The Sweetheart Tress-Chapter 6

Webb stared at her for a long moment, his expression hard, unforgiving, then tore his gaze from hers and stomped on the accelerator. The truck shot forward, its tires kicking up a cloud of dust behind it.
Annalise stood on the drive, her hand still outstretched, her heart feeling as if it were tethered to the trailer hitch on his truck and being painfully ripped from her chest. Suddenly, the brake lights flashed a bright red and the truck slammed to a stop, then reversed, careening crazily back down the drive toward her. Annalise stood, rooted to the spot, until Webb braked to a screeching halt again beside her.
But he didn’t look at her. As desperately as she willed him to do so, he kept his eyes narrowed on the drive ahead. She stared at his profile through the open window, at the hard set of his jaw, unsure what to do, what to say. Angrily, he braced a hand against the steering wheel and shot the gearshift into park.
“If you’ve got something to say,” he growled, “then say it.”
The harshness in his voice, the impatience in it frightened her. Realizing how much she must have hurt him by sending him away, she took a step closer to the truck and laid a hand on the open window, silently praying she could make him understand.
“I’m sorry, Webb,” she said, her voice trembling. “So very sorry. I wanted to tell Bryan about us…. But I couldn’t. Not with you there. It would have hurt and humiliated him if I had.” She dropped her chin to her chest, remembering the look on Bryan’s face as he’d driven away and knowing that, in the end, she’d done both, anyway. “He’s been nothing but kind to me,” she said, lifting her head. “I couldn’t hurt him that way. He didn’t deserve that kind of treatment from me.”
If possible, Webb’s jaw tightened even more. “But I do,” he replied flatly. “Well, not any longer.” He jerked the gearshift back down into drive.
“But, Webb —” she began frantically, and reached for him.
He shrugged free of her grasp. “Not this time, Annie. Twice burned is enough for me.”
He stomped on the accelerator and Annalise stumbled back a step as the truck shot forward. She stared, wide–eyed, watching as he sped away. The fissure working its way painfully through her heart finally split open, the tear a rending pain that dragged her to her knees. She huddled on the dusty drive, her shoulders hunched in misery, her hands fisted against her knees, tears streaking down her face, watching as Webb disappeared from sight…. and from her life.

It took Annalise two hours to compose herself enough to tackle the job she’d returned to her hometown to do. Several more hours to complete the sorting and packing of her family’s possessions.
After calling to give final instructions to the moving company, to transfer to storage the boxes of items she wanted to save, she carefully locked the front door behind her, carried her suitcase to her car, and climbed inside. With a last, long throat–burning look at her childhood home, she started the car’s engine and headed down the drive, her airline ticket on the seat beside her.
Halfway to the highway, she slowed, her gaze on the stretch of pasture that separated her family’s ranch from Webb’s. There, tucked among a large gathering of trees, stood the Sweetheart Tree, its uppermost branches gleaming a soft gold in the afternoon sunshine. With her gaze on the tree, she eased on the brake and gradually brought the car to a stop.
Tears crowded her throat as she stared, remembering the times she’d spent beneath the tree with Webb, both the old memories and those more recent, and regretting that she had bungled things with him so badly.
She loved Webb. Always had, though she’d denied those feelings for a very long time. And, by his own admission, she knew now that he loved her. Or had. But now, through her own clumsiness in trying to spare Bryan’s feelings, she’d destroyed that love… a second time. As he’d said, twice burned was enough.
Knowing it was foolish, that she didn’t have time to dawdle, she reached for the door handle and stepped out of the car, giving in to the desire to see the tree one last time. The sun shone warmly on her face as she walked across the field, serenaded by birds perched in the tree’s branches.
She breathed deeply of the clean, country air, filling her senses with the familiar scent of the wildflowers that bloomed freely in the field where her family’s cattle had once grazed. She wanted, no, needed, to capture the scent, the beauty of the scene for those lonely nights she knew awaited her in the city.
As she reached the clearing shaded by the Sweetheart Tree, she stopped, hugging her arms around her waist as she lifted her gaze to take in the vastness of the tree’s branches, and let her heart remember. The laughter. The warmth. The love. The man who had so unselfishly given to her all those things. The man who had given her a second chance. “Oh, Webb,” she whispered, and closed her eyes, choked by tears.
Startled, she flipped open her eyes to find Webb standing beneath the tree. She took a step toward him, then stopped, remembering his anger with her, and knowing that she’d destroyed whatever feelings he might have felt for her.
“Where’s Bryan?”
“Gone. He left this morning after I told him
about —” The words dried up on her tongue, and heat burned in her cheeks as she remembered telling Bryan about making love with Webb beneath the tree, and sleeping there wrapped in his arms. Quickly she said instead, “After I broke off our engagement.”
“You broke your engagement?”
Not trusting her voice, she nodded. “That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier.” She glanced behind her at her car parked on the drive in the distance. “I was on my way to the airport, but I… I stopped,” she finished futilely, not wanting him to know how desperately she needed to see the tree one last time, to gather as many memories as she could.
“You’re leaving.”
Though his comment was a statement, not a question, she felt compelled to respond. “There’s no reason for me to stay any longer.”
“Yes there is.”
She tensed, fighting the hope that surged within her. She searched his face for some indication of what he was thinking, what he was feeling. “What?” she whispered.
“Me. Us. I don’t want to lose you, Annie. Not a second time.”
Tears welled in her eyes, in her heart. “Oh, Webb.”
He opened his arms and Annie flew into them, burying her face against his chest as he folded his arms around her.
“I’m sorry, Annie,” he murmured against her hair. “I was mad. Hurt. Scared that I was going to lose you again. I wouldn’t listen.”
“No,” she argued, clinging tighter to him. “It was my fault. If I had explained everything to Bryan from the first, as you wanted me to, this would have never happened.”
He tipped her face up to meet his, his eyes filled with an endearing blend of tenderness and regret. “No. You did the right thing. The kind thing. It was my ego that wanted me there to hear you tell him that it was me you love.”
“I do love you, Webb. I always have and I always will.”
“Annie,” he said, and drew her close to his heart. “We’ve got a lot of lost years to make up for.”
Smiling through her tears, she cupped his face between her hands. “Then let’s not waste any more,” she said as she drew his lips to hers.
The End


The Sweetheart Trees-Chapter 5

“Annie,” Webb said again, more forcefully this time.
Annalise stood between Webb and Bryan, trembling uncontrollably. She felt as if she were being ripped in two, torn between her love for one man and her duty to the other. She knew that to bluntly confess to Bryan her love for Webb, as Webb wanted her to, would be cruel, an unkindness Bryan didn’t deserve. Yet, if she didn’t…
She turned to Webb, beseeching him with her eyes to understand. “Webb, please try to understand. I —” But before she could say more, he took a step back, setting his jaw, his blue eyes hard with accusation as he glared at her. Then, without a word, he turned and strode away. Annalise watched him go, wanting desperately to run after him, but knowing that it was best this way.
“Annalise, just exactly what is going on here?”
With her gaze still on Webb, watching as he slowly disappeared from sight, she drew in a deep breath and turned to Bryan. Forcing her lips into a semblance of a smile, she looped her arm through his and started with him toward the house. “Come inside and I’ll explain everything.”

