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Excerpt for Home Sweet Home by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2019 Camille Taylor



ISBN: 978-1-77339-891-4


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Audrey Bobak



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.






DEDICATION


For firefighters everywhere.






HOME SWEET HOME


Woollybah Creek, 1


Author Name


Copyright © 2019


Chapter One


Samuel Murray’s head pounded. He tightened his shaking fingers around the steering wheel. His eyes burned as his body demanded the alcohol he’d become dependent on. An unquenchable thirst pushed him to the edge. Just one sip, his body whispered. But he didn’t dare. His life may have gone to hell but he knew better than to drink and drive. There weren’t just coppers and other motorists to consider but kangaroos and other assortment of native animals which could prove to be extreme hazards.

His bleary eyes stared out at the long road ahead, the dark bitumen leading him straight to hell. The harsh sun burned through the protective covering of his Oakley sunglasses. He wet his dry lips, once more wishing he had something to parch the need gripping his body.

He’d left his small one-bedroom apartment where several hours earlier he’d handed his keys to the landlord. He wouldn’t be coming back. He’d only lived there while the legalities of his divorce were finalized. No chance of reconciliation. Leslie had systematically destroyed his life and he’d become content to sink into his gloomy abyss.

Leaving the congested streets of Sydney, he headed northwest out into the oppressive heat. As the hours ticked by, the landscape changed from storefronts and residences to the quiet, dry roadside and he passed by dilapidated towns, one bad year away from being bankrupt.

A headache threatened to split his skull, and a buzzing filling his ears as he read the welcoming sign: Woollybah Creek. Population fifteen hundred. He snorted, the small sound erupting a chainsaw-like roar in his head. Fifteen hundred. Yeah, right. On a good day. He doubted they’d been that for years, the younger crowd moving to the city never to return. Just like he’d promised himself.

An hour or so either north or west would have him crossing over into another state. The temptation to keep going was almost overpowering.

He stayed on course. More out of necessity than desire.

Many wouldn’t consider the small town a fate worse than death but for Sam, it was only the beginning. He’d thought he’d never return. Never wanted to. Now here he was with his tail between his legs. Back to where he played second fiddle in his own life. A place where dreams died and escape was unlikely.

The worst of it was he returned a failure.

A fact the residents would delight in, considering how he had spent his youth crowing how much better he was and wouldn’t end up rotting away in obscurity here.

His muscles tensed as he crossed the town boundary and he swore he felt the chains of the small town weighing him down, shackling him to a future bleaker than he could’ve imagined. A cool chill raced down his spine, knowing his old life was truly out of his grasp.

On autopilot, he drove down the main street, littered sporadically with small houses, until he reached a group of rectangular buildings on either side, making up the epicenter of town. A pub, general store, bakery, and battered service station. Nothing had changed. All except for him. He sneered as he drove past.

Shifting, Sam rolled his shoulders in an attempt to ease the dull ache. The hours of driving nonstop in the heat made his muscles tighten and his bones crack. A drop of sweat rolled down the side of his face as he peeled his back from the leather seat of his baby—a 1967 restored cherry-red mustang. He’d bought it to celebrate a promotion years ago and kept it better than new.

His car, his pride and joy. The only thing he cared about that he’d managed to keep from Leslie’s grasp, though it had cost him. Painfully.

His gut clenched as he passed through, spotting his mother’s two-story farmhouse built in the late twenties. The painted cream weatherboards were chipped, the flaking noticeable even from the highway as he slowed and pulled into the driveway, wincing as the dirt kicked up beneath the tires and sent small rocks pinging off the Mustang’s chassis.

Slowing, he finally came to a stop and parked beneath the makeshift carport. He pushed himself out of the seat and circled his car, checking the damage. He’d forgotten the driveway hadn’t been paved. Living in the city, he was used to bitumen and asphalt everywhere.

The screen door creaked as his mother joined him outside, moving slower than he remembered.

“I’m so happy you’re home.” She surveyed his form. He regretted what she saw. He certainly didn’t look his best. It wasn’t anything new.

“I’m only visiting. This isn’t my home anymore, Mum.”

