True Romance, June 2005
“Stacy! Come on, sleepyhead, it’s time to get up.”
I snuggled deeper inside the warmth and comfort of sweet sleep, trying to escape the intrusion and hold on to the lovely dream that was already fading. But the intruder was annoyingly persistent.
“Stacy Marie, if you don’t get up right now, I’m going to dump a bucket of ice-cold water on you.” It was Daddy with his routine wakeup call.
“Go away,” I grumbled and rolled over, pulling the covers over my head. I heard the scoot-scoot-scoot of Daddy’s slippers against the wood floor as he crossed the room towards the window. He pulled back the curtains and lifted the window, letting the early morning sounds and smells drift in on a cool, light breeze.
“Get up, pumpkin. You’ve got a wedding to get to,” he said.
I have never been a morning person. Still, his words woke me better than any bucket of ice water—real or threatened—ever had. It was, after all, an important day. It was my wedding day.
Struggling to sit up, I yawned a response. “I’m up.”
“The night before I married your momma I didn’t sleep a wink,” Daddy said. “Leave it to my little night owl to get in 40 winks, regardless.”
“If it were left to me, we’d be having this wedding at night so I could sleep late,” I grumbled sleepily, and let my head fall back onto the pillow.
Ignoring my complaint, Daddy continued along his own train of thought. “Your momma and I have waited a long time for this day.”
Hearing a little catch in his voice, I turned over onto my back and forced myself to sit up. I scanned his face for a sign of what was going on inside his head, his heart, but I saw nothing but a wistful smile.
“Are you that eager to get rid of me?” I teased, yawning behind my hand.
“No, of course not. It’s just that you’ve had enough sadness in your life this past year to last a lifetime. I’m glad that you’re finally getting a chance at some happiness. Kenny’s a fine boy from a good family. He’s decent and honest. He worships the ground you walk on and adores Ellie like she was his own. Unlike that no-good Tallen, who wouldn’t know how to be responsible even if someone gave him a picture-book of instructions.”
“Oh, please, Daddy,” I interrupted, “let’s not start with that again. . .not today.”
He sat down on the edge of the bed and, for the first time since he walked in, his sage green eyes met mine.
“You’re right,” he said, patting my leg. “This is a day for looking ahead, not behind.” A sly smile touched the corners of his mouth. “Are you going to be ashamed if your old man cries while giving you away today?” he asked, his voice thick with emotion despite the smile. My throat suddenly felt tight and tears tickled my nose.
“I don’t want you to give me away, Daddy. I might want to come back,” I said and hugged him.
“Anytime, pumpkin,” he said, giving me a strong bear hug in return. He stood without looking me in the face and headed for the door. With a hand on the doorknob he added, “Now get your butt out of bed and into the shower. If I have to come in here again, I’ll have that bucket of water with me.”
“I love you, too, Daddy.”
He pointed his finger at me and closed the door after him.
Ignoring his threat, I snuggled back down under the covers and lay there, looking around the room that had been mine since I was born. The color of the walls had changed through the years, as had the rugs, bedspread, curtains, decorations, and the type of clutter sprawled on the floor. However, despite all the changes, it had remained my sanctuary. It was going to be strange not waking up in this bed, in this room, in this house every morning. And it would be even stranger waking up every morning next to Kenny, a husband I didn’t love.
Kenneth Grayson, my friend since childhood, was freely offering the commitment of love and marriage—even though he knew my feelings for him weren’t as strong—and I was taking it all for Ellie’s sake. I wanted to give my daughter the chance to grow up with a father who could take care of her. Of all the eligible men in this town, I believed Kenny was the one who could give her—give us— what we needed.
There had been Graysons in our town since the day it was founded. They were old money and the backbone of the community. They always had the biggest house, the best clothes, the newest cars, and plenty of money to satisfy whatever desire sprouted from their minds and hearts. Kenneth Grayson, the only son of Waylan and Dina Grayson, was considered the best catch in town, one my parents had always wanted me to angle for. But, for me, it had been Rafe Tallen since I was five years old.
I think it was my mother’s fault. She had been the one who had invited him to my birthday party because he and his family were new to town and had moved into a house just down the road from us. Though she gets incensed when I mention it, Mother was the one who brought us together, because Rafe’s life became entwined with mine from that day on. He had been my best friend, my first crush, my first love, my first and only lover, and the father of my child. And now. . .well, now he was nothing more than a part of my history. My mind knew it, but my heart and my body still refused to accept it. Just thinking about Rafe set my heart racing and a sweet wave of desire pulsing through me. I ran my hand lightly up the insides of my thighs, and a ripple of goose bumps rose in the wake of my touch. I felt my nipples stiffen, yearning for a lover’s touch. For Rafe’s touch.
Hating where my mind—and hand—was wandering, I flung back the covers, dragged myself from bed, and shuffled over to the window. As I stared out at the brightening dawn, I tried to force myself to think of my upcoming nuptials with excitement, but what kept pushing forward were my memories of Rafe—our childhood friendship; our early stirrings of infatuation; the strengthening bond of love that grew between us; the eager, burning intimacy that had seared us together forever; and the agony I felt when he had left town, without a word, a little more than a year ago. I hadn’t even heard from him when our daughter, Ellie, was born six months ago.
“Where are you this morning, Rafe?” I asked the question softly, not expecting an answer but still feeling a loss when one didn’t come. I sighed again and padded off toward the bathroom.
I started the shower, and then brushed my hair in front of the mirror.
“I’m getting married today, and I’m going to leave you behind, Rafe Tallen,” I whispered to my reflection. “I’ll learn to love my husband and forget all about you.” Seeing the bold-faced lie shining on my face, I turned away, slipped the gown from my body, and climbed into the shower, determined to let the hard spray of the water pummel away thoughts of Rafe.
