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Love’s Promise

K.L. Ramsey


ISBN 978-1-912768-03-5


Published 2018

Published by Black Velvet Seductions Publishing at Smashwords


Love’s Promise Copyright 2018 K.L. Ramsey

Cover design Copyright 2018 Jessica Greeley



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.


This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


All characters in this book are completely fictional. They exist only in the imagination of the author. Any similarity to any actual person or persons, living or dead, is completely coincidental.

Dedication


This book is dedicated to my friend, Kathy, who tirelessly showed me around Colorado while I researched parts of this book. She kept me on task and pointed out landmarks and artwork when my wandering mind thought about shopping. Her love of ice cream was inspirational and her kindness was infectious.

Prologue


Maddie couldn’t believe that her whole family got together to properly see her off. Her eyes were red and swollen from all the teary goodbyes and her face hurt from laughing at her three crazy brothers and all her nieces and nephews. Boy, were there a lot of them. It was like her brothers were in a contest to see who could have the most kids in the shortest amount of time. As of right now, her brother, Ryan, was in the lead with his wife, Jenna, but they had the unfair advantage of popping out two sets of twins. Poor Jenna!

Everyone was leaving and Maddie was glad for the party to be over. She didn’t enjoy emotional goodbyes and it wasn’t like she would be gone forever. Her company was only sending her to Arizona for six months, unless things went well, then who knew? She hugged the last of her brothers, sisters-in-law, and their kids goodbye and headed back out to the patio to help her mom clean up. It was so nice of her parents to host the party. She was just about out the door when she ran smack into Jack, who unfortunately for him, was carrying the left-over veggie dip which now covered his shirt.

“Oh, shit. I’m so sorry Jack!” She tried not to giggle, covering her mouth with both hands to hold it in, but that didn’t help. “Jack, I’m really trying not to laugh, but you just —” She exploded into hysterical laughter at the sight of her brother’s best friend covered in ranch dip. Jack tried to be mad but joined her laughing as he made his way to the kitchen to clean himself up.

Jack Sanders had been a part of her brothers’ lives for as long as she could remember. Her three very overprotective brothers often included Jack in their efforts to scare off every one of her boyfriends. For a long time, she thought of Jack as an older brother, since he was the same age as Shep. But now at twenty-four, Maddie could do nothing but think of Jack Sanders in many other ways; namely naked and on top of her while making her scream out his name. During college, she thought of her feelings for him, as just a crush. She casually dated other men, but nothing serious ever came from dating them. Her main problem was Jack; he was all she could think about. He haunted her dreams, both sleeping and waking. After she graduated and moved back home, she saw him just about every day. It became painfully clear to her that she had somehow fallen in love with Jack. The problem was if she admitted her feelings to him and he didn’t feel the same, she’d risk ruining her brothers’ friendships with him. She loved them all too much to risk that happening, so she kept her mouth shut. But, watching Jack date the women in town was painful. Running into him while he was out with yet another woman, wasn’t something that she could stand anymore. So, she took a job that paid crap but would involve long stints of travel. Time away from town and Jack Sanders was just what she needed to get over her feelings and find someone else.

She busied herself with putting away leftover food and stopped dead when she realized that Jack was standing next to her, shirtless. My God, the man was, well, he was a god. His arms looked like massive bands of steal and his abs were more like an eight-pack rather than a six-pack. He was always an overachiever but this was beyond, beyond. For a computer programmer, science nerd, there was no doubt that the man was working out in his time off. She dropped the bag of pretzels that she was holding, causing them to spill all over the counter and onto the floor.

“Damnit. I seem to be all thumbs today.” Jack smiled down at her and cocked his eyebrow. Yeah, totally sexy. He knew how to work his looks. He kept his dark brown hair slightly longer on top and shaved on the sides and back. He also let his stubble grow into something that was not quite a beard but more than an evening shadow. And she wondered just how that stubble would feel up against her thighs while he kissed his way up her body.

“You alright Mads?” Her nickname used to really piss her off but since Jack was really the only one to still call her by it, she didn’t mind as much. “You seem a little flustered and if I didn’t know you better I’d say that you’re blushing.” Jack laughed and bobbed his eyebrows, causing Maddie’s nervous giggle. What was it about this man that made her as giddy as a school girl and as hot as a pre-menopausal woman on the prowl?

“I’m fine,” she snapped, angry that he could read her so well. She sunk to her knees to clean the mess off the floor and when she straightened up, she found herself face to face with Jack’s crotch. And Jack seemed pretty damn happy to see her. He moaned and pulled her up from her knees to stand in front of him. She couldn’t help but lean into his body, wanting more contact.

“Seriously Maddie, you drive me crazy. What if someone would have walked in and found you looking at my cock?” Maddie found herself speechless, hands plastered to Jack’s pecks, her belly pressed against his very impressive erection.

“Jack, I—” Yeah, what do you say to a guy who just had his cock in your face. Maddie had very little knowledge about that subject matter since it had never happened to her. The sad truth was that she was saving herself for Jack, all these years. She just never found anyone that was like him and he was really all she wanted. She was doomed to die a virgin and wouldn’t that serve her right, never taking the chance in telling the only man that she ever loved the truth. Since she was leaving tomorrow for six months, tonight was it. A part of her hoped to go away and meet someone else, fall madly in love and forget all about Jack Sanders. But how could she forget him when she was in love with him?

