Rough Deal – Coming Home to the Mountain Read Online Frankie Love

Categories Genre: Alpha Male, Contemporary, Insta-Love, Romance Tags Authors:
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 27750 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 139(@200wpm)___ 111(@250wpm)___ 93(@300wpm)
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Rough Deal - Coming Home to the Mountain

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Frankie Love

Language:
English
Book Information:


Everyone has a secret.
Mine is ruining my life … making me bitter, callous, cold.
I’m Rye Rough — the oldest of seven kids, with a family tree that built this town. I understand more than most that reputations matter.
Which is why I keep my mouth shut — and that secret? I’m not telling a soul.
It’s clear it’s causing problems. Working as my dad’s right-hand man, I’m angrier than ever — and hell, it’s messing with the family construction company.
My father forces a deal: Go to the rural family cabin and don’t come back until I get my head on straight or I lose my place in the business.
As if spending more time alone is going to solve anything.
One day into my retreat – I find Prairie, a beautifully fragile woman who is lost, alone and in need of my tender loving care. Her life has been one of confinement and abuse.
She needs me like I’ve never been needed before.
My family doesn’t understand my love for her.
My secret keeps me up at night.
Something must give before it all breaks.
One thing is sure – rough hands have been dealt for both Prairie and me … and for our love to survive we can’t fold.
Coming Home to the Mountain is a new filthy-sweet, high heat series by Frankie Love featuring rugged mountain men who fall hard, fast and forever. And with the women they love at their side, they choose to put family first.

In this series, Dad shows up, sisters remember to call, big brothers always look out for you, and Mom knows to keep an extra seat at the table for Sunday dinner. Not every family is perfect — and the Rough family has its own set of problems — but at the end of the day, they know what matters: Coming Home.
Books by Author:

Frankie Love



1

RYE

It hasn’t always been like this.

I used to come home for Sunday dinner and enjoy myself. Sit at the table, watch my family, shoot the shit, and think how good I had it. Think how lucky I was to be the oldest of seven siblings, living up here on Rough Mountain, my family the ones who built this town of Home, Washington.

As my father's go-to man with the world in the palm of my hand, I had the respect of anyone I wanted. Hell, I built a home of my own by the time I was twenty-two years old.

Far as anyone could tell, I had it made.

Then one year ago, everything fucking changed.

“Would you like another serving?” Mom asks, bringing me back to the present. Those bad memories are pushed aside as she hands me a platter of her chicken. She’s sitting next to me at the table, trying to fatten me up, thinking maybe if I get some more meat on my bones, I might become happier. Smile more often. I know she's worried. Everyone here is worried.

“Thanks, Mom,” I say, adding another chicken thigh to my already heaping plate of food. My mom has a few love languages. One of them is feeding her kids until they're more than full. I would never resist my mother's home-cooked meals.

She smiles at me softly but she looks tired. Like she needs a break. And hell, I'm sure she does.

Fig, the youngest of us Rough kids, is in the second semester of her senior year of high school and giving my mother a run for her money. You'd think by the end of raising all seven kids she would have this down pat, but Fig is like none of the rest of us. Wild in ways I wasn't. Which is saying something considering I know I've been a handful.

“How's work going?” Mom asks me.

Work is the last thing I want to talk about.

The table is full and loud. Mac and Graham are arguing as usual. Fig and Lemon are discussing the dress Fig is planning to wear to some school dance. Bartlett is staring at his new bride, Abby.

Plum is looking at her grandpa Red like he’s the greatest man on earth which, well, in her eyes, he is. Rueben, Plum’s dad, is in the other room on a call and I'm wondering what that's all about, but I'm not rude enough to ask. Even though everyone at this table thinks I've turned into an asshole.

But there's all different kinds of assholes. Me? I'm just rubbing everyone the wrong way. It doesn't mean I don't know how to be polite.

And I hope it means Reuben is talking to some woman. God knows he deserves to be happy after the hell he and Plum have gone through.

Mom nudges me. “How are you doing? I tried calling this week and never heard back. You busy with work?”

“Work is going fine, Mom.”

“Is it?” she asks, taking a bite of her green salad. “Because your father said things haven’t been going so great at the lodge build site.”

I scowl, feeling like shit for bringing trouble to my mother’s life. That’s the last thing she needs. “Well, you don’t need to worry, Mom. It’s all good.”

“Since when have you fought with the newer guys on the crew?” Mom presses. “Used to keep to yourself if you were unhappy, now you seem set on making everyone around you miserable.”

“Annie,” Dad says softly from across the table. He never has to speak loudly to get her attention. I swear they have a secret language. “Maybe we should have a family meeting if we are going to go there.”

Mom nods. “You’re right, Red. We should. We all need to clear the air. I only see Rye once a week. When else am I supposed to talk to him? God knows he won't come over any other time unless it’s a family obligation.”

Across the table I hear Lemon scoff. “Yeah, when you don’t come around, it means we pick up your slack.”

I run a hand over my beard, annoyed at the sudden shift in conversation. “Point taken, Lemon. Anyone else have something they wanna say? Family meeting can begin. Say whatever you want.”

All our lives, if there was something that needed to be said, my parents let us go for it—they preferred us talking it out, even if it felt harsh, rather than leaving things to simmer under the surface.

Unfortunately, right now, everything I feel inside is about ready to boil over.

“Yeah, matter of fact I do have a few more things to say to you,” Lemon tosses back, sour as ever. “Why are you so mad at us? What did we do to you?”

I balk looking at her, unable to answer. If I do, it will only make this worse. But me keeping my mouth shut pisses her off something fierce.

She rolls her eyes. We've always been fire and ice, oil and vinegar.

This is no exception.

Mac clears his throat, not meeting my eyes. “Dad needs you on the crew, Rye, with your head on straight. He counts on you. And you’re making things hard for us at work. The guys were mad on Friday with you hollering about—”

“Hey,” Bartlett says, cutting Mac off, always the peacemaker. “We don't need to do this. I'm sure Rye is just having a rough time, but everything will work out. Let's just eat this amazing food Mom made—”

Graham chuckles. As the brother who's right in the middle, he always seems to find situations funny even when they should be taken more seriously.

“What are you laughing about?” Mac asks him.

Graham groans. “I just think it's funny. Bartlett always wants to put Rye in his place. But Bart's not the oldest. Rye is.”

Mac drops his fork. “Well, if Rye wants to be the oldest, why doesn't he start acting like it?”

“Hey,” Reuben says, off his phone call, stepping in and taking Plum’s hand. “We’re going to take Hijinx out for a walk, that okay, Abby?”

Abby looks over and smiles at Reuben. “Sounds good. Thanks, Plum.”

The adults in the room understand that Reuben is doing his fatherly duty of getting his daughter out of this grown-up conversation, which is really more of a fight.

Part of me wishes Reuben would stay. He's the brother who’s usually on my side. But he always puts his daughter first. Because he's a Rough. He knows what really matters—family.

I know what matters too.

That's why I have this secret. Why I have this problem.

Why everyone at the table thinks I'm a goddamn asshole when really, I'm trying to protect them.

Family comes first.

The last thing I want to do is ruin them by telling them the truth.

“I don't know what you want from me,” I say, defeated. “Just tell me what you want.”

Fig opens her mouth. “I want you to stop being so grumpy. Be the brother I remember. The one who laughed at dinner, who came over just because and told stories all night at the fire pit. I miss him.”

“It’s like we’re walking on eggshells,” Lemon says softly.

“And it’s exhausting, Rye,” Fig says with a half-laugh.

There's a few chuckles at that comment—at the moment, her teenage antics are a bit exhausting themselves. Fig just rolls her eyes, crossing her arms.

“Hey,” Graham says, winking at our little sister. “Don't laugh at Fig for speaking her truth. Even if she’s her usual drama queen.” I know he is trying to lighten the mood—but it’s too late.

“Well, I'm exhausted by this family meeting,” I tell everyone at the table.

I take my plate and carry it into the kitchen. Wanting to be done with this night—done with all of it. Clearly no one in this family is happy with me or the way I've been acting and handling things. Point taken. Understood. I'll go home now and get out of their goddamn hair.

My father, though, meets me in the kitchen. “Son.”

“What?” I turn to him. “You know, I really didn't appreciate that blindside. If you were upset with the way work was going, you could have talked to me.”

“We are all worried about you.”

“I don't know if it was worry in people's voices or if everyone's just sick and tired of me,” I say.

“I think people are sick and tired of you too,” Dad says with a teasing chuckle, running a hand through his beard. “Rye, I don't know what's going on with you. But these last few months, hell, this last year, you're not yourself. I'm worried about you, son.”

“Are you?” I ask.

“Ever since Luke died…” Dad shakes his head, missing his best friend. “I know the business has changed with him gone. And maybe I put too much on your plate. Maybe I expected too much.”

“No, that's not it. That's not it at all,” I repeat more intensely. I reach for my keys on the counter. Grab my jacket on the back of a kitchen chair. “I'm leaving,” I say. “I'll see you at the site tomorrow.”

“No,” Dad says, “actually, you won't.”

“What are you trying to say?” I ask my father. We've been working side by side for the last decade. Ever since I graduated high school I've been working on his crew, until I started leading his crew.

“I'm saying it's time for you to leave town for a bit right now. You got to figure out your shit before you come back to the job site and before you come back to family dinner. Before you come back Home.”

“You're kicking me out of town?”

“Yeah,” Dad says. “I am. You need to go to the Rough Forest. Go to the family hunting cabin.”

I give a sharp laugh. “You want me to go to the middle of bumfuck nowhere? Is there even running water out there? It's fucking February.”

“It'll be March first in a week,” he says, “you'll be fine. And yeah, there's water. There's a well up there.”

“Has anyone in the family been there in the last few years?” I ask.

“I'm not sure,” Dad says, “why don't you go up there and find out. Pack your truck and head up to the mountains.”

“We're already living in the mountains,” I tell him.

“I'm talking about the real mountains. You go to the Rough Forest and clear your head, son. You come home when you're ready to be a real family man.”

“You say it like it’s an ultimatum or something.”

“No, it's a deal.”

“It doesn't seem like much of a deal,” I say, angry that the secret I am keeping to protect him is hurting me more than ever. “I don't really see what say I have in this.”

“The deal is this, son: you go up there and clear your head or you're not coming back to my job site.”

“Oh, it’s your job site now? I thought it was our family business.”

“It’s my business until the day I die. Rye, I always hoped one day I would give it to you. But I'm not handing my business over to a man who is this unhappy. You need to remember what it means to be alive.”

He understands nothing. I'm holding secrets inside to protect him.

I walk past him without saying goodbye to the rest of my family because I already know what they're thinking. They're sick of me.

And I'm not going to change their minds with anything I say right now. My head's too hot. My body is all tense, feeling ready to throw down.

Since I'm not going to start a fight with my flesh and blood, I know it's better for me to just get the hell out of Dodge.

2

PRAIRIE

It's been four years. Four years waking up in this bed that is not my own.

Sometimes when I close my eyes at night, I dream of a big, hulking hero, a man with a beard and axe. A hungry look in his eyes as he enters this cabin, crashing through the door, breaking off these chains, throwing me over his shoulder and taking me somewhere safe, warm.

His arms maybe. His bed, please.

I like those dreams.

Because when I close my eyes and float away and drift into that fantasy, I can forget the truth.

And the truth is this: the last four years I have been locked in this cabin with this couple who have convinced themselves I am their dead daughter.

When I was eighteen, I hitchhiked and thought they were giving me a ride one town over, but they weren't. Instead, they drove me to their house and locked me up in their home, binding me with chains so I was incapable of going anywhere.

I've been living like this for four years. Growing angrier as I’ve waited for the moment when I can escape.

This morning feels like every other day. Outside the bedroom window, I’m happy to see the snow has melted from the ground; the skies are blue.

Of course, I can't reach the windowpanes. If I could, I would put my fist through them. I would break the glass even if it meant my skin sliced open. I would crawl through that window, and I would let my feet touch the cold earth, and I would run free.

But the chains on my wrists only let me walk five feet in any direction, which means I am stuck in the middle of this room.

I put on the clothing that Marjorie set out for me. It's not like I have a choice in what I wear. They want me to be the daughter that they lost, Alice.

I am in her bedroom. In her bed. Reading her books and sleeping next to her dolls. In her time capsule.

And it is terrifying. What if I am here for the rest of my life? This room my only home?

I can't let myself get hung up on these details. When I do, I spin out of control and lose my grip on reality. The reality is this: eventually I will figure out a way to get out of here. Eventually I will find a way out. And then I will meet that man who's waiting for me.

I always was a dreamer.

When I was a little girl and my mom was still alive, she would tell me, “Prairie, you are the light I'm always looking for.”

My mom was depressed but she always told me that I was the sunshine she needed. I hung on to that. I still do.

I remember those words—to be the sunshine, be the light, even when everything seems so dark. That’s what I try to be right now.

I’m waiting, hoping, because eventually there will be a crack and the light will come in and I will be free.

I’m dressed for the day and I’m wondering why Marjorie hasn’t come in and told me it’s time for breakfast. Usually about now she carries in a tray with oats and juice and sets it down on my desk, telling me I should eat like a good little girl.

But the clock on the side of the bed says it’s 9:30 in the morning, which is already an hour later than normal.

One thing about Marjorie and Horace is they are regular. And while I know they’ve lost their minds, one thing they can keep track of is their routine.

I am their routine.

Something is off. I sit there, focusing, trying to listen, remembering that for the last few weeks Marjorie has looked more pale, weaker. Horace has been doing most of her chores.

I hear something.

There are the sounds of muffled sobs. Crying. I listen more closely, straining to hear. It's not Marjorie; it's Horace.

“Wake up,” he moans. “You can’t be gone. You can’t leave us. Alice and I need you.” He's weeping, his voice traveling through this drafty cabin. “This wasn't the plan. This wasn't the plan. Marjorie. My love. You need to wake up, just wake up!”

Marjorie is dead.

I press my lips together. Think, Prairie, think.

“Daddy,” I call out. “Can I help you? Maybe I can wake up Mommy. I can sing a favorite lullaby to her.”

This is a ridiculous thought. But I know he is as delusional as his wife was.

I hear the movement of the big man. His steps coming closer, down the hall, and then the bedroom door opens.

“Alice,” he says, “you're awake. I need your help. Can you help your father?”

