An excerpt from
By Liza Jonathan
Coming in 2022!
Jenna swore at the sight of her broken windshield wiper.
The stupid thing had finally snapped in half, biting it right in the middle of a sudden, sleety October rain. Yet another broken thing she’d not had time to fix. Now she was out here in the pitch dark, spinning her wheels on this muddy country lane, with about eight square inches of clear windshield to see through. She flipped on her high beams and gave the dashboard an encouraging pat.
“Come on, Flash,” she crooned, as if her ancient, rusted-out Chevy Silverado might actually hear her. “You’ve got this.”
The old truck shuddered and rattled, but popped back out of the rut like always, flinging gravel in its wake. Atta girl. Another turn through these hilly apple orchards, and she’d be home.
Home. God, her little five-room, clapboard cottage sounded like heaven about now. She rolled her aching shoulders. Did she have any wine left? God, who knew. She’d been on her feet since five this morning—an occupational hazard of owning Apple Addie’s, Sirensong’s favorite café. Normally she enjoyed the bustle of it. But after a day with a busted dishwasher and too many missed orders, she was as fried as a day-old fritter. All she wanted was a little solitude, and a little peace.
And maybe a long, hot bubble bath in her clawfoot tub to soothe her aching muscles. And some chocolate. Yes—definitely chocolate. She still had some chocolate kisses left in the bottom of the bag, didn’t she? Maybe she’d light up her new scented candles too. Hey, why not? She might as well go for the whole dateless-in-your-thirties, Saturday-night package while she was at it.
Jenna huffed out a rueful chuckle and shook her head.
Dating. Right. As if there weren’t worse fates in this world than not having a damn date. Yeah, she’d fought hard to get here, to this place, warm and settled in this small mountain community she loved. She wasn’t going to let some man mess things up now. Lord knew, they always, always did.
She curled her fingers tight around the steering wheel as she bounced over the rough terrain, so tired and punchy she must be getting philosophical.
Yeah, this road was like a lot of things in her life—dark, bumpy, and surprisingly twisty. But hey, at least she was headed in the right direction, right?
Smiling at the thought, she pumped up the volume on her favorite country music station, popped the clutch, and kicked up the gear. Just one last little rise around the back forty of this property, and she could call this day done.
But when she made the turn for the access road to her place, the glare of taillights suddenly appeared ahead. She slammed on her brakes.
What the hell— Jenna skidded to a halt, stopping mere inches from the corner of a horse trailer jack-knifed in the road.
Jesus. Who in the— Why is somebody out here on my road? Are they lost?
Jenna blinked against the flashing red hazard lights, trying to calm her racing heart. She let out a shaky breath.
Okay, so maybe this trailer wasn’t exactly jack-knifed. It was really more of a slide-off into a ditch. Whoever was wrecked here had money. Because that two-horse, gooseneck trailer was attached to a white, brand-new-looking truck—a Ford F-250 Platinum, no less—mired up to its grill in sudden runoff from the rain.
She clicked off the radio and cracked open her door to get a better look. Oh no, there was definitely a horse inside. The sound of scraping and panicked whinnying that came from inside the thing was unmistakable.
Sick dread filled her stomach. Jenna knew horses. And she knew even a minor slide-off could break a horse’s leg, or worse. What was this idiot doing, hauling a horse trailer in this kind of weather, at this time of night, all the way out here?
Instinct had her jumping from her still-running truck and reaching for the trailer door. Maybe she could help. She hadn’t squandered her early twenties as a rodeo stable hand for nothing.
But before her hand met the handle, a strong arm pushed her back.
“Hey! Dumbass!” a deep, angry voice boomed. “What do you think you’re doin’? Are you trying to get yourself killed?”
Fuck off hovered on her lips. So did a colorful rant about how horses deserved to be treated.
But as she turned to face this entitled prick, something made her stop. Thunder rolled in the distance. And she could see this man, barely, in the flickering headlights. Broad shoulders bulging against a denim jacket. A flash of pale, stubble-covered features. A cowboy hat, dripping rain off its brim. Point-toe Justin boots, sliding in the mud. The outlines of one pissed-off cowboy.
But when the light caught his face, she choked on her gasp.
Because she’d never, ever forget that face.
“Wade?” she croaked.
He narrowed those steely gray eyes of his at first, then his eyebrows flew up. “Jenna.” He let out a shocked exhale as he raked his attention over her. His mouth hung open, then clamped shut, like he didn’t have a thing to say for himself. Of course.
