Cowboy's pride (welcome to covendale book 1)

Cowboy’s Pride

 

Welcome to Covendale: Book 1

 

Morgan Blaze

 

 

The hardest second chance they’ll ever take…

“Why do I bother offering advice? Especially to you.” Cam slammed the rag back in the toolbox and stood. “Just hold the flashlight over here.”

Sydney bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I was trying to make a joke. A bad one.”

He sighed and leaned on the truck. “Okay. I guess I’m sorry, too.”

“For what?”

“I’m sorry your jokes are bad.” He smiled, just for an instant—and her heart stopped. God, what waswrongwith her? “And I could be a little nicer,” he said. “So let’s get this beast started.”

“All right.”

She managed to hold the flashlight without letting her hands shake. All of a sudden, being this close to Cam seemed dangerous. She had to forcefully remind herself that she hated him.

It only took a minute for him to get the spark plug back in. “Okay,” he said. “Hand me the light, and go ahead and give it a try.”

She nodded, leaned into the truck and turned the key. The engine started right up.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Thank you so much. You’re…you really are a genius.”

“I just know machines.” He closed the hood and stood back. For a long moment he looked at her, but she couldn’t read anything in his expression. Finally, he said, “Make sure you get that serviced. It’s not going to stay running for long.”

“I will. Cam…”

He raised an eyebrow. In that split second, she could’ve kissed him.

And a huge part of her wanted that more than anything.

* * * *

Read on for more!

 

Prologue

Covendale High School – Junior Year

 

Sydney Davis, first-class chicken, pressed her back against the glass wall of the cafeteria and squeezed her eyes shut. “I can’t do it,” she whispered.

“Comeon.” Luka tried to pry her away. “There’s only three weeks until prom. If you don’t ask him now, it’s not happening. He’s graduating this year, remember?”

“It’s not happening anyway,” she moaned.

“Syd.”

She cracked an eye open. Her best friend stood with a fist planted on her hip, tapping her opposite foot. The infamous mule position. “Seriously, Luka,” she said. “Do you see who he’s sitting with? That’s Gina Wyatt. I look like a total dump next to her.”

“So does everybody else in the universe. Besides, Gina’s practically in Tommy Lowell’s lap.”

“But Patti and Kate are there, too. And the Banks brothers.”

Luka snorted. “Are you really going to let the Pretty People stop you?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.” Sydney tried to swallow past the dryness in her throat. She’d been daydreaming about this for years, and actually planning to do it for months—ever since Luka convinced her she had nothing to lose. But one glance at Cam Thatcher, surrounded by the most popular kids in school, and she’d decided there was a lot she could lose. Her dignity, for one. And her heart. “This is a bad idea,” she said. “And seniors don’t go to junior prom, anyway.”

“Tommy and the Banks boys are going.”

“Well, Cam isn’t. Because I’m not asking him.”

“Sydney, my love.” Luka threw an arm around her and hauled her upright. “Remind me. How long have you been obsessed with Cameron Thatcher?”

She scowled. “I am not obsessed.”

“Really? Let’s read your notebook.” Luka snatched at her bag.

“Okay!” she laughed, twisting out of reach. “Maybe I am, a little.”

“Just a teensy bit.”

A hesitant smile forced its way across her face. The truth was, she’d been in love with Cam ever since the sixth grade, when her class visited the Thatcher ranch on a field trip. Cam, then a seventh grader, had stayed home from school to help give the tour—and when Sydney got separated from the rest of the kids because she’d lingered behind to watch the baby chicks, he’d been the one to find her.

But instead of bringing her right back to the group, he stayed in the barn and gave her a private tour.

They talked about the incubators for a while, which he told her that he’d built himself. Then he showed her an ancient motorcycle with a few shiny new parts, and explained shyly that it was a Harley Super Glide, and he was restoring it. He’d brought her up to the loft, where there was a breathtaking view of the ranch spread and the horse fields. Then they sat in the gorgeous horse-drawn carriage that Mr. Thatcher always brought to town events and talked about school, life on the ranch, everything and anything.

For a few incredible hours, Sydney had been in heaven. At least until the others realized they were missing. Mr. Thatcher had been furious with Cam, and the teacher was none too pleased with Sydney. But just before her class boarded the bus to head back to school, Cam had sought her out. He squeezed her hand and whispered in her ear, “You were worth it.”

She never did know what Cam’s father had done about the scare they’d given everyone. With her parents, it’d been a stern lecture about being responsible and a lot of hugs. But those whispered words had stayed with her all these years.

Now she was scared to death that they hadn’t meant anything—at least to him.

Luka cleared her throat loudly, bringing her back to the present. “You’re stalling, Syd.”

“And your point is?” She heaved a sigh. Luka was right…in a few months, Cam would graduate and she’d barely see him anymore. This was her only chance. And if he said no—which really was the worst that could happen—maybe she could finally stop pining away for him and get on with her life. Right after she picked up the pieces of her broken heart. “All right,” she said. “Here I go.”

Luka grinned. “I’m right behind you.”

“Thanks.” She flashed a quick smile, turned, and walked into the cafeteria.

As usual, the place was a zoo. And the closer she got to the popular kids’ table, the more her determination drained. Her stomach shivered and rolled, and her legs felt like sacks of water. Was she really going to ask Cam Thatcher, the most gorgeous guy in town, to go to the prom with her in front of the entire collective power of the senior class?

He glanced her way—and he smiled. All deep tan and black hair and white teeth, his hazel-gold eyes dancing. That smile was all it took for her to close the distance and stop in front of his table.

“Hi, Cam.” She fought to keep the squeak out of her voice and ignore the stares of the Pretty People. He was all that mattered. “Um, how are you?”

Oh, brilliant. Could she have started out any lamer?

Cam arched a dark brow. “Fine,” he said. “Sydney, right?”

“Yeah, that’s me.” Her heart pounded harder than ever. That definitely didn’t sound like warm recognition. A few snickers and whispers rose from his friends, but she filtered them out and pressed on.Now or never.“Listen, I was wondering if you had…I mean, I wanted to ask if you’d—” She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and blurted, “Would you like to go to the junior prom with me?”

The whole cafeteria seemed to fall silent with the question. Cam stared at her, his eyes wide and darkening fast. For an instant she saw pain in those eyes, and a desperate sorrow that stung her heart.

And then, he laughed.

The sound froze her blood. It wasn’t a polite chuckle, or even a condescending snort. This was loud, hearty laughter that kept getting stronger, until he was holding his stomach and practically doubled over.

It wasn’t long before the rest of the table was laughing right along with him.

Gina Wyatt clung to Tommy Lowell’s arm, giggling into his shoulder. Patti Smith shrieked and pointed, laughing so hard that she could barely get enough breath for the next one. The mood rippled outward, infecting just about everyone else until the entire cafeteria buzzed with laughter.

Hot tears filled Sydney’s eyes. Her face burning, she stumbled back, dimly aware of Luka screaming obscenities in Cam’s general direction. If she didn’t breathe soon, she was going to choke. Maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, though. Dying had to feel better than this.

She turned blindly, tried to bolt. And wound up covered in the contents of some kid’s lunch tray who’d been standing right behind her.

The impact knocked her down, and the last of the tray tilted onto the top of her head. Cold milk and warm gravy splashed her hair and dripped down her neck. She gasped in a great, tearing breath and scrambled up as the chaos swelled around her.

Cam and Tommy were on their feet, shouting at each other. A lunch aide was pulling a still-screaming Luka away from the crowd, and the vice principal was pushing through laughing, cheering students, headed for the shouting match. Gina, Patti and Kate had formed a semi-circle behind the table. They were still giggling and pointing.

Sydney folded her arms across her lurching stomach and sank to the floor, sobbing. Her heart ached so sharply, she was sure it would explode in her chest. She stayed there until two teachers broke through the mob and led her away.

At least she couldn’t hear them anymore. For her, the world had ended with a laugh.

 

 

Chapter 1

Six years later

 

Sydney had spent all day working up the nerve to come out to the Leaning T Ranch. Now that she was here, right outside the gates, all those nerves were shifting into overdrive and turning her insides to mush.

But if she wanted a horse-drawn carriage for her wedding, she had to ask Cam Thatcher.

She almost talked herself out of it. The Leaning T was the only ranch in town, but there had to be someplace over in Greenway or Valley Ridge with a carriage. It would just be a lot more expensive. Or she could go without one.

“You’re being stupid, Syd,” she lectured herself firmly. “That was high school, this is now. Get moving.”

She took a deep breath, dropped the pickup into drive, and motored slowly through the gates. This might’ve been the last place in the world she wanted to be, but she couldn’t help appreciating the scenery. She hadn’t been out here since that long-ago field trip, an event she’d refused to think about for the last six years.

Vernon Thatcher had passed away suddenly, the summer after Cam graduated. There hadn’t been any field trips to the Leaning T since, for anyone.

A well-maintained, tree-lined drive led to the main house—a country-red two-story with a long, screened porch, set back on a meticulous lawn. A weathered barn flanked by a silo rose up behind it, and a few chickens wandered in the side yard, strutting and bobbing like small, feathered emperors.

It was peaceful and pretty. The kind of place she’d always pictured herself living in. She’d planned on living in Covendale the rest of her life, maybe running her own business. She just didn’t know what kind of business, yet.

But in a few weeks she’d be Mrs. Thomas Lowell and on her way to New York City, where Tommy had a new job waiting for him at a big television station. She still couldn’t believe it. Leaving the town where she’d grown up was a scary prospect, but working in television was Tommy’s dream. She was determined to help him make it come true, even if it meant she’d have to put off her own business a while. Being an entrepreneur in New York was way too expensive.

First, though, they were going to have a big country wedding. And Sydney wanted everything to be as perfect as possible.

She parked in the driveway and cut off the engine, then opened the door and got out before she could change her mind and drive away. A slight breeze tickled her hair, carrying birdsong and the distant whicker-snort of horses. She breathed in the scents of the ranch—fragrant grass, sawdust and fresh dirt, hints of diesel fuel and motor oil.

A loud crack split the air, making her jump.

When her heart settled back to normal, she took a few hesitant steps toward the house, and the cracking sound repeated. She managed not to jump this time. It sounded like it was coming from the barn, so she headed there hoping she’d find a ranch hand to talk to about the carriage. Cam had made himself scarce when he finished high school, and outside of the occasional loud blur as he zipped by on that motorcycle of his, hardly anyone had seen him in town since.

She definitely hadn’t. And she wouldn’t mind keeping it that way.

Just before she rounded the corner of the house, another crack rolled through the air. This time she made out a double thump chasing the sound. Out back, there was a man wrenching an axe from a big tree stump next to the barn. Freshly split wood littered either side of the stump, and off to the side was a stack of fat, uncut stove-lengths.

The man himself faced away from her. He was shirtless and muscled, bronzed skin gleaming with sweat. A thick scar marked the small of his back, making an inverted cross of his spine. His dark, shoulder-length hair shone almost red in the sun. He wore only jeans and boots, but there was a blue cotton work shirt and a black cowboy hat hung neatly from a nearby post. So he was a ranch hand.


Page 2

Not wanting to startle him, she watched as he grabbed a log one-handed from the stack and set it end-up on the stump. He gripped the axe and swung it full circle, splitting the log clean with one stroke. The halves thumped to the ground.

When he let go of the axe to wipe his palms on his jeans, she said, “Excuse me. I’m sorry to bother you, but…”

He whirled around with a glare—and her heart fell into her stomach. “Cam?”

She couldn’t stop staring at him. Still the same take-your-breath-away gorgeous, the lines of his face harder and cleaner. Stubble shaded his jaw, and his pale hazel eyes were hooded and watchful. He was only a year older than her, but he looked ten more, at least.

“See something green, townie?” He stalked over to the pole, grabbed the shirt, and mopped his face and arms with it. “We’ve got a front door, you know,” he said. “With a doorbell and everything.”

She cleared her throat, determined not to get upset. Obviously he didn’t remember her. She wasn’t sure if that made things better or worse—that for all these years she’d carried a massive grudge over what he’d done, while he probably hadn’t given it a second thought. But she was here now, so she intended to see it through. “Let’s start over,” she said, pulling the best smile she could. “I’m—”

“Sydney Davis.” He smirked. “It figures.”

