Six Years Ago
Near Tangleheart, Texas: Saturday, 6:00 P.M.
CHARLIE DREXLER NEVER hit a woman in his life—never had, never would. But he’d hurt Megan O’Neal just the same as if he’d blacked her eye. His throat closed up, and his hands balled into fists when he recalled Megan’s tears. The thought of a woman crying couldn’t help but trigger gut-wrenching memories of Mom, crouched in the corner, hands covering her face…and Dad, standing over her saying words like sorry and never again and you’re my world.
Shadowboxing the wind, Charlie threw a right hook that connected with nothing and turned his face to heaven. Raindrops sprayed his skin like warm sweat shaken from a weary opponent. The woods outside Tangleheart were the closest thing the great state of Texas had to a rainforest, and the ground beneath his boots slurped and belched as he hiked up the dirt road that led to Megan’s place. He’d parked a ways back because he knew from experience that if this drizzle turned into a summer storm, it’d be hell and high water getting his El Camino out. Farm Road 99 could turn to soup quicker than a Cup O Noodles.
He punched the wind hard enough to spin himself around, and his fist slid through scorched air laden with moisture, portending a storm about to break wide open. From his new vantage point, he spotted Anna Kincaid, picking her way down a rocky trail that led from her father’s hunting cabin to the road. He bent over, rested his hands on his knees and let out a groan. Not Anna. Not now.
Anna reached the road, and he doubled back to meet her. He didn’t like her being out here alone, especially not with a big storm approaching, and he certainly couldn’t take her up to Megan’s with him. “Go home, Peaches.”
Her chin came up in that proud way she had, and her voice carried a stubborn tone, in contrast to its inherent softness. “Don’t call me Peaches and don’t worry, I’m not here to disturb your tryst with Megan.”
The no-nonsense way she planted her hands on her hips suited her message, but it also thrust her chest forward. Her white cotton top, made transparent by the rain, clung to her round breasts, and it took no small amount of willpower to prevent his eyes from straying in that direction. “Megan and I broke up. Now please, Anna, just go home before the weather gets any worse.”
With a coldness he didn’t feel, he turned his back and stared in the direction of the dilapidated farmhouse Megan had moved into after her mom kicked her out. He should get going, but he couldn’t just walk away from Anna any more than he could leave Megan sitting all alone up there with a bad case of the blues she’d caught courtesy of him.
“I—I hadn’t heard.” Anna put her hand on his shoulder and just that single, innocent touch made him want to pull her close and hold her against his heart, make promises he couldn’t keep. But he wouldn’t do that. Not to Anna. Anna was the most desirable woman he knew, but she was also the most vulnerable. His job was to look out for her, not seduce her.
“You’re on your way up to her place.” Hesitation flicked across her face, and then she drew in a long breath. “Have you changed your mind about calling things off?”
He shook his head. Breaking up with Megan had been the right thing to do, and even if he had a rewind button, he wouldn’t press it. No matter how many times Megan said she loved him, no matter if he really had ripped her heart out—like she’d growled at him through clenched teeth—he didn’t regret his decision. It was over between them. “No. It’s only that she took it harder than I expected.”
It’d stunned him how hard.
After all, he’d been gone the better part of the summer, working as a roustabout on the oil rigs off the coast of Corpus Christi. Before he’d left town, they’d promised to write to each other every day. But the twelve-hour days on the rigs left him too bone-weary to keep his promise. Seemed most times he managed to keep his eyes open long enough to take pen in hand, he wound up composing a letter to Anna instead of to Megan, and then he’d crumple that letter up and use it for practice shots into the trash basket. Megan hadn’t kept her end up either though and he’d started to worry she was seeing someone else. That had wounded his pride. But it was only a flesh wound, and before he knew it, he’d actually begun to hope Megan had strayed.
“I accused her of cheating on me.” He studied his boots, still feeling the knot of guilt in his chest that came from knowing he’d hurt a woman out of carelessness. “I’m one grade-A asshole for thinking she’d lie.” His gaze met Anna’s and held. “And for not loving her back the way she deserves.”
“You can’t choose who you love, Charlie.” Anna pushed a hank of blond hair behind her ear and lowered her true-blue eyes.