Users are like that, aren’t they?
Still, looking into his eyes made her heart race, dammit. Threads of a past she’d tried to forget wound ‘round her.
She’d been his once, not so very long ago. Back when he’d been a rising rodeo star—and she was the girl who’d given up everything to follow him on the circuit. Once upon a time, there was nothing she wouldn’t have done for this man.
But as Jenna stood there watching the cold rain pelt his face, the years seemed to stretch between them like a chasm.
She swallowed hard.
Lord. Wade Deckers. Of all the people to meet on a dark, stormy night. In many ways, he was the reason she’d ended up in Sirensong ten years ago. But how in the hell had he gotten here?
She didn’t have the chance to ask. The trailer rocked, and the horse shrieked in fear. Their attention snapped back where it belonged, to the horse that needed them.
Wade threw open the double doors to a scary scene. His horse was upright but sliding—stamping, snorting, and unable to stand straight on the tilted floor.
Before Wade could stop her, Jenna slid through the side door and into the trailer.
“Jenna! Goddammit, don’t!” he called. But she ignored him. Her small size made it easier to duck under the chest bar and wedge herself up close, where she could make a difference. Eyes white, hooves scrambling, the horse tossed its head, slamming her hard against the stall. She swung right in front of its nose anyway. Grabbing the dangling tie strap from its breakaway halter, she managed to calm the animal. Even in the dim light, she could tell he was a beautiful butterscotch-colored bay—a quarter horse, and a gelding, from the looks of it.
She stroked the poor boy’s neck while he shuddered and eventually found his feet. “Shhhh. Shhhhh, honey. You’re alright. We’re going to get you out of here.”
The horse seemed to settle just a bit, and its ears slowly unpinned themselves.
Jenna looked over the horse’s withers to find Wade’s gaze on her—piercing, intense, and far too familiar. In the shadows, she caught his wry smile.
“They always did listen better to you.”
She looked away, not having a clue how to make conversation with the man.
To his credit, Wade took the cue, filling the silence with a search for supplies in the adjoining stall.
The horse whickered as she patted his neck with long, reassuring strokes. “Aww now, you’re a sweet one, aren’t you? Just a little scared, that’s all. Don’t worry, Jenna’s got you.” She couldn’t help whispering and cooing. It’d been ages since she’d handled a horse. But some things you never forgot.
Jenna didn’t have time to enjoy it, though. Because all at once, Wade’s hand was on hers, stealing her attention again. The warmth of his touch set off an instant ping of recognition, an echo of memories still running loose in her mind. She almost resented the slide of his hard, calloused fingers over hers as he tugged the strap away…resented the way her breath caught and her hand tingled. She studied his still-athletic form as he snapped on a new lead and led the protesting horse onto solid ground again, soothing and reassuring all the way.
Not liking the stinging rain or the oozing mud, the bay huffed and tossed his head.
“You’re all right,” Wade murmured over and over while the horse slowly, surely lowered his head. Wade grinned with triumph, stroking sweet boy’s nose. “There now, you’re not scared, are you, tough guy?” When the man shifted back to her, he looked her up and down, losing his smile. “You’re bleeding,” he growled.
What? No thank you for your help? No hey great to see you again, Jenna? But Wade had never been one for social niceties. Why start now? She tapped around on her bruised shoulder, trying to assess the damage. Her fingertips met torn leather. Great. Now her coat was ripped, and probably ruined. Dammit, it had been a favorite, and a rare luxury–a vintage short designer trench she’d found thrifting. Her hand came back with a little blood on it, too. She must’ve caught herself on something.
He grimaced. “Look, we’ve gotta get to shelter, and your shoulder needs tending. You know any place where we can get out of this storm?”
“Yeah, this way.” Jenna pointed. “See that little house on the clearing? That’s mine. There’s an abandoned barn out back that’s unlocked. The new orchard owners moved out the farm equipment, but I think there’s still some hay in there.”
She jumped back in her truck and swerved around the wreck, parking her car the same time he’d made it to the barn doors with the horse. They opened the doors together, and she helped him find the switch to click on the ancient, flickering overhead lights in the place.
Without a word, they teamed up to remove the horse’s shipping boots and blankets, the two of them performing a kind of workaday dance they’d done together hundreds of times. The bay was muscular and healthy-looking—just a simple farm horse. Without an ounce of attitude, he let Wade lead him into his stall. While Wade confirmed the horse was uninjured and set out a few forkfuls of hay, she got the rusty well pump to belch out clean water and filled up a trough.