Bryan sat at the round oak table, his forearms braced on its scarred top, his hands clasped into fists as he listened to Annalise. Though his gaze never veered from hers and the intensity of his expression never once wavered, she sensed his shock, the hurt her explanation caused him.
When she was finished, she held her breath, waiting in strained silence for his response.
Finally, he reached across the table and closed his hand over hers. “It’s okay, Annalise,” he said, his expression softening. “I forgive you.”
Stunned, she stared. “Forgive me?” she repeated.
With a weary sigh, he dragged his hand from hers and rose to cross to the sink. “Yes. You’re going through an extremely emotional time right now.” He drew a glass from the cupboard and gestured with it vaguely. “Sorting through your family’s things. Dealing with a lot of what I’m sure must be painful memories. I should have been here with you,” he said, frowning as he filled the glass from the tap. “You needed someone for support, someone to lean on, and this Webb person was here.”
Slowly, Annalise rose. “No, that’s not it at all. I love Webb.”
He turned, bracing his hips against the sink, and offered her an indulgent smile. “You think you love him,” he amended, then lifted a shoulder. “In your current emotional state… Well, it was only natural for you to turn to someone familiar, someone you had a past with, for comfort and strength.”
Annalise rounded the table, her legs trembling with fury. “You’re wrong, Bryan. I do love Webb. I always have. I —” When he started to interrupt her, she lifted a hand. “No. Please. Hear me out.” She drew in a deep breath, struggling for calm, for just the right words.
“I care for you, Bryan,” she said carefully, “and I always will. But what I feel for you, what I’ve always felt for you, is friendship, not love.” She watched his jaw slacken in surprise. Slowly, she pulled her engagement ring from her finger, tears filling her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she said and held it out to him. “I can’t marry you. Not when I’m in love with another man.”

Webb paced his house like a caged animal. She’d denied him. Annie. His sweet Annie. The woman he’d always loved, even when she’d chosen a life of glitz and glamour over a life with him. She’d denied her feelings for him, as well as his for her, with her refusal to tell Bryan that she loved him.
He stopped at the memory and dug his fingers through his hair, then fisted them to squeeze against his head, as if he could hold in the fury, the disappointment…the pain. Annie, his heart cried. He’d lost her again.
He dropped his hands and spun, looking wildly around. He couldn’t watch her leave him a second time. He had to get out of here, he told himself. Away from this town. Away from her.
He strode to his room, grabbed a duffel bag from his closet and stuffed in some clothes. Crossing to the bathroom, he threw in his shaving gear, zipped the bag closed and headed for his truck.

Annalise watched as Bryan drove away, her heart heavy with regret. She hadn’t wanted to hurt him. But she couldn’t marry him, either. Not when she loved Webb. She turned to peer in the direction of Webb’s ranch, her eyes filling with tears. She’d always loved Webb. Even during the years they were apart, she’d kept him with her, tucked away into a special place in her heart.
As she stared, the landscape blurred by an unexpected rush of tears, she started for the pasture that separated her family’s ranch from his. Her steps were slow at first, hesitant. Then she was running, the tall grass whipping at her bare legs, the sun warm on her face, the fragrance of the wildflowers she trampled filling the air.
Reaching his house, she raced up the steps to the front porch and pounded on the front door. She waited, pressing a hand over heart, as she struggled to catch her breath. She heard the roar of an engine start up and whirled around just as Webb’s truck appeared on the drive at her right.
Waving a hand over her head, she leaped down the steps, shouting, “Webb! Wait!”
He slowed at the sound of her voice and his gaze met hers through the truck’s passenger window. She stumbled to a stop, shocked by the anger she saw in his blue eyes.
“Webb?” she whispered, unconsciously reaching out a hand, as if to touch him.


