, yammering about it for weeks.

They could’ve easily hired somebody to help shore up the business and assist Thelma during her recovery, but Marty and Thelma were both worried sick about Shel living in D.C. all by herself.

Honestly, there were times when I’ve worried about that, too.

Only, I also know she’s smart and intimately familiar with city living after years away.

It’s the shit here in Dallas she doesn’t know, the shit she’s forgotten, that’s a bigger problem now.

She’s always let her head get so up in the clouds...it wouldn’t be the first time it led her into trouble.

Shel always had a habit of not seeing anything else going on around her. Not when she’s waist-deep in her one true love—every old relic and obscure footnote of history under the sun.

Herc’s a perfect example.

All she thought about was him getting hurt. In reality, she could’ve been crushed into a bratty pancake by waltzing into the arena.

I still can’t get her heroics out of my head.

The image of Shel on her knees, shaking, while the loader’s giant wheels crept closer hardens in my brain like cement.

Fuck, even now, my blood runs hot.

Doesn’t she know I was only riled up because I still care?

Doesn’t she get that I care—regardless of the shit that happened almost a decade ago?

I’d like to cross property lines, storm into the B&B, and tell her to go back to D.C. tomorrow rather than risk her neck here in Dallas.

Of course, I can’t. It’s none of my business. That’s what I try to pound into my head all night.

Rachel Simon stopped being my business years ago, the minute I made a promise I couldn’t keep.

That’s how I wanted it, and my disappearing act made it crystal clear.

I can’t have her.

I can’t want her.

I can’t even dream her.

Not now.

Not ever.

Not happening.

3

Lipstick On A Pig (Rachel)

So. This is what it’s like when you’ve been slammed by a Mack truck—which is literally what almost happened.

A front-end loader, technically, which puts every truck to shame.

Amazingly, nothing hurt much last night when I crawled in bed after soaking myself pink in the tub. This morning, I’m stiff as a board and sore from head to toe. Probably thanks to rolling across the ground like a human soccer ball.

Too bad I can’t blame my lack of sleep on the aches and pains.

They’re all courtesy of a certain anti-gentleman.

Weston freaking McKnight is the whole reason why I barely slept three hours. All because I had the gumption to leap in and save his fearless pig—and have it out with him in front of half the entire town after he narrowly saved me.

Ugh.

Huffing out a breath, I still can’t believe I’ve only been back in Dallas for a couple days.

In that short time, I’ve not only embarrassed myself, but I just had to bait Weston into saving my skin, didn’t I?

It’s infuriating because it’s hardly the first time.

And it’s like no amount of leaving, growing up, living changes anything.

This place is freaking time-proof.

Back when I was younger and far more foolish, I’d gotten myself in a tight spot more than once. Weston was always the one to pull me out.

Everything from being stuck in a tree to crashing Grandpa’s motorcycle.

That incident was uniquely miserable.

Of course, I was told a hundred times not to ride it. First by Grandpa Doug and then by the nineteen-year-old kid with eyes like spinning blue crystal who patched it up.

Weston was too right when he said don’t do it.

These older models weren’t safe for a fifteen-year-old with a permit on dusty country roads, he said, no matter how “careful” I swore I’d be with my hand on Gram’s old Bible.

Maybe even then, I was itching to prove I knew better.

I wanted West to see me as an adult, an equal, not just Marty’s annoying kid sister.

So that’s why I took off one evening on the joyride of my life.

Swiping the motorcycle from storage and trawling down deserted backroads was no more hazardous than a coughing fit or two caused by the swirling dust the bike kicked up.

I was squealing with delight by the time I finished my seven-mile trip, swerving triumphantly onto our street. I revved it and made as much noise as I could going past the McKnight place, eager to catch Weston’s attention.

I wanted him to see how wrong he could be.

I wanted him to step outside, shirtless and tense like he often did on summer evenings, just in time for me to razz him with a flash of tongue before I sped up the winding drive and parked the bike in Grandpa’s shed with nobody the wiser.

Well, except for the older boy mechanic who said it’d cause me nothing but trouble.

It didn’t.

The ride was flawless until the home stretch, when I was one teensy second too late braking, turning, and—

Yep. Barreling right into a weathered section of the McKnight’s perimeter fence, scattering the boards apart.

Good thing I landed on the grass just a few feet from where the bike threw me.

Good thing I was wearing a helmet.

Good thing Weston didn’t act like an angry god as he stood over me—even if he looked the part with this sexy disapproving man-stare—shaking his head and offering me a hand.

Oh, I expected an ego lashing for the ages...

Instead, he just gave me that trademark Weston look. The tired, thorny, world-weary look he wielded like a sword before he left for the service, which always made him seem like twenty years my senior instead of just four.

“Told ya so, brat. You see why I didn’t want you riding now?”

But he didn’t torment me after that, didn’t rub it in, and never delighted in my tearful apologies and panic over damaging his place. He just grabbed a cold soda from the fridge, put me down on his porch, and set to work repairing the old fence in no time.

My grandparents never knew a thing—thank God—and neither did Marty.

He just drove me back on the motorcycle, which he also fixed, touching up a spot of scratched paint. He never told anyone.

The quiet, fierce look on his face last night was the same as that summer evening when he came blasting out the door to find me crash-landed on his property—the kind of look that says not again.

Not the hell again, you brat.

Then again, I also saw something else in his midnight-blue eyes. This strange remorse that also appeared somewhat haunting.

That stuck with me long after I’d gotten home and crashed under the blankets.

Let’s be real. Everything about Weston and his adorably mischievous pig invaded my head, memories charging back.

How hard and strong and perfect his body felt under mine.

How devastatingly handsome he still is—more than I even remembered because he’s also matured over the past decade.

Ding!

I jump with a start.

Glancing at the timer on the oven, I grab a potholder to pull out the cookie sheet. Gram always keeps several pounds of cookie dough around, heaped in perfect balls and frozen in labeled bags in the freezer.

Although the only full meal the B&B serves is breakfast, she insists on having batches of fresh-baked cookies available at all times.

That usually means prepping a new batch at least three times per day.

She also insisted on a one-night closure due to her surgery, and that’s already come and gone.

I helped check in two new sets of guests today. A single man and a couple. Although I’ve visited since Gram opened Amelia’s and helped out where I could, this is the first time I’m doing it on my own.

Not that I’m worried.

Honestly, I’m more concerned about her going batty in recovery and having to actually sit still.

She sounded good when we spoke over the phone this morning. Marty left a few hours ago to pick her up.

They should be arriving anytime.

I’ll be glad when I can see for myself how she’s doing.

I transfer the oatmeal raisin cookies to a cooling rack and slide the cookie sheet in the dishwasher. Thank God this place has modern appliances hidden behind its rustic look.

When it comes to convenience, Gram went all out.

I’m talking full private bathrooms installed in each of the six bedrooms upstairs, and a kitchen remodel that would make a cooking show celebrity jealous.

The massive farmhouse was originally built by Grandpa Doug’s grandparents at the turn of the century. They had a pack of kids, and as those children grew up and got married, they kept adding on to the house and modernizing it.

The entire downstairs was remodeled as well. What used to be the living room now doubles as the lobby.

I’m grateful they left the old fireplace intact, this colossal warm and welcoming hearth made from stones picked out of nearby fields. The shelves in the library were spruced up and refinished as well, and they’re the very same that were hand-milled by my great-grandfather.

What used to be the back parlor—as Gram always called it—and two bedrooms downstairs were converted into Gram’s own living quarters plus a large laundry room.

That’s not the best part, though.

It’s the antiques. The real showstoppers. They’re displayed everywhere throughout the house.

After Gram opened the place, a few old Dakota Cavalry bayonets from the Civil War and hand-painted china sets were even featured in magazines.

This isn’t the first go around as an inn.

Grandpa Doug’s parents ran a boarding house here way back in the thirties and forties. It was something Grandpa always wanted to try, but he was too busy working at North Earhart Oil.

Old man Jonah Reed, owner of the oil company, was even one of his best friends.

Jonah passed on a few years ago, too, but in the early days, the two men along with Weston’s grandfather, Larry, were known around town as the Three Musketeers. Gram still calls them that and I smile every time.

I remove the cookies off the rack, stack them on a platter, and carry it out of the kitchen, through the dining room, and into the lobby.

There, I set them down on the table that also holds the water dispenser I refilled with a few slices of fresh sliced lemons while the cookies baked.

A longing sigh escapes me as I glance around.

This place smells as perfect as it looks. Movies could be filmed here, and I swear I can feel the history vibrating through my bones when I lay my palm on the smooth, cool table.

A tiny part of me wishes I could stay longer. Helping Gram with the place into the holiday season would be pretty fun.

That can’t happen with my new job waiting, but needless to say I’ve missed being home.

The large grandfather clock in the corner chimes, dragging me out of my nerd-trance.

It’s eleven o’clock.

The sound of a car door banging shut cuts through the musical chime.

Another guest? Hmm.

Check-in usually starts at two p.m., but since we were closed for a day, everything’s been a little off like the new arrivals this morning.

Gram’s a stickler for routine, and so am I, but I’ll happily check them in early.

I’m ready, standing behind the solid oak desk complete with teller window. Another fun thing Grandpa salvaged from the old bank in town before it was torn down.

A tall, younger man enters. Looks like he’s around my age.

He’s nicely dressed, fit, and his crisp blue button-down shirt paired with a glowing silver watch hugging his wrist suggests he’s come a long way from Dallas.

“Hello,” he greets me with a porcelain-white smile. “I’m aware I’m early, but I hope you can accommodate a man who’s just spent five hours on the road.”

“No problem! I can check you in now,” I say with a smile. “I’m Rachel Simon.”

His lifts a brow. “Not Amelia?”

“Nope,” I assure him with a soft laugh. “Sorry to disappoint. The name in Amelia’s belongs to the Amelia Earhart. We even called it that originally, The Amelia Earhart B&B.” I point behind the desk to the framed black-and-white picture of the famous aviator. “But my grandmother didn’t like how big the sign ended up being. She thought it looked too commercial, so she had a new one made that just says Amelia’s out front.”

“Clever,” he replies. “I’m Carson. Carson Hudson.”

I detect a hint of an accent in his voice, like from somewhere out east, or maybe I’m just missing it.

He’s refined, fit, with a whip of a body like the athletic men I’m used to who jog around D.C. and the Arlington suburbs religiously. His nice blue jacket slung over his luggage looks costly, tailored, and totally out of place for a casual visit in Dallas. Same for his platinum-blond hair that’s been styled to perfection.

His greyish-blue eyes are mellow and deep, the kind of reflecting pools you’d want to stare into over a campfire—or maybe a candlelit dinner.

Whatever else he is, Mr. Hudson rocks the sleek luxury travel with modelesque good looks vibe. Which makes me wonder what he’s doing in this speck of a town.

“Ah, your name’s right here,” I say, scanning the computer screen. “You’ve got the cockpit room. Best in the house.”

He pauses while handing me his shiny black credit card, giving me a skeptical look that’s also kinda charming.

“The cockpit, huh? I knew there were perks to joining the mile high club,” he says flatly.

I snicker and give him a quick rundown about the B&B’s history.

“Incredible. When I saw the great reviews for this place, I had no idea it came with such a pedigree,” he says, stroking his chin. “Hidden gems like this are rare in flyover country. Keep it that way, Miss Simon.”

“Oh, yes. I wouldn’t dream of anything less. There’s even an old rumor around here that says Amelia Earhart herself stayed in this very house back in the 1930s. They say she was related to some people who started the oil company, and this was a boarding house back then.”

His lips turn up and his pale-blue eyes gleam. “The perfect place for my stay then. I’m somewhat of a history buff myself.”

Uh-oh.

My heart kicks up a notch. It always does when it comes to history.

“I’m on a road trip of sorts. Boston to Seattle since late June with plenty of time carved out for the pretty, forgotten parts of the country along the way,” he explains as I swipe his card. “I’m taking the long way home now, and it’s been an adventure. Just wish I had company along the way—someone who appreciates the little things that keep small towns like this on the map—but, hey. I’ll have a hell of a story for the folks back home over drinks this winter.”

Smiling, I pass his card back to him. “Oh, I’m sure you’ll appreciate some of the antiques we have here. Have a look around on your way up to your room.”

“Sweetheart, I’ve already noticed—like this desk? Let me guess.” He pauses, pressing a palm to his forehead like he’s trying to read minds. “It’s from a bank. Turn of the century. Let’s say...roughly 1910?”

My jaw drops.

“Dang, you’re good. 1908 to be exact. It closed down in 2009 during the big financial crash. My grandfather was an eclectic collector.” That’s putting it mildly, but I’m legit impressed with Mr. Hudson’s guess.

He gives me a slow, bright smile that could be totally dangerous on a date.

I wonder what he’d make of everything else stored here that we couldn’t use in the remodel.

The basement is still jam-packed with old curiosities, including the old safe from the same bank. Not to mention the barn overflowing with old cars, trucks, and motorcycles—including the one I crashed one fine day that chucked me onto my young, dumb butt.

“I have you down for two nights,” I say, confirming the booking Gram set up before I arrived.

“Perfect. It might be extended once I’ve had a look around Dallas...would that be a problem?” he asks.

I tear the printed receipt out of the machine and slide it toward him.

“Not at all. Breakfast is served every morning at eight o’clock sharp, and there’s a printed guide in your room of local restaurants for other meals.” I nod at the table behind him. “Don’t miss out on the fresh cookies. They’re always available.”

He slides the signed receipt back to me, tilting his face up for a sniff.

“They smell sinful, but are there raisins?”

The look on his face says he doesn’t like them.

“Sorry, yes, there are. I can make another kind in the next batch if you’d like?”

“I’m good, but thanks.” He digs in his pocket and pulls out a small bag. “Actually, I’ve grown pretty fond of these infused almonds for snacking. You tried them?”

I glance at the bag. “No, never heard of them...”

He dumps a couple almonds on the counter.

“Go ahead, but be warned. They’re terribly addicting.” He pops one in his mouth, his sculpted jaw chewing with delight.

Oof. I’m a little surprised at the food offer, but when a handsome man who’s also a paying customer offers you some expensive-sounding nuts...well, why not?

I pick up the other almond and palm it onto my tongue.

I almost gag.

As soon as it enters my mouth, this bitter clingy taste like a bag of salt soaked in two-day old coffee grounds assaults my tongue.

Hiding my disgust—barely—I pick up the receipt and turn around to grab a key from the credenza behind me.

“This table is exquisite. Couldn’t help but notice,” he says, still crunching his snack that tastes like ass and dry rot.

Knowing he means the cookie table, I take a second to discreetly grab a tissue from the box and spit the almond yuck into it.

“Like I said, my grandfather was a collector. He loved anything older than him.” I flinch slightly at the sting of pain in my lower back as I start to walk around the desk.

That damned pig. That damned man.

Hopefully this stiffness works its way out during the day. I pass him the key.

“We’re still pretty old school when it comes to room keys. No fancy electronic cards here. Hope that’s all right?” I say.

“Thank you, and of course it is.” He takes the key with one hand, but his gaze returns to the table. “Tell me, are any of your antiques for sale?”

I blink at him.

“I mean, they’re...they aren’t really mine. I just work here. They belong to my grandmother.”

“Ah, of course. Forgive me for assuming you were the owner. I’ve stayed in too many highway motels lately that were a one-person pony show,” he says with an easy smile.

Right.

Both Marty and I were concerned when Gram suggested opening the B&B. Neither of us liked the idea of her living alone with strangers in the house on a regular basis.

Still don’t, which is why Marty stops over practically every night.

Being evasive, because there’s no need to share more with a stranger, however friendly, I say, “I’m just here for a few weeks, probably. Then it’s home to rent, bills, and civilization.”

“I’m glad you’re here during my stay, Miss Rachel,” he says smoothly.

Oh, no.

I’m blushing.

I’m not sure if he’s trying to flirt with me or what. I’m not even sure how to feel about it except maybe I kinda like it...

It’s not every day a girl gets hit on by guys with fire looks, brains, and decent personalities, after all.

“I’m looking forward to having a look around town. Like I said, this excursion of mine is basically at my leisure.” He lifts a brow. “I could spend more time in Dallas...if I find anything especially appealing.”

Yep, he’s flirting, and I am burning down.

Even if his innuendo feels a tad lame, he’s so good-looking I can be generous.

Last I checked, I’m still a young woman with a pulse.

Oh, I’ve dated, and even had a steady boyfriend in college, but it’s been a while.

Totally by choice.

Overall, I’m not interested in having a man uprooting my life. Not before I’m settled in my career and I’ve finally upgraded to a place big enough for a puppy.

“I’ve spent some time dabbling in antiques professionally,” he says, finding an excuse to linger. “That’s why I’m traveling the backroads of America for treasures and sightseeing.”

“Oh, like that show with those guys from Iowa.” I smile. “Sounds like a lot of fun. You must get around.”

I’ve watched it for years; I just keep the name to myself. I’m not sure I want to reveal just how big of an antiques nerd I truly am.

I’m glad for his explanation, though.

I don’t like feeling on edge, and his interest in old stuff explains his statement about finding things that he’s interested in.

It’s also a touch embarrassing that I’m letting this random guy chat me up.

Chalk it up to my new role at the front desk, plus Weston’s ridiculous antics and crap-flinging yesterday.

Also, I’m still a little uneasy welcoming strangers into what used to be a lovely private home swirling with happy memories.

“Exactly,” he says. “And I’ll be honest, I’d be interested in seeing more pieces like this table, if your grandmother has anything similar around.”

“Hmm, I don’t know, but I’ll ask once she’s home and settled again. She just got out of the hospital, so...it could be a little while,” I say slowly.

I’m not an overly trusting person and a pretty face doesn’t lobotomize me. I don’t expand on the subject.

He gives me an understanding smile.

“Your room is upstairs, Mr. Hudson, right at the end of the hall. Just look for the sign that says Cockpit Room.”

He glances at the wide staircase.

Nothing about him suggests he can’t climb the stairs, but I still gesture at the wall beside the staircase and the corner bend.

“There’s an elevator right around the corner if you need it.” The elevator was installed to meet accessibility standards, along with the ramp on the side of the big front porch.

He nods, but those hawkish eyes cut through me.

“You said your grandfather was a collector, yes? Perhaps there are some things—”

“Sorry,” I interrupt, “but everything belongs to my grandmother.”

“Of course. My apologies. I can’t help getting a little crazy over old things sometimes.” Smiling, he pops another one of those wretched almonds in his mouth and holds out the bag.

“Um, I’m good,” I decline with a head shake, wondering how a man who looks this good can have such rancid taste.

“Let me guess, you’re here to lend your family a hand? You mentioned your grandmother.”

Oof. I can’t say I love how nosy he is.

Even so, I bite my tongue to keep from saying anything rude.

“I’m here because she had hip replacement surgery and my brother works full-time. She’ll have some downtime after she’s gotten home, that’s for sure.”

“Oh, damn. Sorry to hear it,” he says, sounding sincere. “I hope she’s doing well. If she’s around during my stay, I’d love to have a talk—no business, I promise. I’d enjoy hearing more about all the wonderful antiques she has here and the stories behind them.”

Apparently, he’s also a rock star at redeeming himself.

I grin.

Knowing Gram, she’d love the company. I think my emotions are all over the place because I’m just not over last night, and it still has me on edge.

“Do you need help with your luggage?” I ask.

“Nah, no, thank you,” he says. “It’s just two bags and I can manage. Again, please accept my apologies. I never meant any offense.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” I say, walking to the door. “Here, I’ll hold the door for you if you want to bring your bags in.”

As I push open the door and step onto the porch, I hear an odd clip-clopping noise.

Hudson steps onto the porch at the same time I realize Hercules is racing up the mobility ramp, onto the porch, grunting and snorting like crazy.

“What the—?” Carson asks, his eyebrows flying up.

“It’s the, um—neighbor pig,” I say, grabbing his arm to coax him back inside before Hercules arrives at the door.

Why is he here? Another great escape?

He’s already at the top of the ramp, barreling his way toward us faster than any fluffy black ball should ever run. I had no idea a pig could go turbo.

I’m not sure what happens next, or how.

It’s all a fast, mad scramble of feet, arms, legs, and bellowing swine.

It’s like a bad flashback from last night—only, it’s no flashback at all.

It’s happening. Again.

With the world hanging upside down, I’m lying on top of a man, this time on the front porch.

The smells aren’t familiar or pleasant, nor is there any of the strongman comfort I felt when it was Weston breaking my fall.

This time, it’s Carson, and his fingers dig into my arms like I’m the only thing keeping him from falling through the earth’s crust.

Panicked, in a rush to get off him, I’m horrified at how one of my knees ends up between his thighs.

Way too close for comfort—his or mine.

He also has a death grip.

I manage to break loose and leap to my feet after a lot of squirming, my eyes darting around for Hercules.

He’s there, all right. Eating something off the porch floor like a fat round vacuum cleaner. When I realize what he’s feasting on, I gasp.

Those butt-flavored almonds.

The entire bag, which must’ve slipped out of the poor man’s hand.

Oh, crud.

Shaking off his stupor, Carson scrambles to feet, his mouth askew as he stares in disbelief at Herc, who shears the bag clean open with his snout and one porky leg perched on the corner.

Sweet Jesus!

I consider stealing the bag away, but common sense tells me it’s a lost cause. The uninvited porker will chew my arm off before he lets me take those nuts, which might be fit for pig-grade treats anyway.

“Oh my God. I’m sorry, Mr. Hudson. So, so sorry.” I swallow hard, flashing him a mournful look. Trying to make light of everything, I add, “Um. Welcome to country living in North Dakota?”

Ignoring my bad joke, he grasps me tight, running his hands down both of my arms and back up again.

“Are you okay, Miss Rachel? Are you hurt?”

His touch makes my skin bristle. I want to pull my arms away from his hold, but guilt drills deep. I should be the one asking him if he’s hurt, considering he’s the guest and all.

“I’m fine. How about you? I’m so sorry...this isn’t normally a thing here. I don’t even know how we fell. It happened so fast.”

“Well, it started with this pig-shaped battering ram and gravity did the rest. I suppose my little stash has some blame, too.” He lets out a small laugh and gives me a rather intimate look. “I’m happy I went down first so I could break your fall.”

I smile back, feeling my cheeks heat again.

Oh, boy. I really don’t know how to read this guy.

He should be screaming pissed, or at least giving me the passive-aggressive Jekyll and Hyde treatment most rich city guys normally deliver.

And his answer about breaking my fall was a billion times more charming than the nasty quip from West last night. He made it perfectly clear that saving the pig was a priority and I was a freaking nuisance.

“He sure loves my almonds. I only wish I had more,” Carson says with amusement, glancing at Hercules, who’s busy dragging his snout over the porch floor, frantically searching for leftovers.

A wave of frustration washes over me.

“I’m so sorry. I’ll replace those at cost.”

Carson rubs my arms gently. “Nonsense. I have more packed. I actually dropped the bag to keep him from running into you.”

Huh? I don’t remember being hit by Hercules.

Then how, or why, did we fall? Why did I end up on top of Carson?

He didn’t pull me down on top of him on purpose, did he? No way. That doesn’t make sense.

“Hercules! Dammit, boy, you’ve got a date with my freezer,” a gruff voice clips.

The sound of Weston the Eternal Jackass approaching stabs through me, fast and hot as summer lightning.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see him rounding the corner of the house. He stops there to stare at us on the porch. I won’t turn around.

This is all his fault.

I shouldn’t have to face him and his prick of a mouth again.

But I know I must because I also know Weston won’t leave until we’ve settled this stupidity.

Snorting, Hercules waddles across the porch to the ramp when he sees his caretaker coming with what looks like a large leather dog leash clenched in one hand.

I draw in a fortifying breath before telling Carson, “Pardon me. That’s the pig’s owner. I need to have a word...”

Carson squeezes my shoulders one more time and whispers, “He’s a mean-looking guy. You need backup?”

Backup? From him?

I hold in a snort. He’s an odd bird for sure, even if he is cute, getting all defensive.

Or maybe I’m just dreading another run-in with West.

“No, thanks. I’m good,” I say.

“All right. Good luck, lady.”

He releases my arms and I draw in another deep breath before turning.

Weston waits near the bottom of the ramp, eyeballing Hercules, who slowly makes his way down with this scolded dog look that almost makes me laugh.

I take the stairs and arrive near Weston before the pig finishes moving down the ramp.

“You really need to learn how to keep him in one place,” I say, but Weston isn’t moving.

He folds his arms, staring straight ahead like he doesn’t even notice me.

I follow his glare and—oh, God.

It’s fixed on Carson, who’s slowly making his way to his car, this expensive-looking charcoal-black vehicle parked near the front.

“I see you’ve made a friend,” West says coldly.

“Sure did. He’s a paying guest here. A guest your delightful pig could have injured,” I say, my inner bitch creeping into my voice.

“A guest that you invited here,” he throws back, turning an angry look on me.

“Huh? It’s a bed and breakfast, Weston. Lending folks a room is kinda what we do. This guy had his plans in place with Gram well before I ever arrived.”

“Sure.” He drags his ice-blue eyes off me.

Like I’m the one who’s in the wrong here.

He can’t be flipping serious.

I press my teeth together, fighting to hold in my temper. I don’t need to embarrass myself again like at the rally, and he’s got no earthly right to be acting...I don’t even know.

Jealous? Is that what’s causing this temper tantrum?

Dear Lord.

It’s obvious that he saw the way Carson was holding me, rubbing my arms and shoulders, and he’s reading far more into it.

Let him.

I stopped caring what Weston McKnight thought years ago, ever since he cut himself out of my life and left without a single solitary goodbye.

He nods at Carson’s flashy car. “You should’ve warned him, Shel.”

Do I even want to know? For some unholy reason, I ask, “What are you talking about? Warned him about what?”

“An electric car in oil country?” He shrugs.

I turn to see Carson lifting another big suitcase and what looks like a laptop bag out of the trunk of his car. The silvery T-shaped logo announces it’s a Tesla.

A gorgeous ride for sure, and as out of place in Dallas as a zebra would be at a rodeo.

North Earhart Oil made this town and supports every aspect of the community.

“You can’t be serious. I have zero control over what cars guests drive,” I tell Weston. “You, however, should try managing your cute little oinker before somebody gets hurt. Unless you want to be Dallas’ first pig liability case.”

Again, I get that infuriating roll of midnight-blue eyes.

“He was looking for your grandma. Thelma brings him treats most mornings and I’ll bet he was wondering why she’s been MIA lately,” he says.

I purse my lips together. I know there’s a bowl in the kitchen with a laminated note beside it warning what goes in it and what can’t.

I thought it was an allergy thing. I never put anything in there because there weren’t any guests to cook breakfast for this morning.

Gram never mentioned the scraps were for Hercules, but now...I think the note does have an H on the top. It clicks in my head.

“Come on over, Herc.” He softens his voice to mild grump, patting the short, stubby hair covering the pig’s dark back. “We know when we aren’t welcome.”

Holy hell.

Why do I let him get under my skin? Why?

My thoughts flit back to years ago, when he was grinding my gears. We didn’t have this prickly awkwardness between us then, but he was never far as Marty’s partner in crime.

“You knew Marty went to pick up Gram!” I shout after them. “There wouldn’t be any treats for Hercules this morning. You let him out on purpose so you could charge over here and spy on me!”

I don’t care how he tries to deny it. I trust my gut.

Rounding the house with the pig at his side, he wears this smirk that stops me in my tracks.

“Still trying to flatter yourself, Shelly? Isn’t it time you grew up?”

I rush to the corner, my eyes searching the lot to make sure Carson doesn’t hear us fighting.

“Me? That’s rich. Last I checked, there’s only one overgrown kid here, West. And it ain’t me.”

He bursts out laughing—practically inviting steam to shoot out my ears—and keeps on walking.

I stomp a foot on the ground and briefly consider picking up a rock from the flowerbed and pitching it right at his smug turd of a face.

I know.

I know I can’t do that.

Besides landing me in a mess of real trouble, it’d be proving his point.

Spinning around, I march back to the porch, muttering to myself with every step.

I don’t see Carson until the last second. He’s just standing there, waiting, controlled and polite.

He’s a guest. Be nice. Pleasant as you please.

Lord, but this is going to be a long few weeks working at Amelia’s.

“Finding everything you need, Mr. Hudson?” I ask, mustering my best customer service smile.

Carson’s computer bag hangs on one arm, but as soon as I arrive at the bottom of the steps, he throws an arm around my shoulders and pulls me closer.

“He’s not a very good neighbor, I take it,” he says conspiratorially. “Listen, if there’s anything I hate, it’s these local yokels with a degree in asshole.”

“The worst,” I agree with a sigh, forcing myself to not shrink away.

He actually feels a little comforting, even if I don’t need him any more than I need Weston.

Then a honking horn splits us apart.

For a hot second, I’m thinking it’s West, who’s such a jealous caveman he’d actually come tearing in and render me deaf just to satisfy his silly, territorial streak.

We turn to face the small parking lot. Marty’s red pickup pulls in a second later with my very weirded-out-looking brother staring hard.

Can this get more humiliating?

“Excuse me, that’s my brother and our maintenance manager,” I tell Carson, stepping away. “Just let me know if you need anything. I hope you enjoy your stay!”

Marty climbs out of the driver’s door when I arrive at his truck, his crop of coppery-brown hair flopping in the cool breeze. “Who was that?”

“New customer. Guest. Whatever!” I say, walking to the passenger side, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“With his arm around you?” He cocks his head. “Sis, we’re selling rooms, not company.”

“Long story,” I huff out.

I don’t elaborate, either. I just walk over and open Gram’s door.

“Shelly Bean! Oh, goodness, it’s been too long.”

Her smiling face greets me instantly and so do her arms. The woman still has a hurricane-force bear hug, even when she’s barely home from surgery.

She’s also curious why the new guest was getting all touchy feely.

Sigh.

I ignore her questions just long enough to keep my focus on helping her into the wheelchair Marty unloads from the back of the truck.

After wheeling her into the house, I follow up by fetching her belongings. I’m glad when Marty points out that another guest just arrived, and I hurry to the front room where a husband and wife check in, explaining they’re here to see the big cat sanctuary run by Weston’s aunt and uncle.

Once they’re situated, I let out a sigh of relief when I glance out the window. Carson’s fancy-schmancy car is gone.

Fine by me. I don’t need Marty giving him the fifth degree—much less Gram.

My relief doesn’t last long, though, because when I scan the parking area, I notice Marty standing beside his truck, talking to someone who worries me a lot more than Carson Hudson.

Weston.

My hand trembles as it folds into a little fist. I bite my lip, wishing I could telepathically beam my loathing into his head.

The thought makes me smile, but it’s also kinda sad.

God, what happened to us? Does life just automatically get suckier the older you get?

With Marty, we were three best friends.

Now, there’s just this gaping chasm, this pattern of familiar sniping with none of the old smiles and warmth.

I hate how it’s like I’ve been flung back in time with none of the laughter, the jokes, the butterflies.

It’s like the past seven years just disappeared.

I’m sixteen again, with two scheming older boys who have their noses up in everything I do—and one boy who’s already trampled my heart.

4

Wallowing In Mud (Weston)

“Thanks,” I say, dropping the crumpled bills the customer just gave me into the tip jar.

There are days when I wonder why I still pick up extra hours at the Purple Bobcat. I don’t need the money when I’ve got my own shop plus towing biz, and fixing cars brings in far more coin than slinging drinks.

Then again, this place is owned by my Uncle Grady—a stand-up guy—and business has been good. So solid, in fact, that he’s finally landed several other employees and doesn’t need my help to fill holes like he did when he was getting off the ground.

I’d needed his assistance, though, just a few short years ago, after I returned home from the soul-staining bear trap known as Afghanistan.

Uncle Grady understood what I’d been through. He was in the Army, too, a deadly sniper with more medals squirreled away than any other man I’ve ever met. We’re both in good company. Plenty of other folks in Dallas have done their patriotic duty too, across the twenty year brushfire wars after 9/11, volunteering sweat, muscle, and valor for every reason under the sun.

To serve our country.

To help others.

To gain valuable career skills between the heroics.

To get the fuck out of Dallas.

That last one was part of my reason. I’m not ashamed to admit my intentions weren’t always pure. Hell, I needed to get away.

Right now, I’m feeling that same way, that pull at the back of my mind that makes me wonder if I’m cut out to spend my whole life here, just like my uncle and his rug rats.

I also want a drink more than I’ve wanted one in years.

Danger.

Maybe that’s another reason I still work here at the bar. Exposing myself to the very thing that once had my life by the throat reminds me where I’m going and what I’ll never be again.

It reminds me just how fucking damaging an uncontrolled spiral into the bottle can be.

Uncle Grady saw that, and he’d been there.

He was angry when I needed him to be angry with me, and a kind ear when I needed that, too.

That’s why I keep working here, I think.

So he knows that the time and effort he put into helping me out of my hole is still paying off. I’ll tumble into my grave before I ever dive back into substance abuse. It’s a screaming miracle I’ve spent several years dry, minus a couple odd beers I can count on one hand and one stupid, but spirited drinking contest at Uncle Grady’s wedding.

Besides his personal commitment, Uncle Grady introduced me to the local vets’ program. Thank fuck he did because I needed the community.

That’s why I started the rallies, why I made my childhood interest in trucks that could roll over a Humvee mean something. They’re a fundraising pipeline for the same programs that helped me.

I can’t take back the past, but I can do something in a visceral present where vets of all stripes need all the help they can get.

Granted, I came late to the hellish party long after it started overseas, almost a decade in.

I trained. I fought. I killed.

Then came the day my unit was destroyed. Good men and women cut to tatters right before my eyes under a cruel, unblinking sun.

It was just one more ambush among hundreds—hardly a blip in the press which lost interest covering a forgotten war until its nightmarish end—and nobody gave a damn.

Month by month, the war receded, and so did its rights and wrongs and what-ifs.

I stayed through the loss, served through the tears, and wondered ten thousand times why I was left to breathe another day when so many others with lives and families bigger than mine were obliterated.

And when I couldn’t do it anymore—when I got sick of good people being shredded by a meat grinder with ever-moving goal posts that changed with the seasons—I came home.

I came back intact and standing. Not like the others in their coffins, a flag folded around their spirits, while new bodies deployed to take our place until the agonizing end.

That’s how this shit works.

We were just soldiers—a policy wonk’s currency—trying like hell to do the right thing and locked into doing what we were ordered.

Honestly, I was so busy over there that it didn’t fully hit me until after I returned.

Then I woke up half the week in a glacial sweat, breathless and screaming.

I couldn’t tell you how many pillows I tore apart in my fits.

Everything I heard about how fucking hard it is to stand down, to come home, to be a human being again in a safe nook of small-town America came true like a demented fairy tale.

No, it wasn’t all bad.

The Army, the discipline, the education, and friendships forged in blood were good for me.

It was the demons of war that were relentless, always tearing at my throat.

I had come to grips with myself—with letting myself get help—and now I’m wondering if I can use what I’ve learned to help me make peace with something else.

Rachel. Damn. Simon.

Shelly.

Shel.

I can’t shake her out of my mind. She’s imbedded like a thorn, all pig run-ins and biting words.

All five foot five inches of her framing a fancy new set of curves I want to roam with my tongue.

She’s not a scrawny girl anymore.

Fuck, I like that she rocks a grippable ass, an ample chest, and hair that’s only softer than her little muffin top of a belly I want to shake until my bones split.

I never denied I had it bad for her.

I just didn’t know how screwed I really was until she showed up and brought my rally to an oinking halt.

Sunset red hair. Emerald-green eyes. Voice like a flute crafted by an angel—even when she’s giving me hell.

Damn if I can’t hear it in my sleep.

It’s a welcome break from the nightmares.

To make matters worse, that sleazy city slicker is still stinking up the B&B with his trash-ass nuts.

It’s been almost a week since Herc dragged me over there and I can’t figure out why the asshole wants to hang around this town any longer.

Besides Shelly.

I asked around. Marty insists Thelma took the guy’s reservation before she’d gone into the hospital, and Shel didn’t know him before he checked in.

I saw him that day, though. There was no un-seeing that glint in his eye.

Smiling like a dumb kid on prom night, his filthy paws on her, rubbing her arms.

She told Thelma that Hercules knocked them over, but they were standing when I caught a glimpse. They were so close a feather would hardly fit between them.

“Weston, two drafts!” a voice calls.

I nod at the server and grab two ice-cold mugs.

With my mind still on Shell—and hating that I care—I’m all thumbs.

One mug slips and hits the floor.

Thankfully, the rubber mat saves it from shattering. I pick it up, drop it in the sink, and grab a new glass—only to have it overflow when the draft handle sticks.

Fuck me.

I need to get my mind off Rachel Simon or it’s going to be the longest October of my life.

As much as I’d like to escape—just hop in my truck and follow the road wherever it leads me—that’s not possible.

I have work at the garage coming out my ears till the snow flies, plus a car show coming up around Halloween I’m helping organize. Somebody’s wheels always need fixing around here, and business is good when you’re the only on-call emergency mechanic with his own towing rig in town.

I’m still mopping up spilled beer when a big hand slaps my shoulder.

“How’s it going, West?” Uncle Grady’s voice booms over the other chatter.

“No complaints,” I say, lying through my teeth.

I force a smile for my uncle and feel like a fool.

If I think I have a full plate, all I have to do is look at Uncle Grady. He came home from war to a sick wife, who passed away, leaving him with two rambunctious daughters to raise on his own.

That all changed massively last year when he got remarried after the wildest ride of his life. When he’s not at the Bobcat, he’s with his wife, working hard at managing the new big cat sanctuary at the edge of his property. The whole town came together to kickstart the place and it’s been mighty good for tourism ever since.

“Everything okay with Bruce?” I can’t resist asking.

“He’s wondering when you’re gonna visit,” Grady says. “You spoiled him green with that buffalo steak last time.”

I chuckle, remembering how the tiger wolfed it down. Safely through the cage, of course, because I’m not anxious to ever relive the time I was face-to-face with that Bengal monster and nothing between us.

Waking up to a tiger staring at me was some wild shit I’ll never forget.

“How you holding up?” Uncle Grady asks.

“It’s been slow this afternoon, but the evening crowd’s picking up.”

“I can take over. You’re not supposed to be putting in more than four-hour shifts.”

“You sure? I can stay longer.” I straighten up. I really don’t mind helping him out.

He frowns. “Since when would you rather sling beers than work on a motor?”

“Aw, Unc, I don’t have anything critical to repair today.”

My towing side especially keeps me running. Today, I shut down at noon because I’m waiting on a large parts delivery from Bismarck before I can get anything else done on the busted minivan sitting in my shop.

“Thought you had to get old Doug’s cars ready for the show? We’re only a few weeks away,” Grady says, filling a tall glass of water he glugs down.

Shit. I almost forgot how fast the clock is ticking.

Thelma agreed to have me check in like usual before the car show. I need to give the cars their normal tune up routine I’ve been doing since Doug was still alive and trusted me enough to care for his collection.

“I do, but I’ve got time,” I say.

“Still can’t believe that was his little Shelly you rescued the other night. God bless that pig.” Grinning, he takes a long drink of water. “The girl must’ve been about seventeen the last time I saw her.”

“Probably,” I say, acting as nonchalant as possible.

“How’s Thelma doing?”

“Basically back to her new crazy self. This town better bar the door knowing she’s got a new hip,” I say.

He looks at me over his glass, his eyes narrowed.

“What?” I ask. “I haven’t seen her, but Marty says she’s fine.”

“And Shelly?”

I clear my throat. “I haven’t talked to her much since I made sure she didn’t wind up under the loader.”

“Why not?”

“Why would I?” I raise my eyebrows.

Grady shrugs. “Nothing, West. I just recall a time when the three of you were inseparable.”

“Marty’s still my number one. Shelly...she was always just tail gunner. She’s got a different life now, and she’s done a lot of growing up ever since she moved away.”

“You used to watch her like a hawk. I remember the stories I’d hear from my brother and Aunt Faye.” He gives me another one of his famous grins, his teeth shining through his thick black halo of beard. “You two must have a lot of catching up to do. Just gotta make time for it.”

I clench my jaw, wishing I could disappear through the floor.

Uncle Grady’s not that much older than me. He’s always been more like a big brother than an uncle. He also knows me like a book he’s read so many times he can quote by heart.

I watched over Shel in those days because she needed it.

I was her protector, and she was my damsel in distress.

The brat next door who was too bouncy, too intense, too moonstruck, and way too young...

Shaking my head firmly to clear it, I look at him.

“From what I hear, she’s only in town for a few weeks till Thelma recovers. Then she’ll be flying back to D.C.”

“Unless she finds a good reason to stay longer,” he says sharply.

Before I can ask what the hell he means—wishing I didn’t already know—he gives me another bone-rattling shoulder slap and turns, heading for his backroom office.

* * *

Unless.

An hour later, those words are still branded in my mind while I’ve got my face in the guts of an old Volkswagen with a flashlight.

I keep telling myself I don’t want Shelly staying any longer than necessary.

I’ve got my life under control. Found a routine that’s good for me.

Hell, better than good.

I’m doing what I love with my hands, my friends and family are an arm’s throw away, I’ve got a paid off house, money invested, and more business coming every day. I pitch in for charity and never leave a man down, whether that’s helping my uncle save a stray tiger or just making sure a fellow vet between jobs has three square meals and a place to crash.

I even have a damn pig.

He’s not so bad on the days he stays in his pen and I’m not tempted to grind him into breakfast sausage.

What more could a man want?

Shel doesn’t belong here in Dallas. When she leaves, she’ll be back at the museum full-time, according to Marty.

That’s her place. Everything she dreamed about ever since she was a pint-sized geek with glasses thicker than beer mugs.

It’s where I always wanted her to wind up, too, living out her love for history. She needed the perfect opportunity to explore, without getting homesick, and see the world beyond this little town.

Dallas has its rustic charms—don’t get me wrong—but it’s not suitable for some lofty dreams.

“Hey,” a voice calls.

My neck snaps up so fast the back of my head bangs the hood of the old VW. The old rear pusher has the motor in the back and the trunk in the front, meaning I’m wedged between it and the wall of the barn behind me, leaving me little room to avoid a head injury.

Even less room for escape with her standing in the open barn door, the sun glistening off those auburn curls I could wrap around my fist and pull.

“Hey, yourself,” I say, leaning back over the engine to finish tightening the battery cables, trying my damnedest to avoid thinking about how gorgeous she looks.

“Sorry if I made you bonk your head,” she says shyly.

“It was nothing,” I grumble, hiding how my head throbs.

“Working on Herbie, huh?”

I instantly snort at that name.

Typical Shel. She’d named the VW bug that years ago after watching that old movie, and at one time she even wanted hearts and the words love bug painted on it.

Luckily, old Doug hadn’t agreed to that, and I helped him paint the car a solid cherry-red years ago.

“Just putting the battery in Herb and checking things over,” I say.

“Marty said you’d be stopping by this afternoon. Something about a car show coming up?”

“Yep.”

“Will you be showing off all of Grandpa’s old cars?”

“If Thelma wants them in public, sure,” I answer, not caring to explain that no, a few cars won’t be making surprise appearances.

There are a couple I wouldn’t dare risk getting so much as a hairpin scratch on their pristine paint jobs. Plus, more cars to transport means enlisting more guys to help me move them around.

“She says you take good care of them,” Shel says quietly.

True enough.

My jaw tightens as I nod.

I do it for free because I can’t stand the thought of these old beauties going to pieces. I start their engines and drive them every month, just so the brakes don’t lock up and everything keeps moving. Letting old cars idle is the worst thing you can do to them.

I’ve taken each vehicle to my shop in a regular rotation, too, and put them up for a complete inspection, oil and fluid changes, minor part replacements, the works.

I know how much the old cars mean to Thelma Simon. Probably more than they had to Doug, considering it’s the biggest piece of himself her husband left behind.

I’m sure that’s why she’s never said a word about selling them.

Some aren’t worth a ton, while others are damn near priceless. Especially the exotic Corvette in the far corner, a rare puppy sure to make anyone with a hard-on for cars flip their lid.

“So is this like a charity thing or do you just love old cars that much?” she asks, slowly approaching with this half smile I’d like to bite off her face.

“Just being neighborly.” I shrug. “It’d cost her a fortune to find somebody else to do it right, and since I’m available...”

“Mm-hmm.” Shelly stops beside the VW—within reach—which hammers me in ways it shouldn’t.

My blood runs faster, hotter, this instant greed coursing through me like some club-waving cave idiot trying to think with his dick first and his brain dragging a mile behind him.

I hate how being flat-out wrong does nothing to squelch this shit.

I hate how Shel stirs me up like a blender without even trying.

This woman has a gift for catapulting me back to the past, my mistakes, my buried dreams and impossible desires.

She fucking curdles my present, electrifying my system with flaring urges. I don’t realize I’m holding my breath till I look up at her.

She’s fidgeting, running a soft hand over the side of the car, and glancing around the barn at the other cars draped with their fitted covers. Is she as nervous as I am?

“Well, that’s why I’m here, too, Mr. Neighborly. You need anything? Are you hungry?”

You. Naked. Preferably wrapped around me inside this fifty-year-old shoebox I’d rather call “fuck bug.”

I’d probably cramp a couple of limbs for life if I tried to do anything inside the bug, but God willing, I’d try.

I blink away the filthy thoughts, shifting my weight to hide the bulge in my pants.

Shit. Her being neighborly is the last thing I need.

Stepping away from the car, I drop the wrench in my toolbox.

“I’ve got my thermos and coffee, but thanks. You can run along,” I tell her.

She doesn’t move an inch.

“Okay, I also came to apologize.” She sighs heavily. “Look, I’m going to be here for a little while, maybe through early December. We’ll be stuck being neighbors, West, and that’s a pretty long time to avoid each other, so...I’m sorry for being foolish the night of the rally when I went after Hercules. And again for making you so angry when Herc ran over to Amelia’s.”

I stare at her, trying to process that hurt look in her eyes around the tumble of auburn hair. What the fuck is she saying between the lines?

“You didn’t piss me off, and I’m not avoiding shit,” I say, hoping to head her off.

“Oh? Then why haven’t you said hello to Gram? She keeps asking about you.”

“Because. She just had surgery a week ago and needs her rest. I know you and Marty set her up like a queen. If she needs anything, just shout.”

Shel looks on quietly, twisting her heart-shaped lips in this pensive hell-look. “She says you used to stop by every morning if she didn’t drop by first for Herc’s scraps.”

Damn. So that’s why she came out here to eat humble pie.

She’s looking at me like I’m Thelma’s little hero.

“Every morning? That’s an exaggeration,” I say coldly, closing the bug’s hood. “I’d swing by to check on her when I knew Marty was pulling long shifts, yeah, especially in the winter. If she needs her driveway plowed so she’s not buried alive, it’s no skin off my nose. Good thing her granddaughter’s here now to help with the rest.”

Shelly twists around and leans on the side of the car, stretching out her long, shapely legs and crossing them at the ankles.

Awesome.

My magma blood practically scalds me from the inside out at the sight of all that golden skin.

She looks like a proper country girl today with her brown sandals, jean shorts, and a flowery pink-and-white t-shirt that leaves little to the imagination.

There’s a lot I’d rather be doing than banging these clumsy words together. I must be going certifiably insane.

“I bet you don’t like the idea of random strangers sleeping in her house, either, do you?” she asks.

We lock eyes.

“You kidding? The place keeps her going. She was already at it for years when I came home. Screw my opinion.”

“That’s not an answer, West.” She blinks at me with this playful, teasing look that only prolongs my agony.

I swear to God, I’m imagining it.

I have to be.

She has every right to hate my guts. Not make goo-goo eyes like she’s got cupid’s arrow stuck in her butt and she’s trying just as hard as I am not to collide in a clawing tangle of fingers and lips.

“It’s none of my business and I’m sure it’s not yours, lady. We both know Thelma’s a born ass-kicker. If anybody tried anything underhanded, you’d have every farmer in a hundred-mile radius reporting unexplained sightings of flying balls the next day.”

She laughs, doubling over.

“Whatever, dude. You kinda made it your business by stopping in every morning to check on her.”

Fuck, that laugh.

The melody lingers in the air, pulling a smile out of me.

Damn her.

That always happened in the past. She’s got the sort of infectious, sweetly obnoxious giggle that could make a cold-blooded hitman crack a grin. Even when she pissed me off, her laugh could make me forgive a war crime.

“What can I say?” I bite back my smile and shrug for what feels like the hundredth time today. “Thelma’s coffee was always the best and it beats making my own. That’s why I really come by to check on her. I think it’s how she brews it over the stove.”

No exaggeration. The first few months I was home, I needed that coffee every morning. Almost as bad as the nagging urge for the bottle.

Guilt over not visiting Thelma since her return punches me in the gut.

“How’s she doing, anyway?” I ask, folding my arms and sizing Shel up.

“Good. She’s taking it slow, which is pretty hard for her. A nurse is supposed to see her tomorrow for a check-in and they’ll tell us when she can start regular rehab. You can stop in anytime you want.”

I nod. “Maybe I will when I’m done here.”

She pushes off the car and walks to the back of the barn. I’m about to yell at her to quit messing around when I know what’s caught her eye.

We both know it before she even grabs the corner of the cover and lifts it up with a startled giggle.

“Oh my God. I had no clue Grandpa kept this old thing. Will the bike be on display, too?” She turns, her eyes all glistening emerald.

“Why? You want to take the motorcycle for another spin and bang it up again?”

She grimaces and flips me off.

“You would bring that up. I drove it for miles and I was almost home when I took that last turn too fast.”

“You were warned not to touch it,” I growl. As if her little accident was only yesterday.

As if I’m still the same man ready to come charging to her rescue, without this ball-bruising interest in Marty’s kid sister and her hot grown-up physique.

She flips the cover back a little more and takes a good look under it before she asks, “So, will it be at the show?”

“Nah.”

“Why not?” She turns around, startled.

“Because you’ll be there, and I’d be an idiot to risk seeing you take it for a joy ride again.”

“Shut up.” She rolls her eyes. “If you haven’t noticed, I’m a grown woman, West. I was lucky enough to put my hands on Model Ts and Sopwith Camels with the Smithsonian. I’ve survived D.C. traffic for years.”

Grown woman? Oh, I’ve noticed all right.

“Bet they didn’t let you start ’em up, and city driving can’t hold a candle to these dark winding country roads at night. You’re still the same Shel to me—annoying as hell,” I grind out, harsher than I intend.

She drops the cover back down over the motorcycle with a pout.

“You know, I want to think the Army made you such a jackass, but somehow, I doubt it. You always had a jerk streak. Looks like it’s only gotten worse.”

“And you were always a spoiled brat.” I walk over and lift the hood on an orange-and-black Mach 1 Mustang to put the battery in it.

I never leave the batteries in the cars. If one explodes from volatile North Dakota temperature changes or leaks, it could cause corrosion that could ruin the car.

“So how was it, anyway? Marty says you never talk much about it.”

“What?” I grab the Mustang’s battery off the shelf.

“The Army? Afghanistan? Everything you dreamed it would be? Everything worth leaving town so suddenly?”

Leaving me. Leaving behind your promise to write. That’s what she’s not saying.

I hear it crystal clear in her tone.

Not about to face that shit head-on, I carry the battery over and set it in the compartment with a bored shrug.

“What’s to say? I came, I saw, I served. I was lucky to get home without dying,” I tell her. Goddamn, I hate how even the blandest summary I can come up with still makes me pinch my teeth.

“What? You’re not going to answer?” she asks.

“Why should I? Damn, you’ve gotten nosier than I remember.”

“Because I care, Weston,” she throws back, and then adds quietly, “at least, I used to...”

Ignoring the sudden rawness in my throat, I stomp over and swipe a wrench out of my toolbox.

“Because maybe I don’t want you caring, Shelly. You wasted half your teen years worrying too much about me. I had Marty and my parents for moral support or what the fuck ever. Didn’t need a third wheel.” I cast her a quick, steely-eyed look.

I’m not trying to be a raging dick.

I just want her to stop scratching at the past and that lame-ass crush she clung to till the day I left.

Our lives are too different, then and now.

Not to mention the screaming fact that she’s Marty’s kid sister—too much like my own.

Also, there’s no earthly way she wants to hear about the war.

Some parts of that hell-gauntlet, I’ll never tell anyone, not even Uncle Grady or the guys at the VFW.

I just wish she made it easier to shut her down without giving me that wide-eyed, glassy stare, like I just kicked a puppy in front of her.

“It’s nothing personal. I’m a private man, and I don’t want questions about what the hell went on over there. No more than I want you out here bothering me.”

“Bothering you?” She flings it back at me with venom in her voice.

“Yes, bothering me. If you hadn’t noticed, I’m trying to do your grandma a favor.” I don’t mean to sound like a giant asshole. I just want her gone.

She’s making me think about shit I used to want in a past life. Things that other people have that I don’t, and never will.

Like Uncle Grady, who’s happier than I’ve ever seen him this past year, ever since he shacked up with that strange, tiger-obsessed woman who fits his life like a glove. Willow filled the pothole in his world in ways he never knew he needed.

I’m happy for him, and I’m also well aware that’s his life.

Definitely not what’s meant for me.

Definitely not with her, of all forty million single women in the country.

“Got it. I’m sorry to intrude on your oh-so-precious time,” she snaps, tossing her nose in the air.

I ignore her as her shoes scuff the floor, hopefully a sign she’s leaving.

Nope. I’m not that lucky.

She turns, waiting for my eyes, a hand cocked on her hip.

“You know, you could at least be civil with me after all this time. I never even asked about—”

I shoot her a glare that stops her mid-sentence.

Thank fuck. This is not the day to talk about broken promises, all the reasons why I couldn’t send her a single letter.

“I tried,” I say bluntly. “I tried to give you polite.”

Her glare hardens. “So this is it then? This is how you want it to be? We act like strangers with an old grudge or I guess we just...we don’t act like anything at all?”

“Whatever works.” I shrug so hard my shoulders ache.

“Okie-dokie.” With one last sharp glance, she whirls and marches to the door.

“Glad you understand!” I call after her, hating my big mouth the second it’s out.

I’m not expecting what she throws back with so much anger.

“I hate you, Weston McKnight!”

Hate? That’s a strong-ass word.

I fucking bristle like I’ve been hit by an arrow. Pissed that she always needs the last word, and angrier at myself for making her say them.

What the hell is my malfunction? Did Afghanistan make me such a total broken porcupine?

And just when I think she’s done, she turns again, striding several quick steps toward me with a finger stuck out like a dagger.

“And just so we’re clear, my name’s Rachel now. Not Shelly and not effing Shel. Ra-chel. Learn it, use it, and stop being such a juvenile idiot.”

I stare right through her till she turns.

Like I’ll ever forget that name.

I fight the urge to rip out my eyes as they stay glued to her ass until she disappears from view.

Then I stick my head back under the hood of the Mustang and try to make peace with Shel Simon wishing I never existed.

Like it’s even fucking possible.

5

Pearls Before Swine (Rachel)

Welp, he did it again.

Worse, I let him.

I allowed Weston Jerkwad McKnight to get me so flaming mad I’d like to spin right around and pitch a rock at his smug grumpy-grump face.

Doesn’t he get it? I was trying to be nice, to make a truce, to come to some kind of understanding so we can stand being neighbors while I’m here but...

...but he doesn’t want that, apparently.

Neither should I.

He can go straight to hell, along with his stupid black t-shirt showing off those stupid biceps bigger than my head, and the stupid ripples of his sculpted chest, and even his stupid, stupid diamond-cut abs.

Can you tell I’m pissed?

I hate that he’s right. We don’t need to waste more breath on each other, picking at a ghosting act that happened years ago and he doesn’t care to explain.

Ugh.

Being home and helping Gram would be so much easier if he was still just...gone.

I’m halfway across the yard between the house and barn when I stop near a tree. There used to be a double seater swing hanging here.

It’s mega bittersweet to see my first memory of life in Dallas gone.

I spent hours of my life in that swing from the very first summer we’d moved here.

I turn around and stare at the barn, poison longing tainting my blood.

Weston didn’t even tell me he was going away. I heard it first from Marty.

It was at the dinner table one evening. My brother just blurted out what he’d heard about Weston following up with that recruiter he’d met with months ago. He’d be leaving for bootcamp in days.

No planned goodbye. No final word. No big reveal. No comfort.

I was heartbroken.

No, I was gutted.

For most of my life, he was technically Marty’s friend, but after our parents died and we moved in with Grandma and Grandpa permanently, I considered him my best friend, too.

I was twelve and completely lost after the death of my parents. I needed all the friends I could get.

Someone who could make me laugh on bad days.

Someone who could keep a secret after snowball fights on glittering farm fields caked with pearly ice.

Someone who was there to pull me out of trouble—without judgment—even if we always had this playful spark that made me think, hope, and dream it could burn into something brilliant and bigger and lasting.

That was Weston McKnight once upon a time.

That was the man I started to love when I was too young, too dumb, and too heartbroken to realize people change—and sometimes they lie.

Old memories rake my brain, my vision, like a cactus while I’m leaning against the tree.

I’m still in Dallas, but not in the current year.

* * *

Eleven Years Ago

The warm summer air buzzes with dandelion wisps and lazy bumblebees so fat they look like they’ll fall right out of the air.

Fresh cut grass makes my nostrils tingle. Grandpa just finished up with his old riding mower that Gram says is on its last legs.

I’m not sure what she means by that, but the smell makes me sad.

It reminds me of Dad cutting the neat lawn at our house in a little Minnesota suburb that already feels more like a dream than a real place.

Another life. Another time. Another family.

It’s not our house any longer. It was sold promptly after Mom and Dad died and we moved here.

I always loved coming here for the summers, sure, but I miss my parents.

I miss them like a severed limb I’ll never get back.

I ache for them so much that tears sting my eyes as I watch Grandpa drive his mower into the barn with a jolly wave, his green hat pulled over his brow. I hear Marty laughing. He’s in there with his friend Weston from next door.

That makes my brother happy, having a buddy his age nearby.

Me, I don’t have any friends who live close enough.

It’s not like the old place where we knew all the neighborhood kids. Bella and that Tory girl are plenty nice when they come every summer. They’re older, and they’re kind to me even though I’m not much good at dancing like Tory Three Names or horse riding with Bella and her gramps, Old Man Reed.

No denying I love to see their old mischief maker of a horse, though. I wish I could feed Edison candy canes with Bella alllll day.

Honestly, though, living out here with such wide fields and dusty little roads that seem to roll on forever, sometimes you forget you have neighbors at all.

Throw in the fact that it’s summer and there’s no school, and I’m one lonely lady.

I don’t get to see my friends very often, but Marty and Weston are always together. They’ve been in the barn since morning, tinkering with one of Grandpa’s old cars.

I wish I had a friend like Weston.

But I’m a girl and he’s a boy.

He’s older, too.

I’m only twelve.

He and Marty are sixteen.

I pull my knees up on the seat of the swing and wrap my arms around them. The swing was made for the front porch originally, but Grandpa hung it out here off a massive limb of this big tree for me after we’d moved in.

I love it, but I’m still sad. I spend a lot of time on it alone, lost in my thoughts.

“Shelly Bean, come get your favorite cookies!” Gram yells out the back door.

I smile, knowing she means a fresh-baked batch of chocolate chips made with cocoa so dark it makes my mouth pucker with delight.

Cookies are awesome, sure, but they’re not what I’m pining for today.

Or most days.

Grandpa, Marty, and Weston strut out of the barn, tossing around jargon about some engine thing I can’t follow.

Grandpa waves at me to join them as they’re heading for the house, and so does Marty.

I don’t want to join them, even if I know I should.

Grandpa and Marty keep walking to the house, but Weston doesn’t. He bows out and walks toward me, angling to the swing.

Oh my gosh. I’m too young to get why my heart starts leaping like a scared grasshopper every time he’s around—or why I forget all my words every time he’s around.

“How can you turn down Thelma’s chocolate chips?” he asks, concern twinkling in his one-of-a-kind sky-blue eyes. “Are you sick?”

I shake my head.

“Scared of something?”

I shake my head again.

“Having a sad day?” he asks, softening his voice.

I shrug, twisting my lips.

“It’s okay to be sad sometimes.” He sits down beside me. “But it’s better to have days when you’re happy.”

There’s something comforting about having his weight balance the long swing as it bobs gently.

I nod because I don’t know what to say.

“Wanna know what I do when I’m feeling crappy?” he asks.

Slowly, I venture a shy look at him and nod again.

“I think of something fun. Something crazy that happened to me, or maybe a day that was just really fun. Like you know the Reeds’ horse, Edison? Well, one time he got out and showed up in Mom’s carrot patch. He was stooped down under a blanket drying on the clothesline and when she looked out the kitchen window, when he popped up real sudden...you should’ve seen her. Must’ve jumped ten feet high with a scream right out of a slasher flick.”

He laughs. It’s a nice laugh, throaty and a little rough the way teenage laughs can sound, but it gets a soft giggle out of me.

“Or, hey, how ’bout a silly joke? Bet I can make you laugh more than that horse story,” he says, puffing out his chest.

“I don’t know any jokes,” I say quietly.

“You don’t?”

I shake my head.

“What has ears but can’t hear?”

I pause, thinking about it for a second.

“No clue...”

“A cornfield! Gotcha.”

That makes me sort of smile and wag a finger. “Dude, you’re way too young for dad jokes.”

“What did the right eye say to the left?”

I’m pinching my lips tight because I already know this is gonna be bad.

“What?”

He leans closer and whispers slowly, “Between us, something smells.”

Okay, I have to laugh at that. Best of all, he’s not done.

“Why didn’t the teddy bear want any cookies?” he asks.

“Why?”

“Because he was already stuffed!” He ribs me playfully in the side.

It makes me double over, kicking my feet at the ground.

“Guess what, I’m not stuffed with cotton or whatever,” he says. “Are you?”

“Nope,” I tell him, wiping my eyes.

“Well, come on then.” He stands up, holding out his hand to me. “Let’s go have some cookies.”

I hesitate, totally thrown by how easy it is to interact with this boy when he notices me.

“I’ll tell you more jokes if you do,” he promises, quirking an eyebrow.

“Oh, man. You have more like that?”

“Yep, but I only share ’em with friends. Only people smart enough not to waste a good cookie.”

I’ve heard enough. I take his hand and lace my fingers around his.

Being called his friend makes me beam like the sun.

He holds my hand all the way to the house, and for some weird reason, that makes me giddy, banishing the sad thoughts like morning fog.

* * *

Present

My chest heaves with an achy sigh as the memory fades.

The feelings don’t go so easily, especially when I think, deep down, that was the day I started falling for Weston McKnight.

That was the day the die was cast, a silly crush setting me up for a comic tragedy of heartbreak.

Oh, there were times when he drove me batshit crazy, along with Marty. But that never changed how I felt about him. How the first flutter of butterflies at twelve turned into watching him like he hung the stars by sixteen.

The day after Marty said Weston was leaving, I knew I’d find him in the barn one more time. Somehow, it felt worse that he could give the cars a formal goodbye, but not me.

I couldn’t let him go without a final word.

Without spilling my desperation.

Dragging a hand down my face, it hits me like a freight train full of yesterdays.

* * *

Seven Years Ago

“I can see your feet, Shel.”

“And I can see yours.” Normally, I’m laughing when I say it.

Not today.

His big legs stick out from under one of Grandpa’s cars. He rolls the mechanic creeper out with his blue eyes flashing.

“What are you doing out here?” he asks, still flat on his back, his arm smeared with grease that streaks the new eagle tattoo he got last year. “Thelma got a fresh batch of cookies?”

I snort. Even if I’m not here to joke around, it’s hilarious how cookies are still his kryptonite when he’s almost old enough to drink.

“Gram’s at the grocery store. I’m sure she’ll make you some before you...” I pause, my voice choked off.

I can’t say it.

Can’t say before he leaves.

Weston finally stands, wipes his hands on a rag, and then grabs my waist and lifts me effortlessly before setting me back down on the trunk of the car.

“I’m guessin’ Marty told you?” His eyes search mine.

“That you joined the Army and you’re shipping out ASAP?” I sigh. “Yep, he did. And...and I still don’t get why.”

I shake my head, raging at my own emotions giving me away.

“Why he told you?” Weston asks.

“Why you’re leaving,” I say. “Why you’re leaving without even saying goodbye...”

“Aw, Shelly, I have to. You knew this was coming after all the times we talked. Just you, me, and Marty. I’m leaving Dallas and someday soon you’ll be too.”

“What if I won’t?” I ask, refusing to let him be right. “What if I just stay?”

What if I wait for your big dumb face? I want to say, but I just can’t force it off my tongue.

He flicks the end of my nose, the same gentle, joking way he always has.

“Stop it, Shel. You can’t mean that. You’re too damn smart to stay here and miss your chance to see the history you’re always reading about. There’s a whole world out there, and everyone with a brain like yours ought to see it—at least some of it—before your life plans get set in stone.”

My heart skips a beat.

He doesn’t know anything about my plans.

I’ve never told him or anybody else.

I’ve always been too afraid to say a word, even though it includes him. And leaving for a freaking warzone he might never escape may just blow my world into confetti.

“Is that why you joined the Army? To see the world?”

He looks at me for a long time, this sad half moon smile scrawled on his face.

He stares until my heart thuds in my throat because he’s so handsome. The most handsome man in all of Dallas, in all of North Dakota, and beyond.

“Why is it that when we’re looking for something, it’s always in the last place we check?” he asks. A non-answer I should’ve expected knowing West.

I roll my eyes at him.

This isn’t the time for lame, lovable jokes.

Even so, I say, “I don’t know, why?”

“Because when you find it, you stop looking.”

“Idiot!” My hands clap his chest and I push as hard as I can.

He doesn’t budge. As usual.

I’m not even sure if that was a joke or some weird philosophical observation.

“So is that why you’re going away? Because you’re looking for something you can’t find here?”

“That was just a joke to make you smile, Shel. You’re being too serious.” He grabs me by the waist again and lifts me off the car. “Wanna make yourself useful while you’re here? Get me six quarts off the shelf. I just drained the old oil and need to replenish it.”

I walk to the shelf, unsure that it was actually just a dumb joke meant to cheer me up.

Doesn’t he get it? Nothing can make me truly happy right now unless he says he’s staying.

It dawns on me then.

He knows I’m having a sad day. The same kind of day when I was just a sad little girl on a swing.

“Why are you working on Grandpa’s cars before you leave?” I ask.

“I promised him I would.”

I lift six black bottles off the shelf, dancing around the real question I want to ask, and carry them back to him.

“Weston, will you promise me something?”

He doesn’t answer right away, and when he does, he says, “Only if you’ll promise me something else.”

My heart skips a beat, thinking he’s going to ask me to wait for him.

To not fall in love with anybody else and be his when he returns.

“Okay. You first,” I say tensely.

“Promise me you’ll leave Dallas, Shel. Tell me you’ll go to college, you’ll kick ass there, and you’ll see the world. Then you’ll know for sure you’ve found what you’re looking for,” he says, this silver glint in his midnight-blue eyes I can’t quite decipher.

His words stop me cold.

That isn’t what he really wants to say...is it?

But then why does he sound so serious?

My throat thickens, turning any response into mud.

Okay, but how can I promise him that? When I was going to ask him to promise me he won’t leave?

I hate it so much I’m tearing up.

So I whip around, pressing my fingers deep into my wet eyes, angry at my shoulders for shaking so hard they betray me.

“Shelly. Shel, hey,” he says softly, gently turning me to face him and taking the oil from my quivering hands. “I’ll make you two more promises.”

I look at him with sore eyes.

Eyes that are flipping begging.

“Number one,” he says softly, laying his hands on my shoulders, both eyes dueling incandescent flames. “This isn’t goodbye. I have to leave, but I’ll always write you. I’ll keep you smiling at my dumbass jokes whether you like it or not.”

My heart skips with hope.

Just enough to settle down, dry my eyes, and listen to what he says next.

He grins. “Also, if you help me get everything put away when I’m done with this oil change, I’ll take you to Burgies N’ Stuff for Mack burgers and shakes. Chocolate, with whipped cream and a cherry on top. Just like you always like.”

“On the motorcycle?” I counter.

“Hell yeah.”

* * *

Present

My heart crashes against my ribs like an unruly wave as the memory fades.

That was the worst day of my life—and the best.

Riding behind him on his motorcycle, sipping tall shakes at the picnic table outside the diner while I stole fries off his plate and dunked them in creamy chocolate, trying and failing to make peace with the end of our lives as we knew them.

I wasn’t even sure he’d come back alive.

What if something happened? It was an active war and he could get killed.

Even so, I tried not to dwell on it, and we talked about all sorts of things.

About his Uncle Grady serving, doing recon in Iraq and coming home for his baby daughters. The fact that Grady McKnight returned in one piece made me feel a tiny bit better.

About where he might go, the things he might see, but for everything he said about himself, he made me share my dreams.

With my emotions spinning, I geeked out about history, antiques, and so many books.