“Of course I can,” I tell him. “What do you need? I heard you crying, Daddy. What's wrong?”

“Your mother is sleeping, and I think she needs you to help wake her up.”

“Of course, Daddy.”

His hands are shaking, his eyes bloodshot as he unlocks the chain that is tethered to a bolt in the center of the room.

He's the one whom always leads me from this room.

I go out once or twice a day, usually outside for a walk or to work in the garden.

He always tells me it's for my own good when he holds a gun close to my back or

has me chained up at my ankles, while I plant seeds or dig up carrots, so I can't run away.

But now he is distraught, confused, agitated. All these things will work in my favor.

He leads me with the chain like a leash. He guides me down the hall to his bedroom.

Of course, I want to leap at him right now. But he's not that stupid.

He's pulled a small revolver from his pocket.

“You're scaring me with the gun,” I tell him, pretending to be his child.

“I know,” he says, “I don't want to scare you. I just want you to be safe. In case an intruder comes. That's why I have the gun out.”

“Thank you for protecting me, Daddy,” I say, pretending to agree with him.

But we both know the truth. We can only lie to ourselves for so long.

In the bedroom, I cover my face. The shock of the situation stuns me. Marjorie has died. In this bed… and Horace doesn’t know how to continue without her.

I look over at Horace. He is shaking again. Weak, tears in his eyes. He loved this woman. Their depravity made them perfect for one another.

But I'm not weak right now. I'm not shaking. I'm not crying.

In fact, I'm stronger than ever.

And that fantasy of mine, the one that I've been clinging to for the last four years since they took me hostage? Well, it's no longer such a daydream.

I'm done living in their fantasy.

Horace must notice the look in my eyes. “Don’t get any ideas, child,” he says, lunging at me with the gun in his hand. He points it at me, as if to shoot.

“She’s breathing,” I say, lying to him to catch him off guard.

I barrel toward Horace and knock the gun out of his hand.

He doesn't even realize what's happening until it's too late.

He dives for me, but I have the gun now. He wrestles on top of me, his hands surprisingly strong as he attempts to choke me, to stop me. Tears fill my eyes, my kidnapper now my murderer.

I won’t let this be how my story ends.

I swallow, for a moment scared to shoot him.

I’m sunshine. I want to be light.

But more than that, I want to live.

Marjorie is dead. This man has been my captor.

He never once asked me if I wanted to stay. He simply locked me up and threw away the key.

“Don't do this to your father,” he growls, as delusional as he was the day we met.

I'll never forgive myself for getting in his car. I was broke, alone, needing a ride to get away from a bad situation. Horace and Marjorie gave me one.

Of course, I never realized they were going to take me to their house. Keep me. Now I get to leave.

“Don't do something you'll regret,” he hisses. My breath is ragged, and I have the gun in my hand.

But I'm still imagining that man with the axe, the beard. My hero, my fantasy.

I'm not going to die in this house.

No. I'm going to end up somewhere that feels like home.

I pull the trigger.

3

RYE

No one really cares why a grown-ass man is so damn pissed. I understand that. I'm not throwing myself a pity party. I pack up my truck, and I get the hell out of town. Just like my father told me to do.

I may be angry, but I'm not going to ruin my family over this. I can do what I'm told. Hell, I'll come up here and spend a few weeks pretending to clear my head then I’ll come back down the mountain. Burying the truth as I drive back to Home.

Of course, I know it's not going to fix anything.

The secret? Well, it's eaten me whole. I'm not sure how I'm supposed to handle that. Short of therapy. And hell, maybe that's where I'm headed. But today, I'm going to this hunting cabin that my great-great-grandfather built back in 1938 or some shit.

I start the drive early in the morning, a thermos of coffee at my side. The drive goes quickly. I’m listening to music, the forest growing denser the further into it I drive, the view fucking beautiful. Once I arrive at the cabin, I put my truck in park, stretching my legs and thanking God that the cabin is still standing here at all.

Inside, the cabin looks fine—nothing out of order but a few cobwebs and a bit of dust. Thankfully, this place is well insulated, and it was improved over the years. I guess I'm not the first Rough man to be sent out to the forest to clear his head.

I'm guessing, over the decades, whenever someone came up here, they put their toolbox to good use and continued to improve this family lot. Looking around, I’m guessing a woman was sent here a few times as well because the plaid curtains in the window don't look too shabby and the furniture looks decent.

I unload my truck and put my food in the cupboards. Fill the fridge with cans of beer and a gallon of milk. My dad was right; there is water and electricity. A bed, an old couch. A table for four. But nothing fancy.

Grabbing a flask full of whiskey and an axe, I head out to the clearing behind the cabin to chop wood, thinking I might as well do what my father said: start clearing my head.

First thing I gotta do is chop some goddamn wood for that fireplace or I’m going to freeze my balls off tonight.

Starting with a forgotten pile of logs, I get to chopping them up. Pretty soon, I’ve worked up a sweat.

I get lost in my thoughts as I work, my mind on the day things went sideways. The night my secret got buried deep.

Finding out the truth about the stolen money from Dad's company.

Confronting Luke.

The look on his face.

The shame, embarrassment, and hate that fueled him getting in his car.

Finding out the next morning that he was missing.

That his body had been found.

That he was dead.

Everyone thought he just took the turn on Rickshaw Ridge a little too fast.

Such a tragic accident.

It was so unlike Luke to drive up there so late at night.

My father's best friend for 20 years. He'd been an uncle to us all.

I chop that wood harder until the sweat is rolling down my face.

It’s only thirty degrees out but I take off my flannel shirt. Wipe the sweat off my chest. I take a sip of that whiskey, hating the memories, knowing the truth.

It was not an accident.

I confronted Luke about what he'd done. He couldn't live with it.

I take the axe in my hand, and just as I'm about to swing it down on a log and split that piece in two, I hear a woman's voice.

“Oh my God, there’s someone here,” she says, voice filled with relief.

A flash of dark hair. Feet on fallen branches.

“I need help.”

Light cracking through cold air. A voice that sounds like an offering. Her words may be a cry for help, but her voice sounds like someone coming to rescue me.

“Please.” She steps out of the clearing. Shaking. Afraid. Frail. Alone.

I run to her, dropping the axe. I scoop her up in my arms as she collapses into me.

Fainting.

This woman looks like she fell from Heaven. Her long brown hair to her waist. Her eyes closed. Her skin smooth. Light as a feather. An angel.

“Wake up. Wake up,” I say, but she doesn’t stir.

I carry her to my cabin. Kicking open the door with her still in my arms, I carry her to the couch and lay her down. Then I grab a clean kitchen towel, getting it wet. Ice cold water from the well.

Kneeling before her, I run it over her forehead, over her cheeks. Her shoulders are bare.

The sweater she's wearing is falling from her.

She's thin, fragile, not wearing any shoes. Her dress is threads.

“Wake up,” I repeat. “I'm here, wake up.” I press my hand to her cheek. She's freezing cold.

I run the cloth over her neck, her cheeks, and her forehead. I clutch her hand, pressing my palm to hers.

I kiss her knuckles. Why? I don't know. I just need her to know I am with her. This woman who came through the woods like she was lost. Desperate to be found.

“Wake up,” I beg. “I'm right here.”

I tuck her dark hair behind her ear, taking in her features. So lovely. Her nose straight. Her lips plump. Her jaw so delicate, her skin olive, her eyebrows arched.

I want to run my fingers through her hair, over her everything.

“Wake up,” I urge. “I'm right here.”

She must hear my plea because her dark lashes flutter, her brown eyes find mine, and I swear they see something inside of me. The good that's been lost for a whole year.

That heart of mine that's been cold and all closed up? It cracks open after just one look from her. I feel nothing but light.

“You found me,” she whispers. “I was dreaming of you. I've been dreaming of you for so long.”

I smile down at her. This woman. This angel. “You were dreaming of me?” I ask. “I think you might have a concussion.”

She shakes her head. “No.” She sits up on my couch. She presses a hand to her head. “I didn't fall. I just ran straight to you.”

My heart pounds. My cock? It's fucking hard. “Well, I got a lot of questions. What's your name?” I ask her.

“I'm Prairie Jones,” she tells me. “What's yours?”

“I'm Rye Rough.”

“Rye,” she repeats. “I like that.” She looks around the cabin. “Where am I?”

“You're in my cabin in the Rough Forest. About three hours from Home, Washington.”

She nods slowly, taking it in.

“Where are you from, Prairie?” I ask her.

Tears well up in her eyes. “It's kind of a long story. If I start telling you, I feel like you're going to take me away from here and I'm going to have to go to the police or the hospital and…” She swallows and closes her eyes.

I don't want her to close them. I want them wide open. Because when she looks at me, I feel like she sees my soul. And it’s been a long time since I've wanted anyone to see what's inside me.

“Right now, what do you need?” I ask her. “Right this minute?”

“I need you to hold me,” she says. “Just hold me, Rye. Just hold me and don't let go.”

4

PRAIRIE

Rye has his arms wrapped around me, and I breathe him in, the scent of a man. A real man. It's been so long since I've been close to anyone, touched another human's hand, heard their heartbeat.

I run my fingers through his hair, unable to help myself.

I breathe him in, not caring if I'm crossing lines, breaking boundaries. I just want to be in this moment, touching another living person.

His eyes find mine. “Prairie,” he says. “What happened? Why were you running through the woods? You don't have on any shoes. You're not wearing a coat. Your clothes are really rags. You've been in trouble. You need to tell me what happened to you.” His voice is firm, steady, strong.

I know in that instant, as crazy as it might sound, that I can rely on this man.

That I can trust him.

I have no reason to. And maybe that innocence and naivety is what got me into trouble in the first place.

But he is not dangerous. I know that by his touch.

“Tell me, Prairie. You're starting to worry me, and I need to know that you are okay. That we're going to be okay.”

I blink back the tears that fill my eyes as I run my hand down his chest. He's still kneeling before me. As if paying penance, ready to say a prayer, ask forgiveness for something—but he hasn't done anything wrong.

The people who held me captive, they are the ones who should pay.

I lick my lips, looking for words. I shiver, cold from head to toe.

Rye stands. “I need to start us a fire. It's not warm enough in here for you. You're freezing,” he says.

He reaches for a wool blanket and wraps it around my shoulders. “Don't move,” he says.

I nod, trembling as he goes out to the front porch. He carries in a stack of firewood, then he puts on a shirt that was atop the pile. There's a wood-burning stove in the corner of the room and he begins to build a fire, striking a match then adding kindling. I watch as the blaze begins to burn.

He turns to me after he closes the door on the stove. “It'll warm up here real quick. I'm sorry there wasn't a fire already going,” he shrugs. “I live down in Home. Came up here for a few weeks to clear my head. If you had come through the clearing even a few hours earlier, I wouldn't have been here. I wouldn't have found you. The timing…” He shakes his head, running a hand over his beard. “The timing was…”

“Like fate?” I ask. The two words hang in the air as he stares back at me. Eventually he nods. “Yeah,” he finally says. “Fate.” He reaches for the flask in his back pocket. “Do you need a strong drink before you tell me the truth of what's happened to you?”

I shake my head. “I've never had a lick of alcohol in my life.” I tell him.

His eyes narrow. “How old are you?”

“I'm 22,” I tell him. “What about you?”

“I'm 28,” he says.

I nod, slowly taking the information in. “I’m so lucky to have found you,” I tell him. My voice cracks as I look him over, feeling like he is my protector. “I know I can trust you.”

Then the words begin tumbling out. The words I've been holding in for so long, so many years. I tell him where I was, in the woods with Marjorie and Horace. How they kept me as their daughter, locked in a room.

His eyes fill with rage. “I'm going to go kill him,” he says. “I'm going to go find that bastard. And I'm going to—”

“It's too late,” I tell him, shaking my head. “I killed him before I left. I shot him. He's dead. It was my only chance to get away. Marjorie died in her sleep or something. And he was distraught,” I explain. “I knew it was my only chance to catch him off guard. I knocked the gun out of his hand and I pulled the trigger.”

I squeeze my eyes shut tight. My shoulders start to shake. Rye sits on the couch next to me. He wraps his big arms around me.

“It's okay. It's okay, Prairie. You can cry all you need. Just let it all out.” He runs a hand over my back, soothing me. Growling under his breath. “Goddamn it. That monster… what those people did to you… It's so fucked up. It's so wrong.

My God, Prairie, what you've been through.”

I steady myself, willing my hands to stop shaking, and I look into his eyes.

“Rye, I am not a victim. I am strong. I told myself every day that I would get out, eventually, and I would be okay. I wasn't going to let what happened to me for those years define me. I know I have problems and PTSD and things I'm gonna have to work through—but I'm not weak.”

“I never said you were weak,” Rye says. “Hell. You ran through those woods into that clearing on a mission. You knew what you needed.”

I lick my lips, leaning close enough to kiss Rye Rough. “Yes, I knew what I needed. I needed you. I know it sounds crazy. I know you probably think I'm delusional or concussed. But I’ve had a vision of you all these years. I had this idea of a man who was big and strong and would take care of me, a man just like you. And then there you were. When I needed you most. You were here for me.”

“Prairie,” Rye says with a look in his eyes, a look of concern, of intensity, “you need to see a doctor.”

“I know,” I tell him. “I know I do. But first, please, let me kiss you.” I’m pleading, really. I lean in and he doesn't pull back.

My lips press against his and I give myself the gift I've been dreaming about for so long.

Soft lips. Strong man. Arms wrapping around me and holding me tight. I sink into that kiss, crawling into Rye’s lap. He doesn't let me go. It's like he knows what I need.

I need him.

He cradles me in his arms, making me feel safe and secure. Like I'm protected, and that's what I've needed all these years. Someone to protect me.

The kiss lasts for ages. My tongue finds his and the kiss deepens and becomes something desperate, electric.

I'm on my back on that couch and he's kissing me harder. I feel the swell of his cock against my belly. And I wrap my legs around his torso. Needing him, needing more, needing everything.

I'm panting against his mouth. My nipples hard, my pussy wet. I'm aching for him. Him. His hands against my core. I want his body against mine.

I want this feeling to last. It's been so long since I felt good.

But Rye pulls away. “I can't,” he groans. “We can't.” He looks at me, tortured. His eyes are bloodshot and he rakes a hand through his hair. “Prairie,” he says, scooping me up in his arms. He's holding me, but he's not kissing me.