The horse gratefully drank and drank. She grinned at the sight. The poor thing would be munching down that hay pretty quick too, she’d bet. Trauma had a way of making a horse ravenous.
Jenna peeled off her jacket and grimaced. Damn, she was soaked to the skin, her white button-down work shirt gone nearly transparent. Wade’s attention lingered on her, but when her eyes met his, he quickly looked away. She poured a little extra water over her wound, taking her turn to watch him as he moved around the horse with measured, practiced movements.
He was soaked too, and the way those jeans were clinging to him distracted her, drawing her eye to his rangy, muscular body.
She tore her eyes away and fiddled with her shirt, disgusted with herself for looking too long. Oh no, she would not ogle the man.
God, she’d run so far to put this part of her past behind her, but now in the space of a few minutes, it’d all come hurtling back. Wade, horses, bans, and the girl she used to be.
Rodeo was a world she was never supposed to know—a total twist of fate. The Wyoming Cavalcade was where she’d landed when she’d run away from her abusive home. It was one of the only places that would give her a work, after all, and it came with a place to sleep. That job had saved her life, really. It’d given her a reason to get up in the morning with a smile. The horses had needed her. Between the big shows and the cowboys coming in and out, stabling their horses, there was always something to do.
And do it she had. She’d worked there for six years, from the time she was sixteen to twenty-two. By then, she’d worked her way up to manager and had done nearly every job they had—ticketing, accounting, mucking, raking, you name it.
They’d never paid her much, but she’d been wild and free. She’d been free to get a little wild with the cowboys coming in and out of their barn too. Back then, she’d never wanted anything more—until the day she’d laid eyes on Wade Deckers. There had been something about this bigger-than-life bull rider that had called to her. Wild to wild, like to like. Their relationship had been intense, combustible. When he’d asked her to go on the circuit with him, she’d happily accepted. The man had made her his rodeo princess, after all. Their year together had seemed like one big party, a ride-or-die adventure, until it all had gone so wrong…
Jenna closed her eyes for a moment, willing the memories back into their corners. After all, she still hadn’t figured out how this man had managed to come crashing back into her life, had she?
She nodded over to the horse. “What’s his name?”
She snorted. “What? No Diablo? No Renegade?”
He raised an eyebrow at that. “What? It’s the name he came with. You got a problem with it?”
She shrugged. “Of course not. But it’s not exactly the kind of horse I’d expect Dice Deckers to buy. Not wild enough.”
“Nobody calls me Dice. Not anymore.” He met her gaze full on, purposefully, like a dare.
And she saw why. He was showing her the scars from his accident. She’d wondered how long it would take him to get his courage up and face the light. Word of his accident had been big news in the rodeo world, high drama filling the pages of every major publication and news feed. She’d read all about it, of course. His fifteen-year run of incredible luck had ended with a gore to the hip and a hoof to the face. He’d nearly died. Now the right side of his face was mapped with thick, white lines, probably from an extensive reconstruction. His face was probably the least of his scarring.
The Most Reckless Man in Rodeo.
Yeah, she could see why no one would call him by that old nickname anymore. And it wasn’t because of the disfiguring scars on his face, or the hitch in his step when he walked, either. It wasn’t even the fact that he’d retired from the ring for good. No, something else was at play, something deeper than that.
Wade hadn’t lost that direct, forthright way about him. But when he locked eyes with her, she couldn’t even find a glimmer of the gorgeous golden boy he used to be. The wildman who’d mastered the world’s most dangerous bulls was long gone. It was like all that crazy, go-for-broke confidence had burned away in the red-hot heat of fame. Now she couldn’t name what was left there. Regret? Vulnerability?
Jenna wasn’t sure how she felt about the little ping of sadness that gave her. But she was done trying to fill in those blanks. Wade owed her some answers. “Okay, mystery man,” she called out, hands on hips. “You want to tell me why you’re out on my road in the pitch dark? Because it only goes to the apple orchard, which is corporate now, or to the Pierce place next door. And old Mrs. Pierce is dead.”
He smirked. “You’ve answered your own question. Mrs. Pierce was my great aunt. I used to spend summers up here as a kid, and I loved it. Remember how I’d go on and on about retiring to the Carolina mountains? Well, that was here. Great Aunt P never had kids of her own, as you probably know. So, when she died it-”
“It went to you.” Jenna squeezed her eyes shut, and her heart practically rolled over in her chest. “Jesus, Wade, you’re my new neighbor.”