Maddie took a deep breath and decided to just go for it, now or never. “Jack I’m sorry that I get on your nerves.” She smiled but knew that her mouth twitched a little, a sign she was nervous. Jack ran his thumb across her lips, and she felt her knees buckle. The man just made her mushy.

“I didn’t say that you get on my nerves. I said that you drive me crazy. Big difference honey.” God, she loved when he called her honey but then, she was sure he called all the girls in town honey. Jack was a player, or at least that’s what her brothers said.

If she waited much longer, letting Jack touch her while standing half-naked in her mother’s kitchen, she was going to lose her mind. And speaking of mother, where in the loving hell had all her family and friends disappeared to? How was it just her and a half-naked Jack alone in her parents’ kitchen? She would carefully analyze it all later and try do decide if this whole thing turned out to be good or bad luck. Right now, she needed to speak her truth, or at least just blurt it out.

“Jack, I’m in love with you.” There she said it, or she thought she said it. “I said that out loud, right?” She looked up at Jack who was staring back down at her, like a deer caught in headlights. He seemed to be listening, able to nod his head, but not much else. And God help her, she couldn’t seem to remove her hands from his pecks or her body from being plastered up against his. For just a few minutes, she was going to enjoy being up against him, in his arms. Jack seemed to be enjoying it a little less than she was. He looked downright uncomfortable, even upset.

He took a step back and it felt like he slapped her across the face. She couldn’t help her tears, she was afraid that she just ruined her relationship with one of her truest friends. She covered her face with both hands, ashamed of her admission. She knew that keeping her truth to herself was really the only way to move forward but her stupid heart got in the way. She needed to stick to listening to her head, lesson learned.

After what felt like an eternity, her mother seemed to remember where her kitchen was and came strolling in, a smile on her face until she took in the scene of Jack standing shirtless and Maddie crying like a crazy person.

“What’s going on here?” her mother looked between the two of them, Jack still seemed to be unable to use his words. Maddie rolled her eyes after seeing that Jack was still in shock from her blurting out her news, “Mom, we’re fine. I just spilled dip on Jack and then dropped all the pretzels. I guess I’m just being over emotional. In fact, I need to get going.” She glanced up at Jack who was now watching her. “I have an early flight in the morning and I need to make sure everything is ready and close up my apartment.”

“Oh darling, I wish you would reconsider this job. It just doesn’t seem to be what you need right now. You just got home from college. I want to keep you around for a while.”

“I know Mom, but I need to do this. I am doing something that I really love, copy editing, and I think this company will allow me to grow. You should be happy that I’m using my degree that you and Dad paid for.”

“We are thrilled that you are doing something that you love honey, but I’m also selfish. I’m going to miss you.” Her mother teared up and Maddie could feel her own eyes filling up again. She hugged her mom close.

“I’ll Skype with you in one week, Mom. Don’t worry, I’ll come home to visit you soon. Love you.” She kissed her mom and went to find her dad, not willing to look back at Jack, afraid to see his disappointment or worse his pity.

She said her good-byes to her few lingering friends and hugged her dad who, God love him, teared up. She loved the way her father wasn’t afraid to show his emotions. If she was lucky enough to find a man like her dad, she would never let him go.

Telling Jack her truth and being rejected by him, empowered her to keep going. She had no choice but to move on with her life, literally, and make something new for herself.

Chapter One


Two Weeks Later


Maddie couldn’t believe how fast the first two weeks at her new job flew by. She thought that after her disastrous party, she wouldn’t be able to get out of bed the day of her move, let alone board the plane and move to Arizona. But she did it. She pushed herself out of her comfort zone and she really liked her new job. Her apartment was pure crap. It was in a bad neighborhood but she learned to relax past her fear and fall asleep each night with her trusty baseball bat by her side. Her brothers would cringe knowing that she was using sports equipment for personal protection, but you do what you have to in order to get by. She tried to make her place as homey as possible. She brought a few of her favorite pictures and put them around her tiny apartment. She even bought a small houseplant, but everything else was rented and felt like it belonged to someone else. It was only for six months. Then, her boss would decide where to send her. She wasn’t sure what to hope for. She missed her family but going home meant facing Jack and she was not ready for that reunion.

Now, she was faced with her second weekend in Arizona and nothing to do. Her office was quiet and small, just a few co-workers and most were anti-social. So, she had no plans but to curl up with a trashy book. At this point, her grand plan of moving and meeting Mr. Right was just a dream. Really, she was nowhere near ready to meet anyone or even worse - go on a date. It was going to take some time for Maddie to get over Jack, after all, she had been in love with him since she was a kid.

She did as promised, and Skyped with her mom and dad after her first week in Arizona. Her mother talked about her brothers and all their kids. She even had news that Drew and Karlie were expecting baby number three and Shep and April were also expecting baby number two. Maddie laughed when her father gave her the stats on the baby race, commenting on how Ryan and Jenna needed to step it up if they wanted to stay in the lead. Drew happened to be at their parents’ during the conversation and felt the need to take over the computer to let her know his two cents, “Ryan needs to stay off of Jenna. Popping two kids out at a time is just cheating!” Drew returned the computer back to his mom and seemed to find one of his kids to chase, judging by the squeals of delight coming from her parents’ noisy family room. A part of Maddie wondered if she would ever have that with someone. Love, a family, kids, a home. After her call, she stayed in bed all of Sunday, not wanting to face anything or anyone. This weekend was going to be different. She was going to save her call home for Sunday evening, that way she would have to get out of bed the next morning, for work. No more wallowing in self-pity!