If she was displeased with his response, she didn’t show it. He shook his head, kneading the back of his neck. For years, she’d hinted at him returning. To settle down in this one-horse town. He didn’t want her to think this was anything but a small detour. He’d be gone again soon. All he needed was to get back on his feet. First, he had to find a way to crawl out from under the dark cloud of his own making.

“I’m still glad you’re here. Why don’t you come inside and I’ll make some coffee? I have those coconut biscuits you like so much.”

The knots in his neck tightened, his legs almost feeling as though made of lead with the idea of entering that damn house again. It was as though a part of him recognized he might never leave. His vision whirled. His chest constricted and he had trouble breathing.

He couldn’t face going into that house. Not now.

It represented everything he’d fought so hard to escape.

Sam backed away quickly. Why the hell had he come back? The entire town was already suffocating him, the invisible walls closing in and trapping him. He hadn’t a choice, really. He’d alienated everyone and his reputation had followed him until no one would touch him.

He needed a drink. Something to numb away life’s disappointments and failures. Something to make staying in this life-trap of a town bearable.

“Maybe later.” Sam headed back to his car.

“You’re leaving?”

He closed his eyes against the pain in his mother’s voice. She couldn’t understand why he hated this place. As much as she loved him, his failure to visit had hurt her.

“I need … space. I need to breathe.”

Closing the door firmly, he started up the engine. His baby purred and despite the way his ass muscles twinged in protest from being stationary once more, he managed to derive pleasure from her rumble. The only thing ruining his moment was the picture of his mother’s figure standing on the veranda, getting smaller as he drove away.


Chapter Two


The phone ringing on her bedside table startled Evelyn James awake. The damp fabric beneath her cheek where she had pressed her face into the pillow to muffle her sobs brought memories of the evening front and center. The horse. The pained neighs. The gunshot which still rang in her ears. Inhaling deeply, she drew the scent of leather, hay, and liniment oil into her lungs.

She’d been too tired to shower, her usual long day even longer when a horse had gone down during a routine training exercise. The stallion’s leg had swollen quickly and she’d had to attend to the animal until the vet from a neighboring town had shown up, only to be told the horse would never run again. Unfortunately, his breeding wasn’t exceptional enough to have him turn stud. She’d refused to cry at the farm. That was the way of life out here. If the animal couldn’t earn, he was useless to the owner. A money pit. Still, she wished he could’ve been retired to the paddock, but that wasn’t the way things were.

Her heart ached. Evie knew she couldn’t save them all but the knowledge held no comfort.

It was days like today that had her questioning her desire to become a qualified vet, knowing she would balk at having to make such a hard decision. Which was probably why her scattered dreams remain so. How could she care for any creature if she couldn’t do what needed to be done?

She’d grown up around working animals and livestock, though had never owned a pet. Her father had never seen the benefits. Everyone had to earn their keep. Despite seeing the rough side of farming, branding and drenching, and carting the herd off to the abattoir, she still couldn’t see them as anything but meat.

Maybe it was best her dreams fell by the wayside. Her heart would feel each loss. Perhaps she shouldn’t have dismissed the idea of being a nurse like her mum so casually. While her heart would still ache at the losses, at least it was out of her hands. But then, out here, the requirement for a vet outweighed that of assisted care. Though she’d been doing more of the latter in recent times.

She didn’t mind. Evie loved animals as much as she loved the small community in which she was a part of. This was where she belonged.

Fighting the confines of her blanket, Evie quickly snatched up the old handset to avoid waking Joan.

“Hello?” With one eye open, the other remaining stubbornly closed, Evie glanced at the clock. After a moment, the red illuminated numbers stopped blurring as she focused on reading the time. Ten PM. Not good.

“Hey, Evie it’s Brett.”

“Brett?” She sat up. Had she forgotten her shift? No. She was sure she hadn’t been rostered on to work tonight. And if she had, surely Brett, her boss, would’ve called her before now.

“What’s going on?” Her voice broke, her throat raw from her crying. No doubt her eyes were puffy too. She didn’t care. There was no one she wanted to impress.

Evie steeled herself for bad news but as quickly as concern filled her that someone had been hurt or someone’s property had become engulfed by flames, the feeling dissipated even as her rage simmered.