So he did remember her. Okay, that was definitely worse. “What figures?”

“Nothing.” His eyes darkened, and he crouched to grab a handful of dry sawdust and rub his hands. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what figures.”

He straightened and strode toward her, so fast and angry that she almost stumbled back. “It figures you’d come walking into my back yard like you own the place, instead of trying the door like a normal person. And you didn’t come here to ask me what figures.” He eased back and folded rippling arms across his broad chest. “Now, I’m only going to ask you this once more,” he said. “What do you want?”

She just about bolted right then. But she was angry enough to overcome her racing heart and stand her ground. “I want to rent your carriage rig,” she said. “For my wedding.”

“Your wedding.”

The flat note in his voice surprised her. For a minute she thought he was sorry he’d overreacted to her presence.

And then he started to laugh.

Sydney was mortified to feel her face heat up and tears sting her eyes. Unbelievable. He was doing it again. At least now it was only the two of them, and not the entire student population of Covendale.

Well, he wasn’t going to break her heart this time. She’d given it to someone else.

She pulled herself straighter and willed the embarrassment away. “Yes, my wedding,” she said. “Can I rent it or not?”

He stared at her for a long minute. At last, he heaved a sigh. “Come here. I’ve got something to show you,” he said, and started for the barn.

She followed reluctantly.

Inside, he turned a light on and kept going toward the back, where something big and covered in canvas drop cloth stood beneath the loft. The rich, sweet scent of hay brought a smile to her face as she walked after him—but it died there when he yanked the canvas away like some demented magician performing a cruel trick.

The carriage had been breathtaking the last time she’d seen it. White lacquer and polished brass and wrought iron wheels, with deep blue velvet seats. Now it was dulled and filthy, the brass rusting, the seats matted and covered with dust. The whole thing canted drunkenly to one side, courtesy of a missing front wheel.

Cam raised an eyebrow. “Still want it? I’ll rent it to you cheap.”

Now she really was going to cry. Not just about the carriage, but the way he was rubbing it in—like he hadn’t hurt her enough six years ago and wanted to make sure he finished the job. She backed away, shaking her head and unable to utter a word. Then she turned to leave. She never should’ve come here in the first place.

“Sydney, wait.”

If he’d sounded the least bit angry or sarcastic, she would’ve kept going. But he’d gentled his tone, with obvious effort. “Fine. I’m waiting,” she said without turning around.

She sensed him behind her before he spoke again from inches away, his deep voice tickling her skin. “Who are you marrying?”

“Why do you care?”

There was a long pause, and he said, “You know what? I don’t.”

Her shoulders sagged, and she turned to look at him. She didn’t need to stoop to his level. “Tommy Lowell,” she said. “Is that all right with you?”

His eyes flared briefly, and she got the distinct impression it was not all right with him. But she wasn’t taking his opinion into consideration anymore. He got himself under control, and said, “Okay. I’ll make you a deal.”

She snorted. “You already said you’d rent it to me cheap. I hope this deal’s better.”

The hint of a smile struggled to form on his face, but he fought it. “Much better,” he said. “Here’s the deal. I’ll fix it up for you, just like new. I’ll even let you borrow it for free. Horses included, my best pair. On one condition.”

An explosion of butterflies filled her stomach, and suddenly she didn’t want to know the condition. But she heard herself say, “What’s that?”

“Once you’re married, you never come back to my place again. And I meannever.”

The pure venom in his voice took her breath away. Something told her agreeing to this was a terrible idea, and bound to blow up in her face somehow. But she did really want the carriage, and it wasn’t like she could come back here even if she wanted to. She was moving to New York with Tommy.

“All right,” she said, and held a hand out. “It’s a deal.”

He looked at it like she’d offered to stab him—and for just an instant, she thought she saw pain in his eyes. Like the moment just before he’d shattered her heart with a laugh.

But it was only the prelude to fury.

He seized her hand, pumped it once, and pulled away fast. “How long do I have?” he snarled.

“Three weeks.”

“Fine. Would you mind leaving now? I’ve got work to do.”

“Gladly.”

She walked out with her head held high and made it all the way back to the truck before the tears started. It seemed no matter what the circumstances, Cam Thatcher had a knack for hitting her where it hurt.

Well, this time she could handle it. Or at least that’s what she told herself. She had a great fiancé, good job prospects, and a bright future ahead of her in the Big Apple. She was happy.

Really she was.

* * * *

Cam wrenched the axe free and gripped the handle hard, until he heard the truck start up and drive away. When the sound of the engine finally vanished, he let out a frustrated snarl and swung, burying the blade a good four inches into the tree stump. He’d have a hell of a time getting that out later.

He didn’t care. That girl boiled his blood like no other person, alive or dead.

Six years. Sydney Davis hadn’t spoken a word to him in all this time, not even to ask why things turned out the way they did that day in high school. Not even at his father’s funeral. In fact, she hadn’t so much as glanced in his direction. Now she had the nerve to show up at his place and ask to use the hopelessly ruined carriage—so she could marry Tommy By-God Lowell.

She’d just strutted in here and said frog. And worse…he’d jumped.

Christ, he was a bigger idiot than his father ever accused him of being. As if he didn’t have enough on his plate. Now besides running what was left of the ranch and fighting off the bastards trying to take it from him, he’d have to fix the carriage somehow.

But he’d do it, if it meant there would be no chance he’d ever see her again.

He kicked the stump, pivoted on a heel and stalked to the barn. The sight of the decrepit carriage twisted his gut. He had reasons for keeping it covered, not the least of which was the memory of one perfect afternoon that still haunted him. No matter how hard he tried to forget. He’d already paid for that experience twice—once with his father, and again when Sydney decided he was the devil incarnate. Just like the rest of the town thought about him.

Now he’d signed on for a third payment. One impossible task, delivered in three weeks, so the girl he’d once loved could marry the man who wanted to destroy him.

He ought to take a sledgehammer to the thing and put it out of its misery. And when he finished that, do the same favor for himself.

But this wasn’t the time for wallowing in self-pity. A handful of horses and chickens still needed him around, at least, and one infuriating girl was waiting for a wedding carriage. He’d start by replacing the wheel and pray that the rest was salvageable.

Once it was done, he’d finally be rid of Sydney Davis. He hoped.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

Sydney walked into a house she expected to be quiet and empty, only to find her mother sitting on the couch with a bunch of photo albums spread across the coffee table. She almost walked back out. Marnie Davis could smell a crying jag at a thousand feet, and Sydney hadn’t told anyone she was going out to the ranch. She didn’t feel like explaining what happened.

“Hi, honey.” Marnie patted the couch next to her. “Got a minute?”

Too late.“Hey, Mom. I thought you were volunteering at the library today.” She turned away and took her coat off, trying to wipe her eyes surreptitiously. “Isn’t it Thursday?”

“Yes, but I’m there on Tuesdays. I only do one Thursday a month, and that was last week.” A note of concern had already entered her mother’s voice. “Where were you this morning? Luka came by looking for you.”

“She did?” Maybe she could still pass this off. She took her time hanging her coat up, still not looking directly at her mom. For just a minute she regretted staying home to save money while she finished college—but that wasn’t really fair. Her folks were great most of the time. “What’d she want?” she said.

“Something about her cousin racing tonight, so she was wondering if you were still going to the track with Tommy.”

“Oh. I forgot about that.”Ugh, she amended silently. Watching a bunch of cars drive around in endless circles was not exactly her idea of a good time. But Tommy enjoyed it, so she’d promised herself to give it a decent shot. At least having Luka there would make it suck less. “So, um, I’ll just go give her a call,” she said.

Marnie cleared her throat. “Sydney, hon,” she said gently. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” she muttered—but her voice betrayed her by breaking on the word. “Everything. I don’t know.” With a sigh, she walked to the couch and plopped down. She could usually talk to her mom about anything, but not this. Not now, anyway. She was already humiliated enough. “What are we doing with these?” she said, gesturing at the open albums.

“I take it you don’t feel like talking about it.”

“Not really.”

“All right. You know where I am if you need to.” Marnie patted her leg and smiled. “Anyway, I’m picking out photos for the reception. Your father’s so excited about the big, fancy projector, I don’t think I’ll get him away from it all night. What do you think about this one?” She pointed.

Sydney looked, and let out a snort. “Oh, God. You kept that?”

“Of course I did. It was your first date.”

“Well, it wasn’t really a date.” The picture was her and Tommy on the Loop-N-Drop, at the county fair in Valley Ridge. It came from one of those automated things that took a shot of every roller coaster car on the way down the big plunge, and then sold them for ridiculous amounts of money as you left the ride. He was laughing, she was screaming and clutching his arm. In the photo, Tommy still had a black eye from the accident he’d gotten in with Brian and Jesse Banks the week before that totaled his pickup.

It was kind of funny, now that she thought about it. Her and Tommy had barely ever spoken before that accident. After it, she’d started running into him everywhere, including the county fair. They’d gone there separately—her with her parents, him with his friends—but they left together. Someday they’d probably share a laugh over the car crash that led to a wedding.

At least, she hoped they would. She wanted the kind of marriage her parents had. The two of them still had weekly date nights, still liked and hated pretty much the same things, and still sent each other secret looks when they thought no one was watching.

“Care to turn off Memory Lane and back onto Now Street?”

Sydney giggled and looked up from the photo. “Sorry, Mom. This one’s fine. A little goofy, but I’ll live with it,” she said. “What else have we got?”

“Well, I’ve already picked out the requisite embarrassing baby photos.” Marnie winked at her. “And I went through my phone to get some more recent pictures. But I have some more shots from the fair—remember, I bought that disposable camera there? I had it developed ages ago, but I never looked at the pictures.” She shuffled albums around until she found a white mail-order photo envelope. “Care to do the honors?”

Sydney grinned. “I don’t know. Are there any compromising pictures of you and Dad in there?”

“Absolutely not. We use the digital camera for those.”

“Mom!” She gave her a playful shove and took the envelope. “Seriously, I don’t want to know.” She tore the flap open and pulled out a stack of glossy photos. The one on top was her and Luka side by side, with her dad standing behind them sticking his tongue out. “I think this counts as an obscene gesture,” she said.

Her mom smiled. “No comment.”

Laughing, Sydney put it aside for the next one. The first few were just the people she went with. Tommy entered the picture at the fifth shot, which was him and Luka in front of the horse stables. Next was the two of them, with Sydney staring at the ground. Then one with her smiling straight ahead—and Tommy looking off to one side with a fierce expression, practically baring his teeth at something off-camera. “Whoa,” she said. “What happened here?”

Marnie leaned over and frowned at the picture. “I’m not sure. Maybe it was…you know, there was some sort of commotion over by the stables. People shouting. That must’ve been it.”


Page 3

“Oh, you’re right. I think I remember.” She stared at the photo, at Tommy’s snarling face. She’d never seen anyone look so angry. Her mind worked at the faint memory of an argument in the background. Harsh male voices, the impatient snorts of horses. And hadn’t she looked over, like anyone would?

She had. There’d been three men, one wearing a Fair staff shirt, confronting a black-clad cowboy leading two horses. She couldn’t make out any of their faces, but she’d seen one of them shake a fist at the cowboy. He’d batted it away, sending what looked like a bunch of cash flying. Seemed they were making him an offer he had no problem refusing. She remembered thinking he was probably from out of town—the locals around here preferred to deal with their own, and didn’t exactly play fair with outsiders. It wasn’t a practice she condoned.

“Well, this one’s out.” She put the picture of angry Tommy aside. Next was the two of them again, both actually looking at the camera and smiling. Tommy’s expression was still a little strained, but it was hard to notice without the context of the previous picture. “How about this?” she said, handing the photo to her mom.

When she got a look at picture beneath it, her heart stopped. Marnie’s camera had caught the money-flinging cowboy looking their way—and even from a distance, his face was familiar. Not to mention ten times more furious than Tommy could ever get.

“Cam,” she whispered. It shouldn’t have surprised her that Cam and his explosive temper had caused a shouting match, but the clear bad blood between him and Tommy was unexpected. She’d thought they were friends. They had been in high school, anyway.

“Cam Thatcher?” Her mother scooted in for a peek at the photo. “Will you look at that. You were head-over-heels in love with him for quite a while, weren’t you?”