She settled into her Friday evening with some decent Chinese food, even trying chopsticks but ultimately giving up and switching to a fork for maximum shovel-ability. Who cared anyway, she had no-one to impress. Okay, so wallowing in some self-pity was going to happen, but she had on clean pajamas and enjoyed a bubble bath earlier. She was counting tonight as a win. She opened her new book and loved that the stiff spine made a slight crackling noise, and that new book smell — there was nothing better. She shifted on her sofa, settling in for at least six hours of reading or until she fell asleep, drool probably running down her chin. She was prepared to fight the good fight but by about the third chapter, she drifted off and damn it, Jack was front and center in her dreams. Her Jack dreams used to be complete smut with a good dousing of romance but in the past two weeks, they had taken a darker turn. Tonight’s dream was no different, she was standing on the side of a cliff, Jack was backing her to the edge, trying to push her off. She was pleading with him, screaming his name to let her live, to just love her. She fell to her knees and sobbed, begging him to just love her. Jack started pounding on the rocks, making the whole mountain shake. The noise from the shaking mountain woke her up and for a few minutes, she was confused about where she was and why she could still hear the mountain shaking even after she woke.

“Mads, open the door!” Someone was shouting while banging on her door, the entire thing was shaking as if it would just cave in. “Maddie, open the fucking door!”

Jack, there was no mistaking his bossy tone. Besides her three brothers, Jack was the bossiest man she knew. She decided to pretend not to be home, she sunk down in her sofa as if he could see her through the door. Jack was outside of her apartment and she planned on keeping it that way. He couldn’t know if she was home or not. How did he know where she even lived? She wanted to growl in frustration at her family, they were probably the culprits in giving him her new address.

“Mads, I know you’re in there, I could hear you screaming my name. Please answer the door honey, we really need to talk.” She froze, what had she screamed in her dream? He said she screamed his name but had she said anything else? God, she was actually pleading with him to love her? Pathetic! And now what, she was supposed to just answer the door? Not a chance.

“Go away, Jack. I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of embarrassing myself further. You can just pity me from that side of the door.”

She could hear Jack growl in frustration, “I swear to God Maddie, you drive me so fucking crazy, just open this damn door!” He banged on it again for good measure. She couldn’t believe that none of her neighbors were angry about the noise but then again, the neighborhood wasn’t the best. “I’ll tear it down, Mads. Is that what you want? I want to just talk to you, that’s it.”

Maddie sighed, knowing Jack as well as she did, she knew that the man would not be leaving until he got what he wanted. She just wished that he wanted her because seeing him again was going to be painful for her. She still cried herself to sleep most nights and had dreams about him that jarred her awake with tears still fresh on her face. She just didn’t have the strength to keep doing this. She shuffled over to the door, realizing that she wasn’t at her best, but that was on him. She had no clue he was going to fly all the way to Arizona and bang on her damn door.

She swung the door open to find Jack looking almost as crappy a she felt. “What do you want Jack? Why are you here?” He looked her up and down and smiled at her poodle pajama pants. Hey, at least they were clean and matched the cute pink top she bought to go with them. Her bare toes were polished a dark pink color, she was actually about to count this look as a win when Jack strode past her, into her apartment.

“Jack, I thought that you were going to talk and then leave. I am in the middle of a good book that I would like to get back to.” She crossed her arms over her chest and Jack’s eyes seemed to follow the accentuation of her breasts. Maddie sighed, “Jack, what the hell do you want?”

He crossed the room to stand in front of her, pulling her into his arms. Maddie froze, not quite knowing what was happening. She couldn’t stand to feel his pity again. She needed to separate herself from him if she was going to escape with any of her heart intact. Maddie couldn’t allow herself to melt into Jack’s arms, the way she wanted, instead she remained rigid.

“Jack, please.” He exhaled and backed away from her, giving her a little breathing room, but damn she missed his contact.

“You look like hell,” she tried to smile at him but must have failed.

He gave his customary half smile, “Well honey, this is what you get when a man drives for two days to get to you. I slept in my car and ate at crap diners.”

“Gee, and to think you did it all for me?” This time, she did laugh. “Jack, why are you here?” Again, he sighed.

“Listen, honey, I’m tired and dirty. I got into town a few hours ago and found an apartment to rent. I’m staying here for a few months. We need to work a few things out.” He tried to crowd her space again but she took a step back and braced her hand against his rock-hard chest.

“Wait, you’re living in Arizona for a few months?” He just smiled down at her, as if that would say it all. “Jack, you can’t just move here, you have work and your family. You can’t just leave all of that!” Again, the jerk just smiled at her.

“Well, you left everyone and everything and moved here. I can work from anywhere and I can’t imagine another person, on this planet, that I’d rather spend the next six months with.” He pulled her into his chest and this time, Maddie went willingly. He really was a sweet talker, but she knew that he was just doing all of this to make sure their friendship was still intact. He didn’t want things to be awkward between them or with her brothers. She could do that, make everything okay. After all, she was the one who opened her big mouth and almost destroyed everything with three little words. She shuttered at the memory and humiliation she felt when he said nothing to her after her embarrassing omission.