Well—that’s fucking ironic, isn’t it?
Wade would’ve laughed out loud if he had it in him. Because this? This was friggin’ nuts.
All those years he’d spent looking for Jenna, only to find her right next door. The big man upstairs must really enjoy a bad joke.
There were so many things he wanted to say to her. But somehow, all he could manage was, “Neighbors. Yeah, it looks like it.”
It was bad enough that he’d wrecked his truck and put his horse in danger. Now his broken-down ass was standing here in front of Jenna.
Jenna Coleman. Of all people.
And just like that, ten years of his life seemed to melt away. He stood here, all fidgety and tongue-tied, falling into her amber-brown eyes again. He was trembling, and probably not from the cold. Was she happy to see him? Or did she hate him still?
From the stubborn set of her jaw right now, he was putting his bets on “can’t stand the sight of me.” And who could blame her?
The last time he’d seen her, he’d been drunk. He’d said some pretty stupid shit, too. The next day, he’d woken up to the mother of all hangovers and everybody talking about the big public scene he’d made, accusing her of cheating on him. He’d been wrong—dead wrong. All he’d wanted was to find her, throw himself at her feet, and beg her forgiveness. But it was already too late. She’d disappeared into the rangeland fog like she’d never existed.
She’d left him. And he’d deserved nothing less.
Now here she was, somehow more beautiful than she’d ever been. Her sun-streaked hair had faded to warm brown with blond tips, and her leggy, coltish figure had matured to lean, womanly curves all too visible in her soggy clothes. Yeah, he felt Jenna—felt her deep in his bones. Always had. But this tough, restrained woman in front of him was nothing like the rowdy, up-for-anything girl he used to know.
Jesus Christ, this had to be some kind of cosmic, sadistic torture, that he’d finally find her now, after he’d become a banged-up shadow of himself.
“So, what are you going to do?” she asked him.
She toed the ground with her boot. “What are you going to do with the farm?”
“Don’t know yet,” he answered, stepping closer to her. “There’s not enough land for cattle. I might grow alpacas. Or Christmas trees. Or put in tiny houses for rental. I could do anything, really. I haven’t worked it all out yet.” He reached for her battered shoulder, but her eyes got wide and she flinched away. Skittish, not that he could blame her. “I-I was only trying to take a look,” he rushed to say. “It’s in a funny spot you can’t reach. You should let me tend that for you. Do you—” He hesitated for a moment. “Do you have anything to treat this back at your house?”
She blinked up at him, chewing her lip as if weighing whether she wanted him invading her space. But finally she nodded. “I can’t reach it, so—yeah, I guess I could use the help.”
He let out a breath as relief rolled through him. At least she trusted him for that much.
Together, they bedded Scout down for the night and walked to the cottage she called home now, all painted white and covered with spokes and spindles on its porch.
When she opened the door, he whistled. “Wow, your house is incredible,” he told her. The place was a far cry from the trailers and hotel rooms they used to share. The little four-square cottage was tiny, probably an old caretaker’s cottage, judging by her position between the two neighboring farms. Always one to do more with less, Jenna had decorated it up perfect, with pickled pine walls, a kitchen the color of a robin’s egg, and cheerful old quilts thrown over white couches. With tall, lace-covered windows and well-worn knotty pine hardwood, the place was sophisticated in its modest way. Welcoming and bright, just like her. She hadn’t lost that.
“Thanks. I’ve worked hard on it.” Jenna paused, crossing her arms and rubbing at them a a bit nervously. “I—uh. I suppose I should get cleaned up. You know, so you can get a better look at my shoulder. Help yourself to anything in the fridge, or use the sink if you want to wash up.”
He nodded and gave her a little lame wave as the bathroom door snicked shut.
He rubbed at his chest, feeling like there was a stone lodged in there. Yeah, he’d fucked up with her, and time hadn’t made it any better. Now he didn’t have a clue what to say or how to act.
Wade scrubbed his hands over his face and groaned. Wasn’t this just the story of his life?
He’d been reckless with her, just like he’d been reckless with everything. He was Dice fuckin’ Deckers, strutting around like consequences weren’t for the likes of him.
Funny. Now his life was consequences central.