He's pressing a hand to his cock, as if willing his hard-on to fade. “I want you,” he says. “I want you bad. But we can't do this. We need to get you down this mountain. I need to take you home.”

5

RYE

As much as I want to sit here in this cabin, kissing—among other things—Prairie all the damn day, I know that I can't. I need to get her down this mountain and get her into urgent care.

And I need to call my brother Graham on the way down so he can get police officers up to the cabin where she was held captive.

“Prairie,” I say. “I know you want to stay here, and that the cabin is finally warming up and I'm guessing you aren't up for a long day of travel. But darlin’, I can't keep you here. You need to go to the police.”

She presses her lips together. Taking in my words. “I'm glad you're the voice of reason,” she says softly. “I feel all mixed up. And I can imagine myself getting in a warm bath and falling asleep and not waking up for a week. And oh, if there is a big warm bed here? I can imagine lying in it with you for days, weeks on end.”

I close my eyes for a moment. Just imagining that this beautiful woman, with the body of an angel, with the eyes of my soulmate, was in bed with me.

I open them though, needing to ground myself in reality.

“Prairie, as much as I want to get swept away in that fantasy, we can't do that right now. We got to go. We have to be responsible.”

“Are you always so reliable?” she asks me.

I shake my head, thinking about the last year and how my family thinks I’m anything but responsible and reliable. They think I'm a goddamn ass. Prairie sees the best in me, the true me.

But Prairie only knows me as the man I am right now. In this moment.

“Prairie, why don't we eat something, and I'll let the fire die down and then we'll get in the truck. Okay? We'll head back down the mountain. And in a few hours, I'll have good reception and I'll be able to call the police and let them know to expect us. You think you can handle all that?”

She nods. “With you by my side, I feel like I can handle anything.”

“How are you so confident with a man you just met?” I ask her.

She runs her hand through my hair, cupping my cheek. Her thumb running across the rough skin under my eyes.

“I just know that you're mine,” she says. “I told you I was dreaming about you. And I believe in fate. I believe that there's light after dark, that good wins out over evil.”

“You're this optimistic after everything that happened to you?” I ask, shaking my head, wondering how anyone can be so good. So pure.

She smiles softly. “Rye,” she says, “I'm choosing to believe all those things. Because if I didn't, those years I was locked up in that cabin, I don't think I could have gotten through them. I don't think I could have survived if I gave in to the pain. I had to stay in the light.”

I take her hand and squeeze it tight and fuck, it feels good to be grounded in someone so pure.

It's what I need.

She is what I need.

Thirty minutes later we're in my truck. The cabin’s all locked up and emptied out.

I can't imagine us coming back here anytime soon, considering the hell she went through less than five miles away.

When I start driving, she begins to marvel at all the tiny little details that I take for granted.

The leather seats of my truck, the electric windows, the heat.

“Damn,” I say. “I can't even begin to imagine what you've been through.”

“Don't,” she says, “don't try and imagine any of it. But can we please listen to some music? Because I haven't listened to any music in four years.”

“What kind of music do you like?”

“I'm not picky.”

“How about the radio?” I turn it on and she begins to turn the knob, scrolling her way through the static until the first station clearly comes through. The song, of course, is another burst of destiny. It's the Beatles. “Here Comes The Sun.”

She begins singing along, smiling. Laughing, her head falling back on the headrest. Her fingers reach for mine and they lace together.

I drive down that mountain light as a feather.

“Tell me about Home,” she says. “It might make me less nervous to go back to civilization.”

“Fuck, I didn’t consider that. Are you scared?”

“Yes,” she says gently. “But if we’re together, I will be less so.”

“Home has good restaurants, safe streets, festivals, and my family established the town back in 1910, if you can believe it. Home is about as good as any town in the world.”

“Have you been to many places in the world?” she asks.

“Honestly, no,” I chuckle. “I’ve never left the state.”

“Me either,” she says. “I want to see places, though.”

“Where do you wanna go first?”

“Somewhere that feels like a fairy tale. Like Iceland.”

“I can dig that.” I grin, looking over at this princess. “Hot springs. Hikes. You. Me.”

She laughs. “Wow, this is moving fast.”

I swallow. Lift her hand to my lips. Kiss her soft skin. “Yeah, I guess it is, isn’t it?”

I haven't felt this way in so long, since before Luke died, and I look over at her, thanking God she came into my life. I've known her for what? An hour, and already I know this woman is a woman I cannot live without.

At urgent care, things get complicated real fucking fast.

The moment the doctors understand who Prairie Jones is, they whisk her away.

Graham shows up—of course I already called him to tell him about the man Prairie killed up in the forest.

He finds me yelling at a nurse. “Let me be with her. Can’t you hear how upset she is?”

Prairie is hysterical because they won't let me go into the examination room with her because I’m not family.

“She'd calm down,” I tell my brother, “if they’d just let me go in there with her.”

Graham forces me away from the nurses’ station and leads me into the waiting room.

“Tell me everything that happened,” Graham says. “From the beginning.”

I tell him what I know, stressed the entire time because I know that Prairie is in another room being interrogated.

Graham's eyes search mine. “Rye, what's going on? You just met her. Why are you so protective?”

“I'm just... I'm really worried about her. I really care for her. She needs me,” I tell my brother.

“You don't even know her,” Graham says.

“I know she is my person.”

Graham stares at me, taking in my intensity. I don’t back down. I know who Prairie is to me. Before we got out of my truck and came into the urgent care, I told her I would do anything she needed, forever. I would be her rock.

“We need to make sure her story is sound,” Graham says. “Make sure nothing she's saying is—”

I growl, cutting him off. “Don't tell me she's a liar. I saw her run through the clearing. It's my duty to protect her. Do you understand?”

Graham is not having it. He shoves me back. “Don't, Rye. Don't make me do something you're going to regret. I'm the law here. You understand? There are helicopters at the cabin that she claims she came from and there are officers already at the scene. Everybody is out there. There's an FBI crew on the way. This is no small matter. This woman has been missing for four years.”

“Were people looking for her?” I ask.

Graham shakes his head. “Apparently, four years ago she aged out of the system. There's been nothing about her since. No one's been looking.”

“And now you're thinking she could be a liar. Fuck you,” I shout at my brother.

“I didn't say she's a liar. Clearly she's been through hell.” He gets a radio call from the Rough Forest. “I gotta take this.”

“Yeah, I bet you do. It's probably the fucking crew up at the cabin corroborating her story. So you should take it and then come back and tell me what you heard.”

Graham glares at me as he leaves and I pull out my phone, calling my father.

“Hey, Dad,” I say.

“How do you have reception at the cabin?” he asks.

“I'm not at the cabin. I'm here at urgent care in Home.”

“Are you okay?”

“Well, something happened.” I briefly explain what's going on.

“That why there are helicopters overhead and news reporters lining up on the streets around town?”

Damn. “I guess this story is a big one.” Already my stomach twists for Prairie. I don’t know how she will handle all of this. How would anyone? “Is Mom with you?”

“No, I've got Cash here. We are just around the corner at the office.”

“Cash?” My cousin Cash Rowdy is with my father on a workday? “What's he doing with you?”

My father clears his throat. “He's working with me, son. I figured with you gone for a few weeks, I might as well call in Cash to lend a hand.”

Why should I be surprised?

I end the phone call, trying to piece together how I feel about Cash taking my place. I love my cousin. Cash is a fuckin asshole, but then again, so am I. And he's a good enough guy. We're the same age and grew up together, just on different mountains. He's Rowdy, I'm Rough, but we're blood through and through.

Dad and Cash show up, same time as Graham makes his way back into the lobby of the urgent care.

“So was Prairie telling the truth?” I ask him, already knowing the answer but I want to make him come out and say it.

Graham nods gravely. “That girl hasn't just been through hell and back. She's been through the goddamn wringer. She wasn't lying about any of it, Rye. She's been chained to a post in a bedroom for years. I mean, officers have only been up there for an hour, but what they've seen…” He shakes his head, losing his words.

“Graham,” my father says. “Looks like you've seen a ghost.”

“Prairie is gonna need some serious help,” Graham says. “And Rye, if you care about her—”

My father looks at me. “Care about her? I thought she was just a girl you found and brought into town for help. What does he mean, care?”

Graham and I give one another a hard look. Graham seems to understand that how I care about Prairie is bigger than that. Different. More.

She’s not just some girl I helped.

Truth is, she's the woman who's saving me.

6

PRAIRIE

By the time I’ve finished explaining my story to Leila, the social worker assigned to me, I’m exhausted. I take a sip of water as she presses stop on her recording device.

“Prairie, I want to thank you so much for your vulnerability. You’re an incredibly strong woman. That's the biggest thing I want you to leave this room knowing today. You are a survivor.”

“I know,” I tell her. “I feel like a survivor. I don't feel like a victim.”

Her eyes are soft as she looks at me. She's only been with me for a few hours. But in that short amount of time, I feel like she has gotten a good idea of what I've been through.

My days were pretty redundant so there were not a lot of details I needed to explain. I woke up, played the part of Marjorie and Horace’s daughter and I went to bed. There were some days that were worse, but for the most part, it was a lot of the same. They never hurt me, never touched me—it was the chain and the monotony that made it so horrific.

“Doesn’t seem like they're going to make me go to jail or anything for killing him,” I say.

Leila shakes her head. “You've already spoken with the officers and the scene at the house corroborates everything you’ve shared.”

“It feels weird that I could do that. And then just not get in trouble.”

“You were defending yourself after years of being held against your will. Thankfully, you were able to get out of a horrific situation. And strangely enough, Horace was obsessed with chronicling so much of what you've been through on surveillance cameras.”

I knew he had video cameras around the house, but I never imagined that they would be used to help prove my story.

Leila puts her recorder in her tote bag and reaches for her jacket.

“So what happens to me next?” I ask.

“Well, it's probably been one of the longer days of your life,” she says. “It's already

after 10 o'clock at night and you've been in this hospital room for so long. Thankfully, I can say with complete confidence you are handling this all very well, and the doctors who have seen you today say you have no concerns physically. You're in strong spirits and your mental faculties are completely intact. You are brave and you are so strong.”

I exhale, feeling relieved to have her say all of that, confirming what I already felt inside.

“I live here in Home,” Leila tells me. “So I will be able to get in touch with you tomorrow and hopefully every day for the next few weeks as we figure out the next steps for you.”

I listen to her, still not quite knowing what that means for me right now.

“But what we need to decide now is where you want to be tonight. There is one option of staying here at the clinic. You could stay here for a week or even longer until we set you up in an apartment through social services. Another option, of course, is the local bed and breakfast. Not sure how comfortable you feel about staying somewhere on your own right now.”

I shake my head. “No, I don't want to do either of those things.”

“Okay,” Leila says slowly. “What do you want, Prairie?”

“Is Rye still here? Rye Rough?”

Leila nods. “Yes. He's been in the lobby all day. Interrogating the nurses and the doctors and the officers about every 15 minutes, wanting an update.”

I smile softly. “Do you know him?’ I ask her. “You said you live here in Home.”

She nods. “Yeah, Rye and I graduated the same year from Home Secondary School.”

“Is he as good a person as he seems?” I ask.

“He's a good guy, though a little rough around the edges,” she says with a laugh. “Pun intended. I mean, he's a little bit of a burly guy with a reputation for being a little gruff. But he has one of the best families in the world. The Roughs look out for each other and they will never let anyone get in the way of that. His parents, Red and Annie, they’re wonderful.”

I nod, already sensing all of this, in ways that make no sense at all.

“When I met him,” I tell Leila, “when I ran to the clearing this morning, I felt like it was fate. Do you believe in that?” I ask her. “In love at first sight?”

Her eyes widen. “Prairie,” she says, shaking her head. “You've had a long day.”

“I know I've had a long day,” I tell her, “but I also know what I feel.”

“You might be confused.”

“You just said I had a clean bill of health. That I was completely of sound mind.”

“That's true,” she says slowly.

I stand. “I’m ready to go home with Rye.”

Leila presses her lips together in a fine line. “You’re in a fragile state.”

“I'm not that fragile. You just said so yourself. You said I could go stay at that bed and breakfast alone if I wanted. There's nothing wrong with me. The police have cleared me, the doctors have cleared me, and you've cleared me. I know what I want.”

She sighs. “And you want Rye Rough?”

“You just said he was a good guy.”

“He is a good guy, but he's also a bit of an ass. I'm saying that off the record, of course.”

“What do you mean, a bit of an ass?” I ask her. I trust Leila. The last few hours she's been nothing but kind and gentle and warm. She's a good person. She's devoted her life to making sure other people feel safe when they're in a vulnerable situation.

“He's just kind of sharp.”

“Really?” I frown. “With me he's been nothing but gentle.”

Leila smiles. “Maybe you bring out the best in him, Prairie Jones.”

Driving up to his cabin, I feel a different kind of nerves. Rye looks over at me and we both feel it. I know we do.

“You finish the burger?” he asks with a grin.

“It was gone two miles ago,” I say with a laugh. I reach into the paper sack and eat more salty fries.

Rye got me the meal I wanted, which was a chocolate shake, French fries, and a hamburger from the diner. I guess they’d closed but they opened for him because he insisted somebody fry me up some potatoes and make me a shake. I guess his reputation for being an ass had its perks because it got me the one meal I was craving all this time.

I was surprised to see the news reporters swarming the urgent care when Rye I walked out, but now we’re back in the woods, driving up the dirt road to his place, and I feel like we are in our own little cocoon.

He and I together.

“I'm so glad you wanted me to wait for you. I didn’t want you to feel pressured but the thought of leaving you—”

“No,” I say, clutching his hand as he puts his truck into park. “You're the only one I wanted to be with. I was thinking about our kiss all day long.”

It's pitch dark out and his cabin is in the middle of nowhere. It's like we're the only two people in the whole wide world.

“I was thinking about that kiss too,” Rye says. And for a moment, I think he's gonna give me another one.

But then big flood lights come on. And I see people on his front porch.

“Who's that?” I ask, startled.

“Shit,” he growls, “that's my parents.”

“Your parents?”

“It's all right,” he says. “I bet they just wanted to make sure you were okay. They’re good folks, I promise.”

I nod, remembering what Leila said at the hospital. Red and Annie were some of the best people she knew.

We get up to the porch and he tosses my food wrappers in an outdoor garbage pail. “What are you doing here?” he asks his parents as we walk across the decking.