****

The pub door closed behind her with a bang. The few drinkers still out this late turned her way as if her slamming the door had somehow interrupted their evening fun.

Evie’s gaze scanned over the scattering of tables between the bar and the door, finding them empty. She shifted her attention to the rough timber bar and caught sight of the back of his head, his thick, almost shaggy hair which begged a woman to thread her fingers through the strands. His shoulders were covered with a thin moss-green shirt, the fabric stretched to accommodate the hard bulges hidden. His hunched back had the hem riding high at his tapered waist, revealing a patch of honey skin and the black band of his Hugo Boss underwear.

This couldn’t be Sam, could it? Her question was answered when her boss nodded in the lone man’s direction. Holy crap, it was. He’d filled out. Sam had always been handsome, blessed with killer good looks and athletic prowess. He looked even better with age.

She’d had the biggest crush on him as a teenager, waiting for the day he’d notice her. He never did. At least not in the way she’d wanted. When he left, that crush had died a painful death and she’d not thought of him since except in anger.

Now he was back and her silly teenage girl heart pounded and her tummy fluttered as it always had when he’d been near.

But this time, she was ready for him. She wasn’t sixteen and immune to his selfishness.

“Sorry you had to come down on your night off, Evie.”

Evie tore her gaze from Sam. “That’s okay, Brett. Someone has to get his sorry ass home. Guess that’ll be me.”

Stopping beside Sam, one hand firmly planted on her hip, she studied him. He was such a mess and she didn’t mean his crumpled pants with their unsightly stains. There was an aura about him which screamed hopelessness. The stubble covering his face seemed to give him a sexy edge. She much preferred scruff to clean shaven. His almost black eyes, when he finally registered her presence and turned toward her, were bloodshot and unfocused.

“Hey, baby. You looking for some company?” He grabbed her waist and pulled her closer. Placing her hands on his chest, she barely registered the hardness beneath her palms before she pushed him away.

“Keep your hands to yourself.”

Has he drunk the pub dry?

“You’re such a disappointment, Samuel Murray. Barely a few hours in town and already you’re causing your mum heartbreak.”

He blinked owlishly at her as though trying to comprehend why she was angry at him and who the hell she even was. His eyes widened as some of the fog cleared and he seemed to figure her out. His mouth dropped as he gave her body a slow perusal. Her jaw clenched. She hadn’t been able to get him to look at her other than in disdain her entire teenage years, and now she’d filled out some and lost her braces, she finally earned a somewhat sleazy once-over.

Stepping forward, Evie slapped him hard across the cheek. She’d been wanting to do that since high school, too.

Her heart thumped even as her palm stung. Holy hell! She hadn’t thought she had that in her.

There wasn’t an eye in the place that wasn’t staring at her and the silence of the pub was deafening. Even Brett appeared surprised, his mouth hanging open. She’d never reacted violently toward anyone. Not even the rowdiest and persistent grazier had earned such treatment.

Evie had been itching to do that for years and she wasn’t about to lie, it’d been satisfying for all about five seconds until she figured he wouldn’t remember.

Bugger. Oh well, at least the memory would stay with her.

“Get up.”

When he remained where he was, his eyebrows drawn together in confusion, Evie grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, bracing herself as he staggered about, unable to find his balance. The stool scraped against the rough wooden floor. Evie secured Sam with an arm around his waist before he face planted. She didn’t want to be explaining unnecessary bruises to Joan in the morning.

“You’re strong.”

His warm breath fanned across her face as she marched him out the door which was being held open by one of the late-night pub flies. She nodded at him in thanks and noted that old Jonah had already gone ahead and opened her car door.

“Some of us actually work for a living.”

She pushed Sam a little too hard into the car, his larger body finding the smallness of the interior an issue. His forehead smacked against the frame of the door.

Evie winced in automatic sympathy and this time gently pressed her hand on his head so he would duck. He most likely wouldn’t remember, just like the slap, and would probably think he’d done something stupid while intoxicated. Well, it was true. He’d pissed her off.

“Buckle up.”

His slow action had her slapping his hand away and leaning over his body to finish the task as though he were a child.