“Something like that,” she said flatly.

“I haven’t seen him in years. His mother either, come to think of it. Not since the funeral.” A troubled expression flashed across Marnie’s face. “Well, Amanda Thatcher never was big on coming into town. I suppose she’s still holed up at the ranch.”

“Yeah,” Sydney muttered. “Uh, Mom…I think I’m going to lie down for a while. I’m pretty tired, and it’s going to be a long night.”

“Oh, honey.” Marnie hugged her. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk?”

“Maybe later. Besides, if I don’t call Luka soon, she’ll send out a search party.” She smiled and stood, carefully avoiding another look at the picture. “Thanks, Mom.”

“Any time.”

With a parting wave, Sydney headed upstairs. After six years of avoiding even the thought of a certain caustic cowboy, this much Cam in one day was overkill. Things would look better after a nap.

They had to—because she wasn’t going to let him bring her down again.

* * * *

The sound of an approaching car grated on Cam’s last nerve. He’d gotten used to people leaving him alone out here, which made two visitors in one day practically a circus. If it was Sydney Davis again, maybe he’d tell her where she could shove the damned carriage—which he should’ve done in the first place.

When he stormed around to the front of the house and recognized the car, he almost wished it was Sydney. At least he only hated her.

He waited until two men climbed out of the sleek gray sedan. “The answer’s still no, Lowell,” he called. “And you’re still trespassing.”

“Oh, I didn’t come with a new offer.” Boyd Lowell, the biggest snake of a real estate developer in three counties, started toward him with his boy Tommy right behind. Cam’s hands clenched into fists. It took all his restraint not to swing at the smug little bastard, especially after Sydney’s revelation. “Just the old one,” Boyd went on. “Thought I’d give you one last chance to turn a profit. You know, what with the foreclosure and all.”

Cam let out a bitter laugh. “Can’t you come up with a better lie than that?”

“Why bother, when the truth is so much easier?” Boyd grinned, flashing white teeth and good-ol’-boy condescension as the sound of yet another engine swelled from the drive. “I do believe your mail’s here, Thatcher. Might be you have to sign for something.”

Eyes narrowed, Cam watched as an ancient blue Bel Air with a yellow bubble light and a U.S. MAIL placard on the side lurched its way up behind Lowell’s sedan and stopped. The mailbox for the ranch was mounted at the gates, so the carrier never had occasion to come down to the house. Unless there really was a certified letter.

The car’s heavy door swung open, and a compact and unsmiling old woman clambered out. Enola Frasier had been delivering the mail in Covendale five days a week since sometime around the dawn of humanity. She’d outlasted five postmaster generals, dozens of weekend and fill-in carriers, and three Bel Airs—her vehicle of choice. The fourth one showed signs of checking out before Enola, too.

Eventually she extracted a clipboard and an envelope plastered with green stickers. She paid no attention to the Lowells and headed straight for Cam, holding the envelope out like a sword—or a disease. She barely looked up from her clipboard. “Need your autograph for this one, young Thatcher,” she said. “It’s from the bank, in case you’re wondering.”

“I wasn’t.” Cam made no move to touch the thing. “What happens if I don’t sign?”

At that, Enola raised a stern postal-official glare. “Well, I suppose I’ll take it right back with me,” she said. “But in all my years, I’ve only had one person refuse to sign for a certified letter. That was old Ned Harding, back in ’81.” She leaned a bit closer. “Let me tell you, it didn’t end well for him.”

“Why? Did the post office police come after him?”

“Process servers,” Enola said in ominous tones, glancing around like there might be some hiding in the bushes. “They’re a nasty bunch. Not at all official. Why, they’ve never even taken the civil service test.”

Despite being mad enough to spit fire, Cam almost laughed. No one could accuse Enola of not taking her job seriously. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sign.”

“Good choice. Here, and here.”

He scrawled his name in the two places she pointed out, and waited while she tore the stiff green card off the envelope. This time he took it when she held it out. “Have a nice day, young Thatcher,” she said, and turned back to her car.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Real nice.”

The letter felt heavy in his hands, and he didn’t want to open it. He knew with dull certainty that Boyd must’ve struck a deal with his buddies at the bank—the same people who’d grudgingly worked out a payment plan with Cam eight months ago, to pay off the back property taxes he owed. It hadn’t been easy with the ranch floundering, but he’d made every single payment on time.

And this grinning son of a bitch had somehow negated all that work, because some rich client of his wanted to turn the Leaning T into a golf course.

Boyd nodded sharply. “Aren’t you going to read your mail, boy?”

“Get out of here,” he growled, shoving the letter in a back pocket. “This is my property.”

“Not for long.”

The soft, mocking statement came from Tommy. Cam whirled on him and flashed a cold smile. “Don’t you have a wedding to plan for?”

The shock on Tommy’s face almost made up for the pain it cost him to say that. “That’s not your business, farm boy,” he said. “I don’t know what you heard, but you’d better mind your own. You got that?”

Cam took a step forward, and laughed when Tommy flinched back. “What’s wrong, Tommy?” he said. “Afraid you’re going to have another accident? Wouldn’t want your pretty face messed up for your own wedding.”

“That’s enough,” Boyd said darkly. “Thatcher, my offer stands until Monday. You can take it and clear out with a profit, or you can end up with nothing and get cleared out anyway.” He jerked his head toward the car, and Tommy went without a word. “You know where to find me. Don’t be stupid, boy—I’m your only choice.”

Cam stood his ground while Boyd stalked to the sedan and drove away, spinning up clouds of dust to punctuate the exit. When the Lowell brigade was gone, he yanked the damned envelope out and tore it open.

Two things jumped out at him. Foreclosure Notice…and $14,712. That impossibly huge figure was what it’d take to keep the ranch—and he had five days to come up with it. Until the end of business on Monday. Might as well demand that he swim across the Atlantic Ocean and be back in time for supper.

He crumpled the letter and threw it across the yard, wishing it was Tommy Lowell’s cowardly neck. Maybe he couldn’t win. But one way or another, they weren’t taking him without a fight.

He just wished he knew who to swing at first.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

Before tonight, Sydney had been to the Covendale Speedway exactly once in her life. Her parents had dragged her to a country music festival that she’d actually ended up enjoying. The place had been packed then, with full parking lots and rows of cars lining the fields beyond the racetrack, huge crowds of people, and vendors everywhere hawking food, beer, t-shirts, and random toys and novelties.

This time the crowds were smaller, but somehow more boisterous. She’d insisted on driving herself and meeting Tommy here, in case she hated it and needed to make an excuse to leave. Now she wondered if she’d even be able to find him.

She spent a few minutes scanning the vast parking lot under the last light of the sun. There were plenty of tailgate parties going, and the scents of cooking burgers and chicken mingled with the prevailing overall atmosphere of beer. Music blared from more than one radio through open windows. A few people wandered around selling Jell-o shots in Dixie cups. She recognized several faces, but none of them belonged to Tommy or Luka.

Just as she was deciding whether to head for the main gate and hope one of them randomly walked by, someone shouted her name. She followed the sound and spotted Luka waving wildly from the front of the row, where she stood with a guy in a blue jumpsuit and a helmet under one arm that had to be her cousin. Relieved, she waved back and headed that way.

“Syd, my love.” Luka bear-hugged her when she reached them. “You remember my little cousin Chad, right?”

Sydney looked at the younger, extremely built man next to Luka, who had a good four inches on both of them. “Oh my God,” she said. “You were like twelve years old last time I saw you. What happened?”

“I got bigger.” Chad grinned at her. “Hey, Sydney. You look great.”

“Thanks. You, too.”

“It’s his first race,” Luka said, and nudged him. “Means he’s going to win. Beginner’s luck, you know.”

Chad coughed. “Yeah, I’m not so sure about that,” he said. “I’ll be happy with top five. Ellis thinks I won’t even make that, but—”

“Foster!” someone shouted, and Chad flinched. Sydney glanced over to see a bear of a man with shaggy brown hair and an eye patch, standing across the drive and glaring their way. “Move your ass,” the man growled. “That car isn’t going to check itself.”

“And that’d be Ellis. Gotta run, ladies.” He winked, then turned and trotted off toward the bear.

“Good luck!” Luka called after him.

Sydney raised an eyebrow. “You going to let that guy talk to your cousin like that?”

“Ellis is hard on everybody. It’s part of his charm.” Luka threw an arm around her and sighed. “Speaking of cranky men,” she said. “I hear somebody had a run-in with the town hermit today.”

Sydney groaned. “How did you know?”

“I’m psychic.”

“Seriously, Luka.”

“Fine. Make me reveal all my secrets.” She rolled her eyes dramatically, but then she smiled. “Gramps was sitting out at Kenny’s garage with the other old-timers when you drove by and turned onto Old Hickory. There’s only one place down that road.”

“Maybe I was just going for a drive.”

“Uh-huh,” Luka said slowly. “They were still there when you drove back. Gramps said you looked like somebody ran you through a wringer and hung you out to dry.”

She bit her lip. This was not helping her forget—and if the regulars at Kenny’s had seen her, sooner or later the whole town would know she’d been there. Probably sooner. “Okay,” she finally said. “So I went out to the ranch. I wanted the carriage for the wedding.”

“And you saw him.”

“Unfortunately.”

“You might have mentioned. You know I’d have gone with you.”

Reproach laced her voice, and Sydney felt instant guilt. Luka had been her best friend since the first grade. They’d always had each other’s backs—in fact, Luka had landed herself three days’ detention with her outburst at the prom incident. She knew better than anyone how much Cam had really hurt her.

“I’m sorry,” she finally said. “I should’ve told you.” Her voice shook, and she realized with a start that she was crying a little. She swiped furiously at the tears. She was so done crying over him. “He did it again,” she said. “Laughed at me, when I asked about the carriage.”

“That son of a bitch,” Luka seethed. “I swear to God, I’m gonna break his balls.”

She managed a smile. “I’m not sure he has any.”

“Have you looked?”

“No!” The question shocked a laugh out of her, and she took a deep, calming breath. “The carriage is ruined,” she said. “He showed it to me.”

“Honestly, I’m not surprised.” Luka’s mouth flattened. “I mean, Mr. Thatcher used to do holiday rides in the park, and all the parades, plus the county fair. But I don’t think that carriage has been off the ranch since…well, you know.”

“Yeah. But here’s the weird thing.” Sydney frowned, remembering the blaze in Cam’s eyes when he made the deal—and she accepted it. “He said he’d fix it up and let me use it for free. If I promised never to go out to his place again.”

“And you believed him?”

She paused for a long moment. “I guess I do.”

“Well, now I know for sure that getting married scrambles your brains.” Luka smirked and shook her head. “I hope you know what you’re doing, Syd.”

“Not really.”

“There’s a surprise.”

Sydney laughed, but it didn’t ease the dread forming in the pit of her stomach. She really didn’t know what she was doing. Not just with Cam, but with her life in general. She was moving to New York—a different place, but also a whole new world from here—with a man she was only pretty sure she loved. And if she was making a huge mistake…well, it was a little too late to back out now.


Page 4

“Oh, look,” Luka said. “Here comes lover-boy now.”

For one crazy instant, Sydney thought she meant Cam. It was a relief to see Tommy striding easily toward them, wearing stiff blue jeans, a polo shirt, and a broad grin. Everything about him was very much not Cam, from his all-American blond hair and blue eyes to his outgoing personality and penchant for practical jokes.

She wondered if all those opposite qualities were what attracted her in the first place. Tommy was the anti-Cam in every sense.

“Hey, babe. Glad you could make it.” Tommy caught her up and kissed her, and she felt a rush of warmth. Definitely no lack of attraction there. He pulled back and glanced aside. “Luka,” he said. “You hanging with us?”

“Yes, she is,” Sydney said. “That’s not a problem, is it?”

“Nah. She can probably explain stuff better than me.” Tommy flashed a smile and grabbed her hand. “Let’s go find a seat. I want to grab a drink before the flag drops.”

They headed into the crowd, and Sydney renewed her determination to have a good time. All she had to do was not think about Cam.

Being with Tommy would make that a whole lot easier.