He took the opportunity to memorize the way she looked, her damp skin glowing from the last rays of the setting sun, the shadow of her long lashes sweeping over her delicate features. While he was away, it was Anna’s face he pictured each night before he fell asleep, and it was the thought of Anna walking around in the same world as him that made him want to get up each morning and start another backbreaking day.
“So, if you haven’t changed your mind, then you’ve come to what…to apologize to Megan?” she asked, her voice near a whisper.
“No.” He practically shouted the word. “Saying I’m sorry is not going to fix this mess.” Then because this was Anna, because she was his best friend, and he’d always been able to say anything to her, he added, “My old man thinks I’m sorry and a bag of frozen peas for your cheek is the same as a get-out-of-jail-free card—one you can use however many times you like.” A grimace pulled his cheeks so tight he could feel the wind across his teeth. “A real man takes responsibility for the things he does.” He pulled up his shoulders and swore to himself he’d never be like his father. If he wronged someone, no matter how small the infraction, he would own up to it. He would never take a get out-of-jail-free card—not even if Carrie Underwood herself presented it to him stuck to an ice-cold bottle of Dos Equis. “I’m not here to say empty words. I’m here to make sure Megan’s okay. Which is why you can’t go up there with me, and I’m sure you can see the reason why.”
She shook her head. “No. I don’t see. I can be there for Megan too. It’s not as if she could be jealous of you and me—of our friendship. You’ve said it often enough, I’m just a kid who’s been traipsing after you since grade school.”
When she repeated his words back to him, he wondered how he could’ve ever been so thoughtless as to speak them aloud. She managed a tight smile. Her shivering bottom lip begged him to pull her in his arms and kiss her until neither of them could breathe. Instead, he bit his tongue, a fitting punishment for the stupid things he’d said. Placing his hands on her shoulders, he dragged her near. His head bent to hers. His body shook from the effort of not kissing her. Then, with the palm of his hand, he cupped her cheek. “My Anna,” he whispered.
As if his touch had blistered her skin, she jerked away. “Like I said, I’m not here to interfere with you and Megan.”
His back stiffened at her cold response to his touch. Then his brain kicked in. There was a reason Anna was on her way to Megan’s, and that reason had nothing to do with him. “Why are you here?”
“Simone called. The cell reception was so bad all I could hear was static and something like Megan’s place. Please come.”
“Why didn’t you say so before?”
Pointedly, she arched one brow. “Because I was listening to you.” And then she smiled, this time a real smile. Thank God. When Anna smiled he thought there was no problem in the world they couldn’t solve together. This was going to be a tricky situation, though, having Anna in the room while he offered comfort to Megan. But he couldn’t very well stop Anna from coming along if she’d been invited. He hadn’t actually been invited. And Anna’s sister, Simone, was a silver lining. If Simone was with Megan, that meant Megan hadn’t been sitting up there in that run-down farmhouse miserable and alone.
“Let’s roll,” he said, relief lightening his mood.
As he and Anna headed up the road, he pulled his miniature Maglite from his jeans pocket, twisted the top to turn it on and adjust the circumference of the beam. Stepping carefully, he concentrated on crisscrossing the light to illuminate Anna’s path so she could avoid rocks and gullies.
He didn’t see the cop car in Megan’s drive until he was almost on top of it.
He didn’t see the deputy until he came huffing toward them, one hand on a holstered gun.
A dirty, metallic scent mingled with the woodsy smell of rain in the air.
“Stay back, kids.” The deputy patted his holster in a gesture that spoke volumes.
The stench in the air was foreboding. The lights were on in the house, but it was quiet except for the scratching of the wind in the trees and the soft patter of rain falling to the ground. No stereo blaring, no conversation drifting from inside the house.
His pulse pounded in his throat and roared in his ears. He took a measured step forward.
The deputy removed his hat, and water poured off the brim and down his pant leg, but he didn’t seem to notice. “Not another step, boy. You can’t go up there.”
Charlie fired a stay back look at Anna and then darted around the deputy, but the officer grabbed his T-shirt and shoved him against the side of the car. A searing pain cut straight up his back. He didn’t care. He had to get to Megan. Then he heard it, a soft cry from inside the cop car. As he swallowed hard, his heart slowed enough to let him speak. “Megan?”