Looking back on it, losing Jenna had been the first of many, many setbacks and failures. Oh, he’d kept up appearances. He’d still dominated the circuit on pure adrenalin alone. He’d tried to move on with a string of different women, too. But after years of trying to fill the void, it took him lying in a hospital bed to realize that the void was in him. He was the void.
He’d built a life he hated, one where he’d become a star mainly to appease his father, his main sponsor. Wade had been terrible at school, and even more terrible at working in administration in the family ranching operation. But by God, having a son who was tearing up the arena was quite the feather in the cap for his Dad, a man who was known far and wide as one of the nation’s biggest beef producers. And after his career-ending injury, Dad had been furious when Wade had refused to go back to Wyoming and back into the family business.
But his great Aunt Louise had left him her farm for a reason. Somehow, the woman had known he’d need this escape hatch someday. So, yeah, he was takin’ it. He was dead set and determined to make Sirensong his home now. The fact that Jenna was here? Well, it was too soon to say it was fate, or serendipity, or whatever. But it was definitely the mother of all bonuses in his book.
Man, the squeak of her bathtub faucet and the sound of hot, splashing water…just the thought of her being naked on the other side of that door was exactly the punishment he deserved.
Could he fix things with her?
Wade ambled around, giving the place a cursory look. He didn’t see any signs of a man in her life: no boots under the bed, no photos, no ring on her finger. It surprised him, honestly. Jenna was gorgeous—like, spin-you-around-on-the-sidewalk beautiful. And though she’d never pressured him at the time, he’d caught her once or twice talking about having a farm of her own and building a family—a big, happy one, with lots of kids running around.
But ten years later, she hadn’t done any of those things. He wondered why.
Desperate for a distraction, he pulled out some firewood and got her wood-burning stove going. After all that sleet, she had to be as cold as he was. She’d probably be glad for a hot drink. A quick scan of the kitchen, and he found the coffeemaker and a little basket full of autumn spice coffee packets. He grinned. Definitely fancier than the greasy grog he usually drank, but he started it brewing anyway.
Catching a glimpse of his filthy clothes, Wade muttered a curse. He’d not taken off his caked-up boots when he’d come in, and now he was tracking chunks of mud everywhere. He hopped out of his shoes and socks, swept up the mess, and took Jenna up on her offer to use the sink, rinsing off the mud on his jeans, shirt, and Henley. He’d gotten his pants back on but was still at the sink, barefoot and shirtless, when Jenna padded back into the room, dabbing at her long, looping curls with a towel.
The sight of her shouldn’t have felt so big and overpowering. But it was.
Jenna didn’t have a drop of makeup on. And the clothes she wore weren’t designed to impress—just a simple pair of thin, black yoga pants and a lavender tank top with wispy spaghetti straps. She was every inch the Jenna he remembered, and yet, these last ten years had changed her. Her long, lean muscles were a bit more honed, and her complexion was creamy now without her wind-stung paddock tan.
She was flinty, yeah. But she was confident too, centered in a quiet, self-assured way she hadn’t been before. He couldn’t stop smiling as he thought about that. Her thirties looked good on her.
And damn, he couldn’t take his eyes off her. How many times had he seen her like this—all fresh and glowing from a bath? Dozens? Maybe a hundred?
And yet, he’d never really seen her, had he? He’d never understood the gift it was.
There was a time she would’ve come out of that bathroom and taken him in her arms with so much trust and love. But now she gave him a wary look, reminding him of everything he’d lost. And that made him feel…well, it made him feel like shit, to be honest.
She raised an eyebrow at his shirtless state but didn’t say a word as she padded into the kitchen. “Thanks for starting the fire,” she nodded. Jenna regarded his chest, his face, and his fucking scary goring scar with her customary frankness. He’d never forgotten how those big, brown eyes of her could pin him to the spot. Man, they were mesmerizing, velvety dark and soulful, with a hooded, sleepy look he’d always found incredibly sexy. But the moment didn’t last. She pointed to the mug on the counter and grinned. “Is that for me?”
“Yeah,” he murmured, sounding like some breathless moron. He cleared his throat as he poured them both a cup. “Cream and sugar in this, right?”
“No.” She took it from his hand. “I take my coffee straight up these days.”
He nodded and motioned her over to the table so he could get a better look at her shoulder. He sifted through the first aid kit she’d handed him and laid out the supplies. When he stepped up to the table, disinfectant in hand, she’d settled into the chair and had pulled her hair to the side so he could see the cut. The sight of it made him sick with remorse—a livid, purple bruise with a bloody gouge that bisected it, tracing her delicate shoulder blade. Not bad enough for stitches, but bad enough.