“Jesus, Evie. I don’t remember you being this bossy.”

“Yeah, well, times change.”

She closed his door loudly and his lips pursed. Evie waved her goodbyes to the small crowd that had gathered at the door. She could only imagine the talk that’d be all over town in the morning.

Sam spoke again as she slipped behind the wheel. “You’ve changed.”

“Have I? Shame I can’t say the same about you. You’re still the selfish, indulgent little boy you’ve always been.”

He groaned.

“So help me if you throw up in this car.”

“I won’t, Evie. I promise. I can hold my liquor. Had plenty of practice.”

Of that, she had no doubt. As for his promise, like she’d believe him. The only promise he’d kept was the one he vowed never to return. Then again, he’d just broken it.

Thankfully, she made it home without issue. Getting Sam upstairs became her next challenge. Why she didn’t just leave him on the floor, she didn’t know. He deserved no better. Except, she’d been raised to be kind and understanding. Even if it was Sam.

His head drooped against his chest. “Sorry.”

Was he? And about what? For his abhorrent behavior over the years or the fact she’d had to collect him from Brett’s? She wished she could believe him.

They took the stairs one at a time, his considerable weight pushing her into the wall. By the time she made it to his bedroom, Evie was puffing. As soon as she reached the bed, she loosened her hold and Sam flopped face-first onto the mattress.

Evie blew out a deep breath, her bangs fluttering when Sam remained as he was. An angry grunt escaped her lips as she lifted his legs, dropping them onto the comforter.

“You’re a disgrace. You’re not even here one night and already boozing it up. What the hell happened to you, Sam?”

She leaned over his prone form and pushed against his shoulder, using her waning strength to roll him over. A startled gasp followed as he moved on his own accord and had her tumbling down beside him. He shifted his body until she lay beneath him and his lips descended on hers. The first touch was electric, the right combination of demanding and persuasive. His tongue slid along the seam of her lips before gently probing, asking for entrance. Her lips parted and he took charge. She shivered as his tongue grazed hers. Evie’s eyes closed as she lost herself in the sensations of him sucking her tongue and the gentle pressure of his lips. She slid her hand up his arm, over his neck, and into the abundant hair.

She welcomed the weight of his body as he consumed her and she sought to be closer, her mind a muddle. Cloudy with heady desire. A moan escaped her lips and her eyes snapped open. The stark need in that small sound terrified her. She would not succumb. Never again would she allow him to have power over her again. Evie came to her senses, pushing him aside so she could breathe, and scrambled onto her knees before sliding off the bed.

“No.” Her hands shook, her needy body crying out for his touch. She wasn’t going to be sucked back into caring for him. He didn’t deserve her concern and certainly not her love. He hadn’t then. He didn’t now. Not to mention, he was a shell of a man, broken and beaten down. He had much healing to do before he’d be useful. She couldn’t think of the alternative. Evie was barely managing not to fall to pieces as it was.

Tears burned her eyes as desperation raged inside her. She’d been relying on Sam to help her, to relieve some of the pressure which seemed insurmountable, but now it appeared she’d backed the wrong horse. Sam couldn’t even help himself. How could he possibly make her life easier? Hopelessness took over her driving emotion, her stomach clenching with worry as Sam snored softly, while she stood with a mountain of debt and fear on her shoulders.

Why did she think he’d be anything more than a hindrance?


Chapter Three


Morning came too quickly. Evie groaned as the rising sun filled her room and cursed not having the foresight to close her curtains the night before. Not that it mattered. She still needed to get up and start the day. Stretching, she breathed deeply, mentally preparing herself to deal with the emotional and physical exhaustion which stayed with her all day. As she did, she detected the strong scent of liniment oil and hay, and the previous night came rushing back to her. The horse. His injury. Crying. The pub. Sam.

She sat up quickly, her cheeks burning.

“The kiss!”