I told him I’d like to become an archivist someday, and he said I’d make the best one ever.

He stayed for supper at our house that night, wolfing down chocolate chip sundaes plied with vanilla and hot fudge for dessert. I listened to Gram tell him he’d better find some pretty girl to write when he’s gone to keep sane while Grandpa chuckled knowingly.

God, how I wished that pretty girl were me.

And when he left for the last time, he hugged me after he was done hugging everybody else.

A long, solid, heart-killing hug, right before he leaned down and kissed me at the last second.

It was on the forehead, sure, but I still count it as my first kiss.

Our first kiss.

Our only kiss.

A kiss laced with so much innocence and none of the future betrayal...

That was the last time I saw Weston McKnight until a week ago, when he saved me from getting crushed thanks to his overgrown furry bowling ball with legs.

I thought I’d suffered the full range of emotions after he left so long ago—and again after he broke his promise to write and left me in the cold. Shut out of his life.

Anger. Sadness. Hurt. Doubt.

But I was wrong.

Now, I think it was mostly anger I clung to as the years wore on. All because I remember how he nurtured the same dreams he trampled.

How could I ever forget his final promise? And I don’t mean the milkshake.

This isn’t goodbye. I have to leave, but I’ll always write you. I’ll keep you smiling at my dumbass jokes whether you like it or not.

God.

I don’t know if I really ambushed him in the barn to make peace. It’s not even an apology I’m after.

I want to know why. I’ve spent years agonizing over why he talked up writing and then dropped me like a burning potato.

Did he know?

Somehow, did he figure out my silly crush? Did he think that shutting me out was his way of saying he could never love me and build a life together?

I’m fine with that.

As fine as I’ll ever be.

The trouble is, the man I just encountered is not the Weston who was my friend, my idol, my childhood hero.

He’s changed, shed his skin and transformed into this bitter creature devoid of jokes and smiles.

What the hell happened to him over there?

With a sigh, I peel myself off the tree and head back to the house. As I arrive on the back porch, Carson steps around the corner, nearly causing a collision.

Startled, I stumble a step back.

He’s quick, and before I know what’s happening, he’s folding me up in his arms again.

I should be grateful.

Flattered, even, when Carson seems like the kind of man worth knowing or at least having a quick bout of fun with.

“So, we’re doing this again. Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you,” he says with a friendly laugh. “I was looking for you, Miss Rachel. I’ve decided to extend my stay again and wanted to pay you in advance.”

I give him a smile that feels easy enough. He really is handsome, and he actually has manners—a far cry from a certain someone who bites my head off like a kid with a dull eraser.

Even now, I can’t forget his infuriating face and snapping gaze.

If he bothered to look up from the cars, West could see us through one of the barn windows, I’m sure. Would he even care?

“Sure, but if I recall right, you’re already paid up through the end of this week,” I say.

“Correct. I’ll probably be here for the next two to three weeks as well. I’m hoping to stay for the car show and scope out any deals.” His smile could start a house on fire.

“Oh, gotcha. That’s a long time to hang around Dallas,” I say.

“Fortunately for me, time is abundant. Your grandmother mentioned this morning that she’ll have a few of her late husband’s old cars featured in the show. She’s not sure of the makes and models, though.”

Hmm, so he’s been busy chatting up Gram over breakfast. I’m sure she liked the company.

Gram or Marty could’ve also run his credit card.

Again, I’m reading too much into him.

He’s refined, cultured, polished, and insanely determined to land his next payday.

The polar opposite of Weston in so many ways, besides hard work and a vaguely similar interest in cars. That must just be part of the male DNA.

“Wish I could help. I don’t know what’s coming, either, unfortunately,” I say. I do know the make and model of basically every car in storage, but it wouldn’t help him.

Grandpa’s collection isn’t for sale.

“Of course.” He nods politely. “Perhaps when you have a spare minute, you could show me around? I’d be delighted to help you take inventory.”

Yeah, no, for several reasons.

One being the human saguaro cactus in the barn right now who might start ripping heads off if he finds anyone snooping around the cars. Lord only knows what he’d say if I led Carson in there right now.

“Hey, I’m sorry, but I’m kinda busy right now,” I lie.

“No big deal. When are you off again? I’d love to buy you dinner for the trouble and talk more about this town. I’m looking for ideas, anything I might’ve overlooked. The rarest finds are always right under your nose. Your grandmother mentioned this interesting place I’d like to check out with a ton of old signs on the walls. The Purple Bobcat?”

I shake my head. “That’s...not really a dinner joint. It used to be a biker bar, but now it’s more of a sports bar and cozy hangout.”

It’s also owned by Weston’s uncle, Grady McKnight. Reason number one thousand why it looks like I won’t be able to ignore him today.

“She said they serve the best brews around and I’m guessing you’re a beer girl. Let me guess—peanut butter stout?” He presses a hand to his head like he’s mentally reading me.

Really? Do I look like a peanut butter stout girl?

Maybe his polish is all surface deep.

Still, I snort out a laugh.

“Not on your life,” I tell him. “You got the beer part right, though. I’ll take a nice citrus IPA or a Trappist beer any day.”

“A woman of taste. I like it,” he says with a slanted look that heats my cheeks. “Also, I’d love a chance to talk to you about some of the history I’ve learned about this town. Your grandmother says you’re the local expert.”

“Eh, there’s no town historian, really,” I throw back. “I guess I’m the closest thing since I still obsess over this place and I have the degrees, but I haven’t lived here for years.”

Again, his smile nails me between the eyes and leaves me feeling...some kind of way.

I just wish Gram would be a little more tight-lipped with the guests. What if Carson Hudson wasn’t so gentlemanly and turned out to be a weirdo creeper?

“How about Saturday night?” he asks, driving his luck home. “Thelma says she has a friend coming over to visit, so I bet you’ll be free.”

Oh, God. This is all making a terrible kind of sense now.

Gram’s setting me up for a date. What the hell?

On second thought...

What. The. Hell.

He’s handsome, educated, and we clearly share some interests.

Glancing back at the barn and then at Carson, I muster a smile worthy of a woman who’s being asked out by a pretty decent guy.

“All right, you win. Just ease off the charm. Saturday it is.”

6

Going Hog Wild (Weston)

It’s been one long-ass week.

The garage has been popping, siphoning away my daylight hours, and touching base with two dozen people to help get everything ready for the car show has taken over my nights. Still, it’s the early morning hours—the quietest—that kill me the most.

Because that’s when Shelly sneaks over and drops off food for Hercules.

She doesn’t think I see her out there, bent over his pen with a giddy smile while the pig stuffs his wrinkled snout in the bowl she holds out to him like an offering for a prize dog, but I do.

I see the way she lights up with joy as Herc stares up gratefully with his beady little eyes.

I hear how she laughs when he rips the bowl out of her hands in his greedy feeding frenzy. Sometimes they fall into this playful tug-of-war.

I dredge up every ounce of willpower in my bones so I don’t go stomping out there, flay my heart open, and apologize for being such a swinging dick to her.

I can’t.

I did the right thing years ago, freezing her out, when I decided not to send her my deranged, tortured scribblings.

Believe me, I kept my promise to write in this fucked up, twisted way. I just never let her see my writing.

A fat stack of letters accumulated at the bottom of my sack every few months during my years in combat, never being tossed into military mail to find their way home.

Never sent home to show her how sick and broken I’d become.

She was only a teenager. Far too young, too innocent, too bright for the smoldering realities of war.

Like the family in this nowhere village where we were stationed who started inviting us around a fire for tea in the cooler months. That went on a few times a week, till one fine day we found the bodies.

Hamid, his wife, and so many of their grandkids riddled with bullets, mutilated, and unceremoniously dumped in the bone-drying sun just outside town. You could barely tell them apart from at least five other families in the village who made the mistake of showing a foreign army any hospitality.

How the fuck could I ever tell her about my life? How could I stoke her dreams when my own bled out one dark day at a time?

How could I let her become my hope, my fixation, that last scrap of innocence and safety I held on to thousands of miles away?

Even when I knew she turned eighteen and set off for college, I still thought about her too much.

The daily death and frustration warped my fucking mind.

I started thinking of her in a different way some long, anxious nights. A way that didn’t fit with what she was—my best friend’s kid sister—and I damn sure couldn’t encourage that insanity.

No, I don’t regret ghosting her.

I made sure Marty made her follow through with her promise to get the hell out of Dallas, too.

She had.

I should be happier about that, not waiting until she leaves my property before grumping out of my house with water for the pig.

“Don’t get too attached,” I tell him. “She’s going home before winter.”

Herc grunts back with an obstinate glare, as if to say, we’ll just see about that, my dude.

“She’s got bigger ambitions than stuffing your face. She’s found her calling, and it sure as hell isn’t here with us,” I say, inspecting his water trough. “What? Don’t give me that look. It’s not like I’m the one chasing her off.”

Not this time.

I should be glad she’s returning to the Smithsonian and D.C. soon.

I also hope it’s ahead of schedule, before I fall deeper into this habit of having my morning coffee and conversation with company who can only grunt his complaints.

This is what you wanted, asshole, I tell myself for the thousandth time.

I’m still waiting for it to come true, like maybe if I just repeat it often enough, it will.

Even when I enlisted as a bright-eyed kid myself, she tipped the scales for that decision. I wanted her expanding her horizons before settling down with anyone or anything else—including me. Especially me.

Hell, my parents got married right out of high school. Though they stuck it out through a dozen major stressors, always short on money and too busy with their careers, it wasn’t pleasant.

Not at fucking all.

Shel deserved more than a messy fling and a small-town shotgun marriage riddled with too much drama and too little cash. That’s also partly why I made her promise to leave town.

The last day we had before I left, riding my motorcycle, snacking on shakes and burgers, talking about all sorts of things, made me question if I’d done the right thing.

I had. No question.

Too bad I couldn’t just forget her. Not when the memories of that final day together carried me through some of the darkest days of my life.

My head throbs as I’m heading off to the shed I use as a makeshift workshop.

For a hot second, my vision spins, and I’m back there again.

* * *

Five Years Ago

Facedown in the dirt, trying not to suffocate.

Gore trickling down my neck. Human blood. The remains of Kenny, a good man who laughed so hard he said his stomach ached last night when he showed me the pics from his seven-year-old son’s baseball game.

He died barely thirty seconds ago, catching the brunt of that last mortar blast that turned the dilapidated wall of this old house into stabbing splinters.

His body shielded me from the shrapnel that chewed him apart, all by random chance, a decision by God or the universe I’ll question a million times over in the years to come.

Kenny saved me, but for how fucking long?

His sacrifice should mean something, unwitting or not.

Because those psycho shits are still firing away, their crude shells falling down around us, the crack of their rifles pinning down our right flank with suppression fire.

Another deafening blast vibrates through me.

Another scream—I think it must be Vicki this time.

She screams and screams and screams, and then she doesn’t and it’s quiet.

Eerily, deathly quiet.

Where the fucking fuck is that air support? Are they going to kill our entire unit before the drone gets up their asses?

I pulled the radio from our sergeant’s severed hand, confirming coordinates for the third time. Then I crawl toward Vicki, desperate to find her, to see if there’s the tiniest chance I can still do something, goddammit.

Air power should already be on top of us, blowing the insurgents to vapor, but we’ve suffered so many casualties and it’s already too late to—

A sound like the entire world being ripped in half blows out my ears.

My vision goes white, red, purple, black.

The explosion in the hills through the gaping hole in the wall scalds my eyes, even when they’re pinched shut so tight I think they’re glued together.

And I see her then, for what I’m sure will be the last time alive.

I see her lush green eyes, her smiling face, and hear her laugh when I can’t actually hear anything at all.

If this is the angel sent to drag me out of hell, I’m glad it looks like Rachel Simon.

* * *

Present

“West, did you hear me?”

I spin around and look at the waitress, who pops her chewing gum loudly.

Stacy. A blond with dark roots and even darker eyeshadow and thinning patience for my wandering mind.

“Sorry,” I mutter, slapping the side of my head. “Guess I’m with the space cadets today.”

“Ha, I hope they’re happy thoughts. Two more drafts, hon!” She laughs. “Jeepers, it’s so loud in here tonight a person can’t hear themselves think!”

I nod, only wishing she was right.

Forcing myself to clear my head and get back in the game, I grab two mugs, fill them, and slide them across the bar.

Stacy’s right about one thing. The Bobcat is hopping tonight, the cooling nights driving people together for fires and the patio and neverending dart matches over bottomless brews.

Weekend nights are always hectic with the holidays creeping up, and that’s why I work them.

Uncle Grady needs extra hands on deck the most on nights like these, when he makes the most money.

The crowd surge usually lets up around ten o’clock. For those who come to eat, that is.

The folks who drop by for drinks, pool, and endless rounds of bawdy conversation usually stick around until well after midnight.

This place used to be a seedy biker bar years ago, but Grady buying it changed all that.

And with his newfound fame as a local hero of sorts thanks to his infamous tiger rescue and that big cat sanctuary they opened, we get more traffic than ever.

Now families journey here from several towns over to play arcade games, and couples finish off day trips to see the tigers with tall drinks and deep-fried bites.

I’m proud of my uncle and happy to help him out all I can, of course, which means keeping a certain annoying firecracker off my mind so I can focus on the shit that matters.

The shit I can control.

The next couple hours fly by, and talking to the regulars helps me clear my head till one of them mentions the “Simon girl” coming home for Thelma.

Damn.

It shouldn’t be this hard, struggling to see her as that scrawny kid she used to be.

Not the bombshell redhead with a body that oozes sex.

So perfect, so tempting, so much like a ripe strawberry goading my teeth for a forbidden bite.

My brain’s definitely missing a lot of blood. It’s all gone south the longer I’m stuck wondering what’s under her hood.

Would she give me that squeal of delight she saves for Herc if I wrestled her down in the dirt?

Would I get that sunshine laugh?

What the hell sounds would she make if I showed her a hog worth every bad fucking pun I’m making?

I snort at my own stupidity, mixing a whiskey sour for a customer that helps ground me.

Years ago, I was too old and too close to Shelly, treating her like family.

Now, I’m too wrecked.

I haven’t touched a drink in years, but that’s not to say the desire ever totally fades. The urge never leaves you, no different than bad memories.

What if I slip up? What if I fuck myself over some desperate night and wind up needing another round of tortured self-reflection and group therapy to yank my ass back to sobriety where it belongs?

No.

I never wanted Shelly to see what Afghanistan turned me into for a reason, or the booze that held me hostage long after.

I’m serving up tall peach Bellinis to a pack of bouncing, laughing ladies on the barstools when something catches my eye.

The front door of the bar swings open, and Shelly walks through it, too beautiful for life.

As if my one-track mind conjured her.

She sails in, wearing a bright floral dress, no sleeves and enough leg hanging out to make a race horse jealous.

My jaw sets tight. I nearly break a damn tooth a second later when I see who’s behind her.

That slick-dick city boy who’s basically living at Amelia’s.

Carlton or whatever.

He’s not only with her, but he has his grimy paw on her back, walking his fingers subtly close to where her ass begins. The same place that makes my fist start throbbing.

What a coincidence.

What the hell business brings him here, anyway?

And what the hell is she doing with him? Here? At the Bobcat?

...are they on a fucking date?

I grind my teeth together, holding in a bearish hate-growl.

If evil eyes could kill, this guy would be drawn and quartered.

He’s a snake, and I know it. It’s not just his looks, always too formal for a place where the tourists usually stomp around in flannel and cowboy boots and blend in with the locals.

It’s the fact that he stopped over at my great aunt Faye’s house the other day.

She’s been having a perpetual garage sale for weeks, trying to clean out her place and make a little extra scratch before winter like she does every year.

Plus, she’s making more noise all the time about selling her place and moving into senior living. That’s why I wound up with pig-wonder not so long ago.

Hudson hadn’t bought anything after picking through her old record collection, but the way she described his fancy-ass car left no doubt who she was dealing with.

She also mentioned the pushy little fuckwit wanting a look at some old arrowheads and rocks that weren’t for sale, but she’d mentioned offhand.

Thankfully, she never let him inside.

When she’d started these sales, I warned her not to let anyone in the house. Everything for sale should be outside or in the garage.

Dallas is a good town, full of good people, but we do get strangers off the highway every so often who don’t have the best intentions.

Sometimes, we get oily creeps like Hudson.

I shouldn’t let it eat me.

Aunt Faye doesn’t have anything of massive value she’s selling. The silver coins were probably the most valuable, and she took them to an antiques store in Dickinson where they fetched a few thousand bucks.

I stab at a beer tap, filling a new round for a table of guys playing pool, trying not to watch as the two of them take a seat at a table on the far side of a dark, cozy corner.

Almost as dark as my twitchy insides right now.

Why do you care, asshole? a voice growls in the back of my head.

Shelly’s a grown woman now. Remember?

She’s probably gone out on hundreds of dates with preppie Eastern boys who’d make Hudson look like a disheveled bum.

Key difference: I wasn’t there to see her with those dudes.

I wasn’t there to slowly go insane from the acid jealousy swirling in my head and burning my gut.

Trying like hell to ignore them, I focus on my bartender duties, but son of a bitch, it’s hard.

I swear the place has gotten noisier. The music louder, the customers shriller, laughing and talking like they’re at a football game and it’s still not loud enough.

Somehow, I can hear Shelly’s laugh the most through it all. And it sounds brighter, happier than when she brings Herc breakfast and dives into those adorable tug-of-war sessions with the pig.

Even with my back turned, I fucking hear her.

Drawing in a breath like a ragged snarl, I shake my head.

This shouldn’t surprise me one damn bit.

They have more in common—more to laugh about—than she ever would with me.

Between Thelma and Marty, I’ve heard about her every move the past few years.

They talk as if she loves city living. City people. City dreams.

For all I know, they’re having a riot over what a shitty podunk town this is compared to what they consider civilization.

I need a fucking drink in the worst way.

Curling my lip, I stare at a whiskey on the rocks like it might just claim my soul. It’s meant for a guy at the end of the bar who’s already plastered.

Before I can pick up the glass and get it out of my sight, Stacy approaches with another drink order.

The other three waitresses file in behind her, and I throw together their drinks, feeling the booze pulling at my brain like gravity.

By the time I’ve assembled all the orders, I consider pouring myself a straight shot. Something I haven’t tasted once since Uncle Grady’s wedding, a rare exception I regretted mightily the next day.

Only, I’m better than that.

And even if I’m not, it won’t change shit about this miserable situation. Shelly’s going to be in town for at least another month.

That’s a lot of evenings flirting with this clown, however long he sticks around. The sooner I get used to it and control my anger, the better.

Hell, I live next door to her gram.

My best friend is her brother.

I’m going to hear about her life for the rest of mine—including when she gets married and starts popping out kids. I can’t spend mine drowning in a bottle, much less staying pissed at a girl I ran off years ago.

Been there, done that, and never again.

“Kim, your order’s up!” Billman, the cook, shouts from the kitchen while setting steaming plates of nachos and bison burgers on the open area for waitresses.

All three of them just left with trays of drinks to deliver, and Kim had the fullest tray. She’s on the other side of the room, doling out drinks to a big party of eight or more.

Knowing the food could be sitting by the time she makes it back, I leave my area behind the bar.

“What table?” I ask Billman.

“Twenty-two.” He points at the slip he’d set in his completed pile.

Shit. I know where that is. Looks like I just can’t catch a break with Shelly Simon.

“Thanks, West,” Billman adds.

“No problem.” I gather up the plates, knowing where they’re heading, and ask Billman, “Is there mayo on one?”

“Nope.”

“Get me a side of mayo, please,” I tell him. “Trust me.”

He squints at me for a second, then reaches inside the fridge with a shrug, pulls out a small plastic cup, and plops it on one of the plates.

Sucking up a breath, I haul the food across the bar to Shelly and Mr. Shit-fuck.

She barely gives me a startled glance as I lay a plate in front of them both.

“Someone must’ve read your mind,” Hudson says, reaching across the table for her hand. “You said you forgot mayo, but here it is.”

Shelly’s lashes lower for a moment before she looks up at me, offering a tentative smile.

“Thanks, Weston. You read my mind.”

“I always do,” I say, trying to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “Kim will be over soon to see if you need anything else. Enjoy.”

That last word sounds like go to hell.

The asshole still has her hand in a death grip. Running his filthy fingers over hers.

“Thank you,” he says distantly, staring at Shelly the entire time. “I think we have everything we need.”

I start to turn, slowly, but wind up doing a 360.

Something inside me snaps like a worn rubber band.

I can’t.

Can’t take this weasel with the hungry little gleam in his eyes touching her. Can’t take the entitled undertone in his voice. Can’t take another flicking second of this bullshit.

Before I can even worry about what anybody thinks or the surprised squeal from her throat, I’ve got her, grabbing her wrist, jerking her hand away from his touch.

“Weston!” Shel yips.

Hudson’s face whips up with a sneer as he stands.

“Excuse me? What the hell do you think you’re—”

I shoot him a silencing glare that says he should be happy it’s not him I’m touching. If it were, I’d already have his hand snapped clean off his wrist, and I’d probably have our new sheriff, Drake Larkin, coming for me with handcuffs.

Lucky for him he’s a cautious man.

He doesn’t move as I pivot, looking at Shelly again, whose shock melts into anger.

Too late. Let her hate me—more than she already does.

I’m sure she’s learning new ways to loathe my very existence as I motion to march her across the bar and out the back door.

7

Don’t Hog It All (Rachel)

If there’s one thing I hate more than Weston flipping McKnight right now, it’s being right.

I knew this was a bad idea from the start, long before West brought food to our table and had his little caveman fit.

He remembered I like mayo with my burgers. That kinda broke my heart.

So does the way he holds my wrist, beaming me this animalistic scowl I’m not sure what to do with.

Honestly, I’m not even sure the night with Carson Hudson would’ve lasted another hour.

He’s plenty nice, sure. Intelligent, charming, and fit.

He’s also exactly what I expected.

For all his surface charm and fawning attention, all he’s talked about is himself for the past hour. His love of antiques, how he’s traveled the world on countless treasure hunts, and how much he always looked up to his dearly departed uncle, who—if I heard right—perished on a hunt for some priceless meteorite quite a few years ago.

I should be more impressed by his stories.

I love antiques and unique collectables like space rocks, but this dude gave me a headache, yammering away about his exploits like before we even stepped into the Purple Bobcat.

Or maybe it’s because he smells like those godawful black truffle almonds.

The subtle stink filled his car. He told me he’d first gotten hooked on them in Europe and has to order them online from a German specialty shop because they’re so hard to come by.

I have no idea why he’s trying to impress me with nuts—freaking rancid nuts—and I’d kinda like to tell him it’s not working.

Then again, to pull that off, he’d have to shut up long enough for me to get a word in edgewise...which hasn’t happened until sixty seconds ago.

One fierce look from Weston shut Carson up.

I’m afraid to stare too long at the look Weston levels on me now.

I can already feel it, and that tells me it’s not friendly.

Neither is his grip on my wrist.

Oddly enough—or not, because he’s West and I’m me—his hold excites me about as much as it makes me want to scratch out his eyes.

He’s not going to let go without me pitching a fit.

I’m not interested in making a scene, so while we’re still by the table, I manage a pained smile for Carson and say, “Excuse me, I’ll be right back.”

I barely have time to stand before West yanks me across the room like he’s my own special bodyguard, pulling us all the way outside, where we stumble into the cool evening air.

It was a warm day for October, but as it often does around here, it’s cooled off considerably come evening.

He releases my arm once we’re several steps away from the door.

It’s now or never.

I take the chance and look up at him. I see the razor-sharp glint in his eyes and try to decipher what put it there.

Anger? Jealousy? West being the same overprotective beast he’s been for half my life?

His chest heaves as he looks on in volcanic silence.

Anger again?

I’m not sure, but a part of me reacts to this raw power steaming off his shoulders, so intense I can almost hallucinate smoke rising. I have to suck in a breath and try to calm the ridiculous rush of hormones that make me dizzy.

I thought he was working tonight. I’d even thought about him a couple times—not Carson—while picking out a dress. The simple country sundress makes me look like a Dallas girl, and I’m not entirely sure it was ever meant for a cultured man from Boston.

Yikes.

Still, I never imagined he’d respond like this to a hint of teasing.

“What the hell, West? What is this? Dragging me around like I’m out with a boy after curfew and—”

“What the hell are you doing with that guy, Shel?” He booms back, cutting me off.

God, just who does he think he is?

Except, I think I know. He’s the man who made it perfectly clear he’ll never love me.

So why this big mad tantrum? Why’s he trying to embarrass me like I’m sixteen again?

The steely-eyed anger—visible in his hot glare, his clenched jaw, aimed at me like a weapon—is new.

I’ve never seen it before.

That irritates me even more.

“Well?” he grinds out, demanding an answer.

“Um, let me see,” I say, feigning ignorance for a moment before glaring back. “It’s called a date, West,” I snap. “One you just interrupted for no good reason.”

“Really? And will your date continue after you’re back at Thelma’s place?”

Holy crap.

My jaw drops.

Fully processing his insinuation, my anger flares. If he was anyone else, I’d slap his stupid face off, but knowing him, he’d duck and I’d miss like every cartoon spat ever, and that would just piss me off more.

I hate that I only have words for a shield against this nosy, heartbreaking idiot.

“That’s none of your business, Weston. None whatsoever.”

“And if I’m making it my business, Rachel?”

Oh, sweet. He remembered to stop calling me Shel for two seconds.

I ball my fists at my sides, flinging them like rattles as I spit, “Why would you? What gives you the right?”

“Because you’ve always been my business,” he growls.

“You can stop anytime. Jesus!” I hiss. “You certainly didn’t bother until I came home...”

His eyes drop. He’s stone-cold quiet for a moment.

“That was different,” he says softly, dragging a hand through his thick hair.

“Why?”

He clamps his lips together and cuts me in half with those blue knives for eyes. “What do you know about this guy?”

I shake my head again. “I know he asked to take me out like a gentleman, West. Pretty big improvement over the complete turd muffin you’re being right now.”

He snorts.

“What’s it to you? Why do you care, really?” I huff out.

“There’s something off about him. Something not right.” He shakes his head, his face contorting with this pained look like I should just be able to read his jealousy-scrambled brain.

“That’s crazy,” I say slowly. “He’s just a guest here for business. We both happen to be history buffs. And when he actually shuts up for a minute, he’s a pretty nice guy.”

God, why did I slip?

West’s brows punch up and my irritation soars faster than my heart in my throat.

“Is he? Then tell me why he’s hanging around town this long? To comb over a few little garage sales? Come on. You’ve gotta admit it’s more than a little funny, and nobody’s laughing.”

“Here’s what I’ll admit—I can’t believe the way you’re acting. Treating me like I’m still a kid or something.” I reach up, flicking at my hair, a bad habit I’ve had for years when I’m about to lose it.

“If the shoe fits... You’ve always needed help watching your back, Shel.” He swipes at the air, batting at emotions like a pesky fly. “Sometimes you’re too damn big-hearted for your own good. Too trusting. Marty said you almost got mugged a couple times out east.”

My lip trembles.

There might be a shred of truth to his BS, but it’s not like it matters.

I know exactly what it is. I know it so intensely it’s like a spike through my head.

None. Of. His. Stinking. Business.

“Did Marty tell you I took care of myself then, too? I’m a big girl, West. Save your energy on someone who needs saving,” I tell him.

He doesn’t say a word.

He doesn’t need to when that cruel smirk says everything.

Mostly, that he doesn’t believe a single word I say.

Whatever he’s become in our years apart, he’s turned into an expert at pissing me off. So does the fact that I actually hoped he was reacting like this because he’s secretly jealous.

He’s not.

He’s simply playing the older brother role. Only, he’s twisted it into this trash version of the boy who used to keep me safe and make me feel protected.

That not only enrages me, it hurts.

It makes me sick.

“Look,” he whispers, pinching the bridge of his nose as he sighs. “I’m not your dad. It’s not my place to tell you how to live. I just don’t want you—”

“Fuck you, West!” I lunge forward, glaring as I hiss in his face, “Fuck you and fuck off.”

For a split second, he’s startled. Frozen.

Then he grasps my arm.

“Shel—”

Twisting violently, I wrench my arm away from his thick, strong fingers.

“Don’t you ever Shel me again!” I’m losing it, tears burning my eyes as I spin around, heading for the door. “Just. Just mind your own fricking business.”

“Shel. Rachel...” His voice follows me, softer and unsure.

Stopping, I turn and stab a finger at him.

“No. No, Weston. For once in your life, where I’m concerned, mind your own effing business and leave me alone!”

I suck in a deep breath and hold it until it stings.

The last thing I want to do is drag myself back to Carson and this lackluster date, but there’s nothing else I can do.

Yanking the door open, I re-enter the bar, grateful for the short-lived cover of the bustling people. I linger in the bathroom for a minute before making my way down the hall and past the chatty, laughing crowd that doesn’t give me a second glance.

Somehow, I muster enough courage to sit back down at the table, and say, “Sorry that took so long.”

“No worries. I almost came to check on you,” Carson says, spearing a fry with his fork. “Your not-so-friendly neighbor again, right? What’s his deal?”

“Yep. More pig problems again. Nothing too serious,” I lie, slathering mayo across the inside of my burger bun.

I mean, maybe it’s not a total lie after all.

Weston McKnight is a bigger pig than Hercules for sure.

He’s also awesome at murdering my appetite. The thought of eating makes me want to barf, but I won’t. I force down a few bites of bison burger and start enjoying it halfway through. Mainly just to prove to Weston that he has no power over me whatsoever.

Actually, eating helps.

With my mouth busy chewing, I’m not expected to comment as Carson picks up right where he left off before West barged into our conversation.

As he prattles on about his stunning, treasure-seeking adventures in Europe, and how his late uncle even brokered an impossible mummy deal in the 1960s that wound up at The British Museum, I wish I could just walk home.

But that’s impossible unless I want to hitchhike. This isn’t a rideshare town and taxis take an hour to get here.

The Purple Bobcat is on the outskirts of town off the highway, and that puts it literally in the middle of nowhere even by Dallas farm field standards.

If he wasn’t such a shrieking asshole, I’d consider asking West for a ride since we’re neighbors.

But I’d rather take a ride with Satan tonight—or maybe one of those evil mafia guys who gave our resident billionaire actor and his wife so much trouble a couple years back.

Gram freaked when she told me about that one. Fortunately, Ridge Barnet saved the day and found his own happy ending with a pumpkin farmer who still works magic decorating people’s homes.

This town has experienced one too many bad action movies the last few years, and wondering when another bout of trouble blows in means I’m stuck with Carson until we’re back at the B&B.

That thought even makes me annoyed at Gram for ever opening the place.

As soon as I’m done eating, I drop my napkin on my plate.

“Hey, Carson, I don’t mean to rush you,” I say, interrupting him mid-brag. “But I need to get home and check in on Gram.”

“Her friend—”

“Can’t stay that long,” I finish for him. I open my purse and throw a twenty on the table.

His eyes flash distress.

“Thank you, but that’s hardly necessa—”

“I’d rather go Dutch, okay?” I say, making my point that he’d better not be expecting anything from this date. Including a second one. I stand up then. “Ready?”

“Certainly.” Carson puts money on the table and stands with a politely defeated look. At least he’s gracious.

Sigh.

Is he really a limp noodle or is it just me?

I can’t be sure of anything tonight—especially with that raging bull of a man side-eyeing us from behind the bar again.

I make a point of not looking at West once as we exit the bar.

“Is there anything I can do to help?” Carson asks once we’re in the car. “With the temperamental neighbor and his pig, I mean?”

“No.” I suck in a deep breath and a portion of my damnable pride. “It’s none of your concern and will work itself out.”

I hear something crinkle in his hand. He pops another nasty almond in his mouth, and feeling overwhelmed by the scent, I roll down my window.

“Just need some fresh air,” I explain.

“I’ll turn up the AC,” he says.

Eep.

“No, no, that’s all right. I just need some air and it’s such a nice cool night, don’t you think so?”

He starts in on another story, telling me how fresh the air smelled when he visited Vienna or Venice, or some far-off V-place. I really don’t care and wish I’d never agreed to this silly outing.

When she’s feeling better, I’ll be having a word with Gram about encouraging dates with strangers mixed up in the family business.

That has to be against some rule anyway, or at least my own ethics.

Once we arrive at Amelia’s, I leave Carson in the lobby with barely a good night and dart into the private living area.

Nancy Dahl is still here, a cup of coffee in her bony hand, watching a rerun of Golden Girls on an oldie’s channel with Gram.

I sit down with them and join in until the show ends, and then as discreetly as possible, send Nancy on her way and help Gram prep for bedtime.

Weston’s vicious antics linger on my mind the entire time.

He’s still souring my thoughts long after I’ve climbed into my own bed in the room next to Gram’s.

Seriously. How do I get through another month or more of this when Weston and I can’t even be civil for five minutes?

I know Gram misses seeing him regularly. She asks about him every morning when I return from bringing scraps to that adorable oinker.

Luckily, I’ve never run into him then.

I show up early for a reason. Well before it’s time to start prepping breakfast for our guests.

He’s always home with his truck in the driveway. Not the oversized navy-blue monster truck he brings to the rallies, but a regular black pickup.

Something piques my attention through my irritation and I sit up, listening intently.

My room is in the more private area of the house, connected to Gram’s by a Jack and Jill bathroom.

Wait.

There it is again.

Almost like...there’s someone moving around, trying to be quiet, only they bumped into something in the sitting room. Quietly, I climb out of bed and go through the bathroom to check on Gram.

I can hear her snoring even before I open the door to her room.

I swallow thickly, knowing there’s only one other person in the house—at least, there should be.

Carson.

Our other guest checked out this morning and it’ll be a day or two before we get new arrivals, unless unexpected travelers show up.

I trek back through the bathroom into my room and tiptoe to the main door, straining to listen more closely.

My heart hangs in my throat, thudding fast.

Then something vibrates like an angry hornet and I almost leap out of my skin.

I run across the room and grab my phone, which is buzzing away on the nightstand.

A new text message?

I don’t click on the icon to see who it’s from because it gives me an idea.

While walking back to the door, I pull up my contacts and then the B&B and click CALL.

A moment later, the backup phone in the private sitting room starts ringing, followed by a deeper, plodding noise.

Footsteps.

Sure enough. Hurried, skittering footsteps.

Carefully, I undo the lock and crack open the door to my room a sliver.

There’s a clicking noise, a frenzied rush of breath, and a door being closed. The one that leads into the rest of the house.

I’m sure I locked that door after Nancy left. Standard security.

The door lock, definitely, but maybe not the deadbolt?

Damn.

With my heart still pounding, I emerge and race across the dimly lit sitting room and throw myself against the door, locking both the knob lock and the deadbolt. I click on the light and glance around the room.

Empty, of course, but someone was sneaking around...weren’t they?

And was that someone Carson? But why?

“Shelly Bean?” Gram shouts. “Was that the phone at this hour?”

My frown flips around.

It’s nice knowing neither age nor surgery has diminished her hearing or her voice. I click off the light and walk to her room, opening the door. Knowing she’ll want to check caller ID in the morning, I say, “Sorry, Gram. I accidentally called the landline.”

“Okay, honey. Thank you. What were you doing on the phone this late?”

Remembering the unopened text, I say, “Um, just texting a friend. I dropped my phone and hit the wrong button.”

“Ah, well, sweet dreams, dearie.”

“Night, Gram.”

I close the door. While walking back to my room, I finally look at the text to see who it’s from.

My heart starts galloping again.

All these years later, and I still know that number by heart.

It was the first number I ever put in my first cell phone that I’d gotten for my fourteenth birthday, and I’ve transferred it to every phone I’ve had since.

Evidently, his number hasn’t changed in years.

I’m almost afraid to see what his message says. So I draw a deep, fortifying breath before I tap the screen to open it.

I’m sorry, Rachel. Sincerely. I never meant to tear your head off tonight. You’re a grown woman and you’ve been gone for so long. It’s hard to pound it through my head that you don’t need my help. Trust me, I will.

Such simple words shouldn’t make my throat plug up.

Oh, but they do.

I want to smack my own forehead. Why am I such a pushover when it comes to Weston McKnight?

I contemplate what I should send back—if anything—but I’m still distracted by what just went down outside.

What was Carson doing out there in a restricted area wandering around so late?

What if Weston was right—damn him—and there’s something odd about this guy?

Sighing, I tuck the thick homemade blanket around my shoulders, burrowing into a cocoon that feels safe from the world and its mounting problems.

Since I’m not sleeping right now, I’d might as well text him back to get my mind off what just happened.

Typing under the blankets, I tap out a few words.

You were always hardheaded, West. Just don’t let it make your brain a rock and we’re good.

A frown pulls my lips down.

I mean, technically, we’re anything but good.

But the fact that he apologized and owned up to his mistake means one less reason to toss and turn all night.

Lord knows he’s given me plenty of reasons for far too long.

8

The Name’s Mud (Weston)

Of all the stupid-ass shit I’ve done in my life, tonight took the frigging cake and flushed it down the toilet.

Shelly had every right to tell me to fuck off and mind my own business.

A text isn’t the greatest way to apologize, I know, but it’s late as hell and I’m worried she won’t ever talk to me again. Even if radio silence might be for the best.

I’m also sure she’s asleep. I hope so.

I also hope she’s in bed alone, and that muckety-muck serpent didn’t slither his way into her pants.

Fuck. There I go again, being a nosy, overprotective, OCD asshole fixated on her life.

I stare at the text I sent.

It didn’t bounce, but I took a wild guess. I’m not sure if that’s her number anymore.

It’s the only one I have, and I didn’t feel like nudging Marty out of the blue to ask this late at night.

The entire world is probably sleeping, except for me.

I’m lying in this big old farmhouse alone, caught up in the fog of years gone by, and wondering why it’s cursed me with the brain of a field mouse.

I wound up here almost by default. After my parents moved south, they offered to sell it for a bargain and agreed to have Grady look in on it until I was honorably discharged and Dallas bound.

I took the deal.

Not because I’m stuck on childhood memories here, the average happy moments of an average kid in Average Small Town, USA.

Big, boisterous family holidays and meticulously built snow castles with Marty and the other kids had their charm, sure, but they didn’t factor too deeply into my motivation to resume life here.

No. Deep down, I know why.

I wanted this place because it was next to Thelma Simon’s.

Next door to the one place where Shelly might return, whenever she was done seeing the world and living out her promise.

I swallow hard.

It’s still unbe-fucking-lievable when I find the stones to admit it. All these years I tried to deny wanting another glimpse of her, only to have tonight happen and prove me dead wrong.

My phone pings and I sit up, clasping the phone with a cold sweat beading on my brow.

New message.

I snort. No doubt I’m being ridiculous.

I’ve seen more death than a coroner, and I’m nervous to read her reply?

Shoot me now.

With a deep breath, I click the icon. Warmth floods my insides at her two-sentence message.

You were always hardheaded, West. Just don’t let it make your brain a rock and we’re good.

“We’re good?” I snort again, shaking my head.

What went down tonight—everything that’s happened since she came back—is the screaming definition of anything but good.

Without thinking, I punch the call icon. She answers on the first ring.

“Weston? Hey,” she answers softly, her voice strung with worry.

“Hey, yourself,” I say, without knowing what to say next. “I—uh, didn’t know if you’d still be up. I’m sorry, again. You’re right, that shit I flung at you back at the bar was none of my business. Old habits, and not good ones, I guess. I’ve never gotten over looking out for you.”

There’s this long stabbing pause.

“Well...I certainly needed that at times,” she says. “It was nice growing up with two big brothers.”

I grin like a fool, even if I also hate her thinking of me in nothing but a brotherly way.

It’s easier this way, to talk to her like this, though, when it’s just two voices and no heated looks or body cues. This disembodied distance is the barrier I need to behave.

“I’ll bet it was when you were crashing bikes and sucking up my rotten jokes. I know you’re grown up now, and I’ll try to knock it off. You’re not the same girl you were at sixteen,” I say, miserably well aware I’m nothing like the same easygoing boy I was then, either.

She’s silent for a heavy moment before she says, “Thanks. Honestly, though, maybe you don’t need to drop the bodyguard act just yet...”

My shoulders tense.

“Why? What’s wrong? Shelly—Rachel—if you’re in trouble, I—”

“Nothing!” she cuts in. “Nothing’s wrong. I...I just, um...I’ll only be here until about Thanksgiving and it would be pretty weird if I didn’t see you. I want things to be civil. Friendly, even.”

The tension flows out of me. I reach up, swallowing a groan, dragging a hand across my face.

She still wants to be friends, thank fuck.

Goddamn.

She wants to be friends.

That should make me thrilled—it’s clearly the sane choice—so why do I feel like I just took a searing slap to the face?

“Weston?” she whispers when I’m silent too long.

“Friends. Hell yeah. That’s what we’ve always been,” I say quickly. Not wanting this talk to get too deep, I ask, “By the way, has Hercules seemed okay to you when you fed him the last couple mornings?” Shit! I hadn’t wanted her to know I’d been watching her do that. Clearing my throat, I add, “I’m assuming that’s you and not Thelma dropping food in his trough, anyway.”

She laughs like a schoolgirl and my face actually heats, knowing I must sound like a blundering fool.

“It’s me, and he’s been fine. Why?”

“Eh, he had me a little worried earlier this week. Wasn’t really sick or vomiting or anything, he just seemed...off. Didn’t want to wolf down his grub like usual, and mostly grazed on it half the day. He’s over it now, back to eating like a garbage disposal, but I almost called the vet the other day.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. You know, now that you mention it, he didn’t eat what I dropped off Tuesday. It was still there Wednesday morning. I thought it just wasn’t to his liking, so I scraped it out of the trough.”

“He’s a pig. He’ll eat anything. Usually.”

Her giggle comes softly, this flutter that makes my cock jerk.

“He’s eaten pretty well since then.” After a short pause, she says, “Gram told me your aunt gave him to you.”

“She did. Between her knees acting up and all the looking in on my little cousins last year, she was worried she wouldn’t be able to keep up with Herc and the family. She’s also mulling over moving into a senior place. I hope she won’t get too bored there, though it’s hard to see how when she’s alone now. The house is a lot for her to keep up by herself, especially when she’s over at Grady and Willow’s half the time.”

“At least she’s not turning it into a bed and breakfast.”

I chuckle silently.

“True.”

I want to ask how that’s going for her and Thelma, but I don’t want to ruin the easy vibe I feel through the phone by broaching a subject that might bring up the date I crashed earlier.

“Aunt Faye’s been having a lot of garage sales for the last month,” I say instead. “She’s sold some stuff to locals and another batch to an antique store in Dickinson. Have you been by it?”

“No, I haven’t had time yet. I haven’t even checked out your uncle’s cat sanctuary. Sounds like a cool place; everybody’s always buzzing about it. Gram’s infatuated.”

I smile. “It’s a hell of an addition to this town. So is Bruce.”

“Bruce?”

“The main man who started it all with his razor-sharp smile. I’m sure Uncle Grady never expected to find out a five-hundred-pound Bengal tiger was his personal matchmaker, but he’s not complaining.” I want to keep the conversation light. “He’s a big pussy cat, even though his size can scare the living crap out of a person. I should know. I wound up locked in a horse trailer with him once.”

“What? No, you didn’t!” she tosses back.

“Did. I’m not kidding.”

“How?”

“Oh, it’s a long story,” I tease. “Isn’t it time for you to bed down and get some beauty sleep?”

Not what I should be asking. I can’t help it.

“I’m not tired. Tell me.”

I grin, leaning back against the headboard as one of the most insane days of my life comes flitting back.

“It all started when Willow—Grady’s wife, now—needed to find a new home for Bruce. Lord knows we couldn’t keep a contraband cat hidden away in his barn forever with these shady pricks looking for him, so I volunteered to give her and Bruce a ride to the new place in Wyoming...”

I continue with the story, not even exaggerating the antics because I don’t need to. Her soft laughter keeps me going to the end.

“Okay. Now I have to meet Bruce and Willow,” she croons.

“We will. Pick a day and I’ll take you out there,” I say. “Thelma can come along, too, if she’s up to a little walking before it gets too cold.”

“Ugh, that’s the problem. She’ll say she’s ready whether her legs are or not,” Shelly says. “I’m amazed how well she’s doing, though. The hardest part is making sure she listens and rests.”

My gut knots, wondering if Thelma’s speedy recovery means she’ll leave sooner rather than later.

“That’s what you’re here for. Fuck knows Marty wouldn’t be able to handle her on his own,” I joke.

“No way. I do worry that she’ll try to overdo it sooner or later,” she says with a laugh. “I had to pry her away from whipping up a big batch of strawberry shortcakes for the guests this morning. Besides the fact that she shouldn’t be messing around in the kitchen yet, I knew it’d involve a trip to the store—and racing Granny Coffey for the best berries. She’s terrible with that.”

I chuckle. The longstanding rivalry between the two feistiest old ladies in town over produce is legendary.

“I’ll bet she appreciates your help. She talked about you coming home for several weeks before you showed up and nothing else,” I tell her.

“She misses you stopping by for coffee in the mornings,” Shel says quietly.

I pause.

“Yeah, I—” I stop, unsure how far I should take this, even if I can’t stay away forever. “I’ll remedy that. I’ll see her this week.”

“Tomorrow? She’ll be cooped up and bummed out she’s missing church. She’d love the extra company.”

I smile at the hope in her voice, and then frown because I sense something else. She sounds cautious, cagey, and I’m not sure why.

Is it fear? Concern? Worry?

“Is everything else okay, Shelly?” I ask point blank.

“Yep!”

That was fast—too fast.

“You sure?”

“Oh, of course I’m sure, West. I just know if you make an appearance, it’ll keep Gram happy. And probably a little more cooperative for the rest of the day,” she teases.

“Okay, I’ll be there.”

“Come for breakfast! Eight o’clock sharp. Same time as always.”

My eyes flick to the clock on my phone before I push it back to my ear.

“Shit, that’s only six hours away.”

Where does the time go? I had no clue we’ve been on the phone so long.

“Lucky for you, I don’t need much sleep to throw together the best banana pancakes in town.”

“Hope you’re not rusty,” I say.

“Nope. I’ve kept up making them religiously since I’ve been away. I even learned a few tricks out east with goat-milk caramel, cinnamon, and nuts that are going to give you a crazy food boner.” She stops.

“Food boner, huh?” I repeat slowly, the corners of my lips turning up and digging at my cheeks. “You trying to feed me or Freudian slip yourself into trouble?”

“No sirree! I just...I mean...I know you love banana pancakes, West. You always did, just like how I’m a sucker for extra mayo on my burgers. You still like them, right?”

Goddamn, she’s got to be redder than a Door County cherry.

“Sure do. It’s been years since I’ve had a good batch. I’m looking forward to it. I’ll let you go, so you can rest up and make sure those pancakes aren’t burned.”

“Okay,” she whispers.

I can hear the smile in her voice, the truce settling in, and it makes my blood run hot.

“Night, Shelly.”

“Night, Weston, and—”

I wait as she pauses.

“Yeah?” I whisper.

“Thanks for calling. I’m glad we could talk this out. I wouldn’t have felt right if we left off like we did at the Bobcat.”

“Me either,” I admit. “You’re welcome to call anytime.”

I click off, knowing if I hadn’t, we’d keep talking till sunup. She needs her shuteye and so do I.

Agreeing to breakfast was pure impulse—one I probably shouldn’t have given into—but I did and I’m not backing out.

It’s good to be on speaking terms again. Almost feels like old times.

I’ve missed that. Missed it a whole hell of a lot.

There’s nothing wrong with being old friends, and acting like it.

I hope.

I just pray I’ll be able to act like a normal human being and butt out of her life where it counts, without letting my bad-tempered dick do the talking.

* * *

Despite the late-night call, I’m up at the ass crack of dawn, showered, and heading over to the B&B just before eight.

I go to the back door because that’s the entrance I’ve always used at Thelma’s insistence.

A smile tugs at my face, remembering the time Marty and I helped old Doug drag a bank safe into the basement through the double cellar doors on the other side of the porch.

He’d rented a backhoe to lift the safe out of the back of his old red Chevy and then down into the basement. The thing was a dinosaur and weighed as much, rust spots dotting it like a metallic leopard.

I wasn’t sure it would even open without problems, but it did, and as far as I know, it’s still down there. Probably will be till the house gets sold, a time capsule stashed with whatever treasures Doug deemed worthy of concealing inside.

Thelma greets me with a big smile, leaning on a walker.

“You don’t need to knock, Weston,” she says. “You know that.”

She leans in, walker and all, for a hug.

I snatch her into my arms and hold on tight.

“How are you feeling, ma’am? I’ve tried to stay away so you could get your rest.”

“Bah, I’m getting so much rest lately that the sheep are counting me.” She leads the way into the kitchen. “Shelly thinks I’m so flimsy I’ll break just by standing. She’s doing everything around here.”

I spot her at the stove, wearing white jeans that stop above her ankles and a bright lemon-yellow t-shirt. My hands ball into fists.

Damn. That little outfit is not gonna be good for this second chance at friendship.

“Good morning, West,” she greets cheerfully, transferring pancakes to a silver platter. “Everything’s almost ready. I’m just whipping up that sauce I promised. We’ll eat in the dining room.”

“With the guests?” I ask.

Her smile doesn’t falter.

“Yep. I hope that won’t be a problem? We’re pretty light on people right now...aside from a gentleman you’ve already met.” She studies me.

“How could anybody be in a fighting mood with banana pancakes?” I joke.

She leads the way, carrying the platter to the dining room.

“As she said, we have a break in our autumn traffic,” Thelma says. “Just Mr. Hudson for now. He’s an antique collector.”

“Yeah, what kind?” I ask, escorting her into the dining room.

“Oh, this and that. He hasn’t found anything in town that’s caught his eye yet, but Lord knows he’s out every day trying. He’s whip-smart and seems to know what he’s after. Gotta like that in a man,” Thelma says.

My hackles are still up over that guy, and I try to tamp down my venom, assuming he’ll be at the dining table. As we enter the room, I’m surprised he’s missing.

“Oh, my. Is Mr. Hudson away this morning?” Thelma asks like she’s reading my mind as Shelly reappears with toppings for the pancakes.

“I have no idea,” Shel says slowly. “I mean, he knows breakfast is served at eight. He’s shown up plenty of times before, so...weird.”

It’s not like Shelly to be so abrupt.

I wonder if it’s because I bombed her date with him last night, which makes me feel like a heel all over again.

“No big deal. If he joins us, there’s plenty to go around. Sit down,” Shel tells us. “Cold pancakes get rubbery pretty fast.”

“That they do,” Thelma says, easing herself into a chair.

I move her walker a short distance away so it’s not in anyone’s way, then take the same chair I’d often sat in while growing up with the Simons.

Life here always felt brighter than my own house for some reason.

Even before Shelly and Marty moved in and it was just the old couple. Shame Doug passed on while I was deployed. I still feel bad that I wasn’t here for Shel and Thelma during that time.

She was seventeen, finishing her senior year in high school.

I’ll never forget the day I found her sitting on that swing, missing her parents. I couldn’t count the number of times that shit haunted me thousands of miles away, as soon as I heard about Doug.

That twelve-year-old girl had absolute loss branded on her face.

How hurt did she look as a soul-crushed seventeen-year-old?

How much did I add to her pain as she waited for me to write? The same dumb boy who was there before to cheer her up with a few cheesy jokes.

The man who protected her, who fought for her, till the war sucked so much fight out of me I couldn’t remember how to fight for shit anymore.

“Dish it up, Weston, and don’t be shy! Will you look at that cream?” Thelma says, smacking her lips. “Shelly made enough to feed an army.”

I pick up the pancake platter and the tongs. “Have you ever known me to be shy?”

“Not yet, boy, and here’s hoping the day never comes.” Thelma laughs.

With our plates piled high with pancakes stacked with caramel and whipped cream toppings that seem decadent as hell, we sit down and bow our heads while Thelma says grace. Shelly stirs when she mentions Doug.

Again, I get a flash of her, younger and teary-eyed and alone because of me.

Fuck.

Thankfully, the conversation flows to happier places around the table with Thelma leading it.

We talk about the time we all pitched in to help Jonah Reed track down his horse, Edison. Even with an actual movie star coming here—Ridge Barnet—that decrepit escape artist of a horse will always be the biggest celebrity in Dallas.

Old man Reed was good friends with Doug Simon and my own Grandpa Larry, and still amazingly grounded despite the billions he earned in North Dakota oil.

I laugh at how animated Thelma gets while rambling about the Three Musketeers and their antics.

Somehow, I keep one eye in the back of my head, waiting for snake-man Hudson to show up at the table and kill the buzz.

I think Shelly wonders if he will, too.

I can tell by how she keeps glancing at the door between red-faced laughing fits, the way she pauses before going for seconds at every little creak in the old house.

Definitely curious.

She didn’t seem so standoffish with Carson Chucklefuck last night. Seemed like they were getting along well.

The attitude adjustment makes me wonder what exactly went down between them after I threw my shitfit at the bar. Especially when she freezes at the squeak of footsteps on the stairs.

I heard them, too, and though my gaze drifts through the open door, no one ever emerges at the bottom of the stairs.

“Y’know, I wonder whatever happened to that old scrapbook your grandpa Larry had? He was a real stickler for detail. I remember seeing all kinds of photos and clippings stuffed in there,” Thelma says. “I don’t think Shelly’s ever seen it. You’d love the history, dearie.”

“I still have it,” I say, turning my attention back to the table. “Aunt Faye gave it to me last summer while we were sorting through stuff for her garage sales.” Turning to Shelly, I say, “You can borrow it anytime. Feel free to make copies.”

“Ohhh, thanks! I’d love to have a look.”

The back door opens and closes then, catching our attention. I brace for an evil eye from the dickhead from Boston.

But it’s Marty who walks into the dining room a minute later with a loud yawn, his hair an uncombed mess.

“Awww, man, what’s this?” he asks. “I’m half an hour late and you guys wiped out breakfast?”

“There’s plenty left!” Shel chirps with relief, pointing to all the platters she covered with silver lids to keep the food warm after we passed them around the table. “Quit complaining and sit down.”

Marty laughs, slapping my shoulder as he walks past my chair.

“Hey, West. Good seeing you here. Just like old times, huh?”

I nod.

“We should all do this more often,” Thelma says. “As long as we’ve got our Shelly Bean, I think we’ll need a few more big breakfasts!”

I can’t help glancing at Shel, who doesn’t look my way.

I can tell she’s avoiding it, and I keep looking at her.

Finally, when I throw my seventh pancake on my plate, she looks up, grins, and pops a piece of sausage she fixed to go with them in her mouth.

“So, where’s Mr. Masshole off to so bright and early?” Marty asks, drenching his pancakes in syrupy caramel.

I frown, knowing who he’s referring to.

When no one answers, Marty adds, “He was backing out of the parking lot when I pulled in. Dude barely even waved to me. Jackass,” he mutters under his breath.

Thelma shoots him a disapproving look across the table.

“Now, son, he’s a paying guest and a nice enough fellow. Do mind your manners.”

He flashes her an apologetic look.

Across the table, Shel locks eyes with me. It’s like some wordless secret passing back and forth I’m struggling to decipher.

I glance at the door. The bottom of the stairway is visible, but just one corner. Hudson must have purposefully slithered out of sight as he left so Thelma wouldn’t call after him for breakfast.

Marty has a point. What lit such a fire under his ass that he couldn’t even stop for coffee?

What happened with Shelly last night after she stormed off?

I also notice how relaxed she seemed a minute ago, like a gorilla-sized worry was just lifted off her.

Is it because she’s afraid I’ll shoot my mouth off coming face-to-face with him again? Or because the Masshole as Marty calls him put his polished foot in his mouth with Shel?

I wonder.

While I’m thinking about that and chewing my weight in pancakes, my phone buzzes. I fumble it out of my pocket, planning on silencing it, but notice it’s Aunt Faye.

“Excuse me, guys,” I say, standing up. “I need to take this.”

I step away from the table and head into the kitchen as I flick the answer icon.

“Hello?”

“Weston! Oh, Weston.” She sounds breathless. “I know I locked the back door and double-checked the windows like I always do but—it’s gone. Gone. Oh, heavens, I knew I should have given it to you while I still had the chance.”

“Easy, Aunt Faye,” I say, hearing the panic in her voice. “Take a few deep breaths and then tell me what happened. What’s gone?”

“The gun!” she sputters, barely pausing to breathe. “The gun that won the West.”

Oh, shit.

She’s talking about my grandpa’s lever-action Winchester rifle.

“The rifle? You’re sure?” My shoulders square with tension.

“I may be old but I’m not blind! God, yes, I’m positive. I called Drake a minute before I called you and he’s coming over to have a look right now.”

“I’m on my way,” I say, ending the call.

“What’s wrong?” Marty asks, poking his head into the kitchen.

“Aunt Faye. Sounds like someone broke into her house and stole the old Winchester.”

“Oh, goodness!” Thelma says from the other room, overhearing us.

“I’m sorry, guys, but I have to get over there,” I say, heading back to the dining room. “She’s really upset. Plus, we’d better make sure nothing else got smashed up or taken.”

“I’m so sorry,” Shelly mouths, hanging her head.

“I’ll go with,” Marty says.

“Oh, no, you won’t,” Thelma says sternly, pulling him back by the pocket of his jeans. “Shelly Bean, go with Weston while we clean up. Faye needs a lady to calm her down—and these two lunks might be good for plenty but they’re not so good at that. Will you?”

“Absolutely,” she tells her grandmother.

Those big green eyes never leave mine, swollen with concern.

So much for old times.

We never had a robbery interrupt a neighborly breakfast, and I never had to worry about what my own dumbass might do in close proximity to my best friend’s little sister.

9

Pig In A Poke (Rachel)

I’m flipping speechless.

I haven’t seen Faye in years and want to help, but I don’t want to leave Gram and Marty rudderless with Weston in a hurry to go.

I jump to my feet, tossing a look over my shoulder at my brother. “Marty, help Gram clean up and check the guest rooms.”

I can’t say I mind turning that job over to someone today.

After last night, I’m more nervous than ever about Carson.

It’s not even the bad date or the weirdness of him creeping around so late. There are a hundred explanations for that, everything from needing a glass of water to feeling restless enough to take a walk and getting lost.

Our date certainly hadn’t ended well. I’m sure it weighed on my mind as much as his before Weston’s call swept it clear out of my head.

The thing is, I don’t really know this guy. Even after hanging around him for a few hours, relaxing over drinks and burgers, he’s basically a stranger. The conversation never drifted deep into our personal lives when he kept his motormouth running on foreign adventures and antique travel stories.

“Got it! Call me if you need me, guys,” Marty yells after us.

“Will do,” Weston says.

He takes my hand without seeming to think about it as we speed walk through the house, out the back door, and across the lawn.

“Sorry about this again,” he says. “Aunt Faye sounded pretty rattled. Thanks for coming with me. Seeing you might help get her mind off the break-in and losing the gun.”

“So the rifle’s the only thing missing?” I ask.

“Don’t know. We’ll find out when we get there. That’s all she mentioned over the phone.”

It only takes us a few minutes until we’re on his property.

Hercules spots us and lets out a few excited grunts as we jog around the barn, but neither of us stop to give him much attention. I feel bad about forgetting his scraps this morning, even if I know Weston would’ve fed him.

I hope Marty remembers to put anything left over from breakfast and fit for pig dining in the bowl I left on the counter.

We arrive at Weston’s truck in no time and jump in.

Faye’s house is several miles up the next road. I used to follow Marty and Weston over to her place often.

It’s a big white house with a huge wraparound porch and a fenced-in backyard. All summer long, she’d have a croquet game set up in the back, and we’d spend long, humid evenings playing it for hours on end.

Except when she’d feed us snacks.

Her cupcakes were always bigger than my hand and her lemonade brought a steady flow of thirsty kids to her yard.

I glance at West. Why hadn’t I ever thought about how he never stayed home very often? He was practically glued to Marty, especially during summertime.

His dad worked for Earhart Oil, and his mom had a job at the grocery store.

Maybe that’s it.

They were busy people with erratic schedules. Always gone, always working, and he would’ve been home alone if it wasn’t for friends next door.

“Looks like Drake beat us here,” Weston says as we take the last corner and see the squad car in Faye’s driveway. “He’s the town sheriff now since old Rodney Wallace stepped down.”

“I heard. He married Bella Reed after Jonah died, didn’t he? Gram told me all about it, including Edison’s big escapade, helping save Bella.”

“Yeah, fuck, this town’s got its fair share of four-legged heroes. That was before I came home. You still hear folks talking it up at the Bobcat fairly often. Uncle Grady calls it the start of the weirdness happening around Dallas the last few years. You remember Tory Three Names?”

He looks at me and I nod, smiling.

“How could I forget? She always tried giving me a few pointers on dancing. I fell on my butt so many times I think it left permanent bruises.”

“She’s got her own studio in town now. Present from her hubby, Quinn Faulkner, if you remember him. Faulk pitched in a lot when my uncle had his tiger trouble, and before that when Ridge the movie star settled down here.”

“Yeah, Quinn’s a nice guy.” I shrug. “You know, I may have been gone for a while, but I keep up with what’s happening. And who’d ever turn down an Edison update? That horse is like the town mascot. Way more than the bulldog.”

That wins me a grin. My heart does a somersault.

I only wish Weston smiled more.

“Don’t know why the hell they named the football team the Dallas Bulldogs,” he says. “Can’t remember ever seeing a bulldog around here, just mutts and those big old mastiffs Dean Coffey tried breeding years ago.”

I laugh, remembering how everyone in town obsessed over those monster-fluff puppies.

“Didn’t Tory wind up with the one Dean kept? I thought I heard he was helping her with that goat business...”

“Sure is. Owl’s the best boy you could ever want, goofy name aside,” Weston says with a chuckle.

A minute later, we’re pulling into the familiar winding driveway. He parks the truck and we both climb out.

The screen door bangs open a second later as Faye rushes out to meet us with the sheriff following her, a big strapping man with blue eyes a shade lighter than Weston’s.

“Oh, goodness, tell me I didn’t just give you that old gun, did I?” she asks, sounding hopeful. “If I just forgot and I’m panicking over nothing...”

Weston’s face tenses, his jaw set, drawing my eye.

Holy crap. It’s like he gets hotter when he’s worried or angry or switching into bodyguard mode.

Why do I find it so irresistible?

“No, Aunt Faye, unfortunately you didn’t. It was hanging over the fireplace when I moved your bookshelf the other day, just like always.”

“See, Drake,” she says. “I told you so. Someone busted in right under my nose and—” She stops talking as her gaze lands on me. “Rachel? Rachel Simon, it is you.”

Before I know it, she sweeps forward, eclipsing me in a giddy hug.

“Come here and say hi to your other aunt! I heard you were in town. I’ve been meaning to get over and see Thelma as quick as I can. How’s she doing?”

She’s already enveloped me in her solid arms. Buxom and tall like all the McKnights, she’s always made me feel small in this happy, protective way, and still does as her hug tightens.

“I’ve been so worried about your granny, but my little sales kept me so busy I’ve barely had time to follow up with anything else.” She releases me with a smile that takes up her face, still grasping my upper arms gently. “Oh, it’s good to see you, girl. You look as adorable as ever—and like a lady, too. I’ve missed you tagging along with Marty and Weston so much. I always loved when you kids would drop by out of the blue.”

She drags me over to Weston and Drake Larkin.

I’ve heard a lot about Sheriff Larkin, but this is the first time we’ve met in person. He gives me a welcoming smile.

“Weston, this young lady gets prettier by the day, don’t you think?” Faye says, elbowing West in the side. I laugh at the shock on his face—mostly to hide how I blush—as she prattles on. “Oh, and Drake, this is Rachel Simon, Thelma’s granddaughter. She’s been out east for a few years now for schooling and helping keep our national treasures intact.”

“Really?” Drake says amicably.

“She hates it when you butter her up,” Faye jokes, lowering her voice to an exaggerated whisper I can still totally hear. “She’s with the Smithsonian! Isn’t it magical to have one of our very own somewhere so prestigious?”

“Sure is,” Drake replies. With an affable nod for me, he says, “Nice to meet you, Miss Simon. Your reputation precedes you around here.”

“You, too,” I reply, both happy and a little miffed that meeting the sheriff saves Weston from more fun torture by Faye.

“Aunt Faye,” Weston says. “Is the entire case gone, or just the gun?”

Faye’s weathered face sags as her smile melts away.

“Just the gun. The case is hanging there, like always, but it’s empty. It was the first thing I noticed.” Faye waves a wrinkled hand and starts toward the house. “Come inside and see for yourself. I was just about to take Drake over for one more good look when you two showed up.”

Her house is exactly like I remember, oozing old charm, enhanced by her floral print furniture with doilies draped over the backs and arms, plus large braided rugs on original dark hardwood floors.

A white crown molding runs across the green-striped wallpaper, a neutral backdrop for so many wonderful old treasures.

I always adored looking around her house like a museum, getting lost in the old oval pictures and last century furniture that makes the place glow.

I haven’t forgotten the gun they’re talking about.

The rifle was maintained religiously and displayed inside a large wood and glass case bolted to the stone fireplace in the living room. Sure enough, the case is still there, but weirdly vacant.

I’m no expert on antique guns, but even I know a Model 1873 Winchester rifle is a collector’s holy grail. It was successfully marketed as the gun that won the American West by its manufacturer.

A specimen in near-mint condition like theirs is worth its weight in gold, easily running into five figures.

“That gun belonged to my great-grandfather,” Faye explains, shaking her head sadly as she stares at the empty glass case. “It was the family’s pride and joy for three generations. I offered it to Weston last year, but he told me to keep it here until I was ready to move.”

“I did,” Weston says glumly. “And it was here last week, inside the case.”

“You said the back door was unlocked?” Drake asks, heading for the kitchen.

We all follow him.

“Yes, sir,” Faye tells him. “When I got up this morning and came down to make coffee like usual, the back door was open a hair. The rug was caught at the bottom, and that got my attention because I remembered locking it last night without having to fix it.”

“You’re positive?” Weston asks.

“Cross my heart. The rug’s old and likes to get caught on the bottom every so often. I need to buy a new one that’s not so thick. Still, I’m always careful to make sure the door is shut tight. And another thing, there’s this...”

She points to an empty blue china bowl on the counter.

“Something significant about it?” Drake asks, picking up the bowl to inspect it.

“There’s a stray cat in the neighborhood I’ve been feeding—Mr. Whiskers—and every evening I bring the bowl in and lock the door after he’s had his din-din. I did that last night like always.”

Drake sets the bowl back on the counter before kneeling down to examine the door and the doorjamb intensely.

“He’s a calico baby, barely bigger than a kitten. It’s so rare to find a calico boy,” Faye explains. “He just showed up one day crying for food. The poor thing was so scrawny I had to feed him. With Hercules living at Weston’s now, it’s nice having an animal around again, especially a free spirit.”

I loop an arm around hers.

“I’m sure it is. How about you sit down at the table and I’ll make you some tea?”

“Oh, thank you, dear. I’d like that. My heart’s been racing fit for a marathon ever since I noticed the gun was gone...”

My own heart swells with sympathy.

I lead her away from the door to this cute little breakfast nook just off the side of the kitchen with a round table and two chairs with pink padded cushions.

“After seeing that rug caught in the door this morning, I walked straight into the living room to check the front door. I knew something else was different right away. It was the old sitting chair, back in place, but a little crooked...like somebody moved it to help get to the fireplace more easily. My heart sank before I even looked up, knowing what I’d find missing.”

I find tea bags and a cup, then start the water after she’s situated.

“Weston warned me about letting strangers in the house for my sales and I’ve been as good as my word. No exceptions, not even for the folks who come to look at my things who are always so nice,” she continues. “Everything I’ve ever sold stays in the garage. Even the items I posted online, I had Weston carry them out to the garage. He just brought the oak bookcase out of the living room the other day. Funny, the young man who was interested hasn’t come back to buy it yet, even though he said he’s staying in town. But then again, these Craigslist folks can be awfully flakey...”

Weston and Drake are back in the living room, and that young man part sticks with me.

“You’ve been posting stuff on Craigslist, Faye?” I ask, just to confirm.

“Oh, yes! It’s been a godsend for keeping my sales going past summer. The librarian told me about it over at the county library. I wanted to put up a notice about my garage sale on the bulletin board there, but they don’t have a sellers’ board anymore. She said people post everything online and showed me how to do that with my phone. I got my pictures of everything for sale together and double-checked my email address. Wouldn’t be the first time I’ve misspelled it, believe me,” she says with a good-natured laugh.

Ugh. There are a lot of great online markets, sure, but also no shortage of horror stories.

My stomach churns, imagining Faye getting ripped off by some unscrupulous scammer. There’s no shortage of desperate little monsters who love to prey on the elderly, even in tiny North Dakota towns.

“Like the bookcase?” I ask, checking the water on the stove.

“Yes. That young man was picking through my record collection originally. He was well dressed and rather well spoken,” she says with a smile I can’t bring myself to return.