* * * *

By the end of the first race, Sydney decided this stuff wasn’t too bad. Live racing wasn’t quite as boring as watching it on TV, mostly because it was hard not to catch the excitement from the crowd. She still couldn’t really keep track of the action too well. But at least it wasn’t putting her to sleep.

Luka had gone to sit with her aunt and uncle for the next race, even though Chad wasn’t in until the third. She’d said she wanted to give the two of them some time alone. Soon after she left, Tommy went for more drinks. Sydney contented herself with crowd-watching and daydreaming about the wedding. They were holding it at the park, and they’d practically invited the whole town. The reception would be at The Klinker—the biggest bar in town, but also the only banquet hall and live entertainment venue outside the VFW. Unfortunately, they’d have to skip the honeymoon. Tommy had to be in New York less than a week after the wedding to start his new job.

But they had reserved a suite at the little bed-and-breakfast just outside Covendale for the wedding night. That would be fun.

She suddenly realized Tommy had been gone longer than the last time he went for drinks. If he wasn’t back soon, he’d miss the start of the race. Half-standing from her seat, she scanned the stands without much hope of finding him in all these people. It was a surprise when she actually spotted him.

He was standing two aisles over and a few rows down, holding a clear plastic cup of beer in each hand. Three girls in shorts and skimpy shirts clustered in front of him, giggling. Two of them she recognized—Kate Beckfield and Patti Smith, of the high school Pretty People. The third was a few years younger and very well endowed. Tommy leaned down and said something in the younger girl’s ear, and she shrieked laughter in response.

Sydney told herself firmly that the flash of suspicion was just pre-wedding jitters. The tightness in her chest eased a little when Tommy turned from the little group and headed back to her.

She was completely settled by the time he took a seat next to her and leaned over for a kiss. “Got you a Bud lime,” he said, handing her a cup. “You like lime, right?”

“Yes. Thank you,” she said as she accepted with a reluctant smile. Actually, she wasn’t into beer—she mostly drank lime Mojitos. But he’d tried. “Hey, speaking of drinks,” she said. “Did we ever decide for sure whether we’re having an open bar?”

“I don’t know. Brian and Jesse might drink Dad into bankruptcy,” Tommy said with a grin. “But he’ll probably do it anyway. He’s about to close a big deal in a few weeks.”

“Well, that’s good. I think people will have more fun with an open bar.” Sydney tried a sip of the beer and managed not to grimace. It wasn’t completely awful, she supposed. “By the way,” she said. “We’re going to have the carriage for the wedding after all.”

Tommy went strangely still. “Yeah?” he said. “How’d you swing that?”

“I just went out to the ranch and asked.”

He turned a slight frown on her. “You talked to Cam Thatcher?”

“Well, yes. He was the first person I saw there. The only person, actually.”

“I can’t believe he—” Tommy cut himself off with effort, and his expression darkened. “You don’t need to talk to him,” he said.

The sudden anger would’ve been a true shock, if she hadn’t seen that picture from the fair earlier. Now it just kind of irritated her. Cam might have been a little gruff—okay, downright nasty—but he was doing them a tremendous favor for nothing. She had to give him credit for that. “He’s the only person in town with a carriage,” she said. “What’s with you two, anyway? I thought you used to be friends.”

Tommy laughed. It was a cold sound, unlike anything she’d ever heard from him. “Cam doesn’t have friends,” he said. “Nobody likes him. Look, Sydney, I don’t want you going out there again.”

“Excuse me?”

“I mean it.” He must’ve missed the warning in her voice. “Don’t talk to Cam Thatcher, ever. Not even if you see him around.”

Sydney fought the urge to pour the stupid beer in his lap. He might be her fiancé, but nobody dictated who she could and could not associate with. She didn’t particularly want to talk to Cam—but that was her choice. Not Tommy’s. “Does that mean I can tell you not to talk to Kate Beckfield or Patti Smith?” she said stiffly.

He looked almost comically surprised. “That’s different.”

“Is it?” She stood, at once deciding she’d had enough of racing for tonight. “I’m not feeling too well,” she said, making no effort to hide the sarcasm. “I’m going home to bed. Maybe I’ll call you tomorrow, if I feel like it.”

“Babe, wait. I didn’t mean—”

“I’m tired, Tommy. I’m going home.” She held the plastic cup out until he took it. “By the way, I don’t like beer. Even if it’s lime.”

Before he could say anything else, she turned and threaded her way across the row. She was probably overreacting—but right now, she wanted to be anywhere but here. She just needed some time to rest and think. Tommy had never been demanding, and it wasn’t something she was prepared to put up with.

Maybe he had an explanation. But she didn’t want to hear it until she’d calmed down and convinced herself this was the right thing to do, all of it. At the moment, nothing in the world felt right.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

Cam drummed his fingers on the steering wheel of the farm truck and stared at the speedway gate. The second race was about to begin—he could hear the engines revving at the starting line. Ellis should’ve been out here by now.

He’d seen a figure dart out of the gate and vanish into the shadows of the parking lot just as he pulled onto the main drive, but it was too short and slender for Ellis. After three years of pestering him about buying the bike, the man better not’ve changed his mind. It was hard enough for Cam to part with the only damned thing in the world that had ever been truly his. But five grand was a third of the money he needed for the property taxes…so it was sell the Harley, or let Lowell win.

Anything was a better choice than that.

Just as he was debating whether to head for the pit and drag Ellis out here, the man himself ambled through the gates with his hands stuffed in his pockets. It wasn’t a shock to see Jack Ellis looking less than thrilled. After the accident last year that took his eye and ended a promising racing career, he didn’t have much to smile about. But tonight he’d lost the layer of fury he usually wore to cover his black depression.

Cam climbed out of the truck and approached him, suddenly sure he’d either changed his mind or didn’t have the money. That’d leave him back at square one. Without a prearranged buyer, there was no way he’d be able to sell the bike for anywhere near what it was worth in the next two weeks.

“Thatcher.” Ellis drew a hand out and offered it, and Cam shook. “How’ve you been?”

“Looks like I’m better than you.” He smiled a little. “Who pissed in your cereal, man?”

Ellis opened his mouth, then closed it abruptly. “It’s nothing,” he said, and promptly shook off the misery to prove it. The man was a damned good liar. “I have to admit, I was surprised to hear from you after all this time. I almost didn’t come out here. Thought it was a joke.”

“No joke,” he said. “You still want it, five grand takes it.”

Ellis stared at him for a long moment, then walked past him to the truck bed. He reached up and ran a hand along the seat of the SG with something like reverence. “She’s gorgeous,” he said. “You know, she’s worth a hell of a lot more than five. Double that, at least.”

“You paying more, then?”

“No. That’s my offer.” Ellis turned a piercing gaze on him. “And you shouldn’t be taking it, Cam. So why are you?”

Panic tried to swell in him, but he beat it down. “My reasons aren’t part of the deal,” he said. “You want a reason, it’s yours for another five grand.”

Ellis frowned. “I don’t like this. I’ll take it,” he said, “but only because I know you must be desperate. Damned if I’m going to be happy about it, though.”

“Well, I guess that’s your loss.”

Another stare, and then Ellis laughed. “You’re about the only person I know who’s more stubborn than me,” he said. “Give me a lift to my car. I’ve got the cash for you in there.”

Cam raised an eyebrow. “You drove?” he said. “How were you planning to get the bike back?”

“Oh, I’m riding it home. That piece of shit Chevy can stay in the lot forever, much as I care. It can’t possibly rust any more than it has.” Ellis gestured at the nearest row. “I’m down there,” he said. “Come on, I’ll—”

The sound of a wheezing engine rose into the night and cut him off. Down the row he’d just indicated, headlights pulsed in time with a vehicle that was turning over and over, but failing to catch. It stopped for a few seconds and started up again, longer this time. Then a female voice yelled, “Shit!”

Ellis grinned. “Sounds like that’s for you,” he said.

“Why’s that?”

“Hey, you’re the mechanical genius.” Ellis held up a hand. “I only know how to drive.”

“Great,” Cam muttered. All he wanted to do was get the money, go home, and do some heavy manual labor until he was too tired to think. Now he’d have to offer to help some woman, who was probably a townie and might even know him. Which meant she’d either refuse, or take his help with a side of sneering and a fresh batch of lies to spread about him. “Well, this’ll be fun.”

He got back in the truck and waited for Ellis to climb in the passenger side. As he drove down the row, the headlights of the damsel in distress went through another round of flickering, running lower with every pulse. “She’s going to kill what’s left of the damned battery if she doesn’t stop that,” he said. “Christ, doesn’t anybody know enough to…”

The words died in his mouth as they got close enough for his own headlights to shine on the troubled vehicle—which happened to be a pickup he’d already seen once too often today.

That truck belonged to Sydney Davis.

* * * *

Sydney wanted to scream.

She twisted the key and held, listening to the engine give out a series of weakening coughs. Why did her truck have to pick tonight to quit? No way was she going back in there to ask Tommy for a ride home, and she wasn’t going to make Luka leave.

Well, she probably just needed a jump. She could try to find somebody out here with jumper cables, or call home and ask Dad to help—though she didn’t like that option much, either. Her parents already did a lot for her.

Just as she decided to give it one more try and hope for a miracle, headlights swept down the row and stopped right in front of her. At once relieved and embarrassed, she cleared her throat and prepared to explain the problem, at least as much as she knew.

Two doors opened, and two figures came around into the glow of the headlights. She recognized both of them with a sinking heart. The big bear Luka had called Ellis…and Cam Thatcher.

This was the last thing she needed.

Cam approached her open window slowly and stayed far back. “Sydney,” he said. “Never pegged you for a racing fan.”

“I’m not. I came here with—” No, she wasn’t going to say that. Besides, the sneer on his face said he knew what the next word would’ve been. “I’m fine,” she said. “I was just about to call my dad and have him give me a jump.”

“From the sounds of it, you need more than a jump.”

She stared at him. “How could you know that from a sound?”

“Pop the hood.”

“No, really, it’s just the battery. I’ll call Dad…”

“Sydney.” Cam folded his arms. “This the first time it wouldn’t start on you?”

“Yes, but—”

“Any of your lights been dimming before now?”

She sighed. “No.”

“Pop the damned hood.”

“All right.” She reached down and pulled the hood latch. The pop sounded loud as a shotgun, making her flinch a little.

“Thank you.”

Cam walked away. As he opened the hood and propped it, the big man wandered over to the window and grinned at her. “I’d listen to him,” he said. “The man knows his engines. He’s practically a mechanical savant.”

Something clanked under the hood. “Shut up, Ellis,” Cam said.

“Sorry. We’ll stick with genius.” He stuck a hand toward the window. “Hi, I’m Jack Ellis,” he said. “Saw you outside earlier.”

“Yes. I’m Sydney.” She shook and offered a tentative smile.

The truck bounced, and Cam swore loudly. “Gotta get my toolbox,” he said. “Be right back.”

Cam straightened and stalked toward his truck, and Ellis shook his head. “I guess you’re lucky he’s lost his mind,” he said. “Otherwise he wouldn’t be out here tonight.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been offering to buy that bike of his for three years and change. He finally decided to sell.” Ellis shrugged and stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Just called me out of the blue this afternoon. Said he’d meet me tonight with it.”

“His bike?” Sydney said. “You mean the Harley?”

“That’s the one.”

A sudden chill moved through her. Cam had loved that bike forever. One of her clearest memories of that day back in middle school was him showing her the not-yet-restored version, and the way his face lit up when he talked about it. It’d been years before he finally got it going, and he rode it everywhere. “Why would he do that?” she said.


Page 5

“He wouldn’t say why.” Ellis furrowed his brow. “Look, uh, Sydney. Are you his friend?”

“Absolutely not,” she blurted before she could think it through. “I mean…well, I went to school with him. We haven’t talked in years.”

“Too bad,” Ellis said quietly. “Because I think he could really use a friend right now.”

“Ellis. Shut the hell up.”

Cam spoke in tight, controlled tones from a few feet away, where he’d apparently materialized with his toolbox. At once, Sydney felt lower than dirt. Had he heard her insisting that she wasn’t his friend? It might’ve been true, but she still shouldn’t have said it like that.

If Cam did hear, he gave no indication. “You’re going to miss your boy’s race,” he said to Ellis. “Just put the money in the truck. I’ll unload the bike for you when I’m done here, all right?”