The Sweetheart Trees – Chapter 4

Annalise’s pulse roared in her ears, her heart pounding like a symphony of drums within her chest. With her gaze riveted on Webb’s, she framed his cheeks with her trembling hands, drew his face down to hers, and gave him the answer he wanted.
Their lips met and molded, fused by a common need, an invisible bond that had held them together throughout the years. His groan vibrated against her mouth as he gathered her tighter into his embrace, and she absorbed the sound, her lips curving slightly at the relief she heard in it, the impatience she felt snake through him.
Slipping her arms around his neck, she sank down with him to the thick bed of grass in the clearing. He pressed her back against the ground, stretching out over her, and the dew on the grass quickly seeped through her sweater and tank top. But the heat and familiar weight of his body more than compensated for any discomfort the cool dampness created on her back.
She closed her eyes against the swell of tears that rose as he swept his lips across her face. Oh, Webb, her heart cried out to him. I’ve missed you so much. Though she hadn’t voiced the words out loud, he somehow must have sensed them, because he drew his head back to look down at her. The passion, the tenderness she found in his blue eyes, melted whatever doubts remained about her decision to make love with him. This is right, she told herself. This. Him. The two of us together again.
Even as her heart and mind accepted him, he was peeling her sweater back and pushing up her tank top, his mouth finding and opening over her bare breast to draw her in. A shiver shook her as he suckled, the sensations spreading warmly through her body and settling to swirl low in her belly. With each stroke of his tongue across her aching nipple, her need for him grew. Impatiently she tugged at his shirt, fumbled at the buttons on his jeans, until his hands joined hers in their frantic rush to free them of the clothes that separated them.
When the last article of clothing was tossed aside and flesh at last met naked flesh, he slipped a knee between her thighs and spread her legs, creating a nest for himself. She felt the stiffness of his erection as he pressed himself against her center, gloried in the strength and thickness of it, yearned for it. Hungry for more, she lifted his head from her breast and guided his face back to hers.
At the exact moment their lips met, he pushed inside her. She gasped, arched at the exquisite pleasure that lanced through her, then melted on a sigh, while he held himself perfectly still, waiting for her acceptance of him. Then he began to move — slow, rhythmic thrusts that urged her to follow in a dance as old as time.
Need rose sharper, greedier while the moonlight washed over them, and she sank her nails into his shoulders, arching higher and higher to meet each new thrust, racing with him toward the satisfaction that awaited. “Webb,” she sobbed. “Please…”
Even as she begged for release from the demons that held her in their grip, he rose to his knees, bringing her with him. With their gazes locked, their chests heaving, he gripped his hands at her waist and, with a low growl, pushed her hips down hard against his, filling her completely.
Lights exploded in her head. Bright glorious lights that melted into a rich rainbow of colors as her body convulsed around him in a shimmering climax. He shuddered once, twice, as he pumped his seed into her. Then, spent, he slipped his arms around her waist and guided her back down to the ground, covering her body with his own once again. He laid his head in the curve of her shoulder, his breath hot and fast at her ear.
“Annie,” he whispered, drawing her face to press his lips against her cheek. “My precious Annie.”
Choked by emotion, Annalise wrapped her arms around him and closed her eyes, wishing that this moment could last forever. …
Annalise opened her eyes, squinting at the bright sunlight that suddenly blinded her. Momentarily disoriented, she turned her head and found Webb stretched out beside her on the grass, watching her, his face only inches from her own. With a slow smile, he lifted a hand and brushed tendrils of hair from her cheek. “Good morning.”
Warmth flooded through her at his touch, as memories of their lovemaking pushed themselves into her sleep–clogged mind. “Good morning,” she murmured, suddenly feeling self–conscious. “What time is it?”
“Way past time to get up.” He rose and offered her a hand, seemingly unfazed by his nudity, as he tugged her to her feet.
Annalise stood, shivering at the coolness of the early morning air, watching as he gathered their clothes, her breath all but stolen by the beauty and majesty of his body and his movements. Comparisons formed quickly as she mentally contrasted Webb’s body with Bryan’s. Bryan. Guilt flooded through her.
Webb handed her her silk tap pants and tank top, which she quickly put on while he tugged on his jeans. “Cold?” he asked, teasing her with a smile, as he slid his gaze to her chest and her erect nipples pushing against the thin fabric.
She hugged her arms beneath her breasts and looked away as she shook her head, hoping to hide from him the guilt she was feeling.
He quickly closed the distance between them and slipped his arms around her waist. “Hey,” he murmured, drawing her hips to his. “You aren’t having second thoughts, are you?”
Drawing in a deep breath, she braced her palms against his chest and looked up at him. Though the guilt was still there niggling at her, as she met the concern in his gaze, felt the steady beat of his heart beneath her palms, she realized she had no regrets. Not with Webb, at any rate.
“No,” she said honestly and pushed to her toes to kiss him. “No second thoughts.” She laughed softly and stepped back, looping an arm around his waist. “Just cold.”
He hugged her against his side as he walked with her across the pasture toward her house, both lost in their own thoughts for the moment. Annalise’s were fixed on her departure, scheduled just two days away, wondering how she could possibly leave Webb again.
“I won’t let you leave me this time, Annie.”
She glanced up at him, wondering if he had read her mind. “Oh, Webb, I…”
But before she could say more, a voice called to her from her house. “Annalise!”
They both turned to stare at the man walking toward them.
“Bryan!” Annalise dropped her arm from around Webb’s waist and took a guilty step to the side, putting distance between them. “What are you doing here?”
Webb glanced down at Annie, noting the sudden rush of color to her face, the nervous twisting of her hands, then turned to narrow his eyes on the man who approached.
“I flew down to help you finish up your packing.” Bryan reached them and stopped, his smile dipping into a frown as he took in Annalise’s rumpled appearance. He turned his gaze on Webb. “What’s going on here?” he asked angrily.
Annalise quickly stepped between the two men. “Bryan, this is Webb Aiken. A neighbor and —” she glanced at Webb, then quickly away, unable to meet the expectancy in his gaze as he waited for her to continue “— an…old friend.”
“Annie?” Webb spoke with hurt and anger in his voice.
Though she couldn’t look at Webb, she felt the hardness of his gaze, the anger that emanated from him in waves. He spoke only her name, yet there were a thousand questions in the simple word. Questions that demanded immediate answers.


The Sweetheart Trees- Chapter 3

Annalise remained at the window, her fingers clutched in the folds of the musty drapes, her gaze fixed on the spot where she’d last seen Webb. She knew that by now he’d have arrived at the Sweetheart Tree. She could imagine him there. Waiting. Pacing. Stopping to peer in the direction of her family’s ranch, his eyes narrowed in impatience, watching for her, just as he had so many times in the past.
A smile would spread across his face when he saw her running toward him. He’d open his arms wide and she’d run into his embrace, enveloped by his strong arms, crushed against his muscular chest. She could almost hear the sigh that would flow between them when their lips met, taste the heat, the need. Tremble at the passion that would follow.
God, how she’d missed him, she thought, tears blurring the moonlit scene beyond her window. The passion, the excitement. The comfort and warmth she’d always known with him.
A thousand times over the years, she’d told herself her memories of Webb were nothing but youthful infatuation, a romance captured at its height and cherished for its innocence… She had been sure that their romance would not have lasted the test of time. But seeing him again earlier that evening…every feeling and emotion she’d ever felt for him was there, as if the years and the choices she’d made had never separated them.
On a strangled sob, she whirled from the window and grabbed a sweater, tugging it on as she ran from her parents’ home. She all but flew across the pastures, her heart racing ahead to guide the way.
Just as she reached the clearing where the tree stood like a sentinel, beckoning to her, the moon slipped behind a cloud, shrouding the area in sudden darkness. She stopped, her chest heaving, her legs trembling as she searched the shadows for a sign of Webb.
He’s gone, she thought, her heart sinking, as she realized she’d waited too long. Dropping her chin to her chest in disappointment, she turned away.
She jerked to a stop at the sound of his voice, then spun, her heart leaping into her throat. She searched the shadows for him, while above, the clouds continued to drift lazily across the velvety night sky, masking the moon. At last a sliver of moonlight bled through. The silvery glow grew, spreading slowly across the clearing, until it finally reached Webb where he stood beneath the thick branches of the Sweetheart Tree.
Long seconds stretched into what seemed like a lifetime as they each stared silently at the other. Then, as if in slow motion, he opened his arms. Annie took a hesitant step toward him. She gulped, then took another. Then she was running, laughing, her cheeks drenched with tears of joy as she raced across the distance that separated them.
With each step she took, the years fell away, and she was 18 again, innocent, free, and impatient to meet her lover. She threw herself against the solid wall of his chest and his arms enfolded her, crushing her to him, just the way she’d always remembered. With their chests pressed tightly together, she felt the thundering beat of his heart, the relief that shuddered through him, the warmth of his breath as he turned his lips against her hair.
“Annie,” he whispered, his voice husky. “My Annie.”
Choked by emotion at the familiar endearment, she leaned back in his arms to look up at him. The heartbreakingly familiar features. The deep blue eyes filled with so many questions, yet so much hope. She drew her hands from around his neck to frame his cheeks with her palms.
“Webb,” was all she could manage to say.
He lowered his face and his lips brushed hers. Once. Twice. Warmth spilled through her in waves, leaving her weak, and her eyes shuttered closed as emotion thickened in her throat. “Webb,” she whispered. “I —”
Whatever else she might have said was lost as he closed his mouth over hers completely. The hunger was instantaneous, sharp and jagged, like a knife ripping through her. Moaning, she wrapped her arms around his neck and gave herself up to the moment…to him.
Yes, she thought dizzily, as he thrust his tongue between her lips. Yes, her mind screamed as he brought her hips up hard against his and she felt the stiffness of his erection. He slipped his hands beneath her sweater and the silk tank top it covered, and sent her nerves skittering wildly as he smoothed his hands up her back.
The palms that caressed her bare skin were wide, strong, and roughened with calluses. The fingers that curved around her sides to knead at the fullness of her breasts were thick, blunt–tipped, and sure. And when he covered her breasts completely, desire lashed through her like the crack of a whip. Moaning, she fisted her fingers in his hair, clinging to him to remain upright, bringing his face closer, his mouth more firmly against hers as she melted against him.
With one hand still closed over her breast, he dragged his other hand down her middle, setting her flesh on fire. Her breath caught in her throat and burned there as sensations swirled through her body like a thick, heavy fog. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. She could only feel. Heat. Passion. Desire. They wove themselves together low in her belly, a twisting knot of impatience, of need.
Need, she thought fleetingly. She needed Webb. She’d always needed Webb. Loved him, even when she had turned her back on him. Tears burned behind her closed lids and her heart twisted painfully in her chest, as she realized how much she must have hurt him in her greedy chase for fame and fortune. How much she herself had lost. How much more she stood to lose by settling for comfort, instead of passion and love.
Even as her fiancé’s name slipped unwanted into her mind, Webb cupped his hand over her femininity. Instinctively, she arched against the delicious pressure and her mind went blank. He curled a knuckle against her center and she exploded, a million pinpoints of light bursting behind her closed lids.
He tore his mouth from hers and she blinked open her eyes to stare up at him, gasping.
“I want you,” he said, the look in his eyes as unrelenting as the tone of his voice. “I want to make love to you, Annie. Here. Now.”