That definitely sounds like Carson Hudson.

But would a man like him who breathes money and seems knowledgeable about flipping valuables for profit even think about resorting to petty theft? It seems absurd.

“He asked if he could see it when I mentioned my lovely old furniture. I said no to him coming inside then, but told him he was welcome back after I got my nephew to carry it outside. But he hasn’t shown up again for a second look.”

“You took a picture of it while it was in the living room, right?”

“Yes.”

“And posted it online for sale?”

“Sure.”

“This young guy...did anything seem off about him?” I say neutrally, trying not to let my suspicions out.

She looks at me slowly. “No, only...when he took a liking to something, he got real excited. He must’ve talked my ear off for almost an hour about all this wheeling and dealing he did with antique furniture and china over in New York City.”

The way my eyebrow quirks must give me away.

“Oh, but I don’t think he’s a suspect!” she adds quickly. “He came off like an upstanding fellow. He even left me thirty dollars to reserve the bookcase so I wouldn’t sell it to anyone else before he had first dibs. That other guy who came the same day in the boots, though...”

“What other guy?” I ask, my attention piqued.

“I mentioned him to Drake. Never seen him around town before, but he said he was with Earhart for the season, working the oil fields. He came clomping around with muddy boots. I’m afraid I couldn’t tell if he was drunk or just mean-spirited. He picked through some glassware with old beer logos for ten minutes and almost dropped a few dishes. I didn’t like how he was stumbling around and warned him to be careful. He told me to my face he could find better 'junk' at a flea market! Oh, and apparently I was wasting everybody’s time by leaving the nicer stuff in the house. Terribly rude, right?” Her expression sours.

I mumble my agreement, not liking anything I’m hearing.

I want to go tell Weston and Drake everything in case she left out any details, but I wait until the water hisses. After placing the teabag in the cup and filling it with hot water, I carry it to her.

“I’ll go see if Weston or Drake want something to drink, too. Be right back.”

“Oh, that’s sweet of you, honey. Tell them I have plenty of coffee.”

“I will.”

The guys are in the living room, meticulously picking over the glass box that housed the rifle and discussing the lock. Drake agrees it seems like it’s been picked.

I walk up to Weston, whose face softens when he sees me.

“Hey. I’m not sure how important this might be, but...” I lay a hand on his arm. “So, Faye just told me she posted a few listings for sale on everybody’s favorite old-school classifieds. They’re all pictures she took inside the house.”

His blue eyes ignite, and I know he’s thinking what I am.

Someone obviously saw the gun in one of those pics. And maybe a certain mean, drunk someone with zero manners came by to feel the place out before staging their heist.

“Damn. I didn’t know she knew how to do that,” Weston tells me, shaking his head.

“She said the librarian helped her. If Faye was a little too trusting or just not careful enough, that’s probably how it happened.”

“Almost certainly is,” Drake says, tapping a few notes into his phone before he looks up. “Online listings keep causing more trouble than they’re worth lately between the old anonymous sites and Facebooger’s marketplace. Let’s go verify the information.”

He and Drake share a look, then we all head back into the kitchen together.

“Aunt Faye, you told Rachel about some listings? What’d you post online?” Weston asks gently.

“Oh, mostly just the old furniture we talked about. That bookcase you brought out for me the other day and my grandmother’s old sewing machine. Ah, plus that pie safe over there.” She points to an old punched tin cabinet near the back door. “I think I mentioned a few more odds and ends if I remember right, and I attached plenty of pictures to everything.”

“Can I take a look if they’re still in your email?” he asks.

She points at the counter and asks me, “Shelly, will you please hand him my cellphone? It’s plugged in behind the coffee pot.”

I see the phone and pass it to Weston. He and Drake scan through her pictures in no time before he passes it to me with a frustrated look.

“I don’t see the gun in any of these pics. Have a look, just in case we missed something.”

I scroll through the listings, blowing everything up on the half a dozen ads so I can see better. But I have to agree, I don’t see a single photo with the gun in the background, however small.

“Sorry. It was just a wild guess. I suppose it could explain attracting weirdos, at least. She mentioned the rude muddy boots guy.”

“Thanks, and yeah, she told us about him,” Weston says, nodding angrily.

“No details are too small when it comes to home intrusions. They could still lead us to something concrete,” Drake says. “At this point, we shouldn’t rule out anything. I think you should call Faulk, Weston, and have him install the home security system we perfected last year to help with any future ruckuses in town. Even a simple doorbell camera could work wonders if anyone wants to make a repeat visit to Faye’s house.”

“I hope not!” I blurt out, hating the thought of Faye being alone and vulnerable here.

“Will do,” Weston says. Looking at me, he adds, “I’m pretty sure Faulk installed the system for Thelma at Amelia’s a while ago.”

“Really? I wasn’t aware we had one,” I say. “I haven’t had to turn it on and off.”

“Because it’s automatic and not advertised,” Weston says. “Putting a sign in your front yard that you’re protected just invites any dickhead burglars to cut the power off. Marty has the app for it on his phone with all the functions.”

I raise my eyebrows, surprised my brother never mentioned it.

Drake walks over to Faye. “Ma’am, I think you should go visit Thelma Simon for a day or two, or anyone else you’d enjoy seeing. Just a precaution.”

“Why, Sheriff?” Faye looks up, her eyes wide.

“Because whoever took that gun might have seen something else in mind. Repeat thefts aren’t terribly uncommon in smaller communities. Bad actors are used to vulnerable folks letting their guard down, including the cops. Rest assured that won’t happen on my watch,” Drake explains gently. “For your own safety, I’d prefer it if you weren’t home alone. At least not till Weston gets Faulk to rig up a new security system for you and change the locks.”

“I’ll call him right away,” Weston tells Faye. “We’ll see how soon he can help with the installation, but until then, I agree with Drake. You can either stay with Thelma or me.”

It takes a bit more back and forth prodding, but Faye eventually gives in.

Mainly because Weston points out that she’ll be able to walk over and see Hercules at his place if she’s at the B&B.

I happily agree to get her set up with a complimentary room, then help her gather a few bags with clothes. Weston loads up her van, which she insists on driving.

“Thanks for your help, Shel,” Weston says, once we’re following Faye’s boxy old van to Gram’s place. “And sorry for dumping another guest on you. I know you were probably enjoying the break in traffic.”

“You’re welcome, and you aren’t dumping anything. It’s a slower season, plus Gram will love having Faye hanging around.”

I smile. There are only three new reservations for the next week, so having Faye with us is no issue at all. Honestly, I think I’ll enjoy having extra company.

I’m still kinda creeped out over last night and don’t fancy being alone whenever I see Carson again, which will happen sooner or later. If I had my way, I’d ask Weston to move in for a few days and play into his growly bodyguard act just in case we’ve got a rat.

Even after our phone call last night, I had a hard time sleeping.

Knowing he’d be there for breakfast in a matter of hours was the only comfort.

We follow Faye into the small parking lot at Gram’s and before we’re even out of the truck, I see a chubby black balloon rounding the corner of the house.

Oh, crap. Hercules.

It’s legit shocking how fast he moves on those stubby legs.

“Uh-oh,” I whisper. “Looks like someone got out of his pen again.”

“That crazy, stubborn, curly-tailed little...” Weston trails off as he pops open his door and shouts after the pig.

“Hercules! Get your porky ass over here and back in your pen, or I’m gonna call your daddy Zeus and have him start slinging lightning bolts.”

I can’t help but laugh. He’s hilariously mad.

Predictably, Herc ignores him and makes a beeline for Faye’s van.

I’m not sure who squeals louder—the pig or Faye—when they see each other as she steps out.

I’m in stitches by the time I slide out of the truck. Just in time for Hercules to leap out of Faye’s arms as she kneels next to him and run over to me, squealing excitedly like he wants me to know his mama’s back.

I kneel down and scratch him behind both floppy black ears.

“I see her, big guy,” I tell him. “We might both feed you if you’re a good boy and go home with Weston.”

He does this adorable bouncy move, lifting off his front legs for a split second like a dog asking for a treat. My heart cartwheels.

“He’s been over here snuffling around since you left.” Marty walks out the front door with a boyish grin, his hair a mess, and holds it open for Gram to follow.

“Sorry about that,” Weston says. “Looks like I’ll need to put a cement barrier around his whole pen—and hire a part-time warden for good measure.”

“Naughty piiig,” I tell Hercules, wagging a finger. “We had a deal, remember? I bring you yummies every morning and you stay in your pen.”

Hercules grunts, stomping one foot in the dirt. Then with his head hanging low, he trots away from all of us.

We all watch as he skitters past the front of the house and around the corner.

Curious, I follow him. So does everyone else, even Gram with her walker, moving down the ramp and onto the grass to watch from a distance.

Herc knows where he’s going, all the way to Weston’s turf. There, he wiggles his way under the loose wooden boards of his pen and plops down in the dirt, winded, his round belly rising and falling with effort.

“Look at that! He really is a little Einstein, but we all knew that. He won the blue ribbon at the fair three years in a row for good reason,” Faye says proudly, hands perched on her hips. “Trouble is, he’s always had a mind of his own. You have to win him over if you want him to play nice.”

Weston groans, muffling a curse and pulling a big hand over his face.

I try not to laugh.

I truly don’t know what to say or do.

I’m just as amazed as everyone else by the mind that pig has.

With a sympathetic grimace for West, I shrug.

“Hey, I made the deal with him, and I’ve fed him every morning...up until today. Maybe that’s the issue. He thought I cheated him.”

Faye grins and clucks laughter that’s way too infectious. I’m laughing too while Weston rage-stares at the pig like he’s found his Christmas ham.

I’m doubled over again the longer the staring match goes on, wiping the corners of my eyes.

“That’s not it. He likes you real swell, Shelly, and he’s finicky with who he likes,” Faye explains. “He’s picked you, and he wants you to like him, too. Consider it a funny way of making friends.”

She nods approvingly as Marty slaps her gently on the shoulder.

“My little sister, the pig whisperer,” he says with a smirk. “Shelly, what else did you learn at that fancy college?”

When I’m done rolling my eyes, my gaze flicks to Weston, but he isn’t smiling back.

He’s back to wearing that worn, impenetrable expression—the one that belongs to a strange man I can’t crack, no matter how well things went today.

That makes me sad despite my lingering smile.

Just awesome. Looks like my hometown best friend is a badly behaved pig.

An actual pig.

Not the guy I’ve loved forever, who might as well have a moat around his heart a hundred feet deep and guarded by fire-breathing krakens.

How pathetic is my life?

10

Roll Me In Mud (Weston)

I stare up at the burning blue sky until my neck hurts.

Somewhere up there, somebody is laughing their ass off at my dilemma.

How the hell does this crap happen to me?

My pig can be friends with her, but I can’t. It leaves me wondering what exactly I did to deserve being jealous of a pig.

Clearly, I’ve lost the game of life and might as well throw in the towel now.

While Faye jabbers away with Thelma about the break-in, I collect her luggage and haul it inside, bringing it upstairs to one of the guestrooms.

Thelma refuses payment from either me or Faye for their hospitality again. In no time, the two old gals are settled in Thelma’s private wing, laughing their butts off at all the times when Hercules was supposedly the world’s cutest pig.

I have yet to see it.

“So what’s the plan?” Marty asks. “You want me to check out that shifty oil guy Faye mentioned?”

“Yeah, I’d love a follow-up. You’ve got access to the records as a field supervisor, though it’s pretty damn stupid if a guy here for seasonal help did this—especially with a company still owned by the sheriff’s family.”

“Stupid is as stupid does,” Marty says in this exaggerated Alabama accent like he’s auditioning for Forrest Gump. “Sorry, man. You know how much I love that movie. Also, if he’s new to Dallas, maybe he didn’t know who Drake married.”

I roll my eyes.

“While you’re busy torturing us with movie quotes, I’m gonna have Faulk install a new security system at her place ASAP. This doesn’t seem like an amateur, spur of the moment break-in. Whoever went in knew exactly what they were doing. They picked her door and the lock on the gun’s case without making a sound to wake her up. The locks still felt solid when I checked, but they’re old. I’ll have to replace those, too.”

“Need help?” Marty asks. “I finished everything around here the boss lady left for the day. No matter how demanding she gets, she forgets how fast I work.”

He nods at Shelly with a grin.

She sticks her tongue out at him.

That reminds me of the old days so much I fight back a grin of my own.

“No, but thanks. I left a message for Faulk to call me as soon as he gets a chance.”

“All right then, I’m going home to mow my lawn before the neighbors complain, but if you and Faulk need help, just holler.” He frowns slightly as he looks at Shel again. “Speaking of Faulk...how late were you up roaming around last night?”

I flinch slightly, thinking of our late-night phone call.

“Pretty late. Why?” Shel stiffens as she shrugs, rejoining us.

“That security app pinged me sometime after midnight. I knew it was probably you because it was in the private area.”

Her reaction turns me to stone.

It’s subtle, barely visible, but she fidgets anxiously. Her green eyes widen too much.

“What do you mean?” she asks.

“It notifies me every time the motion sensors pick up something, especially in the old room next to the back office,” Marty says. “I had a few extra sensors put in Gram’s sitting room. They only turn on at night, usually after ten o’clock. Easiest way for me to make sure she’s safe and all, living there with strangers.”

“Just sensors? Not cameras?” she asks.

“Yep, sensors,” Marty replies. “Besides the office, we can’t risk trampling on anybody’s privacy and getting ourselves sued. Why?”

“No reason,” she replies quickly. “Just curious.”

There’s a reason, all right, and I sincerely want to know what it is.

“You sure? Why’d you call the landline in the middle of the night?” Marty asks, scratching his neck. “That was your number in the records.”

She huffs out a breath. “Do you have that bugged too?”

“Nah, Gram told me.”

“I just hit the wrong button on my phone. Total accident,” she says, holding her hands up.

She doesn’t look mad, but she’s definitely agitated, raising even more questions.

Marty shakes his head at her.

“For the record, the house isn’t bugged. Nothing but common sense safety measures I put in place when Gram insisted on turning this old place into Amelia’s. Reinforced locks and sensors for the doors, windows, and sensitive areas.” He looks at me. “Maybe you should look at rigging those up for Faye’s house.”

I shake my head.

“I suggested it, but she’s afraid she’ll forget if there are too many codes involved. I’ll have to see what Faulk has in mind.”

“Are there motion sensors anywhere else?” Shelly asks.

“Nope. Again, Gram was worried over customer privacy, but you’ve seen the little outdoor camera by the front door.” Marty eyes her curiously, raking a hand through his hair. “What’s up?”

“Nothing,” she insists. “Those are just things I should know, don’t you think?”

Both Marty and I ping on her insistence, a bit too firm and yet not quite genuine.

“Guess so,” Marty says.

She rolls her eyes at him and walks away.

We both watch her retreat and share a slow look before I follow him outside.

As soon as we step out of the door, he asks, “Is it just me or is she acting funny?”

“Damn right,” I throw back.

“I wonder...since she won’t tell me, maybe she’d explain more to you?”

My brows fly up. “What makes you think that? You’re her brother, Marty.”

“Exactly. You aren’t her big bro. You’re just her friend, and she still trusts you the same way she did in the good dope days.”

I stare through him, wishing like hell that was true.

Marty might be a good man, but he’ll never win any awards for being observant anytime this century.

He gives me a parting nod as he starts down the steps. “Let me know what you find out.”

Once he’s out of earshot, I huff out a breath and walk back inside.

I’m her fucking friend, all right. Barely.

No doubt there’s something happening that she’s being tight-lipped about, though, and I have a gut feeling it may involve their smarmy, womanizing guest.

I’ve got to figure this shit out and keep out of breaching any friend zones I shouldn’t.

We’re friends.

Friends.

And I try like hell to drive the meaning of that word through my skull. I should also be crystal clear on what it doesn’t mean, too.

No laughing over banana pancakes alone.

No heart-twisting trips down memory lane.

No flirting.

Definitely no eyes on her lips.

No killing glances at her moon of an ass that makes me break out in a cold sweat when I imagine how it’d feel in my hands.

Abso-fucking-lutely no wandering lips.

As I pull myself together, I wonder when friendships like this became so hard.

* * *

I find Shel in the sitting room a few minutes later, talking with Faye and Thelma.

“I’m heading home, ladies,” I tell them. “Gotta fix the hole Hercules made in his latest jailbreak with something more permanent. Want to come with me, Shel? You can pick up that scrapbook.”

“Of course she does,” Thelma answers for her. “No need to have a girl as young as Shelly Bean joining in our dirty little fantasies about Andrew the weatherman.”

“Gram!” Shelly hisses as I try not to shudder.

If Andrew from Channel Six News ever wants his own personal harem, he’s got his pick of every woman over fifty in this town.

“See? You’re not old enough for this conversation, dear,” Thelma says. “Run along now.”

“Tell Hercules I’ll walk over later to say hello!” Faye calls after me.

Shelly stands up and nods at me. “Fine, I’m coming. I do want to check out that scrapbook.”

I figured that would seal the deal, Andrew yuck factor aside.

She also tells Faye that she’ll deliver her message to Hercules personally with a few evening treats. As I head for the front door, she touches my arm and says, “We can go out the back.”

“My truck’s out front.”

“Yeah, but you can drive it home later.”

It’s been years and she hasn’t changed that much. Neither have I when it comes to her, and knowing there’s something gnawing at her eats at me.

“All right. Later it is,” I say, hoping she’ll tell me what’s on her mind.

We’ve barely stepped through the back door and off the stairs when her foot crunches something. She makes a disgusted face and reaches down to lift it off the ground.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Just an empty bag. Trash.”

It’s nearly shredded, mangled like it’s been chewed. I’ve got one guess how.

“Looks like Herc got a hold of it. What was it?”

Slowly, she turns it over, and her nose wrinkles again.

“Bleh. Some really unholy almonds, I think.” She tucks it in her back pocket. “I’ll throw it away at your house.”

Thelma’s garbage cans are out near the parking area. I know because I’ve carried her trash out for years.

Weird.

Regardless, I nod and let a companionable silence settle over us as we walk together. I don’t attempt to break it by asking what’s going on. I need her to feel more at ease before I bring that up.

Meanwhile, the world’s loneliest pig sees us coming and races to the side of the pen before we arrive. He sticks his pudgy snout through the boards and snorts like he means business.

“Such a good bebe!” Shel gushes.

While she gives the pig Faye’s message and tells him he really needs to stay inside if he wants her to keep bringing him breakfast, I climb over the pen and head for the barn.

“What are you doing?”

“Getting a shovel to cover the hole he left,” I answer.

She climbs over the pen. “Wait up, I’ll help.”

“Get right back over that fence,” I tell her, throwing her a look over my shoulder. “You’re wearing white pants and they won’t stay that way if you don’t.”

“Oh, I can bleach them.”

My eyes flick to the sandals on her feet.

For a hot second, I imagine those toes with their candy-red nails curling against my shoulders while I drive into her like I mean to break her. I see her face contorted, whimpering, coming apart real sweet for me with every hammering stroke of my—

“Jesus, West. Don’t worry. I can wash my feet, too.” She marches right past me into the barn and grabs a shovel before I can stop her.

“Brat,” I spit, rubbing my eyes so they don’t glue themselves to her ass permanently.

It does nothing to bleach away the filthy thoughts cluttering my head.

Neither does her signature grin when she looks at me.

“Come on then, let’s get this done,” I say, shaking my head because I know she’s too stubborn and there’s no sense in arguing.

We fill in the hole together, talking mainly about Hercules and some pointers she read online about pig taming. Twenty minutes later, with the oinker satisfied by a few big carrots I had lying around, we head into the house.

I’m amazed she escapes without smudging her ivory-white jeans or muddying her feet.

A crinkling noise tells me she drops the shredded bag from her pocket in the trash before heading to the kitchen sink to wash her hands. While she’s occupied, I pluck the bag out of the garbage and tuck it away in my mail holder for a better look later.

“Nice setup you’ve got, West. I don’t remember being inside your house much before,” she says while drying her hands.

That’s because I rarely invited anyone over when we were kids.

I never knew if my parents would be sleeping off their latest overtime shifts or bickering from the stress or just not talking to each other. They even went through a couple spats where they thought about divorce.

Fortunately, it never came to that. Dad finding a career change as a real estate agent later in life did a lot to defuse their stress.

It wasn’t the friendliest environment growing up, especially compared to the easy laughs and endless trays of homemade food with the Simons. Having her over wasn’t something I wanted to subject her to when she and Marty had already lost so much and found a certain sunlight they deserved in their grandparents.

I move to the sink to wash my hands as she steps aside.

“It’s not much, but it’s home. I’ve done some remodeling and made the place mine since I bought it off my folks,” I tell her.

“Not much? I like it. It’s you, but it still has that old country charm like most places around here. Our house had that before Gram spruced it up to become Amelia’s.” She walks through the kitchen and into the living room. “She did a great job. It’s beautiful, sure, but the more I’m there...I dunno. It doesn’t feel quite like home anymore. Not the home I remember, anyway.”

“That’s because you’re a hardass for old junk. You don’t like change when it comes to history, including your own.” I dry my hands and lean against the counter, staring into her soft green eyes.

“Well...maybe you’re right.” She walks further into my living room, taking a closer look at my décor. “Like these old wood-burning fireplaces. I love how so many old homes have them.”

I follow her, my eyes drinking her in with her back turned.

I swear to God Almighty my fingers itch to grab that ass. I shove my hands in my pockets so I don’t do anything stupid, like a greedy kid resisting a lost twenty on the ground.

“They aren’t as efficient as furnaces, and most modern fireplaces are gas now. They do well enough with the aesthetic, but you’re right, it’s not the same vibe. Not much different from cars now,” I grind out. I’m always up for rattling off a litany of problems with most vehicles that rolled off their assembly lines since 2000.

“C’mon. Half the people in this town must be bringing you twenty or thirty year old junkers to fix. We don’t even need a car show to see some classics.” She laughs, her nose scrunching up adorably. “I can tell you’ve put a lot of work into this place, though, just like your shop. I’ll have to stop by sometime.”

I nod proudly. There’s no denying the obvious.

The weathered bluestone fireplace is one of my favorite upgrades. Marty helped me throw it together over a case of beer and a long weekend job.

Overall, the place is in decent shape. I’ve been planning to finish repainting some rooms, but still haven’t gotten around to it.

Remembering why she’s here, I gesture to the built-in bookcase on the far wall.

“The scrapbook should be around here somewhere.” I pause just as I start looking when my phone buzzes. I’d left a message for Faulk as we were driving home from Faye’s and now he’s calling me back. “It’s Faulk. Check out the top corner by the engine manuals. You can’t miss it.”

She nods and I step away to answer the phone.

While explaining the situation to Faulk, I watch her from a distance. She stretches to retrieve the thick scrapbook on the top shelf and ferry it to the sofa.

“Weston, my man, I’m thinkin’ if we wire up your aunt’s perimeter right quick plus the house, we’ll catch anybody stupid enough to come prowling around for a return trip...” I listen to Faulk go off about security systems in his Oklahoma twang and techno-jargon worthy of the former federal agent he used to be.

I take his recommendations to heart and agree to meet him over at Faye’s tonight so he can figure out what he’ll need and get it ordered.

“Care for something to drink while you flip through it?” I ask Shel after hanging up.

She’s sitting cross-legged on the sofa, smiling down at the thick book in her lap, already fully engrossed in the distant past.

“Yes, please! Whatever you have on hand. This stuff is amazing, by the way. Have you read everything?” She looks at me with excitement flickering in watery green eyes.

“Some of it,” I answer with a shrug, grabbing two bottles of a dark root beer from the fridge.

“I think you’ve got more pics of the Three Musketeers than anybody! I see your grandpa Larry, my grandpa, and Jonah Reed when they were about your age. They’re so dapper, all dressed up for what must be the day they went to Minot to catch the train. They were off to the Korean War. There’s so many pics of them overseas later on...”

Walking into the living room, I answer, “Oh, yeah. I do remember those war photos.”

I unscrew the lids on the bottles and hand her one.

She takes a swig and I watch her swirl it against her tongue with too much amusement.

After a second, she decides she likes the spice well enough and swallows.

“Dang, that’s rich.”

“Yep. Special brew from our resident movie star and his butler. Barnet Farms started making soda to go along with their beef business and his father-in-law’s pumpkins now. I think you’d enjoy talking to Tobin the butler since he’s a history freak like you. He’s always got his nose stuck in a brick of a book. I asked him about this doorstopper he was carrying around about the French Revolution once at the bar...dude gave me nightmares about getting my head chopped off by psychos for the next month.”

She laughs.

Goddamn, do I love that sound, far more than I should.

“European history is cool, but my interests have always been closer to home,” she says softly, setting the bottle down on the coffee table. “Did you read the letters?”

I have to be honest. “No.”

“You didn’t?” She looks appalled, and it’s annoyingly cute.

“Never had the time.”

“Weston! There are even a few here that your grandfather wrote for your grandma, and more letters she wrote back. They’re beautiful...like we’re talking romance movie material. You should read them.”

“I will,” I promise, taking a long pull of my beer.

I’m not much for fluff but I guess it’d be interesting since it’s my family.

She laughs. “When you’re not sucking down pop, you mean?”

“When I have the time.”

She pats the sofa beside her anxiously.

“Come here, I’ll fill you in. Especially this one from your grandma, you have to hear it. Hang on...” She flips back a few pages. “Here it is.” Running a finger along the writing, she says, “She’s telling your grandpa about several other guys from Dallas who also left for the war, and how practically every business is being run by their wives, sisters, and mothers. Even the feed store. Listen to what she wrote. Mable Anderson got so frustrated with having to carry the heavy bags of feed and grain! Would you believe she and her daughters built themselves a conveyor belt? Now they just load the bags, right on top of carpet she tore out of her house. They sit on the bike she connected to the belt. As the rider pedals, the belt turns and drops the bags into the back of the trucks backed up to the loading dock. It’s so ingenious the newspaper wrote an article about it. We’re all betting Elmer will keep on using it after he gets home.” Shelly sighs, blinking at me. “Isn’t that amazing? And look here, it’s the article from the newspaper she mentioned.”

“That was pretty smart,” I admit, leaning closer to skim the newspaper clipping that’s yellowed with age.

Too close. Damn, she smells so good, like rain and flowers tussled up in the wind.

Of course she does.

From the moment I sat down, I’ve caught hints of her perfume—or maybe it’s her shampoo. Whatever the case, that scent fills my nostrils and my head.

“His letter back talks about how much he misses her cooking, and how sometimes when he goes to the mess hall, he closes his eyes and pretends it’s her pork chops and fried potatoes he’s eating.” She sighs again. “Isn’t that sweet?”

She would think so.

“Sure, just don’t read that shit to Hercules.”

Her laugh bubbles up softly before she turns a serious gaze on me.

“What were your meals like in the Army?”

I tense harder than a board.

Processed protein slag and metallic-tasting coffee singes my tongue. Applesauce and oats that had the consistency of sawdust. The MREs did their job keeping us fed and alive, but you’d be hard-pressed to find the vet who missed ’em.

My mouth burns, and so do my ears a few seconds later, remembering the only thing about the grub I truly miss—the bawdy laughs of men and women I shared too many bad meals with.

Men and women who choked that shit down as their last meals.

Hellfire. Screaming. Smoke. Blood.

Why the fuck wasn’t it me? Why was I so lucky when I didn’t have a family or a sick little brother to come home to or a fiancée or a dog rescue or—

The vodka. The pain. The vomit.

The broken teeth I deserved after picking a fight with four grizzled bikers sporting Grizzlies MC patches behind my uncle’s bar.

He never knew; he never knew how sick I really was, how utterly and completely fucking broken I still am, how I wanted to fucking die because I didn’t over there—

I cough into my hand, snapping me back to the present.

Clearly, I don’t want to breathe a word about Afghanistan. Ever.

But I can’t have her staring at me like a lunatic.

“The meals were about as basic as you’d guess, but they weren’t always horrible. I’m sure a lot’s changed since Korea.” I point to the scrapbook. “What else did you find in here?”

Her eyes linger on me with concern before she flips through a couple more pages.

“Look, here’s another article from when the guys came home. It’s your grandpa, mine, and Jonah with their wives at the train station, plus what looks like the whole town turning out to greet them.” She holds the book up closer. “It’s hard to make out their faces, but by matching the names below the picture and counting heads...I think it’s this group right here.”

There are so many people in the faded sepia picture.

Their faces are small and grainy, and it’s hard to make out distinct features, other than the mile-wide grins everybody appears to be sporting.

“They look happy.” I hover my finger over two tiny silhouettes twined in each other’s arms. “That’s definitely my grandparents. My ma found a few more pics with them wearing the same outfits when I was cleaning this place out with Uncle Grady and shipping some stuff they’d left behind. I think they took more photos that day than they did for their own wedding.”

“Oh, my, I’m sure they did. It was a big deal to have your husband come home alive. So many folks weren’t that lucky...” She runs a sympathetic finger over the faces in the pictures. “Who met you when you got back?”

My throat turns into the Sonora Desert.

“Uh...I guess I never told anyone I was coming home. I just did. Marty might’ve picked me up from the base in Minot,” I admit, thinking how amazing it would have been to have her there.

Or how hellish.

How long could I have even talked to her like a human being with death haunting my brain and demons in my blood? Always thirsty for more, more of that medicine in the bottle, hissing in my head, promising they’d make me forget if I just kept them quenched—

I cough again, this time for real.

“Weston? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, fuck. Just swallowed my root beer wrong,” I grind out, thumping my chest for emphasis.

No, it wouldn’t have been good at all to have her around the day I came home.

I wouldn’t have had a prayer of hiding the smoldering wreck I’d become, or the lonely spiral into booze that started my first day home with a whiskey pint.

Shit, I’m barely hiding it now when I’m “healed” and sober...

“Uncle Grady took me in till we wrapped up the deal with my parents for the house and I started moving in,” I say.

She stares at me longer than I like, her soft lips twisted in a frown.

I offer her a stone-cold look like it’s nothing.

I don’t want the sympathy or the questions swirling in her eyes, but I can’t tear my gaze off them. Or off her lips, damn her.

She’s glancing at my mouth, too, and the air between us bristles, becoming more charged by the second.

I can’t kiss her, but fuck, I’ve never wanted to kiss a girl so badly in my life.

“I’m glad your uncle and Marty were there for you,” she says. “But why didn’t you tell anyone else?”

Why didn’t you write? I can hear the question she’s asking, but not asking in the back of my mind.

I glance away, feeling like I’ve just been dowsed with freezing water.

Moving into an empty house and living with bad memories alone was brutal.

Sure, I could’ve gone to my parents in Arizona to get my head straight, but they were both caught up in their new lives. I didn’t want to be a downer to them. To anyone.

“It wasn’t a big deal. My time serving was done and I had a lot to catch up on here, like getting my garage off the ground. I didn’t have one at first, just took odd jobs from whoever needed a quick fix or a tow. But soon I had folks beating down my door when word of mouth spread, and I realized I had just enough customers to pay the bills.” I’m rambling about my work, fighting like hell to change the subject. I take a swig off my soda, which suddenly tastes too much like battery acid. “You can take that book home if you want. Go through it at your leisure, make whatever copies, and enjoy.”

That wins me a smile, happy but tinged with sadness.

“I’d love to. Are you sure?”

“I wouldn’t dream of disappointing my favorite little book nerd,” I say, smirking.

She closes the book with a shy look and a roll of her eyes. “What did Faulk say about Faye’s place?”

“I’m meeting him over there soon. He’ll help me figure out better options in person.”

“You can eat supper with us before you go,” she offers.

My heart throbs darkly behind my ribs.

“No. You already served up breakfast and that’s—”

“You liked it so much you’re coming back? Great,” she finishes for me, unfolding her legs and sliding her feet in the sandals on the floor in front of the couch. “I have to cook something for Gram and Faye, so one more mouth won’t matter.” She stands. “Come on, mister.”

Sensing something’s off, I catch her hand as I stand up.

A small gasp falls out of her.

Tightening my hold, I say, “Wanna tell me what the hell happened last night? You act like you don’t want to be alone at your Gram’s place, and suddenly you want me around...why?”

“I...what? Um, nothing.”

I know she’s lying. I just can’t figure out why.

The look I flash her says she’s busted.

“How could I be alone, West? Gram’s there all the time, and so is Faye for at least a few days. Marty pops in all the time too,” she explains nervously. “And they’ll want dinner before long—you know how early old folks like to eat around here—so I need to get home.”

I stroke the inside of her wrist with my thumb and whisper, “I can’t help you if I don’t know how.”

She glances away like she can’t stand to look at me.

“Shel?”

She’s breathing too hard, and so am I.

We’re both dancing around secrets and I already know how it ends.

A spectacular disaster when somebody’s secrets erupt.

It’s just a matter of when.

11

Hog Tied (Rachel)

I want to tell him that I thought Carson was in the sitting room last night so bad.

I really do.

But I can’t.

If I come begging for help over something that could be so silly, I haven’t changed. Haven’t grown up one lick.

If I tell him, it means I still need him to come flying to my rescue like he’s my other big brother.

No way. Not again. Never.

We’ve actually had a normal day even with all the worrisome excitement—and even though he’s still a savagely handsome sight for sore eyes.

This is how I want to be around West. A grown-up woman he respects enough to help with grown-up interests like town history.

Not a walking mess from awkward dates that make me think the worst. Particularly about a guest who’s a bit of an oddball with an appalling taste in snacks, but that doesn’t make him a criminal.

I want Weston to keep seeing adult me—not the kid who needs constant rescuing.

I think the break-in at Faye’s went to my head, too. I’m making more out of the noises I heard last night than I should. For all I know, it wasn’t even the door I heard shut.

I also know Weston. And whatever guarded, sad soldier he’s become, he’s still built from solid granite.

If I send him chasing after my worries, he won’t give up, bloodhound that he is.

Anything I say has to sound legitimate and backed up with hard proof before I bring it to him.

Then there’s the way he’s holding my hand, rubbing my wrist with his thumb, flinging my thoughts straight into the ether.

Ugh. I wish adult me came with a special off switch for obsessing over bright-blue eyes and hips that look sculpted to blow my back out.

“It’s just Gram,” I say, racking my brain for excuses. “I’m worried about her. What if she was up last night, walking around and I didn’t hear her? What if she fell or something happened? Speaking of security systems, maybe I should have that app Marty has on my phone. If she fell, she’d be right back in the hospital.”

That’s not just an excuse, it’s a real concern. The doctors warned that her falling was the number one thing to watch out for after hip surgery.

“I’m sure Marty can get it on your phone. If you’re worried about having another person to look after, Faye can stay with me,” he says.

That’s the last thing I want.

With another guest, Carson wouldn’t dare come creeping around...would he?

“No, they’re having a ball. Let’s not ruin it. Having Faye there will help both of them, I think. Friends keep Gram busy and relaxed, which means she’ll relax and won’t try to do as much. And you know as well as I do Faye needs the company after what happened...”

“Fine. I can believe keeping Thelma down isn’t easy,” he says with a smile.

I’m glad he believes me.

“It’s not easy, but I have to respect her pride. She’s so used to helping others, offering hospitality at the B&B. It’s what she’s always done. Nurturing. Whether it’s me or Marty or the guests who need it, and I think she’ll only give that up when she’s breathed her last. Once her hip feels better, she’ll be back to her old self.” I shrug. “It’s just the transition that’s tough on her.”

“And tough on you,” he adds.

“No, not really.” I feel guilty using Gram as an excuse, but at the same time, saying it out loud makes me realize how much I’ve worried about her. “I just...I keep thinking about leaving again. Leaving her alone after everything is good and I’m back in Washington for work.”

He’s quiet for a moment, then says, “She won’t be alone. Marty’s here and so am I. Even Sheriff Drake’s only a quick call away if she needs him.”

That just dredges up more guilt.

“I know, and I appreciate both of you more than you’ll ever know. But that’s a lot to put on your shoulders.”

“It’s nothing. If people weren’t neighborly, it wouldn’t be Dallas, and that’d be a damn shame.” He turns, tugging my hand. “We’d better get back over there.”

“Right. Thanks again for letting me borrow the scrapbook. I can’t wait to dig through everything.”

That’s an epic understatement.

I’m honestly bouncing out of my skin to read more of it.

I think I would’ve parked myself on his couch all night doing exactly that if it wasn’t for dinner.

Dallas history has always made me geek out ever since Gram and Grandpa sparked my interest. Looking through the book reminds me just how rich in history this whole community is.

It’s easy to forget how much I’ve missed that when I’m away, living in a city where the fate of the world was decided at times.

The Smithsonian should vastly overshadow all the footnote history here in this dusty little North Dakota town.

But D.C. doesn’t have stories about my family and their great grandparents. It doesn’t have the laughter, the tears, the animated memories that come flooding back whenever I sit down and talk about the past with folks I’ve known for most of my life.

I have roots here, dammit, and maybe those roots are why I’ve always felt a little restless through college and then in my internship. Like I couldn’t quite get my bearings, no matter how many glowing recommendations I won from professors and bosses.

Weston opens the door for me to step outside. “Tell me if you find anything really interesting.”

I stop and stare at him dead-faced.

“It’s all interesting, Weston. That’s like asking me to pick a newborn kitten from a litter.”

He snorts. “I think you’d choose books over anything with fur, Shel.”

Snickering, I cover my mouth.

“I mean, we’re basically sharing pig duty, so the pet thing is covered,” I say. “Is there really anything wrong with loving books?”

We’re walking down the steps and I hate how much I wish he’d take my hand again.

“There’s not.” He bumps my shoulder with his upper arm. “There’s never been anything wrong with you, either, no matter how huge of a frigging dork you are.”

Cue my face on fire.

I laugh, straining my belly, hoping it helps hide the blush.

“Thanks, I guess. Also, I...I think that’s the first real compliment I’ve had from you since I came home.”

“Is it?” He throws me a sidelong glance.

“Yes, and you know it.” I slug his shoulder playfully.

We both laugh, only stopping when we’re near Hercules’ pen. I reach through the boards and stroke his head as he approaches.

“Remember the deal, buddy. You stay put or no breakfast scraps,” I say.

Herc squeals back agreeably, like I’ve put the fear of God in him by threatening to withhold potato peels and old cereal.

“Glad you double majored in pig psychology,” West jokes. “I’ll admit, I’m fine taking all the help I can get with that boy.”

With a final pat for Herc, we cut across the yard between his barn and the back of ours at Gram’s place.

I wonder why we’re still even calling them both barns.

Once, they were active farm buildings, but his never really held animals until recently with the single stable he connects to Herc’s pen with a little door. Ours always housed Grandpa’s cars and miscellaneous collectibles.

Weston pauses and falls behind me.

“Is that another one of those bags?” he asks.

I follow his eyes to the ground.

Sure enough, something tightens in my stomach when I see it fluttering in the darkness.

Another empty bag of almonds, almost shredded.

What the hell?

Just how many of those abominable snacks does Carson Hudson work through in a week? The bags aren’t big, about the size of a candy bar wrapper or a bag of nuts, but...

...why is he dropping empty bags all over the place?

Once is a mistake, but finding several like this just seems rude. And odd, honestly.

They could’ve escaped the B&B’s trash, I guess, though we bag up everything before we put it in the garbage. It wouldn’t have blown back here, either. The wind would have to be raging for that to happen, and we haven’t had that kind of big October windstorm yet.

We walk to it and Weston picks it up. “Dammit. Herc must’ve gotten a hold of this one too. I hope he wasn’t rummaging around in your trash.”

I hadn’t thought of that, though I doubt it.

“We should check. I wouldn’t want him to get sick eating something from there.”

“He’s never done that before,” Weston says. “I fill his trough up with feed after you give him scraps in the mornings.”

Some days, there’s still a small amount of feed in the trough leftover, so I know the pig can’t be so hungry he’d go rampaging after covered trash. Unless that’s just something the little hellraiser decides to do.

We check both cans by the parking lot, but there’s nothing out of sorts.

No obvious dents or scuffs or chew marks.

They’re both upright with their lids latched down tight, and none of the trash bags inside them are torn.

“I’ve never heard of infused almonds before. This stuff smells like a ten-year-old fart,” Weston says as he drops the shredded bag inside one can.

“They’re kinda gross,” I say, laughing. “To each their own.”

“They weren’t yours?”

“No way—gag.” I make a comical face like I’m choking so I don’t have to explain further.

There’s no good reason to remind him of that night he got all growly over a bad date.

Or perhaps it’s because I don’t want to show him I’m freaking out over total nothingburgers.

“I did try one once. They taste as good as they smell and I spit it right out,” I tell him.

“Not sure Herc would agree. You saw how he bowled that dude over going after those things. They’re pungent enough to get him riled up.”

I nod and offer a grin, but still feel weird about Carson.

Something isn’t hitting right.

“While we’re on the subject, what do you call a laundromat for pigs?” Weston bumps my shoulder again as we’re walking to the house, pulling me from my thoughts.

I’m too slow to even groan at what’s coming, and ask him numbly, “I don’t know, what?”

“Hogwash.” He pauses. “Did you really not guess it?”

I burst out laughing, stopping midstep.

“Oh, man, that’s bad. I think your jokes have gotten worse since you were a teenager.”

“Bull. You laughed your ass off, Shel. Don’t even try to deny it.”

“Duh, because it’s so stupid. Are you channeling the spirits of every lame dad in Dallas?”

“Don’t know. Do I look like a daddy to you?” he growls.

Oh.

Ohhh, snap.

I whip my eyes away, hoping he doesn’t notice how I bite my lip as my brain cartwheels off to places that are way more serious—and filthier—than any dad joke.

“What do you get when you cross a pig and a cactus?” he says without skipping a beat.

I stare at him blankly.

“Do I want to know?”

“A porky-pine,” he answers flatly.

So. It was nice knowing you.

Because if Weston Idiot McKnight’s devilish looks don’t bury me first, his atrocious sense of humor surely will.

* * *

We’re still laughing and ribbing each other ten minutes later when we walk into Amelia’s.

Naturally, I make him repeat his painful jokes for Gram and Aunt Faye. They demand to know why we’re laughing until we can’t see.

The jokes make them double over in their seats, cackling like witches at the end of the world.

When I ask if they’re ready for food, Gram starts to get up to help.

Weston kindly urges her to stay put, insisting she and Faye are both guests tonight, and he’ll help me fix dinner.

After mulling over our options, we settle on soup and sandwiches.

My eyes stare too long at his broad shoulders as he raids the fridge for fixings while I go to work on the chicken wild rice soup, pausing to turn on the oven so I can get one more batch of cookies going for any late-night pop-ins.

Oatmeal raisin this time because I know Creepy Carson hates them.

Yeah, that’s rude of me, but if he’s been carelessly throwing his trash around our property...I’m not inclined to do him any favors.

The littering habit makes me wonder if he’s the spiteful kind of prick who retaliates when a woman rejects him.

There’s no shortage of royal asshats in the dating world like that.

Luckily, Weston pulls my mind off those worries as we prep everything together. Chopping, stirring, chattering, and trading memories comes too easy.

We fall into this relaxed routine, teasing each other like we did years ago.

“Are you some sort of celebrity chef? I’m not sure if Gram’s ever seen a sandwich like that in all her years.” I gesture to the skyscraper clubs he’s assembling with every sliced meat, cheese, and savory sauce on hand.

“What? Did you just want a slice of ham slapped between two pieces of bread with a dab of mayo?” he swipes at the air.

“No, but I wasn’t expecting masterpieces. You make ’sandwich artist’ seem like more than a corporate-y rebranded job title.”

“Nothing but the finest for Amelia’s kitchen, right?” He tosses a lettuce leaf at me.

I catch it and giggle while dropping it in the bowl for Hercules before I turn to stir the soup. “Seriously, where’d you learn to make sandwiches like that?”

“Uncle Grady’s bar, mostly.” He gestures at himself with the knife he’s using to cut the ingredients. “I can do more than sling drinks and patch up cars. Putting in the extra hours there has made me a better cook. Billman, the cook, loves to show off whenever he’s got an audience, and I try to learn what I can.”

“You don’t say?” I tease. “That’s great. I learned a few things from roommates, but nothing like your skills.”

“You live, you learn. And don’t count yourself short, that goat-milk caramel or whatever it was made those pancakes bomb,” he says, picking up two plates. “I’ll take these to the dining room and tell them to come get it since the soup’s almost done.”

I ladle out four bowls of piping hot wild rice soup, and follow along with the bowls balanced on an old silver tray.

Soon, we’re all in the dining room with more laughs and conversation flowing. Our conversation turns to the scrapbook, and I think we both delight at how Faye and Gram go back and forth like songbirds, lost in the past as they belt out stories about the old Dallas they remember.

The one about the pissed off Texans who took issue with us “copying” their big-city name makes me laugh so hard I have to put down my spoon. Apparently, in the seventies they even stormed a council meeting demanding a name change, only to be run out of town by a pitchfork mob supported by a herd of buffalo kept by a local farmer.

Turns out, we’ve got half the oil and all the heart of a sister city that’s five hundred times bigger.

By the end, it ranks up there with the best meal I’ve ever had.

So much like old times it makes my heart hurt.

I like having this closeness with Weston again, this friendship that’s actually, well...friendly again.

If only it didn’t come with some major baggage, along with a slow drifting crush that pulls me under the harder it hits.

No exaggeration. He’s still the hottest guy I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Tonight, he’s wearing a tight grey t-shirt with a fisherman on it and the words Hooked on Lake Superior. He must’ve picked it up on a trip to Minnesota with Marty I heard about earlier this year.

How fitting.

If we didn’t have to dance around our feelings—if I didn’t know I’d be leaving this little town—I’m sure I’d have a dumb joke for him.

Because West hooked me years ago.

He’s hooked me now, every time I see his smile, his slabs for biceps, his perfectly square shoulders, and that wall of a chest with abs you could iron on.

Sweet Jesus.

All of him makes me want to sigh with wonder.

He’s grown up tremendously since leaving Dallas, and I just wonder why he’s so tight-lipped about his time in the service that must’ve taught him so much.

Every time I bring it up, I feel a heady change in attitude.

I catch the haunting look that bleeds in his eyes.

Sure, he covers it quickly, acting like it’s nothing, but it’s a very big something.

He leaves shortly after we’re through eating to meet Faulk. With little else needing my attention, I sit down with the scrapbook while Gram and Faye play a game of cards.

A while later, one of the old photos catches my eye. It’s not like the others, a faded color photo of the aging musketeers holding up these weird rocks and smiling like they just struck gold.

But Dallas was never a big mining town—not like Heart’s Edge or Ursa or other (in)famous places a few hundred miles west of here.

I carry the book to the table and wait for them to stop fussing over who’s beating who before I fire off my question.

“This picture caught my eye and I had to ask...just what are the men holding? Do either of you remember?”

They both take a long, slow glance at the book.

“Oh, my. I’d forgotten all about that. Those are the meteorites they found,” Faye says, laughing.

“Meteorites?” I repeat.

“Not quite,” Gram says, wagging a finger. “Those things just looked like space rocks. The three of them were out at Big Fish Lake one day and Jonah came across a rock he thought was a meteorite. You remember how wild he could get with his ideas...heck, this place might not be called Amelia’s if his notions about Miss Earhart hadn’t rubbed off on Doug.”

She pauses while Faye laughs.

“Anywho, by the time they got home, they were all worked up, insisting they’d found themselves a nice haul of moonrocks or something to sell. I told your granddad they were just regular rocks, Shelly Bean, but he insisted they have them checked. They even got some NASA bigwig scientist to visit, Mark something-or-other.”

My brows shoot up as she pauses for effect. How have I never heard this story before?

“Turns out, I was right! Nothing but a funny rock formation spat up by the lake that year. We were having a bad drought and the water was so low. I think they kept those rocks as a funny memory anyway. Doug’s is still down in the basement.”

“Larry’s went to Grady, I think, but he didn’t want them hanging around the girls in case they started throwing them around or something,” Faye says. “He gave his to me years ago. They’ve sat on that old bookshelf I had Weston carry out to the garage ever since, and I’ll bet Bella Larkin has the one Jonah found. Or maybe it’s still at Earhart Oil for all I know. Jonah kept it in his office, you know. The three of them laughed their butts off about bringing home those rocks all the time.”

“I remember!” Gram yells. “It was always something when those guys got together. That time it was just rocks. Nothing like the time they all brought home motorcycles...”

“Like the old one in the garage?” I ask with a smile.

“The one and only. The other two sold theirs, I think. Doug never did, but we rode it every so often in the summertime.” Gram sighs. “I truly don’t know what I’d do without Weston taking care of Doug’s cars. They meant so much to him.”

She still misses him.

Every freaking day.

Hearing it breaks my heart, but I’m so grateful for the memories. It also reminds me just how much West has always helped our family.

I carry the book back to the couch and sit down again, but it’s too hard to get back into reading, straining to make out faded newspaper clippings.

For whatever reason, that fake meteorite story doesn’t sit right with me.

Almost feels like I’m forgetting something...

Who else mentioned meteorites lately?

Wait.

Didn’t Creepy Carson blab something about it? Something about an uncle who was deep into them in between trying to impress me with all his other crap?

On a whim, I walk to the front desk and wake the computer. I open my social media, swearing at a certain Facebooger for flagging my latest post about Amelia Earhart visiting Dallas as misinformation.

I don’t use social media very often outside managing Amelia’s business page and Insta, but I pull up Faye’s name and find her old For Sale posts, which I know she cross-posted there.

They aren’t just local.

She must’ve slipped up somehow and posted her items for sale in a national antiques group.

I pull up her pictures, twisting my lips.

They’re bigger and more detailed on the computer than when I’d looked at them on her phone.

I still don’t see the old rifle anywhere, but I do notice the not-meteorites on the bookshelf she posted for sale. Hmm.

There’s even a tiny sign in front of the rock that says, Larry’s Meteorite and a date. 1975.

A slamming car door causes me to look out the window.

My stomach sinks.

Yep, speak of the devil. It’s Carson, finally dragging himself back to his room after a long day of knocking around town for collectibles.

He really doesn’t fit around here.

Not with his immaculate electric car or the dinner jacket that seems like it’s superglued to his shoulders. The same one he had on when he took me out.

Come to think of it, the only jacket I’ve ever seen him wear.

I move away from the desk and dart into the dining room before peeking around the corner, watching him enter through the front door.

He heads straight for the stairs, which helps me breathe easier.

As he steps on the staircase, I notice something sticking out of his bottom pocket.

A package of almonds with the brand’s familiar ornate looking black-and-gold logo sticking out.

Blech.

No surprise there since he lives on those things.

What does surprise me is how the package tumbles out, like the pocket isn’t big enough to contain them or might have a hole in the bottom. He doesn’t notice and keeps plodding up the stairs.

Jeez. I actually feel a little bad for thinking he was rotten enough to fling trash on our lawn.

Is that how the other bags ended up where we found them?

I hurry back to the desk, shut off the computer, and then go into the kitchen where I busy myself with deciding what to make for tomorrow’s meals. After living alone forever, it’s nice to make meals for more than just myself and the odd friend.

Looks like lasagna night tomorrow.

After doing some light prep for breakfast, I find Gram yawning like a bear and ready for bedtime. We help her get situated, and then Faye and I walk over to see Hercules one more time for the night.

“Weston sure is taking good care of my baby,” she says happily as we pet the grunting pig. “I knew they’d get along like darlings. He’s always had a soft spot for looking after animals, and people, too. That’s why that attack was so hard on him.”

Instantly concerned, I stand up from leaning down to stroke Herc.

“Attack? What attack?”

Faye stares at me, her frizzy grey hair rippling in the breeze.

“Oh, I thought you knew,” Faye says quietly. “The two of you are so close. Surely, he told you why he discharged?”

Not as close as I wish. I swallow.

“No, I don’t know. He’s been pretty private about all that and I didn’t want to intrude...”

“I see. Well, it was his unit. They were doing some sort of mission, trying to clear an area for this convoy, I think...the entire road was trapped. It was the only way in or out of some little village that was giving the Army trouble. They were dreadfully ambushed. I might be mixing things up—it was Grady who told me. He was listed as next of kin. Still, Weston was never quite the same after it. I know what you mean about the poor dear holding things in. He hates to talk about it, God bless him.”

Next of kin? But that usually means—

Holy shit.

My heart nearly blasts right out of my chest.

“Was Weston hurt? Badly?”

“Not seriously, thank heavens...they just assumed everyone perished at first. They found him pinned under some debris in a second sweep of the area. I think the fact that he walked away was harder on him than if he’d been hurt. Apparently, everyone who was with him was killed or horrifically maimed.” She sighs. “I can only imagine how hard he tried to help the injured.” She pauses again, shaking her head. “He wasn’t himself when he came home, that’s for sure. But slowly, little by little, I think he’s coming around. I’ve seen him laugh and smile more today than I’ve seen in a long time, Shelly. Thank you for that.”

My heart breaks into pebbles.

There’s so freaking much I didn’t know about that hole in his life. Didn’t even think about because I’ve been so focused on myself and avoiding drama, picking at old wounds.

Was this attack why he didn’t write? Was he just...broken?

All this time, I wanted the boy I used to know, but no matter how often his smile shines through or how much he laughs, now I know.

He’s not that West.

And I’m not sure I’m the same old Shel, either.

Where does that leave us?

“I’m sure glad you’re here,” Faye says. “For Thelma, my Weston, and my Hercules. You’re an absolute angel, Miss Rachel.”

Though I give her back a smile, I’m far from sure about that.

* * *

I’m even less sure the next morning when I climb out of bed and slip into the dark morning to take food to Hercules.

What I find stops me in my tracks.

I see him on his side. Not moving.

My heart leaps and I stumble over the fence, shouting his name, half afraid he’s dead.

He looks up groggily, like he’s trying to wake up but just can’t.

I cradle his massive head as it moves, only enough to look at me.

Oh my God.

Oh, no.

I have no idea what to do. I can barely breathe, but I manage to scream for West, hoping he’s awake and hears me, while rubbing Hercules.

“Come on, little dude, please. Show me you’re okay.”

The screen door bangs open. In a flash, Weston runs to my side, crouching beside me in the pen.

He’s a blurry mess from the tears in my eyes.

“He...he was just like this when I showed up. Barely moving,” I say, my words strangled.

Weston’s massive arm folds around me, pulling me next to him. “It’s all right. It’ll be fine. Looks like he’s breathing okay, I’m pretty sure. I’ll call the vet.”

I nod briskly. “Tell them to hurry!”

“I will.”

While he’s on the phone, I choke back sobs and keep petting Hercules, willing him to be okay as I promise him he’ll be back to stuffing his face in no time. I hope.

“Vet’s on his way,” West tells me as he kneels beside me again. “He’s only a couple miles away, so it won’t be long.”

We lock eyes and I fall into his arms, collapsing in his embrace.

I need him to be right.

I need this pig to live.

I need, more than anything, to prove that I’m not just one more bad thing short-circuiting in his hard life.

12

Don’t Pig Out (Weston)

Hercules has me scared shitless, and so does Shel.

She’s trembling from head to toe, bawling her eyes out softly but subtly.

I keep a steady arm around her, running a hand up and down her arm while we stand back to let Ronnie Winstead examine Hercules.

Flipping his stethoscope around his neck, the vet rises and walks over to us on tall, thin legs. “Have you changed his food recently?”

“No, sir,” I say.

“Well, first off,” Ronnie says, looking at Shelly. “Relax. He’s going to be fine.”

“He is? Thank God,” she whispers, falling against my chest before she faces him again. “What’s wrong with him, Doc?”

“He has what we humans would refer to as a nasty bellyache. He’s eaten something that doesn’t agree with him and it’s put him through the worst—vomiting, diarrhea, and probably one pig-sized headache. All you can do is make sure he has plenty of fresh water so he doesn’t get dehydrated. He’ll probably just lie around and recoup his strength without eating much till he feels better.”

“When will that be?” Shel asks again, her eyes big and pleading.

Now that I know Herc’s okay, it’s a little funny how much she’s babying him.

“Hmm, I’d say...twenty-four to forty-eight hours? Maybe less,” Ronnie says. “He should be right back to his old self.”

“This happened last week, too,” I say, remembering the day the pig seemed sluggish. “I almost called you then, but he was better by the next morning. Also, he wasn’t lying down like this...he just seemed off. Real lethargic and poor appetite for half the day.”

“Sure, he probably got into the same stuff. What kind of table scraps did you say you’re feeding him again? It could be fruit trees, or something. Seeds. Even apple seeds can do this to pigs.”

“No fruit trees around here I know of,” I say with a shrug. “And I’m pretty sure Thelma doesn’t have any either. Don’t think he’s eaten any seeds.”

“What about nuts? Almonds?” Shelly asks.

I tense as I remember the two bags we found, shredded by pig teeth.

“Yep, that would do it,” Rodney says. “Almonds aren’t technically nuts like most people think. They’re actually seeds off the almond tree, and they could definitely cause problems like this.” With a shrug, Rodney adds, “If you’re thinking that’s what’s got him down, be sure to keep them away from him.”

“Will do.” I gesture at the house. “Come inside so you can wash up before you leave.”

“Thanks, Weston, I appreciate that.”

Keeping an arm around Shelly’s shoulder, I guide her into the house so we can wash our hands, too.

Once inside, she goes to the bathroom on the second floor while Rodney washes in the sink next to the laundry room.

“I can pay you now or you can send me a bill,” I say later, walking him to the front door.

“No charge. It was nothing fancy and I was on my way to work,” he says. “Call me if he’s not doing better tomorrow, but I’m thinking he will be.”

“Thanks, Doc. You did me a solid.”

“Anytime.”

I close the door behind the vet, return to the kitchen, and pour two cups of coffee from the pot I started when I first heard Shelly screaming for me. I’d spent last night at the B&B. Ate supper with them and visited until well past eight o’clock before seeing Faulk.

It was the best evening I had in a long time, probably since the big bash Uncle Grady and Willow threw when they opened the cat sanctuary.

I was actually relaxed, happy, and woke up extra early just to make sure I’d catch her this morning. Before Herc gave us a scare, I planned on bringing fresh coffee out to her.

Even so, I let my doubts take over.

I was thinking about how I shouldn’t spend so much time with her when my heart hit the back of my throat with her screams.

Hearing that shit flung me back to a raw terror I haven’t felt for years.

The bathroom door creaks open and a moment later she walks into the kitchen, eyes still red-rimmed.

“Coffee?” I ask. “Might help take your mind off our boy’s tummy ache.”

She smiles, steps closer, and shakes her head. A couple hot tears start flowing again.

Shit.

I set down the cup and do the only thing I can.

Take her in my arms and hold her together.

Press her ear against my chest, hoping she finds my ticking heart comforting.

She bawls into my shirt, her fingers wandering near my waist. I rest my chin on her head and rock her back and forth, slowly, giving her time to let it all out.

“West, I’m sorry,” she says shakily. “So sorry.”

“It’s all right.” Against my better judgment, I deposit a quick kiss on top of her head. “Herc’s gonna be fine. You heard Ronnie.”

“Yeah, b-but...it’s my fault. All mine.”

“Like hell. You didn’t do anything, Shel.”

“Yes, I did,” she spits back.

I take a step back to separate us, framing her face with both hands.

“Woman, he’s a pig. He ate almonds off the ground, just like he’ll eat damn near anything. He’s not dying and he’ll live,” I say firmly.

“He...he ate those almonds at my house. They must’ve been lying around thanks to our guest.”

Her face scrunches up and I know the tears are far from over.

Hell, I don’t want that, and I can only think of exactly one way to stop them.

Her green eyes fall into mine as I slide a finger under her chin, lifting her face up.

“Look at me,” I rumble.

“W-why?” she stammers with a sniff.

For this.

The moment our lips meet, it’s like a generator blown to pieces. A hundred thousand watts of raw electricity, hot and fast and furious, so wild with sparks it welds our lips together.

Fuck.

No.

Fuck!

She gasps into my mouth and I groan back a curse. Her lips firm with surprise, then soften, giving way to the sudden attack of my tongue.

I’m no longer in control of my own body.

This kiss has its own rules, its own gravity, its own soul.

I’d be a complete fool to try to stop its energy.

Her lips are too soft. Too warm. Too perfect in every way, shape, form, and whimper.

When my tongue claims hers, soft and wet as a summer strawberry, she molds to my chest, dragging her body against mine.

I can’t separate my hot mouth from hers, even though I know full well I should.

Stumbling back a step is the only thing that saves us.

That’s what she does to me, her and her thieving, glorious lips. She knocks me upside the head and renders me fucking boneless.

I tear myself away violently, just a few inches, both of us staring in wild-eyed shock at each other, fighting to remember how to breathe.

Goddamn. My eyes slide to those ruby-red lips again with a need to bite her.

I can’t. I won’t.

But hell...one more time, maybe.

Just one more taste and then I’ll stop. I’ll pull back from the brink before we face annihilation.

It takes nearly all my willpower to crush my lips against hers, to roam her mouth every way I’ve wanted for years—fucking years—only to shove myself away.

Dammit all. My bright ideas especially.

I’m panting like a wild animal—breathing like I’m in disbelief—and for her, I want to be.

I also want it to happen again, a thousand more times.

She’s looking up at me with her face bleary red. Her eyes are full green moons.

I’m trying to come up with something sane to say, but my mind is blank, totally blown down by that kiss from heaven.

This is Rachel.

Shelly.

Shel.

The girl I never dared kiss years ago.

The girl I swore I never would because of who she is and who I am and what this shit could mean.

That hasn’t changed.

Because even if we’re grown up...even if we’re two consenting adults having a reckless moment, we’re boned to oblivion if we let this go any further.

I think that’s why we’re back to staring—gawking, really—trying to find our own breath and cooler heads.

Yeah. Good fucking luck.

To this day, I’m not sure who makes the next move.

There’s no resisting how our lips crash together again.

This time, the kiss is an absolute wrecking ball.

Hot. Napalm-drenched. Open-mouthed. Tongue on tongue. Delirium.

She tastes so luscious I could eat her morning, noon, and night. Every second makes me want to drag my mouth down her body, claim far more than her lips, spread her the fuck open and find out how sweet the rest of her must be.

Has to be.

There’s no doubt after this taste that’s stealing my sanity.

It’s all I’ve ever imagined it would be with her.

Hell, it’s so much more.

Our hands are as out of control as our lips, fused together like two desperate explorers in uncharted territory.

We’re in a race to touch every inch possible, caressing, holding on tight. It’s like we’re both afraid we’ll break if we don’t hold the other person together.

This is not a connection.

This is a sacrament, a silent vow in sin and flesh and heat I’ve never felt with another living soul.

This is an addiction, too. The more I claim her, the more I want, and the more I need.

I physically jerk back when my brain kicks in.

“Damn!” I snarl, tearing myself away. I’d have an easier time losing my own foot in a bear trap.

What the fuck is happening?

She stares after me, startled.

I back out of the kiss slowly, painfully.

I can’t have her thinking this is her fault, either.

It’s not. It’s mine.

I’m the prick who lured her in, the one who should’ve known better.

Haven’t I always? She’s not just my best friend’s little sister, and she deserves more than I can ever give her.

That’s why I deleted myself from her life. After the war, the way it poisoned me, I couldn’t ruin her.

Shel Simon deserves a better life, a better man, a better everything.

With a final quick kiss that feels too self-conscious, I yank myself away from her and put several feet between us.

Breathing hard, muscles flexed, I make myself look at her.

She lowers her lashes, digging her teeth into her bottom lip, this portrait of delicious agony.

I’m pillaging my brain for a way to make this okay because it’s too damn late to make it go away. Pretending it didn’t happen is out of the question.

Shit. What have I done?

I just wanted her to feel better. To not beat herself up over Herc and those rat shit almonds.

With a sigh, I step forward, rubbing gingerly at her arms.

“Feeling better?” I ask softly.

She smiles and looks up at me.

“Better? Huge understatement. You?”

I feel like a trillion bucks, even if I also feel like I’ve just chopped up what was left of my brain and tossed it off a cliff.

I flick the end of her nose and move to the counter without answering. We need a healthy distraction, stat.

“Have you changed your mind about coffee? I put on a fresh pot before Herc scared us pale.”

“Sure. Thank you.”

I hand her a new cup and down mine in one gulp.

There’s nothing quite like the awkwardness that hits after you’ve kissed the face off the girl who’s wanted you for half her life.

She sips hers shyly.

“So, I’m thinking Hercules ate those almonds before, too. That’s why he wasn’t feeling well.”

I refill my cup. “How do you know?”

She walks to the table and sits, setting her cup down.

“When Carson checked in, he pushed me into trying one of those dead corpse almonds. After he first showed up, I tried to hold the door for him so he could collect his stuff from his car, and that’s when Hercules came charging in like a bull. I’m not sure how, but we tumbled onto the porch and he threw his bag of almonds at Hercules in self-defense. Right about the time you arrived. By then, Hercules had gobbled up the whole bag.”

I remember clearly seeing them on the porch and how Hudson was rubbing her arms, looking at her like dinner.

How could I forget? I’d been pissed enough to sever his smug head from his body.

I hate that I ever thought she’d give a snake like Carson a second glance.

The Shelly I’ve gotten to know since their bullshit date—the one I used to know and the one sitting before me—always tells the truth.

“What about the other bags we found?” I ask.

“Yeah, I don’t know how they got around, but I’m sure they were his. Yesterday when he returned to the B&B for a little while, he headed straight upstairs, and another bag fell out of his pocket while he was walking. He didn’t notice. There must’ve been a hole in his pocket. I didn’t pick it up, but I guess he caught on eventually. It was gone a little while later.”

I know the jacket. The creep wears the same dark-blue suit coat every damn day. He’s that intent on looking like an investment banker in a town where flannel and jeans might as well be a dress code.

“The other two packages might have fallen out while he was walking around your place and blown around,” I say.

My real question is what was he doing roaming around so much?

I don’t trust his scheming ass one bit. I just wish I had a good reason to back up my gut.

“I guess so.” She shrugs one shoulder. “I don’t know, but I had no idea that they’d make Hercules so sick.”

“Pigs don’t come with instruction manuals, babe. If they did, I’d have him playing fetch by now,” I say.

She smiles and fidgets with her cup like she wants to say something else. Instead, she just stands.

“Well, I’ve had enough excitement. I need to make breakfast.”

I set my cup on the counter with a loud clink.

“I’ll walk you home.”

“You don’t have to, West, it’s only a ten-minute walk. I’m sure you need to get to work.”

“Nah, I called my helper, Rick, yesterday. Already told him I wouldn’t be in the shop this morning because I’m putting new locks on the doors at Aunt Faye’s house.”

I knew Faulk wouldn’t have everything he needed for the security system for a few days, so I decided last night that my aunt can stay at the B&B until the installation wraps up at her place.

“You’re invited to breakfast with us again,” she says. “If you want.”

Damn, that hurts.

The hopefulness in her voice, etched on her face, feels impossible to ignore. Holding in a pained sigh, I take her hand.

“Works for me. I’m starving.”

We stop by Herc’s pen long enough for me to dump some feed in the trough and make sure his water tank is fresh.

He’d gotten up and wriggled into the shade since he was in rock-mode earlier, and he gives us a few small curious-sounding grunts before we head to Amelia’s.

I scan the outside of Thelma’s barn as we walk, looking for more little bags or other weirdness, still wondering why Carson Hudson keeps hanging around.

He’s after something, all right, and it doesn’t seem like it’s about worming Shel into bed anymore.

What the fuck is his endgame?

His car sits in the parking lot, and I halfway hope he joins us for breakfast. I’ll be more than happy to let him know how off-limits this woman is.

I’ll also be glad to tell him point-blank to get out of Dallas while the getting’s good.

I don’t get a chance because he’s MIA yet again.

Like yesterday, he sneaks downstairs and out the door mid-meal.

Shelly seems relieved by that.

I’m not.

Clearly, I don’t like his sneaking around any more than I like him, but I need clues. Anything hinting at what he’s truly after.

Also, I can still see him touching her hand. That turns my insides into a pile of snake venom.

She’s too good for him.

She deserves more than human pond scum, who apparently won’t give her the time of day since she dropped him like a flaming turd.

If she doesn’t feel insulted, I do on her behalf.

And I’m past ready for words with Mr. Chucklefuck Hudson.

My attention snaps back to the table when Faye starts asking questions about what the vet had to say.

Both she and Thelma are concerned to death for Hercules and want the verdict word for word.

As soon as we’re done eating, Faye rushes over to see him. Thelma retreats to her room to get ready for the day and a therapy appointment.

“How long is Carson Hudson supposed to stay?” I ask Shelly while helping her clear the table. I can’t get that asshole out of my mind.

“He’s paid up for at least another week, so...a while,” she replies. “I’ve got a bad feeling he might not leave until November. He said he wants to see the car show.”

“Why?” I growl back, following her into the kitchen.

“He’s a big collector. He told me when he checked in. Sounds like he travels around, always zeroing in on places with obscure stuff to sell. He definitely knows what to look for.” She puts her load of dishes in the sink and reaches for mine.

I stand there, arms folded, trying to pay attention without steam erupting from my ears.