And it was all his fault. His. Even if she’d insisted on helping.
If he hadn’t gone to buy that horse today, if he hadn’t stopped at so many supply stores, he wouldn’t have been out at that ridiculous hour. She’d be by the fire, alone. Safe.
Slowly, he began the work of cleaning and bandaging the wound, glad he could do that much for her, at least. And with a little effort, he was able to get the conversation going.
He wanted to know everything about her life here in Sirensong and, thankfully, she was in the mood to tell him.
She told him about the diner, filling him in about how she’d gotten a job with the woman everyone in town knew as “Apple Adeline” and how Addie had become like a mother to her. Jenna talked about Addie willing her the cottage, and the work she’d put into renovating it. She talked too about how she’d negotiated to buy the diner from Addie’s nieces and nephews, since the woman had never married or had kids. Jenna said she’d paid them off in five years—five years ahead of schedule.
Impressive. But he couldn’t say he was surprised. Nobody worked as hard as Jenna or was as careful with money. She was far more focused and level-headed than him. He’d always admired that about her.
Wade moved to the chair opposite hers, soaking up every detail like the parched earth soaked up rain.
When it came to his life and his world, he didn’t have all that much to tell her. No, his story was an open book, splashed on every tabloid with headlines like “Rodeo’s Wildest Ride Comes to an End.” But finding out how she’d done, after all these years? It meant the world to him. He was happy for her. Proud, even if she decided she’d never speak to him again.
He nodded at her and smiled. “Looks like you’ve built a good life for yourself without me.”
She stopped, cocked her head at him, and furrowed her brow. “Without you? What— Does it bother you that I’ve done so well?”
“Bother me? Of course not! I just wish it hadn’t ended like it did. I never wanted that for you, Jenna, to have to start all over again and strugg—”
“Stop it, Wade.” She held up her hand, color rising to her cheeks. “As I recall, you were the one who ended it, not me.”
“And I was wrong, Jenna. I found out the truth soon enough. I woke up, and you were gone. And there was no way for me to make it right or get you back or…I’d just blown it. And then you were out there, all alone.”
She gave him a stony look. “I’ve been alone all my life. I’m pretty good at it by now.”
Not quite able to stop himself, he caressed her satiny cheek. “And whose fault is that? Mine.”
Jenna stilled. He hoped she saw the regret on his face. The sorrow. Maybe even the need. But she pushed herself up to her feet and stomped off to the sink with the mugs. “You give yourself too much credit, Wade. You think I’ve been here, pining away for you all these years? While you’ve been doing God-knows-what with God-knows-who, I’ve been here building something real. For myself. For my future. I don’t need you, or anyone.”
But he didn’t listen to her. He followed her. “And I don’t see why you would.” Deciding to take a chance, he stepped up in front of her as she turned from the sink. “But what if I’m the one who needs you?”
He cupped her face in his hand again. God, she had the softest skin. Always had. He looked deep into her stormy brown eyes and found she was doing the same, searching him for an answer.
“Wade,” she breathed. “What is this?”
“This is me, wanting to make things up to you. It wasn’t right. How things ended. They never should’ve ended, Jenna.”
She shrugged out from underneath his grasp and stepped away from him. “But they did. God, isn’t this just like you, thinking you can come crashing in here and have everything your way. I’m not some stupid twenty-two-year-old anymore, Wade. And apologies, and trust? They don’t work like that.”
“I know.” He shrugged, not willing to let it lay. “You have my apology, Jenna. I’ll do the work to get that trust back. Whatever it takes.”
She shrugged out of his grasp with a bitter laugh. “Work? What would you know about working at a relationship? You had a career, and I followed you around. I was at your beck and call, twenty-four hours a day. Like some kind of pathetic little puppy. When you treated me like trash and threw me away, I shouldn’t have been surprised.”
He made a strangled sound.
Jenna wanted to roll her eyes at that. Theatrical much, Wade?
But the look on his face was so pained, she realized he was having a hard time getting his words out. It-it caught her off guard. Pain wasn’t something the legendary Wade Deckers ever showed.
He grabbed her shoulders and made her face him. “Is that what you thought? Is that really—” He squinted his eyes shut and shook his head. “The only trash in that whole awful mess was me, Jenna. Not you, me. I was the one who was drinking myself blind every night and getting up on a bull the next morning.”