But as the soap bubbles spiraled down the drain, thoughts of Rafe stayed behind and joined the misty steam swirling around my body. I was still thinking about him as I rinsed the last bubbles from my hair, and when, from behind me, an arm curled around my waist and pulled me back firmly, flesh against flesh. The scream that began deep inside me never made it free; a hand sealed it inside my mouth.
“Don’t move a muscle, lady, this ain’t no pickle I got in my hand.”
That voice. When I heard that voice whispering low and seductively, laced with lowbrow humor, I didn’t need to see the face. I knew exactly who was behind this. Struggling to keep my footing in the slippery shower, I spun around to face him, residual fear causing my breath to come in gasps.
“Darn you, Rafe!” I said and punched him in the chest with both fists. Laughing, he easily deflected the blows. “You scared me! What are you doing here?”
“I knew you’d be surprised, Stace, but I thought you’d be a little happier to see me, especially since I brought you this fine wedding present,” he said, looking downward at his naked body.
My mind barely processed the realization that he knew about the wedding before it moved on to other things, such as following his lead and taking a peek at his “present.” As my eyes traveled the long line of him, I saw a body that had become even more built in the year he had been gone. It was obvious that he’d been engaged in some very physically demanding activities—well-toned muscles defined his arms, chest, stomach, and legs and all traces of the teenager were gone. Standing before me was the body of a virile man, wearing nothing but a lazy smile, which grew larger as he watched me watch him.
He reached out and pulled me into his arms, our slick, wet bodies smacking as they came together. He pressed his body into mine.
“Mmmm. It’s been a long time since we shared a shower.” He tried to kiss me but I moved my face so his lips only grazed my cheek. “You were a bit friendlier last time,” he added.
“Let me go, Rafe.” I shoved at his chest, but he held tight. “I want you out of here. . .right now,” I said.
“And I want you here—right now,” he said with a sensuous grin on his face. He was completely ignoring my struggles and protest, and instead he was leisurely reacquainting himself with my body. The familiar touch of knowing hands sliding over my wet arms, back, and buttocks sent warm, sparkling shivers up and down my body.
“Rafe, stop it.”
“Is that what you really want, Stace?” he whispered as he kissed my wet skin, “You want me to stop?” He pressed his body intimately against mine, urging me to snuggle deeper into the hot core of need he was building around us in that steam-filled cubicle.
I had not made love since Rafe had left—I had asked Kenny to wait until we married—and my woman’s body was more than ready to end the fast. My desire urged me to close my eyes and let my senses luxuriate in the pure ecstasy of the moment, but the rational centers of my being cried halt . . . and won. No amount of long-denied passion could cloud the remembrance of how much Rafe had hurt me.
“Of course it’s what I want!” I said, again pushing at his chest. “Did you think you could just come back and I’d just fall into your arms? Well, you were wrong. Things have changed.”
“Not everything. I still love you, Stacy Corbett,” he said, “and I came back to claim what’s mine.” To punctuate the bold proclamation, he dipped his head and claimed my lips. After a stunned second, I jerked out of his embrace and pushed him away before he could react.
“What do you mean ‘claim what’s yours?’” I demanded. “Just who do you think you’re claiming?” For one terrified moment, I thought he meant our daughter. I thought that perhaps he’d come to take her from me. But his answer settled my mind.
“You. I won’t let another man have you,” he said, staring into my eyes as he spoke each word. He reached out his hand to touch my face, but I swatted it away.
“You’re too late,” I said, and shoved open the shower door. I climbed out and reached for a towel, muttering a nasty word when my hand encountered the empty towel rack. Rafe shut off the water and climbed out behind me. He snatched up the nightgown I had discarded. Why hadn’t I thought of that? Then, he slowly and deliberately dried all of his magnificent body parts with the scrap of silky material, watching me for a reaction.
“That’s mine, thank you very much,” I snarled, and grabbed the gown. Still holding one end of it, he jerked it toward him, pulling me into his arms.
“I remember when you used to share everything with me, Stace. Kenny must be a bad influence on you,” he said.
At the mention of Kenny’s name, I released my hold on the gown as if it had been on fire and backed away from Rafe. I was hours away from getting married, and here I was with my ex-lover, naked, in a steamy bathroom, trying not to let the desire I still felt for him break free of its feeble chains. I couldn’t breath. I couldn’t think. I wanted distance. I needed some distance between us—and some layers of clothing.
I scurried into my bedroom to find something to put on and tripped on the pile of clothes Rafe had left near the foot of my bed. He strolled into the room as I was pulling my biggest, longest T-shirt over my head and stretching it down to cover my rear. Rafe, however, stood in the middle of the room, proud in his nakedness.
“Put your clothes on, for goodness’ sake,” I said, picking up his clothes and throwing them at him. He made no move to catch them, but let them fall at his feet with a muted thump.
“You know, my Daddy is bound to walk in at any time to make sure I’m up,” I warned. “If you value your life, you’ll leave now while you still can.”
“We haven’t finished our conversation,” he said.
“I have nothing to say to you.” I grabbed another T-shirt from the drawer and wrapped it turban-style around my wet hair.
“Well, I have a few things to say to you.”
“You’re wasting your breath.”
“It’s mine to waste.”
“Rafe, I don’t want you here, and I don’t want my parents to find you here. My Daddy has sworn to shoot you on sight.”
While I talked, I rummaged through the dresser for a pair of panties. Finding none, I cursed myself for putting off washing clothes and began digging into my half-packed suitcase to find clothes I had bought for my honeymoon. As I slipped on a blush-colored thong, I vowed to take my mom’s advice and kick my bad habit of procrastinating—first thing tomorrow.
“Consider me warned,” he said. “I’m not leaving till you hear what I have to say.”
His face was stone-like, his eyes sharp and piercing. It was a look I had seen often enough to know that it would be a waste of breath and time to argue against him.
“Ok, fine.” I threw my hands up in exasperation. “You go on and make your little speech, for all the good it’ll do. But make it quick. I’ve got a lot to do today.” I began making the bed, more because I needed something to do other than look at his body and not because I was a neatness freak. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him pick up his underwear—short, tight, maroon cotton boxers—and pull them on. When had he started wearing underwear? And why did they have to look so good on him, hugging all the right spots? Don’t look, don’t look.