“Sure.” For a long moment Ellis didn’t move. “Look, this is an open-ended deal, understand? Any time you want to buy it back, it’s yours.”

“I don’t back out of deals, Ellis.”

The big man looked about to say something more, but the cold in Cam’s voice must’ve stopped him. “Whatever you say, Thatcher.” He frowned and glanced past Sydney at the beacon of the raceway. Then he met her eyes and said, “Well, it was nice meeting you, at least. Hope you get home safe.”

“Thank you. Nice meeting you, too.”

She watched him walk away, and then turned to Cam—but he was already banging away under the hood. She really hoped her truck would survive his wrath.

 

 

Chapter 6

 

Cam didn’t say a word for a long time. Sydney couldn’t see him, though she heard him clanking around somewhere beyond the glow of the flashlight he was using. Eventually he came around to the window holding a little hose with a metal clip at one end, and what looked like an oversized thermometer at the other.

“You might have a bad spark plug,” he said. “When I tell you, crank the engine. But only for a few seconds. You keep grinding it over, your battery’s going to die.”

She nodded. “What’s that?”

“A spark tester.” He started back for the engine.

“Cam?”

He stopped without turning. “What?”

“I…” It was on the tip of her tongue to apologize for what she’d said. But she didn’t know if he’d heard it, and maybe he didn’t want an apology. It might even piss him off more. So she settled for saying, “Thank you.”

“I haven’t done anything yet.”

He kept going, and Sydney leaned back against the seat with a sigh. She really didn’t know how to take this. After all this time, to have Cam Thatcher help her not once, but twice in the same day was disconcerting at best. It galled her even more to think that Tommy had tried to forbid her from talking to him.

He’d been right about one thing, though. Cam didn’t have any friends. And for the first time, she started to wonder why—how much of it was Cam keeping to himself, and how much was the whole town assuming he wanted it that way.

“Okay. Crank it.”

She started, reached for the key, and gave it a single hesitant twist. The engine barked once.

Cam leaned over and stared at her. “A few seconds. Not half a second.”

“Right, sorry. Tell me when.”

He disappeared behind the hood again. “Okay, go.”

She turned the key and counted to four before she switched it off. Cam didn’t stop her, so she figured that must’ve been right. Then he muttered under his breath, and she heard him rustling through his tool box.

“Cam? Was that it?”

When he didn’t answer, she took a deep breath and got out of the truck. “Hey,” she said as she headed for him. “Can I help…”

She caught sight of him in the wash of the light that was settled on the edge of the hood, and her heart skipped a beat or three. He knelt in front of the tool box on the ground, looking up at her with a tight expression. And his eyes were burning.

“No. You can’t.” He grabbed the biggest socket wrench she’d ever seen, then stood and stared at the engine. “I can probably get it going,” he said without looking her way. “Just need to clean and gap the plug. But you should get it replaced as soon as possible. I don’t have the right size here.”

“Okay.” The single word sounded lame and pathetic. She wanted to say something more—anything, really.Thanks for rescuing me. Sorry I said that. Why do you hate me so much?But he didn’t seem in the mood to listen, so she stepped back to give him space.

He picked up the flashlight and stood there another minute before he tucked it under his arm and leaned forward. As he fitted the socket over one of the spark plugs, the flashlight dropped and hit the edge of the frame with a hollow clunk. It bounced off and rolled across the ground a few feet.

Cam hung his head and sighed. “Could you hand me that?”

“Sure.” Sydney grabbed the light and hesitated a second. “I can hold it for you,” she said. “It’d probably be easier.”

“Fine. Just keep it still.”

She watched him work the wrench, trying not to pay attention to the way his arms flexed with the movement. The rhythmic ratcheting sound was almost soothing, and definitely a lot more pleasant than the bitterness that etched his every word. There was no trace of the easygoing, quick-to-smile person he’d been in high school—up until the end, at least. Not that she’d paid any attention to him after he humiliated her.

Well, maybe a little. And hadn’t she been just the tiniest bit satisfied that he seemed to be losing his popularity? He’d gone downhill pretty fast over the last month of his senior year, even before he lost his father.

“Got it.” Cam straightened and extracted a mostly black spark plug from the socket. “Christ, Sydney. When’s the last time you had this thing tuned up?”

“Um. It was around…never.”

“What a surprise.” He knelt to the toolbox again, sprayed something all over the plug from a small, clear bottle, and then started wiping it with a rag. Black grime slowly gave way to off-white. “Listen, you have to replace this plug, and get your truck in for a tune-up,” he said without looking at her. “Engines are like people. They need some TLC, or they’ll up and quit on you.”

“My engine is a person,” she said. “Got it.”

“Why do I bother offering advice? Especially to you.” He slammed the rag back in the toolbox and stood. “Just hold the flashlight over here.”

She bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I was trying to make a joke. A bad one.”

He sighed and leaned on the truck. “Okay. I guess I’m sorry, too.”

“For what?”

“I’m sorry your jokes are bad.” He smiled, just for an instant—and her heart stopped. God, what waswrongwith her? “And I could be a little nicer,” he said. “So let’s get this beast started.”

“All right.”

She managed to hold the flashlight without letting her hands shake. All of a sudden, being this close to Cam seemed dangerous. She had to forcefully remind herself that she hated him.

It only took a minute for him to get the spark plug back in. “Okay,” he said. “Hand me the light, and go ahead and give it a try.”

She nodded, leaned into the truck and turned the key. The engine started right up.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Thank you so much. You’re…you really are a genius.”

“I just know machines.” He closed the hood and stood back. For a long moment he looked at her, but she couldn’t read anything in his expression. Finally, he said, “Make sure you get that serviced. It’s not going to stay running for long.”

“I will. Cam…”

He raised an eyebrow. In that split second, she could’ve kissed him.

And a huge part of her wanted that more than anything.

“Thank you,” she said on an exhale. “I really appreciate it.”

“You’re welcome.”

After they exchanged awkward goodnights, Sydney climbed in the truck and waited until he moved his. She headed out of the parking lot and forced herself not to look back. The last thing she needed right now was to remember just how sexy Cam Thatcher was, and how badly she’d wanted him.

She was practically a married woman. And that was just the way she wanted it.

* * * *

Cam parked next to Ellis’s car and waited until the glow of headlights was completely gone. Damn it, this was why he didn’t want to see that woman around anymore. What she did to him, the way she made him feel…it should’ve been illegal.

And he couldn’t have her. Not then, and definitely not now.

He gave himself a few more minutes to calm down, and then got out of the truck and headed around the back. Leaving his bike here was really going to sting. But hell, what was one more hurt on top of all the rest? The only thing he could do now was keep the ranch. He’d do whatever it took to make sure that happened.

While he adjusted the ramp and walked the Harley down, he told himself he wasn’t going to think about Sydney Davis. And he especially wasn’t going to remember the conversation with Ellis he’d overheard, the one where she’d said she was absolutely not his friend. That really shouldn’t have been a surprise—so he’d been shocked when it felt like a slap to the face.

It was her tone more than her words. Like Ellis had asked her if she enjoyed drinking mud or rolling around in cow shit naked. Was he really that offensive to the so-called good people of Covendale?

Well, if he was, he couldn’t afford to care. None of them had given a damn about him for the past six years, and he was more than willing to return the favor.

He propped the bike alongside Ellis’s car and got back into his truck, intending to drive straight home and drink himself to sleep in the loft. But he ended up sitting there for a few minutes as he made one last attempt to figure a way to get the money that didn’t involve selling the Harley.

That was when he saw someone familiar stop under the glow of the light pole in the next row over. His jaw clenched at the sight of Tommy Lowell, staggering drunk and hanging all over a girl who was definitely not his fiancé. She was blonde, buxom, and younger than Sydney—and clearly into Tommy sticking his tongue down her throat.

“You son of a bitch,” Cam growled under his breath as he watched Tommy and not-Sydney climb into the car parked next to the light together. He considered going over there and confronting the bastard. But right now, there was no way he’d be able to keep his fists under control.

Last time, Tommy hadn’t reported it out of humiliation. Cam had taken them on three to one and come out ahead. If he tried it again, he was sure to find himself jailed for assault.

So he’d just tell Sydney. She wouldn’t believe him, but he didn’t really have anything to lose there. She couldn’t hate him any more than she already did. At least this way, his conscience would be clear.

Then maybe Tommy would come after him—and he could justify beating the hell out of the two-timing son of a bitch who didn’t deserve a woman like Sydney.

He waited until Tommy and his piece of tail cleared out of the parking lot, and then started the truck and headed home. There was some whiskey that needed his attention.

 

 

Chapter 7

 

The next morning, Sydney got an early start. It was Friday and she had a few errands to run, but she wanted to get the truck out to Kenny’s first. Cam obviously knew engines, so she believed him when he said it could quit on her any time. She didn’t want to be without a vehicle all weekend.

She also wanted to finish everything that reminded her of Cam, so she wouldn’t have to keep thinking about him. Because she couldn’t seem to stop.

After a quick call to make sure Kenny could do it, she headed out to the garage. He’d said it would take about two hours. Covendale’s only print shop, The Paper Garden, was a ten-minute walk from there, so she figured she’d take care of finalizing the order for place cards and thank-you notes while she waited.

Maybe if she focused on the wedding, she could scrub Cam’s blazing stare from her mind.

Kenny’s Garage was a throwback in time, a tall, box-like brick building with two garage bays, and a shorter extension that was the office. Greasy posters and signs covered the windows and the glass door. And across from the entrance sat an island with two ancient, working gas pumps, boasting rounded glass bubble heads and rolling numbers. The gas prices, however, were wincingly modern.

Only one of the regular old-timers sat on the bench outside the entrance—Gramps Dawson, with his pipe clamped between his teeth. He was Luka’s grandfather, but he’d also been Gramps to Sydney for as long as she could remember. She parked the truck in front of the first bay door, got out and waved. “Morning, Gramps,” she called. “How’s everything with you today?”

He drew on the pipe and grinned. “Well, if it isn’t the bride-to-be,” he said. “I bet you’re busier’n a bee these days.”

“I sure am.” She returned the smile, but for some reason wedding talk just didn’t excite her as much as it did before. Must be all the planning stress. “Three more weeks until the big day.”

“Yep. Whole town’s talkin’ about it.” Gramps winked at her. “How’s your folks?”

“They’re fine. Mom’s going crazy hauling out pictures. Is Kenny in?”

“I suspect he’ll be out directly.”

Just as he said that, the office door opened and Kenny Morrison stepped outside, wiping his hands on a rag. He bent and mumbled something to Gramps, who got up and went in. Kenny was a short, weathered, 40-something confirmed bachelor who wore his grimed Carhartt coveralls everywhere. She wouldn’t be surprised if he showed up in them at the wedding. “Sydney, right?” he said. “You called about a tune-up.”

“Yes. Thanks for taking me on short notice.”

“No problem.” He strolled over to the truck and looked through the driver’s side window. “Keys in it?”

“They’re still in the ignition.”

The sound of a slowing engine drew everyone’s attention. Sydney turned and watched in dull shock as a weathered pickup with a wooden slat bed full of feed bags pulled up to the gas pumps—and Cam Thatcher climbed out.

Damn. Shereallyhad to stop running into him.

He froze when he caught sight of her. “Sydney,” he said stiffly. “I shouldn’t be surprised to see you here, but I am.”


Page 6

“Hey, Cam.” She forced a bright tone, determined to stay upbeat. Maybe she could kill him with kindness. “I was just taking your advice.”

“I see that,” he said through clenched teeth. After glaring at her for a long moment, he turned away and wrenched the gas cover open on his truck. Then he started unscrewing the cap with excessive force.

“What are you doing here, Thatcher?”

The angry words came from Kenny. Sydney gaped at him, and then watched Cam stiffen for a second time. “I’m planting trees,” he said without looking around. “What’s it look like I’m doing?”

“We’re out of gas.”

Now Cam looked up, with an expression of barely contained fury. “Are you,” he said. “So what was Bill Harding pumping into his Beamer out here when I drove past earlier? Molasses, maybe?”

“We’re out,” Kenny said, folding his arms. “Can’t help you.”