Indignation spiked through her, though she’d told herself she wouldn’t let him get to her. She let out a disgusted squawk. “Ah, so there it is. I was wondering how long it would take before you trotted out the booze-made-me-do-it excuse.”
“I haven’t had a drink in a year, Jenna. I’ve got an AA coin to show it, and it’s a start. But the alcohol? It didn’t have that much to do with why I freaked out on you back then. I’d heard…I’d heard the other guys talkin’ about you, okay? They were swappin’ these lurid stories about being with you and putting their hands on you. And—I just couldn’t handle it. Because Jenna, you were my one good thing. The one thing in my whole crappy, scary life that made sense. And I thought for sure they were takin’ you away from me.”
What—was she supposed to be moved by that? She ground her teeth, surprised the old anger was so easily accessed, right under the surface. “Dammit, Wade! You didn’t listen to me! I told you that wild night had happened two years before we’d met. But my word meant nothing to you.”
“I didn’t know what I was doing. Hell, I never knew what I was doing back then. But I’m a different man now.”
Jenna snorted at that and shook her head at the man. That’s a likely story…
“You don’t believe me?” He hung his head as he nodded at her. “I suppose I should’ve expected that.”
If he was waiting for that hangdog expression of his to get her sympathy, he’d be waiting until hell froze over. “Oh, I’m supposed to believe you now?” she sneered. “Well, you know what, Dice? Different is as different does. And the way I see it, you’ve elbowed your way back into my life, spewing excuses and trouble. So you wanna tell me how that’s any different?”
Wade stood there, blinking at her like he had nothing to say for himself. The color had got up a little in his ruddy skin, and his bare, hairy chest was rising and falling fast. His eyes looked a little watery too. That was new. It made her breath catch, and she found herself cocking her head at him in wonder. She’d never seen this look on his face before. So intense, so emotional. So broken down, maybe.
Hey, the man could cry her a river, but she wasn’t planning on letting Wade back in now. Not when she’d fought so hard to get to this point of not needing anyone, or anything.
She drew a shaky breath. It’d been so long since she’d had a man standing in front of her like this, it was a shock to her system. Jenna realized they’d moved closer and closer to together while they’d been arguing, and her hand was on his bare chest. She supposed she’d put it there to push him back, but now she couldn’t manage to move it, any more than she could stop her legs from shaking. Because he felt good under her hand, strong and steady, and he smelled like horse and autumn leaves.
“I am different,” she heard him say, in a voice that sounded so small and quiet, it was nothing like the “Dice” she knew. Maybe losing his career and facing death changed him in ways she could never understand. Maybe he really was a better man, now that he was “just Wade.” But that was a pipe dream, wasn’t it?
“I won’t believe it until you’ve proved it,” she told him.
He raised his head. “You want me to prove it.”
She kicked up her chin, refusing to break eye contact. “That’s right.”
He considered her for a long moment and swallowed hard. “Okay, then.”
And then he—he curled his fingers around the back of her neck, and he kissed her.
She hadn’t expected that. But she didn’t exactly want to stop him, either. Because this? This was nothing like the fast, hungry kisses she remembered. And the shock of that left her rooted to the spot. Because this kiss was slow. Searching. Sensual. A tease of his surprisingly soft mouth against hers, warm and perfect.
And for just this one, weak moment, she gave herself permission to experience it fully, like the sun on your face after a long, cold night. She couldn’t do a thing but lean into that sensation, and lean into his arms as he slipped them around her waist. She slid her arms around his neck before she could stop herself. Wade curled his fingers in the hem of her shirt, and the rasp of his calloused hands sizzled through her whole body.
This was how it happened.
This was why.
She’d been ready to follow this man to the ends of the earth, once. And now, he came in here with kisses so aching, so tender, they almost broke her heart, all over again. And she-she wanted more…
But slowly, her brain managed to send her a message.
He’s still the man who hurt you.
It was a small voice, but just loud enough to get through over the din of her raging hormones.
She managed to wedge her arms between them and give him a gentle push. “Wade,” she groaned. “I-I just can’t do this. You know I can’t.”
His eyes widened a bit, but he nodded, chastened and absently wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. “Yeah…I get it. I’m sorry,” he told her, pausing as he looked around at his feet, his dirty shoes, his coat—anywhere but her eyes. “You know, it’s pretty late. I guess I’d better walk up to my place before it gets much later.”
He started to shrug his flannel shirt back on and grab his hat.
