Copyright © 2017 Lacy Williams
When the sheriff’s brown SUV rolled to a stop in her drive, Kristi’s past stepped out of the passenger seat.
She hadn’t heard he was back from his tour overseas. He was clean cut, his Marine-short hair making the line of his jaw stand out. His shoulders were broad beneath a navy T-shirt, his slim hips encased in brown cargo shorts.
His eyes were hidden by reflective sunglasses. He was not smiling.
Her stomach did a funny little flip. What had it been… five years since she’d seen him? He’d been on leave then, and they’d passed each other in the produce section of the tiny local grocery store.
Her late husband, Mark, had still been alive, so she hadn’t given Jack more than a cursory wave. Jack had…nodded. Maybe.
What was he doing here now? His brother, Lee, the county sheriff, stepped out of the car and offered a short wave. Why was Jack with him? As far as she knew, Marines didn’t do ride-alongs.
She stood on and the front porch, shielding her eyes from the late afternoon sunlight. The screen door banged behind her.
“Mama, who’s that? What’s the sheriff doing here?”
Another voice joined the first. A younger one. “You gettin’ arrested?”
The action behind her finally weakened the tractor beam that tethered her to Jack, had ever since they’d gone steady back in ninth grade.
She’d thought it gone forever after he’d broken her heart the summer after high school graduation. Guess not.
She and put one hand on each of her sons’ shoulders. She didn’t have to reach far for ten-year-old Michael. Hosea, five, bounced beneath her hand. The boy never stood still.
“No one’s getting arrested,” she said in as calm a voice as she could muster. Except hopefully—
“Mrs. Kimball—” the sheriff started.
“Lee, I used to babysit you. You can call me Kristi.”
Hosea looked up at her with wide eyes. “You used ta babysit the sheriff?”
She enjoyed his awe. Another seven or eight years, and he’d think she was the scum of the earth.
She thought she saw one corner of Jack’s mouth kick up from where he stood behind Lee’s shoulder, but the sheriff was serious and seemed bigger than usual as he crossed the yard to the bottom of the steps. “You mind if we come in?”
She kind of did. It was laundry day, and clean clothes were spread all over the living room in various states of being folded—or not. Eleanor had had a science project due—which she’d only mentioned this morning—and the kitchen looked as if a volcano had exploded inside. Which it had.
Imagining Jack seeing her home in disarray…
Well, he probably didn’t care, right? He’d let her go long ago, after all.
“The house is a wreck,” she warned before she and the boys led the way inside.
Just inside the front door, she kicked aside a soccer ball and a pair of child-sized cowboy boots. The boys ran ahead, shouting.
Jack came in right behind her. She didn’t have to look to be aware of his broad shoulders filling the doorway.
What must he think of her messy old farmhouse? He’d seen foreign countries, traveled extensively with the military.
Her life must seem so simple in comparison.
She heard the boys hit the kitchen and the back door banged.
“Who’s there?” Dahlia called down from upstairs. The preteen appeared at the head of the stairs in a grungy T-shirt and cutoff shorts—similar to what Kristi wore. Dahlia’s eyes widened as she took in the two men. She whirled and disappeared.
Kristi turned toward them men in time to catch the raised eyebrow Jack sent his brother.
“She’s twelve,” Kristi explained. “She’ll be down in a minute, dressed differently and with makeup on.”
She wasn’t ready to parent a teenager. Especially not alone.
She led the way to the kitchen at the back of the house.
“Coffee?” she asked, moving across the room to the pot. The men paused on the threshold. Probably smart.
Rover, a 120-pound Rottweiler, lay in his normal spot across the backdoor threshold. He raised his chin from his paws. He was a darn good babysitter. Currently, he was watching Riley sit in his diaper—only a diaper—and spread play-doh on the floor with a wooden spoon.
She confiscated the spoon from her nephew while Rover rose to greet the men.
Jack took the nose to the crotch stoicly, but Lee made a shield with his hands.
“Rover,” she warned.
The dog sent a curious glance over his shoulder, then left Lee alone.
The toddler followed her to the counter, pulling on her jeans as she reached to the upper cabinet and took out two mugs. She poured coffee into both of them.
“Still black?” she asked as she turned to hand the cups to the men.
One of Jack’s eyebrows twitched—slightly. “That’s fine.”