“So, now it’s six months?” she teased, “I thought you said just a few months.” He ran his hand down her back and she wanted to purr her approval.

“Ummm, that feels really good,” she cuddled further into his embrace so that he could use both hands. He laughed against her, pulling her in closer.

“Honey, I’m sorry about that night.” She wanted to pull away but she also knew that not having to look him in his eyes might be easier. “I just, I wasn’t sure what to say. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing but I ended up fucking it all up anyway. You need to know how I feel. I need to tell you but —” Maddie reached up and put her hand over his lips without looking at him, her forehead resting against his chest. She just couldn’t bear his rejection, it would rip her heart in two again.

“Can’t we just leave everything alone?” she pleaded, her voice shaky from the tears that were once again rolling down her cheeks. “I just can’t do this right now. Let’s move forward, please Jack. I want everything to go back to normal.” He nodded and she lifted her head to finally look at him. “Was that a yes?”

“Yes, for now. I’m so tired that I can barely stand. I need to find a hotel and get some sleep—in a bed that is more comfortable than my truck, if that’s possible.” Maddie pulled at his arm.

“Jack, don’t drive to a hotel, the closest one is almost twenty minutes away. Stay here, you’re too tired to drive, please.” She smiled up at him and he stepped closer, rubbing her cheek gently with his thumb.

“Okay honey, I’ll sleep on your sofa, thanks.” He went out to his truck to get his bag and returned to find Maddie making up the sofa.

“I’ll sleep here on the sofa. You are too big for this tiny thing, you’ll hurt your back. Sleep in my bed. It’s a queen and really comfortable.” Jack moaned at the mention of a comfortable bed.

“I can’t do that Mads, it’s your bed. You go on and get some sleep and I’ll sleep out here.” Well, she was done with this.

“Okay, I’ve had enough. We grew up together. I saw your pee-pee when you were ten and I was seven, I think we can both sleep in the same bed. Put on your big boy pants and get into my bed.” She slapped his ass and made her way back to her bedroom, hoping that he’d follow. She could do this, sleep in the same bed with the man that she was in love with—but had to act like she wasn’t in love with him. Yeah, whatever. She had this.

She hid her smile when she heard him walk into her room and drop his bag in the corner. “Can I grab a quick shower?” He sounded so tired, she felt bad for him. She showed him to her master bath and got him fresh towels.

“I am going to crawl into bed and read some more. Any preference on which side of the bed you want?”

“Naw, you can pick. I’m so tired I could sleep draped across the bottom.” He started to strip out of his clothes and she took that as her cue to leave.

Jack grabbed her hand and pulled her back into his bare chest. “Thank you for talking to me Mads and for letting me in.”

She barked out a laugh, “Yeah, like you gave me much choice.”

“We’re not done, honey. We barely scratched the surface with what needs to be said. But I can wait until you’re ready to hear what I need to tell you. I’ll be just a few minutes.” He kissed her cheek and released her hand.

Yeah, she wasn’t going to get much sleep tonight.

***

Jack had so many questions for Maddie but he was so fucking tired he could barely keep his eyes open. Why in the hell was she screaming his name when he got there, begging him to love her? If she only knew how much he already did. He wanted to tell her how he felt tonight but the way she begged him not to, she seemed so broken. He just couldn’t put her through any more shit tonight. She seemed so fragile since telling him that she loved him and that was completely his fault. He really had no excuse for not telling her how he felt the night of her going away party, except he was a huge ass. She took him completely by surprise telling him what he wanted to hear from her for so long. He froze, panicked, chickened out—whatever you want to call it. When he heard her say the “L” word, all the worst-case scenarios ran through his mind at once; including losing some of the most important people in the world to him: Maddie’s family, her brothers, and even Maddie herself. How would he live without them all? He knew that he fucked up and that’s why he met with Shep the morning after the party. He had to come clean, to his best friend, about his feelings for Maddie. All those years of denying that he was in love with her caught up to him and he needed to fix things. He wasn’t going to play it safe anymore, worrying about what-ifs. That’s why telling Shep how he felt, about Maddie, was the right thing to do. At first, his friend didn’t take it too well. Jack was pretty sure that he would leave Shep’s cabin with at least a black eye, if not worse. But in the end, April helped Shep see that it wasn’t his place to stand in the way of Jack and Maddie falling in love. Of course, it would have been a bit easier if Jack would have just told Shep that Maddie already confessed to being in love with him but that secret was hers to tell. Maddie was his future, now he would just have to convince her of that. Starting tomorrow, he was going to show her how he felt. He needed to have a plan and pushing Maddie wouldn’t work. She was as stubborn as a mule sometimes.

After his shower, his body was screaming for bed. His cock had a mind of its own though. How he would get any sleep lying next to Maddie remained a mystery. He wanted her now, more than ever, and seeing her in those cute little pajamas, with her hair all messy, and that sleepy, sexy look in her eyes made him half-crazy with lust. All he wanted was to peel those pajamas off her hot body and sink into her, but he owed her so much more than just sex. Although his dick disagreed with him, he knew that he couldn’t fuck up again if he wanted her forever. He needed to play for keeps.