She sighed. “Wade, wait. You can’t go up there in the middle of a rainstorm.”
“It’s better if I do,” he told her as he started searching for his shoes. “I’ve already strained your hospitality enough for one night. I can come back and get Scout in the morning.”
Jenna reminded him that his place was a good half mile up a muddy mountain road. And that road usually wasn’t passable after a big rain, at least for a few hours. He wasn’t getting up there on foot or by car for a little bit.
“Wait here,” she told him, as she dashed off to her bedroom. She came back out with a pillow and a spare comforter. When she handed them to him, a lopsided, self-deprecating grin curled across this face.
She patted the arm of her couch. “This little loveseat makes a pretty good bed, believe it or not. It pulls out. There’s a tab you have to pull, underneath the cushions. It’s comfortable, I promise, and will be as good a place as any to ride out the storm.”
He held the blankets to his chest, and gave her a look so earnest, it pinged her stupid heart again. “Thank you, Jenna, for everything tonight. It was more than I expected. And more than I deserved. But then, you’ve always given me that, haven’t you?”
She rolled her eyes, but secretly, she wondered if that little statement was more than just an obvious play. Either way, she wouldn’t be getting the answer to that tonight, or anytime soon. “Good night, Wade,” she told him.
He nodded at her in that way of his that made him look like he was tipping an imaginary hat. “Sleep tight,” he simply said.
Her steps were light and purposeful as she walked into her bedroom and snicked the door shut. Jenna leaned her back against it, the heavy, hundred-year-old walnut door not doing a thing to keep out the thoughts crashing around in her head.
Wade Deckers is here.
In her house.
On her pull-out bed.
By now, he’d probably gotten himself settled and had popped out of his jeans—a thought that tugged at the edges of her thoughts. She stood in the dark, letting out a quiet, breathy chuckle in the still of her room. Jesus, this is insane. In another day and time, there was no way she would’ve left that much hot cowboy all alone on the sofa.
But Wade wasn’t just another cowboy. And this was now, not then. Legs still trembling a bit from that kiss, she resolutely walked over to her dresser, fished out her favorite ratty nightshirt, and slid under the covers. Alone.
Her head hit the pillow, and her bone-tired body took over. Sleep came easily, in spite of the coffee.
When she blinked against the bright morning light and rolled over to look at her bedside clock, she was surprised to see it was eleven a.m. Somehow, her body must’ve known this was her one day off a week.
Is Wade still here? Why didn’t he wake me?
She shuffled out to the living room in her fuzzy pink robe and looked around. The couch was rolled back up and the bedding neatly folded on top of it. Wade was long gone.
Hands on hips, she stood there in the living room, swallowing down a strange, lingering sense of disappointment. It was stupid and irrational, of course. What did she expect—him standing in the kitchen making pancakes? History had taught her not to expect more, after all, and she’d learned her lesson well.
Deciding to distract herself with errands, she headed back to her bedroom, got herself cleaned up and dressed in her favorite jeans and sweatshirt, and tied her hair up in a braid. No muss, no fuss, no drama. Just another ordinary day.
She toasted a bagel for the road. Absently, she reached for the peg where she’d hung her torn jacket, thinking she’d take it somewhere for mending today. But she’d found a man’s denim jacket there, instead. A note was attached.
Until I can buy you a new one—Wade
Before she’d thought better of it, Jenna slipped on the jacket. She grinned at how enormous it was, and how the arms flopped over her hands. Its scent cut a direct path to her memories, carrying the clean smell of Wade’s sweat and hay. She had the sudden, irrational urge to curl herself up in it and wear it all day. But she quickly put it back up on its peg.
It was a nice try on his part, but it wouldn’t do for her to be walking around in his jacket. They weren’t a thing, after all, and in a small town like Sirensong, people would wonder.
As Jenna walked out and locked up, she noticed that the horse, the trailer, and the truck had been towed away while she’d slept, and a load of new gravel had been carefully raked into the road where he’d slid off.
Jenna was still grinning as she hopped in her truck. Well, okay then. She revved the engine, and the windshield wipers started wiping. The new windshield wipers, which were tied with another note.
Stay safe out there. I hope to share this road with you for a long time—Wade
She didn’t know what he was up to.
But she had a feeling she was gonna find out.
For more second-chance romance with Jenna and Wade, stay tuned! Sirensong Falls will release in 2022! Sign up for my newsletter at lizajonathan.com, and stay up to date on all my new releases, get special deals and free book promos, and more!