“Well, we just wanted to make sure what we heard was true,” his mom says as we enter the cabin. It’s obvious they’ve already been inside. If his family is as close as Leila suggested, they probably have a spare key.

“I brought some food,” Rye’s mom says. “I heard from Tammy down at the urgent care that you were going to have some company here for a night at least.” His mom looks over at me, smiling. “Well, I knew the state of your cupboards and your refrigerator. And I thought, well, Prairie probably could use some good meals, so I decided to stock your fridge before you got home.”

“Thanks, Mom,” Rye says. “And Mom, Dad, this is Prairie. Prairie, this is my dad Red and my mom Annie.

“Good to meet you, Prairie.” Red steps forward to shake my hand. “I know you've both had a long day,” he says, looking at Rye.

His mom stands there awkwardly, probably thinking of 100 things she'd really like to say.

“Thanks for starting the fire,” Rye tells my dad.

His dad clears his throat. “You kids sure you know what you're doing?”

“I am a grown-ass man, Dad. I think I know what I want.”

His mom presses her lips together. “I just worry,” she says. “Prairie, you've had a rough deal and I worry… you may need more care than you can find here in this cabin.”

“I know,” I say. “I understand your worry, Annie, but,” I walk over to Rye and take his hand, resting my cheek on his arm. “I just want to be here with Rye. It's where I belong.”

Annie and Red stand there in a bit of shock. And I can guess what she's thinking. She probably thinks I must be confused after the trauma I’ve been through, and that Rye’s lost his mind to get tangled up with me.

The thing is that his parents don't know or understand and maybe never will—I belong here with Rye. Plain and simple. And I can't do anything to change that. I certainly can't do anything tonight.

“Thanks for the food,” Rye tells his parents. “I mean it, Mom. I really appreciate it. I'm guessing we'll want some coffee in the morning, and I wouldn’t have had anything to offer Prairie in the way of breakfast.”

“Well, now you have some bacon and eggs,” Annie says, putting on a smile. “Call me if you need anything. You know right where I am. I'm just up the mountain.”

“All right, Annie, come on,” his dad says. “I think we got to let these kids be.”

His parents leave and Rye locks the door behind them.

And then it's just Rye and me in the house alone.

I look at him and he looks at me.

Then, just like that, it's more than a look.

Then, it becomes everything.

7

RYE

The room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Prairie is looking up at me, her eyes wide, her lips parted. I can feel her heart beating. Her body pressed against my own.

“I don't want you to do anything you're going to regret,” I tell her, my voice slow, gravelly.

All day long, while I was at the urgent care, I was telling myself that I would hold back, have restraint, give Prairie space, all the space in the goddamn world. But now we're here, alone in my cabin with the fire blazing and the door locked.

It's just us.

This feeling that is pulsing between us is not one I've ever felt before. Damn.

This is beyond anything I believed could be true. Real.

“I don't want you to think about things,” she whispers. “I want you to say it all. I need to hear your words, Rye. I spent too long cooped up in my own mind.”

“You want to stay up all night talking?” I ask. “Because I'll tell you every damn thing. I'll tell you my life story. I'll write out an ending for ours.”

She shakes her head. “No. That's not what I want. I want you to make love to me.”

“You sure you know what you're asking for?” I ask her.

She lifts her shoulders. There are tears in her eyes. “I spent so many years alone, wanting to be touched. Desperate to be held and kissed. I wanted someone next to me when I went to bed at night, in my bed when I woke. And then somehow, today my life changed. I’m free and I’ve found you, and Rye, I'm scared.”

“Tell me what you're scared of.”

“I'm scared I'm going to wake up and this will all have been just a dream. You're not gonna be real. Your parents showing up here and checking in on you? Who has that? That's not real life.” She shakes her head. “I grew up in foster care. My mom, she died when I was little. I never had a family. Not like this, not like you.” She turns around, spinning in my cabin, her hands waving in the air. “This place? Your home? This is not anything I would have imagined for myself.”

“What are you saying? You don't want to be here anymore?”

“No,” she says. “Rye, I'm saying you seem too good to be true. All of this does.”

“It's not pretend,” I tell her. “What I'm feeling right now, it's fucking real.”

“What do you feel?” she asks. “Tell me what you feel. Tell me I'm not crazy.”

I run a hand over her back. I drag her body to mine. I tilt her chin and look deep into her eyes, straight to her heart, her soul.

“I feel like I fell in love with you the moment you fainted in my arms. Like I would do anything I could to protect you for the rest of my fucking life, Prairie Jones.” I kiss her forehead. “I want you to be mine. Whatever that means. I want to hold you tight and kiss you goodnight. I want to wake up with you in my arms. I want to cook you bacon and eggs and make you coffee. I want to make you happy and keep you warm. I want to give you everything. Things I never even considered before. I'm not this kind of guy. I'm a fucking mess.” I shake my head. “But Prairie, I want to be the kind of man you need, a good man, your man. I feel alive when I'm with you. Like I have a meaning in my life. A purpose.”

“And before me?” she asks, her voice cracking. “What were you before? Just a feather floating in the wind?”

“Maybe,” I tell her plainly, ”I was missing something, missing you. I went to work, built houses for my father. I did my job. I showed up for Sunday dinner. I did my best, most often. Probably wasn't good enough. But I tried. God knows I tried. But for you, Prairie, I'll do more than fucking try. I will be whatever you need me to be.”

“You're going to make promises to a girl you just met? I could be crazy. I could be certifiable. I could have lost my mind in that cabin. I shot a man today.” She stares up at me.

She pushes me away with her hands on my chest, but she's not looking for a fight. She's looking for a promise.

“You're not crazy. And if you've lost your mind, then so have I. And it wasn't in cold blood. You killed a man to save yourself. Because you're a strong-ass woman who wants to live. So let's fucking live. Wild and reckless and free.” I cup both her cheeks with my hands. “I know my parents thought we'd lost our goddamn marbles when they showed up here today. I know what they were thinking.”

Prairie nods. “I know too. They think I’m a fragile, breakable thing. A girl who probably needs medical attention.”

I nod. “Yeah. And they probably think I'm not fit to be taking care of you.”

“Are you?” Prairie challenges me. “Are you fit to take care of me? Because I'm going to need help, Rye. I'm going to need to see a therapist, and I'm going to need to go to the doctor. And I'm probably going to have to continue dealing with the police. Because what happened up there was really fucked up.”

“I understand that,” I say. “And I'm not going anywhere. You need a home base. This is it. This cabin, hell, you can move right in.”

“Again,” she says, “making promises to some girl you just met.”

“No. You're not some girl I just met. You're the girl I'm spending the rest of my fucking life with.”

“Stop it,” she says, tears on her cheeks. “Stop.”

“No,” I tell her. “It’s the goddamn truth, Prairie.” I take her body against mine. I lift her up in my arms, and I carry her to my room.

I lay her down on my bed, and I begin to undress her because I need her naked and bare. I strip off my clothes too. She can have all of me.

“Is this what you really want?” she asks.

“You're all I want and I'm gonna make you mine right here, right now. Do you understand me?”

She nods. “Don't make me wait another minute. Come here. Come closer. I’ve been dreaming about this moment for so long, Rye. I wanted to be with someone, to be touched, held… but never in my dreams did I imagine someone that felt so good, so right. Someone like you.”

I move to the bed, taking in her body. Her dress on the floor, bare. Ready. Mine.

I run my hand up and down my shaft as she takes in the sight of my thick cock.

It's a lot.

I know that. We've gone from zero to 100 in a minute but we've been waiting for this moment since our eyes locked in that clearing.

“You want me?” I ask her.

She nods, wrapping her arms around my neck, drawing me to her. Kissing me hard.

Fuck, her lips are like pillows, her body so soft, so supple, her breasts round and full, her nipples hard. The curves of her body make my cock ache with need.

“I've never seen a man naked before,” she tells me. “You're so big and strong. You have muscles everywhere.”

“Do you like that?” I ask her.

She nods. “It makes me feel safe.” She runs her hands over my biceps. “Like no one will hurt me.”

“I have you now,” I tell her. “I have you.”

“I want you inside me,” she says.

“I don't want to hurt you.”

“I've already been hurt enough,” she fights back. “Just put yourself inside me and make me feel something good. Deep and real. Let me feel pleasure. Rye, please.”

“I’m going to give you everything you want,” I tell her, running my hand over her cheeks, kissing her gently. “But sweetheart, I need to get you ready before you can take my cock. I'd rip you in two, and darling, that just won't do.”

Her eyes widen. “Whatever you need to do to make this feel good, I trust you, Rye.”

“Damn, you're so innocent,” I growl. “You lost so much time up there in the woods.”

“Will you make it up for me?” she asks. “We can stay in this cabin. And you can show me everything I've missed.”

I groan in her ear, kissing her, biting her earlobe. “I fucking want you so damn bad. Everything about you turns me on. Your body is so ripe. So pure. Your pussy is so innocent,” I say, running my hand between her thighs and touching her slit.

She's wet and juicy. And my cock thrums with need as I touch her folds.

I lower myself on the bed between her knees, spreading open her thighs.

“Just relax,” I tell her. “Just close your eyes, Prairie, and imagine something good.”

“This moment is pretty damn good,” she tells me as her fingers run through the strands of my hair. “Oh, Rye,” she moans as I breathe warmth against her pussy.

“Oh, Rye,” she whimpers, “oh God.”

Fuck, this girl is going to come so hard. She's wound up so damn tight.

She hasn't ever come with a real man like me.

I need her to understand what it feels like to feel alive.

She says she wants pleasure. Oh, I'll give her some fucking pleasure.

I begin to lick her up and down the way she needs, sucking her sweet clit. My tongue rides her tight hole, licking her the way she needs. My cock aches as I run my hand over her ass, eating her deeper, sucking her cunt as I finger her nice and slow.

“There you go, baby,” I groan.

She's clutching the sheets on my bed. Her back arching as I begin to finger fuck her the way her body needs.

“Oh God,” she whimpers, “oh God. I can't. I can't. You're going to make me…”

“Yeah,” I tell her. “That's exactly what I'm going to make you do. I'm going to make you come all over my fucking face. You understand?”

She laughs but it's mixed with a moan as she begins to unravel against me. I suck her sweet slit as she comes against my mouth. Fucking her with my tongue is my pleasure and delight.

“My God,” I growl as she gets off against me, riding my mouth like I'm a fucking horse.

My girl is wet. Her knees fall open. Her juicy cunt so ready for my cock. She's panting and grabbing at my shoulders.

“Come here,” she says. “Kiss me, kiss me please.”

I give her what she needs.

“That's me on your lips,” she moans. “I taste myself.”

“Yeah, darling. That's you.”

“Oh my God,” she cries, wrapping her legs around me. Her knees hitching around my hips. “Rye, you make me feel so good. This is what it feels like to be alive,” she says.

“Yeah,” I say. “And you're not gonna wake up from some make-believe fantasy. I promise, Prairie. This is real.”

She smiles, sated and sublime. “Real as ever.”

I pet her pussy, unable to stop. Fuck. I love how innocent her ripe cunt is. I need my cock in her hole so fucking bad.

“Do you think I'm ready to be filled up by you?” she asks, her mouth dripping with eagerness.

“Yes, darling. I think you are,” I say, my cock rock-hard at her words.

She grins. “Good. But first, can I put you in my mouth?”

8

PRAIRIE

Rye smiles wide, and I laugh, loving that I'm making him happy and that my body can make him feel so good. That his mouth can make me feel so electric and alive.

I run my fingers through his hair as he wraps his arms around my waist, drawing me to him.

Wrapping my legs around him, I sit in his lap, his thick cock between us. I lick my lips. “I meant what I said,” I tell him. “I want to suck you. I want to feel you in my mouth. Before I take you in my pussy.”

“I know what you said. And those are maybe the best words I've ever heard in my fucking life, Prairie.”

I smile at him, breathing him in. He smells like such a man, like cedar trees and firewood. Like the mountains where he was born and raised. This man who is pure and real and raw.

Who's choosing me.

“I'm so happy right now,” I say. “I didn't think it was possible to feel so good.”

“Me either,” he says.

“Really?” I ask, shaking my head, trying to understand. “I can't imagine you not being happy every day of your life. Having a house like this, a family like you have, living in a town as perfect as Home. You seem like you've had a charmed life.”

“They say not all that glitters is gold,” he tells me, running his hands over my bare back and kissing my shoulders, my collarbone. Massaging my breasts. My nipples are hard and I let my head fall back as his words roll away. “But you make things brighter,” he tells me. “You can be my glitter. You can be my gold.”

“I'll be anything you want me to be right now,” I tell him. “I just don't want to leave.

I just want to be here with you. As long as you let me.”

“Oh baby,” he growls, “you're not going anywhere. You’re mine. Does that scare you? That need I have? You've been held captive for so long, and now I'm trying to take claim of you. Does that make me a monster too?”

I shake my head, taking hold of his hands. “No,” I say. “I'm choosing this. I'm choosing you.”

“You just met me,” he says.

“Exactly,” I say. “I met you and I knew.”

“Are we really fucking doing this?” he asks.

I nod. “Yes,” I say, pushing him down on the bed. On his back. He grins. “We're doing it all,” I say. “Me and you. Whatever magic fell over us—maybe it's a spell—the moment we met it was something bigger than either of us.”

“Maybe you were just lost,” he says. “Lost in the woods. And maybe I just got lucky enough to find you.”

I shake my head. “No. I refuse to believe that. I won't believe you and I are nothing but dumb luck. Rye, you and I, we’re meant to be.” I begin to run my hand up and down his thick cock. It's meaty and long and his balls are tight.

His body is covered in muscles. His legs are thick and powerful. His whole body is pure male goodness.

Ready to take care of me.

I dip my head, licking my lips as I open wide. Twirling my tongue over his tip. “I don't know what I'm doing,” I tell him.

Rye shakes his head, his eyes heavy. “Baby, everything you're doing is just right.”

Smiling, wanting to please him, I begin to bob my head up and down, sucking him and stroking him. Enjoying myself and his thick manliness with his cock deep against the back of my throat. He groans as I suck him and massage his balls and his thighs, taking him for all that I can. I'm gonna gag, but I don't stop.

I taste his salty come as it releases from his tip. But it's just a droplet, and I need more.

I pump him faster. His cock throbs against the palm of my hand and he groans.

“I'm so fucking close.”