“I know all about the day you had planned,” he said, stuffing his legs into faded jeans. “You can forget it,” he pulled the pants up over his hips, leaving the fly undone, “your plans have changed. You’re not going to get married.”
I paused in mid-yank, releasing the sheet in my fist. “Oh, yes, I am!”
“No, you’re not.”
“Yes, I. . .ohhh! Listen you. . .I am going to be at that wedding—my wedding—today. If you’ve got a problem with it, you might as well get over it right now.”
“And I told you that I’ve come back to claim what’s mine, so there’s no need for that farce.” He struck a determined pose, with arms loosely crossed over his bare chest and his legs slightly spread, a wall of finality about him that would have pissed me off had he not looked so good.
I forgot all about the bed. “I’m not yours anymore, Rafe. I’ve had enough of you and your lunacy. If you won’t leave, I will. I can’t stand the sight of you. If you’ve got a whit of sense you won’t be here when I come back, because I’ll have my Daddy—and his gun—by my side.” I headed for the door, but he blocked my way and grabbed the knob, not letting me near it.
“Get out of the way, Rafe.”
“No! You’re going to listen to me,” he said, his face in mine.
“I don’t want to hear anything you have to say; you said it all when you left.” I pried his hand out off the knob and tried to open the door. Before I could turn the knob, he grabbed me around the waist, lifted me over his shoulder cave-man style, and dumped me onto the half-made bed. He climbed on top of me, grabbed my hands, and trapped them above my head.
“Get off,” I demanded, twisting and bucking beneath him, but he was bigger than I, and stronger.
“I wanted to do this the easy way, but I’m just as willing to do it the hard way if you don’t listen,” he said.
“No! I don’t—” The rest of my sentence was swallowed by his mouth on mine. “Leave me—” I tossed my head back and forth, trying to dodge his mouth, but he captured my lips again and again.
Realizing that more struggles would only get me more of the same, I lay still and quiet. He raised his head and his eyes locked onto mine, hypnotizing me with their brilliance. As we lay there, I could feel our bodies melding into each other. We were breathing each other’s breaths, our hearts sharing the same rhythm, our eyes locked together and it was as if time just stopped. There was no sound or movement. We were the only two beings in the world.
“Will you listen?” He spoke quietly, and his breath was a bit ragged, as if he were trying to bring it under control. “Please,” he whispered.
“Yes,” I assured him, and was surprised to hear that my breath matched his own. “If you get off me.”
“No, darlin’, I’ll stay right where I am.” His slow, easy movements on top of me were stirring all-too familiar sensations within my body. I fought to focus on his words and not on those movements and sensations. “When we’ve finished talking, I want to know that you’ve heard my every word,” he continued. “There’ll be no misunderstandings between us, Stacy.”
“There are no misunderstandings between us now, Rafe. I think we both know that I hate you and that you’re nothing but a son-of-a—”
“Stacy, you can listen or you can kiss. Which will it be?” He grinned at my immediate silence. “I was hoping you’d choose the other option.”
“Dream on,” I muttered.
“It’s funny you should mention dreams. I’ve been dreaming a long time about what I would say to you when I saw you again. Now that I’m here, believe it or not, the thing I want to say most is that I forgive you, and—”
My mind zigzagged with confusion. What was he talking about? How dare he! I hadn’t done anything that needed forgiving!
“You forgive me?” I interrupted. “You forgive me?”
He nodded. “Yeah. I know it’s hard to believe, but it doesn’t matter what went on with you and Kenny, or even why it happened, because I love—”
There was loud rapping at the door interrupted his sentence.
“Pumpkin, are you out of the shower?” It was Daddy.
Rafe and I gawked at each other.
“Pumpkin, it’s already seven o’clock. You’d better not have gone back to sleep.” He knocked again, louder this time.
“Get up, get up,” I said frantically, pushing at him. But Rafe wasn’t moving.
“Don’t worry,” he whispered, “I locked the door before I joined you in the shower. Just tell him you’re up, and he’ll go away.”
“Stacy Marie, you sleepyhead, you should have been down to breakfast by now. If you don’t get moving, you’re going to miss your wedding. You’d better be dressed because I’m coming in there.”
“Daddy, I’m up.” I squealed the words out as the door swung open and Daddy entered the room. Rafe scrambled off me and zipped his jeans, and I jumped up, too, but not before Daddy had gotten the wrong but obvious impression about what was going on in my bed. Then, everybody was yelling at once.
“Tallen! Stacy, what is that son-of-a—”
“Just calm down, Clay, we were just—”
“I know what you were doing, you—”
My father is not a violent man, but when Rafe left me, and left me pregnant to boot, it was a good thing that he also left the state. If he’d been nearby, Daddy would have hauled him out of his house, beaten him to a pulp, tarred and feathered him, and then dragged him out of town, all in the name of love and honor for his daughter.
I stood between them, my back to Rafe and my arms outstretched toward my Daddy. This was no more effective than using a sieve to stop the mightyMississippifrom flowing, but I had to try. I couldn’t stand to see the two men I loved most in this world fight each other.
“Rafe, please go now,” I said over my shoulder, not daring to take my eyes off Daddy.
Rafe shook his head. “I’m not leaving. I want this cleared up.” Rafe’s noble reply didn’t lessen my father’s hostility one bit.
“Let me tell you, you better run, you horny, no-good piece of rooster crap, or I’ll blow your balls off like I should’ve done years ago.”
“Where’s my shotgun? I’m going to blow that—” A thick string of colorful metaphors trailed behind him like the tail of a kite as Daddy raced down the hall in search of his gun. I quickly shut and bolted the door.