He found her curled up on the bed with a line of pillows running down the middle. He couldn’t help but laugh at the way she was covered from head to toe with blankets and pillows as if they would protect her from him. The best part was the way she was pretending to be asleep, but he knew better.

“Mads, look at me.” He stood by the side of the bed that she left open for him. She peeped one eye open and gasped when she realized that he had on nothing but boxer briefs that were doing very little to hide his erection. She sat up in bed, wide-eyed, trying but failing not to stare at his cock.

“Jesus Mads,” he covered his bulge with his hands, to no avail, “should I find some shorts or something?”

“Um, no sorry. I just, well I’m just sorry.” She was fidgeting with the pillows, trying to get them to line up perfectly.

“Honey, if I make you uncomfortable I’ll put on some clothes. I usually sleep naked but I didn’t want to upset you.” He slipped into bed and started removing her line of safety pillows.

“W-what are you doing?” God, he hated that she was so nervous around him. It was like she had never seen a guy with an erection before.

“I’m taking down your stupid wall, honey. Remember, you saw my pee-pee when we were kids? Well, sleeping in the same bed with me shouldn’t embarrass you.”

“Yeah, but it’s much bigger now that we aren’t kids.” She tugged at the last pillow on the bed between them, holding on for dear life.

Jack laughed, “Well, I hope it’s bigger now, if not I’d be a little out of proportion. Thanks for noticing babe.” He winked at her, distracting her enough to yank the last pillow out of her hands.

“Maddie, I don’t want for you to be nervous around me. I want us to be — well, us. If this is going to be weird, tell me now and I’ll go sleep on the sofa.”

“No,” she shook her head, “I don’t want you to go. I won’t be weird. We can just go to sleep.” He laid back on her bed and groaned at how good it felt to relax. Pulling her into his body, he could feel her go completely stiff. Not quite the reaction he was hoping for.

“I just want to hold you, Maddie. Relax.” He laughed when she tried to relax, really tried. But she seemed so rigid it was comical.

“I’m sorry Jack, I just can’t pretend that everything is normal between us. You know how I feel and I just don’t want to be hurt.” She buried her face in his chest, giving him the opportunity to pull her in closer.

“I’m not here to hurt you Mads. Please just give me a chance to prove that to you. We have a lot to talk about,” he yawned, “Tomorrow. Tonight, just let me hold you, please.” Maddie snuggled into him, giving him his answer.

“Go out with me tomorrow, on a real date.” He felt her hesitation at his request. He could almost feel her thinking about her answer.

“A real date?” Jack nodded and kissed the top of her head.

“Okay, a real date.” Maddie yawned and sank into him. He could feel her breathing turn heavy and that was all he needed. She was finally comfortable in his arms.

Chapter Two


Maddie woke up to an empty bed and worse, empty apartment. She wondered for a few minutes if Jack being there with her had all been a dream. She sat up and looked around her room, his clothes from last night were laying by his bag that he brought in with him. So, not a dream. But, where had he run off too? She padded out to her tiny kitchen and found a note:

Hey Babe,

I had to pick up my keys for my apartment and sign the papers. Sorry I couldn’t make you breakfast in bed—raincheck. I made us reservations for Veto’s Bar and Grill at 6pm. I’ll get settled in and meet you there. You have my cell number if you need me.

Love,

Jack

Love Jack, what the hell does that mean? The man was certainly sending her some mixed signals. First, he ignores her for years, treating her like a kid sister and when she finally spills her guts to him, he wants to cuddle and go on a date? She wished that she had someone to talk to about all of this but she couldn’t call any of her brothers’ wives, they would just tell her brothers and that would be completely awkward. Her mother was out. She would probably tell her to look at some of the other fish in the sea, wanting to keep peace and harmony in the family. This was just turning into one big mess all because she couldn’t keep her big mouth shut. If she had, Jack would be home where he belonged and she would be here in Arizona, miserable and alone. Even with all the chaos this “real date” could cause, she had to admit, a part of her felt like a teenage girl that was just asked to prom by the popular boy. She dreamed of going on a “real date” with Jack since she was a teenage girl, so that seemed fitting.

Her day seemed to drag on, waiting to get ready seemed impossible. She took a hot bubble bath and took her time with her hair and make-up, even choosing the right black sundress to wear to dinner. If she was only going to get one crack at this, she wanted to make it count. The nervous butterflies nearly did her in and she finally decided to leave, giving herself some extra time in case she got lost.

She was about halfway to the restaurant when she heard a loud pop. Her car swerved off the road, but she was able to keep it on the shoulder and out of the ditch. “Of course, perfect,” she muttered under her breath, knowing that her “real date” was doomed. Her fucking tire blew. “Shit, shit, shit!”

After a quick call to AAA, Maddie prayed that Jack would answer but she went straight to his voicemail.

“Fuck,” she decided to leave a quick message to let him know that she was going to miss their date. “Jack, it’s Maddie. I am going to have to cancel our date tonight. I was on my way to the restaurant and my tire blew. I’m on the side of Route 7 and Triple A said it’s going to be awhile before they get here. I’m sorry to have to say this but we’ll need to postpone our date for another time.” She disconnected the phone, heaving a deep sigh. At least she brought her trashy book to read, that would help pass some time. She slightly reclined the seat and settled back with her book but Lord, it was hot. She had every window down in the old rental car and still the heat and dust that kicked up with every passing car was stifling. She tried to focus on her book but must have fallen asleep. She was startled awake by unfamiliar, calloused, dirty hands poking her shoulder.