The Sweetheart Trees- Chapter 2

Furious with Webb for demanding an answer to a question that she’d been asking herself for weeks, Annalise jerked free of his grip.
“My feelings for my fiancé are none of your business.”
Scowling, Webb took a step back and settled his cowboy hat on the back of his head, his gaze narrowed on her.
“No, I guess they’re not.” Without another word, he turned and walked from the room, leaving Annalise standing alone in her childhood room, surrounded by a lifetime of memories…and a barely repressed urge to run after him.

Webb couldn’t sleep. Not when he knew that Annalise was back in town and less than a mile down the road. But for how long? And this time when she left, he knew it would be for good.
He swore, dragging a hand through his already finger–spiked hair. Why had he stopped at her house when he’d seen the light in the window? And why had he asked her if she loved the man she was planning to marry? What business was it of his, anyway?
He sank wearily down onto the side of his bed and dropped his head into his hands. Because he loved her, he admitted miserably. Always had and always would, in spite of the fact that she had chosen a life of glamour and fame as a model over a life with him.
With a sigh, he pushed himself to his feet and crossed to the window, bracing a palm against the frame as he stared out across the dark moonlit pastures that separated his ranch from hers. He imagined her there in her parents’ home, asleep in her bed, her long blond hair spread out on her pillow like a halo around her face.
How many times as a teenager had he stood just so, thinking about her and yearning for her, then finally giving in to the urge to see her, hold her, and sneaking out the window? The Sweetheart Tree, he remembered, rubbing a hand over the sudden ache in his chest. He would race across the dark pastures, throw rocks at her window to awaken her, then she’d slip out, too, and meet him at their special tree.
The Sweetheart Tree. A thousand times since she’d left, he’d told himself he was going to cut down that damn tree. But he’d never been able to bring himself to do the job. The memories attached to it were too strong…too sweet. The Sweetheart Tree. Annalise. His sweet Annie.
He couldn’t lose her, he told himself, feeling the panic growing to tighten his chest. Not again. With a growl, he turned from the window, grabbed his shirt and shrugged it on as he headed outside and into the darkness.

Restless, Annalise lay in her bed, her eyes stubbornly closed, but her mind racing, refusing to let her sleep. She loved Bryan, she told herself for the 100th time since Webb had left. He was the perfect man for her. They had dated for two years, shared the same interests, the same group of friends. They enjoyed an uncomplicated and comfortable relationship.
She flipped open her eyes, her heart racing, to stare at the water–stained ceiling over her head. Comfortable? Had she mistaken comfort for love? Was it enough to base a marriage on?
Something hit the window at her left and she bolted upright at the sound. She listened, staring at the window, her heart pounding against her ribs, as rocks once again clattered against the glass. Webb! She leaped from the bed, ran to the window and threw back the musty drapes. She caught a glimpse of him in the moonlight, just as he disappeared around the side of the barn.
She stood, staring, her fingers fisted in the musty drapes. The rocks were the signal he’d used when they were teenagers to signal her to meet him at the Sweetheart Tree.
Memories swamped her of other times Webb had come to her in the night. The wild, breathless races through the shadowed pastures to meet him at the Sweetheart Tree. The hours they would spend in each other’s arms, enveloped by velvety darkness, a silvery moon offering the only light. She shivered, remembering the excitement, the passion that filled those moonlit nights.
Passion, she thought again, gulping as she continued to stare into the night. Had she ever experienced that level of passion with Bryan? The answer was quick…and negative. No, she’d never experienced with any man the passion she’d known with Webb.
She strained to peer into the darkness, knowing that Webb was long gone and had probably already reached the tree by now. Should she follow him? No, she told herself and gripped the drapes more tightly, as if to hold herself in place. She was engaged to Bryan. She had no business chasing through the night to meet another man. Especially Webb Aiken.