He turned and peered through the partially rolled-down window of the cruiser, and his hope disappeared. It was Anna’s sister, Simone, sitting inside the car, sobbing into her hands. The air he breathed seemed to act like glue in his lungs, sticking them together, but somehow he managed to push out the question that had been gnawing a hole in his gut ever since he saw the police cruiser in the drive. “Megan okay?”
Simone sputtered the words out in teary pieces punctuated with little gulps of air. “I’m. The one. Who found her.”
“Found her?” The ominous phrase echoed in his ears. His face and hands went numb.
“You…Charlie…You got here too late.”
Tangleheart: Saturday, 6:00 P.M.
ANNA KINCAID WAS the turned-down pagecorner in the book of Charlie Drexler’s life. With a placeholder like Anna he had to question his decision to skip ahead in the first place. Even setting aside their firefly nights of long ago, the sight of Anna making her way across the summer grass, deftly balancing a tray of—yes sir, those were deviled eggs all right—would still have knocked the wind out of him.
Dream girl walking.
Tonight the corn-silk hair she’d crimped as a teen whipped long and naturally straight behind her, maybe because straight hair was the current fashion, but he preferred to think it was because she’d finally realized she was goddamn beautiful in her own right. A simple sundress with spaghetti straps slipping off her bronzed shoulders conjured sensuality from innocence, and the curve of her hips, backlit by the setting sun prompted a shameless reminder from his dick that he was a man who’d been without a woman for far too long. But his dick was the least of his problems. The real trouble was the way his heart kicked up when the wind carried the familiar scent of her vanilla soap to him.
Eschewing the vanity of perfume, Anna had always opted for natural fragrances and handmade soaps. To his way of thinking, her fancy soaps might be a natural, organic vanity, but they were vanity all the same. Yet year after year, he’d bitten back the urge to point out the flaw in her logic simply because he flat-out loved the way she smelled.
The way she smelled.
The way she shook back her hair when she laughed.
The way she moved.
But unlike times past, today he wasn’t the only one admiring Anna. An overfed blue jay pecking the corncob bait on the Carlisle front porch paused to crane its neck and jabber a compliment as, with downcast eyes, Anna sideways-climbed the tricky steps. On second thought, maybe it wasn’t the steps that were tricky, maybe it was balancing those eggs while wearing high heels. High heels that showed off a pair of amazing calves. All he really knew was that he wanted Anna to look up. And when she saw him, he needed her to smile.
With his heart thundering in his ears, he waited for the moment of truth. He dragged a hand through his hair. He’d been scared plenty of times during his tour in Afghanistan, but he didn’t recall his palms ever sweating like this. Anna climbed from the top step onto the porch, looked up and stopped dead in her tracks.
Helpless to contain the excitement welling inside him, he grinned—quite possibly beamed—at her. Anna’s mouth, on the other hand, didn’t roll out of its peppermint-pink bow. Her ridiculously blue eyes didn’t crinkle at the edges, and she didn’t offer so much as a glimmer of the smile that had woven its way into the very fabric of his dreams. If she had, he might never have recovered the breath to speak. “Hello, Peaches.”
His worst fear had been that the Anna of his boyhood would tromp up the steps and rage at him, and he’d prepared himself for the worst. Or so he’d thought. What he hadn’t prepared himself for was this. This neutral look on her face. This indifferent demeanor. It was as if Anna simply didn’t care one way or another that he’d returned to her determined to find out what he’d missed. It was as if the girl who’d looked up to him, who’d, let’s face it, worshipped him, didn’t care one way or another that he’d come home.
His chest deflated…briefly. But he was never one to stay down for the count. “Care to dance?” He grabbed her by the hand, pulled it high above her head and twirled her beneath his arm.
“Damn it, Charlie,” she muttered as they both lunged for the plate of deviled eggs.
Triumphantly he held out the rescued dish. “No harm done.”
“To the eggs.” She arched a matter-of-fact brow and made a quick survey of each high heel.
He set down the plate on the porch swing and moved in close. One hand found her hip while the other grazed her palm, and magically her arm rose with his. Her body canted forward until he could feel the brush of her warm breasts against his chest. Her knees buckled ever so slightly as he pulled her against him. She was trembling at first, but then she steadied. Her heart beat against him, keeping time with his own, and their breathing synchronized—as if their bodies knew how to talk to each other even if they didn’t.
He swallowed hard. Man up, Charlie.