“Miss, Miss, I’m with AAA. They said you was needing a tow, Miss?” Maddie woke to the tow guy’s beefy paw sitting on her shoulder and when she realized her stupidity of falling asleep, on the side of the highway with her windows open, she woke up pretty damn quickly. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“Miss, you need a tow?” The tow truck driver didn’t seem to want to remove his hand from her shoulder. She shrugged him off and straightened her seat. He only moved when she started to open her door, to get out.

“Um, yes. Thank you,” she was trying to regain some of her composure, smoothing her hands down her sundress, she noticed that touchy-feely tow guy’s eyes followed their every move down her body. She immediately pulled her hands away from her dress and balled her fists up at her side. His eyes shot back to hers.

“Well, after we get you all hooked up, darlin’, you can ride up front with me.” He gave her a little wink accompanied by a smarmy smile that made her cringe. Really, this was her rescue party some greasy, dirty tow truck driver with the name “Timmy” stitched on his blue uniform shirt? Wasn’t Timmy the name of little boys who misbehaved in grocery stores?

She cleared her throat, she could do this. She handled growing up with three overprotective brothers and of course Jack, she could handle one seedy tow truck driver.

“Well, that would be very much appreciated, Timmy, is it? Thank you.” Timmy seemed to take that as his cue to get her car hooked up to his truck and she reached back into her car to retrieve her bag. It didn’t take long before they were ready to head back into town and the thought of sitting next to “Timmy the tow truck driver” made her a little nauseous. She jumped up into the passenger side of his truck and thanked God that Timmy was not a gentleman because the thought of him helping her into his truck made her want to just walk back to town.

“So, what brings you all the way out here?” Timmy was trying to make small talk, bless him. The last thing she wanted was to admit that she was on her way to a date. She didn’t want him knowing that she was single and on the market.

“I was meeting my fiancée.” She fidgeted with her seat belt, her tell when she lied, but Timmy didn’t know her well enough to figure that out. Jack did. He knew every single time she lied and he called her on it every time. Jack knew her better than anyone and that scared the shit out of her. Why did he have to be her brothers’ friend? Why couldn’t he just be some guy that she met at college or at work? It would have been so much easier admitting that she was in love with him if he wasn’t friends with her brothers.

Timmy was droning on about some towing this or that, she floated in and out of the conversation. She was starting to realize that she wanted to go on this date with Jack, to see what could happen between them. Out here, where there were no overprotective brothers to get in their way. Out here where they could just be Jack and Maddie, themselves. Jack insisted on following her to Arizona and he was the one who suggested a “real date”. He was not going to be happy that she had to back out. It wouldn’t surprise her if he wanted to check her tire to see if it’s new, even give it a good kick. She giggled, bringing her back to the conversation with Timmy. Poor guy didn’t know what to make of her just laughing in the middle of his monologue of how to change a tire, or at least that’s what she gathered he was talking about.

“Ain’t nothing funny about knowing how to change your own tire, Miss.” Timmy seemed hurt that she wasn’t taking him seriously.

“Oh, I quite agree, Timmy. I’m sorry, I just wanted something to happen and now it probably won’t.” Maddie wasn’t lying.

They pulled into a little, dusty old filling station. She couldn’t believe that these places still existed. The old sign was rusted but she could tell that it used to say: “Gus and Go.” She hopped down from the tow truck and looked back at her old rental car. The offending tire hissed at her and she shook her head, walking towards the small building. Instead of a cool burst of air hitting her as she walked through the door, stale hot air that smelled like oil, gasoline, and sweat hit her in the face.

“What can I do for you, Miss?” She looked over to the corner, behind the cash register and found an older man sitting on a stool. She saw that he too was wearing a blue uniform shirt, his saying “Gus.”

“Oh, Gus as in ‘Gus and Go’.” She smiled at her own deductive reasoning. “Hello, I’m Maddie Jackson. I am the one that called into Triple-A with a flat tire on my rental.” Gus looked over Maddie’s shoulder to the car being unloaded out front.

“Well, shouldn’t take too long to change the tire,” he all but grunted. “Give us about 45 minutes and you’ll be good to go, Miss.” Maddie smiled and nodded at Gus.

“I noticed a little diner next door. Are they any good?” Maddie was hopeful that she could at least appease her rumbling tummy. Her date with Jack had her so nervous that she barely ate all day.

“Yeah, stay away from the chili. If you stick to the daily special, you should be okay.” Old Gus smiled at her and winked. She couldn’t help her smile back. “And stay away from Dawane, you’ll know the feller when you see him. He’s a big guy in a white hat, can’t miss `em. He’s loud-mouthed and bad news.”

Maddie thanked Gus for the information and headed next door to the little diner. The place almost looked like it was deserted. If it wasn’t for the neon “Open” sign, Maddie would have never gone in.

