A small gasp drew my attention downward. “Daddy! You said a bad word.” My daughter crossed her arms in front of her, her brows pinched together, and her lips pursed. “You have to put two dollars in the swear jar as soon as we get home.”
I bit the inside of my cheek to stop myself from smiling. Molly may’ve only been seven, but she had the sass of a teenager. She was also way too smart for her own good.
Reaching into my pocket, I extracted my wallet and pulled two dollar bills from it. I handed the money to her and said, “Fine paid, now go see if you can get Uncle Logan to cough up more bills.” The smile on her lips could brighten the darkest day and the one on mine stayed firmly in place as I watched her skip away.
The reason for my cussing stepped into my line of vision again. A curvy little blonde who reminded me I wasn’t just a father. Behind the walls I’d erected around myself stood a red-blooded man who had forgotten what it felt like to be affected by a woman.
I didn’t like it.
Another cuss fell from my lips as I shoved my hands into my pockets and angled my body away from her. She had to be a friend of the bride. It took a hell of a lot of effort not to pull aside my friend, Brett, and ask him exactly who this girl was.
If you knew me, you’d know what a feat that was. As the sheriff of our little town, I made it my business to know everything about everyone, especially the newcomers. But as much as this woman piqued my interest, I couldn’t go there. For the first time since my daughter’s birth and her mother’s betrayal, a woman stirred something in me with a single look.
I was man enough to admit that that scared the shit out of me.
There was no space for a woman in my life. Not only was being a decent dad the most important thing to me, but I also didn’t think I could ever trust a woman again. A slow scan of my parents’ backyard had some of the tension rolling off me. I’d grown up on this ranch, the lush greenery and endless stretch of trees were as much a part of me as the blood running through my veins.
I couldn’t think of a place more fitting for a wedding reception.
Unfortunately, my state of peace and calm was short-lived as the object of my irritation came into my line of vision again.
“Shit.” Good thing Molly wasn’t in the vicinity. Try as I might, I couldn’t get myself to take my eyes off her. She was absolutely beautiful, and it was infuriating.
This damn woman had hijacked my attention the moment she’d showed up at the courthouse where the ceremony had been held earlier today. She’d strolled into town like a breath of fresh air. One look at her and I was reminded how long it’d been since I’d had a woman.
Brett and Kenzie’s ceremony had been short and sweet, but I still couldn’t manage to take in a single thing. My sole focus had been the blonde standing next to the bride, my gaze particularly drawn to her luscious curves.
The gentle sway of her hips had been enough to hypnotize any single, heterosexual male within a ten-mile radius. The curls cascading over her shoulder had my fingers twitching with the need to touch and don’t even get me started on my other body parts.
I gritted my teeth and forced my attention away from her, choosing to scan the yard instead. My lips tugged into a smile the instant I noticed Molly and her cousin, Flynn, pretending to be superheroes. My daughter threw her little head back, the wind carrying her squeals of laughter straight to my ears.
“Such a beautiful sight, isn’t it?” Mama hooked her arm through mine, resting her head against my shoulder. A contented sigh blew over her lips. “Our Molly is growing up, and what a fine girl she’s turning into.”
I didn’t want to think of my little girl growing up and the possibility that she might not need her dad anymore. Instead of answering my mama, I hummed in agreement. She shifted beside me. I didn’t need to look to know she was studying me.
Side-eyeing her, I remarked, “You’re staring, Mama.”
“You’ve been standing here on your own for the better part of an hour.”
A small breath left my lungs. “You know I hate weddings.” And this love business. First Logan, my younger brother, had fallen head over heels for Harper and her little boy, and now, barely a year later, his friend Brett said his nuptials.
Now Brett wasn’t related by blood, but Mama loved him all the same. She almost suffered a heart attack when he and Kenzie informed her that they wanted to get married in front of a judge. To make it up to her they told her she could do the reception for them, and of course she was going to have it on the ranch.
It’s the place where all our best memories were made.
My mother’s arm slipped from mine and she brought her hand up to place it over my heart. “One of these days someone special is going to come along and she’s going to break through these thick walls.”