Their fingers brushed as he took the cup from her hands. Awareness zipped through her.
She quickly picked up Riley and settled him on her hip. The two men remained standing.
“I saw the report you filed with my deputy earlier,” Lee said. He set his mug on the table. Well away from the edge. Smart man.
And he wanted an update?
“Can you tell me more about what happened?”
She slid a glance to Jack. “Is this a new deputy?” She wasn’t sure she wanted him to know her business.
Jack didn’t smile.
She glanced at the toddler, who’d stuck his thumb in his mouth. She’d weaned him off his pacifier last month, resulting in several nights of tearful sobbing at bedtime. The thumb had since replaced it.
“I’d hired…” She cleared her throat, brows raised. She didn’t want to say the name. The kids didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t need to. “About six months ago. Part time, mornings mostly.” She couldn’t afford more.
The boys shouted from outside, and she let her glance flick to the window to check on them before she finished her tale.
“And then last week I caught him inside the kitchen, rifling through my purse. I’d left it on the table. When I asked him what he was doing, it was obvious he was”—she cleared her throat, mouthed the word high. “So I asked him to leave. I told him not to come back. And I mailed him his last paycheck.”
Jack’s eyes glittered with something she couldn’t define. Maybe didn’t want to.
“Then yesterday I was driving the kids home from school and I passed him in his truck on the two-lane highway. I was nearly home when I saw the cattle scattered across the road. Someone’d cut the fence line. All five strands.”
It’d taken her a good hour to get the cattle rounded up and to construct a makeshift fix for the fence. The time had seemed longer because she’d kept the kids in the truck bed, afraid to let them out of her sight if the man had a grudge against her. They’d shouted their boredom, wrestled some, and once nearly toppled each other out.
The kids mattered more to her than any animal, mattered more than the property.
The radio on Lee’s shoulder squawked. He turned away and pressed a button, responding with something that she couldn’t quite make out.
Which left her in a stare-down with Jack.
Had he even said a word to her? Why had he come?
Something big must be happening, because Lee stepped into the living room, still talking into his radio.
Jack looked over his shoulder once, then back to her. “One of your neighbors called in a suspicious character hanging around your property earlier today. There were only tracks, trampled grass when Lee and I got out there.”
What was he doing here anyway? Her chin jutted up. “I didn’t realize you were on leave.”
“Home,” he said quietly. “For good.”
Home. For good.
Jack’s statement from an hour ago rattled around in Kristi’s brain. Rattled was a good descriptor. That’s what she felt right now.
Lee’s squawking radio had turned into an urgent call. He and Jack had excused themselves momentarily and conversed in quiet tones in her living room. They’d decided that Jack would stay until Lee took care of the situation and returned.
It had irked her, having the both of them make decisions for her.
Except the determined lines that bracketed Jack’s mouth frightened her. She knew Jack well enough. He didn’t get riled over nothing. There was something Lee wasn’t telling her. Something bad enough that Jack felt as if he had to stay, even though she hadn’t seen him in five years and hadn’t spoken to him in over ten.
She’d stayed into the kitchen with Riley, knowing the natives would get hungry and restless, and she’d better get supper on the table.
Michael and Hosea had tromped back inside and commandeered the video game system in the living room.
She could hear them begging Jack to play.
“Please? You can be my partner.” That was Hosea, and she could picture him jumping up and down in his excitement, fists clenched near his shoulders.
Footsteps on the stairs, then a shy, “Hi.” That was ten-year-old Eleanor.
If Jack was surprised by the girl’s appearance, he betrayed nothing in his voice. “Hello.”
“Mr. Jack’s gonna play Mario Kart with us!” Hosea crowed.
“Video games are for babies.” Ah. And there was Dahlia, spouting her preteen sarcasm into the room.
Kristi finished chopping the green and red peppers and put the knife in the dishwasher. Safer there. She stood with her hands on the countertop, ready to rescue Jack if needed. Dahlia and Michael had hit some kind of roadblock in the last few months and seemed to argue constantly.
But Jack seemed to take it in stride, his voice even and relaxed. “I’m not a baby, and I’m playing.” She heard the slight redirect in his voice. “Do you want to play?”
He must’ve been speaking to Eleanor, because it was she who answered. “I don’t know—”
“She’s not very good,” Michael said.