I want him to come in my mouth. I want to feel his seed as it rolls down my throat. I've imagined this moment. I was around enough wild teenagers growing up to know all the logistics of what's going to happen tonight. But this is the first time I've ever experienced anything like this myself. And to get to do all of this with him, with Rye Rough? My lover, my man…

My pussy pulses with need at the thought of taking care of him. Him taking care of me.

“Fuck,” he groans, “fuck, baby.” He comes in my mouth.

I relish his salty seed as it slides down my throat. I swallow him nice and good, wanting him to be pleased and happy. Pumping his cock as he comes again and again until he finishes, I crawl up his body as he begins to kiss me deeply, rolling me over onto my back and looking at me with an intensity he hasn't shown before.

Rye wraps his arms around me, holding me tight, snug against his chest. “I fucking love you,” he tells me. “I fucking love you, Prairie. You're my woman. I love you so damn much.”

Tears fill my eyes and his eyes lock with mine. And I see there are tears in his too. “I love you too, Rye.”

“I don't know what's happening, but whatever it is,” he says, “it’s real. This is real. You and me, baby. This. Us.”

I believe everything he's saying because I feel it too. I need him in me.

“Oh God,” I moan as I begin to touch him, running my fingers up and down his skin, needing his cock inside me in a way I've never needed anything before. “Don't make me wait any more,” I beg him. “Take me, Rye. Make me yours. Make me your woman.”

He growls in my ear, kissing me along my neck. His hot breath against my ear.

“I’ll won’t make you wait for what you need,” he tells me as his cock begins to enter me. My wet pussy is ready for him, willing and able.

And I begin crying out as he fills me up. “Oh my God,” I groan. “Oh God, Rye.”

“Fuck, I don't want to hurt you,” he says.

“Don't stop,” I tell him. “Please.” I beg, and he doesn't. He keeps pushing past the pain until he fills me up so nice and good. Until his cock is so deep inside of me that there's nothing but absolute pleasure pouring from every inch of both of us.

His fingers lace with mine as he begins to grind against me, thrusting deep inside. My sweet hole is filled with him in a way I didn't know was possible.

He fucks me; he takes me; he makes love to me.

He kisses my lips so hard they're raw. He devours my body, massaging my breasts, teasing my clit with his finger as he begins to move in and out with his big, thick cock.

“Oh God,” I continue to pant as he takes me to the very edge until there's nowhere left to go. “Oh my God, Rye.” I cling to him, needing him to hold me tight. He doesn't let me go.

We finish, the two of us climaxing as one. We're slick with sweat. We're dripping with desire, his eyes telling me everything that just happened was absolutely real. I'm gasping for breath. Looking at him with eyes full of stars and hope.

He draws me to him. Wrapping me up in those big strong arms of his. “I meant every word that I said,” he tells me. “I love you, Prairie Jones. I love you.”

“I love you too,” I say.

“Good,” Rye says, “because I'm planning to make you my wife.”

9

RYE

The next several days, we don't leave the cabin. Why would we? Everything we need in the world is right here.

We’ve got food. We have heat. We have one another. Prairie rolls over in the bed, looking up at me with a morning smile.

“Hey, handsome,” she says, kissing me then climbing onto me. “Somebody woke up in a good mood,” she teases, stroking my cock, up and down.

“Who are you talking about?” I ask. “You're the one with a smile and a wet cunt.”

She laughs. “You're the one with a rock-hard cock.” She lifts her ass ever so slightly. I run my hand over her thighs and her sweet pussy that’s dripping as I finger her, easing her down on my thick cock. “There you go, baby,” I say, setting my hands on her perfect hips as she lowers her mouth to mine, kissing me.

Her tits graze my chest, her big, round globes. I draw one to my mouth then the other, sucking them.

“Fuck,” I groan as she begins to ride me. Her hips moving in a circle, her pussy gushing, coming as she takes me.

“Oh my God,” she moans, a grin on her face, her long hair loose around her shoulders. Her eyes bright and beautiful.

The morning sun streaks through the windows and I know it's going to be a good fucking day.

With Prairie, it always is.

For a year, I felt like I was in the shadows, but a week with her in my life, and it's nothing but light.

“Fuck,” I say. “I'm so damn close.”

“Good,” she says, moaning, “so am I. Oh, oh God.” She moans, panting, moving faster, faster, faster. Until she lets out the most glorious sound. This girl can orgasm like nothing else. And I fucking love to watch her get off. She thrusts her sweet little cunt toward me as I pound her tight pussy with my willing and ready cock.

My come shoots deep inside her.

She rolls off of me laughing. “Okay, so that was a wonderful way to start the day.”

We shower, unable to keep our hands off of one another as we do, but as we dry off, she puts on my bathrobe and I wrap a towel around my waist. We head to the kitchen and I start making a pot of coffee.

She gets working on the bacon and eggs. Thankfully, there's grocery delivery in this town and we've been able to stock up that way. We haven't wanted to leave our little cocoon and we haven't wanted anyone to come around.

God knows my family has tried.

My brothers and sisters have all attempted to make appearances, but I wouldn't let them past the door. It's not that I don't want them to spend time with Prairie. It's just that right now we're in what we're calling our honeymoon stage. And we need to get to know one another first.

The moment my family gets involved, things will change. Prairie will see me differently… and I’m scared for that.

My siblings and parents have been texting for the last few days about Sunday dinner. I need to make a decision.

“Leila is coming over later with lunch, wasn’t sure if you remembered.”

“Around noon?” I ask. Prairie nods. “I’ll work in the garage or something, to give you girls space.”

I run a hand over my jaw as she pours the freshly brewed coffee into two mugs. We carry them to the living room and sit down on the couch, side by side. Of course, I quickly draw Prairie into my lap. I need her next to me, always.

“That'll be good for you to touch base with her,” I say. Leila is the only person who's come into our cabin since Prairie moved in. “Hey, it’s Sunday—didn’t you say you always have dinner with your family on Sunday?”

“Yeah,” I say with a grunt. “There's family dinner tonight.”

Prairie twists her lips. “What does that entail, exactly?”

“Well, you know everything about my family already, right?”

She laughs, not understanding the weight of what she’s just brought up. “Everything? I don't know about that. I mean, I know you have six brothers and sisters. I know you're the oldest. I know your mom named you all after the food she was craving when she was pregnant. I know that your brother Bartlett got married less than a month ago.” Prairie taps her finger to her chin. “Your younger brother Rueben's wife died a few years ago and he has a little girl named Plum.” She's ticking things off on her fingers now. “I know your parents are really nice if a bit overprotective and that you have some crazy cousins over in Burly. Right?’

I chuckle. “Yeah. Good memory, Prairie.”

“Was it a test?” she asked. “Did I pass?”

“I’m not testing you.” I kiss her. “I don’t play games, Prairie.”

“If we're going to your parents’ for dinner, are you going to tell them that you asked me to marry you?” she asks, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Course I want to. But I don't want to put you in an uncomfortable situation. Hell, I don’t want to put us in a situation that we're not ready for. We don’t have to go tonight.”

She swallows. “Do you not want me to meet your family?”

I run a hand over my beard. “I didn’t say that.”

She sighs, thinking I’m hesitating over the proposal, but really it’s Luke. It’s the past. It’s the last damn year catching up to me. When I brought up marriage before, Prairie said she wasn’t ready to say yes.

“I know I didn't give you the answer you wanted the other night,” she says, her hand on my chest.

I shake my head. “That's not it. I know me blurting that I wanted you to marry me and make you my wife right after we had sex for the first time wasn't the best way to go about making a proposal. But I still intend on marrying you. Sure, I need to give you some space. Make sure you know what you're getting into.” Prairie smiles. “But I know what I want. And that's you.”

“Rye, I don't need space. I just—”

“You need a ring on that finger?”

Prairie laughs, shaking her head.

“It's a more traditional approach to an engagement, I suppose,” I tell her with a chuckle. “I know I'm a dumbass. I need to get you a ring and properly propose, and yeah, you should meet my family because, well, they're family. But I’m warning you, Prairie. They're also a lot.”

“When you say they're a lot, what does that mean?” she asks. “I'm only asking because I don't exactly have experience with family. I haven't really had one since, well, forever. It was my mom and me until I was about seven years old, and then she died and I was just placed in home after home. But those were just houses. There was never a place I belonged.” She looks around my cabin. “I never felt like I belonged until I met you, Rye. And I have a feeling your family might not understand that. We just met, they think I'm damaged goods, and—”

“Hey,” Rye says, cutting me off. “Don't say that. You're not damaged anything. You're perfect. You're my everything. Prairie, you’re light itself. So don't say you're damaged. My family believes in good intentions and purity of heart. I don't want you to go into tonight thinking you have anything to prove, all right?”

She nods. “I’ll try to remember that,” she says softly.

I take her hand. “So, with that settled, when you imagine getting married, what kind of proposal are you hoping for?”

Prairie shakes her head, laughing. “Rye, you may be the oldest brother, but you did miss a few things. You're not allowed to ask a girl what kind of proposal she wants or what kind of ring she wants. Those are things you have to figure out yourself. I was locked up for four years and yet somehow, I know that information. Go ask your younger brother Bartlett. He's the married one, right? I bet he could give you some pointers.”

I groan. “I’m not asking Bartlett for advice.”

Prairie laughs. “Well, I better go figure out what I'm going to wear tonight because I have no clothes and I can't exactly show up at your parents’ house wearing rags or this robe.”

“Maybe Leila could take you shopping?” I suggest.

At that, Prairie perks up. “You wouldn’t mind if I went out for a few hours and went shopping with her?”

“Hell, it’s probably good for you. Treat yourself. I’ll get some cash and make sure you’re set up. All right?”

“All right,” she says. “Thanks, Rye.”

“Anything for you, baby.”

Later, when we're driving up to my parents’ house, I admit to being nervous like I never am.

It's not because I think that they're not going to approve of Prairie. I could care less if anyone approves of her, of us. I’ve only seen her mostly naked since the day we met, but right now she's done up like a princess. Leila did her good. They went shopping this afternoon, which put her in a good mood, and I realized Prairie has some making up to do. She has lost some time.

She didn't get to go shopping with friends and get coffee at the cafe in the last four years. She didn’t get to go out to restaurants and movie theaters. Or go to birthday parties like most people. She’s been traumatized deeply.

And the fact that she and Leila are becoming friends is a good thing. Leila is a smart, sensible person. And that's the kind of friend Prairie needs right now.

“You sure I look all right?” she asks.

“You look beautiful,” I say and she does. She has on a pair of jeans and boots that are brown leather, a sweater that's the color of marigolds, and a plaid scarf wrapped around her neck. Her hair has been curled ever so slightly, and she has makeup on her face, which I've never seen her in. Basically everything about her is her own beauty magnified.

“I don't want to mess up today is all,” she says.

“You're not gonna mess up,” I promise her as I park the car at my parents’ house.

“Wow,” she says, taking in the family home. “This whole property is incredible.”

“My dad built this place,” I tell her, opening her door.

“When are you going to have to go back to work for your father?” she asks.

“I'm guessing in a week.”

She nods, taking in that information. I don't exactly know what Prairie is going to do if I'm gone, working all day, and it worries me.

When we walk into the house, not everyone in the family is there yet. And I'm glad that we're not the first or the last. It'll help ease Prairie into the situation.

Mom and Dad are in the kitchen with Fig and Mac, my two youngest siblings.

“Well, hello, Prairie,” my mom says.

Dad gives me a handshake and a clap on the back. “Missed you this week, son. Cash is good to have around, but he is a Rowdy through and through.”

I chuckle. “Yeah? Wondered if you’d replaced me.”

Dad laughs quietly, as is his nature. “You know Cash. He belongs on that ranch of his—he needs to wrangle a horse or cattle. He’s too wild for a hammer and nails.”

I grin, appreciating the sentiment that I haven’t been completely forgotten by my old man.

Dad walks over to Prairie. “How you doing, sweetheart?” he asks her politely.

She smiles, her hand in mine. “I'm doing all right. It's been a good week, actually. Thank you.”

“I love your outfit,” Fig says. “I'm Fig, by the way, Rye’s littlest sister. Did you get the outfit at the clothing boutique down on Snug Street?”

Prairie nods slowly. “Yes, I did. I went shopping there today with Leila. She's a social worker in town.”

Mom's nods along, taking the information in. “Well, Leila is a very wonderful woman. I always had a good feeling about her. She has a good head on her shoulders.”

Prairie nods. “Yeah. We met when I was first admitted to the hospital. She gave me my evaluation, but I guess we're friends now.”

“Well, that's lovely,” Mom says, stirring a big pot of her Sunday sauce. She’s wearing an apron, and Fig is spreading garlic butter on loaves of French bread. Mac has been relegated to the dishwasher, where he is unloading it.

“I’m Mac,” my brother says, a stack of clean dinner plates in hand. “Rye’s youngest brother. Though I’m twenty-one and not that young.”

“It's good to meet you,” Prairie says. “I've heard so much about everyone.”

I look around. “Where's everyone else?” Just as I say that, Bartlett and his wife Abby come through the door with Rueben and his little girl Plum. Introductions are made as Lemon and Graham come in too. Soon after, they're arguing about some speeding ticket Lemon got, and Graham, being the local cop, tells her if she doesn't want a speeding ticket she shouldn't go over the speed limit.

Prairie is quiet, listening, and I wrap my arm around her shoulder protectively.

I know Mom and Dad are watching every move we make.

But I'm not going to change how I treat Prairie to make them more comfortable. She's my priority now. She's going to be my wife.

Bartlett's wife Abby comes over to Prairie, introducing herself. “I'm so happy to meet you. I'm an outsider to the family too. I just married into this lot about a month ago. Lucky me.”

“Well, congratulations,” Prairie says. “Where did you get married?”

“In the barn here at the back of the property. It's a gorgeous place. I’ll have to show you sometime.” She gives Prairie a wink.

Bartlett gives me a long look.

Graham comes over and asks Prairie how she's holding up.

“I'm well, thanks. It's nice to see you out of uniform,” she says with a smile.

Plum comes over too. “Hi Prairie. My name is Plum. I'm the granddaughter. The only granddaughter. What's your favorite kind of insect?”

Prairie smiles widely. “I would say a butterfly.”

Plum nods, taking this information in seriously. “Perfect choice. Mine too.” Plum laughs, skipping away.