“Mama,” I warned.
“I know, I know.” She held her hands up, palms facing me. Facing me, she peeked over her shoulder at Molly and Flynn before looking back at me. “Come join us?”
I needed to clear my head. Bending down, I pecked my mother on the cheek and promised, “Soon.” She regarded me with narrowed eyes and I added, “Lemme just walk for a bit, okay?” Even though my family understood why I was the way I was, there was no need for them to be privy to my sour mood today.
Mama’s features softened as she reached up and patted my cheek. “I’ll keep an eye on Molly.” I hated that behind the understanding in her eyes, I saw pity.
As she walked away, a feeling of being watched came over me. I stopped, furrowed my brows and looked around. And there she was; the reason electricity was zipping through my veins.
She was so far away that I couldn’t tell you whether her eyes were green, blue or purple, but close enough that the heat in her gaze was unmistakable.
Or maybe all my blood rushing south had made me delusional.
I didn’t care what it was, and I certainly had no need to find out. Spinning on my heel, I started walking in the direction of the creek. It was the only place where I knew I’d be able to make some sense of my scrambled thoughts.
The sound of twigs crushing beneath my feet and water slowly trickling filtered through my ears and settled in my bones. As soon as I reached the big willow tree, I sucked in a deep breath while my eyes roamed over the beautiful picture nature had painted.
Tilting my head slightly, my gaze followed the enormous branch as it bowed over the water, the tip slightly touching the surface. Above my head the leaves rustled as birds took flight; a few rays of sunlight peeked through the dense foliage, bringing with them a sense of warmth.
I walked backward until my back hit the rough bark of the tree. With a sigh, I slumped against it and shut my eyes. With every inhalation, I did my best to reel in my rampant thoughts. My efforts were futile because no matter what I did, my mystery woman wouldn’t leave me for even a second.
I couldn’t remember a time where a woman was so firmly stuck in my mind. I didn’t know whether to laugh or punch something. “Shit!”
“Easy there, I come in peace.”
The instant her sweet voice filled my ears, my eyes flew open. As if she’d just stepped from my thoughts, the blonde stood in front of me, pearly white teeth digging into the plump flesh of her bottom lip.
How was it that I hadn’t even heard her approach? Maybe I am imagining her? Swallowing hard, I blinked a few times to be sure. Instead of vanishing, she inched nearer.
Up close she was even more gorgeous, more radiant. Big, round hazel eyes pulling me deeper and deeper. My gaze swept over her body, the material that clung to her curves giving me just enough of a hint to what lay beneath. My mouth went dry, my fingers twitching to reach out and touch.
Swiveling her head, she looked at the creek behind her, then the trees surrounding us before pinning me with a heated stare again. “Nice view.”
No, the view is spectacular.
She started moving forward, my heart kicked into gear, slamming furiously against my ribs. Why is this woman affecting me like this? When she came to a standstill in front of me, one breath took her scent straight to my lungs. The smell of apples almost as intoxicating as a shot of tequila.
My gaze flitted between her eyes and her outstretched arm. If merely looking at her was causing havoc in my body, what would touching her do? Despite myself, I reached forward and took her hand in mine. Lightning could have struck at that very moment and it still would have been rivaled by the electricity zipping through my veins.
By some miracle, I found my voice. “Eli.” If only my brain could offer up more than a single word.
Still holding on to my hand, her lips curved into a seductive smile. “Oh, I know who you are, Sheriff.” Zoe pulled her hand from mine and nodded in the direction of the reception. I could still faintly hear the music and laughter I’d tried to escape. “It was a nice wedding, don’t you think?”
Because my brain wasn’t functioning properly, my “I guess” came out shorter than I’d intended for it to.
Her eyes widened. “You don’t like weddings?”
I shook my head. Not only in answer but in hopes of regaining some sense.
“What’s not to like?” Zoe shrugged. “Free food, free drinks, and dancing.” Her little wink sent the rest of my blood downward right before her swaying hips stopped my heart.