“You goddamn—” Cam cut himself off forcefully and twisted the gas cap back on. “So what, is my money not good enough for you now? It was good enough two days ago.”

Kenny only glared at him.

“Oh, come on!” Sydney threw up her arms and looked at the mechanic. She’d never seen anyone act this way. So Cam was a little gruff and rude, and he didn’t socialize much. But he wasn’t a pariah, for God’s sake. “Why can’t he fill his truck? Seriously, if money’s the problem, I’ll pay for it.”

“Sydney, don’t.”

There was a warning in Cam’s voice. She chose to ignore it. “I’m trying to help, you jackass!” she said. “You helped me last night. I’m returning the favor.”

“I don’t need—”

“All right,” Kenny said loudly, and pointed at Cam. “You get out of here,” he said. Then he turned to Sydney. “And you, miss. I can’t look at your truck today. Got a lot of work came in ahead of you.”

“What?” She gestured wildly around the empty lot. “Where?”

“Can’t do it. You’ll have to leave.”

“I don’t believe this,” she said. “Is this a joke? Do you have hidden cameras around here somewhere? If you think I’m going to—”

A hand on her arm startled her so badly, she almost screamed. “Easy, Tiger,” Cam’s deep voice murmured in her ear. “He’s not worth it.”

She shivered all over and drew a couple of slow breaths before she could look at him. Once again, his expression was unreadable—but she thought she saw amusement deep in his eyes. “He doesn’t have to treat you like a…leper or something,” she said. “And I need my truck fixed.”

Cam let out a sigh and glanced at his pickup. “Follow me,” he said. “I know someone who can fix it.”

She managed a small smile. “Why are you being so nice to me?”

“Damned if I know.”

Anger flashed through her, but it vanished when she caught his crooked smirk. “All right,” she said. “I’ll follow you.”

Kenny watched without comment as they headed for their separate trucks. She really wanted to say something more—a lot more—but Cam was right. He wasn’t worth it. She started the engine and drove around behind the farm truck, expecting him to head further into town.

But he pulled out and turned down Old Hickory, toward the Leaning T. That could only mean he planned to fix it himself. He was going out of his way to help her, again, even though she’d given him no reason to. It made her want to cry.

Instead, she decided she was going to help him out with something, somehow—whether he liked it or not.

* * * *

Cam parked by the house and killed the engine. He’d half hoped Sydney wouldn’t stay behind him, that she’d change her mind once she realized where he was headed and look for some other sucker to rescue her. He did not have time for this—the ranch didn’t run itself, damn it.

But he couldn’t help offering after she tried to stick up for him. No one had done that in years. And she shouldn’t have, because now that bastard Kenny wouldn’t give her the time of day.

He had a sinking feeling that Boyd Lowell was behind the mechanic’s sudden change of heart. Kenny leased the garage from him. Hell, maybe the man was planning to cut him off from every business he influenced, which was almost all of them, so he’d be forced to leave town.

That wasn’t going to happen. Not as long as he was still breathing.

A door shut behind him, and he climbed out reluctantly. It was hard for him to look at Sydney for more than a few minutes. She’d been pretty and sweet in high school, and now she was downright gorgeous. And smart, and brave, and hot-tempered—a quality he happened to love.

Tommy-Boy definitely didn’t deserve her.

She smiled, and he had to look away before it burned him. “So where’s the guy you know who can fix my truck?” she said.

“You’re looking at him.” He coughed into a hand. “It’s going to take a few hours, so…I don’t know what you’ll do. There isn’t much entertainment around here.”

“I’ll help you.”

He snorted. “The sun’s up,” he said. “I don’t need you to hold a flashlight.”

The brief hurt in her eyes made him regret saying that. But she shrugged and walked toward his truck, and gestured at the feed bags. “You probably need to unload those somewhere, right?” she said. “I can do that.”

“Sydney, those bags weigh more than you.”

Eyes narrowed, she grabbed a bag with both arms and lifted it from the truck bed. “Where do you want them?”

He couldn’t help laughing. “All right,” he said. “Just put it down, and I’ll show you.”

She did. As he led her over to the barn, she said, “What’s your problem with letting people help you, anyway? Is it a macho thing?”

“No.”

“Well, what is it?”

“It’s a none of your business thing.” He couldn’t exactly tell her that he’d had plenty of so-called help from townies already, especially her fiancé and his best buddies. It was going to be hard enough telling her about Tommy and the blonde—which he still had to do somehow.

He stopped when he realized she wasn’t behind him anymore.

“Sydney?” He turned to find her glaring at him, hands on her hips. “What?”

“I guess you’re right,” she said. “It’s none of my business. So maybe you don’t need my help—and I don’t need yours.”

“Just…wait a second.” He sighed and walked back to her. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I really would appreciate your help, if you don’t mind.”

Her smile returned. “I’d be happy to.”

Cam bit back a groan. Standing this close to her, breathing in her sweet scent, was doing things to him that were going to become apparent real soon. He stepped back and half-turned toward the barn, then pointed at the three feed bags cross-stacked against the outer wall. “See those?” he said.

“Yes.”

“You can stack them there, crossed the same way. But you have to move those three first and put them on top of the new ones. Just pull the truck right up to the barn, so you don’t have to lug the bags all the way from the house.”

“Got it.”

They walked back to the house, and he made himself ignore her while he got to work on the truck. Otherwise he’d spend all day staring at her. He opened the hood, removed the plug covers, and found to his relief that it wasn’t as bad as he thought. Might only take him an hour instead of two.

Three changed spark plugs, a scrubbed engine block and a tightened serpentine belt later, he’d done all he could. The air filter wasn’t the cleanest, but he banged out the worst of the crud and vacuumed it. He had to admit, this engine wasn’t in terrible shape for a ten-year-old truck.

He closed the hood, washed his hands at the pump, and headed for the barn—where he found a red-faced Sydney trying to shove the last feed bag onto the top of a pile taller than her.

“Whoa! Hold on, there.” He jogged over and took the bag from her gently. “You’re going to knock the whole thing down. Ruin all that hard work.”

She heaved a breath and ran a hand through her disheveled hair. “One stupid bag left, and I can’t do it,” she panted. “I need to be taller.”

“Well, you’re probably not going to grow much in the next five minutes.” He tossed the bag easily into place.

“Show-off.”

He grinned. “Come on. Your truck’s ready, and you’ll probably want to clean up.”

“Definitely,” she said.

He led her to the hand pump in the yard, and she gasped in delight. “Does that really work?”

“Sure.” With a shrug, he pumped the handle a few times. Cool, clear water poured out. “I can run it for you, if you want,” he said. “It’s hard to pump and wash at the same time.”

“That would be awesome.”

He kept the water running while she rinsed her hands and arms, splashed some on her face and hair, and cupped her hands together for a drink. Watching her take sheer pleasure in something as simple as a hand pump made him ache in places he didn’t know he could feel.

And it was about to hurt a lot worse—because he had to tell her about Tommy.

She straightened at last, soaked and laughing. “Your water is so sweet,” she said. “Are you on a well here?”

He nodded slowly. “Sydney, I…”

A guarded expression erased her smile. “What?”

Christ, she looked like she expected him to slap her. He couldn’t do this. But he had to try, on the wild chance she might actually believe him. She deserved someone who would be faithful. Who’d cherish her, worship her. That someone was not Tommy Lowell.

Finally, he decided to just spit it out. “Last night, Tommy left the race track with some blonde girl. She was all over him, and they got in his car.”

Sydney’s eyes widened. Bright red spots bloomed high on her cheeks. “You bastard,” she whispered. “This was all fake, wasn’t it?”

He was stunned. “What?”

“You being so nice to me,” she snapped. “Letting me use the carriage, fixing my truck. You were just trying to break up me and Tommy.”

“No. Sydney, I swear to God, I saw him—”

“Shut up!” She sobbed and backed away. “I know you two hate each other. I guess this is why he told me to stay away from you.”

“He told you to…” Fury filled him instantly. “Of course he doesn’t want you talking to me. Because you might find out the truth.”

“And what’s the truth? That you’re a cruel, lying bastard who hates everyone?”

“Damn it, he’s cheating on you!”

Her eyes blazed through a sheen of tears. “You stay away from me, Cameron Thatcher,” she said hoarsely. “I never want to see you again.”

He couldn’t do anything but watch as she stalked to her truck and drove away, spinning up dust devils all the way down the driveway. He stood there until silence settled over the world—and realized he should’ve known he’d never get through to her.

After all, she was absolutely not his friend. Just like everybody else around here.

 

 

Chapter 8

 

Sydney’s mom was out running errands all day, and then she was picking up her dad from work to head for their weekly date night out in Greenway. It was a good thing she had the house to herself—because she couldn’t stop crying.

The worst of it was that part of her had believed Cam right away. And it hurt so much, she could feel her heart breaking.

She cried herself to sleep. It was mid-afternoon when she woke up, puffy and disoriented, and dragged into the shower. By then she was thinking a little more clearly. She’d believed Tommy could be cheating on her because she was scared, that’s all. She was leaving Covendale to live somewhere she’d never even visited. Her subconscious was just looking for a way out.

But Tommy wouldn’t do that. And she definitely wasn’t going to accuse him of cheating, and risk ruining the wedding now.

Besides, maybe Cam really had seen him with some girl. It was probably that blonde who was with Patti and Kate. He could’ve been giving her a ride home because she was really drunk, and that might’ve been why she was supposedly hanging all over him. Cam was just reading something into the situation that wasn’t there, because he didn’t know Tommy.

That had to be it.

Sydney decided to take the rest of the day off from wedding plans. She called Tommy and arranged to meet him later at The Klinker. They might have been holding the reception there—but tonight, it would be all about fun. No wedding business whatsoever.

She decided she’d probably go home with Tommy after the bar. A little tumble between the sheets would do wonders to take her mind off the raging cowboy who kept getting under her skin. So she wore her sexiest bra and panty set, just to be prepared.

A few minutes before eight, she wrote a note for her folks telling them not to expect her home until morning, and stepped out the door. As if on cue, a familiar yellow car pulled into the driveway and stopped behind her truck. She waved and walked over as Luka rolled the window down and stuck her head out.

“Hey, sexy,” Luka called. “Got a hot date?”

“Actually, I do.” She stopped next to the car. “I’m meeting Tommy at The Klinker.”

“What a coincidence.”

“You’re meeting Tommy at The Klinker too?”

Luka laughed and patted the passenger seat. “Hop in, blushing bride.”

She circled the car and got in. “Great timing,” she said. “Now I can get drunk and let him take advantage of me.”

“Well, we aim to please.”

As Luka dropped the car into gear and backed out of the driveway, Sydney fought a sudden stab of heartsickness. They’d been best friends since first grade. Of all the things she’d miss when she left here, Luka was top of the list. What was she going to do without her?

Luka glanced sideways at her as she got up to speed. “Okay, Sydney darling,” she said. “Are you going to tell me about it, or do I have to interrogate you? I can get my hands on some hot pokers, you know.”

She frowned. “Let me guess. You talked to Gramps.”

“Nailed it in one.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Guess who’s got all the time in the world?”

Sydney stuck her tongue out. “Fine. But don’t get how you get.”

“How do I get?”

“Sarcastic.”

Luka grinned. “I swear, I’ll be totally serious and sympathetic.”

“Right.” With a sigh, Sydney told her about the truck refusing to start last night, and how Cam just happened to be in the parking lot at the race track. And how she took his advice to get it fixed, how Kenny treated him like dirt—and how she wound up at the Leaning T again.


Page 7

She left out the part about Tommy supposedly cheating on her. There had to be an explanation for that, so she wasn’t going to dwell on it.

When she finished, Luka shook her head slowly. “If I didn’t know you, I wouldn’t believe a word you just said. Cam Thatcher,helpingsomeone? On purpose?”

“Three times now,” she said. “I don’t know, Luka. I think people might have the wrong idea about him.”

“Sure. He’s not really a world-class douchebag, he just plays one on TV.”

“Something like that.” She couldn’t forget the look on his face when Kenny started on him—genuine hurt, before the rage covered it. He hadn’t done anything but try to put some gas in his truck. Maybe he was furious with everyone because they kept treating him like dog shit on the sidewalk.

Luka reached over and patted her leg. “At least you don’t have to worry about him much longer,” she said. “Especially tonight. You’ll be too full of Tommy.”