The Sweetheart Trees-Chapter 1

As Annalise drew the faded card from the old cigar box, she sank back on her heels, running a finger along its tattered, heart–shaped edge, emotion filling her throat. She’d been 13 when Webb had given her the valentine. Eighteen when she had told him goodbye, promising to return to him. Blinking back tears, she turned the card over and traced a nail along the words scrawled on the back. Love forever, Webb.
Forever, she reflected sadly. Did anything last forever?
Startled, she turned to find a man standing in the doorway of her childhood bedroom, his wide shoulders nearly filling the space. Though the cowboy hat he wore was pulled low on his brow, shadowing his face, it didn’t keep her from recognizing him… Even from a distance of eight years. Slowly she rose, her heart thrumming wildly in her chest. “Webb?”
He took a step into the room, then stopped, as if reluctant to enter. He dragged off his hat, exposing familiar features honed into sharper relief by the years.
“I saw the light in the window as I was driving past and thought someone had broken in.” He scowled, his fingers tightening on the hat’s brim. “I didn’t expect to find you here.”
She lifted a hand, indicating the boxes stacked around the room. “I came to close up the house.”
“You’re selling the ranch?”
She dipped her chin and nodded, unable to meet the reproach she knew she’d find in his eyes. “Yes. They’ve been gone six years now. It’s way past time.”
She lifted her head and glanced around, her eyes filling as she noted the peeling wallpaper and the water stains on the ceiling, the result of a leaky roof. Signs of disrepair. Signs of neglect. She gulped, swallowing back the regret…the guilt. “I’ve held on to it too long as it is.”
“Why didn’t you sell it years ago?”
How could she tell him that she hadn’t been able to sell it, not when selling her family’s ranch would sever her last remaining tie to this town, to him? She lifted a shoulder, avoiding his gaze. “I don’t know. Sentiment, I guess.”
She heard the creak of his footsteps on the hardwood floor as he drew nearer, but she couldn’t look his way. She couldn’t let him see her tears, her guilt.
She felt the warmth of his touch on her hand and squeezed her eyes shut as his fingers closed around hers. Memories surged through her, old ones that filled her with an unexpected longing to turn into the familiar warmth of his arms.
“What’s this?”
She opened her eyes just as he turned her hand over, exposing the forgotten valentine she held.
Embarrassed, she gestured vaguely toward the cigar box on the floor. “I found it while I was going through my closet.”
He stared at the card a moment, then angled his head to peer at her, his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “Odd, the things we hang on to, huh?”
Her cheeks flaming, she tugged her hand from his and turned away, stooping to place the card in the box again. “Mother always said I was a pack rat, never throwing anything away.”
“You didn’t seem to have a problem tossing me aside.”
She kept her head turned away, shamed by the reminder. “That was years ago, Webb.”
“Not so long ago that I don’t remember. Do you?”
She squeezed her eyes shut again, trying to block the memories, the promises made, the love they’d once shared. “Yes,” she whispered. “I remember.”
“I heard you’re getting married.”
She tensed at the reminder, then stood, self–consciously smoothing her sweater over her hips, still unable to meet his gaze. “Yes. In a couple of weeks.”
He didn’t respond, leaving only silence to hum between them, silence that stretched her nerves tighter and tighter until she finally turned to look at him. The fierceness of his expression stole her breath.
“Do you love him?”
She gulped at the anger in the question, the accusation, then lifted her shoulders in what she hoped would appear to be a careless shrug. “Isn’t that why most people marry?”
Before she realized he’d even moved, he had grabbed her arm and was whirling her around to face him. His hands gripped her upper arms tightly, forcing her to look up at him.
“That isn’t an answer. Do you love him?”


Unfinished Business – Chapter 8

Megan smiled and a tear fell. “I’m absorbing the moment.”
He made a frustrated sound, his gaze scoring her beautiful face.
“I’m in love with you, Richard.”
“Oh don’t make another mistake and doubt me now.”
He grinned, and his mouth crushed over hers, the force of his kiss bending her back over his arm. She gripped his bare shoulders.
“Richard,” she whispered when she came up for air and he took her mouth again and again.
“It’s been too long.” He lifted her from the water, and she wrapped her legs around his hips, her arms around his neck. Smiling into each other’s eyes, Rick kissed her, his hands slicking over her wet body. He cupped her round breast, his thumbs circling her nipples.
“We never got this far before,” he said, and anticipation spilled over her skin.
“Unforeseen circumstances.” She kissed the bullet scar on his shoulder. Rick’s tongue slicked over the graze on her arm.
Suddenly, he couldn’t taste enough, get close enough. He touched her and felt clean, washed of his sins, his loneliness. His hand sculpted her body, dipping, stroking and when she was breathless and whimpering he lifted her higher and closed his lips over her nipple, drawing it into his mouth. Her cry scattered a covey of birds. Cool water and the heat of his mouth spread like an erotic whisper over her skin.
Trapped in her limbs, he carried her the few feet to the rocks. His hardness pressed and Meg wanted him inside her, wanted to erase the past two years of missing him and feel alive again. And when he lifted her to the edge of the rocks, Megan knew he meant business.
And meant to take care of it now.
His mouth trailed over her breasts, his tongue rasping as he dipped and laved. He palmed her body as he moved lower, loving the sounds she made, that she couldn’t keep still. He nipped the join of her thigh, her belly, then he met her gaze as he spread her wider.
His expression was predatory, and he’d found his prey. Then he tasted her.
Meg burned, her insides fighting their way out, to chase the fire and slick power. He toyed and soothed, pulling her to the edge of rapture till she was pounding his shoulders to take her to the summit. But he wouldn’t, and she arched on the barren rock, pleasures abundant as savage luxury ripped and rode through her body in tremendous climax. She screamed his name and went boneless as her world softened.
It wasn’t enough.
She clawed at him, reaching. “Come to me now.”
Kissing her, he carried her to the bank and laid her on the mossy earth. Water lapped at their bodies. She reached, pulling him between her thighs. His erection pressed to her softness, yet he didn’t move, gazing into her eyes.
Meg saw more than she expected in Rick’s gaze — saw everything she wanted.
Megan knew those eyes were warning her. Not that coming together would be good, that it would be forever. He didn’t say it, but at this moment, she’d give herself to him and go willingly into the fire.
And he knew it, trembled with it. He pushed slightly, letting her feel the thickness of him.
Her eyes flared wickedly. “You’re torturing me,” she said, lifting her hips.
“You’ve been doing that to me for two years.”
She stroked his jaw and he turned his face into her palm. “I love you, Richard. You belong to me. Come home.”
He pushed into her, filling her in one hard stroke. Her gasp tumbled into his mouth and he drank it, lacing his fingers with her as he withdrew and pushed deeply. Again and again. His blood boiled, pleasure overflowing, and Rick went with it. There was no use restraining himself, Megan was all over him, her mouth, her hands. Driving him crazy. Then she rolled him to his back, straddling him.
She laughed and rode him, never taking her gaze from his, never. The spray from the fall coated her in crystal beauty, her body undulating in the sun, and Rick was enthralled just watching her take him like an Amazon princess claiming her prize. The pulse of her climax clawed through him, gripping, demanding he join her now, and Rick thrust into her and let the wet ride take him over the edge.
She leaned back, fused to him and in the South American sun, Rick’s heart shattered and he let it open. And like a fair wind, she swept inside and stole his soul.
“I love you, Irish.”
“And I love you, Callahan.”
Callahan. He gazed into her hazel-green eyes. “Am I in trouble?”
“If you stop doing that to me, you will be.”
“Next sixty years sound good?”
For a second her breath caught and he rolled her to her back, their bodies still locked.
She stammered, but no words came out.
He laughed softly, the corners of his eyes crinkling. “I’ve left you speechless. It’s a good look for you.”
When she only stared, he said, “Did you think I was going to let you get away this time?” He brought her hand to his mouth, laying a kiss there. “Marry me, Irish.”
She searched his eyes, his face.
He tightened his hold, his heart dangling by a string. “One word, Meg, that’s all it takes.”
She blinked back tears. “Yes!” she said and he kissed her. With each pass of his mouth over hers, loneliness fled, and roots took hold in their love.
* * *
Seventy-two hours later, give or take a time zone, Rick leaned against the window frame, staring out at the Brazilian skyline. From the adjacent office Rick heard voices. He and Cameron O’Toole had already cleared the air, but apparently Megan wasn’t finished.
Rick turned as Cameron O’Toole, silver-haired with a barrel chest like a prize fighter, came in, looking shell-shocked. “Feeling singed?”
“By God, the lass has a temper like her mother.”
Rick grinned. “Great, isn’t it?”
Cameron laughed. “You’re twisted, lad. But if you love her…”
Richard’s expression darkened to menacing. “Never doubt that, O’Toole.”
“Daddy!” Megan said from the doorway, glaring at her father, then walked toward Rick. His ring glittered on her finger and despite the tailored blue suit, all he could think of was how good she’d looked earlier this morning naked and draped over him.
“That’s a dangerous smile, darlin’,” she said softly, moving into his arms.
“Make you want to go native in the jungle again?” he said before he kissed her deeply.
Her father cleared his throat.
Meg looked at Rick. “The money is yours, Richard.”
“Got a dollar, Cameron?” Rick asked.
Frowning, her father produced one.
Rick crossed to him, taking it and shoving it into his pocket. He looked back at Meg. “I’d say we’re square.”
Megan smiled brightly.
“I pay my debts, Callahan,” her father said gruffly.
Rick crossed to Meg, and felt a power like he’d never known in her arms. “Megan took care of that.”
She blushed. “You’re so bad.”
“Just some unfinished business we needed to conclude.”
“Oh, we’re not done,” she said, pulling him toward the door and the priest waiting to marry them.
He grinned. “Oh, Irish. I hope not.”
The End