I punched Rafe in the arm. “So you locked the door, huh?” He started to speak, but I shook my head and raised my hand to stop him. “No, don’t explain, just get out of here before someone gets hurt. I don’t think he’ll kill you, but he might severely damage parts of you. Go.”
While I spoke, I grabbed up Rafe’s shirt, socks, and shoes and shoved them into his chest. I pulled him by the arm, trying to lead him to the open window.
“We’ll have to finish our little talk later,” I said.
“When? After the honeymoon? I don’t think so,” he said, throwing down the bundle. “I’m not leaving until you hear what I have to say.”
“Darn your stubbornness, Rafe Tallen.” I picked up the bundle again. “Can’t you see that this isn’t the time for talk?”
“Open this door!” Daddy was back, working the doorknob to get in.
“No, Daddy, not if you’ve got that gun.”
“I’ve got a gun, alright, and I know how to use it. Get back, gal!” he roared, and with a sudden boom, the door splintered at the lock as a bullet collided with it.
“Oh Rafe, please leave before it’s too late,” I begged, pulling him toward the window. He started through and I shoved his clothes at him again. This time he took them.
“I’ll go, Stacy, but you’re coming with me.”
“What? No, I—”
Rafe tossed his clothes out the window and then pushed me out after. Behind us, the gun blasted the door again. I could grab hold of the tree and climb down or I could fall down. With hands, knees, and toes scraping against the rough tree bark, I somehow made it to the ground without breaking anything but skin. Following close behind me, Rafe dropped to the ground a second after I did.
Holding his clothes under one arm, he grabbed my hand and pulled me along. When I resisted, he heaved me onto his shoulder and ran the short distance to his truck, which he had parked out of sight under a nearby grouping of cottonwood trees. My T-shirt turban fell off and landed in the grass; his shirt and one sock followed the lead a second later, landing a few feet from my shirt.
Reaching the truck, Rafe tossed his shoes and the one sock through the window, pulled open the driver’s side door, and tried to get me inside. I struggled, refusing to cooperate, so he picked me up and tossed me into the truck bed with as much care as he’d give a bale of hay. Then, he jumped into the cab, slammed the door, and cranked the engine. As I bounced down on my rear, I saw Daddy at my window, leaning out, pointing his gun our direction.
“Help me, Daddy,” I yelled, jumping up as fast as I could, but Rafe already had the truck roaring down the road, which sent me sprawling and banging into the side of the truck bed.
I crawled to the back window and pounded on it, yelling at Rafe, cursing him in every language I knew, but my ravings were carried away on the wind. Realizing defeat, I slumped against the front of the truck bed and stared out into the dust cloud that was billowing up behind us, uncaring that the wind was whipping my wet, stringy hair up and across my face.
I prayed for a glimpse of Daddy’s truck in pursuit, but I didn’t see any familiar vehicles on the road. I didn’t know where we were going, but I had a feeling that whatever the destination, it was going to mean the end of life as I knew it.
After we had put some distance between my house and the truck, Rafe pulled us off the road and got out.
“Whoa, what a ride,” he said with a grin that told me he was having fun. “But then it’s always a fun ride with you, Stacy darlin’.”
My hand itched to slap his face, but I knew that that was exactly what he expected me to do, so I restrained my desire. I didn’t smile, I didn’t move, I didn’t even look at him. I sat stock still, my arms folded across my chest, my eyes straight ahead, my mouth puckered into a determined pout.
He stretched out his hands to me, offering to help me out of the truck bed. “Come ride inside the truck with me awhile.”
“Don’t tell me you like it back here.”
Did I like it? Foul-smelling stains in various shades of brown; a prickly layer of hay, feed, and burrs; greasy tools clanging against a rusted tool box; several dozen empty beer and soda cans bouncing into my feet, and at least a quarter inch of some unidentified liquid substance coating the truck bed. It smelled. It was cold. It was wet. It was gross! And my insides were thoroughly scrambled. I hated riding in the back, and his smile told me that he knew it. But I wasn’t about to admit it. I determinedly maintained my silence.
“Darlin’ you’re only making it harder for yourself by being so stubborn.”
Even after all this time, he still knew where my buttons were.
“I’m making it hard? Me? I’m—” I exploded, unable to hold my silence any longer. “You know, you’re really something. You break into my room, scare me in my shower, push me out of a window, throw me into the back of this disgusting truck, and race down the road like you’re in the Daytona 500 with no care for my safety. You kidnap me on my wedding day and you have the nerve to say that I’m making it hard on myself. I wish I had my Daddy’s gun right now so I could show you just how hard I could make it for you!”
He was completely unaffected by my outburst. “Stace, it’s starting to rain and your knee is bleeding. C’mon, get in the truck. I’ll warm you up.”
“You can kiss it, Rafe Tallen!” My knee had been fine until he mentioned it. Now, it felt like a battalion of bees was attacking it with fresh stingers. Also, I was freezing. But I wasn’t about to admit any of it to him. “And I don’t care if there is a monsoon, I’d just as soon drown back here than sit next to you up there.” That wasn’t true at all, of course, but I was too furious with him to be honest. I wanted to make him as mad as he had made me. But it wasn’t working.
“Suit yourself,” he said with a shrug and a grin, and then he climbed back into the truck and slammed the door. He cranked the engine, peeled out, and hit the pavement doing at least sixty. At least that’s what it felt like from where I sat, with the tools clanging into my bare feet and the strange liquid splashing all around my half-naked body.
I spoke of a monsoon and that’s just what I got. The light sprinkle quickly became a heavy downpour. Cold, fat, buckets of water pelted me. The thin T-shirt I wore absorbed what it could—which was next to nothing—and the rest channeled underneath to my skin, where it ran down my body in rivulets. At least my wounded knee was getting a good cleaning.
It rained hard for about half an hour, and then it slowed to a drizzle, which turned off and on at leisure. Careful to avoid the scraped knee, I tucked myself into a tight ball and tried to increase my body temperature with thoughts of warm things. It was no use. There was only one cure for this type of bone-penetrating cold, and that was heat in the form of lots of snugly blankets, a roaring fire, and a hot drink. But I was unlikely to get any one of them back here.