“Luka!” She laughed and shoved her. “That’s…actually kind of gross. You just killed my sex drive.”

“Don’t worry. A few drinks, and it’ll rise to the occasion.”

“Oh, good.”

When they arrived, it took a few minutes to find a parking space. The Klinker was packed for a small-town bar—even for a Friday night. It seemed like everybody in town had decided to let off some steam. Sydney waved and called greetings to more than a few friends as they made their way to the open front door, where lights and music and people and laughter spilled out into the warm night.

Inside was controlled chaos. Most of the tables were occupied, and open stools at the bar were few and far between. Jim Wyatt, the owner himself, worked the bar alongside the two regular bartenders, Sissy and Matt. All the pool tables and dartboards had games going.

Sydney spotted Tommy waving madly from a table near the pool players and grabbed Luka’s hand to lead her over. Just the sight of him calmed her. Good looks, great body—and unlike some angry hermits, he was happy to see her.

“Hey, sweetness.” Tommy grabbed her for a kiss and gestured at the table. “I remembered you didn’t like beer, so I got you a Tom Collins. It has lime in it. How’s that?”

“Perfect.”Lime mojito. How hard is that to remember?She pushed the nasty little thought down and smiled. It was probably just Cam’s attitude rubbing off on her.

Tommy pulled out a chair for her. “Didn’t know you were coming, Luka,” he said. “I would’ve ordered you a drink.”

“No big.” She shrugged and sat down. “I might have possibly mentioned to Reese that I’d be here tonight. So tell me if you see him.”

“You didn’t say you had a hot date.” Sydney nudged her with a grin. She’d been talking about Reese Mathers for weeks, but hadn’t actually talkedtohim for more than a few seconds. They’d dated once in high school. It didn’t end on the most positive note, but she’d mostly forgiven him. Reese just came back to town last month after five years in the Marines—and he had no shortage of admirers.

Luka snorted. “It’s not a date. I said I’d buy him a beer, that’s all.”

“Wanna buy me one?” Tommy said, grinning as he took a seat.

“No way. That’s Syd’s job.”

“So he’s a job now?” Smirking, Sydney reached for the plastic menu stand in the middle of the table, even though she knew what was on it. The Klinker served the usual bar fare. All four major food groups—wings, fries, nachos, and pizza. “Anybody eating?” she said. “I’m starving.”

“God, no.” Luka put a hand to her stomach. “Me and grease are not gonna get along tonight.”

Tommy flicked a glance at the menu. “I had dinner at Mom’s earlier,” he said. “But go ahead and order something, if you want. I’ll snag somebody.” He raised a hand straight up and started scanning the crowded place for a server.

Before Sydney could say she changed her mind, because she didn’t want to eat alone, a girl wearing an apron started for the table. And she did a startled double-take—it was the blonde with generous assets from the racetrack. The one Tommy hadn’t cheated on her with last night.

“Hey, Tommy. Luka. And…Cynthia, right?” The waitress, whose nametag said Stephanie, turning a hundred-watt smile on her.

She managed not to roll her eyes. “Sydney.”

“Oh. Sorry.” Stephanie kept smiling as she pulled a pad of paper from her apron pocket. “Get you guys something?”

She frowned and slid the menu back. “I guess I’ll have an order of fries. Luka, you sure you don’t want to eat?”

Luka glanced at the waitress. “Got anything chocolate?”

“Bottle of Hershey’s syrup. You want that on ice?”

“Just put it in a Mudslide. All of it.”

“One Mudslide, extra chocolate.” The waitress scribbled on the pad and turned to Tommy. “How about you?”

He smiled—a little too wide, and not in the general direction of her face. “Another beer would be great,” he said. “Could you bring everything over to that pool table, Steph? The one that just opened up. I want to shoot a few rounds.”

“Sure thing.” She wrote it down and left.

Sydney told herself it was just leftover paranoia from Cam that had her reading into the familiar nickname Tommy used, and that smile of his.

Tommy stood and held a hand out. This time his smile was just for her, and the little flash of jealousy evaporated. “How about a game, babe?” he said. “I’ll let you break.”

A slight frown creased her brow as she took his hand. “I don’t play pool,” she said. She’d been pretty sure he knew that.

“I do.” Luka pushed her chair back and grinned. “Bet you the next round of drinks I’ll crush you into dust.”

He laughed. “You’re on, woman.”

They threaded through the crowd to the recently abandoned pool table. It was near the back wall, where a ledge that was almost wide enough to be a bench ran the length of it. Sydney perched on the ledged and watched as Luka started picking out and rejecting cue sticks from the wall-mount rack, and Tommy fed quarters into the table to release the balls.

“All these damned cues are crooked,” Luka said. She grabbed two and thrust one of them at Tommy. “I should go out and get mine from the car, but I’m too lazy.”

Tommy stared at her. “You carry a cue stick around with you?”

“Yep. Got a custom case and everything.”

“Well, shit. I guess I’m buying the next round.”

“Told you,” Luka grinned. “Hey, Syd. Did you ask Cam how the carriage is coming while you were at the ranch this morning? I’m dying to know if he’s really going to fix it.”

The instant she mentioned Cam’s name, Tommy’s eyes narrowed. And his angry stare settled on Sydney. “You went out there again?” he said. “I told you not to talk to him.

Sydney jumped instantly from slightly annoyed to pissed off. This time she spoke before she thought. “You don’t get to tell me who I can and can’t talk to,” she said. “He was fixing my truck. I was going to have Kenny do it, but he decided he wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Because I stuck up for Cam.” She returned the glare full force. “I told you, he’s doing us a favor. A little appreciation from you would be nice. He’s been nothing but helpful.”

“Yeah. He’s a goddamned knight in shining armor.”

“Tommy, I swear to God—”

“Shit. I’m sorry, babe.” Tommy relaxed and let out a sigh. “I’m just worried about you, is all. The guy’s nuts—he chases people off his ranch with a shotgun.”

Her mouth went dry. “He does?”

“Yeah,” he said. “It’s the truth. Brian and Jesse went out there on a church drive. His old man used to donate every year, so they thought he might want to keep it going. But Thatcher put a bullet in the ground, not three feet from them.”

Sydney shivered. She knew Cam was rude and unwelcoming, but she couldn’t believe he’d actually shoot at somebody. He wasn’t a monster. “Are you sure?” she half-whispered.

He nodded. “And he said if they came back, next time he wouldn’t miss.”

“Come on,” she said. “There’s no way he’d follow through. It was an empty threat.”

“Sydney, he shot at me too.” Tommy’s voice was tight and low. “The man is dangerous. He’s gone off the deep end, and he doesn’t care who he drags down with him.”

“Right.” Maybe there was something to the idea of avoiding Cam, but she just couldn’t believe he was that bad. Not murderous. “Look, I’m going to go get a drink,” she said. “And by the way, I like mojitos. Not beer, not Tom Collins, not lime daiquiris.”

It was a petty jab, and she felt kind of bad about it. But she had just enough no-you-didn’t left in her to throw it out there and walk away before he could respond.

She made her way to the bar, returning the occasional greeting from people she knew. That got her thinking again about small-town life, and how different things were going to be soon. Here, she couldn’t go anywhere without running into someone she could stop and chat with for a few minutes. The grocery store, the gas station, the pizza shop—everyone frequented the same places, knew the same faces.

In New York, it’d be just her and Tommy…and while he was at work, she’d be alone. She hadn’t really thought much about that.

And she didn’t know if she could handle it.

The bar was still crowded, and it took her a few minutes to be noticed. Finally, Jim came over with a smile, depositing a beer in front of someone on the way. “Hey, Sydney,” he said. “How are your folks?”

She smiled. “Just fine. The lovebirds went to a movie tonight. How’s Gina?”

“She’s great. Three-point-eight average so far.” Gina Wyatt, another member of the Pretty People, had gone out to California for college to major in theater. Everyone expected to see her in the movies soon—especially her proud father. “What are you drinking tonight?”

“I’d like a lime mojito, please.”

“Coming right up.”

He went to fix the drink, and Sydney turned around to lean on the bar. The crowd seemed a little quieter—strange, because it didn’t look any less packed. But the noise level was definitely dropping. After a minute, there was nothing but the music and hushed murmurs of conversation.

Then came the unmistakable heavy tread of boots on the wooden floor.

Sydney’s heart started pounding crazily. Somehow she knew what was happening, who it was, even as the steps drew closer and the murmurs became a buzz. The crowd that was gathered around the bar parted like the Red Sea.

And Cam Thatcher stepped through the gap.

 

 

Chapter 9

 

No matter how angry or conflicted she felt, the sight of him still took her breath away.

He was dressed all in black—black button-down shirt, black jeans, black boots. He carried a black cowboy hat in his hands. It was a surprising show of respect, considering he didn’t seem to have much of that for anyone. His stance was stiff and completely straight, as if he couldn’t stand the idea of relaxing enough to possibly come into contact with another person. And his eyes blazed like fire.

“Sydney.” A bitter smile crossed his lips. “It figures.”

Damn it, why did he keep saying that? She wanted to demand an explanation, but what came out of her mouth was, “What are you doing here?”

“Selling bibles. Have you accepted Jesus as your lord and personal savior?”

“Excuse me?”

He grinned, and her heart performed a mad, scrambling flip. She’d forgotten how amazing he looked with a real smile. “I’m having a drink,” he said. “That’s what you do at a bar, isn’t it?”

“Well, yes. But…”

He came over to stand right next to her and placed his hat on the bar counter. The crowd had climbed back up to full volume, apparently done discussing the spectacle of the town hermit walking into the bar. “Listen, I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “It’s none of my business. I keep telling you that, so I should practice what I preach.”

She surprised herself by saying, “That’s all right.”

“It is?”

“Sure. You were just trying to help.” She offered a smile she didn’t feel as Stephanie’s assets flashed through her mind. “It was probably a misunderstanding,” she said.

His brow furrowed, and he looked like he’d say something more. But before he got it out, Jim came over with the mojito. He set it down and turned a cool stare on Cam. “Get you something?” he said, the friendliness gone from his voice.

Cam’s jaw twitched. He dug in a pocket, produced a rumpled ten-dollar bill and laid it on the counter. “A draft and a shot of Beam,” he said. Then, as an afterthought, “Please.”

When the bar owner turned away without a word, Cam bowed his head and let out a sharp breath. “Apparently, you also piss off the entire town at a bar,” he said in tight tones. “At least if you’re me.”

Sydney’s throat clenched. People assumed that Cam acted the way he did because he’d rejected the town and everyone in it—but just now, it felt like things were the other way around.

“Thatcher. Did you get tired of sleeping with your sheep?”

She knew that cold voice belonged to Tommy, but she couldn’t believe it. Even when she looked up and saw him and Luka standing there. He sounded disgusted, mocking—almost threatening.

Cam faced him with a sneer. “If I had any sheep, I’d prefer their company to yours.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere. So I guess you should leave.”

In the yawning silence that followed, Sydney barely heard the clink of glass as Jim set the drinks on the bar. She was busy staring at Tommy like she’d never seen him before. Where did all this venom come from? She knew they hated each other, but this was beyond even hatred. This was a death wish.

Cam was still standing less than an inch from her. So close, she felt it when he jerked to attention. “It’s a free country,” he said, his voice dangerously calm. “So I guess I’m not going anywhere, either.”

Tommy’s lip curled. “Get away from my girl, farm-boy.”

The words shocked her motionless. A scream lodged in her throat and wouldn’t go further. Then Luka grabbed her hand with both of hers, trying to pull her away from the bar. “Come on, Syd,” she whispered hoarsely. “We’d better get out of the way.”

“Stop!” Sydney yanked her hand free and glared at Tommy. “He’s just having a drink,” she said. “Let him be.”


Page 8

But Tommy wouldn’t. “I mean it, Thatcher. Step off.”

Cam went still. Without looking away from Tommy, he reached back and grabbed the shot of whiskey. He tossed it down in one swallow, slammed the glass on the counter. Then he stepped forward. “Come outside and make me.”

Some of Tommy’s bravado drained, but he held his ground. “Not a chance,” he said. “You’ll just shoot me.”

“Backstabbing son of a bitch! Ishouldshoot you.”