Unfinished Business-Chapter 7

Only a fool would presume he wasn’t the right man for me.”
Rick sighed deeply.
“You’re thinking foolishly, Meg. I can’t give you the life you’ve led till now.”
“Mistake number four. Who said I wanted it?”
“Dammit, you know what I mean.” He swallowed, feeling like everything in his life was suddenly on the line. “I want more and you just can’t give it without giving up your father’s money.”
Meg gave him a dirty look. “Thanks for the vote on my character, Callahan. I haven’t lived off my father’s money since I was twenty-one. I do have a job. Just because it’s in my dad’s company doesn’t mean I didn’t earn it. You know him. Would he give me control if I didn’t deserve it?”
His eyes narrowed. She had him there.
“Now, Callahan,” she advanced, fury in her bones. “You admit that the only reason you wanted to be with me was because I was forbidden fruit.”
“Now who’s insulting who?” he groused, climbing the rocks to the fall. He tossed down his pack and machete, pacing like a caged animal. Overhead, warm sunlight ribboned down over the trees and vines growing out of the rock. Bright colored birds soared and dipped. “If it was just an off-limits thing, I wouldn’t have searched. Or come here. Or be arguing with you now, would I?”
Meg kicked off her boots, toed off her socks, then stripped out of her shirt. “You gave up on us.”
“And you tried? I don’t have to get kicked in the teeth to know it hurts, Meg.”
She met his gaze. “If you’d called me a week ago, Richard, I would have come running.”
She let her pants fall to the rocks and Rick’s jaw tightened, all that lush skin turning him inside out. His gaze locked on her like a homing device, the sun dancing over her round behind in a skimpy thong. She was sunburned in spots, had a fingerprint bruise on her shoulder, but the rest of her was as perfect as he remembered.
“If that’s supposed to make me stupid, it’s working.”
“Good, don’t want to ruin a pattern, do we? Do you have any soap in there?” She pointed to the pack.
Numbly, he dug and slapped the bar into her outstretched hand.
“Stop looking at me like you’ve never seen me naked, Callahan.”
Callahan. She was really mad, he thought. “I haven’t, not like that.”
She peeled off her stretch camisole, flinging it aside. Thong panties followed, and his heartbeat rocketed to somewhere near his eyes.
“Well, my Nubian slaves didn’t have time to oil my skin this trip.” The intensity of his gaze ripped through her. He stood still, his shirt open and baring carved muscles tanned dark from the sun.
“You’re making me crazy.”
“Join the club.” With that she dived into the water.
Richard watched her swim under the clear water, popping up where the fall spilled into the pool. For a moment she just stood under the hard spray and with a clarity that gripped him in the gut, he knew why he’d come for her.
He’d known it the instant he heard her father’s voice on the other end of the satellite com link while he was in another jungle a thousand miles away. When he’d dropped everything and raced to find her. He wondered if he had the guts to tell her.
He stripped off his shirt and boots, angry with himself and glaring at the source.
Her back to him, she washed her hair, his gaze following the ripples of soapy water sliding over her curves and foaming around her. She looked back over her shoulder and met his gaze. She hid nothing from him and they both knew it. Damn her. His groin thickened, blood throbbing in every cell of his body and Rick folded to the ground. Hunger and temptation burned inside every fiber of his being. Squatting at the water’s edge, he washed the camo paint off his face, then dunked his head, shaking like a dog. It didn’t do a damn thing for the fire crackling through his blood.
Raking his hair back, he stood and stormed to the shore, yet his gaze moved back to her. Soap rinsed off her in slick waves, and like a bomb detonating, Rick felt his control snap.
“I just know I’m going to hell for this,” he muttered, stripping down to his skin and walking into the water.
“Stop right there,” she ordered.
He didn’t, his body revealed and hidden beneath the crystal depths. Blood boiled under Meg’s skin, softening her knees, making her insides go liquid and hot. He advanced, bronze and dark and hard. The water deepened around him, his dark eyes skimming her with the power of touch.
Already her body was coming apart for him. If she were smart she’d just give up and throw herself at him. But she wanted more.
Sunlight gleamed off the scarred bullet hole in his shoulder and the last two years rushed back like a blast of cold air. Her gaze locked with his.
“Do you want me in your life or not, Richard?”
He hesitated. “Meg.”
“I see.” She turned her back on him.
It was like a door slamming in his face. Rick reached, forcing her around. “Don’t do this, Meg. You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“I know I want more than this day. I have for the past two years.”
Grains of hope spilled through him. “Be careful,” he warned. “If you’re with me, Megan, you’re with me completely, forever, got that?”
Her heartbeat skipped. “What do you mean?”
“There is no halfway between us. There never was.”
“So it’s all or nothing?”
He nodded.
“It works both ways, Richard.”
Megan stepped closer, and Richard wondered if his world was about to cave or be resurrected. “I’m not as stupid as I look.”
Her smile was tender. “I can’t be with a man who doesn’t love me.”
His eyes flared, darkened. “Mistake number five. Why the hell do you think I came here?”
Meg reined in her galloping heart. “For money and to exact a little revenge.”
“Yeah, even I thought that at first, but it was a damn good excuse to get my hands on you.”
It was a gauntlet thrown down. He gripped her arms, drawing her closer, and Megan felt her world tilt at the darkly intense gaze locked on her.
“Because I couldn’t take a breath without thinking about you. I couldn’t stand another day of wondering if we could have made it.” He plowed his fingers into her hair, tipping her head back and opened his heart “I’m in love with you, Megan O’Toole. Deeply, wildly, so-much-that-I-act-stupid in love with you.”
Her eyes teared.
Rick thought he’d shatter inside waiting. “Irish?” He swallowed. “Silence is not a good thing right now.”