Kristi’s lips pinched. He knew better than to put down his cousin. Must’ve been showing off for the soldier in their midst.
Again, Jack seemed unruffled. “I’m not any good, either. Maybe we can be on a team. What do you say?”
Eleanor gave a soft assent.
And magically, Dahlia stayed in the room with them. She was giving pointers to Jack and Eleanor, while Michael and Hosea exclaimed and laughed.
Jack had always been like that. If two of their group of high school friends got into an argument, he could defuse it easily with humor and good sense.
He was good-natured. Never got ruffled. It was really hard to offend him.
Jack’s steady nature had no doubt helped him climb into a leadership rank in the Marines. She’d tried not to hear, tried not to care as the small-town gossip had always made its way to her. She was proud of the rank he’d attained, even though she had no right to be. His success had nothing to do with her. In fact, it seemed leaving her had been a great decision for Jack.
All those great qualities, but there was another one she remembered. He rarely got scared.
Which meant whatever had possessed Lee to ask him to stay here must be serious.
She tried not to think about it as she seared the chicken and mashed avocados into guacamole. She redoubled her efforts not to worry when she plated the tortillas and put the salsa and shredded cheese into bowls.
Barely half an hour had passed before Michael and Eleanor rushed through the kitchen doorway, pushing and shoving in a sibling-rivalry way.
“Dinner ready?” her son asked.
Voices sounded in the living room, and then Jack appeared with Hosea riding piggyback like a monkey.
“I think you’re about to have a revolt if you don’t feed this bunch.” He was smiling, the lines around his eyes crinkling with joy.
She froze. His smile was the first thing that had attracted her to him. Wide and genuine, it almost begged you to respond in kind.
It never failed to weaken her knees.
His smile faded as she stared at him.
“Mom, can we eat on the deck?” Michael’s question broke her out of the laser beam of Jack’s smile, and she quickly averted her eyes.
“Sure, if everyone will carry something. Let me grab the paper plates.”
She was aware of Jack moving through the kitchen, following directions dutifully when Eleanor handed him the tall stack of tortillas.
Whatever the danger was from her former hired hand, having Jack under her roof was dangerous too.
She had to remember that he’d never wanted this life. Even if he was back in the States for good, it didn’t mean he was making his home here. Didn’t mean he was interested in a small-town girl like her, with roots a mile deep. Certainly didn’t mean he’d think twice about a woman with a houseful of kids to raise. She’d long ago made peace with the fact that she didn’t have anything about her to interest a man like Jack.
She was who she was. Nothing to apologize for.
If she kept her head down and stopped getting trapped in the man’s magnetism, she just might make it through this night.
“Eleanor and Hosea have dish duty tonight. Dahlia and Michael, you two help Riley get ready for bed.”
A round of grumbles overtook the table at Kristi’s statement.
Kristi raised her eyebrows, but it was Jack who spoke. “In the Marines, everybody on the team has to do their part.”
Hosea’s nose wrinkled. “You mean you hafta do the dishes?”
Jack nodded seriously. “And much worse. Like clean the latrines.”
“What’s a latrine?” her youngest son asked.
“The bathrooms,” Dahlia answered, though without the sarcasm Kristi had learned to expect.
She well knew that getting into an after-dinner discussion could result in nothing getting done, so she stood at the long picnic table on the back deck. “Everybody up.”
The boys hopped out of their seats, shooting admiring glances at Jack. Even Eleanor and Dahlia got up without further complaint, Dahlia hefting the two-year old, who yawned and rubbed his eyes.
Jack had charmed her children.
“Bring me a trash bag,” Kristi called to Michael before he went into the kitchen. She moved to retrieve several paper napkins that the Texas breeze had tossed to the ground.
When she straightened, Jack was there, holding open a plastic trash bag.
“Thanks,” she murmured as she deposited the napkins. She moved to the table to pick up the used paper plates. Rover snuffled under it, looking for scraps.
She’d hoped Jack would take his leave. Sitting with him at the dinner table as the sun had set behind them… Well, it hadn’t been romantic, not with five noisy kids and a dog underfoot. But having that second pair of hands to pass condiments and dab up a cup of spilled milk had reminded her of everything she’d been missing since Mark’s death two years ago.