The whole bar got quiet again with those ringing words. Tommy’s mouth opened and closed once. When he didn’t say anything more, Cam snarled and pushed past him—only to stop and look straight back at Sydney. “You have a nice life,” he said, his voice dripping with bitterness.

He turned and kept going, and people practically dove out of his way as he stomped through the bar and into the night.

Hot tears pricked Sydney’s eyes. She clapped a hand over her mouth to stifle a sob, ignoring both Luka and Tommy’s calls as she pushed her way to the ladies’ room so she could fall apart in private.

* * * *

Cam pulled away from The Klinker as fast as the ancient farm truck would let him. Damn it, he knew he shouldn’t have gone in there. But he had unpleasant business in town, and he’d wanted a drink or two in him before he saw to it.

How the hell did Sydney manage to be everywhere he went lately? Six years of nothing, and now he couldn’t avoid her if he tried. And he was definitely trying.

Apparently he wasn’t going to convince her that Tommy was an evil rat bastard, either. She was deep in denial, making up excuses to herself. Determined to go through with this wedding and ruin her life—because she didn’t think there was a problem.

Tommy had always been able to lie like a champ, though. It took Cam years to see through his bullshit.

Right now, much as he wanted to, he couldn’t worry about Sydney. He’d spent most of the day researching and going over paperwork, looking for any way to keep the ranch—some overlooked asset he could sell, a job he could do, a favor he could call in. He came up with exactly jack shit.

He’d also listed out all the businesses in town owned or sold by Boyd Lowell, and tested his theory by paying them a visit. Every single one had denied him service.

The bastard worked fast.

With all of his legal options exhausted, Cam had turned to a more dangerous solution: Eddie Verona, loan shark and ruthless hustler. He’d arranged to meet the man at the old rail yard across town to discuss what Eddie called a “business venture,” and what everyone else called a short trip to the hospital.

Rather than a handshake, Eddie liked to seal his deals with a casual beating from his enforcer, Jonah Dawson. It was supposed to give them a taste of what to expect if they failed to make payments on time—weekly, at thirty percent interest. From what Cam had heard, every missed payment cost a broken bone. Eventually the price went up to a busted spine, and then a shallow grave.

He expected to go home with ten grand and considerable pain. But it’d be worth it to keep Lowell from getting his hands on the ranch. He’d just have to hope he could manage the rest of the payments to Eddie.

As tough as it was running the ranch now, it’d be impossible if he was dead.

 

 

Chapter 10

 

“Well,” Luka said. “I guess the whole town’s got something to talk about for the rest of the year.”

Sydney groaned and dropped her head on folded arms. They were sitting at a table in a bar that was a lot less crowded after the almost-bar-fight. Half the staff had gone home too, since the business had dried up. “Great,” she muttered. “I’m locking myself in my room until the wedding.”

Tommy had apologized profusely to her for acting like a caveman. He said he was just worried about her, with Cam threatening to shoot people and all. She was still kind of mad at him, but figured she’d take tonight to sort through things in her head. They could sit down and talk tomorrow.

He’d pled exhaustion and headed home pretty soon after Cam left. Sydney was tired herself, but she wasn’t ready to go. Hanging out with Luka helped her calm down.

Luka picked at the plate of nachos on the table and glanced at the door for the millionth time, while Sydney pretended not to notice her looking for Reese. Then she sighed. “What am I going to do with you, girl? You defended Cam Thatcher. Your mortal enemy. I don’t know what to think now.”

“Neither do I.” Sydney’s third drink was almost gone. She drained the rest of it and shoved the glass off to the side. “Luka…what if we’re all wrong about him?”

“Okay. Now you’re scaring me.”

“I’m serious,” she said. “Didn’t you see how everybody acted when he came in here? Like he was a disease they could catch if he got too close.”

Luka snorted. “That’s because he’s a big, walking asshole.”

“See what I mean? Everybody thinks that.” She frowned. “You should’ve seen Jim Wyatt talking to him. And Kenny at the garage, earlier today. It was awful.”

“Syd.” Luka suddenly looked serious. “He threatened to shoot your fiancé. Remember?”

She shook her head. “That wasn’t a threat. It was more like…I don’t know. Wishful thinking, maybe. I just can’t believe he’d really shoot anyone.” At least, not after everything he’d done for her lately.

“All right, I give up. You’re crazy,” Luka said. She glanced at the door again—and did a double-take. Her eyes got huge. “Oh my God,” she said in a loud whisper. “He’shere.Do I look terrible? Be honest.”

Sydney couldn’t help grinning. “You look great.”

“Well, I feel terrible. Or maybe awesome. I can’t tell.” Luka drew in a shaky breath and stood. “Okay, I’m gonna go say hi. I’ll be back in a few minutes, all right?”

“Don’t come back.” Sydney got up too. “You hang out with Reese. I think I’ll go over and surprise Tommy.” He only lived a five-minute walk from the bar. Even if he was too tired to fool around—and she wasn’t sure she had the urge anymore—she could crash there and have him drive her home in the morning.

“Sanity returns.” Luka stepped over and hugged her. “Wish me luck?”

“You don’t need it.”

“Right.” She rolled her eyes, waved and headed for Reese.

Sydney slipped out of The Klinker and managed to avoid talking to anyone. It was still a balmy night, but a slight breeze kept the moisture from settling and felt delicious against her overheated skin. She walked slowly, trying to let her mind clear a little. It didn’t help that she’d already drank more than usual, including half the cocktail Tommy had bought her.

By the time she got to his place, a second-floor apartment above a strip of boutique stores on the town’s main street, she felt a little better. More in control. There were still a few things she wanted to talk to him about, but they could wait until morning.

She’d also resolved to apologize to Cam somehow, before the wedding and her permanent ban from the ranch. He probably wouldn’t accept it. But at least she’d feel better about it—well, she hoped so, anyway.

She walked up the stairs, digging her keys from a pocket. Tommy had given her a key months ago, but this would be the first time she’d used it. No light shone from under his front door. If he was already asleep, she’d just crash on the couch. She unlocked the door and opened it as quietly as possible, then closed it gently.

Inside, the only light came from the bedroom hallway. She was glad he was still awake at least, so he’d know she was here. She started down the hall—and froze when she heard laughter.

Female laughter.

Sydney’s stomach churned crazily. She couldn’t have heard that right. Maybe he was watching a movie or something…but he didn’t have a TV in the bedroom. She started moving again, slowly, holding her breath and listening for some sign that she was wrong.

Then she heard the laugh again, chased by a moan. And the rhythmic creak of bedsprings.

Fury and pain twisted through her like breaking glass. She dropped the caution, practically ran down the short hallway, and yanked the bedroom door open.

Tommy. And Stephanie, with the big assets. He was on top, his naked ass clenching as her nails scored his back. He bent his head to her ample breasts—and her eyes met Sydney’s.

“Oh…oh!Tommy,” the waitress said breathlessly. “Company.”

She could see the shockwave run through him as he froze mid-rut. His head came up with an audible popping sound that sickened her. He turned to look—cheeks flushed, hair damp, sweat beading at his temples. He licked his lips.

In a flash Sydney knew that whatever came from his mouth, she’d probably try to kill him for it.

“Don’t say a word.” Her voice came out hoarse and choked, completely foreign to her own ears. “I mean it. You open your mouth, I’m going to shove something sharp in it.” She fumbled with her engagement ring and twisted it off her finger, suddenly loathing the damned thing with a bright hatred she’d never felt before. She dropped it on the carpeted floor like a disease. “You’ll probably need to have that resized,” she spat.

Somehow she managed to walk out of the apartment and down the stairs. Then she emptied her guts in the bushes along the sidewalk, and wobbled back toward the bar.

* * * *

“I can give you five thousand.”

Eddie Verona lit a fresh cigarette from the butt of the one he’d been smoking, and pitched the old one onto the weed-choked tracks. A tall man with stooped shoulders, slender build, and weathered face, he looked like a Halloween scarecrow someone forgot to put away for the winter. Creepy, but not threatening.

The threat was behind him in the shadows. Like all the Dawson boys, Jonah was made out of muscle and mean—and liked to let his fists do the talking. Luka’s three older brothers had been the terrors of Covendale since they were kids.

But Cam wasn’t about to let either of them intimidate him. “Well, I need ten,” he said. “If you only give me five, I can’t hold onto the ranch. So basically, I’d be borrowing some expensive toilet paper to wipe my ass with until I lose everything, and then you kill me.”

Eddie laughed. “I’ve heard of people doing worse with my money,” he said. “But that’s the way I do business. See, I haven’t worked with you before, so I don’t know you.” He dragged on the cigarette and blew smoke out slowly. “If you don’t pay me back, the worst I can do is kill you for five thousand. I can’t kill you twice for ten. Understand?”

“I’ll pay you back.”

“You say that, sure. They all say that.” Eddie took another thoughtful drag. “I could go as high as six,” he said.

Cam glowered at him. “I need ten.”

“I can’t help you, then.” He gestured at Jonah, and they turned and started away.

“Wait. There has to be something you want.”

Eddie stopped and pivoted slowly. “What I want is money,” he said. “If that’s what you had to offer, you wouldn’t be here in the first place. Isn’t that right?”

Cam heaved a breath. “Look…I’m desperate,” he said. “I worked out a deal with the bank, but Lowell talked them into backing out. If I don’t give them the whole amount, he gets the ranch.”

“Lowell?” Eddie’s brow went up. “Are we talking Boyd Lowell, by any chance?”

“Yeah. Son of a bitch wants to turn my place into a golf course,” he said. “Apparently he’s got a buyer all lined up. And I wouldn’t sell, so now he’s trying to squeeze me out.”

Eddie grinned. The bony smile was a lot more threatening than his serious expression. “I help you, Boyd Lowell gets screwed?”

“Out of millions.”

“Perfect.” He half-turned to address his enforcer. “Jonah, get the case out of the car and put it in Mr. Thatcher’s truck.”

“Wait a minute. I thought you said you only had five.”

“I lied.” Eddie shrugged, dropped his cigarette and ground it out. “Heard you were a stubborn bastard, so I figured you might just talk me into a better deal. To be honest, I didn’t expect it to turn out better for me.”

He shook his head. “What do you have against Boyd Lowell?” he said. “Not that anyone needs a reason to hate that greasy bastard.”

“Well. You see, I have one rule when it comes to lending money—no politics. I believe that democracy should never be bought.”

Cam shot him a skeptical look. “You’re a moral criminal?”

“Not moral, Mr. Thatcher. Democratic. Without democracy, I could never do what I do.” The chilling grin resurfaced. “Anyway, Lowell sent his boy Tommy to borrow a considerable amount of money from me. He said it was for a muscle car. He paid me back ahead of time—and that’s when I found out Lowell had used my money to buy himself into the town selectman’s seat.”

“And you didn’t kill him?”

“Of course not. It’s against my policy to collect interest when payment’s been made. Besides, he bought himself into a high enough profile to protect him.” A dark look swept over Eddie’s face. “I have proof of his election-buying scheme. Unfortunately, I’m not in a position to expose him due to my…less than moral reputation.”

Cam nodded slowly. “I might be able to help you with that,” he said. “I’ll look into it after I stop his golf course.”

“Tell you what,” Eddie said. “You take Boyd Lowell down, I’ll drop your interest rate to five percent, no late charges. Until then, it’s thirty with penalties—but you can have the first month interest-free. Do we have a deal?” He held out a hand.

Cam took it. “Deal.”

Just then, Jonah came back over and stopped behind Eddie. He didn’t say anything. But Eddie seemed to sense him anyway, because he said, “All right. The money is yours, Mr. Thatcher.” He paused, and added, “Oh—we do have one more detail to take care of. If I’m not mistaken, I believe you know what it is.”

Jonah stepped forward, flexing a fist.

“Yeah,” Cam sighed. “I guess I do.”

“I am sorry about this. If it helps at all, it’s just business.” Eddie moved back and gave a single nod. “Don’t break anything, Jonah,” he said.

“Sure,” the big man rumbled. “Not this time.”

Cam tried to steel himself, wishing he’d been able to get a second shot down earlier. But it was over fast—four well-placed blows, and he was on his knees gasping for breath. The man hit like a boulder.

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