Evie touched her lips. They were swollen and sensitive and her crazy mind imagined she could feel him there. She wet her dry lips and swore she could taste him. This wouldn’t do. Rolling out of bed, she raced through her morning routine, brushing her teeth twice for good measure before returning to her bedroom to dress for the day. A clean shirt and jeans was her usual uniform paired with her boots. She pulled her longish hair into a braid so it stayed out of the way and didn’t bother with makeup, though she did slather on sunscreen. Already the house was uncomfortably warm, as they didn’t have the money to afford air-conditioning. There were only a few hours morning and night that could be considered bearable, so any attempt at looking pretty was a wasted effort. She would sweat anything off before she’d get to her car.

She opened her door, her gaze jumping to the door across the hall when it too opened. Expecting to see Joan, Evie’s mouth curled into a smile only to freeze and disappear when Sam emerged from the bathroom, nothing but a white terry towel slung low on his hips.

Her mouth went dry and she choked on a breath that caught in her throat. Coughing, she knocked a fist against her chest in hope of clearing her airway.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to scare you.”

He appeared to be sober. His baritone voice sent delicious sizzles down her spine, deepened by age and something she’d failed to hear the night before.

“You didn’t. I wasn’t expecting you up so early.”

He glanced down and her eyes widened, replaying her words and how he’d interpreted them. Her face burned even as her gaze dropped to the decent bulge on display thankfully hidden, though not well by a thin scrap of fabric.

She rushed to explain. “I just meant after last night. You were really out of it. Not exactly your finest moment.”

Her previous anger and disappointment reappeared. There was no way to misinterpret her biting tone nor the scathing look she sent his way.

He bristled, his demeanor becoming more menacing than she could recall. “I remember all of last night.”

Evie jerked. Could he be referring to her brief lack of common sense? Surely not. He might be ready to take the gold at the Olympics for drinking but even he couldn’t possibly remember that. She relaxed her muscles, determined not to let him get to her and said the first thing that came to mind.

“Sorry about your wife.”

She’d never met Leslie, though Joan had mentioned several facts which made Evie immediately hate her. She’d been devastated when Sam had announced he’d married. A part of her had still thought she might have a chance of becoming Mrs. Murray. She and Joan had been silent for days afterward, both dealing with their hurt, Joan, in particular, feeling the sting of not being invited to the wedding.

“I’m not. The love, if any, that I had for her was gone the moment I caught her legs around my boss’s waist as he pumped his hips against her on his office desk.”

Evie automatically reached for him in sympathy, the picture he painted in her head vivid and shocking. Poor Sam. No wonder he drank. She couldn’t imagine what she’d do if confronted with that level of betrayal.

Sam shrugged her off. “The only thing I regret is the loss of half my bank account and my collection of motor-racing memorabilia. Bitch only took them because I loved them.”

Her insides withered. “Things. That’s all you care about, isn’t it? Material items you can always buy again. For a second there, I thought you were capable of being a decent human being but once again the real Samuel Murray returns.”

“Listen to Miss High and Mighty. What the hell do you know about life? About anything? You hide from the world and cast judgment on others simply because they don’t follow the path you want them to.”

“You know nothing about me. How would you? You never bothered to get to know me.”

Pushing past him, she flew down the stairs, anger knotting her stomach and her blood molten lava ready to spew everywhere. The sound of Sam following down the stairs only served to fan the flames.

She reached the yard and headed for her car. Beneath the building anger, the same hurt ached. The front door slammed behind him.

“Why should I have bothered? You were a ghost. Too afraid to make a sound. You were never meant to stay indefinitely but Mum pitied you. Lost and lonely little mouse. Who else would have you?”

A sharp pain pierced her heart. Deep down, she knew it wasn’t true. Joan had always shown her love and reassurance, never once acting if either one of them meant more to her. But, still, the words hurt, cutting deep into her subconscious, opening old wounds and insecurities. Her throat burned and she swallowed around the giant lump.

“You are a selfish, spoiled little boy whose life didn’t turn out the way he wanted. Well, welcome to the club. Grow up and be the man your mother needs.”

Her chest heaved and she forgot all about him wearing nothing but a towel in the front garden, the driveway opening to the main street of town. Though not very busy, she could hear cars passing by.

“My life didn’t turn out the way I wanted? Yeah, well right back at you, baby. Bitter isn’t an attractive quality.”

A bark of laughter left her lips, shrill and lacking humor. “Me, bitter?”