And now, with dusk surrounding them, cows lowing from the pasture nearby, and the twinkle lights the kids had strung around the deck railing at Christmas that had never gotten taken down, Jack’s presence was unsettling.
“I know Michael and Hosea are yours,” he said quietly as he followed her around the table with the trash bag, mindful of the open door and the two boys in the kitchen. “But the girls? And Riley…?”
“My sister’s kids.” She didn’t look at him as she tossed a stack of plates and debris. Didn’t mean she wasn’t aware of the breadth of his shoulders, the power in the coiled muscles. The years had been good to the man. Not like the stretch marks and saggy areas she now sported, thanks to childbirth and her life as a mother.
And she didn’t need her thoughts going down that road.
She didn’t know how he could’ve missed the gossip, but, “She’s made some bad choices. Been in and out of jail. And…”
“You ended up with her kids.”
“I couldn’t let them go into the system.” She didn’t look at him as she gathered up the bowls they’d used for cheese and salsa. Across the table, he reached for the salt and pepper shakers and the guac bowl.
“It’s pretty incredible.”
Yeah right. Compared to fighting for the country, it was so small.
“I’m serious.” His voice was low but serious. She couldn’t help it. Her head came up, her eyes searching his expression in the dim lighting.
“How do you manage all of them on your own?”
One of her shoulders came up in a shrug. “Being a parent is… You just do what you have to.” She’d eventually get to sleep through the night again. Right?
Without the sunglasses on, his expression was… soft?
Surely it had to be a trick of the light, the multi-hued twinkle lights casting colorful shadows on his face.
His feelings for her had died a long time ago, hadn’t they?
She couldn’t bear that line of thought and turned her head to stare out at the darkened fields. “Have you heard anything from Lee?” When can you go home?
“Not yet.” He cleared his throat. “I don’t mean for my presence to make you uncomfortable.”
She wanted to snort. It was just the opposite. She could so easily imagine a future with him at her supper table every night. Wrangling the kids with ease. Sitting and talking on the porch as the sun went down.
“Lee found a warrant for your hired hand, one filed in California, I think. Guy was arrested for grand larceny and assault a couple of years ago. He jumped bail and left the state.”
A shiver went through her. “He seemed… Well, he didn’t seem like a criminal. He’s lived in town for something like eighteen months—one of my neighbors even recommended him.”
She saw Jack’s shrug in her peripheral vision. “Maybe he was trying to turn it around, but circumstances can get the better of people if they don’t have a support system.”
Suddenly, she didn’t want to be standing out on the dark porch any longer.
“I’ve got to get the kids in bed.” She turned to the kitchen with the remaining few dirty dishes in hand. Rover’s nails clicked on the wooden deck as he came along.
Jack followed her, and it must’ve been the breeze, but she thought she heard him whisper.
Kristi stood at the head of the stairs, looking down.
From here, she had a clear view of Jack. He stood in the living room, staring out the window into the night.
It wasn’t an idle stare, as if he were lost in thought.
It was a soldier’s stare, alert for threat. Even the way he stood, on the balls of his feet, betrayed that he was ready to move at any moment. Ready to protect her family, even though she hadn’t asked.
Rover sat next to him, black nose pressed against the bottom pane of the window.
It had taken longer to get the kids in bed than normal. Riley had complained of a stomachache, but he hadn’t had a fever. She’d figured it was probably the excitement of having Jack in their midst tonight and the fact that the boy didn’t want to go to bed. She’d read him an extra bedtime story, and finally he’d drifted off.
She had two choices here. She could offer to brew a fresh pot of coffee. Or she could kick Jack out. This wasn’t some assignment. Lee couldn’t force her to host his brother, no matter the threat.
And she could surely use some peace after the unsettling afternoon.
Jack looked over his shoulder, his expression unreadable. Not open and soft like it had been outside on the deck. His gaze came right to her, as if he’d known she was there the entire time. Probably he had.
She took a breath and descended the stairs, still undecided.
Spending more time with Jack was a recipe for disaster, at least for her heart. It was already mangled enough, wasn’t it?
When she hit the bottom step, movement from behind her turned her head.
Hosea stood on the landing, where she’d just been standing.
“I don’t feel good.”
She sighed, turned to head back up. Irritation and exhaustion slumped her shoulders. Yes, having Jack under their roof was exciting. But couldn’t she have two seconds to relax?