Lemon takes her spot. “So how's it going, Prairie? You doing all right? I heard you've been up in the cabin with my brother all week.”

Prairie’s eyes widen, looking over at me for help, but before I can drag her away from an interrogation, Mom interrupts.

“Anyone hungry? Dinner is served!”

As we walk to the table, Prairie pauses at some family photos on the wall in the hallway.

“Who's that?” she asks.

Lemon is right behind her. “Oh, that's Uncle Luke. He was my dad's best friend. He died about a year ago. He was the most wonderful man in the world. Well, right next to my father. That's all of us out at Stout Lake. Our family has a lake house out there. It's about 90 minutes away.”

“Wow,” Prairie says. “Sounds nice.”

At the mention of Luke my body tenses, head to toe. I don’t want to think about him, think about what happened to him, right now.

“What's wrong?” Prairie asks, taking my hand.

I shake my head. “Nothing. Let's just go to dinner.”

We sit at the table and I force myself to forget about Luke's picture as I attempt to put on a smile.

“Why are you scowling?” Fig asks me.

Mac laughs. “Probably because Rye’s always in a bad mood.”

Prairie, though, looks over at me with a frown, not understanding their words.

I hold her hand protectively under the table.

Not wanting her to understand at all.

10

PRAIRIE

Sitting at the family dinner table, I add more spaghetti and meatballs to my plate, focusing on the amazing food in front of me instead of the inside jokes and chatter that swirl around. There's a lot of people here and a lot of interpersonal dynamics that I can't begin to understand.

Though, on the surface, there are a few easy things to pick up.

Fig is the quintessential baby who everyone likes to tease and she's pretty good at fighting right back.

Reuben and Graham appear to have a relationship where they're butting heads a lot but can hug it out over a beer at the end of the day. Lemon seems like she is tired and needs someone to give her a few days off. Bartlett and his new wife Abby are lovey-dovey, happy as can be, which makes me smile. Mac and Rye seem like they get along pretty well and are sitting side by side. Plum is in between her grandparents, who dote on her lovingly.

For the most part, all you see on the surface is a loving family who look out for one another. Just like Leila told me they did.

When we went shopping today, she told me to think of the Roughs like a bear family. They look after one another too.

Red is like a big old teddy bear.

Annie is a mama bear who looks after her cubs.

The advice was pretty good, and I tried to see how I could apply it. But right now, when I look over at Rye, what I see is a grizzly bear. He seems downright angry, the likes of which I haven't really seen all week.

We've been spun up in one another in a way that probably is typical of two people who are falling in love. We stay up late talking about our dreams for the future. We wake up with smiles on our faces, exploring one another's bodies.

We've been watching his favorite movies, and Rye got me an email address and helped me catch up on current events I missed.

We spent a week wrapped up in one another and that felt good and right and real. But sitting here now, I'm seeing a different side of him. He's not happy.

He's grumpy and not in a way that turns me on—in a way that makes me wonder what the heck has happened.

The moment we entered that hallway, he suddenly tensed.

Maybe he has something against family photos.

Maybe someone around this table upset him.

I wish I knew more. I wish I'd known Rye longer than a week. I wish I'd known him my whole life.

But I'm not going to go there, get caught up in the wishing, because I can't take back what happened to me in the last four years.

That happened whether or not I liked it, and all I can do now is move on.

Once we finish dinner and the boys are doing the dishes, Fig asks if I'd like to come upstairs. “I was thinking you probably don't have a lot of clothes. Not to get too personal, but your situation has been pretty rough. So I thought maybe you'd like some of my things. Not to be weird or give you hand-me-downs, but I have six brothers and sisters and a lot of distant relatives. And everyone always buys me clothes for every Christmas and every birthday, and, well…” She shrugs. “I think we're the same size.”

I nod. “Yeah, I bet. And thanks for thinking of me.”

“Okay, well, you don't have to take any of it. I just pulled some things out for you. Mom gave me the idea.”

Annie is walking up the stairs with us, the other Rough ladies following: Lemon, Abby, Plum. We climb two sets of stairs to get to Fig’s attic bedroom.

I catch my breath as we enter the room. “Wow,” I say, taking in the space. Fig’s room is something out of a fairy tale.

“I know, right?” she says. “Dad converted it for me a few years ago, and it's basically the best room in the house.”

“Basically,” Lemon says. “I shared with Fig all growing up and then I leave and she gets her own bedroom.”

Abby smiles playfully. “Oh, poor Lemon. She had to grow up in a gorgeous mansion with a loving mother and father.”

I laugh at that. “Where did you grow up?” I ask Abby.

Lemon jumps in, speaking dramatically, “She grew up travelling the country, sleeping under the stars.”

Abby snorts, and it is clear they love one another by how well they tease each other. “I grew up in a traveling circus. My family was crazy.” She looks right at me. “I think you and I can relate on our lives being a little more bonkers than the Roughs’.”

“I’m so sorry, Abby,” I say.

She just smiles. “But look at where I am now.” She takes Plum’s hand and twirls the little girl around the magical bedroom. It all feels too good to be true.

Annie begins going through Fig’s things that she set aside on a bed. “There's some really nice pieces here, Fig,” she says. “Sweetie! You never did wear this sweater. There's still tags on it. I think I got you this for last Christmas.”

“Yeah, Mom. I look terrible in yellow.”

Annie laughs. “Well, it looks like it might be Prairie’s favorite color.”

I look down at the sweater I'm wearing. It's a golden hue, and I nod. “Yellow is my favorite.”

“Perfect,” Fig says with a wide smile.

Lemon and Fig begin working through the pile of clothes, handing me jackets and jeans, complimenting me on how things might fit or look on me. Abby is braiding Plum’s hair and keeping her entertained.

“What size of shoe are you?” Lemon asks.

“I'm a seven and a half,” I say.

“Oh shoot,” Fig says. “I'm an eight and a half.”

We sit on the bed and they keep giving me clothes to try on. If I was self-conscious, well, it's gone by the time we finish sorting through Fig’s items. “This is really generous of you,” I say to Rye’s little sister.

She waves her hand in the air. “I'm trying to be more generous, you know? I'm almost a grown up.”

“When do you turn 18?” I ask her.

“Next month,” she says, “and I graduate a few months after that.”

“Wow,” I say, “do you have any big plans?”

She shrugs. “Not exactly.”

Annie, though, questions that. “No big plans? I thought we were going on a trip to California for spring break? A mother-daughter trip. That seems like a big plan.”

I smile. “That seems like a lovely plan.”

“Have you ever been to California?” Plum asks me.

I shake my head. “No, I've never traveled far. I’ve only ever been in Washington.”

“Same with Rye. He never goes anywhere,” Fig says. “He always stays home.”

“Well, he was up at the cabin,” I say. “Why was he up there?”

Lemon smirks. “Dad made him go. He’s been in a bad mood for an entire year. And last week, Dad told him he had to go up to the cabin alone and clear his head and he wasn’t allowed to come back until he did.”

“How long had he been up there?” I ask, feeling like I know the answer, but so much happened the day I left, the day he found me.

Lemon, Abby and Fig all share a look.

Annie, though, clears her throat. “He’d only gotten up there that morning when he found you.”

“Oh,” I say softly. “So he was in a bad mood, you guys sent him to the woods in the middle of nowhere and he found me, and now you’re wondering why. You still think he’s angry and that I’m making whatever his issue is worse?”

Fig presses her lips together. “I don’t want to see you hurt.”

Lemon knocks into her shoulder. “Don’t.”

“Don't what?” Fig tosses back.

Abby shakes her head. “Nothing. It's just…”

Annie sits down on the bed. “Rye hasn’t been himself this last year. He's been really unhappy.”

“Which makes us wonder,” Lemon says, looking at me, “if he's ready for something so serious. You’ve been through so much. Can he take care of you? All things considered.”

My eyes widen at this, not expecting her involvement in the relationship I've begun with her brother.

But, of course they're all invested. This family is close-knit. They know everything about one another. They sent Rye to the woods to clear his head—they're deeply involved.

“Lemon,” Annie says. “That's too much. Let Prairie collect herself. All right? Can you girls let us talk for a moment alone?”

Fig, Lemon, and Abby leave with Plum, who was distracted by trying on Fig’s glittering necklaces.

Alone, Annie turns to me.

“I love Rye,” I tell her, exhaling. “I can't help it. But I don’t want to have to prove myself or prove how much I care for your son. I can’t change how I feel.”

Annie reaches for my hand. “Love is like that, Prairie. It's hard to understand.

You love who you love, and you can't really choose. The important thing is that you understand yourself; that you know what you want.”

I begin to cry, appreciating the chance to speak my truth. “I know what I want,” I tell her.

“I’m not sure Rye does,” she says softly.

Just then, Rye steps into the room. “Are you kidding me with this?”

11

RYE

I had a bad feeling about the girls all going upstairs with Prairie. This whole night was probably a terrible idea. Bringing her to Sunday dinner after everything she's been through is a lot all at once.

She spent years living with two people who kept her locked up. And then for the last week it was just her and me, living in our cocoon.

And then all this. It's a lot of people, a lot of energy. I don't want her light to go out. I don't want her to get swallowed up whole by Fig and Lemon—I know how they can be. Plus, with Abby and my mom all in the same room? Well, that's a lot of women.

The last thing I want is for Prairie to end up in a puddle of tears. And as I climb those stairs to Fig’s bedroom, passing half the Rough women as I go, I know something's not right.

The girls won't tell me what happened, though. My sisters give me looks that tell me there is trouble brewing, and my chest is tight, constricting as I climb the stairs, wanting to get to Prairie, wanting to be sure she is okay.

At the top of the stairs, when I reach Fig’s bedroom door, I see Mom on the bed with Prairie, who’s crying just like I expected.

I walk into the room.

“What are you saying to her?” I ask Mom. “What did you say to make her upset? It’s the last thing she needs right now.”

“It's okay, Rye,” Prairie says, reaching for my hand. “You don't need to get angry.”

“Like hell I don’t. I don't want anybody upsetting you.”

“Nobody is upsetting her. We're just talking, Rye,” Mom says, standing. “I can have a conversation with Prairie without you barging in here, thinking you're going to save the day.”

I clench my jaw. Squeeze Prairie's hand. Tight. “I think it's time for us to go.”

Prairie looks up at me. “You sure?”

“Yes, Prairie, I'm sure.”

She nods, hearing me. “All right.” Turning to my mom, she speaks. “Annie,” she says, stepping toward her and wrapping her in a quick hug. “Thank you so much for dinner. I haven't had spaghetti and meatballs in years, and it was just delicious. Your garlic bread is to die for.”

“Oh, that's an old family recipe. I’ll write it down for you if you'd like.”

Prairie laughs. “Well, I can't imagine making bread from scratch but I could give it a try. Thank you again for your warmth and your hospitality. And all of these clothes here.”

She hands me two large shopping bags and I carry them downstairs.

I appreciate my mom’s and Prairie’s ability to defuse the situation. Well, I suppose what I mean is their ability to defuse me.

When we walk into the living room, I see everyone else is getting ready to play a game of charades.

Slices of peach pie à la mode are in bowls on the coffee table and in people's laps.

There's a pot of coffee made and it smells real good. I'm sorely tempted to sit down and say screw my irritation, but Prairie needs to go. I don't want her to deal with all the drama that's going to come with a game of charades because with this family, hell, it’s a competition no matter what we’re playing.

“You’re leaving so soon?” Mac asks, frowning.

I nod. “Yeah. It's been a long day. We're going to head home. Catch up with you guys later.”

Dad stands and gives Prairie a squeeze of her shoulder. “I'm glad you could come out tonight.”

I set the bags under a tarp in the bed of my truck. Then I open Prairie’s door for her, trying to forget about Luke’s picture hanging in the hallway and my mother thinking I don’t know what I want.

Once I turn the car on, the heat blasting, and start rolling down the mountain, I tell Prairie what I really think.

“Look,” I say, “I think maybe you and I, we ought to go back up to the Rough Forest for a while.”

“Rye,” Prairie starts. “Can we just talk when we get home—”

“My dad says my cousin Cash is helping him with the family business. And maybe he can keep on helping. We can go up to the forest. We can set up shop for a month, maybe two, or even longer.”

“Rye, I’m not running away. I want to stay put. You build houses, maybe you’ll understand this metaphor. I want to lay a foundation. I want to build from the ground up. I don’t want to hide.”

I shake my head because that won’t work here. The secret, it’s too big, and if I stay in Home, it will swallow me whole. “We can stay up there as long as we want,” I tell her as I drive. “We can even plant a garden this spring. Make that place our home—”

“Stop the car, Rye. Listen to me!” Prairie urges. “You aren’t listening!”

We’ve just crossed the bridge over the Rough River toward my cabin, and I pull off to the side of the road.

“What is it?” I ask her. Then I grin. “You want to stop and have a quickie before we make it home?”

She shakes her head. “No. Did you not hear me hollering at you? Did you hear me telling you what I want? Because I don’t want to run to the woods. I spent enough time locked up. I want to be free.”

“Where is all this coming from? I thought you liked that hunting cabin?”

“Sure I liked it. It was better than the place I was held captive, but I want to be here. I want to be in Home. And I want you to be honest about why you want to run away. Rye, what are you so angry about?”

“Nothing. I’ve never been so happy since meeting you.”

“Then what was that back at your parents’ house? Everyone is worried sick about you. What's your problem, Rye?”

“What do you mean, what's my problem?”

“Well, you were in a bad mood half the time we were there. You hardly said a word at dinner. You stormed into your sister's bedroom. Practically dragged me out of your parents’ house. I don't know what that was about. And then we get in the car and you say you want to leave town. You want to go back out to the middle of nowhere for months on end with me. Why?”

“I don’t have a problem,” I say, looking over at her, but of course, I have plenty of problems. Reasons I don't want to say in town. I don't want to walk down my parents’ hallways, seeing family photos, being reminded of reality. I shake my head. “I don't want to fight with you. We didn't fight all week. We go to my parents’ house for one night and look at us. We're arguing. Let's not be these people.”

“Fine,” she says. “Let's not. I don't want to argue with you either. I love you. You're the last person I want to fight with.”

“Fine, then what are we doing?”

“What we're doing, Rye, is we're talking this out. What are you hiding? What aren't you saying? Because I know something is working you up. Why did your parents send you to the middle of nowhere; why were you in a bad mood for a year? What happened to you? Tell me the truth.”