I couldn’t tell you why these things turned me on, I just knew it pissed me off. I bit down on my teeth. The slower her hips moved, the harder I bit. When all I could do was stare in silence, she stopped swaying.
Cocking her head to the side, she gave me a pensive look. As much as I needed to, I refused to look away. “The strong silent type,” she mused. “I like it.”
I held her gaze as she sauntered toward me until our toes touched. “All that gritting on your teeth,” she purred. “Can’t be good for them.”
My breath hitched the moment she flattened her palm against my abs and dragged her hand up my chest. Keeping her eyes on me, she tapped her finger to the beat of my ticking jaw. “I’ve seen the way you’ve been looking at me, Sheriff.” Her tongue snaked along her bottom lip, I almost groaned out loud. “Like you’ve been dying for a taste.” She pushed onto her toes, her soft curves pressed up against my hard body. “Well, here’s your chance…taste away.”
The resolve that’d slowly been slipping finally snapped. I took her face in my hands and her mouth in a rough kiss. To hell with common sense. My tongue pushed past her lips, the taste even sweeter than I’d thought it would be.
It was one of those kisses that robbed you of your senses and your inhibitions. It took all my willpower not to spin us around so I could have my way with her against the tree. A single kiss had never affected me in such a profound way; I couldn’t even imagine what losing myself in her would do.
I had no idea when her hands had slipped beneath my shirt, but the feel of her palms against my bare skin was the shock I needed to snap out of this haze. Cupping her shoulders, I pushed her back. My gaze zeroed in on her lips — her swollen just-kissed-stupid lips. Everything in me was screaming that I should dive back in and take what she was offering.
I wanted to. Boy, did I want to.
Faint laughter filtered through the air, reminding me of where we were. My blood turned to ice at the possibility of Molly finding me in a compromising position. “That shouldn’t have happened.”
Zoe reached up to touch her fingers to her lips, a sliver of ink on her wrist caught my eye. “And yet it did.”
“I have to go.” I took a wide step around her, but it didn’t stop her from reaching out and curling her fingers around my wrist. Screwing my eyes shut, I sucked in an audible breath.
“Come on, Eli. They don’t even know we’re gone.”
I reached out to run my knuckles over her cheek but stopped myself midway. Curling my hand into a fist, I dropped it to my side and shook my head. My eyes took in her beauty one last time then I tugged my arm free. As I stumbled away, I knew the only way to keep my sanity was to never lay eyes on this woman again.
6 months later.
He was there.
I could feel his eyes on me as I watched my life go up in flames. He’d already taken so much from me and now he was taking this, too. What more was there for him to ruin? Hadn’t I been punished enough?
Swallowing down the sob that wanted to break free, I scanned the crowd of people outside my gallery. I recognized a few. Mary-Ann from the deli down the street. Barney, the owner of the bar I frequented. A few neighborhood residents.
No sign of him.
But I knew he was there in the shadows. Waiting. Watching. Admiring his handy work. A loud cracking sound slashed through the air, followed by audible gasps. My gaze snapped back to the gallery in time to see the building’s roof cave in.
My head spun, my legs turned to jelly. I knew I was going down, but I was helpless to stop it. Support came from one of the firefighters who wrapped an arm around my waist to keep me upright. “You all right, ma’am?”
No, I wasn’t all right. Tears filled my eyes as I bared witness to the firemen doing their best to tame the dancing flames. It didn’t matter anymore; there was nothing left of my blood, sweat and tears. It had taken me years to build the gallery up to where it had been. Artists from around the world wanted their paintings and sculptures featured with me. And now…I had nothing.
Slowly, I turned toward the man next to me, his face etched with concern.
“I’m fine.” I wrapped my trembling fingers around my throat. Not only did my voice sound distant and scratchy, but it was painful to talk.
“Is there someone I can call for you?”
With a shake of my head, my focus turned back to the smoldering building. It wasn’t like I didn’t have anyone to call; it was more a situation of me not wanting to burden them. My parents and brother lived a few towns over, and I knew they’d be here in a heartbeat. The problem was Adam. My brother was still recovering from a major accident. I’d seen what it had done to my parents. I couldn’t add to their worries.