“What else?” I grind out.

“Well, he told me he found a couple old farms interested in selling off stuff he might be interested in.”

“When did he tell you that?”

She goes quiet.

“...when we were at the Purple Bobcat.”

Of course. The night I was a total ass.

I’m not sure I want to keep dwelling on that, but I also need to know everything about this dude.

Is he normally a snoop? How much has he been creeping around private areas of Amelia’s or anywhere else he doesn’t belong?

She said her concerns were about her grandmother, and I get that. I also sense she’s holding back again.

“He told me something else that night,” she says.

“What?”

“I mean, it might be nothing, but let me show you...” She waves for me to follow her out of the kitchen again.

I do, hating how easily my eyes stick to her.

She’s wearing blue jean shorts today with frayed edges that show off her long legs. Plus, a purple top with short sleeves and a hem that stops just below the waistband of her jeans.

I can’t rip my gaze off her delectable peach of an ass as we walk.

So this is how it feels to be a toy dog on a short leash.

We end up in the lobby and I watch her login to the computer.

“So, while we were talking, Carson told me about this uncle of his who died while looking for a meteorite,” she says. “I didn’t think much about anything he said until I was going through the scrapbook last night. Did you know our grandfathers and Jonah Reed found some weird rocks by the lake one time? Thelma and Faye said the guys thought they were meteorites—they even got them tested and everything—but they weren’t.”

Huh?

It takes me a hot minute to make my mind focus. Other parts of my anatomy aren’t reined in so easily.

One angry part of me remembers too well what it lost.

What it felt like having her in my arms, what I could’ve taken too easily, and it makes my jeans suffocating right now.

“West, are you listening?” she snaps, turning her head with this irritated frown.

Damn, she’s too adorable right now.

I suck in a fortifying breath.

“Yeah. Thinking back, I’m sure I knew about the rocks they found. Aunt Faye told me about my grandfather’s rock when I moved the shelf. She brings up that story every couple years, I think.”

Shelly nods, frantically scrolling through pictures on the screen.

“Check this out. It’s a different listing that wasn’t on the phone when she showed you and Drake. It might not mean anything but...look what she forgot to move.”

I lean in closer, all the better to inhale her glorious red curls that smell like the next world.

“Yeah, that’s the shelf I hauled into the garage for her,” I say blankly, my eyes scanning for whatever she wants me to see.

“I know, but look at what’s on it. The rock. It’s even got the little sign that says Larry’s Meteorite and the date he found it.”

Oh, hell.

Her logic instantly clicks.

It’s a stretch, yeah, but it might be why Hudson went over to Aunt Faye’s in the first place. It could even be the reason some asshole broke in, if Marty rules out Muddy Boots as the perp.

Did Hudson think he had a rare meteorite on his hands and not just a dumb rock?

Did somebody else get the same idea and go to greater extremes?

“I’ll tell Drake and let him decide if it’s worth following up on. Doubt he’d have probable cause to pull the weirdo in for questioning, but we should put it on his radar.”

I don’t mention how likely it is that I’ll be doing my own follow-up, the law be damned.

She shuts down the computer and rolls her eyes in frustration.

“It just seems weird that he talked up meteorites and your aunt had a fake one sitting there in the ad listing,” she says, flicking at her hair. “I don’t like it.”

“Good catch,” I tell her as we walk back to the kitchen where I’ll make my escape.

After this morning’s insanity, I need air.

I need space, oxygen, and an ice-cold shower.

Between wondering what slick-dick’s up to, or the oil guy who barked shit at my aunt, I can’t stop thinking about kissing her. Touching her. Driving home what we started at my place.

Fuck.

Aunt Faye’s in the kitchen when we return, loading the dishwasher. Thelma sits on a stool at the island, leafing through an old cookbook and muttering to herself about recipes.

Shelly rushes in to take over for Faye.

“Ah-ah, no, you don’t, girl!” Aunt Faye says, gently slapping her hands away. “I’m not staying here for free and refusing to do my fair share. For your information, I’ll also be doing the cooking and cleaning today. Miss Thelma here wants a big batch of fresh cookie dough in the freezer soon. I’ll be helping her with that too as a polite guest and—well, who could ever say no to her chocolate chips?”

That gets a smile from us both. My eyes could devour Shelly whole.

“You heard the lady, Shelly Bean?” Thelma says, pointing at her. “You’ve got the day off. We’re light on customers anyway.”

“Oh, you guys. I don’t need a day off,” Shelly says.

“Yes, you do. Everybody needs a breather once in a while and you’ve been working far too hard catering to empty rooms ever since you showed up.” Thelma flips another page in her cookbook down as decisively as a judge pounding her gavel. “If there’s nothing else you want to do today, go help Weston fix up Faye’s place so she doesn’t invite any more strange men over. Not unless they tell the weather on Channel Six, of course.”

They cluck like hens over Andrew the Weatherman for the next five minutes.

“Oh, and while you’re there, could you put food out for Mr. Whiskers?” Faye asks. “There’s a bag of cat food under the sink. And if you have a chance, I’ve got a pair of brand-new white tennis shoes upstairs in the closet. Could you be a gentle bear and bring them home with you?”

I bite back a smile.

It’s too obvious they’ve both planned this out. I’m not even sure whether to be ashamed or utterly pissed that we’ve got two dastardly old ladies scheming to play cupid.

The look on Shelly’s face says she knows it, too, and thinks it’s pretty funny.

Is it? Or is it just kerosene for a screaming fire I never should’ve started?

“That poor kitty cat must be starving to death!” Faye says dramatically, throwing her hands up over her head. “And I’d really like to have those shoes. Once Thelma’s moving better, we’ll be getting in our walks before winter, and I want that pair broken in.”

Shelly rolls her eyes and asks, “Do you need help, West?”

An awful, single-minded part of me wants to rise up in agreement like a rude fucking hand.

Guess what part—it’s not a hand.

More seriously, I shouldn’t want to spend the day with her, especially with the directions my thoughts keep spiraling. I should make up an excuse about the bar, wave goodbye, and march the fuck out of here with my ego and a little humility intact.

Only, the future and its gaping unknowns just won’t shut up.

She’ll be gone again in a few weeks.

There’s no telling when I’ll see her again after that—or who she’ll be with. What if she returns to Dallas a married woman?

“Yeah, you can tag along, I guess,” I say smoothly. “I could use an extra hand for those locks—or when it comes to digging through Aladdin’s cave for those shoes and hoping I don’t fall down a bottomless abyss.”

Faye laughs. When it comes to her bedroom closet, I’m hardly exaggerating.

“Shelly’ll find ’em like Hercules with a hidden yam, and don’t you worry about that pig!” she tells me. “He’s up and walking now. That silly ham, I told him he can’t go gallivanting around eating strange things off the ground wrapped up in plastic. He should know better. He’s won three blue ribbons, and two of the categories were based on his wits.”

She puffs her chest out proudly.

I shake my head, exhaling slowly.

Relief shines on Shel’s face when she hears the update. I’m sorry to say it’s probably on my face, too.

My mind flashes back to Carson Hudson and his rank-ass almonds that upset my pig.

I’m also well-aware that bastard could return any time today, and she’d be here. Without me, facing him and his bullshit alone.

Whether she needs it or not, she’ll have my support till my dying day.

“Guess it’s settled then,” I say with mock-deflation in my voice. “Come on, partner. Let’s get out of here and fetch us some shoes.”

13

Pig Dirty (Rachel)

My heart hasn’t fallen to a normal tempo all morning, and it doesn’t look like that’s changing anytime soon.

After finding the poor sick oink-baby and then having my face kissed off in the space of a few brilliant hours, I wonder if I’ve got a secret hummingbird in my chest.

As we climb in West’s truck to drive over to Faye’s house, I can’t stop staring. Darting these quick, nervous little looks his way and blushing fit to kill every time his eyes catch mine.

God.

What is happening?

It doesn’t help how Faye and Gram keep scheming away to pull us together. Apparently, when you reach sixty years old and you live in Dallas, your entire life starts revolving around strategic matchmaking and gladiator competitions over fruit.

I actually considered rejecting their ploy.

But only for a second.

I want time with Weston. Hell, when haven’t I wanted that?

I’m also well aware that when I leave town next month, it could be ages before I return.

My first full-time paid position at the museum will be intense. There’ll be hands-on inspections and reporting and community volunteer engagements out the wazoo. It’ll probably be a solid year before I can even dream about a brief vacation.

Oh, and that ten-ton mammoth in the room I’m trying so hard to ignore?

That kiss?

I still wonder if I temporarily died and got flung up to heaven by a guardian angel who looks mysteriously like Weston McKnight.

There are no words.

Kissing West was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Just calling it a kiss feels like a disgrace.

His rough heat, the demon nip of his teeth, the way he growled into my mouth...

Holy hell.

I felt the warmth, the intensity, the electric desire clear to my toes.

I’m still feeling it now like honey and vinegar invading my veins, threatening to ruin my dating life forever. I can’t imagine any of the smart, cautious, and entirely too timid boys back in D.C. kissing like a freight train running me down.

You don’t find men who use their mouths like that in the capital.

Honestly, I can’t imagine anyone else feeling like a force of nature against my tongue, lashing me with lightning, and leaving me achingly drenched in the wake of a smooch that brushed my soul.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not some pathetic virgin.

After West left for the Army and I left Dallas, I dated. I had a couple college boyfriends, but none of their game affected me anywhere close to the way his did this morning.

What would have happened if we hadn’t stopped? If that kiss was a marvelous prelude to his calloused hands snapping at my clothes, unwrapping me, pushing my thighs apart to sink down so deliciously on his throbbing—

“We need to stop at the hardware store first,” Weston says, ripping me from my thoughts. “They were closed yesterday.”

When I exhale, I’m shaking, hoping to God Almighty he doesn’t notice.

“That’s Dallas for you, huh?” I whisper back. “Everything’s either closing early or closed all day.”

He gives back a knowing smirk.

There are no big box stores that are open twenty-four hours a day here, and online orders take twice as long to show up. I don’t mind that when less stress and a more laid-back life is the tradeoff.

Never have.

“Are you changing all the locks?” I ask, studying his profile against the window. His face is chiseled enough to cut granite.

“Yep, and I want to check the windows. We’ll see if I need to add security there, too. I’m not risking any repeat prowlers.”

Content, I lean back against the seat and sigh.

“I’ve always loved her house. It’s peak Dallas, this beautiful century-old homestead that’s been through everything with this town from the pioneer days to the oil boom. Always thought it would make a wonderful museum.”

“You ever been upstairs?”

“Hmm, I don’t think so...why?”

He looks at me for a moment, frowning. “You don’t know, do you?”

“Know what?” I blink at him.

“Aunt Faye’s house was the town’s clinic back around World War I,” he says.

My inner nerd does jumping jacks.

“What? No way!”

“Yes way.”

“Weston McKnight, you’d best not be kidding.” Shocked, I ask, “Why didn’t I ever know?”

“Minor details,” he says, laughing. “Aunt Faye can tell you all about it sometime. From what I know, a doctor from Saint Paul moved here and had the place built originally. His private residence was on the ground floor and the upper level had the patient rooms. You know that old dumbwaiter Aunt Faye always had in her kitchen? They used that to send food up and down to the patients.”

“You’re killing me!” I clutch at the ends of my hair and he laughs. Excitement fills me, but then I wonder if he’s teasing me. “Is this all true or are you just picking on me?”

“One hundred percent true.” He holds up a hand. “Scout’s honor.”

“Like you were a freaking Boy Scout,” I fling back, rolling my eyes.

I think he’s being honest, though.

“I can’t believe I didn’t know,” I say softly.

“You were too focused on beating Marty and me at croquet every time we went over there.”

“And I was pretty good at that game. You guys kinda sucked.” My chest fills with pride.

“Right. You cheated.”

“I did not!” I stare at him, horrified.

“Like hell. You did, and we let you. We were nice boys in those days,” he says numbly.

That could be true, and the heavy expression he’s wearing makes me laugh.

“You’re lucky I’m so impressed by your little fact-drop that I can’t be pissed. This is why I love this town. Just when I think I know everything, there’s a new surprise.”

“You’re a sucker for those, all right,” he says with a glance that almost makes me self-destruct.

Holy crap. Is he talking about the kiss?

If he is, a terrible, illogical part of me definitely wouldn’t mind a few more surprises like that.

The friendly chitchat continues as we head into town. I geek out at the little airplane cutouts hanging on every streetlamp down Main. Dallas, North Dakota is hand-painted on each one.

When your town shares names with a much bigger city, I guess it just has to invent its own lore. Ours revolves around Amelia Earhart more than ever these days.

Not long after Jonah Reed passed away, the whole town adopted his fun eccentricities, honoring our tenuous ties to the aviator, however questionable.

It’s a quick stop at the hardware shop. I like how West doesn’t linger to ogle every tool and let his eyes glass over with future projects. He’s in and out with his stuff and totally focused.

Then it’s on to Faye’s place.

Has my heartbeat slowed? Hell no.

I know. I get that I shouldn’t be losing my head and hoping that someday he might think of me as more than a friend again, but I can’t help it.

Those split-second looks become more longing, more heated, more tense with every mile.

“Do you think Faye would mind if I look around?” I ask as we pull in the driveway of the big house and park in front of the garage. Like a lot of old houses here, the double car garage isn’t attached to the house and was only added years after the home was built.

He reaches in the back seat and picks up the bags from the store while opening his door with his other hand.

“Not at all. Go roam to your heart’s content while I work on those locks,” he says.

Oh, God. Roam feels like a poor choice of words.

I’ll enjoy the house, yeah, but I know roaming something else would make me infinitely more content.

That kiss only feels more real as I climb out of the truck and follow him to the back door.

“You’re sure I can’t help?” I ask once he’s unlocked the door and holds it open for me.

“Don’t think so. If I need you for anything, I’ll give you a holler.”

We separate and he goes to work.

I take care of feeding Whiskers the stray first, and then head up the back set of stairs off the kitchen. There’s something lyrical to my ears about the creak in the old steps, like the house itself wants to wake up and tell me old stories.

I’m still dumbstruck that I never knew the true history of this place.

Then again, I was only ever in the kitchen and living room growing up. Like Weston said, I was dead set on humiliating West and Marty at croquet during the visits in our younger days, leaving little mental energy for anything else.

They’d always let me tag along because they were driving—usually Grandpa’s old red Chevy pickup on loan. I wonder if Marty still has that truck; I didn’t see it in Grandpa’s storage.

And I’ll never admit to their faces, but I have to agree they were good enough guys to let my bratty butt follow them around like a third shadow.

Even with her frequent sales, Aunt Faye’s place is second only to the B&B with its antiques. Gorgeous solid wooden furniture, ornate rugs, and hundred-year-old china smile back at me around every corner.

I find Faye’s bedroom last and the shoes in her crowded jungle of a closet before stopping to admire an old globe in the corner. It looks like it dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, right around the time this place would’ve been a small-town hospital of sorts.

For the hundredth time, I can’t help but think what an amazing museum this old house would make, teeming with treasures from days gone by.

Smiling, I take a deep breath and hold it, basking in the scent of old memories and unlikely possibilities.

If it were a historical site...school kids could even visit, and they’d learn so much more about the history of their hometown. In another life, maybe I would’ve found my calling here at home, forever in love with this place that’ll always feel more like home than the bustling cities I’ve visited.

“Still alive in here?” a booming voice asks.

I jump, not realizing Weston fills in the doorway behind me until I whirl around.

Oh. My. Stars.

The sight of him makes my heart skip. He leans casually against the doorframe like a heroic statue, bulging arms crossed over his massive chest, wearing this lazy smirk below sandy-blond hair that must be messier from the working on the house.

It isn’t fair.

He shouldn’t get to be so fatally handsome and so standoffish simultaneously.

“I thought you’d gotten lost here. I wasn’t kidding when I said Aunt Faye’s closet could cause missing persons reports,” he says.

I wave a hand around the room. It’s a bedroom, and easy enough to navigate when you’ve got an eye for women’s attire and old things, no matter how much she’s accumulated.

“Nope, I’m still here to be a pain in your butt. Just enjoying my self-guided tour of what ought to be the Dallas History Museum.”

He lifts a brow.

“I’m not joking. This place would knock people’s socks off,” I say, clearing my throat as my cheeks heat. “What’s that look for?”

His smirk widens into a smile.

Yowza.

I feel like I’m about to go plummeting through the floor, and it’s got nothing to do with Faye’s overflowing cave of a closet.

“I believe you, Shelly. That shine in your eyes makes me see it, too.” He pauses, melting me alive with his soft blue gaze. “I’ll have to tell her before she sells this place. Hell, maybe North Earhart could pull a little money from the town’s support fund to spruce it up for the public and make a few good hires. Though I’ve gotta say, history geeks with fancy degrees are rare around these parts.”

My heart flips again.

All because he leaves zero doubt who should be a theoretical employee at a museum that doesn’t exist.

Oh, boy.

I don’t know about any shine in my eyes, but I see how his sparkle like the ocean at sunset.

So. There goes any hope that I could actually forget about that kiss from Hades for longer than ten minutes.

“Did you need a hand after all?” I ask, walking toward him.

He’s wearing another skintight shirt today, solid black, with a red-and-black checkerboard flannel shirt thrown over it for warmth. I think this man could murder every hipster boy playing at Paul Bunyan ten times over in a lumbersexual style contest, plus every fireman calendar model for good measure.

“Nah, I was just wondering if you’d locked yourself in one of the rooms or something. These old doors are brick shithouses. Saves me some work replacing the interior locks. Just finished checking everything inside. I still have a few locks to wrap up.”

He steps into the room, closing the distance between us.

There’s a magical energy in the air. It spirals, closing around us like we’re nestled under a rain of pixie dust from some scheming fairies every second our eyes stay locked, gleaming, silent, but so loud.

Swallowing hard, I take another step closer.

“I’m not a dog, West. I would’ve yelled for you if I was stuck.”

“What if I didn’t hear? You don’t look like a screamer,” he whispers.

Heart, meet drumstick.

I step closer. If I reach out a hand, I could touch him.

My fingers curl into my palms, remembering how good he felt this morning, how hard it was to peel my greedy little hands off him.

My lungs stall, breath coming faster, remembering the sear of his lips on mine.

The anticipation of that sweet madness happening again electrifies me.

Suddenly, I’m tingling, wet, and so frustrated I could show him some screaming.

“Shel?” he growls that stupid nickname, waiting for an answer...except maybe it doesn’t feel so stupid anymore.

“I would have just yelled louder. Jeez,” I say matter-of-factly.

He doesn’t move, just stares at me.

“Yeah? You think you can yell that loud through this big old house?” His tongue flicks quickly along his lips, a heinous invitation. “You think I’ll be all over you if I hear you scream?”

So, this is how I die.

I never thought it’d be this man with sex-me blue eyes and diabolical innuendo, but here we are.

My entire body sizzles, blood becoming molten, and I wish to God I had the nerve to step closer, to inhale him, to ravish him with my fingers.

“Yes,” I whimper, and I can’t stop my eyes from giving him another once-over, even if I’m well aware how dangerous it is. “I would have screamed until I blew out your ears, Weston McKnight.”

“And what would you have done when I found you?” he growls.

I can’t take this.

We’re in sink or swim territory, and I hope like hell I won’t drown.

Stepping forward, I plant my hands on his chest, rubbing my palms up his shoulders.

Keeping my gaze fused to his, I say slowly, “I’d kiss you, you lunk.”

He lifts a brow. “Kiss me? You sure?”

“Um, yeah,” I squeak back.

“Why the fuck would you do something so crazy, Shel? We’re just friends.”

Right. The look he beams down is anything but platonic.

Friends don’t look at friends like they want to devour them.

“Because you came to my rescue, dude.” My fingers tumble back and fall against his chest loudly.

He glances away, his nostrils flaring as he inhales a breath that must be three hundred degrees.

I swallow thickly.

Afraid that he’ll push me away, and that I’ll sink, I add, “I’d kiss you because I want to...because I can’t stop thinking about earlier. Not for the life of me.”

All right, screw it.

I show him just how much I mean it by pressing my lips to his bearded chin.

He rewards me with a low growl like thunder. And I pray he won’t push me away, won’t embarrass me, and won’t protest, but for the love of God, kiss me back.

For once in my life, my prayers are answered.

His lips pounce on mine with so much passion I’m utterly breathless. Destroyed.

A happy ruin.

It’s almost worse that what begins so wickedly ends like a sugary dream.

His lips slow, gently caressing mine, equally delightful and maddening.

The touch is so sweet, so delicate, it has my entire body thrumming, delirious with need.

His superpower must be the art of the tease. Every stroke of his lips, his tongue, the swipe of his mouth against mine is freaking catnip.

And me, I just...

I fall so hard I have to cling to him. I need him to hold me up.

My arms wind around his neck as I press my breasts hungrily against his chest, loving the pressure, the way the hard mass of his body drags over my nipples.

His hands grasp my waist and pull me closer still, so our hips touch, bleeding passion even through our clothes.

My lips part as he rears back to look at me, desperate for air.

The way his tongue conquers my mouth is a maddening thrill, each movement as claiming as a man staking a fence on his property, marking it as his.

His tongue finds mine again, this time with a hunger I can feel in every atom. I whimper back, meeting it helplessly as a teasing chase begins.

Is it possible to get high off a kiss?

I totally do.

His hands slide under the back of my shirt, grazing my skin, matching the rising hunger in his mouth with a manic energy that’s so exhilarating it hurts.

I think I could come without losing a single piece of clothing.

If it sounds ridiculous, I don’t care.

With him, it’s true, and it’s a wonder I don’t start humping his leg like an animal driven by pure lust.

This is pure insanity.

I’ve only had sex a few times, but his all-consuming kiss and a teasing flick of his hand does more than full penetration with any of the guys I’ve slept with before.

They were puppies.

This man is a mature wolf, and I’m ready for him to feast, to pick me clean to the bone.

The kissing continues, slashing tongues growing wilder by the second, a quickening race to explore each other’s mouths until we break away for air.

Another minute in, and I’m gasping.

He’s breathing just as hard as we stand there, staring at each other with heaving chests.

With another soft growl, he shakes his head.

“The fuck’s going on, Shel?”

“I think it’s called kissing, West,” I reply teasingly.

He breaks into a sunrise grin. His hands are still firmly under my shirt, tugging the back of my bra strap.

“I know what it’s called, brat,” he says. “But this is us, dammit, and we’re ripping at each other like we’re damn well starved.”

I reach up, running my hands through his thick hair, loving how the evening light spills across it.

“Yeah, well...maybe we are,” I whisper.

“You’re Marty’s little sister. Fuck,” he grinds out. “If we don’t stop this, I’ll never live it down.”

“So don’t,” I say harshly, pushing my breasts against his wall of a chest. “I also know you’re my friend and if we both want this...where’s the harm?”

“You said it yourself. We’re friends,” he growls back, tensing when I peck and lick softly at his neck. “Friends don’t fuck each other’s brains out their ears, Shelly. They don’t make out like college kids after a fucking skin snack.”

“But we are,” I offer, loving the fraught heat of his breath on my cheek. “We’re also grown adults, Weston. Adults who have always liked each other. Adults who have a certain chemistry. Don’t you dare deny it when obviously we still do.” I trail a finger along the side of his face.

His eyes look like they want to burn me into ash.

“Don’t you agree? Don’t you want this?” I whisper.

“Damn you to hell,” he bites off, his eyes brilliant-blue cauldrons.

I’ve made it this far without sinking. Why stop now?

Kissing his chin, his neck, and running my finger along his jaw, I whisper in his ear, “There’s no problem unless we make one. Don’t you want me?”

I know I’ve lost it.

I should be committed to the Institute of People With Pathological Crushes.

But I also want this so bad I’m shaking as I reach down, running my fingers down his leg.

His hold on me tightens, and I inhale sharply when my fingers graze the bulge in his jeans.

Surprise, he’s huge.

Of course he is.

You don’t get a neck like a barrel and a shrunken head below unless you’re popping ’roids like bubblegum.

I also know West and his sense of honor. I nibble on his ear before saying, “I’m not a virgin, West. You don’t have to worry about that. I’m a woman who knows what she wants, and when she wants it. And in case you’re getting mixed signals...” I grind against the front of his pants. “I want you. Right here. Now.”

He goes stock-still, and I pray harder than ever that I’m not going to drown in my own recklessness. Not going to fail at tasting this sweet, bewildering thing I’ve wanted for so long, even when I told myself ten thousand times I was over him.

Yeah, I’m not over anything.

And I’m not about to run from what I’ve ached for all these years even when I swore I didn’t.

His kisses return like a slow, beautiful burn.

They land on the side of my neck, my cheek, my forehead before they finally find my lips.

Euphoria makes me so weak in the knees I’m barely holding myself up, my hands clenching to his shoulders.

In seconds, a fever I’ve never known ignites like a prairie fire.

This isn’t about saving myself from a dizzying adolescent crush.

It’s about saving him.

I think of what Faye said about his time in the Army, the shock and sorrow and loss.

For just one sunny autumn evening, I want to make Weston forget everything that hurts.

Everything except for this glorious moment with us.

I want to help him remember how to live as a man who savors the touch of a woman’s hair and the fire in her lips.

Panting, I rip off his flannel shirt and then roll up his t-shirt, adoring the warmth of his skin, the hardness of his muscles.

When he gives me the hungriest look yet and his gaze drills through me, I arch into him with a fierce whimper.

It’s so flipping on.

The next few minutes become a maniacal game of unchained kisses and wandering hands, digging nails set on working off our tops.

Then, breathing hard, we both pause to drink in what’s been exposed.

God, he’s buff.

All bronze muscle crisscrossed with a cascade of shadowy military tattoos and birds of prey, topped with a thicket of dark-blond hair carpeting his chest.

When I catch his eyes, they’re barely human, lit with this violent hunger.

I shudder.

“Beautiful. Your looks could dismember me, Shel.” His voice comes low, husky, feral.

“...I thought the same about you,” I admit.

“Bullshit,” he snarls, reaching out and cupping one breast in each hand. “I don’t have these.”

His other hand joins in, and his thumbs find my nipples and press with just the right pressure.

For the dozenth time today, I’m a dead woman walking.

Good thing I’m too lost in the pleasure to be ashamed of the moan slipping out of me.

I have to mash my thighs together at the way my body reacts.

“N-no, you don’t. Um, feel free to play with mine all you want...”

I’m rambling so pathetically it’s a wonder he doesn’t pivot around and march out the room.

Instead, he laughs softly. Even his laughter smolders.

“Believe me, I will. You can also believe I’m about to fuck you up against the wall,” he adds. “This may be dirty and reckless as shit but I’m not about to defile my aunt’s bed.”

I burst out laughing at his perfectly Weston comic relief.

“Keep it up, buttercup,” he grumbles. “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

I’ve left the ground.

It takes a second to realize it’s not just my imagination as he lifts me up, carries me outside to the hall, and pins me against the wall like I’m under arrest by the bad cop. A rough hand climbs up my thigh and tears off my bottoms.

“What about the rest? You ready to have me play with that too?”

“I hope you do,” I reply, barely audible.

That’s all he needs as he stands, urging me to face him as he squeezes my ass.

Lord, how he plays with me.

His hungry mouth does overtime, lips and teeth and tongue, sucking on my nipples until they’re soft and burning, branded with his tongue.

He reaches between my legs, skimming those rough fingers up my thigh, another inch higher with every kiss.

When his thumb brushes my clit, I’m so gone I don’t think any atlas ever made could ever bring me back.

I’d say he fingers me, but the aching want pulsing between my legs comes on so intensely he hardly gets a chance to stroke me at all before I’m on knife’s edge.

Oh, shit.

I’m about to come on his thieving hand.

I’ve never felt so free.

My mind decouples from everything but the harsh ecstasy he’s pulling out of me with every growling pull of his teeth and piston-swipe of his fingers deep inside me.

A chaotic O that feels like it might split me in half builds like a thunderhead brewing in my body.

When his other hand cups my face, he pulls my hair, his eyes pooling hot and deliciously cruel like molten glass.

“Look at me when you come,” he grinds out. “I want to see those eyes roll when you give it up—and give it fucking now.”

Oh, hell. Oh, here we go.

My mouth pulls into a silent, helpless O as his thumb slaps my clit, literally hammering me out of my own body.

I’m definitely not earthbound when the explosion goes off, fueling the fire in my core, the blinding release that lifts me up like a fifty-foot wave and hurls me down on my head.

Coming!

My first orgasm with the boy—the man I’ve obsessed over for a decade—scorches parts of me I never knew existed.

I’m a fallen mess, thoroughly wrecked, riding his hand while his lips steal moan after moan from my mouth.

I’m white static and clenched muscle, lost in an unholy scream that never quite crawls up my throat.

I’m his flipping toy—I’m not sure I’ll ever be anything else—and I’m too drunk on this high to care.

“Love it, baby,” he whispers when I’m finally almost grounded again. “Love every second of that shit so much I’ll need more. Need everything.”

Whoa.

Everything?

I’m trembling so hard it’s a little adorable how he catches me before I hit the floor, holding me up, pulling my face over his shoulder to hook my chin.

I’m perfectly positioned to whisper in his ear, “I still want you inside me....”

He peels me back for another trip into his eyes, still glowing from the stray sunlight lancing through the window.

“Right now?” he growls quietly.

I answer wordlessly, unbuttoning his pants and shoving my hand inside his boxers.

His cock springs to life, throbbing with an agony I can feel in every impatient twitch against my hand, demanding to be in me.

“Yes. This. Inside me. Now.”

Evidently, I’m too obliterated for coherent sentences.

He kisses me again with a harshness that makes me groan, and he laughs while kicking off his boots.

Then he looks me dead in the eye and says the six sweetest words in the English language.

“I need to grab a condom.”

Damn. I hadn’t thought of that, and I’m glad he did.

He would, though, because he’s Weston.

That boy, that man, that walking marvel who always looks out for me.

While he pulls his billfold out, I fall to my knees, working at unzipping his pants. I push them down off his hips along with his boxers.

The magnificent sight of his raging hard-on—emphasis on raging—cranks my core temperature up to nuclear. I wrap a hand around him, meet his devil eyes, and stroke down his pulsing length.

“Shel!” He snarls my name like a curse. “Holy fuck...”

“My turn. I don’t have one of these to play with,” I tease, stroking him harder.

“You will in a minute,” he promises.

I watch his eyes widen gloriously as I kiss the tip of his hardness before engulfing it with my lips.

He’s so massive I have to stretch to even get a few inches in.

I’m too well aware what he’ll feel like when he finally sinks into my pussy. The needy ache between my legs just makes me suck him harder, lips spiraling down his cock, synced to my hand pumping down the base of his shaft.

He tastes the way I imagine a diamond must after it’s pulled from the ground.

Earthy. Intense. Unbreakable.

I watch his head roll in rapture, his stare fixed on me like the hunting hawks inked on his body.

If this is what it’s like to be his prey, never let me be anything else.

Pressing my tongue just under his swollen head, I carry on, taking as much of him as humanly possible—and it still isn’t close to half.

He curses.

I gag.

He fists my hair.

I whimper.

He flares, his whole body tensing, a rough gurgle trapped in his throat.

I brace for the hot eruption in my mouth, winding my hand to his balls to help massage it out, knowing I don’t have a prayer of swallowing all of his—

“No,” he grunts, pushing my face off him.

I look up, confusion swirling, wondering if I did something wrong.

“Not the first time. We both know where I’m meant to come, Shel,” he says, sliding his hands under my shoulders to help me up. “Hands on the wall, baby. Turn the fuck around. Legs open.”

Oh, God.

It seems like a small eternity passes in the drawn-out seconds between hearing a noisy, metallic crinkle and feeling his size at my entrance.

A powerful hand wraps around my thigh, diving upward, rubbing at my clit and spreading me open for—

“West!” His name comes through clenched teeth, hissing like steam as he enters me.

All the countless times I imagined this moment can’t compare to the reality.

He’s slow, but urgent. There’s a forcefulness in his hips, an impact, a filthy demand to lay down the law on every square inch of me.

For a second, I’m scared he’ll be too big, my walls struggling to accommodate him.

But his fingers go to work on my clit, vigor in his brushstrokes, a growl darker than a lion’s against my ear.

“You ready?” he whispers, holding himself deep inside me, nipping at my neck.

It would be sweet if I weren’t shaking.

“Please. Please, West. Take me. Take everything.”

Yes, I’m begging. Asking to be ruined in ways I didn’t know were possible, and if he does, I know he’ll be there to rebuild me too.

So I just press my forehead to the wall as he rears back, gathering his strength before he thrusts into me again.

As his hips become a quaking machine, digging pleasure out of me, snatching wild noises from my throat.

As his strokes become fiercer—angrier—almost like he’s mad that we waited this long to seal a pact in sweat that was always inevitable.

As he fucks me so good I like that it hurts, as his hand yanks at my hair, as our bodies go to war for less than five minutes and my pussy hugs his cock for dear life.

“Shelly, come!” he orders, hurling me over the ledge. “Dammit, girl, I want this. It’s all I’ll ever fucking want if you just—”

I never know if his own release chokes him off mid-sentence or if I’m just too far gone to hear.

Every sense blurs into a churning mess as his hips punish me one more time, hitting so hard it lifts me off my toes.

He buries himself to the absolute hilt.

I can feel him through the condom as he goes off, a split second after my O douses my brain in bliss that could rival the most potent whiskey.

I obey his ragged orders.

I come for him, all right.

I come like never, ever before.

My walls milk his own volcanic passion out of him, and he swells deep inside me, over and over.

A delirium so hot it overwhelms him takes control.

I feel him with every deafening groan.

I fall deeper into every thrust.

I think I’m breaking as we savage each other, ten freaking years of desperation and need and frustration boiling out of us—or is it in?—all in one animalistic hour in a house that isn’t even ours.

What. Just. Happened?

I’m still asking when he turns me around, panting as he grasps my face with both hands and kisses me like I’m his last. His only.

His.

“There’s one thing you need to know after that,” he growls softly.

I pause and stare, dreading some kind of regret.

“Oh? What’s that?” I whisper.

“Once won’t be enough. If we’re fucking, then I’m taking you every day you’re still here,” he says with an almost comical seriousness in his eyes.

Oh, but there’s no laughing at how his hand moves between my legs, cups my mound, and squeezes so possessively I tremble.

“Keep this ready often and on short notice. I’m so not fucking around, Shel. This is mine every waking minute you’re here, and so are you.”

14

Happier Than A Pig In... (Weston)

Never in my life have I needed to pinch myself till today.

Shel’s so hot, so perfect, so unbelievably tight that I’m struggling every second after that fuck to comprehend the fact that I’m not dreaming.

And now that I’ve spilled my guts—now that she knows how hopeless I am for her—I have to fight like hell not to drag her to the sofa downstairs and take her like a wild buck in rut.

Yeah. We need to get the hell out of here.

We’ve officially fucked enough in my elderly aunt’s house for this lifetime and I’m not tainting more than this floor, the wall I had her up against, and her.

Also, I’m a little worried at how fast this is evolving, just how fast I’m losing my head in a new addiction that begins and ends between her legs.

“Got one more lock to finish,” I say, grabbing our clothes off the floor and shoving hers into her arms.

She flashes me a succubus-worthy smile.

“You sure that’s all, West? The locks? Because, um...” She pauses, blinking too long, the redness on her cheeks deepening again. “I could use a little more finishing.”

For a second, I just stare, mulling my options.

Obviously, I’m on a one-way trip to hell after wrecking my best friend’s little sister. So what do I have to lose? Why shouldn’t I give her that psycho-sounding promise to use her morning, noon, and night?

“Hang on to the clothes,” I say, the only warning she gets before she’s in my arms with the whole bundle.

We’re butt-ass naked, stomping down the staircase and out the back door, her squealing questions as I guide her to the back of my truck.

It’s a miracle I’m able to throw the tailgate down with a blanket spread across the back before I’m hoisting her up again.

How many times did I dream about this when I was trapped in hell overseas?

How many times did I hate-fuck my own hand to her memory? Stuck on what it’d feel like to take Little Miss History Geek on a cool sunny day with a kiss of wind?

Today, the fantasy ends.

Today, I live out every filthy desire that’s ever corrupted my head—starting with blowing her back out right here in my truck.

“West? What’s gotten into you?”

I wish I fucking knew.

She whimpers as I tumble her onto the blanket, an impatient hand spreading her legs apart. It’s barely been minutes since I erupted inside her, and I’m still hard enough to drive nails.

I must be insane.

Or maybe it’s just the fragile, beautiful lunacy of her spread out like a fucking offering before me.

Silk-soft red curls and lush green eyes splashed across the dark-grey blanket.

Rosy nipples I could suck till the heat death of the universe pebbled, begging for my tongue.

Her hellfire lips pursed, curious, surprised.

Legs with just the right plumpness hooking around me, helped by my hand shoving them to my hips as her body arches to meet mine.

We kiss like we need each other’s tongues more than oxygen.

My cock drags against her wetness, building a slow momentum, each stroke of my swollen head against her hot pussy lips almost hypnotic.

“Oh, that’s good,” she whispers, closing her eyes. “So perfect.”

I growl my agreement, inwardly admitting that it’s also pure torture.

Nothing has ever felt so good, so right, and yet so much like I’m forever fucked in the head.

We kiss for what feels like an hour, hands stalking each other’s bodies, my furious dick gliding in deeper and retreating, but never pulling all the way out.

Her pussy makes that a little harder with every minute, clenching my cock so greedily I nearly lose it again. It’s a miracle I remember to pull the other condom out and throw it on.

She’s clueless just how good she is.

How she could make me lose it with a single swivel of her hips, and I want this to last.

Hell, screw the swivel.

The sounds she makes alone turn me inside fucking out.

She’s moving her hips in perfect unison, arching into every thrust as we fall into a proper rhythm, the pleasure steaming from her throat in this rising song that burns my ears.

I love that she’s enjoying this as much as I am.

Love that we’re sharing this swift descent into madness together—wherever the hell it leads.

I’d also love this to last for a thousand hours—forever—but that’s not how it works when you’re finally mounting the girl you always swore you never would at dusk in the back of a pickup.

She’s too close. I’m too far gone.

Her speed increases, and so does the way her slick heat envelops me, fast and furious.

I drive on, leading her till she gasps, murmuring my name over and over like I’m the newly appointed king of her world.

Better show her that I am.

Deeper, deeper.

I conquer her depths and hold it there as her climax short-circuits her.

“Weston!”

Fuck, do I love hearing my name at a soaring octave.

Body arched, head thrown back, her bright-green eyes closed, I push her to a screaming finish that’s only muffled by her teeth in my shoulder.

It’s the smile on her face that takes me apart, shredding what little control I have left.

Fuck!

Two quick thrusts and I’m airborne.

Wheels up, bye-bye better senses, dropped headfirst into the best and worst climax of my life.

My spine feels like a blown wire as pleasure scalds my brain and stars fill my vision.

Not good.

Not good at all even when it’s the best thing in my life.

Not fucking good because I don’t know where this leads after we’re flat on our backs, spent, and mashing our skin together like we’re goddamn magnetic.

I don’t know what happens if I make good on my promise to make this a regular sin—and how much that could hurt us when it finally, inevitably ends.

* * *

She’s murmuring, stroking my brow, and we’re still flat on our backs well after sunset.

I’m sure my balls have lost a year’s worth of their payload in one evening.

We’re soaking in the glory of it when I grab ahold of her, hugging her tight as the aftermath of what we’ve done four times consumes me body, mind, and soul.

I’ve lost track of how long it’s been since either of us said a complete word as she nuzzles my neck and kisses me.

“No words. If you offered me ten million bucks I couldn’t describe that,” she whispers, dragging her nails gently down my chest.

“You can’t describe it,” I agree, waiting for the curious tilt of her head. “It’s something you experience, Shel. And I’m hoping we experience that a few thousand more times.”

Laughing, she lifts her head, looking at me with lidded eyes.

“I’m so glad you rescued me from being locked up in the room,” she whispers. “I could’ve been a goner.”

I snort at her teasing. “Without this dick, you mean. You were never locked up.”

“I could’ve been. Remember how you warned me?”

I kiss her, slowly untangling my lips.

“Keep talking like that and I’ll lock you up somewhere. Naked and chained up for days.”

“Hmm. Will you be with me?” She runs a fingertip over my collarbone.

I nod with a vicious glance.

The way her eyes spark cuts my last thread.

I am so boned with this chick.

So completely and utterly boned.

The joy coursing through my blood feels unlike anything else. The crash that’s coming when the afterglow fades scares me.

She can’t leave me.

Not fucking yet.

I’ll need the month or more she’s got left here to come to terms with the brutal reality of letting her go, likely forever. Just like before.

“Stop it,” she whispers.

“Stop what?”

She licks my bottom lip with a parting kiss.

“Whatever you’re thinking. You’re brooding so hard I can feel it over here, mister.”

“Yeah? And what was I brooding about, Miss Psychic?”

“Nothing good. Your eyes are a dead giveaway,” she throws back.

Then her strawberry tongue flicks out and sticks between her teeth, quietly razzing me.

A second later, I push it back into her mouth, devouring her till I can’t think about anything except how right it feels to be lost in this kiss.

Eventually we get dressed and slide off the back of the truck.

While I finish working on that last lock, she mops the hallway upstairs, reminding me I’ll have to choose somewhere more private than Aunt Faye’s house for next time.

I’ll also have to order an entire pallet of condoms.

I know.

My brain should be zeroed in on making sure this never happens again, but I already know it will. Resistance is no longer a factor.

I’ve wanted her for so long, this release took us like a howling inferno.

And once you start that kind of uncontrolled burn—once you’ve inhaled the woman who’s had you by the balls for your whole adult life and seen the sweet contortion of her face as she comes undone on your thrusts—you’ve lost all hope of containing jack shit.

I can’t extinguish this.

It’s got a power, a force, and a will of its own.

We’ll just have to be careful then. Take it slow, gentle, and make sure she doesn’t get hurt.

Make sure I don’t lose what’s left of my soul.

I’m hunched over, tightening the extra double bolt on the front door, when I hear her come up behind me.

There’s no helping the smile that slashes across my face.

Christ. Since when do I smile?

I feel like a homesick boy who’s just gotten back from summer camp.

Shel wraps her arms around me from behind, hugging and kissing my back.

“How’s it going?” Her chin rests softly on my shoulder, and one deep breath fills my lungs with the fresh, flowery scent that’s all Shel.

“Fine.”

“Need any help?”

Her hands slip down my torso, teasing nerves that were barely satisfied a short time ago. They flare back to life far too easily.

“I’m good.”

Real talk: I’m very not fucking good.

She giggles. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted this?”

“You mean fixing locks and exploring the inner sanctum of Aunt Faye’s closet? Yeah, me too, baby. Livin’ the lifelong dream,” I say, sarcasm the last shield between us.

She punches my bicep playfully.

“So you’re a lunk and a comedian now. Lovely.” She kisses the side of my neck. “I kinda like it, though. Also, I’m clearly talking about kissing you and...and everything else. I’ve wanted that forever, West. For as long as I can remember.”

My dick jolts.

There’s something extra wrong but horribly right about knowing how bad she’s had it for me across all these years.

I’ll admit her unquenchable crush strokes my ego something fierce, even if I can’t let it balloon my head to the size of the Titanic.

Whatever else this is—messy fling, bad idea, creeping derangement—it can’t last.

Shel deserves a life with dusty old books and rare artifacts and laughing kids eager to listen to her geeking out over Apollo capsules or Martha Washington’s dresses.

She deserves more than being marooned here in Dallas with a jackass who can pound her senseless but still can’t pound enough sense into his own head to offer her love.

She deserves the life she’s found beyond this place, the one she’s set up to keep living.

If there’s one glaring rule carved in stone for this thing, it’s that.

Love her hard.

Leave her happy.

Let her fucking go, man.

Until she leaves, we can live our darkest dreams.

And I hope the slow march to Thanksgiving moves at a crawl. These breathless evenings in the dying golden light with her are something I can cling to. Something to keep me warm through the next long winter of my life long after she’s a distant, nagging memory.

A sharp clatter next to my shoe shakes me back to reality.

I fumble the screwdriver and yank myself away from her to pick it up.

Get your shit together, a voice in my head warns. Next thing you know, you’ll be screwing up simple brake jobs.

I pivot, cupping the sides of her face with both hands, and leave a lingering kiss on her face.

As I end it, I ask, “Is that what had you dreaming?”

“Yes.” She’s looking up at me with shimmering eyes and a beaming smile like the sun. “I hope this means you see me as more than Marty’s bratty sister.”

My eyebrows lift.

“Truth be told, I’ve always imagined you as more,” I admit.

“Oh? Even when I was tagging along and pestering you guys to death?”

“Nah, see, you’re the one caught up on the tagalong aspect. I remember inviting you to join us.”

It’s true. I always invited her because I didn’t want her sitting home alone, dreamy-eyed and depressed about her dead folks.

Her face heats and she chews her lip thoughtfully.

“You always did offer, even when it annoyed Marty...why?”

We lock eyes. I sense another question brewing in her balmy gaze.

Why were you so kind until you broke your promise? Why didn’t you write?

My gut churns.

I have to stall her out, to kill those questions before they ever find their way to her tongue.

If she knew how sick I was—how soul-sick I still am—would she want to warm my bed?

Without letting this little Q&A get too revealing, I touch the tip of her nose with my finger.

“Because. You would have caused Thelma and Doug plenty of trouble if I left you home alone stewing,” I tell her.

She laughs mightily.

“I mean...that might’ve happened a time or two,” she agrees.

“Or ten or twenty.” I step back and give her delectable ass a crisp smack that makes her stiffen and throw a grin back over her shoulder. “Go find something to stay busy so I can finish this job.”

It’s basically done, but I need the distance.

“Fiiine,” she groans. “I’ll go see if I can find that cat who has Faye so worried. It hasn’t eaten any of the food I left out yet and I know she’ll wonder if we saw it.”

“Sounds good.” I give her a quick parting kiss and chuckle to myself as she walks away, tossing me one last longing look.

It’s not frigging fair.

This crushing weight squeezes my chest, wishing that I could be more of what she needs, but my life’s rooted here. More than ever now that I’m responsible for keeping half the town’s vehicles running, not to mention those monster truck rallies that are becoming a real draw for entertainment.

Besides keeping people happy, they raise money like gangbusters for the programs I care about when we don’t have a stray pig shutting everything down.

I take a deep breath, pretending to fiddle with the bolt with my screwdriver.

All the faces I care about flash through my head.

Aunt Faye.

Uncle Grady and Willow.

Sawyer and Avery, my little cousins.

Drake and Bella Larkin.

Quinn and Tory Faulkner.

Ridge and Grace Barnet and even Tobin the frigging butler.

They’re my people, my tribe, and they’ve all offered me a helping hand one time or another. What kind of rat would I be to cut and run before I’ve repaid them a hundred times over?

I stay here for them as much as I do for myself.

I know what Dallas is.

This town is the only place I’ll ever fit in.

A slamming car door dispels my thoughts. I turn to see Drake walking up the front walkway, his sheriff’s badge shining in the porch light.

“Changing the locks?” he asks with a tip of his head.

“Yep. All heavy duty and reinforced with new bolts on the front and back doors.” I nod respectfully, grateful he’s here to check it over.

Besides being the town sheriff, he was one hell of a bodyguard for Jonah Reed before he shacked up with her daughter years ago.

“Great timing,” he says darkly, leveling a look. “Listen, West, I’ve had patrols driving by here regularly since the theft. It sounds like someone was snooping around last night again, right after dark. The officer didn’t get a good look at him, and the perp scattered real fast when he heard the cruiser approaching.”

My spine stiffens. I drag a hand over my face.

“Shit. Sheriff, you ought to know Shelly found something in one of Faye’s photos. It could be a real long shot motive, but listen...”

As soon as I tell him about the meteorites and the connection to Hudson, Shel arrives and finishes the story, noting where he can track down the same photos she found online.

I hardly do any of that social media crap—there’s no need when you’re the only good full-time mechanic in town—but Drake gets how to pull up the info.

“There’s something else you should see,” he says, pulling up the tablet at his side housed in a thick reinforced rubber case. He punches at the screen a few times before pushing it toward me. “Take a good look. Mickey got out with a flashlight and took those photos last night. You can see a few bootprints heading into the brush. Might be a few remnants by the back porch.”

Dammit, he’s right.

Heavy duty impressions left in soft dirt stare back at me, taunting and infuriating as hell because they make no sense.

These are workman’s boots.

Not the kind of shit I could ever fathom that Carson jagoff being able to maneuver in if he deigned to own a pair of something so blue collar—and definitely not something he could outrun a cop in.

“Muddy Boots?” I grind out, more to myself than the sheriff. “I need to check if Marty’s followed up on that guy yet. Supposedly he mentioned working for North Earhart when he came stomping around at Aunt Faye’s sale like a foul-tempered buffalo.”

“I’ll follow up for sure. Don’t you guys worry. I’ll make the rounds personally tonight, and we’ll also have patrols sweeping Amelia’s,” he promises.

I grasp his hand in a brotherly handshake.

Here in Dallas, the police are your neighbors and the badges a formality.

Everybody here has a hand in keeping this town clean, and we don’t take kindly to bullies or outsiders looking to shit up our home.

As he leaves, I make a mental note to ask Faye to confirm who hit her up about that shelf and to tell me about Muddy Boots again.

She only called the other guy a 'nice young man.' I don’t know how old Carson Hudson is, but to Faye, anyone under sixty is a spring damn chicken.

More importantly, I’ve got exactly two suspects who might have Grandpa’s old Winchester, assuming they haven’t sold it already.

As if she’s reading my mind, Shelly asks, “Are we jumping to conclusions?”

“Don’t know, honestly. Both of these people are shifty as hell.”

I don’t like Carson Hudson. My sixth sense spins like a broken compass ever since he blew into town and started making goo-goo eyes at Shel.

Throw in the weirdness with his antique hunts and his desire to outstay his welcome and I’m near certain he’s up to something.

At the same time, I hate to judge someone for no cause, even when they’re slicker than an eel rolled in bacon grease. We also have another suspect, a belligerent creep I would’ve knocked out cold if I’d been there the day he went off on Aunt Faye.

If I learned anything that day I wound up wearing pieces of my friends, it’s never, ever jump the gun.

We thought we were moving into a simple escort mission, securing a convoy route.

We thought the enemy presence was virtually nonexistent like all the intel reports said.

We thought we had air support when they hit us out of nowhere, and when the pricks in the hills started with their suppression fire.

We thought wrong that day about everything, and being wrong has consequences.

It cost my whole unit life and limb and took whatever sanity I had left.

The worst part is, we suspected somebody dropped the ball higher up the chain of command. One of the dime a dozen mistakes from fresh-faced officers who joined the Afghan gauntlet full of brains that weren’t compatible with what was happening on the ground.

When I demanded an investigation, I got a web of red tape to go with that purple heart I chucked into the bottom of my nightstand drawer—along with those letters I wrote for Shelly in my heart’s blood.

The investigation, the official report, was marked as unresolved not long after my discharge.

Unre-fucking-solved.

Why was I the lucky one? Things like that don’t just happen without someone’s dick hanging out of their pants, sloppy errors that got good soldiers killed.

If it could’ve saved anyone else, I gladly would’ve crawled in the body bag.

I wish they came home to their parents and kids and rescue dogs.

I’m also shocked as hell that wish isn’t as strong as it usually is when I turn and look at the beautiful face that haunted me while I was in that pit, while I lost myself, while I—

“Weston?”

I shake my head, clearing the funk, and look into her wondering green eyes.

What the hell are we actually doing?

Nothing about me is close to resolved and never will be. I can’t pull her into that even if we’re just—what?—friends with benefits?

Fuck.

I hate that phrase, despite how accurate it is here.

“Did you find Mr. Whiskers?” I ask.

Frowning, she looks at me for a long moment, no doubt sensing I’m changing the subject.

“Nope. No sign of him yet. I did notice a few of those footprints Drake mentioned...they’re mostly scratched away now from the morning frost and the wind. But they’re there if you want to take a look,” she says, catching a lock of her hair and twirling it nervously.

Do I scare her sometimes?

I should.

“He’ll show up when he’s hungry, I’m sure, and thanks. I’ll check again before I go.” I pick up the screwdriver and pretend to tighten that lock one more time.

I can feel her watching anxiously behind my back.

Trying to make light of everything, I say over my shoulder, “These jobs always take twice as long as you expect.”

“Uh-huh,” she mutters softly.

She’s too smart to buy my act—or I’m that shitty of a liar.

At least it doesn’t stop her from planting a quick, understanding peck on my cheek.

“I pulled a few other pairs of your aunt’s shoes out of the closet while I was up there. They were dirty so I gave them a good cleaning. I’d better put them away before I forget.”

She walks into the house, and I rub the back of my neck like I’m being swarmed by mosquitoes.

Damn, this tension has nothing on a thousand little bloodsuckers. I hope like hell it won’t cause me a migraine.

That was the worst after I came home, hurting like a jackhammer lodged behind my right eye while I tried to quit the bottle and fought to dry myself out.

I had to take shots for them after the ambush to be functional.

It still isn’t fair.

Good men and women lost their lives, and the only injury I wound up with was a little shrapnel scar on my leg, a long night of panic pinned under debris, and these blinding fucking headaches.

By the time I’ve quadruple-checked the locks, Shelly’s in the living room, dusting and cleaning the glass display cases.

She looks so much like she belongs here it hurts.

How do I fix this? How do I rock her to pieces like I did today, knowing it has an expiration date?

The answer that gnaws at me isn’t one I want to entertain.

Make sure it doesn’t happen again, you dolt.

I drive her back to the B&B and decline a dinner invite, saying I need to get to the shop to catch up on business.

It isn’t a lie.

That’s where I go and bury myself in replacing a transmission on an old Dodge Ram now that the gasket set arrived with my last parts order. I’m covered in transmission fluid by the time I’m done, and the phone in my makeshift office rings.

Rick has already left for the day, so I answer it and agree to a tow job on the interstate.

An evening rain starts as I’m heading outside.

I take my sweet time walking to my truck, feeling like I need the coolness on my face, my shoulders, the back of my neck.

I need them so that when I lose it a split second later, the red-hot anguish bleeding from my eyes is just between me and the maker of this universe.

This is my life.

A hot-ass mess scraped off a cruel griddle.

I’m destined to be a grease monkey with a chip on my shoulder the size of a hundred-year-old oak tree—nothing more—and I’d better remember it.

That chip will always be there.

There’s no redemption.

Not in Shel Simon’s arms, or her kiss, or even in her heart.

15

Pigs Get Fat (Rachel)

There are still no lights on at Weston’s place and I’m about to eat my own liver.

I’m wearing out the carpet pacing in front of the window, looking across the field, waiting to see a single flickering porch light. A sweep of headlights. Anything.

I sent him a text earlier, asking him again to join us for supper.

On a tow up the interstate. Won’t be back till late.

That’s what he said when I check the text again.

Be careful, I’d sent back.

I can’t help being on edge since leaving Faye’s place with Drake’s news about the latest prowler. And because I could read something on his face he wouldn’t say, right behind that rare smile that still seems like a treasure.

Flash forward.

It’s late, raining, and almost eleven o’clock.

My nerves flick hot as I sit down on the chair by the window, watching for a light to come on.

The October cold arrived tonight in force. I shudder at the moan in the wind.

But when I replay the last twenty-four hours, a smile tugs at my lips.

I hadn’t drowned when I seized my chance to swim.

Oh, and we were both rewarded dearly for our courage.

Letting Weston take me over in the back of his truck was one long, unexpected fever dream.

My body remembers too well, strumming with desires only he can satisfy. I’ll be exhausted and sore tomorrow, no matter how late I turn in, and I still want more of him.

Even so, I hope I didn’t make anything awkward at the end.

Did he just need his space when I left because he was worried about Faye and the intruder? Or was something wrong in that gorgeous head of his thanks to me?

I hope he gets it.

Hope he understands there can be an us, if only for a few weeks. Yes, I know I’m the brat who never stopped crushing on him. Not even when he made me madder than a hornet.

I also hope that before I leave, some small part of him knows he can open up with me.

He can tell me things about himself, his life, his dreams, and his agonies...

...and if he’s ready, he can give us both closure. I won’t judge him harshly if he just tells me why I never heard from him for seven freaking years.

After today, I’m not even mad. Just worried for his sake.

I hated how his eyes went dark before I left, filled with this faded, somber look.

He pretended everything was cool, but I saw through his act. I think it’s why I haven’t gotten so much as a bad joke texted back.

He’s avoiding me now.

But why?

Hopefully, telling him about the latest with Carson will help.

Sad to say, I’m less sure than ever he’s the man behind Faye’s trouble.

He showed up back at the B&B today with a trunk packed with goods bought from local farmers. That’s what he’s been doing every day, driving wherever the country roads spidering out from Dallas lead, stopping at homes and inquiring about anything they’d like to sell for quick cash.

He carried a couple of old tin signs and a pair of leather chaps inside.

I listened while he told Faye about them and apologized for not following up about her bookshelf. He mentioned nabbing a few old lovely lamps, too, the handcrafted stained glass type that are hard to come by anywhere these days.

Predictably, Faye gushed all over him, insisting we go see his jackpot.

With Carson standing there, offering an almost apologetic smile, I couldn’t say no...

Do I still want to flip him off? Sure.

Just a little less than before.

And I may not like it, but he was as genteel as ever—if a little frosty toward me—opening his trunk and carefully unwrapping a stained glass lamp for us to see.

“It’s right up your alley, Rachel. See the little airplanes?” He pointed to the designs in the stained glass, hundred-year-old aircraft that would’ve been the norm in Amelia Earhart’s era.

I pretended to be impressed.

“It’d be perfect for Amelia’s, I believe, but...finders, keepers. You understand,” he said with an oily wink.

So, his manners may suck, but I’m not sensing criminal mastermind vibes off him.

Still feeling skeptical, I scanned other areas of his car discreetly, looking for anything shaped remotely like Faye’s missing gun.

Nothing turned up, and Carson happily boasted about his new trophies. The guy wouldn’t shut up for twenty minutes about a box of musical beer mugs from nineteenth century Bavaria that he got “for a steal” from a farmer near the Montana state line.

Surprise, surprise.

To my disappointment and slight relief, he acted like what he claims to be. Just a well-dressed collector looking for old things to play middleman with.

I should be happier because it screams Muddy Boots must be our robber.

Weston should be thrilled with something concrete to go on—if he ever comes home.

But somehow, it just doesn’t feel that easy.

The other guy feels like a walking question mark.

With Carson, we know who he is and where he’s staying. If Marty can’t suss out this other guy...it’s scary to think about.

That means we have a loose cannon skulking around town, whereabouts potentially unknown, watching and plotting his next heist. He could even turn violent.

Tucking my feet under me, I snuggled down in the chair, staring out into the chill fall night at Weston’s dark lump of a house.

It’s a tad more peaceful tonight, at least, all nervousness aside.

Now that I know Carson is nothing more than an annoying guest, I can relax and focus on West and the thousand nagging questions he kicks up.

Maybe I can figure out where he goes when those bright-blue eyes fade into a dusky, restless cyan.

It has to be the war, I’m sure, and I want to help him.

I want to heal him before I leave, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.

And if he does, if I can give him that, will I leave him at all?

I mean, I’ll have to head back to D.C., and as hard as it is to imagine carrying on a distance thing...it wouldn’t be impossible.

If we’re that good—if we’re more than just mind-bending sex—would he ever make a new pact?

Would he write me for real? Would he stay in touch?

Would he want me to come home someday and stay?

This time for good.

* * *

“Ow,” I mutter, jerking up with a stinging kink in my neck.

I must have dozed off. The next thing I know, it’s after three in the morning when I check my phone.

Weston’s place looks darker than ever, this dense shadow in the distance. I could’ve missed him while napping and I wouldn’t even know it.

Sigh.

Frustrated, I head to my bedroom, undress, and crawl into bed with a yawn. I’ll just have to give him the rundown about Carson in the morning.

I consider texting to make sure he’s home, but I don’t want to wake him. Nor do I want to become one of those girls—the fluttery social butterflies who get so clingy they send guys running like their butts are on fire.

The next morning, when I’m up and caffeinated, I’m excited to see Hercules at the fence, grunting a hello as I walk across the lawn. I’d checked on him yesterday evening with Faye, and though he was up and walking around, he still hadn’t been quite his usual perky porker self.

He’s Mr. Congeniality this morning, mushing his adorable black snout between the boards before I arrive.

“Good morning to you, too, big guy!” I say. “Glad you’re feeling better. You really gave us a scare the other morning.”

He grunts affectionately, trotting toward his feed trough as if to say, less talk, more food. This belly wants to make up for lost time.

Laughing, I dump the bowl’s contents over the fence.

I’m surprised to see feed in the trough.

It wasn’t there last night when I was over with Faye, meaning Weston already fed him this morning...and that means he’s home.

After adding the scraps and setting the empty bowl on the ground, I walk to the back door of the house and rap at it softly.

Why do I feel so jittery?

My knock goes unanswered and the door is locked. Walking around the front, I notice his pickup isn’t in the driveway.

My heart deflates as I pull out my phone and open my contacts.

Did you already leave for work? I came by to give Herc breakfast, I text.

It feels like an hour passes waiting for a reply. Really, it takes no longer than a quick walk to the porch, where I open the screen door and check to make sure the front door is locked. Can’t be too careful with these break-ins way too close for comfort.

Yep. Got a lot to do before I meet Faulk at Aunt Faye’s with the new security stuff. How’s our boy doing? He looked better late last night when I got home.

My disappointment hitches up, even as I tell myself there’s no good reason it should while I’m texting him back.

Hercules looks better today. More like his old self and his old appetite. He’s gobbling up last night’s scraps right now. I add a pig face emoji.

His reply is almost instant.

I figured he’d dive right in as soon as he could eat again. Crazy-ass drama hog. Thanks for feeding him.

A gif of a pig almost as big as Herc suckling at a baby bottle follows.

I snicker. He’s very good at making it hard to stay mad at him.

I also understand he runs his own business and he’s a busy guy, so I send a final text, promising to cut it off there.

Let me know if you need any help at Faye’s house later, I text, tacking a smiley face emoji onto the end.

Will do, baby.

One silly little word and my heart somersaults.

That baby makes me feel infinitely better.

I walk back to the B&B and mix up a batch of blueberry muffins so they can bake while I work on everything else Gram’s breakfast menu needs for today.

Carson actually joins us for breakfast this morning.

From the kitchen, I overhear him chatting up a storm with Faye about the “quaint old farms” in the area hiding hundred-year-old hidden gems. His voice sounds more animated than anything I’ve ever heard as he brags about his finds and hopes to “strike it big” before the car show.

Gram joins in, offering suggestions for folks who might have vintage goods lying around that they’d want to part with for quick cash.

By the time I’m at the table with them and dishing out breakfast, I’m listening, but not that engaged. I’m trying way too hard to come up with an excuse to drive over to Faye’s house this afternoon.

If I do, I’ll have to borrow Gram’s car.

She keeps it tucked away in the garage on the side of the house. Or I could borrow one of Grandpa’s less-valuable rides if she’d let me, I guess. Maybe it would pique West’s interest more than whatever I’ve got in my suitcase that qualifies as sexy.

I didn’t exactly plan on coming to Dallas to impress men, so I packed light. Frilly lingerie was the last thing on my mind. The few pieces I own are still buried in my apartment half a country away.

My eyes drift to Gram as she laughs at some old story about saddles Carson feigns interest in.

I bet she’d even let me borrow the old motorcycle if I asked.

Imagining the look on Weston’s face if I show up on the same bike I crashed and he fixed ages ago makes me grin.

Of course, I know Faulk will be there, so a repeat of yesterday can’t happen even if I want another roll in the back of his truck—and God do I ever.

But just being there and enjoying West’s company would be wonderful enough.

“What’s got you smiling like that, Rachel? Or should I say who?”

I look up to see Carson staring right through me.

My shoulders tense as I rake my eyes over him. No, he doesn’t sound hostile or jealous, but there’s something in his voice that just seems nosy.

Like he’s trying way too hard to sound numb, friendly, but disarming as he snoops at my life.

Thinking fast, I glance at Faye, whose grin might be the only one at the table wider than Gram’s.

“Oh, just thinking about Hercules. He couldn’t get his food down fast enough this morning, and he ran right up to me wanting pets.”

“I’m over the moon to hear it!” Faye looks at Carson. “The poor boy got into something that left him with a dreadful bellyache.”

“Oh, yeah. Hercules. The pig. Same one who belongs to your nosy neighbor?” He gives me this thin, guarded smile.

I’m instantly offended.

“That’s him,” I say flatly. Just because I’ve discovered he might not be a psycho thief, doesn’t mean I have to like him. Or his sewer almonds. “The vet thought he got into some weird crappy almonds that made him pretty sick. He had us all worried.”

“Crappy almonds?” Carson echoes, lifting his chin like he’s offended.

That only incenses me more. He should be more than offended.

He should apologize, at least to us humans on Herc’s behalf.

“Yep. Almonds. I found two bags he got into just flapping around.”

For a second, he goes ashen, like he thinks I’m accusing him of some high crime.

“Oh. Well, if those came from me, I’m terribly sorry, Miss Rachel. My apologies to everyone.” Carson turns, flicking his eyes at each of us while patting his side. “I just noticed recently that I have a hole in my pocket. I tried fixing it myself, but I’m not much of a tailor.”

“A hole? Well, see here, I could stitch that up for you in a jiffy!” Faye says happily. “Thelma, where’s your sewing kit?”

“On the shelf in the sitting room,” Gram answers. “I’ll get it.”

“No, you won’t!” Faye stands and pushes away from the table. “I’ll grab it and have this young man patched right up.” She waves at Carson. “Please come with me, Mr. Hudson. It’ll only take us a minute to send you on your merry way.”

He stands, clearing his throat. “Well, if you don’t mind...I sincerely appreciate it. I’ll certainly compensate you for your services.”

“Nonsense!” Faye protests, tapping him lightly on the back and leading the way into the sitting room.

I open my mouth to protest, but know I’m letting my bias get the best of me.

I may loathe this guy, but there’s no need to cause a flap and cheat Faye out of a few bucks.

“So, what’s on the docket today?” Gram asks. “Mercy me, I’ve still been so loopy I forgot to look over the schedule last night.”

“Dishes, laundry, vacuuming, more meal prep, and cleaning the rooms,” I say, rattling everything off with a smile.

I’m a little proud I’ve been holding down the fort for so long—practically solo—that I’ve got the weekly routine memorized.

“Is there anything for dear Faye?” Gram asks with a cackle. “She’s insisting on paying her way while she’s here. I believe she wants to stay another week, at least.”

That gets a smile. I’m pumped to hear how well they’re getting along and that Gram will have company she adores longer.

“Oh, well...meal prep, maybe? I got a good start on everything this morning.” I stand and begin clearing the table. “I might go grocery shopping this afternoon to shore up our supplies. Any requests, Gram?”

“Hmm, there are some things we need. I’ll make a list,” she says, taking a pull off her coffee. “Oh! And you must zoom over there before two o’clock or that greedy Coffey woman will have gotten all the good fruit—especially the strawberries.”

I hold in a laugh while Gram sighs, shaking her head.

If she had a tail, it would be flicking the ground in irritation.

“No worries. I’ll get right on it after lunch,” I assure her. “Do you need a pen and paper for your list?”

“Yes, please.”

I grab her writing stuff from the front desk and work on clearing the table.

Faye has Carson’s jacket mended well before I’m finished. I catch one last glimpse of Carson waving goodbye before he dashes away.

Good riddance.

Faye insists on cleaning his room, and though I mention the meal prep, she won’t back down. We end up splitting the chores and have everything upstairs cleaned and polished in no time.

I continue vacuuming all the carpeted areas downstairs, and as I’m returning the vac to the laundry room, I hear this odd high-pitched noise.

Almost like a motor or something squealing?

No, wait.

An animal?

It’s definitely coming from outside.

As soon as I open the back door of the B&B and let my ears pinpoint the sound, it hits like an arrow through the chest.

That noise is faint, distant, and coming from Weston’s place.

Oh, no.

“Hercules!” I yell, taking off at a ground-eating run.

With my heart in my throat, I cross the distance between our properties in no time. Just as I’m rounding the barn, where I can see the edge of Herc’s pen, I notice it’s empty.

“Oh, crap on a cracker,” I sputter.

My eyes frantically bounce around the grounds, wondering what kind of trouble he’s Houdinied himself into this time.

I can’t see him in the pen. But I hear him somewhere, squealing like a lost kitten.

“Hercules! Where are you?” I call out, shouting as I run.

I arrive at the barn and check for loose boards, wondering if he could’ve pulled something up and gotten inside. He’s also not in the only stable he can access through the pig door.

Not good.

Another erratic squeal sends me flying back to the pen, the side closest to the barn. At the corner, near his water tank, I see it.

The boards are split apart like he rammed through them headfirst, a single sad board dangling in the breeze.