I shake my head. “I don't want to do this, Prairie. I want to protect you. I want to protect everybody.”

She reaches for my arm, forcing me to turn and look at her. “Rye Rough. You listen to me and you listen to me good. I want to know what's really going on with you. Why are you so unhappy? Tell me the truth. Tell me the truth or we're done.”

12

PRAIRIE

I'm quiet as Rye drives us back to his cabin.

I know he's torn up something bad as we walk into his place. He walks straight to the liquor cabinet and pours himself a tumbler of whiskey.

“That bad, huh?” I ask him as he rakes his hand through his hair.

“Worse. You want some?”

I shake my head. “No thanks. What I really want is to understand you, Rye. I love you. But—”

“I know,” he says. “You deserve the truth.”

“Well, it seems like your family deserves it as well; they love you.”

“I know, but damn it,” he says, setting the whiskey on the table. He didn't even take a sip. “Prairie, fuck, this last week, you and me here, I want to stay in that moment forever.”

“We can't,” I say, “that's make-believe.”

“Does it have to be?”

“Yes, it's beautiful and it's lovely but it's not real life. This is real life. And we can get through it. Whatever it is.”

Rye, though, has tears in his eyes, and he presses his palms to them, wiping the tears away.

“You're scaring me,” I say. I sit down on one of the chairs in the living room. It's wrapped in plaid fabric. Cozy, comfortable. I tuck my feet under myself and I wait. It's his turn to talk. He needs to explain things. I've waited long enough.

“The thing is,” he tells me as he sits down on the couch opposite me, “you know that picture in the hallway? You wanted to know who that man in the photo was?”

“Your Uncle Luke. Your dad's best friend?”

“Yeah. Well, he worked for my father for the last 20 years. He was my dad's business manager. And I worked closely with him for the last decade since I've been my dad's right-hand man.”

“Okay,” I say, remembering how Rye’s demeanor changed tonight when we were in the hallway and Luke's name was brought up.

“Thing is, I realized Luke had been siphoning money from my father. A lot of it—200 grand.”

“Oh my God,” I say.

“Yeah. And when I figured it out, going through the books, I didn't want to come out and tell my father without talking to Luke first. I'd known Luke a long time. He's like an uncle to me. So I went to talk to him.”

“Okay,” I say, listening, taking it in. “What happened?”

“It was bad. It was the worst night of my fucking life.” Rye begins to pace the living room. “We were at the Burly Bar. One town over. We’d had one beer each. Coors Light, nothing heavy. I think to myself, this is a good time to bring it up. No other family around. No pressure, right? So I say hey, I’ve been going through the books. Immediately Luke’s demeanor changes. He gets agitated, defensive, angry. I say hey, we don’t have to do this here. We can go talk about this with my father. Of course Luke doesn’t want to talk to my dad about it. Because he’s been stealing money from my father for a decade.”

“All right,” I say, “and then what?”

Rye sits down on the chair next to me. “He told me it would ruin him. If Red knew the truth, that he had been stealing from my family, he would never look at him the same way. None of us would. The kids, all of us looked at him like he was family. Thing is, Luke had no other family. My dad gave Luke a second chance, and then Luke, well, he wasted it. More than wasted it. He told me not to tell my father, that he would try to fix it because if he couldn’t fix it, well, he'd rather be dead. Said he’d be too ashamed, too embarrassed, he wouldn't want anyone to ever know the truth. I told him it was all going to be all right, that my family would understand, that maybe my dad would just work it out with him alone and the rest of my family wouldn’t have to know. But he wasn't having it. And when he left that night, he hadn't been drinking any more than that one beer. He wasn't saying anything too crazy, too reckless. But the next morning I got this call. He was gone.”

“Oh my God. What happened?”

“He drove right up to Rickshaw Ridge and his car went over the railing. They called it an accident of course. It's a bad bend. It's dangerous to go on too fast. And if it's at night, people die up there. But hell, Luke had no reason to go up there. I know why he went. He couldn't live with the truth, with me knowing the truth.”

“Oh Rye,” I say.

“They found his body and it was no accident. He knew what he was doing. He'd rather die than be found out and look my father in the eyes and tell him what he’d done.”

“So you just held that in. You never told anybody about the missing money?”

“No,” I say. “I had money in savings, plenty of it. So I covered the money. I deposited it into the accounts.”

“All $200,000 of it?”

“Yeah,” Rye says. “The last thing I wanted was Luke's memory tarnished like this.

If I would have kept my mouth shut, if I would have never talked to him that night, he would still be alive. I was a fucking fool, Prairie. I took matters into my own hands. I should have talked to my dad, to my brother Graham. Anyone.”

“You were trying to do the right thing. You went to the source. You thought if you spoke with Luke yourself, you might understand where he was coming from. And it doesn't matter now, does it?”

Rye is shaking his head. “He's dead. And I'm the one who killed him.”

“No,” I say, “you didn't kill anybody. You didn't do anything, Rye.”

“Like hell I didn’t, Prairie. If I hadn't had that conversation with Luke that night, he would still be here.”

“You have to go talk to your father. You have to explain this to your family.”

“No, I'm not talking to them,” he says, tears in his eyes. “I'm never gonna tell them. I don't want them to know. I want them to believe that Luke was the man they think he was. They love him. You should hear the family stories they tell. No, I'm not going to take that away.”

But something else clicks inside of me. As I look at Rye Rough, my whole heart falls, sinks to the floor.

“Is your family right?” I ask him, tears filling my eyes. “Have you chosen to take care of me, protect me, love me, as your way to pay penance for what you think you did wrong? As your way to make this right?” I shake my head, terrified at the realization.

“No,” Rye says. “No, not at all. That's not it. I love you, Prairie. I love you heart, mind, soul. All of it.”

“Are you sure, Rye? Because it sounds like you were sent to those mountains to get your head on straight because you were pissing everyone in your family off over the grief you’re holding inside of you. And then you met me—this broken woman who needed saving—and now you're pouring everything into me thinking I'm going to fix you. But my love can’t make you whole, Rye. You have to go fix things with your family first.”

“I can't do that,” he says.

“You have to tell your father the truth. If you want to be with me.”

“You've giving me an ultimatum?” he asks. “Don't do this, Prairie.”

I walk to the phone he sat on the counter and pick it up.

“Who are you calling?” he asks me.

“I'm calling Leila. I'm gonna stay with her until you figure out what you want. I love you, Rye, but I'm not going to be with you until you're fully honest with yourself.”

13

RYE

Watching Prairie leave breaks my heart.

But I also know the last thing I'm going to do is hold that girl back. I love her way too much to do that.

And the moment she tells me what she needs and what she expects of me, I realize that I made a promise to her to protect her, to love her, to do my part and be the man she needs.

I pull out my phone. “Dad?” I say when he answers. “I need to see you. The whole family. Now.”

“Where?” my father asks.

“Up at Rickshaw Ridge.”

I lock my cabin and get in my pickup truck, knowing that this is where the road ends for me. The secrets I've kept buried, thinking they're meant to protect, have only brought me more pain.

Prairie deserves more than heartache. She deserves love, light, the whole damn world, and if I’m gonna give that to her, then I need to set these demons to rest.

I drive up there with tears in my eyes. Remembering Luke, the man he was. He was a fun motherfucker, always up for a good time, a laugh.

I wish I knew what he used all that money for. Damn, I hope it gave him some peace, some sort of pleasure, because he died for that money.

I park my truck and get out, setting a lantern on the hood. Sitting next to it, I wait for my family to arrive. They come up in two cars, my dad's old Jeep Wagoneer and

Graham’s SUV. When they get out of the cars, I see them with tears in their eyes and fear written across their faces. They're scared.

“What are you doing up here?” Dad says, walking toward me. “Don't tell me you're doing something stupid.”

“No,” I say. “I'm not doing anything stupid. Shit, no, that's not why I brought you here. But I did bring you here for a reason.” I meet Rueben’s eyes. “Your girl okay?”

He nods. “I took Plum to Grandma Rosie's house.”

“Good,” I say. I look at Bartlett, Lemon, Graham, Rueben, Mac, Fig. Dad and Mom are holding one another tight, and they're all looking at me like I've just about cracked their life in two.

“Look, I'm not trying to be dramatic, though I know bringing you up here at nine o'clock at night is pretty fucking dramatic.”

“Yes, it is. So what are you doing?” Fig asks. “You're scaring all of us.”

“I knew if I didn’t bring you here, where it happened, I would chicken out. And I need to come clean,” I say. “The truth is…” I shake my head. “A week or so ago at family dinner you asked me why I was so mad. You want to know what was putting me in such a piss-poor mood all this time, right?”

“Yeah,” Lemon says, “because we love you. We want to understand you. You're making it really hard though, Rye.” She blinks back tears and I step toward her, pulling my little sister into a hug.

“I'm sorry I haven't been the big brother you need. I know things aren't easy for you. And you're carrying this load on your shoulders. Hell, I'm not being the big brother any of you need. I've pulled away and pulled back and that's not okay. I get that now. Prairie helped me see the light.”

“Your girl told you to come up here like this and say something?” Mac asks.

I wipe my eyes with the back of my hand. “Something like that. She talked some sense into me.”

“All right, then,” Mac says, crossing his arms. “Then tell us what you brought us up here to say.”

“It's about Luke,” I say.

At that, my father clears his throat. “Luke?” he asks.

“Yeah. It’s about Uncle Luke.” I tell them the truth of the story, the black and white of it. Beginning to end, just like I told Prairie an hour before.

I tell them how I was scared to bring up to Luke what I had discovered about his embezzlement that day in the bar but I knew I needed to let him know I knew what was going on.

I tell my dad about the shame in Luke’s eyes. How that was the last thing I was looking to cause—that I wanted to help him.

I tell them how he had a clear mind. Being drunk wasn’t the issue. It was the embarrassment of the whole thing that brought him up here to Rickshaw Ridge.

“Oh my God,” Lemon gasps. “It wasn't an accident.”

Graham wraps an arm around her.

Mac wraps his arm around Fig.

Dad, though, the tears in his eyes are the tears that break me.

“Oh son,” he says, stepping toward me, pulling me into a hug. The hug I've needed for the last year. And that's when it hits me: keeping this secret to protect my family, well, that was the dumbest thing I ever did in my life.

My family isn't going to break over the truth. That's not what happens when you're Rough.

We can get through anything.

“Oh son,” Dad repeats, holding me tight. “That's way too much for you to carry.”

“Oh, my sweet boy,” Mom says. “None of this was your fault.”

“Sure as hell don't feel like that,” I tell my family.

“And the money?” Graham asks. “Lemon, you and Dad never noticed it was missing?”

I run a hand through my hair. “I covered that up. I used my own savings and put it in the family business accounts.”

“Rye,” Lemon says, “you shouldn't have done that. That's money you need for your own nest egg. For you and Prairie.”

“Oh, you accept her now? I was under the impression nobody here wanted me to be with her.”

Lemon shakes her head. “No, that's not it at all. We're all just scared to death. The combination of whatever has been eating you alive this last year and the horrible things that woman has been through… that's just too much all at once.”

“It's that we're scared for both of you,” Mom says. “We want the best for you both.”

“We love you so much, Rye,” Lemon says, shaking her head and wiping the tears away. “I just want you to be happy.”

I realize that my little sister needed me this last year and I've let her down. I pull that girl into another hug. Making a promise. That I'll be better, do better by her.

Lemon doesn't have a husband, a man in her life to look after her. But I can be the big brother she needs.

“So where's Prairie?” Dad asks.

“She's with Leila,” I tell them. “She said if I didn't come and talk to you she wasn't going to be with me.”

At that, my brothers all laugh. “Well, damn,” Reuben says. “I guess you found the right woman, didn't you?”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I ask.

“Well, she puts you in your place. She gave you an ultimatum. And you bent the knee,” Mom says with a smile.

“She pulled you out of your darkness,” Mac says. “Sounds like she's nothing but pure light.”

“I love her,” I tell them. “I need her to be my wife. She’s my world now.”

Bartlett presses a hand on my shoulder. “Then don't let that woman go, brother. Whatever you do, make her yours.”

14

PRAIRIE

The tears come and go; the last two hours have been a rollercoaster. “I just love this place, I’ve fallen in love with the idea of living in Home, but if Rye doesn’t choose to fight for us…” I look over at Leila with tears in my eyes. “I couldn’t stay here with the memories of him.”

“Don’t give up faith yet,” she says.

I wipe my eyes with a tissue, taking a deep breath, my heart aching as I do.

Leila and I are sitting on her couch with mugs of chamomile tea. She tells me a local pottery studio in town is where she got the lovely mugs that we're holding. I know she is trying to distract me, and I appreciate it.

“They’re beautiful,” I tell her. “The artistry is really unique.”

“Would you like to do some sort of art?” Leila asks me. “Or actually, what do you want to do in general? I don't think we've talked about that.”

“Now that I’m free to choose?”

Leila sets down her cup of tea. “Yeah. I mean, what do you want for yourself, for your life? Do you want to get a job or go to college? We've talked about the state setting you up with some funds until you can get settled somewhere. But I was wondering what your dreams are for yourself.”

I tuck my feet under myself, turning to her on the couch. Her home is a small cottage on the outskirts of town. Right on the end of Tender Trail. It's a two-bedroom house and she lives here by herself. I wonder if she gets lonely

but she seems happy with a good job and a lovely place to live.

“I know it might be hard for other people to wrap their mind around me falling so hard for Rye,” I say, tears welling up in my eyes again. “I know he's rough around the edges, but I'm really hoping he comes around because I want to be with him. I want to share a life with him.”

She nods slowly. “I don't think that's crazy or silly. I think that's lovely,” she tells me. “I've never been in love like that. I've always dreamed of it, of course.” She smiles. “But I've never had the chance to get swept off my feet. I read enough romance novels though,” she tells me, pointing to her massive bookshelf, “to know that if you're lucky enough to find someone who's going to fight for you and who you want to fight for in return, then, well, I guess that's the whole point. Why not give yourself over to that?”

I smile. “But I do want a job,” I tell her. “Not making pottery, I don't picture myself being very artistic. But there are some things I enjoy that I would be interested in pursuing.”

“Things like what?” Leila asks curiously.

“Well, I love this tea, for one. Maybe I could work at a tea shop. Are there any of those in town?”