Unfinished Business – Chapter 6

Megan melted.
Right there in the Amazon jungle, she fell apart and came together in one soul ripping kiss. Her moans echoed into the trees, her hands crawled up his chest and wrapped around his neck. She hung on. Because the ground was disappearing beneath her feet. Because when Richard kissed, there wasn’t anything left to do but be absorbed in the thrall of it.
“Oh, Richard, I missed you,” Megan sobbed against his mouth, opening herself to the slaughter of feelings pulsing through her, her heart spreading its wings and riding the current with him.
“I missed you, too, Irish, damned if I didn’t.” Rick devoured her, his hands fisting in her shirt, pushing her into him, filling the length of his body with her incredible softness.
Behind her back he still gripped the bloody knife.
“More, more,” she whispered and he took her mouth again, hot and quick, not wanting their surroundings to intrude. He wanted to stay locked in the jungle with her.
The squawk of birds pushed good sense back into his foggy mind. They weren’t alone in this territory.
He drew back, loving that it took her a second to open her eyes.
“What was behind that kiss?”
Everything, he thought. “Seemed like a good way to cut through the hysterics.”
She was smart enough not to argue that point. “Is that the only reason?”
Her voice held a vulnerability he’d never heard before and he knew what he said in the next moment would make the difference between having her in his life again and feeling the biting loneliness again.
The decision was so easy. He pressed his forehead to hers, his body humming to her tune. “No, Irish, I needed to kiss you, to feel you in my arms again…. Two years is a very long time.”
Her gaze brushed over his face as if committing it to memory. “I can accept that.”
He smiled, an honest grin. “Good, because I don’t usually kiss people who shoot at me.” Thank God for a safety, he thought.
“It was a hair dryer. I was trying to blow you away.”
He grinned. “Come on.” He patted her behind. “We have to keep moving.”
She nodded, sliding her arms from his neck. She staggered and he flashed her a soft smile, caught her, then rolled his mouth over hers in a thick kiss before he bent and shoved his knife into his boot.
Megan saw the blood. Her gaze jerked to his. His expression was unreadable, moments of tenderness wiped clean. It made her see that Richard Callahan was capable of more than she first thought. It didn’t scare her; it made her feel incredibly safe. Her gaze moved over him as if checking for wounds.
“I’m fine.”
She nodded, knowing it was either the kidnappers or them. “Are we safe?”
“Yeah, for now.”
Meg let out a heavy breath, and they pushed on.
* * *
The heat of the day bore down on them like the press of iron. Meg stumbled and Rick pushed food into her hand and pushed her onward.
“Richard,” she said tiredly.
“Not yet, Meg. I know you’re tired. Just a bit farther and we’ll have a place to hide for the night.”
“I hope they have a bath.”
“I’ll see if the management will accommodate.”
She chose not to respond and concentrated on picking up one leg and setting it down. It was afternoon when the mist of the jungle grew lighter and cooler. She stopped and Rick passed her, chopping through undergrowth.
Then she saw it.
“Oh my God.”
Rick watched the smile bloom on her face and cherished it.
Megan looked up and up to the top of the cliff and the glorious waterfall spilling a thousand feet into the river below. Water rushed over rocks with a deceptive power, then calmed to flat glass near the edge where she stood. Eagerly, she walked toward it, but Rick grabbed her arm.
“No, not there, the water is too still.”
Anaconda, she realized, stepping back.
“We head up there.” He pointed to a plateau of rock to the right of the fall. “It’s going to take us another hour to get around that.” He gestured to the heavy vegetation between them and the fall.
Vines dipped into the water, strung like lace over twisting trees. “It’ll be worth it. Lead on.”
Megan followed, and just the sight of water made her skin scream for moisture and a good scrubbing. Her energy returned and when they had to crawl over tree roots the size of a car, Meg grasped a vine to swing down.
“Meg, no!”
She swung anyway, and Rick caught her, the force slamming her into him. “That was not smart.”
“I was feeling very Jane-ish. You really need to lighten up.”
His gaze moved over the terrain, alert. “When we’re out of here, I’ll wear a loin cloth and beat my chest for you.”
“My personal savage, I can’t wait.” She smiled up at him. “But then what?”
“Huh?” He was staring at her mouth, the rest of his body gearing up for action.
“When we’re in civilization with running water and room service, then what, Richard?”
“Then you’re safe.”
“And you get paid.” She nodded more to herself. “I forgot, coming here had a price.”
“Sure it did.” He tipped her head back, gazing into her green eyes. “It was opening an old wound, Irish. It was seeing you again after I’d tried my damnedest to find you and got shot out of the water at every turn.”
Her father, she knew without asking. “I’m going to kill Daddy.”
“No, you won’t. If my daughter had been caught in bed with her bodyguard and wounded to boot, I’d have done more than send a couple of thugs after me.”
“I’m sorry, Richard. No wonder you had to be paid to come here.” She pushed ahead of him, her heart feeling scored down the middle. Damn her father. “If it were me, I wouldn’t have come for anything less than five million.”
Hurt painted her voice and Richard raked his fingers through his hair. “I don’t give a damn about the money!” He followed her as she thrashed through the forest. “What do you want me to say, Meg? That I should have tried harder to get to you? Yeah, mistake one. That I regret you got hurt when I should have been doing my job? I do, mistake number two.”
“That’s an excellent start. Want to try for mistake number three?”
“Such as?” What was it? Open season on Callahan?
“How about you believing I was on some hero worship trip when I came to your bed?”
“You were.”
She rounded and slapped him.
He blinked, rubbing his cheek. “Feel better?”
“No. Actually I’d like to beat the stuffing out of you for being a jerk, but clearly I’m outclassed in my weight division.”
“I’d never hurt you, Meg.”
“Like you aren’t now?” His expression hardened. “Why are you being like this?” she shouted.
“Because I’m not the right man for you!”
Her heart crumbled.