Scrambling to that section, I duck down and peer through the opening he’s made.

The ground is wet, muddy from the slight overflow of the water tank, but I see pig prints.

He squeals again, this time more faintly, just before another sound knifes my eyes.

A slamming door...like a car door or something.

West? Is he back?

I can’t see anything because of the house obstructing my view. I take off again for a better look, musing at how good this workout would be if this pig weren’t panicking me to death.

As I round the side of the house, I see this big black ball lumbering around.

“Thank God,” I whisper.

Hercules, on the porch, tracking mud all over it like the impatient little cannonball he is.

There’s also no vehicle in the driveway or parked along the side of the house.

...weird.

I didn’t hear anyone driving away, and there’s no one going down the road in either direction. It could’ve already turned off the service road, but I would have heard it if someone was speeding away that fast...wouldn’t I?

Am I just hallucinating? Freaking out that much over the amazing disappearing pig?

I look at Hercules and frown. “Are you a watch dog or an escape artist?”

He snorts glumly, sniffing the porch one last time before he trots over with his dark, humanoid eyes staring up and gleaming.

I don’t think it’s possible, but I’d almost swear his curlicue tail is wagging.

“Little dude, Weston is not going to be happy with you. This has to be like the fifth time you’ve busted out since I’ve been here.” I still give him a friendly pat on the head, which wins me a joyful snuffle. “We’re gonna work on our manners, okay? West has enough going on. He can’t be fixing your pen every week. You and I are going to—” I stop talking because I notice something else that’s very not right.

The front door to the house is open.

Not the screen, but the actual door. I know it was shut this morning. Locked.

“Weston?” I shout, somewhat foolishly because if he was home, he’d have surely heard Hercules going nuts.

Keeping the pig at my side—which doesn’t take much effort when he trails me like a lab—I walk to the door and gaze in through the screen.

I see the bookcase in the corner, the top is all shelves, the bottom is a small cabinet and—

Holy hell. Both cabinet doors are hanging open with books and papers scattered across the floor.

My heart stops, stunned into deadly silence from the chill blowing up my back.

Someone broke in.

I reach for my phone, but realize I left it on the kitchen counter as I charge to the B&B.

Well, shit. This is every bad horror movie plot, and it’s getting too close to Halloween for comfort.

“Come on, guy. We’re not ending up like we’re too stupid to live,” I whisper, running a quick hand down his back and hoping he’ll follow.

He does, shadowing me at a quick trot all the way.

I won’t dwell on the bitter irony, Weston pouring so much energy into fixing Faye’s place that he left his own wide open.

But who the hell would want to come after his stuff?

* * *

Twenty minutes later, Faye and I are both huddled on his front porch, while Herc lounges in the grass nearby, nosing around for food.

When Weston arrives ten minutes later, he’s followed closely by Drake’s gold-and-black Interceptor SUV painted with the sheriff’s crest.

“I told you to stay home,” Weston barks gruffly, climbing out of his truck.

My stomach flips over.

Yeah, technically he told me to stay home when I’d called him about the break-in, while Faye was busy talking to Drake on the landline, but I never had any intention of listening.

“We didn’t go inside,” I say defensively.

“Will miracles never cease,” he mutters, giving me the side-eye.

“You ladies haven’t touched anything?” Drake asks.

“No, nothing, not even the screen door after I knew it was open,” I reply. “I grabbed the screen door and the doorknob before the intrusion, though. The door was definitely locked.”

“Got it. Everybody, please stay here.” Drake shifts his body weight, unstraps his gun, and slowly opens the screen door to enter the house.

Faye starts explaining what happened with Hercules to West. I interrupt because she’s too amped up, making it all sound jumbled and confusing.

I tell him exactly what I heard and why I came by, finishing with, “So, yeah. It was strange to see Herc so riled up, too. He was acting like something scared him. You sure he’s not part guard pig?”

Before West answers, Drake yells from inside the house. “Coast is clear! Come on in, folks.”

“Stay put,” West says sternly, flashing me a blue-eyed warning.

Faye wrings her hands together nervously, her frizzy hair bobbing in the breeze. I take her arm gently and lead her to one of the big rocking chairs on the porch.

I actually wanted her to stay home, but she insisted on following me to Weston’s. We didn’t know if Drake would beat us there or not.

Ugh.

Maybe I should have stayed home, considering the cold shoulder I’m getting from Mr. Snarlypants.

“You don’t have a key hidden anywhere outside?” I hear Drake ask Weston.

“Hell no,” Weston responds.

I move closer to the door to listen.

Just like at Faye’s house, Drake combs over the lock, photographing it in extreme detail for evidence.

“It’s just like last time. No visible marks, but I’d say it was picked with a newer electronic tool. They’re not like your daddy’s crude kits—these damn things only take seconds on old locks and they don’t leave any signs. None that can be detected without a forensics lab looking real hard under a microscope.” Drake stiffens, adjusting his uniform. “You sure everything’s there? Nothing missing at all?”

“Not that I can tell, but I honestly don’t remember what I had in that cabinet,” West says with a sigh. His eyes flash like beams, angry and searching. “I’ve got to admit, a lot of the miscellaneous stuff hanging around is crap my parents left behind when they moved. I never bothered cleaning it out. Think I’ve only opened those bottom cabinets a few times in my entire life.”

“Seems like the perp was looking for something,” Drake says. “He probably hoped there was something more valuable in there than old storybooks.”

Weston nods grimly.

“Guess so.”

“Shit, I have to say I’m stumped. We’ve never had targeted break-ins like this with flashy new tools from polished criminals. Almost makes me want another round of mafia dickheads and escaped tigers,” Drake jokes darkly.

“Yeah, dammit, me too,” Weston says. “I’ve got one theory, though. Aunt Faye and I were the last two targets. What if someone’s after my family? I better give Uncle Grady and Willow a heads-up...”

My heart sinks into a crater.

I don’t know why, but I feel like I’m partly responsible for this mess, for that worry etched on his handsome face like scratches on flawless marble.

If I’d just been a little faster, if I’d spotted a person or license plate or anything, I could’ve saved him so much grief.

I want to help him so much it twists me inside out.

Oh, Weston, just show me how.

16

Hog Chaser (Weston)

My guts lash with anger as I pound nails in the boards.

Almost a week of sleeting October rain delayed the repair, leaving me to make do with a temporary patch till the deluge stopped and mud like quicksand dried enough to stand on.

Hitting something solid hard enough to tear my hand off sounds like the therapy I need right now, and fixing Herc’s pen delivers it.

Why the hell would anyone break into my house?

There’s nothing valuable enough to steal. I do well for myself and I appreciate old stuff, but I’m not living in a museum overflowing with antiques.

I can’t help but think that Carson Hudson has something to do with it, despite Drake saying he ran his name and nothing criminal came up.

All logical signs point to Muddy Boots, the mysterious fuck who Marty tells me keeps clocking in and working overtime like he’s just another run-of-the-mill roughneck in the oil fields.

Shelly also told me about Hudson’s business ventures, and how he showed them some valuables he’d picked up from locals.

She thinks he’s legit. Just another jackass with excess money and time to burn, scouring western North Dakota for forgotten junk he can flip for a profit.

I don’t blame her for feeling that way.

I don’t blame anybody for going with what’s logical.

Me? I don’t buy shit.

It’s too convenient. I’m also not sure I buy his reasons for hanging around town so long. There have to be happier hunting grounds than chasing after a few off-the-map farms and garage sales here.

Not unless there’s something specific he wants that he’ll only find in Dallas.

Still, I can’t discount the ghost of a man we’re calling Muddy Boots, either.

And if I’m right, if it’s one of these two strangers...why?

Why target my family? What’s the culprit really after?

“Are you sure I can’t help?” Shelly asks, her voice pleading.

I clamp my lips tight.

That was the only scary part about the whole shitting thing.

She was here last week. Alone.

Shel could’ve smacked right into whoever the fuck wanted to force their way in and toss my living room. God only knows what might’ve happened then, especially if this Muddy Boots dude has so little chill he roared at my elderly aunt.

If it weren’t for causing Marty trouble, I’d drive over to North Earhart and wait for the snake to get off work. Then I’d break his nose for scaring my aunt within an inch of her life.

The thought of Shelly facing his temper makes me sick, and mighty grateful she didn’t see anything that would get her noticed.

There’s been entirely too much of this criminal mastermind crap in Dallas the last few years.

First Ridge and Grace with those guys from Milwaukee after them, then Faulk with a nasty rogue from his FBI past.

I didn’t wind up locked in a cage with a full-grown tiger over nothing—Uncle Grady and Willow had their tango with those animal smuggling freaks. I’m damn glad I had a hand in bringing them down, even if it left me a fresh scar to the head.

Maybe that’s what’s got me on edge more than anything.

This town has been a frigging magnet for trouble, and usually it’s a whole lot bigger than weirdos with a hard-on for petty home intrusions and fancy lockpicks.

Dallas used to be a place where people weren’t afraid to go to bed with their doors unlocked. It pisses me off that someone wants to savage our goodwill, our collective gentleness, and I’m smack-dab in the middle of it.

“Weston?”

“Nope. I’ve got it all under control, baby,” I reply, driving that last nail in hard. “Lucky for me, I had extra boards left over from when I built the pen. Herc used to have the run of Faye’s backyard.”

“Oh, nice. Did he ever break out there?” she asks, hiding a smile.

“Never once, and her fence is nothing more than a few old purple-painted boards held up in some places with bungee cords. He only turned into an escape swine when he showed up here.” I sniff in disgust, standing to survey my handiwork.

“Looks as good as new!” she says, rubbing my shoulders. “Call me crazy, but I think he would’ve stayed put if he hadn’t been spooked by the uninvited guest. He was so panicked when I found him. I just wish I realized why sooner...”

The frown she wears tells me she feels worse about the break-in than I do.

I’m furious that it happened, yeah, but she’s inexplicably beating herself up. Like this is somehow her fault because she didn’t team up with Herc to track down and hog-tie our would-be thief—pun intended.

Bullshit, I say.

I point the hammer at Herc, who’s lying in the shade of the big tree facing his pen where it attaches to the barn.

“Little man, you bust out one more time and you’ll be in the freezer. I’m not playing,” I grumble.

He gives back a lazy, defiant snort.

I hate how the pig knows my bark is worse than my bite.

Draping an arm around Shelly’s shoulders, I urge her to walk beside me into the barn.

“You don’t need to be so freaked. I won’t really make him pork chops. Probably,” I add under my breath.

She snickers, her auburn locks fluttering in the wind.

“I know you won’t. You’re a total softie.” She wraps an arm around my waist. “But I do wish you’d reconsider putting some stuff in Gram’s safe if you’ve got any valuables. Even anything sentimental like the scrapbook. You know how massive that safe is. She only keeps a few trinkets in there since Grandpa used it for paperwork and a few old gold coins. She sometimes offers guests space if they ask for secure storage. I’m sure she won’t care if you do.”

“I’ve got nothing safe-worthy, Shel.” I set the hammer on the shelf, and keeping my arm around her, we walk to the door that leads inside the barn.

“Sure, you do! What about the family heirlooms all over your place?”

I open the door, let her in first, and then close it behind us with a shrug.

“Heirlooms are only valuable for the memory. Not nearly as important as living people.” Wrapping my arms around her, I pull her close, feeling this thin cord in my head snap. “Never go running off to an active crime site when I say don’t, okay?”

Her eyes narrow.

“Oh, please. This isn’t Washington or Baltimore, West. Nobody was lurking around in your house, waiting for me with a knife. I was worried about your stuff getting stolen.”

“You’d be surprised. This place isn’t as quiet as you remember. Just ask anybody on a lively night at the Purple Bobcat. They’ll tell you what this town’s been through lately and it’ll sound like a true crime show,” I tell her. “Also, my stuff can be replaced. You, not so easily.”

The fight in her shamrock-green eyes softens as she leans into me, accepting my hold.

“Yeah, yeah, people, not things. I get it.” She loops her arms around my neck with a kind smile. “But things with meaning still matter. They’re living records of people and places worth keeping alive.”

A rough sigh heaves out of me.

I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but staying away from her all week was a special hell.

“Maybe so. Or maybe I’m more interested in the folks right in front of me.”

If she doesn’t get who I mean the most, I’d better show her.

I capture her lips in a long, torrid kiss that’s not meant to entice.

It aims to prove how important she is to me, how bad I ache to protect her.

How treasured she’s always been, even when I was too busted up to keep my promises.

As I end the kiss, I hold her greedily to my chest. The murmur she exhales feels precious.

Again, I wish things were different.

They aren’t. They never will be.

She’s her. I’m me. Two opposites fated to be jerked around by a gravity that says they can’t coexist.

She steps back as I lessen my hold.

“I’ll help you clean up your living room. You haven’t had a chance to put everything back together yet. It’s the least I can do,” she says with a tone that says she’s not taking no for an answer.

That makes me chuckle. Knowing her, if I resist, she’ll sneak back over here and do it while I’m at Faye’s, helping Faulk fine-tune the new security system.

Looks like I’ll have him order one for my house, too.

I’ll probably never need it—not after Muddy Boots slips up or Hudson leaves town—but better safe than fucking sorry.

“All right,” I say. “Go knock yourself out.”

“I will, and I’ll help you find stuff for Gram’s safe.”

I roll my eyes at her, shaking my head.

“Don’t you even start, Weston McKnight,” she warns with a wagging finger, trying not to laugh. “You have things worth keeping. I’m sure of it.”

I’m positive there’s not much.

Still, I humor her with my silence as we head to the house.

It doesn’t take long to pick through the cabinet’s contents and get everything back in order, or for her to stack up stuff that she thinks needs a home in Thelma’s basement safe.

I give in, agree with her, and kiss her one last time before I help carry two boxes over to the B&B. It’s mainly papers and old photos from when I was a kid. All the crap I’ve never had time to look through. She’s convinced it’s my family’s crown jewels.

Because why wouldn’t a few musty old books and brittle papers thrill the pants off a history nerd?

Thelma and Faye have a mess of sandwiches ready for lunch, and they insist that I stay and eat with them before we haul everything downstairs.

I agree, wondering why the two old gals keep sharing secretive smiles that seem a mile wide by the time I’ve devoured my last bite. Aunt Faye’s definitely in a giddy mood since extending her staycation at Amelia’s.

The conversation turns to the old car show that’s coming up lightning fast.

“Have you picked the boys and girls yet for their next rodeo?” Thelma asks, code for Doug’s old cars since they were almost like extra children.

“The whole kitchen sink, minus the Corvette and the bikes. You’ve still got the list, right?”

“Oh, yes!” She smiles sheepishly, adjusting her reading glasses. “Sorry. This old mind needs a wee nudge every so often. Wish you could put a little elbow grease into fixing my head sometimes.”

I smile at the thought.

“Why not the bikes? Or the Corvette? That thing still looks brand new,” Shelly says, tapping her fingernails on the table.

“The old Corvette’s way too valuable,” I explain. “It’s a museum piece. I don’t say that lightly. No good reason to bring it out of mothballs for display and risk scratches from some careless bystanders.”

“Museum worthy?” Thelma perks, shaking her head. “That old thing? Malarkey.”

“No lie, Mrs. Simon.” I’ve explained it to her before and encouraged her to raise her insurance on the barn years ago.

Like most old ladies sitting on a secret fortune, she won’t budge.

I badly wish she’d reconsider.

The Corvette is a 1967 L88. There were only about twenty of them ever made, and even fewer of them around these days.

That ancient car alone could easily make her a multimillionaire, only dollar signs are invisible to her.

“I remember when Doug brought that thing home,” she muses like she’s reading my mind. “He picked it up in Kansas City from this fella who was overseas with him and Jonah. He was awful proud the guy let it go for a song, just as long as he promised to always take care of his baby.”

I nod.

She pauses and looks at me. “Promises are promises, Weston. And promises Doug made are golden. We’re selling over my dead body.”

“Gram!” Shelly hisses.

Aunt Faye tips her chair back from laughing so hard.

“How could I forget? He picked it up not long before I shipped out to bootcamp. Almost had a heart attack at twenty when I first saw it,” I say, remembering that last summer fondly.

“Fine, so the Corvette’s a treasure, but what about the old bikes?” Shelly asks, giving me one more reminder why that summer was so special.

Really, Shel? The look I beam at her needs no explanation.

I’m not saving her cute little ass from crashing that beast twice.

She rolls her eyes.

“When will you take them to the fairgrounds?” Thelma asks.

“Saturday morning,” I reply. “Why? Having second thoughts?”

“Heaven’s no,” she says. “I was just thinking...you should take the keys out of the safe when you carry your stuff down to the basement, so you don’t have to go back there later.”

She keeps the keys and titles for Doug’s old cars in the safe. Long ago, she gave me the combination to retrieve everything as needed. I’m honored by her trust.

It’s also a serious challenge opening the damn safe every time, an old dial lock that’s as touchy as a hair-spring trigger.

“That’s cool, I can grab them next Saturday.”

With another secretive glance at Faye, Thelma shrugs.

“What if you’re busy?” she asks, lifting her brows comically. “You young folks can’t sit still. Sometimes a few weeks’ difference is all it takes to wind up with a new job, new dog, and the love of your life.”

I glance at Shelly, who shrugs and frowns as she looks at her grandmother.

“I mean, he’s got the pet part covered with Hercules,” she says with a wary look. Nice save. “What are you two planning?”

Faye sighs.

“Oh, dear. I was going to ask you...then I thought I shouldn’t because of the break-ins and all of this security fuss, but...well, you know how people will be setting up booths at the car show? In the old 4-H building, I believe?”

“Yep. Lots of local businesses turning out,” I say, dredging up the whole list in my mind. “The Barnets will have beer and pumpkins stacked to the ceiling since it’s just a few days till Halloween. Willow’s supposed to have Bruce there to raise money for the cat sanctuary, and I even heard Tory Faulkner will have something popping for her dance studio. North Earhart is sponsoring the whole shebang. They’ll have games, a band, and horses galore—Edison and Edna for sure. Supposedly with a hundred fail-safes to keep ’em from escaping, but we know how that goes.”

Their knowing smiles say they both already knew about the event. It’s the last big fall bash the town has before winter and flyers are plastered all over.

“Why are you asking, Aunt Faye?”

“Wellll,” Faye says, extending the word with a shy grin. “Thelma and I were thinkin’ that she should have a booth for the bed and breakfast. I could pitch in, of course. Maybe throw together some things that haven’t sold yet at my sales on a table as well.”

“Are you sure you’d be up for that?” I ask Thelma.

She’s been moving around like a bull rider for her age and condition, but I hate to see her push it too far, too fast, and trigger any nasty setbacks.

“You’ll need that big dog leash you use for the pig to keep me home, sonny.” Thelma flashes her pearly-white dental implants. “Heck, with Shelly Bean at the helm, I’ve been resting so much that I’m fixing to get bed sores. We’re ready to party. We just didn’t know if all the booths were taken yet or not.”

The shine on both their lined faces proves it’s something they’re chomping at the bit to do.

“I can add you to the list, if it’s all right with Shel,” I say, flashing her a knowing look.

She nods.

“Can’t see why not. It won’t be that much work getting you a space.”

“Ohhh, lovely. Except, I’ll need a strong hand muscling everything over there Saturday morning,” Faye says with a pained look. “But you’ll be busy with the cars, won’t you, West?”

“Most people are setting up their booths on Friday night,” I explain. “We can move everything over then.” Recent crime events have me adding, “The building will be locked up at ten p.m. that night, so everything should be safe inside.”

“You really won’t mind?” Faye asks. “I know it’s asking a lot, but we have to be there, West. We know it’s a big part of your fundraisers, and bless you, we want to help.”

“I don’t mind.”

I also won’t mind if she unloads a few more items she’s been trying so hard to sell to strangers. The sooner she runs out, the better for my peace of mind.

“I’ll get your names listed and your tables assigned. I’ll handle the muscle so you won’t miss the fun.”

“Thank you, dearie!” Faye pats my arm. “This is so exciting!”

The two of them start chattering a mile a minute about tablecloths, decorations, and carving pumpkins.

As soon as I’m done eating, I stand. “I’ll get my stuff downstairs and then head over to meet Faulk. He’s helping optimize the new system with practically everything installed.”

“Let me help.” Shelly sets down her napkin and stands up.

“No, finish eating,” I tell her.

I’m not sure I have any room left in my head for soft green eyes and strawberry lips I constantly want to sink my teeth in. I don’t need that distraction.

“I’m done,” she says, already swishing her hips to the kitchen as she stuffs half a sandwich in her mouth before I can say another word.

Damn her.

There’s no sense in arguing, I guess.

After Shel returns, we collect the boxes and carry them through the sitting room to the basement door, taking our time on the narrow concrete steps leading down.

“Is Grandpa’s Corvette really worth major moolah?” she asks while we’re heading downstairs.

“Yep. There were only a handful ever made.” Marty didn’t know that either, and I wonder if even Doug and old man Reed realized just how rare this model was when he bought it. “I helped him confirm its authenticity years ago. We matched the VIN numbers with the original twenty from ’67. It’s the real deal.”

“Dang. Then why not put it in the show? I know you’re worried about idiots banging into it but...sounds like it’d be a once in a lifetime sight.”

I shrug, shaking my head.

“I told Marty and Thelma—the only other people who know about the car—that it’s better to keep it mum unless Thelma ever decides to sell. Or even if it’s part of your inheritance with Marty someday. There’s no telling how much interest you’d attract, and not the good kind.”

She pauses, chewing her bottom lip.

“Is that why you have it triple wrapped and raised up on blocks?”

“Yeah.” I’ve done everything I can to keep it in pristine condition.

Still, every time a summer storm rolls through in force, I think of that car in the old barn and pray we never get a twister touching down on the Simon’s property.

“Are any of his other cars like that?” she asks.

I pause in the corner next to the safe. Just like the storage barn, the basement is swarming with valuables old Doug pulled together over the years.

“No. He’s got plenty of awesome wheels in great condition with solid resell value, but nothing quite like the Corvette. Nothing else in that shed is even in the same universe,” I tell her.

“Jeez. Honestly, it freaks me out a little to know it’s been there all this time, sitting like a winning lotto ticket tacked to the fridge. Thanks for looking after it. I’m not sure Marty would’ve figured out what we’ve got without you.” She bats her eyes gratefully. “And you’re in charge of the whole car show, right? Along with the bazaar?”

“Second year in a row, yeah.” I set the box down to work the safe’s combination lock. The bazaar will raise money for vet programs, but I don’t want her knowing that’s why I’m so involved.

I don’t want her knowing how scarred I am.

“Well, you must be quite the organizer with the monster truck rallies too. I’m impressed.”

“Yeah. Thanks,” I grind out.

“What got you so interested in the community? I mean, it’s great that you are, but I just don’t remember you being a huge volunteer guy way back when...”

“I grew up, Shel,” I snap unintentionally.

She flashes a hurt look.

Fuck, this is why it’s worth keeping secrets. Even just having her sniffing around causes me to lash out like a bear with a mouthful of cactus.

Ignoring my own shit, I focus on the dial.

“Hard part is, this thing gets touchy as hell. When you open it, if you go one little click past the last number, it won’t work. Then you have to clear it and start over, and you wind up resetting it by spinning the dial at least three times in either direction,” I explain.

She snickers.

“Grandpa always had to empty his pockets in the swear jar after coming upstairs for good reason. I always asked why he didn’t pick up a safe that’d be easier to open. He liked the idea it would make a thief crazy enough to turn themselves in.”

I chuckle. Typical Doug Simon logic. The man was a hardass with a heart of gold to the end.

“Grandma has her own instructions somewhere,” Shel says.

“What instructions?”

“I think they’re laminated now and stuck in her recipe book in the kitchen, along with all the other miscellaneous instructions for running the B&B.”

“Shit. She doesn’t have the code anywhere on that sheet, does she?” I ask, hoping Thelma hasn’t started slipping up with old age.

“No way. She knows better.”

I didn’t think so, but I’m happy to have it confirmed.

The safe clicks like a secret passage granting access. It’s huge and roomy inside.

“Plenty of room in here as usual. Looks like it should fit on the bottom shelf.” I slide in the first box and take the one she’s held the entire time.

They aren’t heavy or awkward. I highly doubt there’s anything truly worth locking up, but it’s added peace of mind. Once the boxes are secured, I close the steel slab of a door.

“Thanks, lady. I gotta touch base with Faulkner now. Once we get the security system primed, Aunt Faye can head home and rest easy knowing she won’t have some prick climbing through her window at night. Not that she’s in any rush to leave here.”

“I’ll miss her. I know that’s silly because she’s just a few miles away, but she kept Gram occupied enough to actually rest. Her visit worked out like a dream.”

I smile. “Sure. I hope she hasn’t been too much extra work for you.”

Shelly laughs. “Hardly! She’s like an anti-burden, always insisting on helping with chores every day. Faye never learned the word freeloader.”

“Well, she should be home tonight or tomorrow at the latest.”

Here comes that awkward tension again. My veins heat like they’re pumping hot oil.

I slide my hands in my pockets. We’re standing face-to-face and neither of us makes a move to leave.

I know why I don’t.

This could be my last chance to kiss her for some time.

Cupping her face with both hands, I stamp a furious kiss on her lips, knowing full well I shouldn’t be encouraging more.

There’s no future here. We both know it.

Still, it’s a fight to find the willpower to stop, to break away before we both burn ourselves down.

Stepping away in a rush, I head for the stairs.

“Later, Shel. I gotta go.”

17

Prize Pig? (Rachel)

I consider following Weston upstairs, but I don’t.

Yes, he’s the world’s sexiest porcupine, and I’m not risking an emotional sting to the heart.

There’s obviously a reason why he completely ignored my questions about the monster truck fundraisers. The rallies, the car show, the bazaar...all of it, really.

When Marty first told me the rally we went to was a fundraiser, I just assumed Weston was a participant. Not the main organizer.

I don’t know why it’s such a sensitive freaking subject.

The hot prick in his eyes when I looked at him was too much like a wounded animal.

Why?

I have to find out.

He’s gone by the time I get upstairs and find Faye scrubbing dishes from lunch. I grab a towel and help her dry them, listening as she rattles on about all the great stuff that’s bound to be at the bazaar.

Gram sits at the counter, once again looking through her recipes, licking her thumb and flipping over dog-eared pages every now and then.

They’re both bursting at the seams over the big event. The list for my shopping trip for this afternoon keeps growing. They cobble together a plan for decorating tables and running small candy giveaways for the people in attendance.

Gram has a million boxes of pens and notepads with Amelia’s logo to pass out, too. She also decides we’ll spend Friday baking cookies to sell, with all proceeds going to Weston.

Anything Faye sells from her booth will also go to him. But it’s impossible for me to ask who or what he’s raising money for. They only stop gabbing every so often to add to my shopping list.

Jeez.

At the rate they’re going, I won’t even have time to stop by and see Weston at Faye’s house.

So I decide to stop there first before I hit the store, borrowing Gram’s car.

As soon as I pull into Faye’s driveway, Weston steps out of the house and hurries to my window.

“Something wrong?” he asks.

“No. I was just going shopping for all the things they’ll need for their tables. I thought I’d stop by to see if you need anything.”

He places both hands on the car door. They’re almost like paws, a reminder of how weighty he is, how easily he can pick me up and toss me around.

“I’m good. Thanks. You really came out here just for that?” He raises a knowing eyebrow.

My blood heats a few more degrees.

He’s wearing a navy-blue t-shirt that molds his torso sinfully today, and I can’t help but admire his physique.

Clearing my throat, I spit out my question. “I was wondering...there’ll be a dance at the car show, right?”

He frowns slightly.

“Yeah. Why?”

I shrug. “Just wondering what I should wear.”

“You plan on tearing up the floor?” He snorts, a jagged sound that matches the fiery glint in his eye.

Then he rakes me with this look that’s jealous. Animal. Possessive.

I try so hard not to shudder.

Naturally, I fail.

“Um, yeah. I didn’t realize it was going to be a classic shindig, complete with costumes and dance moves and bobbing for apples. I’d better make the most of it. You don’t find much country dancing back east,” I say.

“Shindig?” He snorts again. His grin shows off the dimple in his cheek. “Careful, woman. Your country roots are hanging out like a wardrobe malfunction.”

Laughing, I clutch the wheel.

“Oh, please. I never minded my roots. One thing I won’t let D.C. turn me into is a snob, West.”

“They’d have to waterboard you, I’ll admit. You’re a tough-ass gal,” he says with a nod, patting the roof of the car. “Well, I gotta get back inside and help Faulk finish testing the new system. Have fun picking over fruit for the next hour for your perfectionist granny.”

“I will.” I roll my eyes playfully, watching him walk inside the house before backing up.

I wasn’t just messing around. I truly don’t mind my rustic roots.

It actually hits me that there isn’t much about D.C. living I’ve missed since returning to Dallas, aside from a few bomb barbecue places.

Then again, haven’t I been hyperfocused on Weston this whole time?

And on Gram’s mental and physical therapy, of course.

This is honestly only like the second time I’ve gone shopping alone for an extended time.

It feels good to be surrounded by so many familiar things as I drive onto Dallas’ main drag.

For a second, I just park my car and breathe.

Time moves slower here, a pace that’s easy to fall in love with.

Dallas folk live for lazy evenings like these framed in yellow leaves, whispering breezes, and golden sun that makes the autumn trees glitter.

The stores, the people, even the streets feel right.

For all its pomp, its manicured lawns, and the elegant bone-white grandeur of the nation’s capital, D.C. always seems dark and formal. It moves faster than you can blink.

Here, you get to breathe. You see more than black-and-white suits and top-notch blouses mingled with touristy splats of color passing by.

Cowboy boots and flannel are as commonplace as denim everything.

Instead of hushed whispers and careful jargon and overprepared speeches, you have soft laughter and bawdy jokes.

You have gossipy secrets broken up by barking dogs, shrieking roosters in the distance, and even the occasional clip-clop of horse hooves slapping the streets.

The educated, career-girl side of me hates to admit the truth...but how could I ever deny it?

Dallas, North Dakota, has so much heart it makes Washington D.C. feel like a mausoleum.

Even the oddballs and potential creeps like Carson Hudson and Mr. Muddy Boots seem like the kind of problems you can handle.

They’re nothing like the professional crooks in lobbyist groups who can warp millions of lives at the flick of a switch, or the hardened street gangs that give the city its merciless underbelly and sharp teeth.

Don’t even get me started on the men.

As I head into the store, I notice just how common it is to see earthy, broad-shouldered guys muscling their way down the aisles with carts piled high with meats and beer boxes. Even the older gents have a certain rugged charm with their scrappy white beards and amiable smiles.

No, they can’t hold a candle to West.

I’m not sure any other man alive can.

But there’s a reason why my sporadic dates with the sophisticated, clean-shaven city boys never felt right...and why one particular country boy makes my pulse strum louder than those grinding engines he loves.

And compared to the city workweek rush, shopping is actually relaxing. Nearly every person I encounter asks how Gram is holding up after her surgery.

By the time I’m done, I’m thinking about just how big this fall show will be, bringing everything I love together.

I overheard several people talking about it in the store, and there are flyers posted about it all over town that mention all proceeds going to a state veterans’ rehab program.

Hmm. That’s a solid cause.

Why wouldn’t Weston just tell me?

He should be proud, not hiding his efforts like some guilty secret.

Loaded up with everything on Gram’s list—including so many cookie ingredients it’d make the gingerbread man himself blush—I head back and ferry it all inside across several trips that leave me huffing and puffing.

It’s been a busy evening. A young couple checked into the B&B while I was gone.

They mentioned seeing the car show billboard thirty miles up the highway. They’re also a polite excuse for Faye to extend her stay, claiming that even though her house will have the security system ready, she wants to help out with the guests and the cookie baking marathon.

I agree she’s more than welcome.

Having her here is awesome for Gram, and I think it’s good for Faye, too.

She’s been lonely in her big house ever since her husband passed away, even if Grady McKnight and his family kept her busy pretty often. The break-in also left her shaken up.

West comes by later to update her on the shiny new security system. Gram talks him into staying for supper, and we all dig into a small feast of whipped garlic potatoes, pot roast, and fresh-baked bread so good it might be a felony.

Despite the longing looks and friendly chatter we share across the table, my toes curl in my shoes.

What do I say to this man now that we’ve taken a sledgehammer to our friendship?

Jesus, what can I say that won’t risk flicking salt in wounds I don’t even know about?

Later that night, when he’s leaving, Weston walks me outside with a couple sodas and a yawning starry sky.

“Oh, wow. Yet another thing I forgot I missed about Dallas,” I say, pointing up.

“Everything I’ve been missing is closer to earth, babe,” he tells me with a low growl that makes me flush. “Haven’t seen her this happy in ages, you know.”

“Come again?” I ask, meeting the warm blue pools of his eyes.

“Aunt Faye. Ever since Willow stepped into Grady’s life and things settled down after their tiger drama, she hasn’t been running after their little girls as much. Having her here with Thelma, working like mad to get ready for the show, gives her purpose,” he explains. “And I’ve got you to thank, Shel.”

This is when we should pounce on each other in gasping kisses and rattled breaths that make a hundred filthy promises.

I’m so surprised I jump when I feel his hand eclipse mine, this huge, hot mass twining my fingers with a chaste squeeze.

His eyes drive through me and keep going for miles.

“Y-you’re welcome,” I whisper, swallowing harshly.

“And you’re stuttering. Do I still make you nervous?”

“Only all the time,” I whisper, tilting my face up.

Perfectly timed. Because a second later, his grip on my fingers tightens, and I’m lost in a slashing tongue, a hot growl, a dizziness that scorches me.

His wildfire kiss sears me from the inside out, delicious and over far too soon.

We break away with a startled look and breathless smiles.

“Say hi to Herc for me,” I whisper.

“Later,” he says over his shoulder as he steps into the moonlight. “Soon as I get a break, I’m coming for that mouth and that sweet little ass, Shelly. I’m coming home to make you mine.”

Mine.

Isn’t it lovely how men can completely unscrew a girl with those words?

Staggering back inside, my arms are clasped tight to my shoulders.

Not from the cold, but because that’s how undone I am, how much I need to hold myself together.

How scared I am of what I’ll become when this inevitably ends.

* * *

That night sets a pattern for the rest of the week.

Weston joins us for at least one meal a day, breakfast or dinner, depending on whether or not he’s helping his uncle at the Purple Bobcat or busting his hump at the garage.

He’s also outside bright and early, meeting me at Hercules’ pen every morning with this pungent cup of dark-roast coffee. It’s a full-bodied caffeinated shot of perfection from some little specialty shop called The Nest in Heart’s Edge, Montana.

More guests arrive with each growing day, last minute drop-ins coming for the big cat sanctuary or the cars. It’s pure agony that I can’t do more than share coffee with him and a few brief moan-swept kisses.

But for now, it’s more than enough to make me feel like I’m walking on absolute sunshine.

By the time Friday afternoon rolls around, we have everything ready for the booths, and spend the entire evening transporting everything to the fairgrounds and then setting up Gram and Faye’s booth.

I’m pretty impressed with the decorations.

Both booths look strikingly adorable with their red-and-white-checkered tablecloths and pots of red geraniums, alongside Gram’s overstuffed bags of cookies and Faye’s random treasures. Two fat hand-carved pumpkins smile out from the table, both sporting Bruce the tiger’s likeness and a horse head that looks a lot like Edison.

They’re hardly alone capturing the town’s four-legged heroes in pumpkin.

Faye continues crashing at the B&B, to no one’s surprise.

It doesn’t seem like she’s in any hurry to move back to her house. It may be rigged up with a state-of-the-art system, but that’s still no reason to rest easy for an elderly woman living alone after a home intrusion.

We’ve gone over to her house each day with her, though, helping her choose items she wants to sell at the bazaar, and to feed the elusive Mr. Whiskers. The cat finally showed up yesterday evening, a lengthy calico beast with smacking lips and loud meows, twining his poof of a body around our legs.

I’m just getting Gram’s heaping bags of cookies laid out on her table and checking over last-minute prep for tomorrow when Weston introduces me to Grace Barnet. She’s heading up the bazaar portion.

She’s newer, but she seems nice, crafty, and well-organized. She’s also married to another relative newcomer to Dallas, billionaire actor Ridge Barnet, which makes her the envy of half the womenfolk in town and beyond.

“Oh, I’m not in charge-in charge,” Grace insists. “I’m just helping. Weston set the main event up.”

“I may have thought it up, but I didn’t have a damn clue about the logistics,” Weston says. “Uncle Grady told me to ask Grace here, and she jumped in to get everything in order.”

“I just gave things a nudge. Willow, Tory, Bella, and so many others did the heavy lifting,” Grace says too politely, taking my arm. “Let me introduce you to them, Rachel. We all love this town and pitch in when we can.”

If Dallas’ big-hearted soul could manifest in a single person, I think it’d be this lovely woman.

A few minutes later, I’m right at home with four squealing girls. They’ve all traded their time in the small-town spotlight and established their reputations here.

Although I’m a little younger, I remember Bella and Tory. They’re as friendly and beautiful as Grace, hands down. By the time we leave that evening, I feel like I’ve made four new friends.

Tory is also Granny Coffey’s granddaughter. We share several laughs about our grandmothers’ epic strawberry duels.

“Faye already gave Thelma a ride home. I said I’d give you a lift,” Weston tells me after the place has cleared out from most of the people setting up their booths.

Gram found me earlier while walking around the place and praising her new hip to everyone with an open ear. He wouldn’t know because he’s been as busy as everybody else.

“Sounds good to me. I can’t wait for tomorrow! This is going to be crazy fun. I mean, it barely even felt like work tonight. I forgot how nice it is to help with something fun.”

“Yeah?” There’s a note of disbelief in his question.

“Really.” I frown at him. “Why do you say it like that?”

“Like what?”

“Like you might not believe me.”

“I figured you’d be missing the city by now. Dicking around with cookies and a few antiques must feel like kindergarten after you’ve been polishing Patton’s medals,” he says.

I stop, catch his collar, and give him a tense stare.

“No, sir. You’d have a thousand people applying for a chance to touch famous people’s artifacts.” I stretch on my toes and kiss his cheek. “Here, the help means something. We’re all like one big extended family.”

“For better or worse.” He grins and takes my hand. “Let’s get out of here so Homer can lock the building.”

We exit and climb into his truck.

A question digs at the back of my mind.

Should I try again? Should I poke the grizzly?

“So, I hear the money you’re raising is for veterans’ programs,” I say, not in the form of a question, but merely a statement. “I think that’s great, West. Really admirable.”

“They always put the money to good use,” he says flatly.

“Oh, I’m sure they do. You should be proud of what you’re doing.”

He gives me a brief nod before saying, “I’ll be over by nine to pull the cars out of the barn. Marty and a couple other guys will help me drive ’em over here. The weather says it’s supposed to be sunny, so we’ll have them all on display outside.”

“Lucky us,” I say.

“Yeah. I just hope it doesn’t get too warm in the building where all the booths are tomorrow.”

I look him up and down slowly.

He’s changing the subject again, which doesn’t make sense.

God, what is it about this veterans’ thing?

I feel like I’m trying to mash together a hundred-piece puzzle with fifty pieces missing plus the image on the box when it comes to him. I know the outer edges, but not what’s inside.

I used to, but somehow, I’ve lost what I knew.

He’s certainly changed from the boy who left me behind.

Understandable. I’ve changed plenty, too.

Lately, I’ve wondered if I’ve changed as much as I thought. I told myself I didn’t miss Dallas and the people here, but the past few weeks showed me what a lie that is.

I’ve missed the place, the people, and this man terribly.

I also wonder if I should dare hint about going to his house before going home.

Every time I look at him, I see those sinful lips branding my skin.

I remember all the filthy things he can do with that hellfire mouth besides torment me with words and gaping silence.

It’s been too long since we repeated what started in the back of his truck.

A pulse thrums between my legs, aching with need.

“Is there anything you need help with tomorrow at home?” I ask, unable to think of a better way to hint.

“No. Everything’s in order, Shel. I have to drive out to the Purple Bobcat as soon as I drop you off,” he says tiredly.

Of course.

I’m pretty sure the thirteenth law of the universe says mind-blowing sex is always in short supply when you need it the most.

I’m disappointed, but I shouldn’t be.

He’s busy for a good cause, and I get that.

“Man, I don’t know how you get everything done. You’re always on the go,” I say.

“I like keeping busy. There’s real truth in that shit old people used to warn about 'idle hands.'”

I stare at him.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Also, my gutter mind can think of a few hundred ways to keep his hands busy—and every last one of them involves us naked and writhing and clawing each other to pieces.

But I can’t say that—I’m not that brave—so I keep my mouth shut.

Instead, I just kiss his cheek when he pulls into Gram’s driveway and jump out of the truck. “See you tomorrow.”

Before I can walk away, he grabs me by the wrist and pulls me back, urging my face down to him again.

“Not funny. I made you a promise, and I’m gonna keep it, just as soon as we’re past all this work. Till then, don’t you dare forget my goodnight kiss,” he rumbles like a teacher warning a student who’s just forgotten to turn in her tenth assignment.

And God, does he warn me.

With any other man, it’d be insulting.

With Weston McKnight, it’s becoming an addiction.

When my lips part for him, when I take his tongue, when he traces me like he’s etching everything into his head for life, I give in without a fight.

And by the time we’re done, I wonder if I’ll ever fight for anything except more of his rough kisses.

* * *

Screw hectic.

The opening of the car show flies by. The building is jam-packed with excited hordes of happy people all day, more parents than I can count with their kids dressed up like little vampires, ghosts, zombies, and a hundred kinds of monsters.

Gram sells out of cookies by one o’clock, and Faye’s last set of pearl earrings is just being handed to the grinning young lady who bought it when the loudspeaker kicks on.

“Attention, attention! Building A will be closing in fifteen minutes. Please make your way outdoors for food, games, and good old-fashioned fun.”

I smile. Everywhere you move, it smells like heaven, the aromas of savory sausages and cheese curds and every kind of sugary delight infusing the air. The food vendors will stay open until midnight when the dancing ends.

Weston arrives at our booth moments later, wearing a blue denim button-down that matches his eyes.

“You gals need a hand? I’ve got a table reserved outside so you can eat and enjoy the music,” he says.

“Oh, thank you, dear,” Faye responds, quickly collecting her purse. “That sounds lovely. The entire day has been wonderful.”

“How are you holding up?” Weston asks quietly as we pack up and follow Gram and Faye to the mass of people swarming out the open door. “Worn out from babysitting these two?”

I snicker. “No way. They’ve been a delight and they’ve had a ton of fun. This whole thing was a great idea.” I nod at my grandmother, who struts around like she’s never had surgery.

“She barely touched her walker all day. She keeps saying she’s never felt so good, and I actually believe her. It’s not just her usual grit and modesty. She’s been laughing and visiting with people all day.”

“Have you had a chance to check out the car show?” he asks.

“No. The booths were real busy and I didn’t want to leave them alone. Gram was slinging cookies so fast you’d think they were made of moonshine.”

He smiles, his expression oddly thin.

“Few things out there as potent as a sugar rush, especially for Halloween. We’ll walk over there after getting them settled at the table, then I’ll take you around to the cars.”

“Sounds great.” I take his arm gladly as we walk.

Sure enough, he has a table for them under an awning. I spot Marty already there, a ghoulish green drink in his hand and his dirty boots kicked up on a spare seat.

“Dude. Could you try showing some manners?” I say.

He gives me a pained smile and whips his feet down.

“Just relaxing. You oughta try it sometime, sis. I’ll take over from here,” Marty tells me. “I know you never left your post all day on cookie duty.”

“Hey, I didn’t mind,” I tell him. “It was fun seeing which cookies went the fastest. I’m going to have to whip up a batch of those fudge-dipped coconut crunchies and see how fast they disappear at the B&B.”

“Yeah, well, I’m here to do my part. No sense in taking advantage of you any more than I already do like every big brother.” Marty tugs down his oversized shades and gives us a cringe-worthy grin.

Between him and West, I’m not sure whose sense of humor sucks more eggs.

But I do know which man wins in the looks department—and it’d be no contest even if I wasn’t blood-related to the most annoying brother ever.

“Lemme know when you need help getting the cars home. This caramel apple vodka thing’s pretty good, but I’ll stick to beer the rest of the evening and sober up a few hours before,” he tells Weston, and then leans in quietly. “Uh, I hope that’s not messing with you, man, all this booze...”

I cock my head, staring at them.

“Nope,” Weston says flatly. “It’ll be a couple hours before we start loading. I’m going to walk Shelly over there now. She hasn’t even seen them yet.”

“Pet the Mustangs for me.” Marty nods at Gram and Faye. “Oh, and I’ll get them fed with a couple burritos off the truck. Gram loves ’em to death.”

“So does Faye,” Weston says.

“Burritos, huh? Did Dallas jump that hard on the food truck craze?” I ask.

Both of them look at me and smile.

“You’ve been gone too long, Shelly. You haven’t lived till you’ve had a burrito fatter than your head off Kenny’s Taco Truck,” Marty says, thumping his chest for emphasis. “They take your regular spice bomb and dress it up real nice. Ground bison, seven kinds of cheeses, avocado out your ears, and the secret sauce from Hatch chilis. Kenny himself is even tossing around a new Cuban style as an experiment—that vieja beef with the fried plantains might be my new favorite—even though burritos ain’t a Cuban thing.”

“She’ll have her pick after we see the cars,” Weston says.

“I don’t know if I should be scared of a Dallas food truck,” I say jokingly as we head for the open lots where the cars are all lined up in neat rows, looking like they rolled off their assembly lines yesterday.

“Dang. Smithsonian, eat your heart out,” I say, nudging him playfully in the side.

“You don’t bring these beauties out without bringing out their soul,” he says.

I smile. He has a nice way with words sometimes for a dude who’s so down-to-earth I think he’s a force of gravity.

“Your burrito truck better live up to its reputation, mister,” I joke. “What if I don’t like it?”

He clenches my fingers tighter. “Then I’ll eat for both of us.”

Thrilled at the warmth in his moody eyes, I laugh. “Deal. Pretty cars and gut bombs for dinner...you’re an expert at planning first dates.”

“Who said this was a first, Shel? Could be a second or third that’s been delayed seven years.”

He gives me a sideways glance, a lopsided grin pulling at his lips.

Hand in hand, I blush like a rose while we walk through the rows of museum-grade cars. It’s the atmosphere that makes them shine.

I’ve seen Grandpa’s cars hundreds of times, idling in storage. But it’s different outside in the thinning crowds.

People still point when they pass by, sharing memories and laughter from old times, wearing Cheshire cat grins under their superhero masks...

Yeah. I’m not the only one who sees more than an amazingly well-preserved set of machines.

These cars are sweetly sentimental for far more than just my family.

Some of the older muscle cars and fat, boxy vehicles from the forties and fifties get awestruck whispers.

“Will you look at that! Remember driving off on our wedding day in that thing?” An older man chuckles to his wife.

They share a moment, their eyes worn with the smiles you only get from sharing decades of life together.

West and I share a silent look that brings in all the butterflies.

It’s not just Grandpa’s old car collection; it’s a few others too. People have even come from surrounding states to show off their own cars.

As we come to the end of the last section, I notice what’s parked on the back row.

“Hey, that’s your monster truck!” I bump his side gently.

“Sure enough. The kids always love ’em. There are several others over there,” he says.

I tug on his hand. “Give me a closer look. I’ve never seen one up close.”

“Like hell. You almost got ran over by one.” He laughs. “I’d say that’s close enough.

“Yeah, we’re not counting that stupidity.” I roll my eyes at him and keep walking.

His rough laugh echoes in our wake, a sound that vibrates through me. He teases me even more once we arrive at the truck and I’m gawking at the massive tires.

“You’re a size queen, we get it. Lucky for you I’ve got all the right equipment,” he whispers.

“Your jokes suck farts, Weston McKnight!” I smack his cheek playfully and we both laugh.

It’s insane how fast he’s able to fling me back to simpler times and make me enjoy being a grown woman simultaneously.

I’m also eating up these monster trucks that are too much like their owner: built, righteous, raw. Sleeping giants ready to wake up in an instant to show the world their power or demolish it in a single heartbeat.

His teasing feels like old times. So does that boyish smile on his rugged man-face.

It’s like we’re our old selves tonight.

He’s the boy next door I fell too deeply in love with years ago. The same boy I’ve tried like hell to fall out of love with for seven blistering years.

Clearly, living over a thousand miles apart hasn’t worked.

I can’t tell him that, though. I can’t tell anyone.

And that leaves a heavy feeling inside me like soot.

“Time for that burrito,” he says as his stomach lets out an audible growl. “Then I’ll get these vehicles out of here with plenty of time to spare before the dancing ends.”

“I can help drive them home,” I offer. “Don’t worry. I’ll stick to the cars so you don’t have to worry about me putting your monster trucks in a ditch.”

He bumps my shoulder with his.

“Thanks, lady. That’s one less driver I’ll have to round up and see if they’re sober.”

I bump him back, but even as we’re laughing an eerie feeling has me glancing around, wondering why my spine quivers.

I see him then, stalking behind some cars, staring at us coldly.

A lean, tall man with a thick, scratchy beard who looks totally out of place.

He’s wearing coveralls, a lot like the kind I’ve seen Marty tromp around in when he drags into Gram’s straight from the oil fields. He stares at a couple old convertibles, smoking a cigarette, messily flicking the ash close to the ropes around the vehicles every few breaths.

“West,” I whisper quietly, jerking at his arm. “Do you think that’s him? Muddy Boots?”

Weston turns just as the stranger gives me an ugly look and walks away.

“Might be. What’s wrong?” Weston asks. “Did it look like he was up to some shit?”

“Eh, I don’t know...probably my imagination,” I lie, hating that I let one bad look get to me.

Whether it’s our suspect or not, I’m not letting him ruin this night.

Weston glances around and stiffens as another figure speed walks by the cars. I only get a glance at him.

But there’s no mistaking Carson, still wearing that stupid formal blue jacket as he stuffs popcorn into his mouth from a paper bag.

Thankfully, he disappears into the night a second later.

“Ignore him,” I plead, meeting Weston’s angry eyes. “He’s just a big nerd like I am for old things. He’s probably just admiring the cars.”

I can’t say he’s wrong to distrust him, though I do believe he’s only here looking for antiques to flip for money. It’s Occam’s Razor, the simplest explanation.

Still, I wish he’d wrap up his hunting and go home to Boston or wherever he’s off to next.

I pull on Weston’s hand, urging him along to Kenny’s Taco Truck and away from the antique car show. “So do they have the basic bitch kind? Because, um, I’m shamelessly a basic bitch when it comes to anything too spicy.”

“Yep. They’ve got one smothered with chili cheese sauce and mild jalapenos,” he says.

“Mmm, yummy.”

“Even the jalapenos? I thought you’d need the burn ward for laying eyes on a pepper,” he says with a teasing glance.

“I’ve grown up a little,” I say. “D.C. has some decent Indian food. Plus, I made myself learn to like the heat on this trip to Tucson a couple years ago.”

His eyes linger on me.

It’s definitely not the spicy talk that’s raising the air temperature.

I also know what he’s remembering, and I have to fight like mad not to grin.

He’s so intense, so ridiculously gorgeous, the need inside me vibrates.

“Always wanted to eat my weight in Southwestern food,” he says. “Glad you’ve trained your tongue to handle some heat, lady.”

Oh, God.

The way his eyes flick to mine like a whip tells me it’s not hot peppers and curry powder on his mind.

His eyes stall my breath, twinkling like blue gems in the evening light.

“Let me guess...you’ve only learned to like it hotter?” I whisper.

“Hell yes,” he rumbles, leaning closer. “If we were somewhere private, I’d show you how fucking hot I need it, baby.”

I. Am. Dead.

No joking. I’m sure they’ll find me unconscious in a Weston-induced coma.

I hate how much I love the way he looks at me. Every glance makes me feel beautiful, wanted, needed, yet I pretend I’m unaffected to save face.

No matter how much he lights me up, this is a man who still won’t lower his shield.

“Plenty of cold nights are coming. I like hot,” I whisper, looking away.

“You may be grown up, but you’re still a brat,” he growls. “You’ve always been a gold-medalist tease with me.”

I poke him in the ribs. “What? Because I get under your skin at a little old car show?”

“Yes, damn you,” he snarls.

Pushing his face closer, his eyes shut, he inhales me like I’m pure incense.

Holy hell.

After a few heady seconds, I caress his face, before we find the focus to start moving again.

In the burrito line, we’re both laughing, swapping stories about the county fairs when we were kids.

The table with Gram and Faye is full of familiar faces when we find our way back, carrying double cardboard tubs holding mammoth burritos thicker than my arm.

Grady McKnight and his wife and daughters, Tory and Faulk and their baby, Grace and Ridge with their family, and Drake and Bella with a couple bouncing children have all joined Marty, Gram, and Faye.

They happily make room for us, raising cheery compliments for Weston on the show as we dig into our food.

Later, the men agree to help drive the cars back. It’s no surprise their wives and chirping kidlets want to ride with them. They each pick a set of wheels—the monster trucks go surprisingly fast—leaving us the old Love Bug Volkswagen.

“Smile!” I tell him. “I love this car.”

“You’re the only one. I can barely get my damn head in without bashing it bloody on the ceiling,” he grumbles.

“Hey, c’mon! Herbie rocks. Did you know my grandparents took a couple road trips out west in this thing? Imagine going cross-country in it for days.”

“You shrink with age,” he throws back.

Our banter continues, and so does a quick bout of friendly racing as everyone jostles to leave the show at once. Even in the hilariously underclassed bug, Weston wins thanks to several swift driving maneuvers I’m still gushing over as we pull into Gram’s and park by the storage barn.

While the men pull the cars inside and check them over, swapping loud admiration for every vehicle, the women help me dig out the covers. Once they’re cleaned up and strapped in place, we all walk over to Weston’s to take his pickup truck to the fairgrounds.

Five of us manage to crush into the back of the truck.

“Damn, man, I’m pretty sure this has gotta be illegal,” Faulk says in his Oklahoma twang.

“Then they’ll have to ticket the sheriff for riding in the bed, too,” Drake says, winning a round of laughs.

It’s a cool night, that heavy, almost magical feeling between worlds bleeding into my mind as Halloween approaches. Bright stars wink through holes in the greyish cloud puffs overhead.

I think I’m in heaven.

This is easily the most fun I’ve had in eons, and I can’t help wondering what happens from here. The dancing hasn’t begun and I’m tingling with nerves.

Will he hold me in those arms that make me so delirious?

Will he rake me with that claiming look?

Will he whisper what’s really in his head, his heart, his soul?

The band kicks up “Maybe Baby” by Buddy Holly when we arrive in the old barn decked out with softly glowing string lights.

It’s a fast, swaying, youthful song.

We join in with everyone else, dancing and whirling like overexcited puppies. Even Marty pulls a woman from the sidelines, which makes me grin.

Gram and Faye are still at the table, joined with several other old-timers. I spot Granny Coffey, clapping and singing along to the old lyrics, inexplicably shaking an eggplant in her hand.

Guess she must’ve picked it up at one of the farmer’s stands or something.

Weston moves with me like a dream. I don’t have a clue where he learned to dance, but the man could be a master, gliding me around with his powerful arms and gently reeling me back to his embrace.

Every pause between songs feels like one long breath.

One I desperately need each time his eyes catch mine, twin blue flames vowing to catch me, burn me, reduce me to a glorious pile of nothing.

We barely switch partners for more than one song, and even as The Chordettes’ “Lollipop” rips the night, Weston’s gaze clings to me like a wolf with a bone.

“You fit back in this time, sis,” Marty says as we dance a slow song together. “You’re really enjoying yourself. I can tell. It hasn’t been like this when you came home before.”

Duh.

Because Weston wasn’t here when I visited before, but I can’t confess it to my brother.

Instead, I say, “I mean, I...I’ve never stayed this long before. More time to settle in, maybe, without the holiday craziness.”

That’s a half-truth. In college, I loaded up on summer classes, so I’d only spent a week at most here. And when my internship started the past couple years, I barely had time to fly home for Christmas.

“Well, it’s making an awful lot of people happy. Haven’t seen West this smiley in ages,” he says with a wink. “If it wasn’t for the job...would you ever consider moving back here full-time?”

The question hits like a rock to the head.

Honest to God, I would.

The new job at the Smithsonian is a dream come true, yeah...but is it the right dream?

Tonight, it hardly feels as important as the people here—especially one man whose eyes hang on my hips.

Even if I leave West out of the equation, I can’t tell Marty I’m having second thoughts. He stayed home and took such lovely care of Gram so I could go to school, despite landing a good career of his own with North Earhart later on.

It was Marty who let me get the credentials to snag the museum job. I don’t dare want him thinking everything he sacrificed in the early years was for nothing.

I also fight the urge to beam heated glances at Weston. He’s dancing with his little cousin Avery, now. Right beside us while the girl talks his ear off about Bruce the tiger’s latest exploits.

“I don’t know, Marty. Careers like mine don’t grow on trees and Dallas is way too small for a history center. The closest thing is probably in Bismarck. But I do know it’ll be pretty tough driving out of here this time.”

His face falls, brotherly compassion glittering in his eyes, a darker shade of green from mine.

“Dammit, yeah, I know. Shame there’s not a state museum you could land a job at so you could be a little closer to home. But you’re chasing your dream—that’s the important part. Mom and Dad would be proud as hell.”

Oof.

...I didn’t expect sweetness from his doofus mouth.

“Thanks.” I do my best to pull up a sad laugh.

It rubs me raw. A museum isn’t what would make me stay, and I’m not sure my dead parents’ approval would either.

It could only be a person.

A man who’s an enigma wrapped in everything bad for me.

And right now, that man is making me flirt with doing monumentally stupid things.

“Y’know, maybe you could start one?” Marty suggests with a toothy grin. “Shitfire, it just hit me. Did you ever think of that? Starting up your own museum?”

I laugh again gently, touched that he doesn’t realize how absurd it is.

“I wish I could, Marty, but even little historical centers need serious funding. Even with all the craziness here lately, I don’t think Dallas would ever qualify for state money. There’s just not enough here that’s historically significant, though I’d be the first to disagree.”

“Aw, hell. Guess you’re right. Just so you know, I’m not trying to shirk anything like taking care of Gram,” he says. “It’s just...it’s good having you home, sis. A lot of us feel that way—especially West.”

I turn my face away with a dry smile, pretending to lose myself in the music.

Really, I just don’t want Marty to see me tearing up.

Besides filling me with a hundred new questions about what Weston will ever feel, it’s hard to look at my brother and feel whole.

He’s cared for Gram for years by himself, always sacrificing his weekends off to freshen up the paint in a guestroom or do a quick gutter repair. Me being here eight weeks during Gram’s health crisis doesn’t compare to that.

The song ends before my eyes open and he asks, “You thirsty?”

“Oh, yeah. I could use something to drink.” I look at him.

“Pop? Beer? Wine?”

“Whatever you’re having,” I say.

“One Coke with enough rum to choke a horse coming up then,” he says with a devilish grin.

Even though I roll my eyes, my mind turns over, racing a thousand miles per minute. None of my jittery thoughts have anything to do with what I want to drink.

Weston takes a break from the dance floor to rejoin Grady, Willow, and the kids at their table.

My focus follows his smiling face.

Just what would Weston McKnight think if I decided to stay?

What would he give me if I gave him the chance to become irrevocably his?

Could I be the love of his life—or just a prize pig he’d tire of and push away?

18

Don’t Go Bacon My Heart (Weston)

With everyone else sipping on a beer between raucous laughs, I’m the odd man out, holding a sea-green ginger ale bottle.

I’m guessing Shelly noticed, too, even though she doesn’t show it, laughing her sweet ass off at Willow’s retelling of that time we took Bruce for a ride to Wyoming and almost wound up tiger bait.

Thank fuck that story had a happy ending.

Willow makes it humorous, pausing several times and wiping at her eyes, but it’s Shelly’s response that has my attention.

Goddamn, she looks so vibrant tonight.

All cinnamon-red curls flowing down her shoulders and lively green eyes sent to march me into sin. Her face is so bright, so animated after dancing under the soft light.

When she laughs, I have to pinch myself.

Angrily.

I need the grounding, the discomfort, so I don’t think I’m hallucinating an honest-to-God angel.

Her eyes are twinkling and her cheeks glow with a warmth that makes my cock hammer in my jeans. I want her so bad my lungs feel like they’re cement.

Every movement on the dance floor rendered me damn near breathless, and when I swung her body to mine, a living reminder of how well we fit together—

Fuck.

I’m taking her tonight.

No ifs, ands, buts, or second-guesses.

I’m dragging her off to bed, and I don’t give a single solitary shit if I know I’ll wake up hating the thought of her leaving me again.

Of not being in my life—this time for good, probably—but that’s the way the cookie crumbles when it’s frosted with the words, yes, I’m fucking my former best friend.

And fucking is all it’s ever gonna be.

Anything else stays boxed up in my skull.

She has a dream to return to soon, and I have nothing to offer that would ever make staying here worth it.

My past is a sullied wreck.

Every time I look around the room, I’m reminded of that.

All the laughing faces who can throw back a few drinks drive it home. They can get happily lit without turning into...whatever the fuck that poison makes me.

Me, I’m damaged goods.

A defective with a brain like roadkill, flattened by the war and the shit I did to bury those memories before they killed me.

Always two drinks away from becoming a walking nightmare again.

I can’t change that fuckery. Nobody can.

Nor can I change how it affects my future, how it limits me in life, in love, in soul.

I suck ginger ale bitterly until my tongue aches.

Whatever this is—whatever we’re doing every time I tumble Shel into a quiet place outside or my own bed—I can’t show her how I crucified myself with a crown of regret and nails of whiskey.

Even if that’s “over,” it never truly is.

Each day is an exercise in crisis management.

I don’t want her knowing jack about that.

Watching her laugh at Uncle Grady’s bar stories, I wish things were different so badly it feels like a rabid dog’s teeth, grazing my throat before the last killing bite.

“Oh, I love this song! The perfect way to wind down.” Shelly sets down her cider bottle with a clink and grabs my hand. “West, let’s go! We have to hit this one...”

It’s “Always On My Mind,” a slow song by the King of Rock and Roll. The King may be long gone, but everyone in Dallas loves his work religiously.

She gives me this longing look, gazing up through seductive lashes, as she steps into my arms.

My entire being sizzles as we find our rhythm, slow dancing to the rising lyrics, the heart heavy longing pouring from the speakers.

Believe me, it’s got abso-fucking-lutley nothing on what I’m feeling for her.

“You smell so good tonight,” I whisper, craning my face down to inhale the honey-sweet scent floating off her hair. “Shelly, you’re beautiful.”

I’m sputtering like I’ve had a lobotomy and I don’t care.

With a soft laugh, she pushes into me—dangerous territory when my dick is so crazed it should be leashed.

“I’d say you must be drunk but...I don’t think I’ve seen you with a single beer all night,” she says softly.

Damn.

It is that obvious.

“Still gotta drive my last monster truck home tonight,” I say.

She looks up at me. “I could ride back with you. Or, hey, even try my hand at driving it. I’ve only had one drink.”

I smile. That’s her. Fearless and always an adorable pain in the ass.

“It can’t be that hard to drive,” she insists, walking a fingernail up my neck.

Shit, shit. She’s going to make me drop dead from blueberry balls right here on the dance floor.

“What, because I drive it?” I toss back, swallowing so hard my throat squeaks. “’Scuse me.”

She laughs, pushing at my chest.

The sound makes me smile.

“You still want to one-up me and Marty at everything, don’t you?” I growl, turning her to face the wall so I can pinch her ass.

When she spins around to look at me again, her smile widens, coy and teasing.

“Anything you can do, I can do better,” she whispers. Leaning closer, she adds, “Almost anything, I mean. Standing up to pee doesn’t work. I’m not sure what I’d do if I was built like a train down there...”

Hell. Even when she’s talking silly, a single word about my dick douses me in napalm.

Her blunt honesty is just one of the things I’ve always loved.

If only I could tell her.

If only I could let this dance, this whole night, be the start of something that would end with a whole brood of my kids in her and coming home to her every night.

If only I wasn’t fucking me.

“Okay, Miss Curiosity. You want to drive it, I’ll let you.”

“You will?” She blinks at me slowly.

“Yep. But you put a single scratch on that thing, and I will beat your gorgeous ass. We’re talking you flung over my knee, panties down to your knees while I tan you raw. And that’s just the start of your apology.”

The whimper sailing out of her as her eyelids flutter shut barely sounds human.

Holy frigging shit.

I’m half tempted to make her clip a bush just so I can hear the noises she’d make if I did a fraction of that.

With her arms around my neck, I squeeze her hips.

When she releases me, she mutters, “Okay then. Let’s go.”

I’m about to say the song isn’t over till I hear the last of it fading into the night. I’m so drunk on this girl I’d probably get the year wrong if anybody asked.

“Got it.”

We stop by the table briefly. Shel has everyone laughing at her excitement over driving my truck.

“Just give me a ten-minute head start to warn the patrols,” Drake says, winning another round of gut-busting laughs.

Everyone wants to see the send-off, including Faye and Thelma, so we make our way over to where my prize beast is parked. I give her a quick tutorial of how to drive the monster truck, including how the steering is different due to the oversized tires.

It’s only a few miles to the shop, straight down the interstate with a single turn. We’re parking it there for a maintenance check tomorrow.

I know she’ll be fine, but I have to make it look like I’m scared shitless she’ll wreck my baby.

Because it’s her.

If we ever stop giving each other crap, I won’t have a pulse.

She sticks her tongue out and razzes me after firing up the powerful engine. She revs it once, twice, just to prove she knows what she’s doing.

I accept her good-natured joking and a few whoops from the bystanders as I climb out to get in my pickup and follow her.

She honks the horn and waves at everyone as she puts the truck in gear and lurches forward.

Honestly, I’m impressed. She handles it well, rounding the corners away from the fairgrounds and guiding the big truck onto the open road.

I told her which door to pull up to at my garage, and when she does, I punch the remote in my truck to open it up.

Once we’re parked, I climb out, watching as she pulls the monster truck inside and parks it like I instructed.

She obeys too well without a spanking.

Shame.

For the thousandth time tonight, my cock wants to bust through my pants.

Shifting my weight, I walk inside, hit the button to close the door, and arrive at the driver’s door just as she opens it. But she pauses, giving me this wide-eyed look.

“Shel? Everything okay?”

“No. Not okay. Weston, that. Was. Awesome!” she exclaims.

I laugh and hold out my arms, helping her down from the height as she balances on the running board.

“Total awesomesauce!” she says as she grips my shoulders, spinning into my arms.

There it is.

The moment her body touches mine, the desire smoldering inside me flares like a dry forest struck by lightning. Her arms loop around my neck, and she drags her nails against my skin with just the right friction.

I have no willpower.

My mouth moves on hers with a need to mark her.

It’s fucking incandescent.

Hands roaming, tongues searching, breaths harsh and teasing, our bodies pressed so tight there’s no room and it’s still not close enough.

When the kiss ends, there’s a scream in my blood.

I can’t tell what’s pounding harder, my heart or my dick.

“I don’t suppose you have a couch anywhere in this shop?” she asks.

“No.”

She kisses the side of my neck. “But you do at your house...”

My hands are under her pink shirt, feeling the heat, the silkiness of her skin, interrogating her nipples with my thumbs running over them.

Fuck, I want more.

“There’s a bed, too. Little more comfortable than bringing you off in the back of my truck.”

“As long as it’s you getting me off...” She rubs her hips against me, gliding over my dick, making me bare my teeth. “Can we go there? Now?”

My restraint is flat-out annihilated. I want to strangle the tiny part of me that still cares about hurting her.

“You’re sure that’s what you want? Gotta give you a chance to back out, babe,” I rumble, clenching her ass, digging my fingers in so hard my blood churns. “Your last chance before I demolish you till sunup.”

Her pink tongue flicks over her lips. A teasing reminder of how well she could detonate me.

“Yes, I want to. Your place. Right now.”

I should protest—or at least try to talk it out, try to convince her we’re on thin damn ice and it’s so disgustingly easy to break through and go plummeting to the depths, but I can’t.

If I don’t fuck this girl in the next hour, I’ll need to be institutionalized.

After another kiss with her bottom lip pinched in my teeth, I take her hand and rush her outside to my truck.

* * *

My truck gallops down the backroads to my house to avoid driving past the fairgrounds and catching any stares from curious onlookers.

Dallas thrives on gossip, and letting anyone see Shel with me this late is throwing them a big bloody hunk of red meat.

Sheer anticipation torches the air between us.

If it weren’t for the crisp bite of the cool night, I’d choke.

We’re at my house in less than ten minutes and barreling inside.

Desperation consumes us.

I’m snarling as I tug at her clothes, warring to get her naked faster, barely stopping for more heady, hot kisses while I guide her to the bedroom.

I’m glad my room is downstairs so nobody trips.

We’re both naked from the waist up when I click on the bedroom light.