Her barely their black sundress didn’t leave much to the imagination so the looks she was receiving from some of the male customers didn’t give her much pause. Most of them were old enough to be her father or even her grandfather, harmless. Or so she thought until some unwanted attention invaded her personal space in a big, drunk way. The guy looked like he walked straight out of a very bad western store. His Wrangler jeans were hiked up way too high with a belt buckle that said ‘Ride `em’ in big bronze letters. His Native American inspired print shirt made her eyes squint. It was almost painful to look at. He completed his ensemble with a blatant cry for help, a pair of too new tan and teal cowboy boots and a white cowboy hat. My God, the man must have spent a fortune at a local western store and no-one had the common decency to tell him that he looked ridiculous.

“Well, howdy missy,” even the guy's accent seemed over pronounced and fake. He limped up to her as if his new cowboy boots weren’t quite broken in and she held in her giggle. He was trying to be Clint Eastwood but was coming off more like Dennis Quaid as Cousin Eddie in Christmas Vacation. Poor guy wasn’t about to quit either, she could see the desperation in his eyes. He stopped so close to Maddie that she almost choked at the smell of the bottle of Old Spice that he must have doused himself with. She took a deep breath of the foul hot air that surrounded her and stepped around him to find a sign that said, ‘Just sit anywhere.’ She found a small booth that was empty and she slid into it. Unfortunately, so did her unwanted attention.

“Whatever you’re having darlin’, I’m buying. Sky’s the limit, don’t you hold back now.” Her not so charming mystery man leaned back into his side of the booth and cocked his white had back off his forehead.

“You must be Dawane,” Maddie said dryly. “I was told to stay clear of you, so if you don’t mind.” Maddie made a shooing motion with her hands but Dawane wasn’t taking his cue. He seemed to settle in a little more and smiled at her. Yeah, staying clear of Dawane didn’t seem like an option.

“Now who would tell you to stay clear of me, darlin’?” Dawane tried to make a pouty face but he was too drunk to get his muscles to work into a pout. Instead, he seemed to make that duck lip face, that all the young girls make, to take selfies. Maddie couldn’t help but laugh and poor Dawane seemed to take it as a sign that his misdirected charm was working on her.

“Oh, give it up Dawane,” the woman wearing a powder pink, too tight uniform, and white apron appeared at Maddie’s little booth out of nowhere. “She’s laughing at you, not with you—moron.” The waitress gave her full attention to Maddie. “I’m Pearl, honey. This horse’s ass bothering you?” Pearl tilted her head towards Dawane. Maddie nodded and that seemed to be all Pearl needed.

“Joe, we need you to help Dawane see the light again,” she shouted towards the kitchen. Suddenly, the swinging door opened and out stepped a giant man, presumably Joe, complete with muscles and tattoos. One of his biceps said Mom and had a heart around it. He completed his tough guy look with a long black ponytail and a scowl that could scare the devil back to hell.

Dawane held up his hands as if surrendering, “Okay, Okay. I’ll show myself out, Joe,” he slurred. He grunted, pushed, and bumped his way out of the booth, practically taking the whole thing with him. Maddie held onto the table for fear that it would tip over. Pearl jumped back out of Dawane’s way and grunted her disapproval. Joe made sure that Dawane made it all the way out of the diner before returning back to the kitchen.

“Sorry `bout that honey. Sometimes that jackass gets to drinking and he can’t seem to tell right from wrong. He’s relatively new here and he tries to pass himself off as a local. No-one local would be caught dead in that getup.” Pearl laughed to herself, “If you still have an appetite, the special is chicken pot pie. It’s pretty good today if you’re willin’ to give it a try.”

Maddie just nodded, “Coffee too, please. I’m dead on my feet right now.” With that, Pearl whisked the menu away and had a hot cup of coffee and pot pie sitting on the table before Maddie could blink.

After she finished her dinner and paid her bill, she made her way outside and noticed that the sun had started to go down and much to her regret, Dawane was waiting for her.

“Hey darlin’,” he took a swig from a small silver flask, “You took forever, I was startin’ to think that you were avoidin’ me.” He seemed to slur his words even worse than before. Maddie strode around him and started to make her way back to Gus’ shop.

“Wait up baby,” he crooned and stumbled in her direction. “You don’t wanna leave me just standin’ here, do ya’?” Maddie didn’t make eye contact and certainly didn’t talk to Dawane. Being in a diner full of people with him was one thing but being out in the open with no-one else around was another. She picked up her pace, trying to reach the filling station before Dawane could stop her.

“What’s your problem, you snotty bitch?” he grabbed her arm and spun her back to face him. She was so close to the station that she could see her car sitting out front. She could also see both Timmy and Gus watching her. Gus shook his head and stood up from his stool. She was hopeful that he would help her out with Dawane but then, she also knew just how to handle this jackass herself. After all the self-defense courses her brother, Shep, made her take, she could drop Dawane to the dusty ground and run for the station.

“I asked you a question,” his hand tightened around her upper arm and she suddenly panicked. She had never been faced with anyone that she would need to use her self-defense moves on. The only time she ever used her ‘moves’ was in practice, never against a real threat. Self-doubt started to fog her mind and she tried to pull her arm free, causing his hold to become painful.

“Please let me go, you’re hurting me,” she looked up to Dawane and saw only resolve and smugness in his glassy stare. She knew that fighting back was what he wanted her to do, almost like he got off on it. She allowed herself to relax some, and he gave her some slack.