His black eyes sparkled with unbanked fire. “Yeah. So don’t blame me for life’s disappointments.”

“The only disappointment around here is you.”

He took a menacing step toward her. She held her ground, raising her chin all the while her heart pounded painfully.

“You had big plans to be a vet. What, can’t take the big bad world?” His voice held a taunt. As a child, Evie would’ve backed down, melted into invisibility to avoid being cast out for causing trouble. But she wasn’t a child anymore and while she still feared being tossed aside in lieu of Sam, she couldn’t let his jab slide.

“You have no idea about my life. To me, this is my life. Not a pit stop on the way to something better.”

“Exactly. Everything is better than this hell. You don’t get it, do you?”

“I’m not the one with the vision issues. Money may be tight, but as you know, it can’t buy happiness. I have to go. Not all of us have the freedom to do as we wish. Now if you’ll excuse me, work awaits.”

She stalked away, refusing to run even while her brain screamed at her to do so. Calmly, she climbed into her car that had seen better days, caked in equal amounts by dirt and rust. After starting the engine, she put the vehicle in drive and sped out of the driveway, not caring about the damage the small rocks did to her car. All she wanted was to get away from that insufferable man. Her legs trembled and it took everything to ensure they cooperated with her commands. A hot tear rolled down her cheek, quickly followed by another. She wiped them away only to lose the battle as she swallowed back a sob.

****

Sam paced back and forth in the kitchen, feeling caged. Evie always had a way about her which brought out his combative side. Opening the fridge, he stared at the shelves, seeing nothing. His fingers curled around the cool outer casing. Sam rolled his head, his bones creaking and his muscles protesting as they slowly unwound.

She made his blood thunder in his veins. He was enthralled. The recent encounter making him feel … alive. It was as though he’d needed her to help rid that particular demon inside him. Unfortunately, he had another ready to take its place.

He still wore his towel, his feet caked in red dust from the front yard. He’d have to take another shower. Probably for the best. The water could help cool him down. Why Evie made him so mad, he couldn’t say. All she had to do was look at him in her superior way and he was primed for a fight. He wasn’t lying about remembering everything. She’d been skin and bone ten years ago. Now she’d filled out into a womanly body with generous curves and soft lips. Of all the things his brain chose to repress why it felt he needed to recall how she’d responded in his arms, all fire and passion was beyond him.

She was right. He was all those things she’d said and more. Worse, he hated she had pointed them out.

Yes, he had failed the one woman who should mean everything to him. He knew he had let his mother down. He just didn’t know how to fix what he’d become.

“Don’t be so hard on her.”

Sam spun around. His mother’s worried face came into view. Without asking, he knew she’d heard most, if not all, of their conversation. Hell, he’d be surprised if half the town hadn’t heard them shouting. He hated that what she’d said held a ring of truth and that being around her made him feel all of about ten years old again and being second best to a rake of a girl who’d suddenly appeared in his life.

“She started it.”

“Really?” Her tone was one she’d used many times in the past. A mixture of disappointment and censure. He hadn’t liked it then and he wasn’t any fonder of it now.

He changed the subject, not having the energy to get into another argument so early in the morning. “What’s this job of hers?”

He couldn’t think what she might be doing in a town so small without qualifications. Though he was sure his mother had spoken of Evie in their brief and far between phone calls, he hadn’t bothered to retain any of the information.

“You remember the Dawsons? Ted used to breed those prize-winning horses. His eldest, Tucker, branched out on his own. Bought the old Hazlehurst Farm and set up his own training grounds, though he also breeds his own.”

He frowned. “What happened to veterinary school?”

His mother’s face remained impassive. He used to be able to read her and knew when he’d pushed her too far or he caught her in a good mood. Now he wasn’t sure.

“Life has a way of getting in the way.”

Well, that was cryptic. “What’s that supposed to mean? Are Evie and Tucker an item?”

A heavy weight settled in his stomach at the idea. His mum’s lip curled ever so slightly on one side, as close to a smile as he’d seen on her face since he’d arrived.

“That would be nice. He’s from a good family. He’d do right by her, but no, not to my knowledge.”