Curled inside myself as I was, I had paid no attention to how long or in which direction we’d been traveling. It seemed as if we had been driving for hours. I kept wishing that the truck would stop moving just for a moment. Then, as if wishing it had made it come true, the truck rolled to a stop. My aching body still felt as if it were riding the bumps, dips, and holes in the roads we had encountered along the way here. Where?
The rain had stopped and the sun was peeking out from behind the clouds. Clenching the side of the truck with wet palms, I raised myself up on my good knee to look around. What I saw brought warmth to my soul. Before me was one of the most beautiful sights ever. The nearly square clearing exploded with the brilliant colors of freshly washed wildflowers. Trees, some pungently green and others just beginning to don golden autumn colors, surrounded the clearing in a natural fence. In the back half of the perfect painter’s palette, under a grouping of leafy trees, sat a modest, two-story log cabin. And, several feet from the house was a corral and a small barn.
I knew this place. It was the home that Rafe and I had talked about, dreamed about, together. Many a night we had laid out under the star-studded heavens, wishing on those bright pinpoints of light for a pretty little piece of land with a house big enough for us and the two kids we’d have. Our dream house had a barn and a corral just big enough for three or four horses. Before me was that dream come true.
Rafe settled himself against the side of the truck next to me, a proud smile on his face. He watched my reaction. I breathed deeply, pulling the clean scent and taste of the crisp air into my nostrils and lungs. I couldn’t stop a smile from stretching across my face. I raised my hand to my mouth to hide it from him, but he knew.
Rafe’s smile broadened. “I knew you’d like it.”
“I didn’t say I liked it,” I snapped at him.
“So, you don’t like it?” he asked.
“What I don’t like is being brought here against my will.”
“We have to talk; this is the only place we could be alone without getting shot at.”
While he talked, my eyes scanned the scene before me. “Since when did you hang with the kind of people who could afford a place like this?” I questioned.
“It’s mine,” he answered.
“Yeah, right,” I scoffed.
“Why is it so hard for you to believe that this is mine?”
“For one, you don’t have this kind of money.”
“How do you know that? Are you just assuming that because I’ve never had much money that this couldn’t possibly be mine?”
“Hmmm.” I nodded my head and smirked at him as I ticked the traits off on my fingers one by one. “Lack of money, lack of responsibility, lack of maturity, lack of commitment. . .I could go on and on but I’d run out of fingers and breath. I’ll think about believing you when you open the door to that house with an actual key.” My intentional hatefulness was merely a self-defense mechanism; I had to feed my anger or my guard would slip, making me vulnerable to him.
“So now I’m a liar, a thief, and a bum? You used to have more faith in me,” he said, visibly disappointed in my lack of trust.
“I used to be in love with you, and love was obviously blind.”
“And now you’re in love with Kenny?” he asked.
Knowing I would be speaking a lie made me hesitate for a split second before answering.
“Yeah, right. I’ll never believe that. He’s not your type, Stace. If you marry him you’ll be bored and having an affair within a month.”
“You don’t know me at all, Rafe. And you’ve changed so much that I don’t know you anymore either.”
“You’re right I’ve changed, and if it’s for the worse, you get credit for that.”
“How is it my fault that you’ve become such a horrible person?”
He stopped whatever retort he had wanted to throw at me, paused, shook his head, and sighed. “Let’s just get on up to the house,” he said finally, and reached up to help me out of the truck. “You’re soaking wet,” he exclaimed as his hands went around my waist.
“I can do it,” I said, swatting his hands away. “I was back here communing with mother nature while you were all warm and dry up front.” I swung one leg over the truck bed.
“I don’t feel a bit sorry for you,” he shot back as he reached up again to help me out of the truck.
“I said I can do it myself.” I swung the other leg over and slid off the truck.
As I landed on the ground, my cold, bare foot stepped on a sharp rock, causing me to stumble and fall into his arms. A shock ran through me as our bodies collided. We were face-to-face, bodies pressed together. His lips were inches from mine and our eyes connected. Though I righted myself and broke contact immediately, I felt my nipples get hard. Rafe smiled and raised his eyes to look at my face. I quickly turned away from him and crossed my arms over my chest.
“Are you cold, Stace, or just really happy to see me,” he teased in a low, sensuous tone.
“Freezing, thanks to you,” I said.
He laughed and reached into the truck, grabbing his jean jacket off the seat. He wrapped it around my shoulders, and as he pulled it closed across my breasts, his knuckles brushed against me ever so softly. I couldn’t stop the sharp intake of breath or the warm liquid shiver that rushed through my core. It’s just the cold, I told myself. Still grinning at me, he opened the door to the passenger side of the truck and patted the seat to indicate that I should get in.
“Cold, huh?” He gave a little chuckle. “Well, I tried to get you to come sit with me, but that stubborn streak of yours ruled out over clear thinking—as usual.”
“You think that I am stubborn? Let me tell you. . .I have every right to—”
I forced myself to focus my energy on arguing so I could keep my mind off the touch of his fingers against my breast, the feel of his bare chest against my palms, and the hardness hiding behind the front of his jeans where our bodies had collided. Arguing about who was most stubborn was safe. Talking about my nipples was dangerous.
“Let’s get in before it really starts coming down,” Rafe said as we pulled up in front of the house. His guiding hand at my lower back, we ran up the curved, stone path to the porch. The front door was a wide, massive plank that looked like it could withstand attacks from burglars, wild animals, or even irate fathers and husbands-to-be wielding guns. Rafe unlocked it with a key.
One step inside and I felt it. There was a warmth, a coziness, to the cabin that said, “Stacy, you are home. Welcome.” If it weren’t for the situation that had brought me here, I could have curled up and enjoyed it. But now, I was here because I had been kidnapped by the man who deserted me. I would not forget it, and I wouldn’t let him forget it either.