My pulse stops at the sight of her full, gorgeous tits. Her nipples are dark-rose peaks on pale cream, pebbled with sin, and I’m drawn to them like glistening fruit.

She arches her back with a whine, giving me access. My greedy mouth seizes one, and then the other, sucking hard so she knows how fucking bad I need this.

“Oh—Oh, West. Shit. I think you like torturing me,” she whispers, pushing her fingers through my hair, needling my scalp with her nails.

I love getting her so riled she doesn’t care if she hurts me with those nails.

“Is this torture then?” I ask with a nipple still tucked against my lip.

“The very best...”

Considering the fire seething in my balls, I’m inclined to agree.

I ease her backward toward the bed, pushing till it’s right behind her, and then lay her down on the mattress.

My mouth has no off switch.

I’m still worshipping her nipples, kissing at her stomach like a starving man as I unlatch her shorts and yank them down with her panties in one mauling stroke.

Mine, goddammit. No more dicking around.

My thoughts are all animal.

There’s also an artsy beauty to this too.

The way her auburn hair falls across my white sheets like flowering vines.

Her green eyes searching, already lost in her whimper and the droning ache of her lust.

The tattoo on her shoulder—the one I’m afraid to ask about—an old-fashioned pen with what looks like a dark ribbon flowing out of it rather than ink. The inside looks hollow, names and dates separated by bullet points.

I make out Marty and the dates of her parents’ accident; Grandpa Doug and the year she left next to a darker word—forget.

I noticed it the first time we fucked.

Tonight, even through my madness, my eyes keep coming back to it.

Am I the reason that’s on her skin? Am I the jealous asshole who’s pissed at himself that she’s wearing a melancholy word instead of my name?

It can’t change the fact that she’s perfection incarnate.

A real-life spitting image of what I’ve imagined for years.

I can’t fight this. I can’t feel bad about it. I cannot stop.

Everything I’ve ached for my entire life gleams in the depths of her eyes and that drenched slit between her legs.

She’s made me certifiably insane.

When I’m buried in her, thrusting fit to kill, nothing else matters.

Not the past or future. Not the pain. Not the fact that this is sickeningly temporary.

Impatient, she scoots further up the bed and stretches her arms out.

“Weston. Join me.”

With a low growl, I run my hands up her long, sleek legs.

They’re already parted sweetly, open for me, wanting me to break her.

I run my hands up her inner thighs, my nostrils flaring at her scent.

The little moan she lets out is all the encouragement I need to slide two fingers in the succulent folds of her pussy.

Fuck yes, she’s ready.

Hotter than melted butter and needier than Lucifer.

She gasps, arching her hips up, riding my hand and inviting me to replace my fingers with a cock pulsing so hard for her I can feel blood strumming in my ears.

“You like that, woman?” I ask, stroking her walls.

She rewards me with a shrill whimper.

“Yes—yes! I...I like everything about you, West.”

It’s amazing how she makes me feel.

Complete.

Finished in a way I’ve never felt before.

“I like you too much. I wouldn’t be fucking this tight little pussy to heaven if I didn’t.” I thumb her clit, adoring how her bottom lip disappears between her teeth as she closes her eyes in rapture.

“Weston, please—” she starts begging, but I shove my free hand over her mouth.

“When I’m ready. I like you and your pussy so much we’re gonna play. I’m making you squirt for me, Shel.”

She whines breathlessly against my hands, her eyes big and rolling as I part her legs wider.

It’s an invitation I can’t deny.

My fingers work her over for another minute before my face dives down, tongue lavishing her pussy from bottom to top. I bury myself in her taste, make her feel the scratch of my beard against her thighs, snarling as I toy with her clit.

Her groan rises, heavier than before, and gives me a power I’ve never known. I’m proud to be the man giving her what I bet must be the finish of her life.

She moves against me as her pleasure builds, as it tries to overload her.

I move her off my face, pinning her down.

Licking, sucking her clit, fingering her hot cunt till she’s gasping, I torture every muscle in her body tense.

“Weston! I-I-I can’t take much more. Need you. Inside me.”

I stop sucking long enough to say, “Bull. You need to come for me before I fuck you.”

“Y-yes, but...I’m about to—oh!”

Oh, yeah, baby girl.

Motherfucking come for me.

I tease her clit with my tongue, derailing her attempt at words before I move off of her just long enough to say, “Go for it, honey. Give it the fuck up. Give me your all.”

She moans, throwing her head back as I go back down on her, this time without mercy.

With every tongue lashing, every nip, every electrifying stroke, she becomes my property even more than she was a second before.

And I think she knows it when her mouth pulls open in a ring, like she’s calling all the gods of orgasm to smack her with their lightning bolts at once.

I happily oblige in their place.

Reaching up and teasing her nipples, I bring her storm home, feeling her pussy clench over and over against my mouth.

She drapes her legs over my shoulders, screaming into the night, pinching her thighs to my head.

It’s so thrilling, so wrong, I have a second where I think I’m about to come in my jeans.

I won’t though. This is for her, and only her, always my Seashell.

She tastes like heaven, giving up her pearl with this honey erupting out of her.

Mission accomplished.

She squirts like a faucet. I love the way her pussy responds to my touch, how much her body craves my mouth, my hands, and only me.

“Oh. My. God.”

Her body turns to steel as she groans loudly. I feel her climax hit, run the full spectrum, playing her like a guitar till the strings snap.

I don’t let up till she digs her nails into my hand. Not until she falls deeper into the mattress with a silent rasp.

“Gahhh. Damn, that was good. So flipping good,” she says with a barely-there moan.

Laughing, I give each nipple a goodbye kiss before I stand to unbutton my jeans.

“I believe you. If you faked that, you belong in Hollywood, not Washington,” I say.

With a vigor she shouldn’t have, she sits up and scoots to the edge of the bed. “I still want you inside me, West.”

“Just need a condom,” I assure her while unzipping my jeans.

She grabs at a belt loop before I walk away, shoving them down with my boxers.

My cock jabs out like a flag pole, seething with untamable need.

She licks her lips as she wraps one hand around the base, nudging her grip into my balls.

“Wait. Hold off on the raincoat,” she whispers, her eyes glinting hot.

Amusement rumbles in my throat. This is Shelly. She was made to tease me into oblivion.

“Not until I do this...” she whispers.

Next thing I know, my cock is in her mouth, that tongue of hers working in a frenzy.

My head snaps back with a muffled curse.

“Fuck, baby...yeah! Suck.”

It’s so incredible that muscles I didn’t know I had tighten to keep from coming down her throat right then. I try to cover a growl as my hips piston into her, seeing how deep she can take me.

She bobs her head, engulfing the swollen head of my dick.

There’s a flash of pride at how she has to strain to take my thickness, making a small gagging noise—and take it she does, her mouth undulating before she pulls back and kisses the tip.

Those green eyes glow like St. Paddy’s Day.

Like I’m some decadent, exotic chocolate she’s experiencing for the first time.

My lips peel back in a snarl as I fist her hair, lifting her off me. I don’t want to hurt her with my size.

“I know. I know I don’t have to, but I want to,” she says softly before pulling me back against her devil tongue.

“Dammit, girl,” I whisper. “I will blow right through you if you keep that up.”

She replies with a corkscrew twist of her head, her tongue lapping at my throbbing tip.

My eyes pinch shut at how her godlike mouth feels against my skin, marveling at her unholy suction.

Her tongue glides up and down, a hypnotic rhythm, flying me to the moon and the sexiest stars.

Shit.

Shit!

Faster. Deeper. Harder.

She works that little mouth on overtime, her throat vibrating with a hot moan begging for my come. All while her hand pumps the base of my cock, stroking me with a quickening need that feels violent.

This is how it’ll be with us, I realize.

Our sex is more than satisfying an animal desire. It’s a chance to talk out our issues—whatever the fuck they are—in flesh and sweat and unbridled feeling.

Pushing my hand over hers, I nudge it to my balls, which lurch up against the base of my shaft.

Fuck, how much more can I take?

A vision of her pretty face wearing my eruption lashes through my brain.

Shel’s too nice for a facial.

I cannot imagine her face plastered like a slut with my come—but the thought of marking her that way shears me in half.

When I feel the edges of her teeth gently needling my skin as she dives over my dick, I know I’m lost.

The friction feels too good.

I grasp her head as a groan rumbles up my throat like sandpaper on busted pavement.

“You gonna take my come?” I rasp, laying my hands on each side of her head, catching those fever-green eyes.

Her lips slide up, over the head of my cock again in answer as her eyelids flutter shut. A hand moves between her legs.

“Play with your clit, baby,” I order.

Her moan flutters with delight.

“Go,” I grind out, barely recognizing my own voice. “Fuck your fingers when I paint your face.”

She whimpers louder, the sound adding to the mad heat swarming my cock.

I’m about to die—and apparently I’m fated to check out of this life as the happiest man alive.

“Shel,” I whisper, trying like hell to hold back just a little longer, but she’s already working that mouth deeper, her brow creased with focus and building ecstasy.

Her hand grips me more firmly, massaging me to hell and back.

A relentless fire lights up my spine like nothing I’ve ever known. And when my abs bend from the sinful agony, the hot rush purring in my blood, I’m all out of prayers.

I give the fuck in with a roar.

“Shel!”

She sputters softly as my cock balloons in her mouth, a signal to thrust those pert lips down one more time, struggling to take even half of me.

Her sharp little moan of delight is the last thing I feel before I’m over six feet of burning man.

Short breaths. Wild grunts. Inferno.

Everywhere, burning.

My vertebrae sing like some demented piano keys, ecstasy stabbing its long fingers into them till I’m stock-still, grounded, exiting her mouth on the third jerking pump of my cock.

I barely get my fist around it in time to launch several heaving ropes on her face.

Call me Pablo fucking Picasso.

The way she comes, riding her own hand as I drain my balls on her face is the only art I’ll ever care to make.

She strains up in her glory, red lips half parted, the overflowing seed I shot in her mouth running down the corner of her chin.

My knees go weak as I fuck my fist, spilling the last of my eruption on her, my teeth grinding in forbidden pleasure.

In almost three decades on this planet, I’ve never had weak knees.

Not until her. Now, there’s no denying them as she slowly tips back, wiping at her face, seductively running her tongue over her come-coated lips.

When we can breathe like human beings again, she looks up at me, smiling.

“How was it?” she whispers.

“Like nothing I’ve ever known.”

Her smile grows. “Now, we’re even.”

My blood heats. Somehow, she riles me up so much I’m still hard enough to hit a home run.

Picking her up, I plop her on the bed and climb on, straddling her legs and planting my arms beside her shoulders.

“Even? You’d better think the hell again,” I say, shaking my head. “That was just the start of fucking your brains out all night.”

She bites her lips, arching her back so her nipples brush my chest.

“You have such a sweet way with words.” Laughing sarcastically, she kisses my chin and adds, “Good thing too. Because I still want you in me.”

I should be as limp as wet grass, but I’m not.

I reposition my hips so my dick touches her stomach.

“This cock? You sure your pussy can handle what your mouth can’t?”

“Yes, that cock. I’m quite fond of it, and so is my pussy.”

Damn. This is so her.

Not too shy or embarrassed to talk filthy. No longer Miss Innocent when I shred more of her innocence with every single climax.

I love it.

“Lucky lady. Lucky pussy.”

She flips her legs around mine. “What are you waiting for?”

With a low growl, I lean down and lick her nipples, marking my territory with my teeth.

I still need a condom, but this way we’ll both be aching by the time I’m finally in her.

Taking my sweet time, I remind her what my tongue can do, greedily licking and pulling at her peaks.

When I see her eyes clamp shut, feel her writhing against my leg, I reach for the nightstand drawer, but she stops me.

“I’ll get it,” she says. “Keep doing what you’re doing.”

I growl my agreement, shaking one nipple with my mouth while she slides the drawer open.

“A new box?” she asks. “Did you just buy these?”

“All for you,” I whisper.

Fuck, do I love how she blushes, turning a deeper shade of red than the fire-engine blush she’s already wearing around me.

Her tits get my full attention as she tears the box open and fishes out a packet.

I sit up with a parting love bite, running my fingers against her pussy lips as she rolls the condom on.

Then—and only then—do I push her down and guide myself into her, slowly, giving her time to acclimate to my size.

My eyes snag on the heat in hers.

We trade a spark that feels downright divine.

“Love the way you fill me,” she says softly. “I can feel myself stretching, taking every inch of your cock.”

We both groan like mad as I slide deeper and my hips go to work, guiding her in a dance that’s incomparably more wicked than anything at the car show.

She’s so hot, so tight and perfect.

She’s a human plea made especially for me.

I suck her nipples again, giving her time to get used to me filling her. Her hips bend languidly to meet mine, rising to join my strokes, and I drag her deeper into our pleasure with slow, angry pumps, building a friction that feels like an armed grenade.

“Weston,” she moans, the first of a long mantra spilling out of her.

When she’s whined my name ten times, I silence her with a kiss, stretching out our fuckery till I’m clenching my teeth to keep from coming.

This woman takes me apart.

I know she’s holding back, too. I can tell by the way she bites her bottom lip, even as she arches into every thrust with a panting fury.

I move faster—faster—bringing her to the brink of mania on my cock.

She comes with a loud moan that turns into a ferocious bite against my shoulder. I plow right through her climax, grunting, lifting her up with my strokes and slamming her down again.

Break her bed, not her heart isn’t just a sappy saying tonight.

It’s a cardinal rule.

I give her no mercy, crashing into her again, leaving us both gasping.

Her head falls back, gorgeous breasts rising and falling, her whole body begging for me. Her pussy clenches hotter, tighter, quivering with need.

Knowing I’m about to lose my shit, I force out one word.

“Ready?”

“Yes, yes!” she shouts.

With a final searing thrust that rakes her deep, plunging my cock to the hilt, I let my pleasure hit like a hellfire missile.

It’s a dirty miracle how she blows simultaneously, both of us igniting like twin bombs blown apart by a furious need to merge fire, force, heat.

There’s nothing hotter than the scalding orgasm knifing through me, spearing her, body-slamming us when we’re almost to nirvana.

Only sex with Shel could deliver something this potent.

I’m utterly spent by the time it ends and I roll off, collapsing next to her on the bed.

“Damn, Weston,” she gasps. “We’re so good it’s dangerous.”

I laugh bitterly. This sweet, sweet girl doesn’t know how dangerous this could truly be.

For both of us.

“Seriously. I don’t have the energy to lift my arms,” she whispers.

Neither do I, but I find it, just enough to tuck her limbs around me and tangle us up.

We pass out like that, as if we’re two lovers with an honest future beyond apocalyptic sex.

Not a couple of liars desperate to risk everything for lust.

* * *

When I open my eyes, the room is silent except for Shelly’s soft breathing.

I roll over, look at her, and smile for three blissful seconds.

Then reality throat punches me again and my smile slips off my face.

What the hell are we doing? Playing with each other’s emotions like this?

Even the most satisfying horizontal rumba of my life can’t overturn the fact that we’re acting like we’ve got a future when everything screams impossible.

Fuck.

I should know better.

I should know a lot of things I’m blind, deaf, and dumb to when she’s in my bed.

I need to think, plus I’m waking up later than usual and Herc’s probably headbutting his pen from starvation.

Carefully, I climb off the bed, find my jeans, and exit the room. I also collect the clothes we left strewn across the living room.

I put hers in the bedroom and shut the door before pulling on my shirt. Then I pour a glass of well water from the pitcher in the fridge and step outside, sitting on the porch so I can collect my thoughts in the icy fall morning.

There are too many to collect, apparently. My head feels like somebody opened it up and dumped sharp gravel inside.

“Focus, dammit,” I whisper to myself.

How can I let her down easy?

How can we do this for weeks without ripping her beating heart out—and mine?

It’s guaranteed to hurt when it ends.

I’ll feel it, too, and likely walk away from her with a few more scars on my charred-to-a-crisp soul.

Nothing has changed.

I can’t have a real relationship with her, or anybody.

There’s always that nagging chance I could fall off the wagon and put my demons back in control. Collateral damage I’ll never shake off from the war.

No one deserves to live with a man like that.

I’m a functioning person, but not human.

I don’t know how to be.

A clanging noise tears me from my pity party and I sit up straighter. It dawns on me that I heard something earlier.

That’s what woke me up.

It sounded like a diesel truck, the trademark rumble of their engines.

Only, now it’s someone walking, heavy footsteps coming from the side of the house.

I bolt up and step lightly across the porch, careful not to make a sound, quietly vaulting over the railing. Flattening myself against the wall of the house, I slowly inch forward, just enough to peer around the corner.

It’s a man. He’s creeping through the shadows of my barn, slowly but surely beelining a path to the house.

Tall. Soldier-like build. Wide shoulders. Thick jacket draped over them, like the kind the boys in the oil fields start to wear this time of year to survive the brutish North Dakota cold.

My eyes confirm my worst fears when they flick to his feet.

Big boots.

Almost certainly muddy.

My heart pounds war and my fists form up like fighters, suddenly regretting that I didn’t chase down this fuck when Shel spotted him last night. Now, maybe I’ll get my chance to pull a few answers out of him the hard way...

I crouch down, ready to ambush him the instant he’s in range. A countdown begins. Thirty more seconds and I’ll have him on the ground, slamming his skull into the morning frost.

Fifteen.

Twelve.

Ten.

Nine...

Shouldn’t take more than a nanosecond to disarm him if he’s packing, then I can shove my hand on his throat and—

My heart sinks at the last second when he steps into view.

I jerk back.

“Marty?” I whisper harshly. “What the fuck?”

Then it hits me.

He’s probably looking for Shelly, who never came home last night. All because she’s sound asleep in my bed, naked and sporting sex hair for life.

Fuck!

He’ll be at the corner of the house in a few more steps, so I move, stepping into his line of sight. “Hey, man. What are you doing here so early?”

His eyes bulge with surprise and he jogs the last few steps, keeping his voice low. “West, I tried calling you and Shelly.”

“Oh, right. I left my phone in my truck.”

Same for hers, I think. We were in such a frenzy to get inside, we barely took the time to close the truck’s doors.

“Marty, did something happen?” I ask, growing concerned at the look on his face.

“Is Shelly here?” he asks, a little winded. “The sensors at Gram’s kept going off like crazy last night. I assumed it was her, until I stopped by real early this morning and found out she’s not there. Where is she?”

My throat locks like I’ve swallowed a rock.

I can’t lie to him—especially about her safety—but I need to know what’s happening first.

“The motion sensors in the private area of the house, you mean? I know you’re pretty full with people here for the car show, so it shouldn’t be that weird if the after-hours shit in the main living area went off.” Those are the only sensors I know at Amelia’s.

“Yep. We’re ninety percent filled up thanks to the show, but none of the guests have access to the private area...that’s what tripped. The doors were locked when we brought Grandpa’s cars home. I checked ’em myself.” He pauses, giving me a slow, assessing look. “So is she here? Was she at Gram’s last night?”

“Yes,” I answer slowly. “She’s inside, Marty, and no...she hasn’t been back to Thelma’s.”

“I don’t like it,” Marty says quickly.

My spine turns to steel.

“A damn mouse or the odd raccoon coming through a window wouldn’t set the system off. It’s set up to detect human motion,” he continues. “It’s gotta be bigger than that.”

My tension eases. He’s all caught up in the security system pinging and not the fact that Shel spent the night with me.

I wonder if it’s dawned on him yet.

“Yeah, that’s what Faulk told me. He said the newer ones are all set up that way when we installed the new system for Aunt Faye. Hey, where’s your buddy, Hudson?”

“That’s where my mind went, too,” he replies, scratching at his neck. “There’s still something about that dude I don’t like...but he was at the show while the sensors were going off. I saw him myself.”

“And that other asshole? Muddy Boots? Is he still showing up for work?”

“Yeahhh,” Marty exhales. “I finally had a chance to dig into him and tried to chat a couple times when our shifts overlapped. He’s a real surly asshole—barely makes eye contact when you talk to him. His name’s Remington, or Rem for short. His work records look solid, and a couple other guys mentioned him hanging out at the Bobcat most nights. He drinks and smokes like a chimney with a dogshit personality, but can’t say there’s much evidence he’s a professional crook.”

“What about last night? Anybody see him?” I stop just short of mentioning how Shel thought she spotted him.

“Unfortunately,” Marty grumbles. “I checked on that this morning too. Guess he was at the show with Carolina Dibs before they stopped off at the Bobcat for a nightcap. They left together. If he was drunk and warming her bed, then he probably wasn’t out sneaking around Amelia’s.”

I wince when he mentions Carolina the town skank. A walking headcase of bad decisions who sets her heart on guys who’d rather be celibate than pick her. The only dudes who match up with her are travelers who don’t know any better—and usually the type who are bad news.

“Was anything missing? Out of place?” I ask.

“Nothing. I think I’m gonna hit up Faulk myself and have some indoor cameras set up where it won’t infringe on anybody’s privacy.” Marty runs a hand through his hair. “What we have always worked well enough, but lately, with too many little intrusions happening around town, I’m freaked.”

I nod, trying not to let my frustration show.

We still have two flawed suspects and no smoking gun. What are we missing?

“So, uh...” Marty looks at me quickly and then gestures at the house. “You and Shelly finally hooked up, huh?”

“Hooked up?” I echo, frozen and glaring.

He doubles over with laughter.

“Come on, man. I’m your best friend and her big brother. Do you think I haven’t seen the kissy faces you’ve been making at each other since the day she saved Herc’s bacon?”

Goddamn.

He would notice—or we’re just that hopelessly obvious.

“Think you gave her a reason to stay home instead of running off to D.C.?” he asks, wagging a brow.

“Hell no,” I say too quickly. “Not in a million years. That job is her dream.”

He shrugs. “Maybe it was her dream, West. Either way, it’s not my place to figure it out.”

Like it’s mine?

The fact that he thinks she could be convinced to stay, to live a different life, laces anger through my veins.

I hate that in another life, I could’ve been her reason, her man, her future.

In this one, I’m nothing but heartbreak, guaranteed.

19

When Pigs Fly (Rachel)

Unsure what woke me, I lie still, listening, and realize I’m hearing voices. Hushed voices.

They’re filtering in through the open window.

Weston’s and...Marty’s?

Oh, crap city.

That’s just my luck.

Caught with my hand in the man-cookie jar by my dumb brother.

I leap off the bed, frantic to find my clothes. The pale dawn light helps me locate them, including everything that was discarded in the living room, but now sits neatly folded in the bedroom.

The fact that West is a caveman who picks up after himself makes me swoon harder for him.

I stagger around getting dressed and leave the room.

The house is silent until I arrive in the living room. Then I hear the men talking again through the window near the bookcase, which is open a crack.

“She’s found her place at the Smithsonian, Marty. You know how bad she’s wanted that as well as I do,” Weston says. “That’s not something she’s giving up. It’s not something I want her bailing on for—what, exactly? A life with pigs and two-bit monster truck shows?”

Does he want me to stay in Dallas? My heart thuds at the idea.

“I still say you oughta talk it out with her,” Marty says glumly. “The way she’s acting...I’m not so sure she wants to be out east forever, Weston.”

“No. Not happening,” Weston growls back. “If you’re worried about her getting hurt with what’s going on...look. We both know there’s no future for us. It’s nothing but a summer fling between old friends.”

My gut clenches. I have to close my eyes at the sting.

A summer fling? That’s not what I want this to be, even if it’s what I said I’d be okay with.

That’s not who I want to be to West.

“You sure?” Marty asks coldly. “You’re both grownups and it’s not my place to butt in, but fuck, man. I’d be surprised if my sister does 'flings.'”

My heart tumbles over sadly how right he is.

I also hate having my brother getting his hackles up, defending me from West.

“I’m sure. Shit.” Weston pauses, leaving the air thick with brooding. “It’s how it has to be, Marty. You know what I was like when I came home. A drunk. A wreck. A disaster. The vet programs saved my ass. That’s why I wile away my free time trying to give back, trying to keep going. But we both know I’m one bad night away from relapse. I still have nightmares about what happened over there. I told you before, I could snap like a rabid dog. I could lose my shit on someone who doesn’t deserve it—and I’ll be damned if that’s Shel.”

My spine shivers at his tone and his words.

What the hell is he talking about? A drunk? A wreck?

Never!

He’s got to be exaggerating. The Weston McKnight I know came home a different man, but he’s too strong to be the broken mess he’s describing. Way too disciplined.

“Have you told her what you went through over there?” Marty asks quietly.

“Fuck no. I didn’t write home after I told her I would for a reason. She hasn’t asked me either, thank God, and don’t you go telling her and putting ideas in her head.”

Yikes.

The pain inside me boils into anger.

I form my own ideas just fine, jackass. Don’t need any help from Marty.

Why is he so sensitive? So hurt? Barking crap like a cornered dog with a wounded paw...

Why can’t I know what it was like for him after he returned from combat?

“West, what the fuck? Why?” Marty asks bluntly.

“Why? We’re talking about Shelly, man,” Weston says, his voice trembling with hate...or is it self-hatred? “You know her as well as I do. She can’t handle my shit, nor should she have to. I don’t want her knowing my demons. Not now, not ever.”

They think they know me, huh?

Now, I’m blinding pissed.

No wonder.

No flipping wonder he clammed up every time I brought up the military. He thinks—

Damn him, I’m not a kid! I can handle real life tragedies with the seriousness and empathy they deserve.

I spin around, march to the door, and push through it before my mind catches up with my feet.

They must hear the screen door banging shut behind me because they appear around the corner of the house as I’m walking down the steps.

The frustration welling up inside me is a slow, sweeping flame. The guilty look on their faces coaxes it straight to the surface.

“Hey, Marty,” I say flatly. “I see you found me. FYI, I was having a summer fling with Weston. You know, hot monkey sex, with the guy standing right beside you. The guy who can’t tell me what happened while he was in the service, because...because, well, you know. I’m not mature enough to handle it, or apparently my own future plans. I’m just grown up enough for sexy time, and not grown up enough to be anything except the little girl who follows you two around like a helpless puppy. The girl who gets in trouble and never grew a sensitive, self-aware bone in her body.”

Am I bitching out? Yes.

And while I might feel kinda bad later, I’m definitely not feeling it now as I prop my hand against my hip and try to hate-stare them down to the planet’s core.

Weston’s eyes flash like blue sirens. “Shel, that’s not—”

“Not what, West? The reason you won’t tell me anything? I call BS. You think I can’t handle knowing the truth. You think if I know your platoon was caught in an ambush in Afghanistan, I’ll want you to relive it constantly or something.”

I’m glad Faye told me that much. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have a defense. I’m also not done.

“Shel,” he growls back. “It isn’t like—”

“Like what? Like you don’t think I’m so shallow, so immature, that I can’t handle the truth? That I’m not ready to hear why you were too messed up to write me?” I pause, watching his eyes widen. “Thanks. I really appreciate that. I love knowing what you really think of me—good enough to be your toy, your fling, and nothing more.”

“Shelly!” Marty throws up his arms, jerking toward me.

I twist away.

Yep, I’ve gone too far, and I know it.

I’ve never handled betrayal from Weston McKnight well, but this, after I thought we were almost over it and having conversations like normal human beings...

Tears scorch my eyes, burning worse than ever as I fight to hold them in.

They’re not coming out. Not in front of these two backstabby, two-faced dunderheads.

Stomping a winding path around them, far enough away so they can’t stop me, I say, “Don’t worry, boys. Neither of you. I’ll be gone soon. Gram’s doing great, so I can probably cut my stay here short. I won’t really need eight whole weeks of misery. There’s no good reason to risk hanging around for an early winter, neither.”

Weston takes a halting step forward, his brows pulled low like a descending thunderhead.

“Shel, enough. Just shut it and listen—”

“Shut it?” I stare at him with my mouth hanging open. “Fuck you, West.”

The pain inside me ruptures like an abscess.

I do the only thing I can to keep my nails from dragging across his face.

Run.

I run like a jolted fawn all the way to the B&B, digging my fingers into my eyes. It’s a wonder I don’t stumble over an uneven hole or a rock and break my neck.

Maybe that would be a mercy.

Maybe anything would be compared to thinking Weston McJackass ever trusted me enough to be honest.

* * *

When I get home, I find the back door locked.

Of course.

Of course it is.

My purse. My keys. My phone. They’re all in Weston’s truck.

I throw my head back, wanting to scream bloody murder at the cloudy morning sky.

I want to cry.

I want to curl up into a kitten-like ball and let the pain bleed out of me.

Mostly, I want to crawl under the covers and be numb. Until I don’t feel anything for anyone—especially Weston.

Gah, I didn’t even get to serve Hercules his breakfast.

A sudden disruption—a noise or movement—has me pivoting my gaze on the old barn. I see a man in the shadows, and also see Marty jogging toward me from Weston’s place.

Still pissed at the world, I head for the barn.

“Hey! What are you doing over there?” I shout at the man.

The tall, lean shape tells me a second later it’s Carson. I can tell by how his platinum-blond hair shimmers, even under a grey morning in the shadows.

“Having a smoke,” he says, patting his pants pocket. “There’s no smoking inside, and naturally I adhere to my host’s rules.”

I stop and stare. I don’t see a cigarette, but I point to the front parking lot.

“Well, there’s a smoking area with an ashtray out front.”

“I was just trying to get away from the bugs,” Carson says. “Your mosquitos are a little hardier than what I’m used to. It’s cold enough to frost and there are still too many of them around.”

I nod disinterestedly.

I’ve so freaking had it with men today.

“Listen, I don’t give a crap about bugs, but that isn’t the point!” I spit. “You can’t smoke back here, Carson, okay?”

He gives me a stunned look.

I know. I shouldn’t go off on him when it’s an innocent mistake. Guilt flares in my belly as I see his lips move, trying to figure out if he should apologize.

No need. He can’t apologize for the real jerkwad who left my heart in ruins.

The jerkwad’s accomplice, Marty, arrives at my side a second later.

“Shelly—there you are. I got your purse. And I’m real sorry if you thought I—”

“Marty. Just...just leave me alone, please,” I hiss, grabbing my purse from his hand and plodding to the house without looking back, digging out the keys on my way.

Inside, I go straight to my room and dive on the bed.

Just why? Why does my life have this special ability to go from a diamond to a lump of coal in a matter of hours?

Because there might be a hint of truth to that crap Weston said.

Evidently, I’m a fricking idiot.

Our magic night together was nothing but an illusion, a cheap parlor trick.

The bazaar. The dancing. The pretty cars. Driving his monster truck.

Coming so many times for him I’m still achingly sore every time I move.

It was all like a glorious dream, and just like every sweet dream—bam!—here comes the reality kick to the face.

At least I have my answers.

It makes sense now.

Why he wouldn’t even talk about the fundraisers he pours his heart into. Why he’s so guarded, so sure I can’t handle the truth.

That’s why he’s helping the veterans’ groups.

And he didn’t want me knowing about any of it. Didn’t want me to know anything except the hot seam of his lips and how hard he can work me over.

God.

I’m not a shallow woman. I’m not insensitive. I’m definitely not stupid.

But his opinions are set in stone, no matter what changes.

He’ll never see me as an adult, an equal, an ear worthy of hearing his heart.

Just like my moron brother will never accept my choices, whether I want to be in D.C. or Dallas or even the freaking moon.

To him, I’m the little sister. Not the woman who knows what she wants and will pay hell to get it.

I flop down on my back with a creeping headache and stare at the ceiling.

As much as I want to sucker punch West right now, there’s a reason I can’t.

Maybe he doesn’t see me the way I wish he could because...

...because I don’t actually know what I want.

I just want him.

I want the version of him that protects me so sweetly, without this need to hide a distorted reflection only he sees.

I’ve been changing my plans because of him for years, haven’t I?

So why the heck can’t one—just one of my well-crafted blueprints—work out?

Drawing in a deep breath, I hold it for a count of ten, willing my mind to calm.

Ha. I might as well ask for a ticket to Maui while I’m at it.

I hate how my plans have always been so self-focused. Always about what I want, whether it’s a prestigious position in historical preservation or the raging need to hear from West after he went off to war.

Have I ever considered Weston’s goals—especially this new West I’ve fallen too fast and too hard for?

He’s still battling with war wounds embedded in his mind like stray shrapnel. While I was here, focused on my education, finding my career...he was literally tortured.

If I love him truly, beautifully, just as I’ve always believed, shouldn’t I focus on him? On what he wants and needs? If he’d let me.

All the sighs.

Maybe I’m not quite as mature as I thought.

Maybe I’ll only force my eyes open and see the real Weston McKnight when pigs fly.

* * *

My mind is still a jumbled mess the next morning, a pale lump of grey matter against the brilliant pumpkin-orange dawn of Halloween.

My only saving grace is that I have a pack of loud, hungry guests to feed, the stragglers who decided to stick around after the car show ended.

I pull a batch of cinnamon muffin dough from under the mixer, dish them out, and pop them in the oven before grabbing the scrap bowl for Hercules.

When I tiptoe onto the property of he-who-won’t-be-named, the big baby’s happy to see me, grunting with delight as he props himself up against the boards to sniff at my hand.

“Here you go, Houdini pig. Enjoy your special day. Plenty of pumpkin for the pumpkin,” I say, dumping a generous pile of pureed pumpkin from Gram’s last-minute 'serial killer pumpkin bars' into his trough.

Oh, how I wish people were as easy and forgiving as animals.

That wish doubles when I see my sandals on the grass outside Hercules’ pen, the ones I’d left in Weston’s living room last night. Looks like he left them near the pig’s trough where I’d be sure to find them.

A new crack spiderwebs through my heart.

Welp. There’s my answer.

A lonely pair of shoes tells me exactly how Weston feels.

He never wants to see me again.

I feel a boulder on my chest as I carry my shoes back to Gram’s. At least breakfast is a happy distraction as I throw together everything else for the guests.

Half an hour later, the happy people file in—everyone except Carson. For most of them, it’s their last breakfast before checking out. So once they’re served, I gather the supplies I’ll need to clean and sanitize each room.

Faye starts running her tail off yet again, always overeager to help.

No, I tell her, more sternly than before.

It’s my job and I’ll finish it. I also badly need the work today to keep my mind off Captain McNasty.

I’ve always let others do too much for me.

Marty for sure. He was the one to run after Gram all these years while I nursed my anger and pain, while I escaped over losing Weston the first time.

Now, I’ve let Faye cook and clean for days—all so I could live out terrible fantasies with a man I desperately wanted to see.

And even seeing him naked didn’t show me who he really is.

Time to do some more growin’ up, as Grandpa would say.

Time to take responsibility for myself, for my own visions and dreams.

I can’t get my life figured out until I get myself figured out.

That could take some time. I’m here for Gram, for Amelia’s B&B, after all.

Not for personal therapy over an old crush I was a grinning fool to indulge.

The next few hours, I give every empty room a thorough cleaning, and by the time I make it downstairs to put away supplies, I find Gram in the kitchen. She’s whisking up fresh cookie dough by hand, some sort of pumpkin-cinnamon decadence by the smell.

“Oh, Gram, I wish you’d use the mixer!”

“And miss my morning workout? Nonsense, girl,” she says with a devilish smirk.

“At least let Faye help. Where’s she off to?” I ask.

Gram sighs. “She’s packing up and heading home, Shelly Bean. Said it was high time to check-in on her purr-ball and that fancy new security thing the boys rigged up.”

My heart crawls lower.

“She did?”

“Yep. Guess she felt she’d worn out her welcome, between us girls. She’s been a darling.”

“Why? What happened?”

Gram sets down her metal whisk and gives me one of her gentle stares. “Well, Lord knows I’m not a mind reader, but you might’ve scratched her feelings a tad when you snapped this morning.”

Oh, no.

“I didn’t really snap at her...did I?” I’m not sure of anything.

Also, Weston’s smirky, handsome, and entirely punchable face flashes through my mind. Just how bad have I let him screw me up again?

“I know you meant no harm, dearie. But she’s rather sensitive to a person’s feelings after everything she went through with Grady and his girls...I told her to shake it off, but evidently, she worried she was getting on your nerves.”

I turn, pressing my fingers into my eyes before facing my grandmother again.

“Gram, I just...I didn’t want her to feel like she needed to help me clean. I just wanted her to take a morning off. It’s my job. My responsibility, right? I didn’t mean to hurt her feelings...or yours.”

Gram gives me a half smile and pats the stool beside her.

I walk over on lead feet and sit down.

“Fret not, it’ll take more than a harsh word or two to upset this old gal. I know you didn’t mean anything with Faye, and I told her so. She still chose to go, and she’s got valid reasons besides being too up in her own head. She had to go back sometime and let West finish up priming that fancy new burglar alarm. No need to fret over it,” she says, patting my shoulder. “What I don’t understand is what had you so keyed up so early. You love mornings, usually. Why are you so out of sorts today? Is it that blasted pig again?”

“Gram, it’s everything,” I say, exhaling slowly. “Everything but Hercules.”

“Everything, eh? And you’re sure it has nothing to do with a man who’s part swine?”

Yep, I think she’ll be a mind reader until the day she dies.

I wish I knew how to explain what I’m feeling.

“It’s not that. Not just that. It’s mostly me.”

She lifts a brow.

“The only thing I know for sure is that I’m here to take care of you,” I say. “And that’s what I’ll do until it’s time to head home.”

Home.

I’m still waiting for the day when D.C. feels like home.

“You’ve been doing that too much, dearest heart. In case you hadn’t noticed, I’ve been doing a fine job looking after myself,” she says defiantly.

“Yeah, you have, and it’s too much. I’ve been working here every day the past few weeks and I’ve still been knocking off when I shouldn’t for fun I don’t need.”

“Bah, what’s wrong with that? All work and no play is never how it’s done around here, Shelly. You’re not turning into a dull girl on my watch.”

I snort at how she blows that silly nod to The Shining apart and throws it back together into a mangled mess. I certainly feel like Jack Nicholson right now—slowly going bonkers.

“I’m not here for fun, Gram.”

Gram smiles wider. “You know, life is only as complicated as we make it.”

Don’t I know it. “Well, I guess I’m good at that. I’ve made mine pretty complicated.”

“That’s an easy fix,” she says matter-of-factly.

I look at her.

“Uncomplicate it, sweetness.”

I roll my eyes.

“Easier said than done.”

“Hardly.” She reaches over and taps my temple. “It’s your thinking that’s got everything all knotted up.”

I sigh, propping my elbows on the counter with my chin in both hands.

“Maybe. I definitely have some things to sort out.”

“Like what?”

“Life.” I shrug. “I don’t know if I can go back to D.C., Gram.”

“Ah, so Weston’s convinced you then. Mighty impressive.”

This time, I roll my eyes right out of my head.

“No, it isn’t him. It’s me. I don’t know if I can go back, Gram.”

She gives me a quizzical look.

“I should be here, helping you and Marty. We’re a family,” I say. “What happens to Amelia’s if you can’t run it anymore? We both know Marty can’t give up his oil job to keep it going full-time.”

“That’s my worry and not yours.”

“But what about your life and Marty’s?”

“What about them? We manage just fine. The boy takes after his grandfather and takes things one day at a time. I wish you’d do the same.”

“I guess...” I don’t want to make her feel bad, like she’s a burden, because she’s totally not.

“You guess what?”

“Well...Marty stayed here originally so I could go run off to college and find my legs. And you paid for basically everything. It’s only fair for me to pick up the slack, so he can do something he wants...even if that’s just having a break from working two jobs.”

She picks up her spoon and shuffles back to the counter to stir her cookie dough.

“I suspect that if there’s something Marty wants, he’ll do it, whether you’re here or not, Shelly. He chased that North Earhart job for years and worked his way up, just like your uncle and granddad. But you wanted to see the world. We happily supported you because we love you. No regrets. That’s how it is when you love someone. Seeing them happy means more than all the flowers on God’s green Earth.”

I’ve heard that before and wonder if there’s something wrong with me for always being so selfish.

Am I living with wires crossed in my brain?

“Did you always know what you wanted, Gram? Did you ever want to live somewhere else?”

“Been there, done that.”

“You did? What? When?” I’ve never heard anything about it. “I thought you lived in Dallas your entire life.”

“Not quite. After high school, I went to Chicago for a couple years. I took up a secretary job at a big company that sold pots and pans. It was good fun, for a time, but I was awfully homesick. Every letter I got from North Dakota only made it worse. I knew in my heart that the Windy City wasn’t where I belonged. So I made a snap decision. I quit my job, packed my bags, and got a train ticket home. The day I was packing to leave, a visitor dropped by who assured me I’d made the right choice.”

She sighs and the smile on her face grows so big, so bright, I’m breathless waiting for more.

“Who?”

Setting down her spoon, she folds both hands beneath her chin and looks at me with shimmering eyes.

“Who else, dearie? Your grandpa. Doug said life around Dallas went mighty pale when I left, and he was set on moving to Chicago. He wanted to know if I knew a place where he could stay.”

My jaw almost bangs on the floor.

“Grandpa Doug followed you to Chicago?”

“He did.” She giggles softly. “I pulled my train ticket out of my purse and told him he could have my apartment because I was moving home.”

“What did he say?” I smile for the first time today.

Her laugh comes out so light it’s like a softly strummed guitar.

“Nothing. Not with words. He just grinned, tore up my ticket, and picked up my bags with a whistle to follow him out to his car.”

“Holy crap. You’re serious?”

“Completely. We were married a little over a month later.” She winks at me. “Eight months after that, your father was born.”

Calculating what that means, I laugh.

“Gram! You were pregnant when you got married?”

“Not at all.” She shrugs. “In those days, lots of babies were born a month early. Something in the water or air, I guess.”

“Okay. Sure.” I snicker again under my breath.

She walks over and kisses my cheek before throwing her skinny arms around me.

“Keep laughing and quit thinking so much, Rachel. Listen to your heart. You know what feels right and what doesn’t. Let that be your guide.” She picks up the spoon. “I have cookies to bake, and maybe you should give Faye a call or drop in on her in person.”

I give her a quick hug.

“You’re right. A real apology should be in person.”

“The keys to the car are on the hook.”

Faye isn’t the only one I need to have a heart-to-heart with, but she’s certainly a good place to start.

20

Like Pigs to the Slaughter (Weston)

The music, the smells, the lights are driving me batshit crazy.

I get why Uncle Grady let the kids go hog wild dressing up the bar for Halloween, but I’m not in any holiday spirit. If I see another jack-o’-lantern grinning at me, I might stab the fuck right between the eyes.

I’m not working, just sitting here at the Bobcat, occupying a space where the only thing that exists is my own stupidity.

I should go home, but I don’t want to be alone.

Also don’t want to be that close to Shelly.

She hates me, and I can’t blame her. After she heard me shitting out my mouth, there’s no pretending I’m not the biggest jagoff in human history.

Calling it a summer fling? Christ.

I saw the stricken look on her face, heard the quiver in her voice, and watched in slow, agonizing motion how badly I hurt her.

“Refill, West?” Grady asks.

“No, thanks.” Like usual, it’s just soda, but today it tastes like sugar acid.

“Want to tell me what happened? Is it the break-ins driving you up the frigging wall?”

“Nah, but I’ve got Marty keeping an eye on that Remington dude. First little slip he makes, I’m dragging him to Drake personally. Right after I beat his ass.”

Grady chuckles.

“So it’s the girl then,” he says.

“Come again?”

“If it’s not your thieves, it’s your love life. I know you too well, boy. Whether you like it or not, I’ve got something to say anyway.” He plants his elbows on the bar and leans toward me. “Sometimes, men think too damn much for their own good. Especially when it comes to women. Hell, half the guys in this town did it with their wives, and fuck knows I did with Willow. If I hadn’t let a Bengal tiger chase my head in the right place, I would’ve missed out on the best thing that ever happened to me.”

“Yeah, well, you had Sawyer and Avery to worry about,” I say, taking another pull off my root beer.

“Oh, no. That was an excuse. The girls were crazy in love with her before I was man enough to realize I was too. I came this close”—he pauses, pinching a sliver of space between his thumb and pointer finger—“to being too stupid to live. That’s what I would’ve been if I hadn’t told my brain to shut up.”

I tilt my head, looking at him sideways.

“When it comes to women, West, you gotta go with your gut. Always. Just like when you meet somebody sneaky—and we’ve had plenty of experience with that around here—or when you know something awful’s about to pop off and you jump out of the way in the nick of time. That’s your gut working overtime, and it wants you to listen.”

I look at him, shaking my head.

No matter how spot-on his wisdom can be, it’s still annoying.

“Trust me. Your head will try to screw you over, but your gut will make the right decision.” He shakes his head. “It’s an emotional compass. It knows right from wrong, up from down, fight or flight.”

“Yeah, right,” I say insolently.

I love my uncle, but he’s laying out a line of shit, that’s for sure. Just trying to cheer me up, an impossible job.

“I am right. When I first met Willow behind this bar with a broken-down truck and a damn tiger in a trailer, my brain roared warnings louder than that cat. My head told me she was something not worth getting mixed up with. Good thing my gut said I had to help. So I did. I called you to come get her truck. Remember?”

I push the dead air out of my lungs. All of me feels dead today, and it’s got nothing to do with skeletons and creepy crawlies hanging everywhere.

“Like I could ever forget, Uncle Grady.”

“Well, over the next few days, my head kept screaming stop. Get rid of her. Hell, I had two young girls to worry about. Mr. Brain never shuts up when he smells danger. But did I ditch her, man?” He gives me a slitted look.

“No,” I answer.

“Right. I knew I’d regret it for the rest of my life if I let Mr. Brain do the deciding. He’s good with numbers and getting a bead on a target when you’re at the range, but let’s be real, he’s shit at love.” He straightens up and grins, his teeth shining through his thick black halo of beard. “Look at me now. Happier than I ever dared imagine I could be.”

“Sure are, and you deserve it after all the hell you went through. Nobody was happier than me when I heard you two were tying the knot,” I tell him.

“Tell that to your face,” he says slowly. “Because it looks like you just lost your childhood dog.”

I’ve lost worse than any dopey mutt.

I might call Marty that, but in all honesty, Shel was always my best friend too. And these past few weeks, she ascended beyond any friendship.

Something slaps my shoulder so hard I’m jarred, and it’s not Uncle Grady.

I turn around.

Marty. He appears out of thin air like he knows I’ve been thinking about him.

“Hey.” He gives Grady a friendly nod and takes the mug of on-the-house beer handed to him. “How you doing?”

“Fine,” I answer. “You?”

“I feel pretty shitty.” He slumps down on the stool beside me, slurping his beer loudly.

Concerned, I look at him.

“Why’s that?”

“Because I fucked you over, and Shelly too,” he says glumly.

“What? No, you didn’t. You weren’t the one who barked shit at her.”

“I did. If she hadn’t heard us talking outside—if I hadn’t stuck my nose into your biz—the two of you would be fine and dandy. Instead, you’re sitting here wishing that pop was straight whiskey, and she’s at Gram’s, rage-scrubbing the grout in bathrooms with a ten-year-old toothbrush.”

I shrug, hating how well he reads me.

“It wasn’t your fault. I knew it wouldn’t last, and so did she. I should have just kept my dumbass thoughts to myself.”

“Like you have the past ten years or so?” he asks, leveling a look.

“Sure. What’s another decade? You know the life I live, Marty. Managing.”

“Dammit, dude, that ain’t living,” he snaps, spinning his stool to face me. “Why don’t you just tell her? That’s the only reason I’m pissed at you. Why don’t you come clean and give her what you really think? Because I know that crap you said this morning isn’t it.”

I stop and stare at him coldly.

“If you’re so sure, you tell her for me,” I say.

“Huh?”

“Tell her I’m an alcoholic. Tell her I watched good people die while I was wearing several good peoples’ guts. Tell her I came home too fucked up to even send her a hello by pigeon. Tell her how hard you and Uncle Grady had to work to make sure I didn’t fall off the wagon into a bottomless pit.” I let out a sarcastic laugh. “That’s the kind of man chicks want to marry, right? A man who still gets nightmares when he isn’t even asleep?”

“Shel isn’t just any woman, West, and you know it,” he says softly. “And you’re a recovered alcoholic by any sane measure. You went through hell, yeah. You stumbled—you tripped up a lot—but you still got up, got help, and now you’re stronger than ever.” Marty takes a fierce swig off his beer. “But honestly, none of that shit’s what I’m talking about you telling her.”

Confused, I frown. “What do you want me to say?”

“That she was the whole reason you decided on the Army in the first place, dude. Everything you’ve told me a hundred times. That you were worried if you stayed, she’d turn eighteen and never leave. She’d never experience the world, never chase her dreams if you were still in Dallas. You left so she could have a life. She did what you asked, she saw the world, and she kicked ass. Don’t you think it’s time she knows she can stay, if that’s what she honestly wants? She’s a grown woman. She’s my sister. I have trouble seeing it myself sometimes, but God help me, I’m gonna start.”

“What if she doesn’t want to be here? What if she’s just confused?”

He shrugs. “Only one person I know who seems confused, and he’s standing right in front of me.”

Fucking touché.

I shake my head. “I can’t be the reason she uproots her whole life, Marty. Believe me, I’m not the man she needs.”

“That’s for her to decide, don’t you think? She got understandably pissed at us for doing too much choosing for her.”

“You think?” I laugh again bitterly. “I don’t know what to think right now. My mind is a fucking minefield.”

“Then stop thinking,” Marty says. “Go with your gut.”

I heave out a groan, swiping a hand over my face.

“Goddammit, man. You and Uncle Grady should partner up as the town shrinks.”

The angry pull I take off my root beer dribbles down my chin, and I wipe it with my hand.

“Sounds like a good gig. Psychologists make bank without having to step out into sub-zero weather that’ll freeze your nads off.”

“Yeah, you could start by charging about five cents a whack,” I say. A nickel is about all his advice is worth.

He laughs and takes a drink off his beer.

“Change of subject, but did you sync up your aunt’s security app yet on your phone?”

“I have it set up, but I haven’t activated it yet. I gotta do that at her place once she sets up her code. She said she’d do it once she’s back.”

“She went home this morning, I hear. I wasn’t sure if you knew or not.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“She’s there now.” He finishes his beer and sets the glass down, along with a ten-dollar bill, and stands up. “You might want to swing by before you go home. Could be all sorts of shenanigans tonight with Halloween and all.”

“I will. Thanks.”

He slaps my shoulder. “That’s what friends are for.”

I check the clock. It’s a little after six, and I push my empty glass to the bar’s edge.

“Heading out?” Grady asks.

“Yeah, I gotta swing by Aunt Faye’s house to get her new security app working and activate the system. Marty said she left the B&B this morning.”

“Shame. She was having a blast when I swung by the other day with the girls,” he says, stroking his beard. “I was thinking she might move in with Thelma for good. I’d rather see her do that than move into senior housing in Dickinson or Miles City. I think she’ll get too bored and go stir-crazy.”

I’d never thought of that, but I nod in agreement.

“They get along so well. Plus, I bet she’d be an asset in Thelma’s shopping wars with Granny Coffey. Maybe I’ll drop a subtle hint or two.”

“Or three or four,” Grady says with a laugh.

Smiling, I stand up. “I’ll let you know how it goes, Unc.”

“Thanks, West, and don’t forget my advice.”

Stopping, I dig around in my pocket and toss a nickel. It lands next to him with a clatter.

“What’s this? I don’t take tips from you.”

I just give him a wink and walk away.

* * *

My mind is glued to Shelly for the entire drive to my aunt’s.

If her heart wasn’t perma-broken years ago when I never sent those letters, I’m sure it is now with that summer fling bullshit I coughed up. I lied to us both.

If she was just a damn fling, I wouldn’t have shot her between the eyes purely so I could save face.

That’s all it was.

Saving. Fucking. Face.

And for who? Marty? God? My own ego?

Yeah, I’ve got to talk to her. Sooner would be better than later, but nothing has changed with me. All the instincts in the world howling at me to find her and fall to my knees with a gut-wrenching apology can’t change what I am.

It can’t change the stabbing fact that she deserves so much more than I can ever give.

If I was as confident as everybody else that I’m stronger—that I’m fixed—maybe it’d be different.

But the ugly truth remains. I never thought I’d become dependent on the bottle the way I had.

Who knows what other bad habits I might fall into when I’m still haunted by the metallic stink of human blood, the crack of bullets, the metal confetti that tore bigger heroes than I’ll ever be apart—

No, fuck. There’s no guarantee at all the pain won’t chew me to the bone and lead me into another trap.

Shel needs to go home before I make her suffer.

She needs to forget Dallas, lose herself in old-timey things, and find some city slicker with a gold-plated dick to build a life with.

Marty was right about one thing—her being happy is what always mattered the most.

Hell, I’ll be better off knowing she’ll never be around to witness my self-destruction.

Some shit in life you can’t plan for.

Just like I never planned on a dark night of hell pinned under rubble—or that a few crushing headaches would turn me into a drunken wrecking ball.

I turn the corner to Aunt Faye’s street and notice her van isn’t in the driveway. Must be in the garage.

A smile pulls at my lips, thinking it’s the first time in ages she’s been able to park inside it.

She sold most of the stuff overloading her garage at the bazaar.

I hope that means her garage sale days are behind her with winter coming.

Her house is on a large lot at the end of the street, a good quarter mile from the closest neighbor, which makes it hard for anyone to keep an open eye on her. Moving in with Thelma Simon would be better for her spirit than senior living.

She was happier at Amelia’s. She always is when she feels useful, but whether or not that lasts depends on Thelma.

I pull into the driveway, kill my engine, and catch a quick glimpse of a calico cat skittering away from the back porch. The elusive Mr. Whiskers, no doubt.

It’s hard not to think about the day we spent here, fucking Shel in the back of my truck.

Still, I force myself not to dwell on it as I climb out and make my way to the back door.

With a couple familiar knocks, I open the door at the same time.

“Aunt Faye? You home? I’m here to set up the new system.”

Silence. The kitchen is empty, dark, and I walk toward the back staircase to shout up to the second floor.

“Hello! Aunt Faye?”

Nothing.

I walk through the kitchen again, the dining room, shouting her name the entire way as my steps slow.

My gut steams, my instincts piqued like a wolf sensing footsteps in the night.

The moment I enter the living room, that inner wolf springs up with a growl.

Her feet are sticking out from behind the sofa, dressed in those candy corn fall socks I know she loves. The rest of her isn’t visible.

“Aunt Faye!” I stumble around the furniture, my heart in my throat before I even see the pool of blood under her head.

Oh, shit.

Shit!

I drop to the floor next to her, casting a wary eye around the room for the dead man walking who did this, if it wasn’t a hideous accident. But any asshole perpetrator is already gone.

“Aunt Faye,” I whisper over and over, asking if she can hear me

My fingers reach for her throat, feeling for a pulse. I find one—thank God—before I pull out my phone, dial 911, and demand an ambulance.

After a quick assessment, I notice all the blood’s coming from her head. So I collect a towel from the kitchen and carefully ease it under her as gently as possible to stall the bleeding.

It’s fresh blood. She hasn’t been lying here long.

Thank God Marty told me she was home. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have stopped by till tomorrow.

What if she was here like this all night?

Fuck.

“Don’t quit on me now, lovely lady,” I whisper when she stirs. “You’ve come too far to leave like this...”

Vicious memories claw at my brain, triggered by the blood smeared across my hands.

Hellfire. Screaming. Smoke. Blood.

My ears pinpoint on a distant, shrill sound after feeling blown out by that explosion.

Vicki Watell, shrieking just feet away from me. Her legs are gone.

She howls like she’s possessed by the pain, a puppet of agony with stark-red death pooling under her.

I try to crawl forward, to help her stop the bleeding, but a bullet cracks past my head. It grazes my helmet, making a deafening noise that makes me think my eardrums just ruptured.

“Vicki!” I roar, finally reaching her—

Just as another bullet cuts by and another airstrike detonates the world around us.

I think I black out for several seconds.

Her screams have stopped by the time I’m conscious again. She isn’t moving now. There’s just more blood, this time running from a fresh hole in her head.

“Fuck!” I smack myself on the side of the face.

Once. Twice. Three times.

I’m grateful Aunt Faye’s too out of it to see me going to pieces when she needs me most.

She needs me in the here and now.

I keep talking to her softly, holding her hand, letting her know that help is coming, running through my entire litany of ultra-dumb dad jokes.

Meanwhile, I scan the area as I count my breaths and hers, trying to figure what the ever-living fuck just happened.

Was it really an intruder? I notice the corner of the rug turned up. She might’ve tripped, hit her head on the coffee table...only, it’s too far away.

If it was a freak accident, she wouldn’t be lying here, so near the fireplace.

Then I see the broken vase—all heavy crystal blown apart like pearls. She could’ve been carrying it, but it’s near her feet. Further scanning doesn’t show anything out of place.

Damn. Why didn’t I activate the new system earlier?

Because I couldn’t until she decided on the code she’d remember.

She wanted it to be something meaningful and asked me to wait till she was home from Amelia’s.

Flustered, I pick my phone up off the floor where I’d set it down after calling the ambulance and punch Uncle Grady’s contact.

“Weston?”

“It’s Aunt Faye,” I tell him. “She’s unconscious and bleeding. Come now.”

21

Sweating Like A Pig (Rachel)

Will this joke of a day ever end?

After driving over to Faye’s and apologizing, which she gracefully accepted with her own sage advice about life, I came home with plenty to think about. That’s been my entire day.

Thinking.

Since there was only one guestroom still occupied by evening—guess whose—I kept myself busy by scrubbing the grout in all the bathrooms with a cleaning paste I’d found while cleaning out the storage closet.

The grout is now pearly white and sparkling like a cleaning commercial. Not that it was in bad shape when I started. I just wish it gave me a better distraction from the anxiety stomping through my mind like a herd of hungry bears.

Of course, that was kinda hopeless when Marty stopped by while I was scrubbing to apologize again and tell me he’ll talk to Weston.

I said don’t bother.

I’m not ready.

Or maybe this is just something I need to figure out on my own. I told him I appreciate his concern, but whatever’s happening between us is our problem, not his. Not anyone else’s.

I’m still not sure if I’m desperate and angry for Weston to see me as a grown woman or if I need to accept the fact that he was right.

There will never be anything between us.

Nothing besides the best romps of my life during a blazing summer fling with an old friend I could never bring myself to let go.

Look, I’m not keen on acceptance, nor have I made up my mind about which way I should focus, but I sure wish he’d get home soon.

This is the third time I’ve walked over to his place since supper, and there’s still no sign of him.

Hercules, however, is happy to see me every time, pushing against his pen with a chirping grunt that sounds like a human baby trying to laugh. I lean in too close and he snuffles at my hair—a few inches lower and I’m sure he’d lick my face.

“Easy, big guy! I’m not going anywhere. At least for a few more weeks,” I tell him.

I give him a final scratch behind his floppy ears before making my way back to the B&B, almost wishing we had more grout to scrub. I might just have to fold up on the couch soon for a scary movie, and see if Gram wants help passing out candy and cookies to trick or treaters.

Because you know it’s bad when you’re wishing for dirty grout.

Maybe the guest who called in earlier today asking about a room will show up tonight. Checking them in and a little polite conversation will keep me busy for five whole minutes.

Ugh.

I just don’t get why Weston shuts down with his emotions, if he’s not running them off like a boar on the warpath.

We always talked in the past.

We always had secrets we shared since the first time we connected on that day he pulled me inside for cookies.

He always had this special talent for dragging me out of whatever funk I was in. Like when my parents died and I was so devastated, and again when he told me he was leaving for bootcamp.

The sigh that leaves my lungs feels heavier than concrete.

Both of those times revolved around me, didn’t they?

Just like when I’d wrecked the motorcycle. But then again, he never talked much about himself.

Opening up now just isn’t something he’d do.

Not with me.

Because apparently I’ve always been the brat next door he had to save. Never the other way around.

The bitter fact that it makes sense puts a new ache in my heart.

Jackass or not, he’s always been there for me, but I’ve never been there much for him. Certainly not when he needed me the most. Not during that time he came home hollowed out, gutted by all the things he could never bear to tell me.

How the hell do I help him now?

I kick at the ground, sweeping a few dried out fall leaves away with my foot.

A stinging nettle growing at the corner of Grandpa’s barn catches my eye. I walk over to pluck it out before it gets bigger.

The plant has these tiny hairs, but they’re actually sharp barbs that hurt like a grease burn if they get in your skin. As I’m reaching down to grasp the weed close to the roots—any higher up and I’ll be cussing up a blue streak from the pain—I notice a cigarette butt on the ground.

Then another and another and...holy crap.

It’s like the back of a bar, except I doubt Grady ever lets people toss garbage around the Purple Bobcat like this.

The mess irritates me more than the nettle weed.

Once I’ve torn it from the ground, I carefully tuck the roots in my back pocket and then use my phone to shove the weed in deeper so it won’t fall out.

I’ll use my shirt to pull it out at the trash.

Sighing, I stuff my phone in my front pocket and use both hands to scoop up about a dozen cigarette butts and carry them to the parking lot trash can.

I’m going to have to mention this to Carson, since he’s likely our only recent smoker.

Jeez, I even told him the only place he’s allowed to smoke is the parking lot, didn’t I?

We keep it over asphalt for a reason. We’ve had a dry autumn so far without a lot of rain, so one stray smoldering butt could even start a fire in the grass by the barn.

Throwing them on the ground isn’t just rude, it’s potentially dangerous.

As I drop the butts in the trash, I wonder why I never smelled cigarette smoke on Carson. Usually, I can since it’s something I got sensitive to at college. Too many drunken students puffing away at all hours, right outside my dorm room window.

Then again, whenever Mr. Hudson’s around, all I smell are those godawful truffle almonds.

Seriously. Is he actually leaving tomorrow?

I thought he’d be on his merry way after the car show ended, and his current stay ends after tonight. I’m dreading yet another extension, no matter how much he likes to pay in advance.

Maybe I can kick him out if he keeps littering like this...

Thank goodness Faye sewed up his pocket, at least, so he hasn’t dropped more of those gross snacks around like bird poo. I’m still pissed at how sick they made Herc.

Honestly, though, tonight I’m just pissed at everything.

Period.

Including myself.

I need to talk to Weston ASAP, even if it leads to another screaming match. I can’t handle things melting down so abruptly.

I’m in the process of trying to pull the weed out of my back pocket with the hem of my shirt so I don’t get stung—way easier in theory than reality—when I hear sirens.

Multiple vehicles. Ambulance and police.

Back in D.C., I wouldn’t even blink at the wailing noise...but Dallas is a speck of a town. When sirens shriek here, it almost certainly involves someone we know. Someone close.

A rough knot forms in my stomach and I hurry into the house. I can use a towel to get the weed out inside.

Gram emerges from the private area. “Was that an ambulance I heard?”

“Yeah, and police sirens.”

“Oh, dear. I wonder what’s happened...” Gram places both hands over her heart. “Granny Coffey isn’t getting any younger, and the way she rides that two-seater bike around town is downright dangerous. I sincerely hope it’s not her.”

I smile. Though they might be strawberry arch-enemies, Gram and Granny have been frenemies for years.

“Hopefully not,” I say, and I don’t think it’s her. I’ve seen Coffey riding her bike around pretty safely with that flower helmet she always wears. “Hopefully no one we know.”

“Hmm, that would mean it’s a stranger. Maybe the guest we’re waiting on today. Lord, that would be dreadful. And after everything that’s come to Dallas the last few years, strangers and trouble have a sad habit of mixing too well.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions, Gram,” I say. “Maybe it’s nothing. Just a fender bender on the highway or something. No need to think it’s a shootout or mafia guys coming to raid Main Street.”

“Well, I think I’ll call the sheriff and find out.”

“Gram, you can’t just call Drake on a whim. That’s private business and if it’s serious, he’s probably busy.”

“Fair enough, I’ll wait. But it’s also public business,” she says, walking behind the desk to use the landline. “I can’t just sit here hearing sirens whipping right by...”

“I’m not sure sirens qualify as public business,” I say flatly.

But the sound of a vehicle pulling in has me hurrying to the door. I’m relieved to see my brother’s truck.

“Marty’s here! Maybe he knows something.”

My small relief dries up the instant he jogs to the house, throwing the door wide open.

He’s panicked. Casting me a severe look, he goes straight to Gram and tells her to sit down.

“Why, Marty? What’s going on?” she asks, sinking reluctantly into the chair.

Knowing it has something to do with the sirens, and that the news isn’t good, I step around the desk to stand next to Gram, ready to lay my hands on her shoulders.

“Gram.” Marty kneels down beside her chair, flashing me a worried look. “Weston just called. He found Faye on the floor at her house, basically unconscious.”

No! I was just there.

My hand flies to my mouth, stifling a gasp.

“The ambulance?” Gram asks sharply. “Oh, no. No, no, no...”

Marty nods sadly. “They’re taking her to the hospital in Dickinson right now.”

“Was it her heart?” Gram asks, wincing and throwing her hands up. “The poor thing!”

Poor thing is right. She only left here early thanks to my rude mouth.

Guilt hits like an uppercut.

Sure, she’d accepted my apology only hours ago and insisted she went home because she had a lot to catch up on like that fancy new system Weston and Faulkner rigged up, but still...it’s partly my fault and totally shameful.

“No one knows for sure right now,” Marty says. “West didn’t stay on the line long. He just said she was bleeding. Like she might have fallen and banged her head or something. No one’s sure, though. Drake’s at her place now, scoping things out.”

Gram stands with a sigh.

“I have to see her. And someone needs to tell the McKnights the head trauma unit can be hit or miss—Dean Coffey wound up there last summer after that camel chucked him off its back.”

I try not to smile because this is no laughing matter, even if years of Dean’s half-baked antics around town are legendary.

“I’ll take you tomorrow, after we know more,” Marty says. “It’s too late for visiting hours tonight.”

“Rubbish! I want to be there tonight, even if I have to spend ten hours lounging in the waiting room. She’s my best friend and she worked her tail off for us, young man. We return favors in this family.”

“I know she did, Gram,” I say. “And Marty will take you to see her tomorrow.”

“Nice try. Do I have to break out your grandfather’s old Corvette and drive there myself?”

Marty and I look at each other in horror.

Finally, he shrugs.

“All right, Gram. I’ll take you.” Looking at me, he adds, “It’s only an hour away. We can always check into a hotel if she wants to stay the night.”

I nod in uneasy agreement. I want to say I’ll come along, too. But Gram is already talking, telling me about the new guest who could show up anytime tonight.

Right. I can’t go. Someone needs to be here.

“No worries, I’ve got it covered, guys,” I say, hunting for Gram’s purse while she disappears into the bathroom to get ready for the drive.

“I’ll call you as soon as we know anything,” Marty tells me. “It’s amazing how shit the past twenty-four hours were.”

“When will it stop? And please do as soon as you know anything.”

He starts heading for the door to wait for Gram, but stops and looks at me.

“How ’bout you, Shelly? Are you okay?”

“I’ll manage.” I have to look away. “I just hope it was nothing serious with Faye...”

“Me, too,” he says. “West sounded shook up. He’s following the ambulance to the hospital and meeting Grady and his family there. Would you rather take Gram and have me stay here?”

I shake my head.

Weston doesn’t want to see me, especially with the nightmare unfolding. I know that.

Also, this isn’t about me. It’s about Faye, the McKnights, Marty, and Gram.

I refuse to inject extra drama into the situation, unintentionally or not.

“No, that’s sweet, but she wants you to take her. You’re a better driver at night on the backroads, too. Just tell me how everyone’s doing the second you hear, okay?”

“Will do. It’s interstate the entire way, so it won’t take long to get there.”

They leave a few minutes later.

Anxious and alone, I consider texting Weston an I’m sorry to hear... message.

But he’s driving, I’m sure, following the ambulance and worried sick about his aunt. He doesn’t need distractions. To keep myself from reconsidering, I set my phone on the desk.

Then, lost as to what to do, I walk across the lobby and click on the flat screen TV hanging above the old fireplace, just to break the silence that feels ominous.

The evening news breaks for a political commercial, some lady running for something or other in Montana. We get their broadcasts since we’re within spitting distance of the state line.

With T.E. Franklin for Governor, we’ll keep Montana safe, the ad drones, showing a smart-dressed woman in front of people who look way too excited for an election rally. Justice for hometown heroes and punishment for corporate bullies—no more violence or vigilantes. No towns left behind like Heart’s Edge. No burden too big. No place too small. We are Montana.

I wrinkle my nose. I haven’t missed that.

D.C. is the epicenter of lofty promises and scandalous disappointments. These types of ads are everywhere there, and politics even bleeds into the Smithsonian. I learned a long time ago to bite my tongue and not ruffle anyone’s feathers, no matter what they believe, because it’s a lose-lose scenario.

I remember hearing about some major craziness in Heart’s Edge, too. Giant companies using the town as an illicit test site, several brutal fires, a ghost town whose discovery had every historian buzzing, and mafia creepers getting busted left and right.

Definitely makes me thankful that Dallas hasn’t gone off the deep end yet.

I click the remote to a cable channel with old westerns and set down the remote. Grandpa loved winding down his day with these old shows. They’re the reason the first gift I remember getting is a set of cowgirl boots and a pink toy pistol.