Unfinished Business-Chapter 5

Rick’s question hung in the air between them for a moment before Meg answered.
“No, they didn’t do anything but withhold food and sleep. I put a curse on them and they were too superstitious to come near me.”
His lips curved and she thought she saw admiration in his smile.
“But the threat of rape was bad enough. It doesn’t matter. Been there, have the scars. Now it’s done.” She took a step in the direction they’d been heading and he grabbed her elbow. She twisted, meeting his gaze. “What?”
Rick searched her features. “You’ve changed.”
“I told you I —”
“Not your tastes in men,” he said sourly. “You’ve changed.”
That’s because I’ve lost too much and had to get over it, she thought, but didn’t say it. “I’d ask if that was good or bad, but frankly I don’t care.” She didn’t have the strength to battle with Rick Callahan right now.
“That’s it. You used to care.”
“Yeah, sure, I cared about appearances, and what others thought. I learned the hard way that only a couple people in my life really mattered.” And Rick had been one of them.
Rick pulled her closer. “Who’s on that list? Not me, I know.”
She laid her hands on his chest and Rick felt the familiar bolt of heat shoot down to his boot heels. He could barely stand the sweet pulse of it through his blood and not do something about it.
“Once upon a time you were the only one who mattered.”
“Except maybe Daddy and his money.” Rick knew the instant the words left his mouth that he’d screwed up. Her expression said so.
“Is that what you believe?” She shoved out of his arms.
“Any reason I shouldn’t?”
“No one paid me to crawl into your bed, Callahan. But then again, you were being paid to be my shadow.”
“Shadow, yes — lover, no!”
“Any reason I should believe you?” She turned on her heels, thrashing deeper into the jungle.
Rick stared after her, wondering how this got turned on him, when he heard a sound that wasn’t part of the jungle noises. He raced to catch her, grabbing her by the waist and dropping to the ground with her.
“We really have to work on your social —”
He covered her mouth, and with her locked in his arms, rolled into the jungle and into a gully. Tucking her to his side, he lay on his stomach, his weapon out and aimed toward where they’d come.
“I didn’t hear —”
He glared and she shut up. Hidden below the ridge of dirt, Rick listened, his hearing tuned to beyond the screech of birds and creatures.
Meg heard it and inhaled sharply. Footsteps. Thrashing.
“Stay right here. Take this.” He pressed his weapon into her hands, folding her fingers around it. “Shoot anything that isn’t me.”
Meg looked at the weapon, exhaled, then cocked the 9mm like a pro.
Rick arched an eyebrow.
“I’ll pretend it’s a hair dryer,” she said, then shifted to her elbows and focused on the path. He was still looking at her strangely when she said, “What are you going to use?”
He rolled to his back. From his boot, he pulled out a wickedly long knife with a serrated base. It had U.S. Marines engraved on the black blade. Megan swallowed. That meant he had to get close enough to them to inflict damage, and worry skipped through her.
Rick crawled to the path, then rose to a crouch, praying she wouldn’t have to shoot. If she did, then he’d already be dead.
Bugs buzzed around her head as Megan waited, her skin itching with sweat. She didn’t dare put the weapon down and squinted down the sight, wondering if she could actually shoot another human being. She heard a gun shot and flinched, praying it wasn’t at Rick, praying they’d missed. Her mind tortured her with images of him bleeding somewhere out there. Bleeding to save her. Again.
Seconds stretched to minutes.
She flinched when she heard a rustling in the bushes, but couldn’t see anything. The noise grew clearer, then suddenly slow and soft till the sound vanished beneath the blood pounding in her ears.
She imagined her captors: smelly losers with nasty guns — and they liked using them. She remembered the blows, the knife poised at her eye until she said what they wanted into the tape for her father. Then she thought of what they’d do to Rick and she bit her lip to keep from crying out.
A twig snapped. If it was Rick, he’d say so.
Her heart breaking that he was dead, she raised the weapon, shifting back on her knees. A figure appeared, looming over her, and she pulled the trigger. Nothing. She leapt to her feet and ran.
Rick chased her, snatching her around the waist and lifting her off her feet as he yanked the gun from her grasp.
She fought like a wildcat, clawing at his arm, kicking her feet against his calves.
A string of curses he never imagined she knew spilled from her mouth.
“Stop, stop, it’s me!”
She stilled, twisting in his arms as he set her to her feet. He gripped her arms. “It’s me, baby.”
She stared up at him, breathing hard, tears in her eyes. Then she batted his hands off. “I thought they’d killed you and they were coming for me. Don’t do that again, damn you!” She punched his chest. “I hate you for that. I was so scared!” She shoved him with every word. “I thought they’d killed you!”
The last came in a long painful wail.
He grabbed her against him. “Shut up, Meg.”
She blinked.
Tears trailed down her cheeks and he’d bet she didn’t know it. To see her come apart made his knees weak. He didn’t get that way often. Except with her.
“Shut up? You bastard! I’m terrified for you and that’s —”
Grinning all the way down, he slashed his mouth across hers, stealing her words, her temper. Her breath. He loved that she was afraid for him. Loved that he couldn’t think clearly, and sometimes with Meg that was a good state to be in. She was sharp and smart, and so much better than he was, but he was tired of lines in the sand and denying himself this woman.
God, she tasted like home, like he’d been lost in this jungle and finally found his way to freedom.
His tongue slid over her lips, prying them apart and pushing between. And she crumbled in his arms