And then her son threw up all over the floor.
And Riley started crying from his room.
She hit the landing as Hosea stopped retching. Her son looked up at her with tears in his eyes.
“It’s okay, buddy,” she said.
She avoided the nasty puddle on the floor and put a hand on his shoulder, surprised to hear strong footsteps coming up the stairs behind her.
She glanced quickly at Jack. “You should go.” It was going to be a long night, and she didn’t have any more defenses to shore up against his presence.
He ignored her and brushed past her toward the bathroom. “You grab Riley. I’ll start the shower.”
Fifteen minutes later, they’d settled both boys on opposite ends of the living room couch with small-size trash cans bearing fresh bags. Both boys huddled in blankets, puny and pale. Rover laid on the floor across the room, head on his paws, watching.
Jack had jumped right in, unflinching in the face of puking kids, even when Riley had splattered his arm in vomit as he’d been drying the boy off after a quick soap and rinse in the shower. He took it in stride.
Now he’d disappeared back upstairs, probably to wash up, while she’d been loading Riley’s soiled bedspread into the washing machine. After she checked on the boys, she detoured to the hall, knowing she still had the messy floor to clean up.
Only Jack was on his hands and knees at the head of the stairs, scrubbing the wood.
“Oh. You don’t…” have to do that.
But he looked up at her and nodded. “Already done.”
The emotions of the day and her exhaustion overwhelmed her, and tears burned her eyes. A lump rose in her throat.
And she really didn’t want Jack to see her break down.
She ducked her head and slipped into the kitchen, where she wet a paper towel with cold water and pressed it to her eyes.
She would be fine. She would get through this night, even if it meant she only grabbed an hour or two of sleep. She’d done it before.
But having Jack here, having him help…
Oh, it was painful. Longing for a partner.
Longing for him.
Knowing he’d put her behind him so long ago.
She took two minutes to regroup and catch her breath.
When she returned to the living room, Jack was there, sitting between the boys. Telling a story, or… showing them something?
She moved behind the couch so she could see. He held a worn piece of paper in his big hands. Not paper. A card.
A card made of handmade paper, one that she remembered.
“Your mom gave this to me when we were seniors in high school,” he said quietly. “For Valentine’s Day.”
A flush heated her cheeks. She couldn’t remember the words, but it had been a dorky love poem.
The boys listened raptly.
“When I was overseas, I kept it on me at all times, like a lucky charm.”
He glanced at her, and she saw color climbing into his cheeks.
“Your mom’s special,” he said, still holding her gaze. “And no matter where I was, or what I was doing, I didn’t want to forget that.”
It was a nice sentiment but he’d broken her heart. Left her behind. Told her they were better off apart.
Why was he saying this now?
The moment of connection was broken when Riley sniffed.
She recognized the sign and hurried around the sofa to hold his bucket as he threw up again.
He set off Hosea, but she didn’t have to worry, because Jack was right there. He rubbed Hosea’s back as the boy lost the contents of his stomach.
By one a.m., the boys were sleeping in their beds and Kristi felt like a zombie. She probably looked like one too.
Maybe it was the late hour combined with exhaustion, but she’d gone past confusion to mad. What gave Jack the right to come in and disrupt her life? She was doing just fine as a single parent, thank you very much.
And to reveal that he’d kept the card she’d made for him so many years ago…
She tiptoed downstairs, ready to show him out or throw him out…
He was standing in the entryway, loose-limbed and relaxed, and she really wanted to loose her temper on him. If not for the sleeping children upstairs, she might have.
She opened her mouth to blast him—probably in a whisper—but he snaked one arm around her waist and reeled her in close.
And her faculties, fuzzy from lack of sleep, abandoned her completely.
She raised her hands, meant to push him away, but her palms rested on his biceps.
His hands fit so neatly at her waist. She remembered this. The strength of his hold.
And then he dipped his head.
She panicked, turned her head at the last moment. His kiss landed on the corner of her mouth.
Heart thundering in her ears, she breathed shallowly.
What was he doing?
What was she?
“I’ve missed holding you for fifteen years,” he whispered, his words riffling the hair at her temple. “Tell me you don’t want my kiss.”
His demand was completely absurd.
And there was no way she could deny it.
“I’m… confused,” she whispered.