The door closed and securely locked behind us. Rafe left me standing on the tiled entryway and went to grab us some towels to dry off with. His absence gave me the chance to look for a phone so I could call my Daddy to come get me.
I was standing in a roomy living area that had a large flat-rock fireplace. The room had that lived-in look, from the sunset-toned couch stretched out in front of the fireplace to the dog-eared Grisham novel lying atop a small lamp table at the far end of the couch. Two over-stuffed chairs, one a dark coffee brown and the other a frothy hot chocolate with streaks of whipped cream color, flanked the couch. They weren’t stylish, but they looked comfy and inviting. A couple of magazines and some newspapers were on the long coffee table that took its place in front of the couch. But there was no phone.
A kitchen/dining room combo veered to the right. Weak sunlight streamed in through the huge kitchen window, painting the room and the four-chair light oak dining set with a pale glow. I could imagine it bathed in golden yellow sunlight. The area, though small, was equipped with the standard modern conveniences. But there was no phone.
Off to the other side, a rather steep flight of stairs pointed the way to a loft that overlooked the living area. Straight ahead, where Rafe had disappeared, I could see down a short hallway that must lead to the bedroom and, hopefully, a bathroom. Didn’t he believe in phones?
I was tired. Despite Rafe’s jean jacket around me, I was also achingly aware of the damp and cold that had saturated my bones. But, I was wet and didn’t want to drip on the carpet and furniture, so I stayed by the door, hugging my body for warmth and trying to control the shivering.
Rafe came back into the room wearing maroon sweats and a navy blue T-shirt. He tossed a towel my way and then strolled into the living room. He knelt by the fireplace, struck a match, and touched the burning head to the wood that was already laid out in the grate. The mere sound of the flames crackling to life, sucking in deep breaths of oxygen, sent shivers racing up and down my spine. The goose bumps were back in force, a whole battalion standing at attention all over my body.
“Don’t just stand there shivering. Come get warm by the fire,” Rafe insisted.
“I’m wet,” I said through chattering teeth.
“All the more reason to come over here.”
“A little water’s not going to hurt anything. Just get over here.”
At my silent refusal, he smiled. “Okay, I know another way to warm you up that’s a lot more fun,” he said as he began to move toward me. Because I needed to limit the amount of physical contact with him, I realized I would have to give in on this one.
“Fine!” He stopped his approach but continued to watch me carefully as I dried my face and legs and squeezed the excess water from my hair with the towel. When I was sure that my every footstep wouldn’t leave a puddle behind, I headed for the living room. I had only taken a few steps forward when the fire hooked me with its warm fingers and curled them around my icy body. It reeled me in until I was standing before it, thawing within its warm grasp. It was all I could do to hold in a happy sigh.
“You’re not going to get warm and dry that way. Take off your clothes.”
“Forget it!” I said. “I’m just sure my husband-to-be wouldn’t understand the logic in sitting around naked as a way to get warm.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Rafe said with a grin, his dancing eyes reminding me that he did understand the logic of it and would be most willing to explain it to me.
My mind marched right in step with his, and I lowered my eyes to the fire to hide the feelings I was sure he could read. I waited for him to pin me to the board for close examination, but when it didn’t come, I raised my eyes slightly to check his mood. He was pulling off his shirt.
“What are you doing?” I demanded.
“Getting naked so I can warm you up, of course,” he said, pulling the shirt the rest of the way off.
My eyes flew wide open and I shot backward until I felt the rock-solidness of the wall at my back stopping my retreat. “Wh—what? Rafe, I’m not. . .we’re not—”
He chuckled softly. “Oh, relax, princess. My pants are too big for you, so I’m giving you my shirt to wear.” I caught the T-shirt he tossed at me. “And there’s a blanket over there if you want it,” he said, using his chin to point to the far corner of the couch.
“Thanks, but I’ll just stay in my own clothes. I’m fine by the fire,” I said, throwing the shirt back to him.
He caught it. “What? Why?”
“There’s something wrong with wearing another man’s clothes just hours before my wedding.”
“Old Kenny Boy is not going to want you to risk getting pneumonia or hypothermia from wearing wet clothes, am I right?” At my silence he added, “Oh, I get it, he doesn’t trust you.”
“Of course he trusts me,” I said quickly. In reality, Kenny had become increasingly jealous in the months after Ellie’s birth. I cringed at the thought of what he would do if he walked in on us.
“Surely he’d see the sense in wearing warm, dry clothes, even if they are mine, until your own clothes get dry,” he said, jabbing at the fire with a long poker.
“I don’t know—”
“I can’t believe this,” he muttered. “He’s really got you on a short leash.”
“He does not! And, this isn’t even about Kenny.”
“You’re right. It’s about you. You’re cold and soaking wet. The smart thing to do is to get into some dry clothes. But, what are you worrying about? That you don’t have your boyfriend’s approval.” He shook his head. “If you ask me, this trust problem between you two makes it pretty obvious that neither of you has any business getting married—to each other, anyway.”
“Well, I didn’t ask you, and if you’re going to make such a big deal out of this, just give me the stupid shirt,” I said.
I grabbed the shirt from his hand and moved in front of the fireplace. When I realized that he was watching me, I stopped my movements.
“Turn your back,” I insisted.
“You’re kidding, right?” he said, shooting me a look that made it clear that he thought I was being completely ridiculous.
“I’m serious. Turn around,” I demanded.
“I’ve seen you naked before,” he insisted.
“It’s different now. We’re not. . .you know.”
“We were just “together” in the shower. We were very naked, if you remember.”
“Against my will, if you remember. Now, turn around.”
He sighed heavily but shook his head, jabbed the poker back into its stand, and complied with my request. I quickly shucked off his jacket, peeled off my wet T-shirt and panties, and laid them out near the fire to dry. Shivering the entire time, I dried myself with the towel.
“You done?” He turned around.
I grasped the towel to my chest. “Rafe! No! Turn around!”