She shifted positions, bringing her hips in line with his, and by now, at least one part of him needed an admonishment to man down. “About that dance.”
Sliding out of his arms, she quickstepped back, almost tumbling off the steps in the process. She skirted him, retrieved the platter off the porch swing and stuck it in his hands. “Welcome home, Charlie. The eggs are for you.”
Her nose scrunched up. “What?”
“Deviled eggs are my favorite.”
“C’mon Peaches, don’t be mad.”
“Stop calling me Peaches. Mad about what?” she asked, her tone devoid of interest.
He squinted at her. She squinted back with no trace of animosity. Surely she wasn’t going to let him off the hook that easily. He refused to accept this display of equanimity as truth. She was either mad and covering it up by playing it cool, or she had amnesia, and amnesia was the least likely explanation for her behavior he could think of. “Look, Anna, can we go somewhere private and talk?”
Shaking her head so hard her hair snapped against her cheek, she said, “No way.”
“First, it would be rude to disappear from your welcome home party. Simone has been planning this ever since your feet hit dirt in Tangleheart. Second the eggs were Simone’s idea, not mine, and third—”
She might’ve disabled his hands by sticking him with the platter of eggs, but he was far from disarmed. After all, he was carrying a backup weapon. In less than a heartbeat he’d loaded up the trusty charm gun. “Hey, girl.” He aimed a smoky look her way, one that could have felled hundreds, maybe thousands of librarians in a single shot.
Her eyes widened in surprise. “Hey, girl? Are you supposed to be Ryan Gosling in this scenario? Since when do you follow Ryan Gosling memes?”
“Since I saw your Facebook page.”
Her lips transformed into a defiant pucker that reminded him of the time he watched her take her first shot of tequila. “You checked out my Facebook?”
“Guilty as charged. You’re not the girl next door anymore, Anna. You’re the hot librarian.”
Her eyes flashed with determination, but he was confident of his impending victory. Anna’s you-cannot-make-me-smile glare was a sure sign he could.
He cocked the charm gun. “Hey, girl. When’s amnesty day at the library?”
He pulled the trigger. “’Cause I need to turn in an apology, and it’s six years overdue.”
Her puckered lips twitched at the edges. Wait for it…ha! Like a field of prickly poppies answering the call of the morning sun, her expression opened and transformed into a thing of beauty—the best smile he’d seen since the day he’d left Tangleheart, Texas.
“Six and a half years if you want to be accurate.” He could hear that incredible smile creeping into her voice too.
“So you did miss me.” He made an expansive gesture with his hands and tried not to sound cocky. “I mean you seem to know exactly how long I’ve been away.”
Her face flushed, and her mouth flatlined. “I’m just pointing out the facts, Charlie. No apology is necessary. I don’t mean to sound harsh, but I think the past belongs in the past.”
“Then let’s go someplace private and talk about the future.”
“You’ve got more nerve than sense, Charlie.”
“And you’ve got great legs.”
His gaze crawled greedily from her well-turned calves, up and around her curves, climbing higher and higher until at last it reached her face and landed on her baby-blues. “It shows.”
“Guess running’s my own form of therapy, so I won’t be needing your apology, Charlie. I’m over it.”
“But maybe I’m not over it.” After a six-year absence he hadn’t exactly planned on ambushing her on the front porch with his untidy, unresolved emotions, but he wasn’t here to play tiddlywinks either. He’d come back to Tangleheart for two reasons, and Anna was one of them.
Anna tilted her head, surveying him closely. When her gaze reached his face it lingered on his right cheek, where shrapnel had left a faint scar in the pattern of a starburst. “You’ve changed,” she said, a soft catch in her voice.
“The Army does that to a man.” As he lifted his chin, a torrent of memories tightened his jaw and made his heart tumble in his chest. He had, in fact, changed a great deal, and not just on the outside. The question was, had he changed enough to convince Anna to give him a second chance? Had he changed enough to deserve that chance?
Anna cleared her throat, like she had more to say but thought better of it. For an instant, he thought he saw tears in her eyes, but then she looked away, and with her hair floating behind her, blew past him so fast he didn’t even have time to grab the door for her. He let loose a rough sigh. He didn’t know much about what Anna Kincaid had been up to all these years, but one thing was certain: Fantasizing about getting Charlie Drexler naked wasn’t it.