He’d be lying if he didn’t say he was surprised to learn she was still single. Though her personality left a lot to be desired, she was pretty enough to at least have a date every Friday and Saturday night. Hell, she probably did. He’d been in town for two seconds. Two seconds too many.

“Do you plan to wear your towel all day?”

His mother’s polite inquiry had him glancing down, having momentarily forgotten his state of undress as he’d contemplated Evie’s love life, and tried to reconcile the quiet teenager he remembered with the woman with fire in her eyes.

And why the hell that fascinated him so damn much.

“It wasn’t what I’d set out to do today.”

“Good. Because Judy Little already called to tell me Evie was in my front yard arguing with a man in a towel. I take it she didn’t recognize you.”

Shit. Not the best way to come home.

Why did it matter? In a few weeks, he’d be gone again. He just needed to find his feet and get back out there. So what if he hadn’t accomplished that in a year. Just being stuck in this one-horse town was enough incentive to step up and step out.


Chapter Four


“Watch out, she’s in a mood,” Evie heard Alex, one of the trainers say outside the office on Dawson’s Ridge, a property twenty minutes outside of town, before a heavy thump of boots approached and she caught Tucker Dawson’s scent. Dust, sweat, and the outdoors.

Not in the mood for him this morning, she slammed the filing cabinet shut.

“Registration for Moon Dancer has come back. She’s all ready to go.”

He eyed her. “You PMS-ing or something?”

Evie’s skin heated, her cheeks burning as anger flared, already brimming beneath the surface, and it was just like Tucker to throw a lit match on gasoline. “That is such a sexist comment. Why can’t a girl just be pissy without men making it about PMS? And why isn’t there a male equivalent? You can be a downright asshole sometimes. Like right now.”

His blond eyebrow rose as he crossed his arms, leaning back against the wall. “Yeah, but I can pull it off. You scare my men, you know that. They’re simple folks. They don’t know your bark is worse than your bite.”

“I know my reputation precedes me. Someone needs to keep you boys in line.”

He snorted. She turned, catching his gaze firmly attached to her bum. What was it with the men of late? Was she giving off some mating pheromone? If so, she had to stop it pronto.

“Tucker!” She threw an eraser at him, which bounced off his hard chest.

“What?”

“Seriously?”

He smiled, unrepentant. “Just enjoying the view.”

“Well, go outside. Plenty of view there.”

Dawson’s Ridge had, in her opinion, the most splendid view of the mountains.

“Yeah, but not as nice.”

His eyebrows waggled outrageously. She couldn’t help it. She laughed.

“You’re such a flirt.”

“You’re immune. Besides, you’re not in a bad mood anymore.”

She glared at him. “Don’t think you’re being cute, ’cause you’re not.”

Winking, he sat down and leaned back in his chair, resting his dusty boots on the desk. “I heard he’s back in town.”

She harrumphed.

“I take the homecoming didn’t go to plan?”

Evie shoved her hands into her jeans pocket. “You have that right. I had to peel him off Brett’s floor and put him to bed.”

“Not the way you wanted to be rolling around on his bed.”

His observation had her sending a death glare his way. It was no secret of her teenage crush on Sam. The whole town had laughed about her infatuation. No matter how cruel Sam had been, she’d still loved him. Right up until he’d left town without a word. He’d never contacted her, though she knew Joan had kept him apprised of the comings and goings in town, including hers. Just as she knew it had been Joan bringing her up, never Sam asking. He didn’t give a crap about anyone but himself. How could she have been so foolish to believe herself in love with him? The man she’d met last night and even this morning, while handsome on the outside, was rotten inside, full of anger and resentment.

She’d been ten when she’d come to live with Joan and Sam, his father passing when he was six. Her life had been in turmoil, grieving for her parents, uprooted, and worse still, Sam’s reception upon her arrival. He’d resented her presence even then and the bond between her and Joan that shortly followed. He’d done everything to make her life miserable, playing dirty tricks on her, knowing her fear of being made to leave would keep her silent.

Then puberty hit and she’d been blinded by his pretty shell, never having that awkward thin, gawky teen body but that of a fit, muscular young man. He seemed to assume it was his due because of his looks that he could do anything he wanted. He hadn’t changed.


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