After an eyeful, he slowly turned around again. I quickly slipped on his shirt and wrapped the towel around my head before he could pull another little trick. Then, I grabbed the blanket and wrapped it around me. It was large enough to cover my entire body, for which I was eternally grateful. There wasn’t a part of me that wasn’t cold, despite the dry shirt and the roaring fire.
“Are you done?” he asked again.
“Yes,” I said. He turned around.
“Now isn’t that better?” he asked in an I-told-you-so tone.
“A little,” I acquiesced.
“Something hot to drink ought to fix you up. Something like a mug of hot whiskey, lemon juice, and honey,” he suggested, knowing that it was my favorite hot drink.
My first instinct was to slash his offer and throw it in his face, but the chills rose up to remind me that, for the moment, I was here and couldn’t do a thing about it. Freezing to death wouldn’t do me any good. So, I accepted in a less-than-gracious tone even though the anticipation of the drink was sending a sensation of liquid fire through my veins.
“Whatever,” I scoffed.
“Oh. Sorry, darlin’,” he said, snapping his fingers and shaking his head, “but that just wouldn’t be a good idea.” At my dejected, confused look, he continued. “I’m just sure your fiancé wouldn’t like you sitting around naked and drinking, especially with me. Especially considering how you get when you drink.”
I opened my mouth in challenge, but before I could say anything, he continued.
“Oh, yeah. But, you’re not marrying him, so it doesn’t matter what he does or doesn’t like.” He walked into the kitchen and began preparing the drinks.
“Rafe. I am marrying Kenny. If not today, then tomorrow or the next day,” I said, watching him pour whiskey and squeeze lemon juice into two thick white mugs. “It’s going to happen whether you like it or not, no matter what you do,” I insisted as he popped them into the microwave and punched the time buttons. “You can’t keep me trapped in this cabin forever. You’ve got to take me home sometime. And when we get back, I’m going to marry Kenny. So you just might as well accept it.”
“You’re not marrying him, so you might as well accept it.” He tossed the used lemon into the trash, put away the whiskey, and took out a spoon and honey and set them on the counter.
I stomped my feet and shuffled as fast as the blanket would allow over to him. “Why do you keep saying that?”
“Because it’s true. If you marry anyone, it’s going to be me.” The microwave beeped and he removed the mugs and took them to the counter.
“Hah! You are crazy. I wouldn’t marry you even if—” He stirred three globs of honey into the hot liquid. “More honey,” I directed before continuing, “I wouldn’t marry you even if—”
“Let me guess. . .even if I was the only man left on earth.” He stirred in the extra heaping of honey and handed me the mug, a grin on his face.
“Something like that, though I would have put a little more creative insult into it.” I took my first sip of the steaming nectar and felt its glow spread all through my body like sweet butter on hot biscuits. My insides sighed a loud and luxurious Ahhhhhh!
“Oh, and what would you have said?” He walked past me, plopped down on the couch, and propped his feet on the coffee table. He drank from his mug, his eyes on me the whole time.
I took more sips as I shuffled after him. The shivers had lessened. “I would have said—” another sip reduced the goose bumps “. . .that I wouldn’t marry you even if it would mean the difference between a long, satisfying life and instant death.”
I had readied myself to receive a piercing insult equal to the one I had flung, but the arrow didn’t come. Instead, Rafe paused a long moment and just looked at me. When he finally spoke, his voice was calm and sad.
“You used to tell me that I was the man you wanted to spend the rest of your life with. You said that we shared a love nobody could break. What happened to that, Stacy?”
At his words, my heart did a nosedive to the bottom on my stomach. “It died when you left, Rafe.” I took a big gulp of the sweet liquid in my mug, chasing away the last lingering vestiges of chill.
“Are you saying that your love for me is dead?” he asked.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” I answered. I downed the last of my drink hoping he hadn’t detected the pause and the quaver in my voice.
“Then what were those kisses about this morning and all those ‘I want you’ looks you were giving me?” he asked. “I know you wanted to make love. In fact, if your Daddy hadn’t charged in, you would have. So don’t try to deny it. . .this is me you’re talking to. I know you. You’re still in love with me or you wouldn’t have let me touch you.” He took a gulp of his drink.
I slammed down my empty mug on the coffee table. “Hah! For your information, those were all ‘go to hell’ looks I was giving you. And you were holding me down while you were kissing me. I couldn’t get away, or believe me I would have. I felt nothing but sick to my stomach when you touched me.”
“Oh, is that so,” he questioned, quietly setting his mug next to mine.
“Yes, it is so,” I answered.
Before I could react, he pulled me onto his lap and into his arms. “I don’t believe you, Stacy,” he whispered. “Convince me.” Then he kissed me. I forced myself to remain unresponsive.
“See? Nothing,” I said in my best I-told-you-so tone. I tried to get up.
He pulled me back down, making the towel unwrap itself from my head and fall to the floor. My hair tumbled down around my shoulders. He reached up and tangled his fingers in its heavy, wet mass.
“I wasn’t finished,” he murmured against my lips before he captured them again.
His lips moved seductively against mine, teasing, pressing, sucking, delivering full-mouth kisses that had always made resisting him impossible. He cradled me in his arms and the hand in my hair cupped my head to fit my mouth better with his. I tried to be stoic and unresponsive, but my body betrayed me. It had always responded to Rafe, and out of habit, a long celibacy, and a cup of whiskey. I responded.
My arms went up around his neck to pull him closer. My body yielded to his touch as it always had, opening like a flower spreads itself to more fully capture the warming touch of the morning sun. Small moans slipped from my throat, thanking him for the pleasure his hands and lips were bringing me and encouraging him to do oh so much more. Then, it all came to a screeching halt. With his point proven, Rafe pulled back, leaving me with an out-of-control need burning inside.
“Yeah, you still love me,” he said, tossing me an I-told-you-so smile that made me want to slap that luscious mouth right off his face, “so don’t even try to deny it.”