And from his hip, his phone rang.
He hesitated for a long moment. Then loosened his grip on her slightly to reach for the phone with one hand. He raised it to his ear, gaze holding hers. “It’s Lee,” he said to her. He listened. Then, “They’ve got your hired hand in custody.”
The morning came too soon.
Hosea and Riley were much recovered, asking for cereal—which she gave them dry as a test run.
Exhaustion dragged her down, but the thought that her family was safe was a relief.
In the light of day, she wondered if she’d imagined Jack’s embrace. She hadn’t noticed as she’d stumbled up to bed, but he’d straightened up the living room, the kitchen.
She could’ve imagined the entire thing. There was no evidence that he’d been there at all.
Except the fire she felt when she imagined the brush of his lips against her cheek.
She couldn’t make sense of any of it.
Her best friend, Tammy, called in the early afternoon, asking if the kids could come over and play for a few hours. Not one to squander an opportunity, Kristi agreed.
Soon, the house was quiet, and she allowed herself a rare afternoon nap. The kids would be home soon enough.
Loud pounding on her door woke her from a deep sleep.
Groggy and disoriented, she looked at the bedside clock. Seven o’clock.
She’d slept the entire afternoon away?
She groaned as she stumbled out of the bed. Now how would she sleep tonight? She’d be too wired.
The pounding at her door continued.
She grumbled to herself, taking her hair out of the elastic she’d used for a simple braid earlier. It curled and tangled around her head, probably made her look like Medusa.
Who was knocking at her door so insistently?
She yanked open the door to face down… Jack.
Those infernal mirrored glasses were back on his face, and he looked cool and unrumpled in a black T-shirt and jeans.
Some tension seemed to bleed out of him when he saw her. His shoulders relaxed slightly.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. More softly than the reaming she’d intended to give him.
“We need to talk.” Some of that tension crept back in.
Words to spark fear. Or curiosity.
She crossed her arms over her chest. She didn’t invite him in, just remained on her side of the threshold, blocking his way. “Take off your sunglasses,” she demanded.
Above the mirrors, his brows raised, but he did as she asked. His eyes were soft again.
She jutted her chin out. “Why did you show the boys that card I made you? Did you really take it with you on your overseas assignments?”
He considered her. “I wanted a piece of you with me.”
“I broke up with you. I know. It was probably the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
She squeezed her elbows where she held them. Looked over his shoulder, surprised by the sting of tears. “Maybe it wasn’t a mistake. I’ve always been a small-town girl. It’s impossible to picture you being happy here.” She waved to encompass the ranch, her land.
He reached out and caught her hand, held it loosely between them. “I’ve been a lot of places, but my home has always been beside you.”
Oh. What a thing to say. “You haven’t seen me in years.”
He gave a gentle tug, and she stepped forward, her toes on the threshold.
“Doesn’t mean it’s any less true. Last night was…”
“A disaster,” she supplied.
“Proof,” he countered. He edged closer to her, still on his side of the threshold. “Those hours with you and your crew reminded me what it felt like to be part of a family. I’ve missed it. Even the disastrous parts.”
He tugged slightly again, but she held back, teetering. “I can’t—” Tears choked her momentarily. “My heart’s been broken twice…”
He held open his opposite hand, extended to her. “I’ve learned to protect. I won’t break it again.”
She stared into his dear face. A face she could… trust?
He tugged again, and she came into his arms. She encircled his trim waist, and one of his hands buried itself in her hair.
One side of his mouth tipped up. “I like the way you look just out of bed.”
Heat flushed into her face. She’d forgotten about her rumpled bedhead. “You’ve missed the good years,” she murmured. “I’m afraid it’s wrinkles and stretch marks from here on out.”
He traced the curve of her cheek with his index finger. Bent and kissed the corner of one eye.
“I think these are the best years,” he said softly, seriously. He cupped her jaw. “You are so beautiful. You captivate me.”
She closed her eyes against the intensity of his gaze. She knew what she looked like. But he thought…?
“It’s true,” he whispered against her cheek. “I’m going to claim that kiss now.”
She lifted her face to grant him easier access.
His kiss was everything she’d remembered. And yet new, because it’d been so very long.
Emotion long-buried burst forth like spring’s first rose blooming.
Jack was back in her life.
And it was a beautiful thing.