“You like it rough, don’t you baby?” Dawane hauled Maddie’s body snug up against his and she choked on the stench of aftershave and booze that seemed to pour off him.

“Please,” she croaked, angry at herself that she was crying, afraid of a man that was total scum. She looked pleadingly at the station and noticed that both Timmy and Gus were outside, but made no move to rescue her.

“That’s right baby, beg me. You know I love it when you beg me to touch you.” Dawane rubbed her face into his chest and she could feel the bile, from her stomach, rise to her throat. She sobbed as he kissed the top of her head. She couldn’t move, complete panic took over her system and she was frozen, plastered up against this foul man with no help in sight.

“She has a fiancée,” she heard Timmy shout from the station, and through her brain fog, she felt that maybe she misjudged poor Timmy. She could feel her head nodding against Dawane’s chest as if trying to confirm her earlier lie as the truth. A laugh rumbled through his chest and he yanked her head back by her long ponytail, so he could see her eyes.

“Is that right, baby? You fixin’ to marry some poor son of a bitch? Well, now that we’re together, that’s off — right?” He looked at her with a no question in his eyes. He just needed her confirmation that she was on the same page as him. Truth or not, she felt that sticking with her fiancée story was a good plan. She straightened and tried to compose herself even while the Neanderthal held her by her hair.

“I’m sorry, Dawane, but it could never work between us. My, fiancée is a very protective man. When he finds out that you touched me, he’ll kill you. I just worry that you will be hurt.” She placed her hands on his chest, trying to soothe him, talking to him like he was a toddler was the only way she knew how to fight back. She didn’t feel like she had the physical strength to fight him.

Dawane laughed again, releasing her hair to grab her left hand, “I don’t see no ring,” he shouted, his hot breath on her face again. “We’re gonna get your fucking car from Gus and then you’re going to take me to your place. You’re gonna call your fucking fiancée and tell him to fuck off. Understand?” Before Maddie could answer, he was pulling her, by the wrist, to Gus’ station.

“Keys,” he shouted at Gus, making Maddie yelp.

“Please don’t give him my keys,” she begged Gus. Poor Gus seemed to be confused about what to do.

“You can’t just go takin’ her and her car,” Timmy argued. “She ain’t yours.” Timmy’s good reason just made Dawane madder. He pulled Maddie back up against his body and wrapped his arm tight around her waist. Her whole body went rigid when she heard a truck pull into the lot behind them. Would this finally be someone that would help her? She was hoping that someone from the diner saw the scene that Dawane was causing and called the police.

“Mads?” When she heard Jack’s voice, she knew that things were about to get ugly. She was really hoping to avoid bloodshed but when it came to the overprotective men in her life, her brothers had nothing on Jack. She could feel the heat from his stare as he took in the scene.

“This the fiancée?” Dawane slurred. “Well, now you can break it off face to face.”

Jack stalked closer to where Dawane held Maddie, looking behind them to Timmy and Gus. He seemed to be sizing up the three men and realizing that he could take the three of them, with no problem, gave the most menacing smile Maddie had ever seen.

“You wanna get your hands off my girl, asshole?” Jack took two steps closer and was practically in Dawane’s face. Maddie just wanted to reach out and touch him; be in his arms instead of Dawane’s. Jack looked into her eyes and she could tell that he was silently telling her that she was going to be alright.

She just nodded her head, “I trust you, Jack.” Maddie went limp in Dawane’s grip, causing him to lose focus on Jack.

“What the fu-” was all poor Dawane could get out before Jack whipped Maddie away from Dawane and had him up against the hood of her rental.

“I told you to take your filthy hands off my girl, fucker. Now you and I are gonna have a little chat.” Jack looked like a giant grizzly bear, hovering over Dawane, who was cowering under him while trying to cover his vital organs from Jack’s oncoming assault.

Gus tapped Maddie’s shoulder and handed her the keys to her rental. “I don’t want no trouble.” He all but whispered into her ear. “Can you convince your feller to leave Dawane alone? I’ll not charge you for the tire.” She nodded. She could see that Dawane had probably caused Gus some trouble in the past and she didn’t want to be the cause of more problems for the kind, older man.

“Jack,” she cautiously touched his bunched up back muscles, causing them to ripple. “Can we please just go? I really just need to leave.” She could hear the pleading in her own voice and saw the sympathy in Jack’s eyes when he turned his head to look at her. He slowly released Dawane with a shove and turned towards her. He hauled her into his arms, kissing her face and checking her out like he wanted to make sure that she wasn’t broken. She wanted to completely break down, sobbing, but knew that now was not the time. If she started crying, she knew that she would never stop.

“Can you two bring her car back to her place?” He didn’t wait for a response, just took her keys out of her hand and tossed them back to Gus, who just nodded.

“I have the address,” Gus shouted towards them as Jack helped her into his pick-up truck. We’ll have it to you tonight.” Jack nodded in Gus’s direction as he rounded back to the driver’s side of his truck, “Thanks.”

Jack pulled out of the station so fast that he kicked up dust. Maddie could just make out Dawane yelling at the two men as he stood up from the hood of her rental car. The three men grew more distant in the rearview mirror and she could feel her floodgates open. The noise that came out of her was unrecognizable. She sounded like a feral animal in pain. She undid her seat belt and doubled over, barely able to breathe.


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