There was not a doubt in my mind that Kenzie, my very best friend, would jump in her car and drive through the night to be with me. But she was a newlywed. A chance encounter had led to her running into her old college boyfriend. To say that sparks flew was an understatement; they got married three weeks later.
A shudder ran through my body. Eyes narrowed, I scanned the crowd again, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man who had ripped my world apart. A man who thrived on tormenting me from the shadows, leaving me to wonder whether he was nothing more than a figment of my imagination.
Reluctantly, I dragged my gaze from the onlookers and focused on the fireman standing beside me.
“There are some officers here,” he said carefully. “They’d like to ask you a few questions.” All I could do was nod and allow him to lead me to two uniformed men.
I had no idea how long I stood there and answered question after question. Or why, when one of the officers asked if there was someone who wanted to hurt me, I lied and said no. The only thing I was certain of was that my life wasn’t mine anymore.
I almost choked on the sob that tried to work its way up my throat.
By the time the two officers climbed in their patrol car, the street had cleared. It was only me, my burned down building and him. Like I had done so many times tonight, I scanned the area again. “I know you’re there.”
Nothing but darkness answered me.
“What more do you want?” What more can you possibly take? No rustling, no reply. I wanted to scream in anger, frustration, and – this was hard to admit – fear. The moment I finally couldn’t take it anymore, shaky legs carried me to my car.
It was well after midnight when I walked into my house. A long breath blew out of my lungs as I leaned back against my closed door. With my eyes shut, I tilted my head back, finally giving in to the tears.
My gallery was gone. It didn’t matter that I had insurance; money couldn’t replace the art that hung on my walls or the intricate sculptures that were displayed on my floor. I couldn’t even think about how many clients I was going to lose over this.
Swiping my hands over my eyes, I pushed off the door and padded to my kitchen. What I needed was a mug of hot chocolate and a plan. I couldn’t live like this anymore. If you could call what I’d been doing for the past five months living.
I pulled ingredients from the cupboard along with a pot from below the sink. A few minutes later, I wrapped my hands around a steaming mug of chocolatey goodness. As I savored that first sip, my mother’s words rang in my ears: ‘No matter how dark the cloud, it will still have a silver lining. Sometimes you just have to look really hard to find it.’
Oh, how badly I wanted to be a kid again, to crawl into my mother's lap and let her soothing words wash away my hurt.
But I couldn't steal that from Adam now; he needed it way more than I did. Mug in hand, I checked the locks on the back door before I made my way to the living room. A sense of awareness slivered down my spine. Slowly, my gaze traveled over my two loveseats, the fireplace, and the TV unit.
My heart hammered against my ribs as I approached my coffee table. I could have been mistaken, but I was almost positive that I hadn’t left my magazines spread out. The loud whooshing in my ears was almost deafening as I scrambled to flick the light switch.
Frantically, my eyes bounced from corner to corner. It only took seconds for me to find that there was no one in my house except me and my overactive imagination. I turned to head upstairs but stopped abruptly when I spotted my uncovered easel.
Since the start of this whole ordeal, I hadn't been able to draw, let alone paint. One thing I was absolutely certain of was that my easel had been covered when I’d left the house. I distinctly remembered the pang of hurt that'd flooded through me as I had run my fingers over my veiled passion.
Caution had me taking slow strides toward my painting spot, placing my mug on the coffee table along the way. I balled my trembling fingers into tight fists at my sides, willing the lump in my throat to go down.
My brow furrowed the instant I finally reached my destination. Nothing looked out of the ordinary. My brushes and paints were still as I’d left them, the half-done sketch still clipped to the wood.
Is this how it feels when you lose your mind?
I looked around my little living room again and I swear I heard the crickets mocking me. Usually, all I needed to do was close my front door to shut out the world outside. Unfortunately for me, my demons had learned how to pick locks. The space that had always been my refuge now felt like my prison.
I wanted — no, needed — out.
As I raced up the stairs and yanked my suitcase out of the closet, I tried my best to convince myself that I wasn't running away. By the time I drove past the city limits, I still wasn't sure if I believed that.