“Maybe there's a job opening at Home Made Bakery and Café,” Leila says. “They sell tea and coffee. Something like that?”

I nod. “Yeah, sure. Something like that. I'd also just like to go on walks every day. And plant a garden and make my own meals and wash my own clothes. When I lived in that house, with Horace and his wife, they treated me like their child. I just want to be me.”

Leila frowns.

“What, did I say something wrong?” I ask her.

“No, I just I think I hear something. What is that?”

She's right.

There's noise outside.

“Are there streetlights that come on this time of day?” I ask her.

“Not this late at night.” She looks at the clock on her phone. “It's after 11 o'clock. We should be in bed.”

“I know; we've been talking for hours.” I laugh. “What is it, though? Should I be nervous? We could call Graham.”

“We don't need to call a police officer. It's probably a raccoon or something getting in the trash. Let me investigate.” She reaches for her phone on the coffee table and turns on the flashlight, then with a blanket wrapped around her shoulders, she unlocks her front door. She pushes open the screen, stepping outside. “Oh my God,” she gasps.

“What is it?” I say, rushing toward her, at her heels.

She turns to me, a wide smile on her face. And I instantly relax.

Okay. No intruder, no burglar, nothing to fear. She wouldn't be smiling if there were danger.

“I think you're gonna want to come outside for this,” she tells me.

I shake my head in confusion but follow her outside to the front porch, where now it's my turn to pull in a sharp breath.

My eyes fill with tears instantly. Every member of the Rough family is standing there holding candles in their hands.

There are flashlights pointing upwards to the sky surrounding Leila's house.

Rye is in the center of the family, and he steps toward me.

My heart fills with wonder, with want.

“Thing is,” Rye says, “the moment you stepped out of that clearing, asking for help, I knew it was you who were saving me. There's this quote by Rumi, If light is in your heart, You will find your way home. And Prairie, that's what's happened for you.

You found your way home. Home here not just with me, but with all of us.”

I look back at Leila, who nods. Tears are in her eyes too.

And I walk down her front steps toward Rye, the man I love, whom I was dreaming of before we ever even met.

“I know you've seen so much darkness in your life, Prairie. Somehow, you're nothing but light, and this last year, hell, I haven't been the man I once was. And then I met you and you cracked open this dark, gruff mountain man's heart and made me a new man. Made me your man. I told you that first night I wanted to marry you, to make you my wife. You thought I was joking. That I was crazy. And sure, I am crazy. Crazy for you. I love you. I love the woman you are and the woman I know you'll become, and I want to be your man. Your husband, your partner, your forever.”

And then Rye is down on one knee, looking up at me with those tear-stained cheeks, holding a diamond ring that glitters like gold.

“I went up to the cabin to get my head on straight.” Rye looks over at his Dad. “That was the deal. And a Rough deal is meant to be taken seriously. So I am asking you to make a deal with me, Prairie Jones. I know I don't deserve you,” he says, “your sunshine and your light, but God, I'm going to spend my life trying. Have me, take me, make me yours.”

“You told them everything?” I ask him, my heart pounding, my eyes swimming with tears of devotion.

He nods, reaching for my hand, slipping that diamond on my ring finger, and of course it fits because Rye and I, we go together.

I pull him up to stand, wrapping my arms around his neck.

“I love you, Rye, and of course I will marry you. I have no idea how I'm gonna be a Rough. Your family is wild in ways I've never been. But I want to be your wife. I want to learn to love you all. I want to be your family more than anything.”

I look around at the family standing here supporting us.

They're not perfect.

But their intent through all of this was to support their son, making sure he was taken care of.

That's why they sent him up to that cabin in the first place.

So he could come home centered and straight.

I smile, thinking he did. He came home with me.

Rye picks me up off the ground, and I wrap my legs around him, not caring that it is a ridiculous display of public affection. I hold that man close and I am not letting him go.

Not now. Not ever.

He's mine.

His mouth presses against my lips and I kiss him deeply, our bodies entwined just like our hearts. “I love you, Rye Rough.”

“So we're getting married?” he asks with a smile.

“It's a deal.”

Back at Rye’s cabin we move to his bed, because that is where we belong.

I look at the ring on my finger. “It’s a yellow diamond,” I say. The light in the room is brighter than the light outside at Leila's front yard, and I take in the glittering gemstone more completely now.

I look over at Rye. He's unbuttoning his flannel shirt.

The gruff mountain man is all smiles. “Well, of course I got you a yellow diamond, Prairie, nothing else would do. You're my light, you know? My sunshine.”

My heart skips a beat, melts, splits in two, whatever you want to call it. I’m undone.

I'm his and he knows it.

“I want my clothes off and I want them off now,” I tell him, eager and needy. “I want you in me and I want this. You and me forever.” I’m practically panting.

“Fuck, baby. That's what I want too.”

I'm smiling as he draws me to him, stripping me down to nothing in 10 seconds flat. My panties are gone. My bra’s unclasped, my breasts—they're in his mouth. He’s dipping low to them, sucking my nipples. His hand is between my thighs. Teasing me and making me instantly wet, making me ready. Preparing me for what’s to come: pure bliss.

I moan as he touches me, hitching my leg up to his hip.

His thick cock presses against my belly. He’s hard, ready, willing, my husband-to-be. “What are you thinking?” he asks, his fingers running through my hair, tilting my chin up high, forcing my eyes to meet his, but there needs to be no forcing here. Because my eyes—they will never stray.

“I'm thinking how lucky I am. How completely thankful I am. How overwhelmed I am. How—”

He presses his mouth to mine. Maybe he's shutting me up. Maybe he's as overcome and overwhelmed as I am. Whatever it is, his tongue finds mine and we're on the bed, rolling, moving, melting, magic.

He's on top of me and his fine, muscular, chiseled body centers right where it belongs. And I want nothing more than for this moment to be suspended forever. To be locked in time for eternity with Rye Rough.

I'm smiling as he begins to fill me up, inch by inch.

“You ready for this?” he asks. I moan as he enters me.

“Oh God,” I pant. “So ready. So fucking ready.”

“Good. Good, baby. I'm ready too.”

“I can feel how ready you are,” I tell him. I begin to massage his balls, teasing them as he fills me up more deeply. I wrap my legs around him with my back arching, letting him take me entirely.

“Oh God, Rye.” I find myself exhaling as he thrusts deeper inside of me.

“You look so good wearing nothing but that yellow diamond,” he tells me.

I look at my finger. He's right. I grin. “I cannot wait to be your wife.”

“Prairie Rough,” Rye says. “It has a ring to it, right?”

EPILOGUE

RYE

One month later…

“I never thought this day would come,” Lemon says as she places a boutonniere on Cash’s suit coat. My cousin is my best man today.

“You’re just jealous your brother's getting married before you,” Cash teases.

I grunt. “Hey, don't give her too hard a time. She's been pulling up all the slack for me this last year. Turns out my grumpy-ass mood was turning away business and she kept having to chase clients back.”

Cash chuckles. “Yeah, your dad has good things to say about you, Lem.”

Lemon smiles. “Well, considering I’m practically running this family's construction site company, I should get some more credit.”

I laugh. “I just gave you a compliment, Lemon. No one's doubting what you're doing for the family. You're in that office 70 hours a week, I swear.”

“Yeah, trying to book you boys more jobs. Dad needs to retire,” Lemon says. “We need more men on the crew. What about you, Cash? You ever think of working for my father full-time? I know you've been helping out while Rye and Prairie were—”

Cash cracks up. “What were Rye and Prairie doing, Lemon?”

She sputters before rolling her eyes.

Prairie and I have been doing nothing but having fun getting to know each other. Making sure we’re comfortable with one another in every way imaginable. Heart, soul, skin. Now we're getting married.

Cash shakes his head. “I had no problem pitching in when your dad needed some help on his crew. But I belong over on the ranch.”

“Dad appreciated having you around,” I tell him.

“It was fun hanging around you fancy boys from Home, but I got horses to break, and I got cattle to feed,” Cash says with a laugh.

“You think you’ll ever find yourself a wife on that ranch?” Lemon asks.

Cash tosses it right back at her. “Probably the same time you find yourself a husband in that office, tied to a desk.”

“You’re taking next week off for your birthday, right, Lemon?” I say. “Going to Stout Lake?”

Cash cracks up, pressing a hand to his chest. “You really are going fishing for a man, aren't you?”

She shoves Cash away, wagging a finger at him. “Don't you get started. I'm not going to the lake for a man. I'm going for a week of rest and relaxation for my birthday. I'm not going to work. I'm not going to answer my phone. And I am not going to talk to any men.”

Lemon walks off to report on Cash and me being Rough and Rowdy as usual.

I turn to Cash. “Thanks for being here today.”

He grins. “Thanks for asking me to be your best man. Your brothers mad?”

“You and I grew up together. Since before we were in diapers. It seemed right.”

Cash pauses, his eyes meeting mine. I know our memories are not all fucking around and causing good trouble. There have been hard times too, heartbreaking ones. “You stood by my side at my ma’s funeral; seems right I stand next you now, Rye.”

“Damn,” I say, choking up. “I love you, man.”

Cash shakes his head, grinning. “I can't believe you're really getting hitched. But Prairie, she seems happy. You both do,” he tells me.

“I've never been happier.”

“Hell,” Cash says, “you really are a changed man.”

I laugh as my brothers all join us in my old bedroom at the family house, bringing in a bottle of whiskey.

“We thought we needed a toast,” Bartlett says. “To the groom!”

“Cheers to that,” I say, laughing.

“Cash getting married next?” Bartlett teases as Cash’s Rowdy brothers pile into my bedroom. It's getting mighty full. But none of us mind.

The ten of us boys grew up together, roughhousing and getting rowdy in this room and down this hallway.

I know, of course, if I get this suit too wrinkled Prairie will have something to say about it. But we pass that bottle of whiskey around as we start shooting the shit. Sitting on my old twin bed and laughing about the days gone by.

Soon enough, though, my mother is in the doorway. “You Rowdy boys and you Rough boys need to get downstairs. There's a wedding to be had. If your mother were here,” she says to Cash and his brothers, Williams, Carter, Nelson and Jennings, but then Mom starts to cry. “Well, if your mother were here, she would just be so happy. You all look so handsome.”

“Mom,” Graham says, “you can't cry right now.”

“Yeah, Auntie Annie,” Jennings says. “You can't cry at a wedding.”

Cash chuckles though. “Jennings, I think that's exactly what you do at a wedding. At least that's what the women folk do.”

“The women folk?” My mother shakes her head. “You sure are country boys, aren't you lot?”

“Like I said,” Cash stands taller, removing his cowboy hat and giving his auntie a half smile, “trying to make my mother proud.”

My mom beams. “Well, you all do look handsome. And your mother would be more than proud.”

Their mom, Aunt Dolly, was my mother's best friend. She died years ago and we all miss her sorely. My mother, though, at times like this, I know she misses her more than ever.

I wrap my arms around my mother and I kiss her cheek. “Thank you for everything you did to make this wedding happen,” I say to her. “I know you've been cleaning the house and baking up a storm for days making sure everything was perfect.”

“There's nothing I wouldn't do for that girl. I don't think there's a sweeter thing in this whole world.”

Abby grins as she passes us in the hallway. “I heard that, Annie! You know, I'm your first daughter-in-law. I’d think you'd be a little bit sweeter to me. All things considered.” My mom laughs, watching as Abby chases down a wild-haired five-year-old. “Plum, I am on strict orders to braid your hair before the wedding starts!”

I turn back to Mom as the Rough and Rowdy boys all file downstairs to where the wedding ceremony is taking place.

Alone, I say to her, “I mean it, Mom, thank you. Prairie and I—”

“I know, son. You've had a hard time. And Prairie needs us all in her corner.”

Mom's right. Prairie has had a hard transition into the real world. She has a therapist, anxiety medication, and we quickly realized a job would be too much for her right now. Maybe one day, but right now she just needs to recover and recuperate.

Heal from all the pain she's endured.

My job, aside from working for my father, is to be the man she needs.

“Go easy on yourself, Rye. You two are going to make mistakes as husband and wife. You are going to have good days and bad, but the most important thing is that, at the end of the day, you are still in it together.”

“All my life you told me to be rough. And now you're telling me to be easy?”

“Yes, I am,” Mom says. “I know you carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. But right now, just smile and have fun. And take that wife of yours on your crazy honeymoon to Iceland and think about the big wide world out there. Neither you nor Prairie have ever left home or gone far from it. So go spread your wings, and then come back here for Sunday dinner. You understand?”

Our wedding is small and intimate. It's just our family and a few select friends. We didn't want any more people because, well, Prairie doesn't like crowds, and considering all the television interview requests and the magazines that have asked for her face to be on the covers, she's more determined than ever to avoid public appearances.

She likes to stick to ourselves, which, considering sticking to ourselves oftentimes means saying in the bedroom in our cabin, I'm fine with that.

And today I'm grateful for this small wedding because this moment seems intimate and special. And one I'm not ready to share with anyone else.

Turns out Abby can play the piano and she's sitting in the corner playing some tunes as my wife-to-be walks down that big old staircase toward me with a smile on her face that is big and beautiful.

Her eyes light up this whole room. She’s wearing a white dress that falls to the floor. Fig made it just for her with my mom’s help. It’s lacy and lovely. Delicate just like her.

She has a yellow ribbon tied at her waist and I got her yellow diamond earrings to match the yellow diamond on her engagement ring.

Her hair is pulled back in a low bun, and she has a veil on that I’m ready to pull away so I can kiss those lips of hers once we’re pronounced husband and wife.

She steps towards me, and I take her hand in mine.

Pastor Andy is here to do the honors.

As he leads us to the vows, tears are in both of our eyes. But hell, when I look around, I realize it's not just the women folk crying, everyone is because there's something special about the moment. About the day.

Falling in love at first sight is one thing. The only thing.

“I love you,” Prairie tells me, “and I will love you from this day forward, for all the days of our lives…”

I repeat the words after her, and when Pastor Andy tells me to kiss her, I don't hesitate. I wrap my arms around her, kissing her tight, hard, deep.

Surely, I could keep on going but my family starts hooting and hollering and hell, I think those are mostly my Rowdy cousins, and I laugh.

I lift her up in my arms and spin her around in a circle. “I love you,” I tell her. “I'll love you forever.”

“That's a deal, right?” she asks.

I nod. “That's a deal, Prairie Rough.”

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