Yeah, I don’t want to go back to D.C.

I tried to fit in, tried to believe it was everything I wanted because that was my plan.

The best laid plans I made when West made me promise him I’d get out of here.

That’s why I did it. For him. Because he asked, and I couldn’t break that promise.

Because I loved him.

Because I wanted him.

Because I still flipping do.

But apparently, he still wants me to leave, just like years ago.

He still thinks the idea of us is radioactive, even if it’s for very different reasons now.

I rub at the tension in my neck.

God, I hope Faye comes home okay.

And I wish she hadn’t gone home early thanks to my latest round of heart-fencing with West. If she’d stayed, maybe her fall never would’ve happened.

I sigh, knowing I’ve caused nothing but trouble since the day I came home.

Weston is probably counting down the days until I’m gone.

I walk into the kitchen, wondering if I should brew tea or just sit down at the counter and allow myself a good cry, mourning my shitshow of a life.

Never one to give in that easily, I go for the tea, then rummage around the cabinets for honey.

The tea is still brewing when an odd noise rings in my ears. Almost like...a big truck pulling in?

Maybe the guests are here and they’re hauling a camper or boat or something. Walking into the lobby, I look at the TV. The Western keeps playing, but the sound is so low I wouldn’t have heard it in the kitchen.

Back in the kitchen, I hear the truck again. A diesel engine growling, idling.

I walk to the back door, and the noise gets louder as I open it and step outside.

My heart drops out when I see the barn door open, several dark figures milling around a hulking freight truck with its lights off.

I don’t even hesitate.

I go running, and just as I round the door, I see him.

A tall figure, turning toward me with a surprised look as he stuffs one of those rancid nuts in his mouth and crushes it between his teeth loudly.

“Carson? What the hell are you doing?”

22

Broken Piggy Bank (Weston)

I hate hospitals.

They stink. Echo. Sweat despair from the walls.

Mostly, they’re just so damn...clinical.

Luckily, the ambulance driver, LeRoy Swells, also has a monster truck, and he reminded me to grab Faye’s purse because I’ll need her info.

As the large glass double doors slide open and I step inside, I beeline for the front desk.

There, I set her purse on the counter and try not to feel too weird rummaging around in it.

“They just brought my great-aunt in,” I tell the admin lady. “I’m here to give you her info.”

“Thank you, I’ll be right with you.”

I stand there, waiting impatiently for this sloth, and eventually give her Faye’s information before I’m told to take a seat in the waiting room. A doctor will be out to see me “as soon as possible.”

I’m well aware that probably means five hours.

Sipping on the worst battery acid disguised as coffee I’ve ever tasted, I try to keep my head attached to my shoulders.

Who did this?

What are we missing?

Was it a mistake to let Marty go sniffing at that Remington dude the nice way?

Were we mistaken about Mr. Muddy Boots entirely? And what if he’s not done busting in the heads of helpless old women in his heists?

Fuck.

So many disturbing questions.

I stand up with relief and wave wildly the second I see Grady, Willow, and my little cousins march through the front door. Avery and Sawyer look scared. I hate seeing the fear on their eleven-year-old faces.

“Heard anything yet?” Grady asks quickly.

“No. Nothing. She’s in their hands and we’re waiting for a doctor.”

Grady runs a hand through his thick hair and swallows loudly. I know what my uncle’s thinking.

Faye’s far more than our aunt.

For years, she’s been our rock, always there for us like a stand-in grandmother through thick and thin when no one else was.

When Grady’s first wife was falling apart from a rare neurological disease, she stepped in to shore up his family and help him get the bar off the ground.

When I was the asshole going to pieces thanks to my own scrambled brain, she was there. Never judgmental, always kind, ever ready to swing by and clean my place or leave me a good home-cooked meal while I scrambled to build my shop and make people trust me enough with their precious cars.

“Damn, I don’t get it. Tell me what happened, West,” Uncle Grady says, his brown eyes hot lava pools.

“I don’t know.” Flustered, I repeat what I told him over the phone. “I found her crumpled on the living room floor. Bleeding from the back of her head. Don’t know if she had a heart attack and tripped, if she fell and hit her head on her own, or what—” I shrug, my eyes flicking to the munchkins. I can’t spill the gory details in front of my upset little cousins.

Willow seems to understand and gives me a sad smile before she asks them if they want something from the vending machines.

Grady stops to kiss them all on the forehead.

Once they’re safely out of earshot, I say, “There was a broken vase on the floor, blown to bits by her feet. No water or flowers. Just the vase. I can’t say if it means anything or not. Drake’s at the house right now with a deputy, giving it a complete once-over. He said he’ll check in first thing with whatever he finds—or doesn’t.”

Uncle Grady nods, running a hand through his thick beard. “Does he think it’s connected to the last break-in?”

“He’s definitely wondering, same as me. Shit.” I pause to sigh. “I just wish she would’ve told me she’d gone home earlier. I could have set up the system then and prevented all this. Or at least we’d have a real suspect to go after.”

Grady lays a hand on my shoulder. “This isn’t your fault, West. The system wouldn’t have mattered if it was something medical after all, or an accident. We can’t go jumping to conclusions without hard proof. Quit blaming yourself for everything.”

“I would, only this is my fault, Uncle Grady.”

“Bull. I’m not gonna argue with you, son, so just stop. No one thinks it’s your fault.”

The door opens again before I can protest. Marty and Thelma Simon hurry inside the building. My breath stalls as I look for Shelly behind them, but she’s not there.

“Sorry,” Marty says. “Gram insisted on coming tonight. Shelly wanted to come along, too, but someone had to stay at the B&B.”

I’m instantly concerned. “She’s there alone?”

Marty doesn’t have a chance to say more than yes, when a nurse steps out asking for Faye’s family. We all move toward her, identifying ourselves.

“Faye’s being assessed right now,” the middle-aged senior nurse says. “Head wounds are always scary because they can produce a lot of blood, but sometimes they aren’t as bad as they look. I’m pleased to report that looks like the case here. No fractures to her skull or critical blood loss. She’s heading to cardiology right now to make sure her heart’s okay.”

“Is she conscious?” I ask, sighing with some small relief.

“Yes, she came to in the ambulance,” the nurse replies. “Are you Weston?”

“Yeah, her great-nephew.”

“She wants to speak to you as soon as she’s able.” The nurse smiles. “She’s very insistent. The doctor said she would hardly calm down until she knew she could reach you, so I’d like you to come with me and wait. Her scans should be finished shortly.”

“Thanks, I appreciate that.”

“I’m her nephew and his uncle,” Grady says, pointing a thumb at me. “Can I come too?”

“Yes, but the rest of you will have to wait. Visitor policies.”

“We’ll be right back,” Grady tells Willow and the kids as we follow the nurse through a large set of swinging metal doors.

Five minutes later, Grady and I look at each other as soon as another set of doors close behind us. We can already hear Aunt Faye, and she sounds pretty pissed.

“I told you she was very insistent,” the nurse says.

As soon as we enter her room, Faye lets out a deafening gasp, her frizzy hair bobbing. “Oh, thank God you boys are here!”

“How are you feeling?” I ask, arriving at her side with Grady right behind me.

“That doesn’t matter,” she says somewhat breathlessly. “Weston, I have to tell you what happened! I was in the living room, wondering what I should put in the corner where that shelf was. The one you carried out to the garage—I sold it—did I tell you that?”

I glance at the doctor studying a screen in the corner and grimace.

This is Aunt Faye. Her explanations are never short.

“No, you didn’t, but I’m glad to hear it.”

“Yes, well, I sold it to Thelma right before I left Amelia’s. She wants to put some of Doug’s old wood carvings on it from down in the basement. It’s still in the garage, though, because we need you to haul it to her house in your pickup.” She waves a hand in the air. “Anyway! I was in the living room, wondering what to put in my corner, when it felt like a piano came down on my head. He was there—both of them—barging in through the door I forgot to lock. He just hit me without saying a solitary word.”

“Who did?” I ask, swallowing a growl.

“It happened so fast. I...I wasn’t sure until I woke up in the ambulance because I never got a good look at them—but then it dawned on me,” she says slowly, licking the corner of her lip in thought.

I wait for more, but all she does is nod.

“You remembered something?” Uncle Grady asks, far more calmly than I could.

“Yes!” She points at her nose. “I could smell them.”

“Smell? Who?” Grady asks, his brow furrowed.

“That strange little squirrel of a man and his hideous nuts. I could smell those almonds he’s obsessed with. Ask Thelma—they stink terribly—but boys, you...you’ve gotta warn her! If he did this to me, he could go after Amelia’s for one last snatch and grab before he makes his getaway. He lives for antiques.”

“Carson Hudson.” His name falls out of my mouth like a dry curse.

Aunt Faye nods solemnly.

Damn, damn, damn, I knew it.

I should’ve kept a closer eye on that little rat.

She also mentioned two men. The fact that he’s got friends helping him launch armed robberies against seniors sends rage pumping through my veins.

If Drake doesn’t find him first, I’ll kill him with my own bare hands.

Then my heart hits the floor as another thought douses my brain.

Shel.

She’s home alone, managing the place with that freak, who could sneak back anytime.

I slap Grady’s shoulder. “Unc, I gotta go.”

“Why? Hudson? Is he the pushy weirdo crawling all over town for antiques?” he asks. “That bastard’s been pulling this crap under everybody’s noses the whole time? We’ve got to tell Drake.”

I don’t take time to answer. I just bolt from the room, jogging down the hall to the waiting room.

“Marty!” I call, nearly bowling him over.

He holds up a hand and gestures to the phone pressed to his ear.

I hope to everything holy he’s talking to Shel.

Scrambling to his side, I try to listen in while Thelma grabs my arm.

“It’s a guest,” she whispers up at me. “He called my phone because I have the number posted on the front desk. He needs to check in, but apparently, he can’t find Shelly. She should be there.”

Fuck. Thelma doesn’t have a hint of what’s going on like we do, but concern lines her face.

My heart bangs like a war drum now, hammering so hard my vision blurs.

It’s a miracle I don’t exit my own skin when my phone goes off.

Snarling, I pull it from my pocket, praying I’ll see Shelly’s name on the screen.

Nope.

DALLAS POLICE (DRAKE).

That’s what I see as I swipe the answer icon.

“Sheriff, it was Carson Hudson that assaulted Aunt Faye. She smelled those damn nuts he’s always got and he had an accomplice—”

“Weston,” he says slowly, cutting me off. “Listen to me.”

The seriousness of his tone turns me to stone.

“I’m listening.”

“Okay, now, I’m already on it,” Drake says. “I’m gonna start at the beginning and let you know what’s happening. I’m driving as we speak. A North Earhart chopper is about to lift off from the oilfields to be our eagle eye”

It’s definitely serious if he’s breaking out one of the company eggbeaters that doubles as a police search vehicle when times get rough.

“What the fuck is going on, Drake?” I whisper. I can’t take not knowing.

“Your pig showed up at Faye’s house while I was there, squealing up a storm. I got him in the car to drop him at your place, and the second we got out, he pulled me over to Amelia’s, rooting around Doug Simon’s barn. He was chasing this fancy lookin’ snack wrapper. That’s when I saw the old storage barn open and had a look inside. Definitely several cars gone, including the Corvette.”

Mother-fucker.

Now I know I’ll be racing old Doug’s ghost to beat the hell out of Hudson and his friends.

“What about Shelly Simon? Did you see her?” The few seconds of yawning silence that follows shreds what’s left of my paper-thin patience. “Drake! Did you see her?”

“No,” he says firmly. “I headed for the lobby. Found one of her sandals on the ground outside, not far from some big-ass tire tracks. Almost like your rigs, except this one had more wheels like a freight truck or something. The kind that can carry cars.”

My lungs suck in a scalding breath and hold on till it sears.

It’s all I can do to avoid exploding like a human hand grenade.

“I’m thinkin’ it’s heading west. Those pricks made their move, and they won’t want to hang around here too long with the loot. Hell, that break-in at Faye’s may have even been a diversion just to keep us busy. No worries, man, I’ve put out an APB for any type of oversized flatbed truck or hauler loaded with vehicles.”

My mind spins like a ratchet, full of the worst possibilities. I haven’t felt this helpless in years, not since—

Hellfire. Screaming. Smoke. Blood.

No one can hear me scream, not even the damn insurgents. Not when I’m covered in blood, cradling what’s left of Vicki in my arms, hating that sluggish fuckup of a dual airstrike for putting us in this shit.

Someone moans—Private Ripley, maybe, if he’s still alive. I’m crawling toward him when I realize I can’t feel my arms or legs.

They’re still intact, but there’s something wrong with my head, my nerves. My limbs give out and drop me on my face just as more thunder lands on the hills they’ve been shooting from.

When I lift up to see, it’s my gut that aches. I’m hunched over a toilet in the back of the Purple Bobcat, trying not to heave my intestines out—how fucking long did I black out this time?

The door opens and I’m expecting Uncle Grady with his usual concern and gentleness I don’t deserve, ready to help me up for a sober ride home.

No. The Barnet’s butler, Tobin, his expression dead behind his spectacles.

There’s something—someone?—in his arms.

“The love of your life, sir,” he says in that eerily old-world polished accent. “I’m afraid you were a tad too slow.”

He drops the bundle in his arms in front of me. It rolls just enough so I can see Shelly’s face, pale and dead and—

“Weston? West, you there?” Drake’s voice cracks like a whip.

Oh, Jesus.

I’m shaking—hallucinating—barely propping myself up with my hand on the wall. A couple doctors walking by slow down and look at me with concern as I jerk back.

Another one of these pathetic fucking attacks when she needs me the most.

I can’t do that shit. Not right now.

I can’t let it eat me up or that little vision will be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I’m here!” I shout into the phone, wiping the sweat pouring down my neck.

Focus, you asshole.

Focus. Think. Move.

“Was Marty the last person who saw her? He said she stayed behind at the B&B while he drove Thelma up here,” I tell Drake.

“Gotta be by my estimation,” he says.

Okay. That gives me a timeline, at least. A couple hours ago, she was fine, still at the B&B when they left. If she was gone by the time that guest blew in and called Thelma looking for her, that must’ve been a good hour, maybe more.

Also, it takes time to load up valuable cars and a damn near priceless Corvette in a big-rig hauler. I haven’t worked on anything that huge since Afghanistan, but I’m guessing they can’t rocket down the highway—plus they’ll stick to backroads if they’re smart, keeping a low profile.

They have to be somewhere between here and Dallas, unless they went east. Drake has good reason to believe they’re heading west, though.

“Any guesses where they’re going?” I ask.

“Interstate to make time, then they’ll use the backroads,” Drake answers. “I’m thinking they’re heading toward the state line. Unless they’ve got an evil lair or something, they’ll want to head for the nearest coast to unload those cars.”

“I’ll hit the backroads now.” Before he can respond, I add, “It’s gotta be Hudson spearheading it, no matter how many minions he’s got. And I’ll bet you anything he roped in that Muddy Boots-Remington asshole.”

“Absolutely,” Drake answers. “I’d tell you not to do anything foolish, but I know you won’t listen. Neither would I if it were my girl in this situation. Just stay in touch.”

“Will do.”

I click off.

Fuck. He just had to call her my girl, didn’t he? A savage reminder of the chance I’ve lost if I don’t move.

Worried that calling her phone may draw attention, I send a quick text to Shel.

Where are you? Everybody’s worried.

“Weston? What the hell is going on?” Grady asks, racing to my side as soon as he sees me. “What did Drake say? I’ve already called up Ridge and Faulk for backup.”

Before I can answer, Marty tells me, “Bad news. Her phone’s still on the front desk at the B&B according to our guest.”

“Damn!” Already on my way to the door, I shout back at Grady, “Call Drake, he’ll explain everything. I need backup, but I need you to stay here with Aunt Faye. Have them meet me at my place ASAP.”

* * *

I’ve never barreled home so fast in my life.

The second my truck squeals to a stop in front of my place, I’m out, flying into the house. I run upstairs to my gun safe, then to the kitchen.

A quick look through the mail holder turns up something Shel picked up off the ground weeks ago. I remember seeing it because I loathed its sight, suspicious as hell from the very start.

Half a heartbeat later, I come bursting out, holding a plastic wrapper crinkling in my hand and that damn modified dog leash dangling from the other, plus a small bushel of bananas swinging from one finger.

“Herc! Herc, wake your ass up!” I say, tearing off a banana to unpeel and smacking it against his pen like a drumstick.

The pig shuffles up to my side of his pen, blinking, and mashes his nose against the opening between the slats, snuffling impudently.

“I know, I know. You’re tired from the ruckus and Drake bringing you back, but buddy—” I pause. I still can’t believe I’m asking the world’s worst behaved pig for help. “Come with me on a car ride. Help me out tonight and I’ll keep you in bananas and peanut butter for the next month.”

He grunts back, snorting off my offer like an insult.

My eyes narrow. “All right, damn you, the next year. Please. Please don’t be a dick and help me help Shelly.”

Reee! He gives back a shrill squeal the instant I say her name, bouncing on his stubby legs.

Despite the stress, I smile and push the wrapper I saved toward his snout.

“That’s right. Take a good smell,” I say, holding it out as I hop into the pen.

He goes hog wild—every pun intended—when he gets a good whiff of the bag, now empty of those rank-ass almonds.

I almost think he understands as I toss him the banana he wolfs down in two bites. Then I wrangle him into his altered big dog harness and throw the gate open.

He doesn’t even fight as I grab a small ladder and haul his lumbering ball of a body into the passenger seat of my high monster truck—no easy task, believe me—and shut the door before climbing behind the wheel.

I’ll have time to contemplate my own sanity and the many atrocious choices in my life later.

“Let’s roll,” I tell him, starting the engine. “Tonight it’s just you and me and a whole lot of asses to kick. We’ll bring her home.”

23

Two-Timing Pigs (Rachel)

My throat is all lapping fire, and it takes me a few painful seconds to figure out why.

Carson—he choked me.

He wrung my neck like a wet towel in the barn. As soon as I’d yelled, he threw something over my head...or maybe it was one of the other two guys I saw with him.

I’d fought like hell—kicking, screaming, scratching—but he had numbers and surprise on his side. I went down hard with his filthy paws around my neck.

Even if they’re nothing like Weston’s strong hands, they got the job done, squeezing my throat until I blacked out.

There’s still something slung over my head, a thick black hood that makes every breath stifling.

Pathetic. This is turning out like one of those way too predictable horror movies, especially considering it’s Halloween night.

Now it’s just a question of when they dispose of me.

I’m twisted, lying down on my back. It feels like the small sleeper compartment of a semi because it’s certainly a truck, and we’re moving. I can hear the engine growling as it rumbles down the road at a good, vibrating clip.

I start hearing voices, too.

“Shit, man. Shit. You didn’t tell me I was getting into this when I signed up for your fuckin’ gig. Transporting stolen cars is one thing, but kidnapping a chick?” a rough male voice says.

“What did you expect me to do? Kill her on the spot and toss the body in a ditch for the coyotes?”

I recognize that oily voice that still sounds too steady even when he’s obviously miffed.

Carson.

My heart lunges up my throat.

Of course he was behind everything this whole time.

I should’ve listened to my gut, even when it seemed so unlikely. I had a bad feeling about him ever since that joke of a date—and now I’m betting that date only happened at all so he could snoop.

Find something valuable enough to make all these weeks in Dallas worth his oh-so-important time.

If I wasn’t hurting and terrified, I’d whack my own forehead.

“I don’t want nothing to do with murder, Carsy. You got a body to hide, I’m not your man. I agreed to help you get shit loaded up and drive this rig. Not bash old ladies in the head and beat on little girls,” the other man snaps, adding, “You’re goddamn lucky I could jack this rig from the company without anybody noticing.”

Company? North Earhart?

He must be the elusive Muddy Boots, I realize.

“Enough bellyaching. It’ll all be worth it in the end, I assure you. We’ll be rid of her well before we reach Everett,” Carson says. “The Pacific Northwest is crawling with hiding places. Ever heard of D.B. Cooper? He pulled off the ultimate heist, hijacking a plane and bailing out over dense Washington forest with six figures in cash. It’s the towns you have to worry about—places like Heart’s Edge and their pitiful little citizen police. My uncle lost his lucky star there—quite literally—when I was just a boy...”

“Man, whatever. I still can’t believe stealing a few cars got this complicated. We would’ve been better off if we’d done it right after the car show,” Muddy Boots says.

“You think I don’t know that, you—never mind. Obviously, I thought Miss Simon and the neighbor bull would stay at the dance longer. That’s why I sent you over there to get the keys and title for the Corvette out of my room after we snatched it from the safe.”

What the hell? They broke into the safe?

Moving carefully so they won’t notice any movement, I ease one hand up to whatever it is covering my face. Not a hood, my fingers tell me...feels more like shirt material.

Finding an edge to the fabric, I roll it up slowly, hoping I can get a clear peek from under it.

“If they’d come down the road at the wrong time, they’d have spotted the semi for sure,” Muddy Boots says, irritation grinding in his voice. “I didn’t dare back in to the place after they got home.”

“If you’d have been quicker, we’d be in Washington tonight counting our money,” Carson says bitterly.

“Fuck you, dude. Getting in the house was easy enough, but that safe was a royal bitch. Took me almost an hour to crack the code and get it just right. I thought you gave me shitty equipment, but I finally got it, didn’t I? You’re welcome, dick.”

“Oh, yes, the FBI’s finest would be green with jealousy. Thankfully, despite your hiccups, this plan will work just as well,” Carson says. “We have time. No one will know we were gone for hours. We also have the advantage of Halloween night. It’s the psychology of the thing, far more people than usual like being tucked in and off the roads by now. Also, you’re forgetting the whole point of our little hit and run with the old woman. A crime like that eats up the podunk police force’s energy. It should keep them occupied for hours, plus any local vigilantes, too.”

Anger thrums in my blood.

He talks about hitting Faye in the effing head like she’s a bone you throw to distract a bad-tempered dog.

If I’ve already signed my death warrant, I hope I get a chance to stab this turd in the eyes before I’m gone.

“Stick to the backroads until we hit the state line, Mr. Remington. Then it’ll be free sailing to the port in Everett by noon. Perhaps we can stop for breakfast somewhere midway. I’ll need to follow up with our buyer.” He lets out a disgusted sigh before asking, “And you did make sure the cars were chained down tight and covered, yes?”

“Duh. I did that while you and the guys were dealing with the girl. You’re sure you didn’t kill her already?” He sniffs. “She hasn’t made a peep since you threw her back there.”

“I’m certain she’s just passed out from the shock. It’s hardly the first time I’ve had to render someone unconscious.” He clucks his tongue like the inconvenience of knocking me out cold upsets him. “Such a feisty young thing, too. I wish I’d gotten a chance to find out what’s under the hood, however...it can’t be helped. Not now.”

Gross! I wrestle back a gag.

“Um, yeah,” Muddy Boots say awkwardly. “So when do you think she’ll wake up? And what do we do if she freaks out?”

Carson doesn’t answer. Instead, there’s this loud shuffling sound.

Something grabs my leg—a hand, feeling for me.

Don’t react.

I force myself to go limp as cold fingers grapple around just below my knee, giving my leg a firm shake.

“Out like a blown candle. I doubt she’ll be a concern for a while,” Carson says, releasing my leg.

“That ain’t my question. The fuck we gonna do when she wakes up back there and starts screaming?”

“Simple—knock her out again. Now, quit stressing. You’re acting like a virgin with this sort of thing. I’m sure that’s not the case, considering your ability to recruit a few more hands for the job at that seedy little bar,” Carson says.

I carefully ease the fabric bunched around my head higher, enough to peer out under it.

Yep, it’s a semi, and I’m in the sleeper.

Carson sits in the passenger seat with Muddy Boots at the wheel. His accomplice wears a blue baseball cap, puffing on a cigarette like it’s nothing more than a casual road trip.

Sigh. Now I know where the mystery butts came from, and why Carson never smelled like cigarettes when he pretended to smoke.

It’s dark outside, and darker still inside the cab.

The few snatches of faint light through the window tell me nothing.

I couldn’t guess where we are.

I just know I’m isolated, hurt, and at every disadvantage in a nightmare scenario like this.

My chin quivers.

Carson is right. No one will know I’m gone for hours, days, weeks. It’s Halloween flipping night, when the few people who aren’t busy with their kids and parties are creeped out enough to bed down early and wait for morning to banish all the imaginary ghoulies.

“Do we really have to kill her?” the driver asks reluctantly. “Fuck, man, I don’t know if any payday’s worth that. Bad karma. Can’t we just like...let her go if she doesn’t know anything?”

If I weren’t chilled to the bone, I’d laugh at the irony.

This gruff, horrible man might be the only thing between a knife and my throat, pleading my case with his own selfish worries.

“Let her go?” Carson echoes slowly, like he doesn’t understand the words.

“Yeah. Just toss her out somewhere in the boonies and let her find her way home hitchhiking or somethin’.”

“She knows who you are, you idiot. She knows what we did. She damn sure knows who I am, despite working under an alias,” Carson says.

“So what? You really planning to come back to this town after we’re paid? You couldn’t give me a million bucks to come to North Dakota again. The thought of busting my hump all winter for the oil company was shitty enough before you came along. You said you’ve got a shipping container waiting for us, right?” Muddy Boots snorts. “The Corvette will be outta the States in twenty-four hours, and we’ll have a cool million clams. That’s plenty to fuck off with and lay low. Just disappear.”

“It’s one more deal,” Carson spits, sinking back in his seat with a sigh. “I have more inventory to unload besides these autos. I thought I’d gotten right fucked when that stupid meteorite turned out to be nothing more than fool’s gold. If it were real...it would make what we’re getting for these cars look like trifling pocket change. My uncle nearly had a one-of-a-kind Martian rock worth millions, once.”

“Nearly? What happened?”

“Let’s just say he was crossed by one of the local-yokels in a shitty little town a lot like Dallas,” Carson says, venom in his voice. “Fortunately, I didn’t walk away empty-handed with those lying rocks. I saw the Corvette in the photos with the old woman who runs Amelia’s when I broke in. Didn’t take me long at all to find it in the barn.”

I’m going to be sick.

It was the pictures Faye posted for her garage sales that brought him to Dallas. The not-meteorite that was a total insider joke lured him just like I’d thought.

Like West thought, too.

My stomach flips over, hating that I’ll never get a chance to talk to him now and tell him how right he was. I’ll never find out if he had an apology waiting for me, either.

“You hit the jackpot, all right,” the driver says.

“You have no idea, sir,” Carson says, the first time I’ve ever heard him excited. “A million-dollar car in Nowhere, North Dakota. You can’t retire on it, but it’s a start. Sometimes I wonder if old Uncle Gerald was looking down on me after all.”

Carson chuckles while the other man shifts awkwardly in his seat.

Dear God.

My heart might just sink to my knees. What the hell do I do?

There’s no way Weston can save me this time. Without my phone, I can’t even communicate.

I need something I can use as a weapon...

Carefully shifting my eyes, I scan the inside of the sleeper cab without moving.

It’s too dark. I can’t see anything.

I don’t dare move more than my neck.

The slight jostling motion at my feet tells me I lost a sandal at some point.

Pathetic.

I’m armed with a single frail leather shoe against two grown men who are very willing to murder.

In D.C. at least I’d have my purse with a can of mace tucked away.

Slowly, feeling returns to the rest of me, that needling sensation fading. Either that, or the fear is so palpable I’m just adapting.

But why is there a spot near my hip that’s burning like a rat crawled under my shirt and started biting? Did they throw me around so hard I picked up a splinter or—

Wait.

That stupid nettle.

That stupid, miraculous, holy-crap-I-might-have-a-hail-Mary nettle!

It’s still poking out of my back pocket, grazing my belly.

It’s not a switchblade, but it’s technically a weapon of the silliest kind.

Now, I just have to wait for an opportunity to use it.

Easing my vision back to the front, I try to see if I can make out any landmarks or signs from the road. We aren’t on the interstate.

This is a narrow two-lane road. And pretty rough from the way the truck keeps bouncing.

The only signs we pass in the dull light of the headlights are mile markers, and they don’t tell me a shitting thing.

From the conversation, we’re heading to Washington. But I don’t know how long I was out, or how long we’ve been on this road.

I see headlights coming toward us, distant glowing dots.

Is there a way I can signal?

Think, think!

But any move I make has to be a killshot. If I let them know I’m awake, I’ll be in a world of hurt.

Carson already choked me until I blacked out. He won’t think twice about doing it again—or worse.

The other vehicle, a low riding car, zooms right past us into the night.

Shit. I have to think of something ASAP.

Maybe there’s a fire extinguisher back here, something heavy enough to dent a cranium or two.

Cautiously, I ease the makeshift hood up a bit higher to look around, but it’s just too dark.

Seriously annoying.

Holding my breath, I lift my bare foot, trying to feel for anything I haven’t noticed. But I freeze when the driver speaks again.

“You sure she’s still out?” Muddy Boots asks. “It’s been a while. Maybe we better pull over and check.”

“Will you quit worrying?” Carson growls. “We’ll hear her if she wakes up. She fought like a puma earlier.”

“The way that pig came flying out of nowhere, I thought it was going to chew your leg off while you carried her to the truck,” his partner says with a low chuckle.

“It did bite me, the piece of swine shit. My leg is still throbbing where it tore my pants. I’m very lucky it didn’t pull a few drops of blood for evidence,” Carson snarls. “Only wish I’d had a chance to shoot it.”

There’s a low crunching noise.

“Hey, what kind of peanuts are those? Smells like shoe polish,” Muddy Boots grumbles. “Listen, we’re in for a long haul. I gotta stop for real food and a cup of coffee soon, never mind checking the tires. These backroads are choppy as hell on a truck this big. Never gonna make it through the night if we don’t. Plus, we can check on the girl.”

Despite my paralyzing fear, I grin, telepathically beaming a silent thank you to Hercules for his valiant efforts to defend me.

“One stop, damn you. Make it quick. We may be over the state line, but we’re still far too close for comfort. There’s a town coming up in fifteen or twenty miles, Glendive, I believe.” Carson drums his fingers against the door impatiently.

“Why was she still there at the place, anyway? I thought you said they were all friends with the old lady. You were certain everyone would be gone,” Muddy Boots says after a painful silence.

“How the hell am I supposed to know? Miss Rachel and the neighbor Neanderthal were inseparable. I figured she’d go to the hospital the second they heard about the old woman and her unexpected headache.” He sighs. “You wouldn’t believe the time I had convincing that old bitty to go home this morning. Then I had to stop her from calling her nephew over with that last minute offer for that stupid vase. I knew once he got off work, he’d drive right over. We’re lucky she never knew what hit her.”

Fury whips through me, knowing this appalling jackass somehow got Faye to leave when I thought it was all me, and only me the whole time.

Whatever. He’s not getting away with this, that’s for damn sure.

If I could kiss the handful of nettles poking me in the butt right now, I totally would.

Someone has to get in a parting shot before they disappear.

If I’m lucky, maybe he’ll never see it coming.

Maybe I’ll render him blind.

Maybe I’ll shake them up just enough to buy time. For myself, and for that tortured lunk a childish part of me still hopes will find me.

24

Pigs and Whistles (Weston)

My heart jackhammers and I stomp the gas pedal to my floorboard.

Herc gives a disappointed snort next to me.

“I know, dammit,” I tell him. “They weren’t at the last rest stop and we’re wasting precious time.”

We’ve made three sixty seconds stops at two gas stations and a rest stop near the state border. Each time, I came bounding out with Herc, giving him a chance to do a sniff test for any sign of Carson Shithead and those puke-tastic nuts that might as well be his personal fragrance.

So far, nothing.

I don’t have anything to go on besides my gut, assuming this is the route they’re taking, or that they’ll even stop at all.

The only thing I know for sure is that a rig like that fully loaded with cargo can’t fly through the night faster than my truck or the makeshift crew I’ve rounded up. They’re coming along just ten or twenty miles behind me now.

Our target has to stop sometime.

Fuel, eats, even just to cool their heels and check their loot.

And when they do, that’s our chance to gain ground and catch these snakes knotted up.

I swear, I’m going to beat that slick-dick SOB and his partner within an inch of their lives when I get my hands on them. Once for Aunt Faye, and ten more times for Shel.

Just wish I’d listened to my gut sooner.

I should’ve dug deeper into Carson Hudson. Should’ve done more. Should’ve assumed like bastards attract like and he wasn’t just an oddball lone wolf.

Now, Aunt Faye’s in the hospital and Shel’s been kidnapped.

A nightmare come true, and all because I hesitated.

The pig sniffs and noses at the dashboard restlessly. I tear open a banana and push it to his mouth to calm him, which it does for the two seconds it takes him to swallow it whole.

My phone rings. GRADY, the dash screen shows. I punch the button on the steering wheel to answer.

“Uncle Grady?”

“Where are you?” he asks.

I don’t know, somewhere in Montana. I tell him the highway number and the last mile marker I remember. The speedometer is tapped out. At this speed, in rural darkness, signs blur by awfully fast. It’s impossible to read them and the GPS isn’t well detailed out here in the sticks.

“Any sign of them yet?” Uncle Grady asks. “The boys took the trucks you told them to and they’re coming. Right behind you.”

Not coming fast enough, and that’s the fucking problem.

“Nothing. If that prick was ever at the last three stops, Herc would’ve sniffed him out.”

Grady chuckles. “Still can’t believe you enlisted the pig. I mean, I can’t talk shit considering I got a hand from a tiger once, but...just keep it together, West. I’m on my way too.”

A flashback strikes, making me squeeze the wheel harder.

The ambush. The trap. The massacre. I saw what happened when I let too many good people come together in one place, when we don’t have the intel or the support.

Hellfire. Screaming. Smoke. Blood.

Have you ever smelled human flesh burning before? It becomes my whole world with every breath and I don’t want to breathe. Oh, Jesus, I don’t want—

“No!” I yell it so loud Herc’s chubby head whips around to look at me. If there’s ever a time I won’t let those memories drag me back to hell with their sharp teeth, it’s now. “No, Uncle Grady. Stay with Aunt Faye and the kids. The family needs you right now and I’ve got enough backup. How close are they?”

“Under ten miles last I heard. They’re gaining ground fast, finding their bearings with those big ol’ trucks. Faulk and Ridge rounded up everybody they could and they’re right on your tail. Don’t worry, West, we’ll catch this son of a bitch.”

My gut burns with hope.

He needs to be right.

I can’t have others hurt again on my account, for my mistakes.

My throat locks before I can protest.

“Uncle Grady—”

“Weston, listen! You aren’t in this alone. Not this time, and I know this isn’t the time or place, but you’ve never been alone. It’s past time you realize it and accept the help. At least consider it payback for helping me save Willow.” He pauses, his breath this gentle harshness that makes me feel weirdly comforted. “Now, Drake says they’ve got the chopper moving northwest, just in case. They’re completing a forty-mile grid. If they don’t spot anything, they’ll head south, right ahead of you. Just tell us if you see a white hauler pulling a pack of covered cars.”

He’s right. I have to save Shel, and if all the strongest men in Dallas have my back...

Time to man up. Accept the aid.

For her sake, her life.

Goddamn, everything I’ve always done was for her.

“How’d you get the truck’s description?” I ask.

“They jacked it from North Earhart according to Marty. Also, the guy checking into the B&B saw it tearing down the narrow little road that leads in there. He told Marty that, too.”

My heart starts pounding harder.

“Did he see if they had a woman?”

“No. He just thought a truck that big seemed a little out of place there on a night like this,” Grady says quietly.

Another powerful wave of guilt lifts me and chucks me on my face again.

Fuck.

All of this could’ve been avoided—stopped— if I’d just gone with my instinct and went after Hudson. Stomping my foot harder on the accelerator, I hear my engine growl like a werewolf.

The truck must be hurtling down the road over ninety miles per hour and we’re tapped out, which causes me more frustration.

Hercules buries his snout against my arm with a grunting heave, as if to say, patience, dude. You’re not gonna save her if you break our wheels.

“I know,” I whisper back.

Uncle Grady coughs, still on the line. We don’t say a word to each other for the next five minutes. The faint lights up ahead hint at a town on the hilly dark horizon.

I see a big steel building coming up, bathed in spotlights, a few neat rows of big rigs either fueling or pulled off to the side.

Laird’s Stop! Gateway to the West, the massive wooden sign bathed in a spotlight announces.

Herc starts grunting like he knows what’s coming up even before I wrench the wheel and barrel in. I barely remember to hit the brakes to slow down.

“Unc, I’m gonna stop and check out this Laird’s place. Quite a few trucks around,” I say.

“Perfect hiding place,” Uncle Grady whispers back. “These types do their shit in broad daylight, and the same holds true for public lights, too.”

I nod, even though he can’t see me.

It’s the dead of the eeriest night of the year, but the place looks busy enough, lit up like a bustling carnival. A few dangling overstuffed bats and grinning pumpkin cutouts stare out from the windows. A few of the rigs even have rubber spiders stuck to their windows, dark and empty looking.

I’m parked at the edge of the lot, helping pull Herc around with his leash when I see it. Not one, but three different haulers packed with cars.

They’re parked next to each other, and two of them are covered.

Damn.

“Don’t fail me now with that nose,” I whisper, leading the pig forward.

For the first few steps, he just snuffles at the ground. Sweat beads on my brow.

Forward! All the trucks look deserted, which means their drivers are either sleeping or inside the truck stop and its all-night diner.

I’m about to take a few more cautious steps when the pig goes stock-still, head up, snorting at the night air.

He kicks his front hooves, lunging forward, and—oh, shit, away we go.

I have to grip the leash with both hands to stop him from tearing my arm off. He strains toward a mud-splashed truck, squealing fiercely—the same giddy, hyperactive reaction he always gets when he’s close to a faceful of truffle almonds.

Shit.

I urge him back to my truck, step by halting step. As desperate as I am to go rabid, to find them, to end this, I can’t just shoot my way into a public place with a bellowing pig yanking me around.

I’ve got to get him in the truck and update Grady. I need my gun from the glove box.

It takes too long to get the straining, protesting pig back in his seat, and then to re-connect the call that dropped somehow while I was busy.

“Uncle Grady, they’re here,” I whisper, my eyes glued to their hauler. “The second I see them coming, I’m going in.”

“Weston, don’t!” my uncle barks. “There’s no telling if they’re armed or not. The boys are only a few minutes behind you. Stay put, wait for backup.”

His words are fucking acid.

I’m trembling from how they singe my ears, the torture of the ambush I led people into unknowingly flooding my brain.

Grady’s older, level headed, carrying a wealth of experience I ought to appreciate so I don’t make the same hideous mistake twice.

But how the hell can I sit here and do nothing if I see them coming?

If I know she’s with them, chained up in the back of that thing or worse?

“They’ve got Shelly,” I snap. “I’ll give you sixty seconds, but any more than that and I’ll—”

I stop dead silent as a beat-up SUV does a tight turn in front of the hauler. The vehicle slows, its headlights winking out a second after I catch two silhouettes moving around the rig, and then it darts for the exit to this place.

“Shit. I think they’ve got an escort,” I whisper, the last piece clicking in my brain.

My eyes flick to the two tall figures scrambling into the hauler. Its engine chugs to life a second later, and they don’t hesitate a second before the massive eighteen-wheeler lurches toward the blind SUV standing guard by the exit.

“Uncle Grady, I can’t wait. Tell the boys to keep driving and catch me on the road. Sorry,” I mutter, even though I’m not.

“Weston!” he calls out, but I’m already moving, throwing my arm in front of the pig for support. “Hang onto your curly little tail, Herc. It’s about to get bumpy.”

The SUV is big, old, and battered.

It’s also almost three times smaller than my ride on its titanic wheels. I go tearing straight for them just as the hauler slips by.

They don’t have time to react before I clip their tail, sending them spinning.

The pig squeals—almost like he’s frigging happy about it—while I white-knuckle grip the wheel.

That stunt bought us a few seconds, but I’m sure Tweedledee and Tweedledick in the rig saw everything. The hauler screeches as it takes off down the highway.

It takes me half a minute to get my monster truck up to full speed, ready to overtake them, when a set of lights flash behind me.

That goddamn SUV.

And they’re up my ass with a snarling man leering out the passenger window, a shotgun drawn.

Shit!

I duck and have no choice but to slow as the first shot grazes my back windshield. Thank God Herc’s stubby enough to not have to worry about getting his snout shot off.

The rear takes more buckshot.

It clangs off the metal like hail, like shrapnel from almost a decade ago.

“Hold it together, you reprobate,” I whisper to myself, my hands tightening to a death grip on the wheel.

The SUV has the speed advantage over my truck. They’re trying to pull dead even with the driver’s side, not giving a damn if they head-on collide with a car on the other side of the road.

I can see a flash of hateful eyes and crooked teeth bared like a disheveled wolf. Probably one of the few meth heads they recruited off Carolina the Skank.

I swear, if I survive this, I’m gonna make Uncle Grady give her a lifetime ban from the Bobcat.

The shotgun roars like a cannon—too close.

I stomp the brakes, skidding dangerously close to the edge of the road, and what looks like a ditch.

“Fuck off!” I roar, watching the SUV rocketing ahead, getting between me and the hauler.

The vehicle could be a rabid coyote, slowing down ahead, that shotgun pointed back in warning if I try to approach. And you’d better believe they want me to so they can blow my merry brains out.

I’m still moving, but too slow, assessing my options.

None of them are good with the advantage they’ve got.

I have to knock that SUV out of the way and stop that hauler if I want to rescue Shel.

Herc gives me an urgent oink! that sounds way too much like think!

“I’m trying, porky,” I grumble. “We’re so close. If I just had a little help to get that bastard in front of us out of the—”

Way? My brain freezes.

There’s a flash of headlights in the rearview mirror.

Make that lots of headlights, a small convoy of tall monster trucks just like mine, coming up fast.

Adrenaline arcs through my system like a blown circuit, and I punch my dash screen so hard it almost cracks.

“Call Faulk!” I tell my phone system.

“No time like now for some company, huh?” he answers in his excited Oklahoma twang. “I’m guessing that’s them up ahead?”

“Yeah! Be careful. They’ve got friends in that shitty SUV in front of me, and they’re armed. We have to surround them, flank them, force them to stop. We have to get ahead of the rig. If that hauler goes into the ditch, it could roll.”

I swallow, knowing that would be the end of Shelly.

“Man, they don’t stand a chance. There’s half a dozen of us and the chopper’s on its way. We’ll stop ’em!” Faulk says.

“We’ve got your back, Weston, just lead the way,” another voice cuts in. I realize it must be Ridge Barnet. “I’ll distract those dumbass minions. I’ve seen this crap in action movies a hundred times.”

Before I can protest, Ridge’s truck pulls even with me, waiting for me to make a move.

It’s now or fucking never.

The trucks are almost in a military formation, racing up quickly behind me.

Pressing the gas, I charge forward again, staring that SUV dead in the eye like a four-wheeled Reaper.

“You feel lucky tonight, Herc?” I ask the pig, never taking my eyes off the potential bullet between the eyes in front of me.

He squeals loudly.

“That’s what I thought. So the fuck do I!” I wrench the wheel just as we’re coming up on the SUV’s taillights, letting them think I want to clip them again.

But I stomp the brakes, falling back at the last second.

I don’t think they ever see Ridge coming. His truck barrels ahead, so fast the alligator mouth decals on the sides are just a blur. I imagine those jaws moving, snapping at the SUV, as he smashes into their rear.

Both vehicles go spinning off the road together in a whirling screech and a thousand tiny metallic flashes in my headlights.

“Somebody stop for Ridge and make sure he’s all right,” I say into the phone, fixing my eyes on what’s in front of me.

Nothing between us now.

Nothing guarding those motherfuckers.

Nothing stopping me from bringing her home.

The jackasses in the rig realize they’ve lost their escort, too. The semi starts swerving, fishtailing to block me when I get so close I can read their plates.

I take advantage of their chaos, veering out and rushing in tighter again, using it to flank the hauler’s side till I’m right next to them.

The semi lunges over, trying to force me off the road.

They’re fast and unpredictable.

I’m just smarter—or is it desperation?

Stomping the gas, I wait till I’m even with the passenger window.

I recognize that vicious face instantly.

Hudson.

His window’s down, a gun wagging out of it.

Shit.

I hit the gas, speeding forward. Gunshots rip the air for what feels like the hundredth time tonight, bullets pinging off my rear.

My brain aches at what they might’ve already done to Shel.

What they’ll do for sure if I don’t block them, stat.

The semi chugs onward, undaunted even with several more big trucks closing in from every side. We play this game of chicken, them trying to drive me off the road while they fight to muscle the other trucks away.

I dodge them every time, coming dangerously close to the edge, but stay clinging to the road.

“Hang on, Herc,” I say when I spot a tight turn coming up.

Without hesitation, I drive the truck into the ditch.

We bounce violently a few times, but it works.

If there’s one thing these massive tires are good for, it’s handling rough terrain, and that gives me an advantage.

They can’t cross the road’s shoulder. The semi will roll, and I’ll bet anything these two cowards won’t gamble with their lives.

The longer I follow, the more pissed off Carson Hudson gets.

Fresh bullets ricochet off my truck, spinning back into the night as they try to shake me.

My truck kicks hard as I roll over what feels like a half-broken fence, speeding along the semi like a shark trailing a juicy whale.

I still see a cluster of headlights to the side, several more lights pulling ahead of them. A bright white light spears down from above.

The chopper.

Now, they’re screwed for sure. But what the fuck will they do if they won’t surrender?

Like a pack of wolves, the monster trucks surround them.

We’re about to overtake the truck when the semi swerves again, struggling to keep a few more trucks behind them.

I stomp the gas so my truck climbs onto the road again, flying past the car trailer and running beside the passenger window again.

This time, I see something besides Carson’s sneering wolverine face.

A mass of red hair. A slash of movement. Tangled arms.

Shel.

She’s fighting for her life, trying to distract them, or maybe straining to get the gun out of his greasy paws.

Fuck.

She’s going to get herself shot if I don’t move it.

My eyes flick past the twisting hands, ignoring the single loud shot that must punch through their roof, straight to the screaming driver—that Remington asshole, I see.

He looks like he’s losing his shit, roaring panicked words in the cramped space, highly distracted.

It won’t take much.

Just a little nudge to make him lose control, lose speed, lose traction.

I swallow hard. It’s a gamble because Shelly could get hurt.

Still, if I don’t get that gun out of her face ASAP...

Hercules growls like an overprotective dog. He knows what’s coming.

He understands.

“Brace,” I whisper.

I wonder if it’ll be my last word as I foot-punch the gas again, tearing out in front of them, and open my window to fire several quick shots at the semi’s hood.

The noise is deafening—and it works.

The semi slows in a singing shriek of tires, careening toward me, out of control—then it’s like the whole rig gets yanked back by some invisible tether.

I stomp my brakes, slowing, watching that serpent of a truck fishtail wildly and go over into what I can only pray is shallower ground than the ditch I was in a minute ago.

I’m right behind them, plodding after the hauler to the edge of a flat farm field where we both roll to a stop.

The force nearly rips my arm out of my socket when I pop the door, leaping into the darkness with my nine millimeter.

My ears are still so tattered from the explosive off-road skid of the semi that it suddenly seems eerily quiet.

Then a loud, clear, panicked scream splits the night.

“Shel!” I snarl, running through a plume of dust to the truck’s window.

It’s still open from Hudson’s failed shooting antics. I leap up on the footboard and reach through the window. The monster trucks are catching up to us now, swarming around the trailer, the chopper beating the air loudly as it hovers overhead.

I have to get inside. Get to her. Before they lash out and kill her.

I’m throwing the door open when a head pops up—not hers.

I don’t hesitate as I swing at Hudson’s shocked red face. His head cracks so hard with my impact it spins in the other direction.

“Get out of the way, Shel!” I shout, grabbing the bracket of the side mirror with one hand and the top of the door with the other. I leap off the running board and hoist myself up with a move I haven’t used since bootcamp. As soon as my hands are on top of the truck and I’m dangling, I swing up, plowing through the open window feet first.

A gunshot barks.

I know I’ve been hit by the sickening, familiar thwack! before I feel it.

The fire, the pain, the bite in my thigh confirms it, but that’s not what catapults my heart into my throat.

It’s Shelly’s earsplitting scream.

25

Pig In Clover (Rachel)

“You dick, you shot him!” I scream at the driver.

Yes, I’m afraid, but I’m also flaming pissed.

Using the same nettle weed I’d used on Carson like a scourge, I attack the driver, flinging it into his eyes. God, it feels good to mash this weed in his face.

I enjoy his pained gurgle more than I should.

While he’s scratching at his eyes, howling, I punch him in the temple with my other hand, pull his hair, try to hurt him as badly as possible.

I need to distract them before they kill West.

The moment I heard Carson say the words monster truck, my heart leaped into my throat. But I wasn’t sure what to do, when to strike, not until the truck went spiraling off the road in a slow-motion earthquake.

I heard the gunshots and ripped the cover material off my head, readying the only weapon I had.

With a lucky flick of my wrist, the nettles lodged in Carson’s face, leaving behind their thorns, just like I’m hoping with Rem the driver now.

I can’t overpower them physically. Neither can Weston if he’s dead.

Everything happens so fast.

I can’t think, just react. Just move.

“Shel—Shelly—stop,” a gruff voice orders. “Get back, I got him!”

Weston’s voice penetrates my hearing like he’s shouting down a tunnel. Maybe because the rumble of the diesel engine no longer fills the cab, and my ears shook to near deafness when we skidded off the road.

I scramble, fighting my way back through the narrow sleeper door.

There’s an odd silence through the lingering snap and pop of metal pieces settling, the two cursing, whimpering men sandwiching me, and the ferocious growl of the man who’s just kicked his way into the truck feet first.

I lean back to see into the sleeper I’ve just retreated from.

Weston occupies the space between the two seats, legs bowed and body fully flexed, his lips pulled back in a menacing scowl.

If our lives weren’t actually on the line, he’d be the portrait of scary hot.

I’m not sure if Carson is dead or just knocked out, but his head hangs like a broken doll. Weston kneels down with a low growl, shoving a burly hand on the driver’s throat.

“He has a gun, too!” I rush out.

“Not anymore,” West says, holding up the silver handgun I saw Muddy Boots draw. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, but Jesus—you’re not!” My eyes flick to the dark-red wet patch on his jeans, completely staining his upper thigh. “They shot you.”

Ignoring me, he slaps at Muddy Boots’ face, testing him, and he doesn’t even flinch.

When I stumble back into the cab a second later, it’s right into Weston’s embrace.

A massive tattooed arm winds around my neck. Those bourbon-sweet lips I feared I’d never taste again devour me with a superhuman hunger.

All the veils between worlds are torn tonight, and monsters are real.

But holy hell, so are heroes.

Shocked, stunned, and thrilled is an epic understatement.

I could inhabit this whole-hearted reunion kiss forever, but reality tugs at my brain, sending panic through my veins. I jerk away, stuttering.

“Y-you got shot, Weston. You’re losing blood. We’ve got to get an ambulance!”

“I’m fine,” he says matter-of-factly.

He’s so handsome.

So perfect.

So flipping stubborn.

Once again, he came to my rescue in my darkest hour. It takes another minute for the rest of our reality to sink in. I cover my eyes as a blinding light sweeps through the windows from...above?

“Is that the police?”

“Close enough. It’s Drake and Bella’s company chopper, so I’m guessing the sheriff isn’t far behind.” He pulls me forward, hugging me with a grip that’s intense, desperate.

“You sure you’re okay?” he asks again, this gentle thunder in his tone that makes my heart skip.

The driver wakes up with a miserable sob. “M-my face...my fucking face is on fire! I-I-I can’t see. My eyes are...oh, Jesus. Help me. For the love of fuck, help!”

West’s arms tighten, holding me protectively closer, leveling his gun at the man’s head.

“Shut up. You’ll have a doctor soon if you quit bitching.” He shoves the gun barrel against his temple. The other man winces as West says, “Don’t temp me, jackass. You almost got her killed.”

I dig my nails into his arm, pleading with the blue death in those eyes.

“Don’t. We’re safe. They’ll be arrested,” I whisper.

He nods silently, but I can see how hard it is for him to resist slaughtering these two clowns.

Thankfully, there’s a loud grinding noise a second later. The doors of the semi open and several sets of big, angry arms reach in, yanking both the driver and Carson out like bags of trash.

Sharp green eyes appear below, dancing in the artificial light.

Faulk leans in the driver’s door. “Are y’all okay? Took a mighty big tumble!”

“We’re good, Faulk,” Weston says, never pulling his eyes off me.

But I can tell his voice is weaker, and his hand drifts to his blood-soaked thigh.

Oh, God.

We can’t stay here.

The dome lights are on with the doors open, strangely blinding, and I can see the slow, horrible bleed seeping through his jeans.

“We’re not okay, Faulk—very not okay! Weston’s been shot,” I say loudly, trying not to panic.

The man nods, jumping into the empty driver’s seat for a closer look.

The next few minutes are a flurry of movement.

Faulk throwing an arm around Weston’s shoulders and helping him out of the truck with another man waiting on the ground.

West insists “he’ll be fine” about a hundred times, but the amount of sticky blood says otherwise. So does the way he staggers once he’s on the ground, like it’s taking all of his energy to move without collapsing.

I see the worried looks on the faces appearing around him.

My heart stops and drops to my feet.

“Fuck, we’ve gotta get him lifted ASAP. No waiting for the hospital. That bullet could’ve hit a major artery,” a voice hisses in the darkness. I think it’s Drake’s. “Use the chopper. Yeah, right there!”

The loud whirring woof-woof-woof from above increases as a helicopter bounces down on the highway, landing in the middle of the asphalt where trucks have blocked off both sides of the road, their lights pointing down the road like a makeshift emergency blockage.

Several guys hoist West up and rush him inside the helicopter.

Not about to let him out of my sight, I push through the small crowd and climb in beside him before anybody stops me.

“Please. I can’t leave him,” I plead as a pilot looks back.

He gives me a nod and a man in a police uniform shoves a set of earmuffs into my hands.

Even with them, the noise is ridiculous.

Crouching down, I help apply pressure to Weston’s thigh. Someone tied a leather belt around it—a makeshift tourniquet—and it’s already drenched in blood.

Time blurs as soon as we’re airborne.

I cry.

I pray.

I worry.

I keep my head pressed against his chest, counting every second with his heartbeat, begging it to hold steady with my cheek as the helicopter heads for what must be Dickinson.

Sweet Jesus, it hurts.

Even having my own life in peril less than an hour ago wasn’t this brutal.

He can’t die saving me. He lived through a fricking war.

I can’t let him go without an apology—without the life we’re meant for.

After what seems like an eternity, we touch the ground. Blue-dressed medics meet the helicopter on the rooftop and pull Weston onto a gurney.

“Stand back,” they tell me.

But I can’t.

I run to his other side, grasping his hand and speed walking with them to the imposing metal doors leading inside.

“Don’t let him die!” I shout at the medics.

“I’m not dying, Shelly,” he snarls weakly. “Don’t worry your pretty head. I’ll...I’ll be right...back...”

He drifts off, his eyes fluttering shut.

Terror grips me by the throat like a serpent.

He sounds so faint, so detached, so close to slipping away.

But it’s Weston, isn’t it?

I have to act tough. If only so he can have a crumb of my energy.

“You’d better not go anywhere, you big lunk!” I shout after him. “I’ll never forgive you if you do.”

Once I’m inside and wiping the sobbing mess off my face, a nurse tells me I can’t go further, but that I can give him a quick kiss. I do, trembling as I pray with my all that it won’t be my last.

Then I watch him disappear to fate through another big set of steel doors.

As they wheel him away, my legs go out.

The aftershock of everything hits like a fainting attack.

I’m too sad to even wince as I go down hard, my knees banging the ground.

* * *

The next thing I know, I’m on a bed with Gram parked in a chair next to me, stroking my hand with her wrinkled fingers.

West!

I try to jerk up, but I instantly regret it.

My body feels too heavy, too sluggish, every muscle biting and sore. The pain rips me down in warning.

“There, now,” Gram says. “I had them give you something to relax. You were so overwrought I feared the worst, Shelly Bean.”

“Weston?” His name sputters out more like a demand than a question.

“He’s still in surgery, dear, but don’t worry. The nurse told Grady the bullet fell short of a major artery. It’s lodged in bone and it might take time to extract it.” She pats my face. “How are you feeling, Shelly? We came too close to losing you.”

I hate the sadness bleeding into her voice.

“Fine. I’ll live, Gram.” I try clearing what feels like steel wool in my scratchy throat.

I probably scarred my throat from screaming bloody murder during my nettle fight, and again to call down all the healing gods who ever existed to save my man.

Mine.

I decide right here tonight that he belongs to me as much as I always have to him.

“Need a sip of water?” Gram asks.

I nod, taking a long slurp off a curly straw that she holds in front of me.

The stress must completely take over then because I start laughing.

“Girl, it’s so good to see you smile!” Gram beams. “If I knew these curly straws still made you laugh, I’d have had a thousand waiting for you at home.”

“How could I ever forget? You used to give us those kiddie 'beach cocktails' with fruit and lemonade every summer we went swimming in Big Fish Lake. We always used our straws to spray water at each other,” I say, both loving and loathing the memory that comes back.

Young Weston’s sleek, tanned body. Boyish and utterly perfect when he smiled around the straw.

Mischief flashing in those starlight-blue eyes every time he emerged from the lake to spray me when we weren’t both chasing Marty.

“You’ll see better days soon enough. The doctor says your throat will be awfully sore for a while,” she says slowly. “And your neck. It’s already bruised from that lying, two-faced bastard scoundrel.”

My eyes widen in surprise.

I can count on both hands how many times I’ve ever heard Gram curse in my life.

“I can’t believe how he tricked us,” she continues, her eyes pinched shut, shaking her head. “Believe me, Shelly, he’ll spend the rest of his life in jail. Sheriff Larkin will see to it, and so will I.”

Everything that happened flits through my mind like a colony of discontent bats taking flight.

“How’s Faye?”

“Oh, she’ll be just fine. Her injury’s bark was worse than its bite. They’re keeping her overnight, just for observation and due diligence. They said you can leave whenever you’re ready, but I said we aren’t going anywhere. Not until we hear about Weston.”

“No, we aren’t,” I agree. “Thank you, Gram.”

“Save your gratitude for the man of the hour. He was always the first one to jump in to save you, and I see some things never change,” she says with a slow, far-off smile.

I wish she was wrong.

This time, he could’ve died. His near-sacrifice brings stinging tears to my eyes.

“There, there, now. That boy’s too stubborn to let a little scrap of metal shorten his days. Almost as bullheaded as you are sometimes, Shelly Bean.”

I nod, but deep down, I’m terrified that’s not true.

What if something goes wrong in surgery?

Weston is my protector for life—and he’s proven just how much I need him these past few weeks, even when I thought I hated his guts.

He’s saved my life twice in one season.

I could’ve gotten him flattened by a front-end loader the first week I came home. Now, thanks to me again, he’s lost God only knows how much blood.

Go ahead.

Call it insane because it absolutely is.

I don’t go looking for trouble. It just finds me.

And so does Weston McKnight, this strange, gorgeous guardian man who’s always had a gold compass to my heart.

“Hey, Shelly, how you holding up?”

I look up to see Marty tugging the curtain aside, concern etched on his face.

“She’ll be fine with a few days’ rest,” Gram answers for me.

Marty kisses my forehead, rubbing my shoulder like he wants to convince himself I’m really okay, truly still in one piece.

That makes me want to start bawling all over again.

“Thank God, Gram. I was worried to death when I heard how that semi rolled and how West got tore up. Without him and that pig, I don’t even want to imagine what would’ve happened...”

“Pig? You mean Hercules?” I bolt up, ignoring the groaning muscles in my lower back.

Marty chuckles. “Grady says he’s fine. They brought him over to the Barnet’s place tonight to stay. Weston had him sniffing you out like a bloodhound. He got a little shaken up in the showdown, but he’s fine otherwise.”

Holy bananas. Saved by a wild pig and a wilder man.

With a nod, I sink back down on the bed, happily deflated to know one little thing went right tonight.

“Say, are you up for talking to Drake? He needs an official statement. Probably good to get it down while your memory’s fresh so we can slap those pricks with abduction charges, too.” Marty grins at me. “Don’t forget to tell him where you got the nettles. That was pretty clever.”

“I’m glad you think so,” I say with a snort. “And yeah, sure, I can talk to him whenever. The weed was dumb luck. I meant to throw it away, but forgot when I saw the ambulance for Faye. It was still in my pocket when I caught Carson messing around.”

“Save your voice,” he says, patting my shoulder gently. “I’ll go grab the sheriff.”

* * *

The next hour is a disembodied whirlwind.

I try to speak coherently without worrying myself sick about West.

Drake sits at my side, punching words into a tablet, while I repeat exactly what happened after Gram and Marty left to comfort Faye.

I also learn how a wandering Hercules found Drake and tipped him off that something was very wrong. To complete the weirdness, he mentions Granny Coffey stepping up in our absence, taking care of the poor abandoned guest who’d tried to check in.

“Wow. Looks like Gram might owe her a month’s worth of strawberries,” I say with a snicker.

“Sure enough,” Drake says in his flat Yankee drawl, calm as ever. “Now, you mentioned Carson Hudson—and that’s not his real name—mentioning some meteorite business in an earlier interaction?”

I nod, but I’m confused.

“Yeah. You mean he used a fake name or what?”

“He’s a Carson, all right, but his last name’s Bostrom. Took some deep digging in Boston police records to figure that out. Turns out, that uncle he mentioned, a man named Gerald Bostrom, was scamming folks all over the Pacific Northwest thirty or forty years ago with similar schemes. Only, he got a little farther than his nephew. He had a nasty ring of stolen art going. Pretty nice black market business till his greed took over. Then he got in over his head with some space rock out in Montana, and that was the end of him.”

I raise my eyebrows, surprised that part is true. But Carson was awfully obsessed with the fake meteorites the Three Musketeers found, wasn’t he?

The same rock in Faye’s photos that drew him here like a wolf smelling blood.

“That’s insane,” I whisper. “I’m guessing this wasn’t his first try with stealing antiques?”

Drake shakes his head.

“Not hardly. I called Montana and had a chat with Sheriff Langley out in Heart’s Edge about an hour ago. This guy showed up there under a third different name a couple months ago, sniffing after some secret gold in a lake or somethin’. But an old lady in town noticed the resemblance to his dead uncle, and he blew town pretty fast. We also turned up some reports of petty thefts at antique shops and flea markets in New England further back. I’d bet my bottom dollar his prints will be a match for some of ’em.”

“What about the other stuff that went missing here? Did you find Faye’s gun?” I ask.

He smiles.

“A thorough search of the Tesla in the trailer with the Corvette turned up a couple real interesting concealed compartments. Faye’s Winchester was tucked under the back seat, along with several other valuables he swiped from your grandma’s basement. He called in the goons he recruited through Carolina Dibs to set up the big heist, going after your grandpa’s cars.”

I nod slowly.

Everything makes sense, it just doesn’t make me happy.

I want to barf for ever giving Carson the benefit of the doubt.

A traveling antiques dealer?

Ugh. Why hadn’t I trusted my instincts?

I mean, what kind of sicko can stand the taste of those rotten swamp nuts?

The more we talk, the more questions I ask, and the weaker my voice gets.

A couple throat lozenges help, but my voice is totally exhausted. Drake has me sign the statement on the tablet while Gram returns and insists on calling a doctor.

“Totally understandable, Miss Simon,” the doctor tells me after Drake leaves. “Your voice box needs time to heal. It’ll be much better by this time tomorrow. I promise. There’s no lasting damage.”

Knowing I can’t get more words out, I just nod.

The doctor looks at the nurse next to him. “Nurse Amy has a pair of socks for you to wear, and then she’ll take you down to recovery to see Mr. McKnight, if you’d like. For our sake, I hope you want to. The man practically threatened to start tossing heads around the room if you aren’t there when he wakes up. The surgery went quite well and he’ll be going home in three or four days.”

“That long?” I squeak out.

“Yes. Regrettably, we need to keep his leg immobilized and under observation. The gun was fired at such close range that the bullet did significant muscle damage before it became lodged in bone. It’ll heal, however, we need to take plenty of extra precautions the first few days,” he says.

My heartbeat picks up while the doctor rambles on with the nurse and Marty, explaining that Weston won’t be very coherent when he wakes, and that I need rest, too. But I can sit with him for a short time.

As the doctor exits, I roll on my socks and slip into shoes before leaning into the supportive arm Marty offers.

We walk down several long corridors to the recovery area.

West looks like the only one there tonight.

Tears nip at my eyes as I look through the glass.

How pale he looks...and that IV in his arm darkly complements the sling holding his leg up. I almost don’t want him to wake up tonight, knowing how miserable he’ll be.

It hits me like a brickbat to the face, and I know.

This is my fault.

All.

My.

Fault.

“Let’s go, sis,” Marty says softly, guiding me into the room and one side of the bed.

My brother keeps a gentle arm around me as I grasp Weston’s hand.

“I’m so flipping sorry, West. How can I ever make it up to you?” I whisper.

His eyes stir, fluttering open. He stares at me for the longest second ever before cracking a faint smile.

“Told you I wouldn’t die,” he says, his voice a dry rattle.

I try to talk, to laugh, but nothing comes out.

Probably for the best when all I want to say will throw him into a coma.

I love him.

I’ve always, always loved him.

I love him so much I’m shaking, so much it kills me not to tell him right here, right now.

But I can’t be the death of him after everything earlier, so I lean down, pressing my lips to his forehead.

He lets out a long, groaning sigh. I can tell he’s falling asleep fast.

“He’ll be in and out of it for a while,” the nurse says, entering the room. “That’s normal for a fella in his state. He’s very lucky.”

I nod, blotting at the tears on my cheeks.

“Hell of a friend, isn’t he?” Marty asks, giving me a knowing look.

I nod again like my neck turned into dough, blinking back more tears.

“I told him to tell you everything—that you’d understand—but you know what an uptight donkey he can be,” Marty says with a laugh. “I just wish he would’ve listened before this crap came down.”

Frowning, I look at Marty.

“Tell me what? The Army?” Weston’s struggles still make me feel awful, especially knowing I wasn’t here for him when he came home. “I already heard a lot from Faye...”

“He went through hell during that ambush. After it, he was dead set on punishing himself for living when so many didn’t.” He pauses, shaking his head. “But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

I look at him, wait for more, wondering if my brain is just done working tonight.

He sighs. “The reason he joined the Army in the first place, Shel, all those years ago. He was on the fence about it for months before he called the recruiter back. You never knew?”

I have no idea what he means and shake my head.

“It was you.” He holds up a stiff, accusing finger. “All you.”

My brows pull down. I’m lost.

Marty nods.

“He knew you’d never live the life you deserved if he was still around when you turned eighteen and finished high school. He knew about your crush, and though he never said it, I think he had an inkling about how hard it’d be to control himself once you were old enough and fair game...”

My brother smiles sheepishly, that easy, lopsided grin he’s had since we were kids.

A shiver wafts up my spine.

That was what Weston made me promise: leave town, go to college, see the world.

I did that because he asked, and because he vowed to stay in touch.

I waited on his no-show letters with a slow, creeping disappointment that turned to sadness, then fear, then anger.

Until this fall, I let his ghosting act make me numb.

But I can’t deny the ugly truth, that there was a method to his coldhearted madness.

If he’d stayed almost a decade ago, so would I.

I never would’ve tasted a day at the museum if he hadn’t enlisted, the older boy and protector who always held the key to my future.

Marty gives me a sideways hug.

“He didn’t mean to be a dick. He was gonna write you, but shit got complicated over there and I guess he just...he thought if he hurt you a little then, if he went radio silent, it would spare you a lot more grief later on. I told him it doesn’t work that way, but he’s a frigging hee-haw. Absolute donkey man. Come to think of it, almost as boneheaded stubborn as you.” He kisses the top of my head. “Hold up, I’ll find you a chair, so you can sit here until he wakes up.”

Somehow, I nod, no easy task when your heart keeps crumbling like a sugar cookie whacked with a mallet.

I can’t stop the tears this time.

They come out in a raging flood against my fingers, my lungs heaving.

Everything he did, everything he went through, everything he feared...

...it’s all been because of me and his stupid, brave, insane need to protect me.

The same lethal instinct that put him in this hospital bed tonight.

There’s nothing I could ever do to make it up to him—nothing but one decision that gouges my heart out.

Leave again.

If that’s what he wants, it’s the only option.

I wonder if that’s why he warned me my country roots were showing before that wonderful night at the car show, and why he wouldn’t believe me when I swore I didn’t miss the big city.

I wasn’t lying.

If my bosses called right now and offered me a way out, I’d take it in a heartbeat.

But I can’t keep hurting him. Can’t keep letting him save me. Can’t keep injecting more pain into his sad bruise of a life. Can’t coexist with both of us living a confusing lie.

“You gonna be okay alone for a few minutes?” Marty asks. “I’ll go fill everyone else in on how he’s doing.”

“Yeah,” I say, even though I know I might never be okay again.

What if he wakes up and asks me to go home when my truest home is here?

What if I can’t leave the man I love so desperately a second time?

26

Feral Pig (Weston)

Have I mentioned I hate fucking hospitals?

I force myself to not so much as flinch while the doctor’s grubby hand digs at my bandage. He wants to see the raw hole in my upper thigh.

The leg feels tender, sore, but with his approval, I might be able to escape this place today. Hell, with how I’m feeling right now, I’ll leave without it.

She was there when I woke up from surgery, straddling two realities. No doubt about every living bit of her being real.

I remember her small hand in mine, fiery as ever.

I remember the glassy look in her eyes.

I remember her lips caressing my forehead as she kissed me.

I also remember that I haven’t seen her since, and I wonder why.

She barely said a word when she was here.

Marty tried explaining it the next day when he’d stopped by to see me. She wasn’t able to talk much after the way that sadistic freak choked her.

Strangled her till she’d passed out, and again while she scratched up his face with that nettle.

I’m still so furious I can see the heart monitor spike every time I think about it.

Not even Drake’s assurances that they’ll throw the book at Carson Hudson—Carson Bostrom, technically, I guess—and his shithead minions helps.

Shelly could’ve been seriously hurt. Slaughtered.

They could’ve taken her away from me before I ever got a chance to say jack shit to her. And I’m ready to say a lot more now, whenever I see her again.

“You didn’t finish your lunch, I’m told,” the doc says, looking at me over his spectacles.

“Not hungry,” I answer. “How’s the leg look?”

“Well enough with the great work I do,” the doc says proudly. “The swelling is down significantly today. You’re welcome, Mr. McKnight.”

I snort, casting him a deadly look.

“So, you mean I can go home? Great.”

“Well...ideally, I’d like to keep the leg immobilized for at least another day and do one last check.”

“It’s been three goddamned days,” I snarl, trying to sit up and instantly regretting it.

It feels like a rat with rabies crawled up my thigh and gnawed his way out.

“Technically two and a half,” he counters.

“Whatever, Doc, feels like it’s a hell of a lot longer,” I grind out. “What’s the point in lounging around here for five thousand dollars a day? I can lie in bed at home for free.”

Raising his bushy eyebrows, the short doctor snaps off his latex gloves and tosses them in the trash. Then he lets out a long sigh.

“Why do I have a feeling that if I don’t discharge you, you’ll leave anyway?”

“Because I will,” I throw back.

“All right, you devil. Let me get some prescriptions ready and we’ll—”

“Fuck your pain pills.”

He gives me a shocked look.

I’m not about to go down any road that could lead to new addictions.

“Sorry,” I say, clearing my throat. “What I mean is, I want to work through it naturally.”

“Regardless, you’ll be on a few drugs for infection control and anti-inflammatories. How do you feel about a cane?” he asks. “Please understand you shouldn’t put more pressure on that leg than necessary.”

I swallow an acrid sigh. What the hell ever.

He’s been a good guy and he’s willing to let me go.

“How about a gold knob on the top? Always wanted to play rich asshole when I was a kid,” I say teasingly.

He laughs. “No gold, I’m afraid, but there are rubber precision grips on the bottom.”

I snort in return. “Okay. I’ll comprise.”

“Do you have a phone?” he asks, glancing at the rolling table next to my bed.

Do I?

Mine was in the truck when I went charging in. From what Drake said, my truck took a nasty hit to the right front corner when I rammed the scumbags in the SUV. I’m just glad Hercules was fine when they picked him up—but with a name like that, he had to be.

“Think I lost it during the incident that got me shot,” I say.

He nods and walks to the door.

“I’ll send in your uncle shortly so you can make arrangements, and I’ll have your discharge papers ready within the hour.”

“Thanks,” I say, but then wonder if I want Uncle Grady bringing me home.

If I get my phone back and call Thelma’s place, Shel might come and get me.

Then again...though I want to see her terribly, I don’t want her getting an eyeful of me limping around on a cane with rubber grips like some frail old man.

My heart thuds harder as I think about seeing her.

Hell, maybe I should let her see me with the cane. I bet I could convince her to play nurse for a bit while we kiss and make up for everything that went down before the shitshow.

* * *

It feels like eons pass before Uncle Grady steps into the room with a phone in his hand and plugs it into the wall.

“Thanks,” I tell him, still considering whether or not the rest of me can handle what my dick craves if I actually get a lift home from Little Miss Simon.

“Who are you so set on calling?” Grady asks, standing at my side.

I set the phone down. “Help, and not you this time, Unc. You already saved my skin by helping coordinate with the other guys that night. Doc says I can go home.”

He sets a duffel bag on the chair by the window.

“I brought you some clothes. Didn’t think you’d let them keep you much longer, and I’m sure you can use a change.”

“Thank shit.” I flip the thin blanket down. “I’m sick of this gown.”

He chuckles, scratching his beard.

“It’ll be an hour or so before the orders come through for him to leave,” the nurse tells Grady as she walks out the door.

I grab the bed rail to help flip my leg over the edge of the bed. “Give me that bag, would you?”

“Not yet,” Grady says quietly, stepping forward. He stands between me and the chair holding the bag. “Not until we talk.”

I blink at him.

“Talk? About what?”

“Rachel Simon.”

Shit, he can’t be serious. Can he?

The somberness in his tone makes my grip on the railing tighten.

“You really think this is the time and place for a heart-to-heart? Unc, I was gonna call her and have her pick me up so we could—”

“She went back to Washington,” he says bluntly, cutting me off. “Took the last flight out of Bismarck last night.”

“What?” I fling it like a curse.

Every part of me stiffens, guarding my reaction to the news of the worst fucking kind.

“Aunt Faye told me this morning, West. She warned me not to tell you, but I thought you should know. Better to hear it from me than anybody else,” he says, folding his arms.

I nod like my insides aren’t as raw as fresh beef run through a dull grinder.

“Whatever,” I insist, holding up my hands. “That’s where she lives. Obviously. After all that’s happened, it’s good for her to get the fuck out of here. I wouldn’t stick around a second longer myself after a couple maniacs wanted me dead.”

“Is it? Is it actually good for you two to be apart?” Grady squints at me. “You’re two hard-ass peas in the same denial pod, you and Rachel. Marty tried talking her out of leaving, but she wouldn’t listen. Said it was something she had to do.”

“Don’t blame her for anything,” I say, growing irritated that he might. “It’s not Shel’s fault.”

“I’m not saying anything’s her fault. If you ask me, it’s fifty-fifty,” he clarifies. “You’re both hellbent on denying what’s always been right in front of you. When are you both gonna gun up and admit you love each other? I spent years living in denial myself, thinking I could never love again after I was widowed with the girls. Then I found Willow. She peeled my eyes open and the rest was history.”

I huff out a sigh, my frustration rising.

“Point taken. Shame I don’t have a nickel on me for your sage advice.”

He chuckles, leaning against the wall.

“No, but you owe me your ears. I’m your ride out of this joint, so I think you’d better listen to what I have to say, West.”

I don’t want to hear his shit.

“I—”

“Nope,” he says, walking to the edge of my bed. “I’ve got the floor. Literally. It shouldn’t be this hard. Now, I know you’ve been in love with her for years, and I’ve seen you the past few weeks, ever since she returned. So has everyone else. You’ve both been lit up like the sun, happy and alive.”

We lock eyes, holding gazes like two teams in a tug of war.

My uncle doesn’t understand.

I was happy before all this trouble. Now, my throat burns knowing she’s gone.

“Marty told her she was the reason you joined the Army,” he says.

Slowly, I press a hand to my head. “Fuck. Why’d he do something that stupid?”

Uncle Grady shrugs.

“Guess he hoped she’d finally see the light and admit she loves you back,” he tells me. “He’s beside himself that it backfired and sent her away. You and Rachel need to sit down and talk, without the same old song and dance. Tell her everything. She believes you wanted her to leave again. That’s why she packed her bags and flew the coop.”

“Better that she did,” I force out. “I’m no fuckin’ good for her, Unc. I smashed her heart with a sledgehammer before while she was just a kid. Then she was kidnapped and nearly strangled to death. All because I couldn’t pull my head out of my ass long enough to whack an obvious snake.”

“Interesting,” he says slowly, giving me this brown-eyed sideways glare. “She thinks you were shot because of her. She won’t stop beating herself up.”

“Hell, no. None of this was her fault. I knew something wasn’t right about either of those strangers and I should have acted.”

“You should’ve acted on your feelings for Shelly.” He walks to the chair, setting a hand on the duffel bag. “Now, I know you can live the rest of your life without her, but my question is, do you want that life without her? Don’t bullshit me, West.”

I roll my eyes.

“Not when we both know you’ll go on loving her even if she moves to Antarctica. You’ll always wonder what you’re missing. What-ifs will be torture,” he continues, throwing his hand up before leveling another glare on me. “Imagine, boy. Imagine never falling to sleep next to her every night and waking up with her snuggled against your side every morning. Imagine never knowing the joy of being married to your best friend. Never having children with her. Never—”

“Enough! Just—fuck, stop.”

I can’t take the images he’s hammering into my rock of a head.

Scenes of everything I’ve always deprived myself from having.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” he spits sarcastically. “Did I finally strike a nerve?”

“Screw you,” I mutter, throwing him an eat-shit grin.

He laughs bitterly.

“Man, I’ve always been honest with you, even with things you didn’t want to hear. You’re my nephew and I tell it like it is. Right now, I’m telling you it’s time to let go of the past. All of it, West. When you stagger out of here, I want you to give up living in the past. Live with the rest of us in the present.”

Grady isn’t wrong.

The truth is one big bitch with diamond-sharp claws.

When I hit rock bottom before, he told me I needed help and worked like hell to pull me out of that tailspin.

“I know,” I whisper.

He holds a hand behind one ear, cups it as if to hear better.

“What was that?”

I roll my eyes at him again.

“I said I know, okay?” I shake my head. “And I know that Shel and I need to talk. I need to tell her everything.”

He nods solemnly.

“You sure do.” Picking up the bag, he carries it over to the bed. “That’s why I took the liberty of tossing more than one set of clothes in this bag. Aunt Faye packed it, so you have enough clean underwear for at least a week. I’m sure you can buy whatever you need beyond that.”

“A week?” I ask as I look at him warily.

A slow grin crawls across his face.

“I knew you’d get your head in the right place, and when you did, you’d be mighty restless. So, I have you booked on a flight leaving Bismarck at six o’clock tomorrow. Couldn’t get a direct flight. They all have a layover in Minneapolis, but it’s less than an hour. You’ll be in D.C. before midnight with the time change.”

Heart pounding with excitement, I unzip the bag.

“You’ll give me a lift to the airport?”

“Nah, I’ll make you hitchhike,” he answers jokingly while walking to the door. He opens it and grabs a set of crutches.

I stop and stare.

“The doc said he’d give me a cane...”

“I know, but I told him you need crutches,” Grady replies. “I told the airline you needed a seat in first class because of your injury. Crutches will prove it’s serious, a cane won’t.”

“Works for me.” Even as I battle back a smile, I shake my head at my uncle. He’s like a badass guardian angel sometimes. Too good at making me see things from a new perspective, which is usually the right one. “Thanks...for everything. Oh, and Hercules—”

“Already on it,” he says. “Ridge and Grace have plenty of space for him in their stables for a few more days. I told ’em I’d stop by personally to look after him.”

“Perfect. Oh, and I, uh, sort of promised him his weight in bananas and peanut butter if he helped me out,” I explain. “He may not understand, but I never would’ve found her without his bloodhound nose. I’m gonna live up to my word.”

Grady’s smile grows. “Got it. He’ll get a couple PB-dunked bananas every day you’re gone.”

I nod gratefully, rifling through the bag for my clothes.

“Remember, I’m not the only one who loves you, Weston,” he says carefully as I meet his eyes. “You just have to let her know. Show her it’s okay to finally love you.”

“You’re right. Then again, you always are,” I grumble.

I can’t deny giving him a metric fuck-ton of credit.

I’ll have the evening and several long hours of traveling tomorrow to figure out what to say to her, how to convince her I’m done being a jackass, and we need to be together.

I’m so up in my head, I jump when he hands me a crutch.

“C’mon, boy. Let’s get you out of this place and cleaned up at home.”

27

This Little Piggy Went Home (Rachel)

Sirens wail outside my apartment for the tenth time today, lost and mournful.

Welcome back.

I’ve been “home” in this city for just a couple days, and I already miss Dallas’ peace and quiet worse than Gram’s strawberry shortcake.

Actually, it’s the people I’m missing most—along with one very special pig.

Let’s not mention a particularly pigheaded man.

Technically, I could call the hospital anytime, or his phone, assuming it wasn’t destroyed in the showdown.

Of course, I can’t do that because it’ll blow my entire plan to smithereens. I set my phone on the counter and finish scraping my stuff together, binders of old papers and a couple worn books about the Old West given to me by an awesome professor.

Everything fits in two boxes I’ll ship back to Dallas.

I stare at the meager contents of my life here, wondering if I’m making the right choice or losing my sanity. It feels like a whole life, an alternate world, that’s suddenly stillborn.

Heavy.

But I guess the fact that I’m not mourning it means a whole lot more.

Gram is the only living soul who knows my real reason for coming back here. Whenever Weston and I sit down to talk, I want him knowing this was my decision.

Nobody else’s.

He’ll still be in the hospital if he isn’t laid up at home, and that works to my advantage.

With his leg wrapped up, he won’t be able to walk away this time. He’ll have to lie down, listen, and wait until I’m good and done.

It’s my turn to live the life I sketched out years ago. Before I left Dallas for a dream I was so sure I wanted.

That’s the curious thing about dreams. They come and go nightly, but the repetitive ones?

Those are the dreams you sink your claws into, hold on tight, and let them float you away to a better universe.

I may be over fifteen hundred miles from North Dakota, but I know what I’m dreaming every waking second with my eyes wide open.

A life that includes Weston McKnight.

All of him.

Every single day.

...if that’s what he wants, and only if.

That’s the part that scares me.

Behind his growls and battered heart, I believe he loves me.

I’ve seen it in his eyes when they go all soft and starry, tranquil as the clear blue sea.

Convincing him his love is all I’ve ever wanted? There’s our big yikes.

He’s not an easy man to convince, even when it’s what he wants most.

Then again, neither am I.

That could be why we’ve butted heads so often. Two stubborn idiots, so madly in love they’re terrified to admit it.

Picking up a framed picture for the box, I pause and stare at the photo.

It’s an old one with Weston, Marty, and me. The boys sit on the front steps of Gram’s house and I’m kneeling behind them, my head stuck between theirs and my arms around their shoulders.

I was fourteen when Gram snapped the photo. It was about this time of year, mountains of yellow leaves piled on the ground and fire-red fragments still clinging to the trees. The boys just finished raking the yard when I’d brought them a couple cold sodas with those curly straws I love so much stuck in the glasses.

I sigh softly.

Setting the picture in the box, I cover it with packing foam and glance around the shoebox apartment that would honestly fit inside one of Amelia’s rooms with plenty of space to spare.

The unit came fully furnished, which is common out here. The city swarms nonstop with politicos who move in and out with nothing more than a suitcase on a regular basis.

The apartment served me well enough, but it’s not worth the nosebleed rent I’ve been paying every month just to have a short bus hop to the museum. I could buy a nice freaking house in Dallas and still have a payment barely half my rent here.

For what?

A place to sleep? To dream without dreaming? That’s all it’s ever been.

It’s never been home.

It’s never been me.

Thankfully, the powers that be at my job were so gentle when I gave them my two weeks’ notice. I told them the truth.

I don’t belong here.

And it’s downright amazing how right it felt to tell them that.

Wiping my brow, I tape the box shut. The building manager said I could leave them on the counter that separates the mini kitchen from the pint-sized living room and he’ll ship them home for me.

He also said that with the waiting list he has right now, they’ll send in a cleaning crew and have someone else moved in next week.

Fine by me.

I’ll be home where I belong, figuring out my life with West or without him.

It’s amazing how calm I feel about that without having an answer to the most agonizing question of all.

I stare at my sad purple flowers in their vase by the sink, long wilted like prunes because I forgot to give them away or junk them before I left for North Dakota. I lift them out of the dry vase and slowly pluck the petals.

Will he, or won’t he?

And what if he won’t?

Oh, but what if he does?

A drumming knock at my door makes me jump. I glance at the clock.

It’s after midnight and the building is pretty secure, so I’m not too worried it’s trouble on my doorstep. No one gets in here without being buzzed in or knowing the code.

I wait and listen, wondering if it was for the apartment across the hall.

Then it sounds again.

Definitely on my door.

Hmmm.

Crossing the room, I peer out the peephole.

My heart hits my throat as I stumble back.

“Weston? Holy crap.” I flip the lock and open the door so fast I forget about the chain. “Oops. Hold on!” I slam the door shut and unhook the chain. My hands are shaking so hard I can’t get the little knob to glide through the metal slide.

“Sorry, just...give me a minute!” I repeat it twice before I finally get the damn thing loose and open the door again. “What are you doing here—on crutches? Oh my God. You should be in the hospital resting!”

“Not when I’m discharged, Shel,” he says, striking me down with that devastating grin.

God.

He’s so handsome it physically hurts, and it feels like a miracle to see him smiling.

I want to hug him. Kiss him. Climb him like a tree.

“Get in here already,” I hiss, shoving the door wide open so he can make it over the threshold with his crutches. “Come sit before you hurt yourself. Discharged or not, you should still be resting.”

“You’re repeating yourself,” he says.

“Um, yeah, because you shouldn’t be here!”

He chuckles and swaggers inside like it’s no more difficult than walking over to the B&B from his place next door.

I almost forget to lock the door before I whirl around to face him.

“Now, what are you doing here?” I ask, blinking in disbelief.

He sets the crutches on the floor, along with an overstuffed bag hanging off one shoulder. He keeps a black book of some sort tucked under one arm.

“What does it look like?” Shaking his head, he says, “I’m sorry, Shel. All I ever wanted to do was protect you. Keep you safe. I thought that meant keeping you away from me, once upon a time.”

He goes quiet.

I raise an eyebrow, breathlessly waiting for more.

“I’m here, so clearly I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want to do that anymore. So...screw it. You know how I am with words.” He shrugs, then pulls that folder out from under his arm. “First, I owe you an explanation for the elephant in the room. Read.”

He pushes the folder toward me.

Blinking, I take it warily, studying him as I whisper, “What’s this?”

“Read, Shelly,” he repeats, his eyes hardening.

“At least sit first,” I say, leading him over to the sofa, just a few steps away. “Do you need something? Coffee? Water?”

“I need your eyes, woman,” he says softly. “Just give me ten minutes. Read.”

O-kay.

I’m trying not to tremble as I get us both settled next to each other. Why does it feel like this thing weighs a hundred pounds?

I’m so taken aback by the weirdness that the air locks in my lungs, and when it comes out, I start coughing. I tug at the sweater I put on to hide the bruises on my neck.

He lays a big hand on my back.

“Is your throat still sore? Do you need water? Marty said you couldn’t talk, but—dammit, hold on. I’ll get you some water.”

“No,” I whisper, grasping his hand as I clear my throat. “Not until I’ve had a look at...whatever this is.”

He settles back in his seat as I open the folder. It’s holding what looks like a fat bundle of handwritten pages, many of them smudged, worn, yellowed.

We glance at each other as I pull the first one out. He nods slowly, never taking those midnight-blue eyes off me.

It’s a letter, I realize, his unmistakable writing slashed across the page in even lines.

Shel,

Why did the envelope take so long to get ready? It had to get addressed.

I’m sorry I haven’t written since basic. After two weeks over here, Fort Benning feels like a palace and Dallas might be heaven.

Just saying hi to make sure you don’t miss me. Give Marty hell for me.

Tears sting my eyes. I rifle through a few more pages, noticing each letter is dated a few months apart. The early ones are short and full of jokes so dumb they’d make anyone else cringe.

Me? I’m smiling like a lovestruck fool.

And I’m not expecting it when I jump forward over a year to a note that’s more than a few sentences.

Shelly,

I doubt you’ll ever read this, but it’s going down on paper. How many times did you tell me to put my experiences on paper “for posterity” when I called you a history dork? Fuck it, I listened.

We saw our first dead people today.

His name was Hamid. He served us tea often when we’d pass through his village. He had eighteen grandkids.

They slaughtered them all except the two older ones. His wife, his sons, his entire family.

Remember those WWI books you had your nose stuck in last summer? The ones you tried to tell me about and I pretended not to listen?

It still couldn’t have prepared me for this.

I wonder if those dudes in the trenches ever got desensitized or if they were just always sad?

Something tells me I’d better figure it out real damn fast.

I miss Marty. I miss Dallas. I miss you.

I’m starting to breathe hard, but I see West nodding in my peripheral vision, urging me to keep going. I flip through a few more pages as the dates grow farther apart.

Happy eighteenth birthday. I haven’t sent you shit and I’m not sure I ever will. Since you won’t see this, I’ll tell you why I keep writing.

This is my fucking therapy.

This is me being very, very glad you’re safe at home and I’m here.

This is me wishing I was home to give you crap while you stuff your face with Thelma’s cookies. Wishing I could see the light in your eyes before you leave Dallas behind for a lifetime of learning and fun.

This is also me wishing for crazy shit I shouldn’t—and knowing it won’t do you a lick of good, so for you, I’ll always just wish you the best.

Crying.

I have to stop and wipe my eyes while I page forward to the very last letter. It’s just a few months before he came home.

Shel. Shelly. Rachel.

Would you even recognize me now?

Would you bother trying after I blew you off, never sending a single damn one of those stupid-ass letters?

I imagine you’re happy and well wherever you are, that pretty head just getting smarter and prettier like a sharpened knife.

I’ll bet you’re too busy learning to think of me, and honest to God, you shouldn’t.

Because I’m not the same fresh-faced idiot who left Dallas and left you hanging with a promise I can never keep.

Because I’ve seen so much fuckery I get what that writer you love with the weird Russian name meant when he said, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars.”

Except mine have gone out forever, and I’m too chickenshit to even tell you.

All I know is, I’m coming home soon, and you’re not.

I guess this is a goodbye you’ll never hear, a farewell to this godforsaken place and good people and everything I thought I knew.

I only have one thing I regret more than never showing you these psycho scribblings—I never told you when I could.

I never told you I love you so much, so hard, so secretly it ripped me open years ago. And now, I never will.

You can’t see the stranger, the mess, the fucked up wreck I’ve become.

I’ll tell Marty that if you ever come home to Dallas, don’t try to find me.

Consider me missing and gone. Lost to the violence.

Too dead to be your friend, much less the hero you deserve.

Have a nice life.

“West!” His name tears up my throat with a strangled sob.

He’s dumping his entire heart.

He’s quoting Dostoyevsky.

He’s killing me one visceral confession at a time.

My hands are shaking—shaking—as I press the paper to my thigh, looking up at blue eyes so hot they’re pure plasma. Ball lightning.

“Here I am. Good news, I’m not lost anymore,” he says quietly, his voice so raw. “I love you, Shel. And you’re holding the proof that I always have. If D.C. is where I’ll find you—where I can keep loving you like I should’ve years ago—then that’s where I want to stay. With you.”

I’m so taken aback the air locks in my lungs, and when it hisses out, I cough, tugging at this blasted turtleneck sweater again that’s way too tight.

He’s instantly at my side, inching closer on the sofa. “Hold on, woman. I’m gonna get you that water.”

“No!” I stammer. “You, sit.” I wrap both hands around his arm, quivering, blinking through my tears at his handsome face. “You just had a flipping bullet pulled out of your leg and I need to calm down.”

Once we’re settled in this warm silence, I look at him again and say, “You took my breath away. Literally. Did you really love me all those years ago?”

He grins, his face heating red behind his ears, and he cups my cheek with one hand.

“Hell yeah, I did. I loved you so much I had to let you go, and make sure I never found my way back.” He pauses, drawing a ragged breath. “That’s what I thought then, anyway. I thought I was doing what was right, protecting you, mostly from me. Turns out, I was wrong about a lot of things.”

“Oh, yeah?” I whisper. “Like what?”

His eyes flash, total heat lightning again as he gazes through me.

“Like how my night got so damn dark I forgot how to look up. I couldn’t see what was always right in front of me. You were always my stars, Shel. All of them. You still are. And if you can ever forgive me for the foot-in-mouth bullshit I pulled before that freak snatched you away...I want you to shine down on me just like you did then. I want your light, your love, forever—but only if you think I’m worthy.”

Holy hell.

So. So, I expected a lot of things when I saw him on my doorstep...

A fraught talk. A disastrous fight. A whole lot of groveling if he grew a heart bigger than a peanut.

But this? Weston damn McKnight calling me his stars after he handed me his still-beating heart in those letters, those promises, he kept after all?

I might not make it out of this room.

Not without passing out and spending a good, long spell lifeless on the floor.

But as always, his arms hold me up, gently cradling me like I’m a treasure he’s spent his whole life looking for.

Tears melt my eyes, rolling down my cheeks in seething rivulets.

This time, they’re tears of happiness.

“Oh, Weston. West. Of course you’re worthy. I love you, too! That’s why I’m here,” I say, smiling too wide for my face. “So I could quit my job, ditch my apartment, and come home for good. But you were supposed to be at the hospital or laid up at home...when I got back, I wanted to find you and tell you I’m never leaving Dallas again. Unless you want to live somewhere else, then... we’ll both move there. I’ll go anywhere you want.” I’m babbling, trying to catch my breath in the emotional storm because my heart keeps pounding clear out of my chest.

“You—what?” he asks, doing a double take. “You came back here to quit your job?”

“Yep. Already handed in my resignation. I’ve got a flight back to Bismarck at noon tomorrow. That’s where I left the Herbie parked. I planned on driving straight to Dickinson, to see you in the hospital. Are you sure you’re okay? Your leg must be hurting terribly.”

“The leg’s fine. I couldn’t lounge around another second when I found out you left. I couldn’t wait to see you.” His hand slides around the back of my neck, my shoulders, his fingers flicking at my hair. “Right now, I can’t wait another second to do this.”

The instant his lips touch mine, my entire being melts at the incandescent love that burns me. It’s like my heart springs open, finally free to release the love I’ve bottled up for this man for half a freaking lifetime.

“Love you,” he whispers into my mouth as our lips separate.

We press our foreheads together.

“I was so afraid I’d have a hard time convincing you to take a chance. These feelings are real. Always have been,” I say.

“I was straight-up foolish. That’s all there is to it. I knew you were falling hard for me years ago when you were still a kid. Knew it because I already felt an inkling of the same thing. But with our ages and our lives, I couldn’t act. I had to give you a taste of life beyond that little town. Shit, what’ll you do going back there? We don’t even have a museum in the whole county...”

“Oh, I’ll figure something out. I have ideas,” I say, feeling my lips twist in a smile as I run my hands down his wall of a chest. “Also, you were right to make your move, even when I hated it. I never would’ve left Dallas if you were around—maybe not even if you sent those letters. You were all I ever wanted, West. You still are.”

“Shelly, fuck...” He grasps my shoulders, gingerly digging his thumbs into my skin until I catch his eyes. “You’re all I ever wanted when I thought it was impossible. Also, there’s more you need to know.”

“More?” My heart races.

I don’t want him to elaborate on things that hurt him, haunting memories for my sake.

He’s explained enough and he owes me nothing.

“I don’t need every detail,” I say. “I know your time over there was rough. Friends perished and you needed time to heal. Just like you’ll need time for your leg when you’re not running across the country to Romeo me back to you.”

“Whatever, Juliet.” He grins. “You know you like it.”

“I do. I also understand. People need time and love and support to fully heal. That’s what I want to give you. I’m proud of you for serving and I’m proud as hell of how you’re coping in a healthy way, always raising money for other folks in need. All I need you knowing is how much I love you. I love who you were, who you are, and who you’ll be.”

He kisses my nose.

“And I finally see the woman you’ve grown up to be. I see her and I’ve fallen hard, right through the damn floor,” he growls.

Because it’s him, I laugh at the sweet, snarly way it comes out.

“See? I’m not the same girl I was when you were writing those letters. I left town, saw more than I wanted—that happens in D.C., like it or not—and I’m mature enough to know what I want. You. You’re stuck with me now because that’s never changing, West. We’ll have our ups and downs like everyone, I bet, but nothing has broken us so far. Not even a couple scummy creeps I had to fight off with nettles. If we got through that, we’ll make it through anything.”

“Sorry I was so stubborn for so damn long. I should’ve figured this out years ago.”

I loop my arms around his neck.

“Enough. We can spend the rest of our lives making up for lost time.”

His hands run up and down my sides, a hunger glinting in his eyes.

“I’ll agree to that.”

My libido kicks in, but I tell myself to squelch it while telling him, “Hold on, cowboy. You’ve just come off a long flight when you shouldn’t be traveling at all and you have a bullet hole in your leg.”

“So?” He snorts.

“So.” I give him a quick kiss. “No fooling around until it’s healed. Doctor’s orders.”

“Aw, hell, if you think a flesh wound will stop me from being in you, then you’ve still got shit to learn about me.”

“Maybe so,” I say with a grin, releasing my hold on his neck and standing up. “You’ve heard of Nurse Ratched?” I tug his hands off my waist. “That’s me until that leg is healed.”

I hold his hand and pull.

“Come on, time to get you in bed. It’s been a beautiful evening but beautiful is kinda exhausting.”

He stiffens. “Will you be joining me?”

You’d better, he means. I can hear it in his tone.

“Only to sleep,” I say, fighting with everything I have to keep a straight face.

“We’ll see about that,” he grumbles.

And we do.

Before I can respond, his lips attack mine with a whirl of teeth and tongue.

The groan that shakes my throat has me wondering if he’ll always have this ability to demolish me with a single kiss.

When his lips land on my throat and he pushes me against the wall—even with a bum leg—I have my answer.

That’s a big fat hell yes.

28

Getting Piggy With It (Weston)

I’m so hard I could fuck Shelly Simon straight through the wall.

Kiss by vicious kiss, I strip her resistance and her clothes, falling out of mine as we stumble around the corner. She giggles, slipping into the bathroom with a look tossed over her shoulder that scalds my blood.

I can’t even feel the pain in my thigh anymore.

I just feel my own cock straining like an attack dog on a leash, hungry to split her in two.

Cursing, I shed the rest of my clothes in a fit and fall back on the bed, waiting for her to come out of that pinhole-sized bathroom.

“How long have you lived here?” I call, needing a distraction to hold my sanity together.

“Almost two years,” she answers through the closed door. “Why? Are you already claustrophobic?”

“Hell yes,” I answer, thankful again that she only came here to pack up.

She giggles. “You get used to it eventually.”

“Bull. The backroom office at my shop has more square footage, and it’s basically a closet,” I tell her.

The door opens to her smiling silhouette.

My dick jerks in my hand, my fist gliding down its length for her delight.

She’s wearing a tank top and shorts, which fit her to a T, but it’s her neck that draws my eye like a magnet.

The entire thing is black and blue.

My frown becomes a snarl.

I didn’t think I could ever want to dismember a man ten times over, but here we are. If I hadn’t already put him in a cell, I’d murder Carson Bostrom.

She knows where my gaze is and must also know where my thoughts go because as she flips back the covers, she says, “Don’t worry. It’s getting better. It’ll fade soon, and it doesn’t hurt that much.”

“I should have cut his grubby fingers off and fed them to Herc,” I say harshly, touching her shoulder as she climbs in the bed. “Shel, I’m so sorry—”

“No, don’t apologize. You’ve done enough of that for one night.” Snuggling against me, all soft curves and auburn hair, she lays her head on my shoulder.

It soothes my inner beast when I wish it wouldn’t.

“It wasn’t your fault, West. It wasn’t mine. It was Carson and that other scumbag’s and they’re both getting what they deserve,” she whispers in the darkness.

She’s right, of course.

Both of those pricks will be in prison for a long-ass time.

I need to quit overthinking things and lurching toward madness.

Still, there’s one thing I need to know. “Maybe so, but I’ve got a question.”

“Of course.”

“Where the hell did you get that nettle?”

Her laugh sounds as adorable as she looks. “Oh, that’s easy. I plucked it out of the ground by the barn, but I didn’t get a chance to throw it away before everything went nuts. It was still in my back pocket when I woke up in the semi.”

“Damn.” I shake my head. “Wait, why was it in your back pocket?”

“I shoved it in there so I could pick up a bunch of cigarette butts off the ground. Carson’s buddy wasn’t very subtle. The guy smoked like a chimney and I overheard them talking when they thought I was knocked out. I guess they planned on the big heist the night of the dance, but we showed up too soon and thwarted that plan.”

I kiss the top of her head. “We got lucky. Drake told me everything. Carson’s little buddy is singing like a parrot, pinning all the blame on Bostrom, trying like hell for a lighter sentence. No honor among thieves.”

“Nope,” she agrees, kissing the side of my neck. “Thanks again for coming to my rescue.”

“You’re welcome, but you also came to mine. If you hadn’t attacked that maniac with the weed, his aim might’ve been better and I’d have never gotten in the window and shut them down.”

“Partners in crime,” she says with a devilish grin.

I slip a hand under her tank top, find her nipple, and roll it between my fingers.

“Out of crime, too.”

“Mmm. I like the sound of that. But I told you, I’m Nurse Ratched tonight.”

Growling, I cup her breast, flicking her nipple harder. “Nurses are supposed to make their patients feel better, right?”

“Sure, and keep them from any overstrenuous activities,” she says.

I work the hem of her shirt up.

“I won’t strain myself,” I lie.

“West, you have a hole in your leg.”

Like I need a reminder.

“Lucky I don’t need that leg to fuck you into next year.” Before she can protest, I roll her on her back, pushing her shirt over her ample tits so I can suck each nipple.

Goddamn, she tastes good. My tongue wants to map her from head to toe.

“Weston. I—”

“I already got a condom from my wallet,” I say, barely stopping to pull one pert nipple through my teeth, lavishing it, and moving to the second one, I say, “You can take top if you’re that worried. That won’t hurt my leg at all.”

Her green eyes roll real sweet for me as she lets out a little moan.

“I—I’m not sure we should. I’m just worried you’ll—oh. Oh, my flipping God.”

Yeah, fuck.

She’s mine now.

Tonight.

Tomorrow.

The next hundred years, and then some.

Even if I live to be a hundred and twenty, I will still get my wrinkled sponge of a dick inside this woman every night.

I kick the covers off us with my good leg, exposing my hard-on again.

“See? We should. The condom’s on the table beside the lamp.”

“Oh, my.” She runs a hand over my stomach. “But we don’t have to—”

“We do,” I rumble emphatically. “Fuck my leg, you’ll give me a stroke if I can’t have you now.”

“Nooo!” She pushes at my shoulders playfully, laughing. “I mean, we don’t need the rubber. I’m protected and...I want to feel you tonight, West. All of you.”

Damn.

Whatever else I thought she’d give me tonight, I didn’t think it’d be the gift of a lifetime. Going bare with her makes my balls itch with need, burning to empty themselves up her little pussy.

I’m almost fucking drooling at the thought like a dog with a bone.

“Woman, I like when you take my ideas and make ’em better,” I say, slipping my fingers inside her shorts and fingering her panties.

I want to shred them, rubbing impatiently at her opening.

She’s already drenched, ready, her body begging for mine.

She lets out a loud groan as I brush my thumb across her clit. “Y-you just have to promise to lie still. Don’t move your leg.”

“It doesn’t hurt that bad,” I throw back.

She stops moving and gives me the evil eye.

“Weston. Promise.”

“Fine. I promise to be good even when I’m being so fucking bad to you.”

Her heated smile returns. “And I’ll still be gentle. Let’s take this slow.”

“Gentle? Slow?” I ask in horror.

“Yes.” She shimmies out of her bottoms, then straddles my waist, grabbing my cock from behind. “Gentle,” she repeats.

My lust-drunk brain can’t even comprehend the word. Especially not as she squeezes me, tempting me to flip her over and take her the next second on my own terms.

Dammit. I won’t break another promise, though.

Not tonight or ever.

A minute later, as she’s staring into my eyes, stroking me to hell and back, the damaged leg is the last thing on my mind. She goes slowly, languidly, taking her sweet time.

I can’t stand the anticipation and swat her ass, grasping her waist as she makes a shocked sound.

“This is not gentle, lady. This is frigging torture,” I say.

She smiles and bites her lip with a look I wish I could carve into my brain.

Then, careful to not touch my thigh, she lays her palms on my chest.

Still holding her waist, I guide her down.

We both groan like mad, baring our teeth, and then laugh as she slides down my swollen length.

“I forgot how good you feel,” she whispers, pumping her hips.

Yeah, fuck.

The feeling is mutual.

She feels so good I forget to breathe.

“Tell me about it,” I snarl back.

“Oh, I think I am.” She punches her hips down, engulfing me in a single stroke. Her eyelids flutter and she tosses her head back with auburn hair flying like a lapping flame.

We both luxuriate in this moment so hard I’m not sure either of us have a pulse.

I fight the urge to slam up into her—no easy task—tightening my grip on her ass each time she rises and crashes back down on me again.

I let my arms do the work my damaged leg can’t.

Stroke by stroke, we find our rhythm, me guiding her down on my cock each time with punishing thrusts. I’m flinging her up and down my body as she whimpers, fucking her just like a toy.

She may be so much more than that tonight—and forever—but fuck if I don’t enjoy using her like this.

Her clit hits my pubic bone, grinding into the friction each time she comes down. I love how her face scrunches with ecstasy.

“Oh, West,” she whimpers. “West!”

“Come on, Shelly. Give it up for me.” I grip her ass so hard the blood leaves my hands, pumping her up and down on my shaft. “Give it!”

A second later, she does.

Her beautiful body tilts back, muscles taut, her tits heaving as her face screws up and the pleasure leaves her breathless.

It’s insane I don’t come when I feel her squirt.

Her wet heat spattering my skin makes me bare my teeth.

I want to eat her alive.

Every fucking bit of her.

Every way possible.

“West!” She whines my name, still bobbing her hips through her convulsions, riding the high.

She comes for what seems like forever, giving up her energy and rolling the whites of her eyes.

When she finally settles on me with shaking palms on my chest and a bedeviled look in her eye, I take her lips, grounding her with a kiss like molten lava.

“You good?” I ask, breaking away.

“God, yeah. Shit.” She pauses with my dick in her to the hilt, wiping her brow. “I think I could stay right here forever.”

“No complaint if you do,” I joke, winning a crooked grin from her.

She leans down with her eyelids fluttering shut, covers my mouth with hers, and gives me a kiss that’s all tongue and heat and love.

As she pulls her mouth away, she raises her hips, lowering onto me again with a whisper. “I could sit on you like a boulder. Or I could move like this.” She does it again, pushing a flash of teasing tongue between her teeth. “And this.”

Fuck!

Unable to resist, I thrust up inside her like a sword as she punches down again, reaching behind her head to tangle a wild mane of that fire-red hair in my fist.

She plants both hands on my chest and levels a serious look.

“Rules, mister. You aren’t supposed to move.”

“I wasn’t. That’s just my body reacting to yours,” I lie, a split second from throwing her under me and fucking her through the floor.

“That’s not allowed. You have to lie perfectly still.”

Grumbling, I grasp her hips and lean up just enough to tease one nipple.

“Your rules are impossible.” I lift her up and lower her, thrusting deeper as she stops fighting, melting into my strokes.

I impale her again, again, again on my cock, obsessed with the ecstasy shining on her face.

“J-just be careful,” she whimpers between harsh gasps each time I graze the bead of her clit.

She’s lucky I’m willing to give her anything.

Because if it weren’t for the wound, I’d have her flat on her back and pinned down, her clit held hostage on my tongue till she screams.

Her pussy squeezes me like a silk vise, causing this mad friction as I move faster, lifting and lowering her, guiding her movements with that fist in her hair.

She lets out a heady growl.

“Weston! We’re supposed to be—” Another pleasure-growl chokes her off. “Be careful! This is too—”

“Too perfect?” I suggest, holding her hips tight against me, pumping into her faster, moving my weight with my good leg. “Fuck yeah, it is. And you’re gonna come for me harder than last time, woman.”

“Yes!”

Goddamn, do I love how feral she sounds when she screams it.

With her head thrown back and her breasts bouncing like hell, I prepare for the fireworks. But before we go over, I take one nipple in my mouth, sucking hard as I feel her body tensing, so ready to ignite for me.

I’m about to explode too, but hold back, flicking my tongue against her bud as I slide a rough hand between us and find her clit.

Her entire fucking being convulses, her pussy locking down on me as she lets out a shriek that shreds right through these paper-thin walls.

No more. I’ve hit my limit.

Still pumping, I bury myself inside her with a growl and my balls on fire, every muscle I own snapping as my cock swells in her depths.

“Shelly!”

I’m roaring her name a split second ahead of her release, before mine takes me so far from anything recognizably human.

We come together like a disembodied storm.

Thunder.

Lightning.

Force.

This relentless inferno races up my balls, hurling out of me in ropes, adding my molten heat to hers. I know she feels my come when she opens her mouth to scream, but she can only gasp.

That’s when I mark her.

Just lean in and sink my teeth into her shoulder, firm enough to feel it but not to break the skin.

Yes, I am a shameless lunatic for this woman.

Always have been.

Always will be.

Always gonna own her inside and out, every single molecule.

We come for ages like something wild off its chains, as if my entire body knows it’s now free to have all of her, to keep her, to love her like she’s always deserved.

We’re free to spend the rest of our lives loving like this.

The entire experience is so flawless, so spectacular, I’m boneless when it ends.

Shel collapses on top of me, kissing my chest softly. She lies there with me still inside her, barely deflating, as we both gasp for air.

Suddenly, all I’m thinking about is my jeans. They contain the other reason I came here in person, and I have to find them.

But not before I enjoy her mouth, kissing her slowly as I trace her lips into my brain for life, and gently take away every gentle, happy tear rolling down her cheeks.

* * *

When we’re both over the euphoria and able to breathe again, she lifts her head.

“How are you?” she asks, green eyes sparkling shyly.

“Fucking spectacular. I’m not sure any romp can outshine that.”

She laughs and kisses me briskly again.

“We have a lifetime to find out, don’t we?”

For a second, we stare into each other’s eyes.

Do I really want to do it like this? I wonder. Am I actually frigging nervous?

Kissing her slowly while I get my shit together, I hold her tight and say, “Yeah, about that...”

“I love you,” she whispers, settling her head on my chest.

I take a deep breath as I kiss her forehead.

Time to make my move.

Before flying out here, I had Grady make a special stop without fully knowing how I’d do it. I thought we’d go out, maybe to the steps of D.C.’s many monuments. Or maybe I’d pick a gorgeous tree in a park lit up like autumn.

Now, none of that makes sense.

There’s a fire in my chest that screams do not fucking wait.

Now, I know this is it.

Still holding her tight with one hand, I reach over the side of the bed, feeling for where I left my jeans. I find them a second later and rummage around in the pocket.

It’s surprising how such a small thing can feel like it weighs more than an engine block.

“I love you, too, Shel. Forever,” I say as I pull it out.

She lifts her head and smiles. “You don’t even know how long I’ve dreamed of hearing you say that...”

“Probably as long as I wanted to say it, and now I’ll never stop. You make me the man I thought I couldn’t be after the war. You make me better. And with you by my side, Shelly, I know I’ll always be the very best I can be—even if I’ll always suck an egg at words. I know common sense says I should wait. We should slow down, take it easy, take time to find ourselves before I drop a bomb on you this big, but fuck. You know that’s never been my style, and we’ve spent too long waiting thanks to me. We’ve lost too much precious time for me to sit around wasting more.”

My throat feels raw.

“Weston...what do you mean?” she whispers, her eyes shining up at me like smooth jade, adoring and patient.

“What I’m trying to say is this...” Brushing her chin with my knuckles, I turn my hand over, slowly opening my fingers so she can see what I’m holding. “Will you marry me, Rachel Simon? Marry me soon?”

Her mouth drops open in this long silence.

There’s this killing second where I worry she’s about to let me down easy, to tell me to cool it.

Shit, I knew this was stupid. Too fast. And now I’ve probably blown my chance to—

She springs up before I know what’s happening, closing the distance separating us, her arms pinned around my sides.

“Weston, Yes! Yes, yes, yes, and yes! I’ll marry you tonight if you want.”

My eyes pop open as I hug her back with a gravity bigger than my life.

Hot damn.

I never guessed she’d come at me with this bubbling enthusiasm, bigger than my own.

“We need a preacher or at least a judge, I think. Can’t imagine there’s one hiding in this apartment,” I say through a smile that strains my face.

She laughs. “No, but you know what I mean.”

“I also think we’d be a lot happier doing it in another town that starts with a D,” I say, running my fingers slowly through her hair. “Plus, you didn’t see the ring yet.”

“I didn’t need to!” She slaps my chest playfully. “It could be an onion ring and I’d still say yes.”

“Lucky me. Think you’ll like this better than any junk food ring, though.” Chuckling, I open the box.

Her breath escapes in a sweet puff. “Oh, man. Oh, God. Weston, it’s...it’s gorgeous!”

The way her eyes shine tells me how much she means it.

I just knew.

The second I saw it, this ring sang her name. Uncle Grady and Marty both gave me crap for flipping my lid over jewelry, but I was justified.

This is Shel.

This is how we’ll symbolize the rest of our lives.

The art deco design looks intricate and old-fashioned. The single diamond in the center was cut nearly a hundred years ago in Europe, giving it age and brilliance.

“It reminded me of you.” I pull it from the box, and then take her hand to slide the ring on her finger, so slowly and gently it feels like she’s made of glass.

“I absolutely love it,” she says, watching as I glide it into place. “But where on earth did you ever find it?”

“An antique store just outside Bismarck. Had to fly out of there anyway and we drove in with time to spare. I thought I’d find the perfect ring there rather than a jewelry store. Gotta thank Thelma later for giving me your size,” I say with a wink.

She laughs like it’s the funniest joke in the world.

“You know me so well. So well. I love it and I love you.” She’s still staring at the jewelry, her face lit up like Christmas. “Wow. I’m guessing this must be...circa early twentieth century? Like 1920 or so.”

I pull the little tag out of the bottom of the box and read it.

“1921. Tiffany’s engagement ring. Paris.”

“Dang, I thought it looked like a Tiffany,” she said with excitement.

“You were spot-on. Now tell me when you want a wedding date,” I say, slapping her butt playfully.

She smiles.

“As soon as your leg’s healed and before the holidays.”

“Start planning now. I’m sure we’ll have folks beating down the door to pitch in,” I say, “You’d be amazed at how good I’m already feeling. Must have something to do with having the world’s best and sexiest nurse.”

29

High Off The Hog (Rachel)

“I really must be the best nurse,” I say ten days later as we’re leaving the doctor’s office in Dickinson.

“Don’t forget sexiest,” he growls, pulling me closer to his side as we walk to his pickup.

The doctor said his wound is healing remarkably fast, and he won’t need to worry about a follow-up for a few months unless the injury flares up.

“It’s such a relief,” I say. “Can’t believe I feel so refreshed. It hasn’t even been two weeks since I almost got murdered, saved by a pig, and a marriage proposal.”

“Hercules helped,” he grumbles. “We’ve only been back a few days and I think you’ve made a big dent in that year’s worth of grub I promised him.”

“The little guy’s part monkey. He devours bananas by the bushel,” I say, feeling myself go doe-eyed every time Hercules comes up.

It’s a sweet bonus that I’m marrying a man with a hundred-pound baby.

“He’ll be getting mighty spoiled by Aunt Faye soon enough when we’re on our honeymoon,” he says. “I haven’t had a week off in years till recently. Feels damn good to almost have back-to-back vacations, especially when they’re with you.”

“You’re too sweet,” I whisper. “I’m glad we stayed a few days in D.C. too.”

I squeeze his fingers.

With a quick tweak of our plane tickets, we checked into a nice hotel for the better part of a week. That was plenty of time for me to drag him around to every museum and monument in the city, the Capitol, the fancy restaurants I like and the barbecue places he loved, ending with a heart-wrenching visit to Arlington National Cemetery, Section 60.

It’s the place where they bury veterans of the most recent wars.

Even if he didn’t know anyone laid to rest there personally, he knew their loss. And he was in such good company with several other young men and their families, quietly strolling through the graves and stopping for murmured words of respect.

As we left behind those silent, bone-white headstones behind, he pulled me so close, and kissed me so sweetly I almost died.

How could I ever forget what he said?

“Thank you,” he whispered, his voice torn. “Thank you, baby, for getting me out of that hole.”

I didn’t need to ask what he meant.

I knew, and I think we both sensed the weight lifting off him like Atlas set free.

It still makes me cry, knowing I gave Weston a new chance at life, and he’ll repay me a thousand times over.

After flying home first class from D.C., we had a nice, long, hilariously cramped ride in the Love Bug before settling in at his place. It wasn’t five minutes before Faye and Gram came bursting through the door with a squealing Hercules on his dog leash.

I’ll never know who was screeching louder, the old women or the pig.

We grilled outside and basically let them throw together our wedding logistics. I’m not hung up on style as long as it’s with him.

Flash forward several hectic days later, and here we are.

Sharing the first glimpse of our last forever.

At the truck, he gives me a solid, grateful kiss before opening the door for me. “Need to stop anywhere else? Not a lot of time left to pick up essentials before the big day.”

I laugh as I climb in.

“Oh, I’ve had so much help planning this wedding, I’m sure we’re covered. Between Gram, Faye, and Granny Coffey, I think I’ve got a memory like a herd of elephants.”

No exaggeration. Between the town’s three senior cupids, plus a hand from Grace, Bella, Tory, and Willow, I’ve barely done more than mumble “Yep, I agree” to their suggestions.

All fine by me.

I’ve happily continued playing nurse with West until this doctor’s visit today.

Also, Faye spends so much time at Amelia’s since her head healed that she’s practically living there with Gram. With her help cleaning and Marty taking over accounting, it’s pretty much freed me up to move right into Weston’s house.

Permanently.

It couldn’t be more perfect when I can pop over to the B&B, if needed. And after our big hallelujah and honeymoon, I’ll work some extra hours there while I figure out my next move.

“All right then, we’ll head back home then. Just two more days,” he says with a boyish smile.

“Can you believe it? Best friends to man and wife.” I pinch my elbow in an exaggerated motion that makes us both laugh.

Seriously, though.

I’ve been counting down the seconds until I’m Mrs. McKnight.

To my great delight, I’ll be wearing Gram’s wedding dress. We only needed a quick alteration since my size isn’t too far off from hers when she was younger.

Another dream come true.

I used to imagine wearing that dress someday.

Almost as long as I’ve daydreamed about marrying Weston.

When we’re roughly halfway home, I take a deep breath and settle in my seat, pretending to sleep.

I’m safe. I’m secure. I’m about to marry the man who’s always made dreams worth having.

If this is real life, God let me live.

And if this is just some surreal fever dream, never let me wake up.

* * *

I’m still dreaming several days later as soaring music floats through the air like perfume.

The beat matches the legion of smiles bursting at the seams. If half the town hasn’t turned out for this, I’ll be shocked.

Marty looks sharp, more grown up than I’ve ever seen him in my life with a charcoal-grey suit and a pride in his eyes that makes me want to cry.

We decided he’ll stand in for Dad, so he does the honors, escorting me down the aisle where my destiny awaits.

Weston stands there like my own personal Mr. Darcy, his face tight with so much emotion.

Excitement. Nervousness. His usual dash of grump.

And is that...awe?

Oh my God.

He’s looking at me, isn’t he?

You’d need to set off a glitter bomb to peel my eyes off him. He’s wearing a vintage black-and-silver pinstriped suit with black-and-white wing-tipped shoes.

Handsome isn’t strong enough a word.

He’s so flipping fire—as the cool kids say—that my heart might never restart.

The entire wedding has a lovely Roaring Twenties theme, with the women in colorful flapper garb and the men dressed up like gangsters and tycoons from the era. It was his idea, and it was total catnip I gobbled up the instant he suggested it.

My dashing groom is also a catnip overdose.

Thankfully, I only go lightheaded for ten long seconds before remembering how much I love him, buzzing with a high that already has me happy crying.

Dear Lord. How will we even make it through the ceremony?

Somehow, as I slip my hand in his and we mold our fingers tight, I remember my courage.

Even as we share our vows, I shiver with the glorious reality that I’m actually getting hitched to this man.

First come the traditional, familiar lines everybody knows, followed by original promises we’ve both written.

“You’ve always been the hero of my dreams, West,” I tell him, blubbering into the mic. “I’ve loved you since I was twelve years old when you made me want cookies. I could rattle off some sappy jokes about chocolate chips, but...I’ll leave that for you. I’m ready for a lifetime of laughter, love, and so many dumb dad jokes. I’m ready to be your wife.”

I only cry a little, okay?

That dancing gleam in his sky-blue eyes helps me keep my crap together.

“Not a dry eye in the room, so we’re doing something right,” he says, taking the mic and a good, slow glance at our peanut gallery. “Even the wedding cake’s in tiers.”

I groan, face-palming while laughter rips through the crowd.

Of course, he wants to start off a life of bad jokes now.

Of course.

“Shel, if I’m your dream, then you’re my reason for living. You gave me something to care about the day I talked you into stuffing your face with Thelma’s chocolate chip cookies. Years later, you gave me a damn good reason to care about cookies again—plus everything else that matters, but especially you.” He pauses, exhaling so slowly it hurts, and pins my gaze in place. “You taught me to look up when all I could see was night. So, if you’ll have me—if you’ll do me the highest honor—be my stars, Shel. Be my moon. Be the air I breathe. Be my sunrise and the strumming beat in my pulse. Above all else, be mine.”

Holy hell.

If I weren’t decked out in this gorgeous old dress, I’d be leaping into his arms and kissing him until he topples over.

It’s only because he nods with a secret smile as a rush of whispers come through the crowd that I’m able to turn away from him.

My tears blur into manic laughter when I see the ring exchange isn’t exactly what we planned.

Apparently, he’s full of surprises today.

Wearing a silky bow tie that flutters like a ribbon, Hercules prances up the aisle like the prized hero-hog that he is with a tall, smiling Grady McKnight holding his leash.

When they both reach us, Herc lets out an impatient snort.

Get on with it, guys, I imagine him saying, and it just makes me laugh that much harder.

I hear Grady lean over to Weston and whisper, “Aunt Faye said he wouldn’t, but I didn’t trust that hog to not eat your wedding bands. So here.”

As the laughter and murmurs die down, Hercules plops down near the altar with a grunt and Weston takes my hand. I’m brought back to the heady magic as he slides the wedding band on my finger, a simple vintage beauty that compliments my engagement ring nicely.

My turn.

I take an antique wedding ring of my own I’ve picked out and push it down his thick finger.

“Congratulations,” the preacher man says. “You may now—”

Oh, baby, we’re sealing this union before he’s done.

Our lips bristle with a passion that could send smoke signals through the room.

After we manage to break apart for air, we make our way down the aisle hand-in-hand with Herc trotting at our side.

I toss my bouquet into the crowd before climbing into the monster truck with help from West. The beast is tricked out today, plastered with JUST MARRIED decals, streamers, and a tremendous line of metal garbage cans behind us. They bounce on the road like our own private drummers as we drive away.

There’s actually a parade of monster trucks and other vehicles, honking horns and revving engines, all the way to the fairgrounds.

The reception awaits in the massive guest building there—including Hercules—who rides in a trailer behind Faye’s van. She’s super excited to be a short walk away from her baby bowling ball every day. She jumped at the chance to look after him while we’re busy with the honeymoon.

Although she hasn’t said it, I’m sure she’s planning on living at the B&B full-time, rather than any senior complex. Everyone’s happy about that.

The reception is a treasure with practically the whole town attending.

I thank everyone who worked so hard to put this together on such short notice, even as they insist that’s what family and friends do.

They’re not just being modest.

Dallas is the kindest place ever. I’m insanely lucky to be one half of its latest happy couple.

The dancing continues in full swing long after dinner when Weston takes over the mic, thanks everyone for coming, and tells them we’ll be home in a couple weeks.

While the crowd claps their hands off, I ask him, “A couple weeks? I thought we only had one week? What’s this?”

He looks at me, sly and sexy as ever.

“I told you the wedding was all yours, minus the pig surprise I knew you’d appreciate. The honeymoon’s all mine.” Kissing me, he takes my hand and adds, “It’s time to get it started.”

I’m so game for whatever he’s got in mind, cradling his hand with both of mine as we make our way to the door.

There, I’m beyond stunned.

“Wait, what? A helicopter?” I blink slowly.

“Yep. I told Drake and Bella they’d get it back without a scratch on it. Your bags are already inside,” he says.

“Where exactly are we going?”

He stops, cradling my face so delicately under the moon, worshipping me with a slow, heartwarming kiss before he answers.

“You’ll see, baby. Trust me with the surprises.”

* * *

Two days later, we disembark from a boat on the island of Kiribati in the South Pacific.

The resort feels like some sort of fantasy island, full of tropical plants and birds, velvety sand and the soulful, sky-blue sea.

But it’s my husband who makes it feel like an honest to God fairytale.

Staring at the turquoise waters in nothing but a swim suit, I can’t take my eyes off him as he emerges from the ocean like a merman king, striding to meet me where I’m lying on the sandy beach, soaking up the sun.

He planned everything so well. First the helicopter to Bismarck—complete with champagne—where we spent our wedding night before two long connecting flights and a boat ride brought us here.

I’m still shuddering with awe.

“Enjoying yourself, Seashell?” he asks, dripping water as he kisses me before plopping down on the stand at my side. “You must be. You’re more beautiful than ever.”

“I’m with you, brown noser,” I answer. “Is there anything better than that?”

“Just one thing I can think of,” he says, tugging me down beside him on the towel. “Loving you.”

I sigh, beyond overflowing.

“I just love the way you love me,” I whisper. “Never, ever stop.”

“I’d have to be dead,” he growls, running his thick hands down my back.

His kisses start slow, but soon have me quaking with desire.

The beach is off a private alcove—all part of our breathtaking honeymoon bungalow—and I have no qualms whatsoever about making the most of our privacy in paradise.

Rolling on top of him, I run my tongue up the side of his neck, whispering, “You’re in trouble for that Seashell crap.”

“Trouble? Why do I like the sound of that?”

“You should. I’m about to yank your trunks off so you can sink your cock deep inside me. I’ll even let the nickname slide if you lend me an O or two.”

With a devilish grin, he cups my butt with both hands.

“Baby, I’ll lend you ten.”

Laughing, I straddle him, sitting up and unhooking my bikini top. “Careful. That sounds like a threat.”

“It’s a promise,” he throws back, sinking his teeth into my bottom lip. “Now open your legs.”

His wandering hand demands more than his words, pulling my thighs apart.

Exhaling, I toss my top aside and stand, shimmying out of my bottoms before I grasp his trunks and jerk them off while he’s still on the towel.

God, he’s so hard. So ready. Aching for me so intently I can feel it.

There’s no thrill in the world like knowing you’re wanted by the man who becomes your everything.

As I plant my knees next to his hips again, he grasps my waist.

“You’re shaking, Shel. You want me inside you that bad?” he growls, adding another nip of teeth to my lip.

“Please. Now.” I settle on top of him again—a position that’s becoming a favorite among many ever since his hurt leg—and lower myself down, teasing the head of his cock.

“Too slow,” he growls, lunging up and stealing my breath as he sinks deep inside me.

Delicious.

The first ten greedy strokes nearly send me spinning over the edge.

Releasing the moan in my throat, I deepen our kiss, dragging my nails down his chest. He gives back a lion’s purr that vibrates against my tongue.

This man knows my body too well, and he’s hellbent on reminding me.

Weston takes my nipple against his tongue, brushing it with pleasure, while his upward thrusts swing so hard his balls smack my ass.

I whimper against his face.

My own personal Lucifer, and he knows exactly what to do, and when.

It’s not long before I’m the one being punished with quickening thrusts and a sweet, stinging friction on my clit.

“West!” I whine, my breath deserting me along with my soul.

I can’t take any more.

So I arch my back, bracing to take him as deep and as hard as I can before my climax hits.

Coming!

The O is a lightning bolt, a whip, a white-hot rhapsody that curls my toes into the sand.

The sun kissing my bare skin adds something extra, this visceral warmth that makes me feel like I’m airborne, far away from every care in the world except for the god under me.

And I’ve barely begun coming when that god I married looks at me with a ferocious expression.

His eyes are glowing slits.

His muscles are stone.

His teeth could swallow me in one bite.

Oh. My. Freaking. God.

He’s about to—

“Shel—fuck!” he roars. “Don’t you stop. Keep that pussy coming.”

And I do, barely holding my eyes open to see him when he comes undone.

My climax becomes an ongoing cluster of ecstasy, one raging hit after the next, as he thrusts into me again and again.

A guttural rasp leaves his throat like a breeding bull in rut.

We’re quaking, panting, a tangle of limbs until we’re utterly drained.

Emphasis on drained. I’m overflowing with him by the end, and there’s something weirdly enjoyable about knowing I’ll be leaking him all evening.

Insane?

Yes, and it’s our insanity.

I’ll never get tired of him thieving such delight from my bones.

As my body shudders once more, the last of my pleasure fading, I collapse on him, exhausted and blissfully happy.

My cheek nuzzles his chest.

“That was so good I need a nap. Right here.”

He kisses the top of my head.

“Get your beauty sleep. I’ll wake you up in half an hour,” he whispers.

I give him a suspicious look. “What for? Another surprise?”

“You’ll see,” he says so flatly it’s basically an admission.

I laugh. “Weston, when you said that before, it meant a helicopter ride and two long jet flights around the world.”

His chest rumbles with low laughter. He caresses my side.

“No chopper this time, but there might be a boat involved.”

“A boat? Why?”

“Rest and you’ll see.” He tugs me forward, holding me to his chest. “Take your nap. The sooner you sleep, the faster you’ll see.”

“Dick.” I slap his shoulder. “Like I can nap now. Where are we going in another boat?”

He flips me over so I’m the one on the ground, with him on top.

“Shelly McKnight, you will not ruin this surprise. If I have to fuck you the whole time till it’s ready, just so you’re distracted, I will.”

Slayed.

He just ended me right here, but I manage to kiss him and push at his huge shoulders.

“Let’s get up and go back to the bungalow. We should get ready if it’s a huge deal.”

“You have time for your beauty sleep,” he warns.

“Nope. I’m wide awake now so I’ll trade naptime for a shower.” Then, because that sounds like heaven, I add, “Get off me and I might share said shower.”

Smiling, he jumps off of me, proving once again just how healed his leg is. We grab our belongings and jog up to our bungalow naked.

We do share the shower. I guess I’m glad because he torments me with another rush of delirious sexy time up against the tiled wall. And he’s as good as his word about occupying my attention until it’s time.

We’re barely dressed when the electric golf cart shows up to take us to the main resort lodge.

I’m afraid my face might stick because I can’t stop grinning.

It’s not just whatever ridiculous, totally over-the-top thing he has planned, either.

It’s him and this wild epiphany.

It’s knowing that Weston freaking McKnight and his mischief are mine forever.

* * *

It turns out the boat is more of a full-sized yacht, fancier than the ferry that brought us to the main island.

When I realize where we are, and that we’re heading for the Phoenix Islands, I freak.

Aghast with awe, I stare at Weston, who gives me a smile that’s way too calm.

“Now it makes sense,” I splutter. “That’s why you chose this place for the honeymoon, isn’t it?”

He shrugs. “I figured someone who’s a sweet-ass history dork and lives in a town where the Earhart name’s plastered all over might like seeing Amelia Earhart’s last known resting place.”

“Nikumaroro?” I ask, gushing with excitement. “We’re going to Nikumaroro?”

“Damn right,” he says with a solemn nod, pulling his olive-green US Army hat lower by the brim.

He truly knows me inside and out.

I hug him like I’m about to break because I am.

But as always, his kiss puts me back together.

“Unbelievable!” I whisper, knowing I’ll repeat it ten more times before today ends.

Worth it. Because the entire day is unreal.

The islands are gorgeous, and our guide is an open vault of information. She shows us the exact spot where they found thirteen bones, just recently matched with DNA confirming they once belonged to the famous aviator, Dallas legend, and namesake of Gram’s livelihood.

I’m in total awe and can’t shut up about how badly I can’t wait to get home and tell everyone about being here.

As we head back to the beach after a whirlwind tour, our guide leaves, telling us our ship will depart in the next hour and we’re free to look around until then.

The smile she gives Weston before she darts away makes me wonder if, like me, she thinks he’s the most hottest man alive.

I’m not even jealous.

He’s shown me a hundred times over that he belongs to me and always will.

With my hand clasped in his, we walk a short distance. Soon I spot an odd circle of whitish stones stacked neatly on the sand.

“Huh. Almost looks like a sign of sorts,” I say, staring at the rocks.

“Maybe it’s pirate treasure,” he says, squeezing my hand. “Better get digging, Shelly.”

“Um, what? It might be a grave or memorial. This place is pretty private. Also, there were never any records of pirates in these parts,” I say matter-of-factly.

“I’ve got some bad news for you,” he says, thumping his chest and tugging his hat brim over one eye. “Yarr, they call me Pigbeard of the Phoenix Islands.” He shifts into this snarling pirate accent that makes me laugh. “And if ye wanna make it back to your favorite oinker alive, ye’d best get digging, Seashell.”

“Idiot,” I whisper affectionally, pushing away from him as he pulls his hat back up with a grin.

“Don’t make me do that again.” He chuckles. “Seriously. Check it out. Maybe it’s a new treasure laid down for someone to discover today.”

“Oh, yeah? Like who?”

I know who he’s getting it, but I’m having so much fun I don’t want it to end.

“Only one way to find out,” he tells me.

“Is that why the guide looked at you like that?” I ask. “Like the two of you had a secret?”

He shrugs, sitting down near the rocks with a dead-eyed look for me.

“Get your cute butt over here and dig,” he growls.

I flop down next to him then, pushing away some sand in the center of the rocks. It looks like the top of something...a small wooden chest?

Curious, I dig deeper and lift the chest out of the sand.

“What’s this? What did you do?” I ask.

“That’s your wedding present.”

“Really?” I ask, touched by his thoughtfulness.

He nods solemnly.

Lifting back the lid, I stare at what looks like a large metallic skeleton key in the bottom, then look up at him.

He lifts it out of the box for me. “This key still works on the doors inside.”

“Doors?”

“Aunt Faye’s house,” he says, wagging a finger like it’s all obvious.

O-kay. Odd.

I take the heavy key, passing it back and forth, thinking as I feel its weight.

“Why give me a key that works on some doors at your aunt’s place?”

“Because it’s your house now, Shel. I drummed up a few donations and pitched in myself to buy it from Faye. All for you.” He pauses, kissing me again. “All for my adorable, dorky, history-obsessed wife. There’s a new account waiting for you, too, already loaded with cash from everybody who cares about preserving memories. The Barnets and Larkins alone tossed in enough to keep things going without making a dime for at least the next five years. So turn my aunt’s place into Dallas’ own museum. Whatever you decide to call it.”

Mind. Blown.

I slap a hand over my mouth and try not to short-circuit in his arms. Besides screaming with glee, I don’t know what to say, or do, or how I can ever repay him.

“Y-you’re serious? This isn’t one of your silly jokes?”

“My jokes are dumb as hell, but when are they cruel?” he says with a smirk.

“Seriously-seriously?” I whisper.

“Seriously, baby.”

“Oh, my—” An ecstatic sob steals my voice.

I kiss him. Hug him. Scratch him like I’m an overstimulated puppy.

Laughing, he grabs my wrists, urging calm.

“Easy. There’s just one little hitch you should know about...”

“What? Anything! I don’t think anything could ever ruin this, West.”

“Good, because Aunt Faye wants a job at the museum when it opens,” he says.

“Done!” I laugh, sinking into his arms again, forever my safe harbor. “She can teach Hercules to tap dance for a special exhibit for all I care.”

“Just one day a week,” he says. “She can’t work much more than that because she’ll be busy enough at the B&B.”

I throw myself at him again so hard he loses his balance. We actually tumble over into the sand together.

“You have no idea how much I love you, dream man,” I say.

“Shit, just don’t start calling me that,” he says with a booming laugh. “And I know you love me. Without even trying, you make me feel like the luckiest dude in the universe.”

“Oh, good. Because you’re stuck with Mrs. Luckiest.”

“I’m stuck with a pig,” he grumbles, and I laugh because he can’t hide his affection for the third wheel of our family anymore. “You, I choose every damn day. You’ll be my first, second, third, and thousandth pick forever.”

Have I mentioned I love this man?

Later, we definitely both get luckier, back in our bungalow and surrounded with glowing candles.

Every naked kiss reaffirms our pact as the worst best friends.

We were never meant for longing, and now that we’re together, I’ll never want for anything else.

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