I rolled off his lap and faced him. “I do deny it. I don’t love you. I never even think about you. When you left, it was out of sight, out of mind.”
“You never were a good liar.”
“Unlike you? Only, I’m not lying,” I growled, the angry blaze in my eyes a complete opposite to the cheery, frolicking flame dancing in the fireplace before me. “I’m so sick of you, of this rat hole. Take me home!”
“Sorry, darlin’, I can’t do that. Like I’ve been trying to do all morning, we’ve got to discuss what happened between us.”
“I know what happened. I don’t need to hear any more of your lies. You are a despicable, deceitful, vile creature, so don’t even speak to me unless it’s to say we’re going home!”
He jumped up, too, and squared off with me. “Ever since I got back, I’ve had to dodge your insults, defend myself, my actions, and my words, when you’re the one who should be explaining yourself and begging for my forgiveness.”
“What?” I sputtered, outrage making it almost impossible for me to speak. “You want me to beg for your forgiveness? You’re crazy! If anyone should be begging for forgiveness, it’s you! I didn’t do anything. You’re the one who—”
“You call cheating on me nothing?”
“Cheating? What are you talking about?”
“You and me, Stacy. I’m talking about you and me. One day we’re together, closer than two people our age probably have a right to be, then I leave for a few months—”
“A few? Try twelve, Rafe. A full year. You were gone a whole year.”
“. . .and you get yourself engaged to another guy.” He was pacing now. “And not just any guy, my ex-best friend. And you think you’ve been wronged? How long did you wait after I left to run to him? A couple of hours? Did you sleep with him that same night?”
His accusations stabbed into a place deep inside me that was still healing from the wounds he’d inflicted a year ago. I cried out in pain. “I died when you left!” I screamed, “and I never—” He gripped my shoulders with both hands to silence me. His eyes were angry but glazed with the sheen of unshed tears. I saw the emotions raging a battle within him.
“Do you know how that made me feel, Stacy? Can you even imagine? You were, no you are, everything to me. You’re the only person I’ve ever loved with all my heart and my soul. I believed you when you said you felt the same way about me. I gave up a year of my life for you and you do this to me? It tore my guts out knowing that you and Kenny were going out. Then, I heard that you were engaged. You didn’t even have the decency to tell me yourself. I had to hear about it from your mother. I can still hear the pure joy in her voice when she ‘shared the wonderful news’ with me.”
My heart cringed at the pain I heard in his cracking voice, and my voice, when I spoke, held the same pain and struggle to control the tears.
“You left me, Rafe. You left me. Without so much as a goodbye, an explanation, or a kiss. How do you think that made me feel? I cried for months after you left. I didn’t know where you were, if you were coming back, why you left, or what I had done to make you leave. I wanted to die!”
The simple act of remembering allowed the feelings of that time to rush back in vivid clarity. I remembered the emptiness, the pain, the devastation, and constant depression that controlled my life for months. Tears fell freely down my cheeks. I ached to release my grief in loud, agonizing sobs but I held back because once started, I wasn’t sure I could stop.
Rafe had regained his composure a bit and had a look of disbelief and confusion on his face.
“I told you in my letter where I was and that I’d be back.”
I took a deep breath, sniffed, and wiped my eyes with the edge of the blanket. “What letter? What are you talking about?”
“The letter.” At my blank stare, he continued. “The letter I wrote explaining why I was leaving. The one I left for you.”
“There was no letter, Rafe. There were no notes, no calls, no nothing.”
“The heck there wasn’t,” he insisted. “The night I left, I wrote you a three-page letter. I wanted to tell you everything in person, but you had already left for your aunt’s funeral and I had to leave that morning. So I wrote the letter and told Kenny to give it to you when you got home.”
In the past, I had always been able to tell when Rafe was lying—his eyes widened ever so slightly, his tongue flicked out to wet the lower left corner of his bottom lip, and he touched his chin. None of these telltale cues were happening now, so unless his lying skills had greatly improved in the year he had been away, his words were sincere. But that didn’t change the facts.
“Let me make this perfectly clear, Rafe. I never got any word from you, not right before you left nor the entire time you were gone. Nothing.”
Rafe was still for a few seconds, disbelief stunting his speech momentarily. Then he exploded. “Double-crossing son-of-a—!” he hissed through his teeth and slammed his fist into the rock wall of the fireplace.
“Your fiancé, of course.”
“Oh, don’t try to blame any of this on Kenny, Rafe. He has nothing to do with this.”
“Oh, yeah? It’s his fault you never got the letter. He kept it from you.”
“Oh, c’mon. Why would he do that?”
“Why? Because he wanted you for himself, that’s why.”
“No, Kenny and I were just friends.”
He grabbed my hand, the one with the diamond-studded band on the ring finger, and held it up to my face. “Yeah, I see that.”
I pulled my hand away. “Kenny, of all people, knew how much you and I loved each other. He would never intentionally hurt us, even if he did have a thing for me.”
“Don’t you see, Stacy? He knew that the only way he could have a chance with you was if I were gone. So he arranged it. And I fell for it. I made it easy for him.”
I shook my head, not wanting to believe that Kenny could do something that devious, that mean, to us. . .to me.
“By not giving you the letter it made it look like I just up and deserted you. That’s why you’ve been acting like this. You believe I— Oh, man. With me out of the picture, Kenny could say anything he wanted; he knew you’d believe him.” Rafe dragged his fingers through his hair and growled like an angry, wounded animal.
“I still don’t understand how it was his idea for you to leave,” I said. “I mean, how could he have gotten you to leave if you didn’t want to?”
“Do you remember the last night we were together?”
“Only every minute of every day. What does that have to do with this?”
“Just answer me.”
“Of course, I remember. You and I double dated with Kenny and Teri Bartlett. We went dancing at Rowdy’s. Teri had too much to drink, got sick, so we took her home. Then you, Kenny, and I went to the river to hang out.”
“Yeah,” Rafe said and picked up where I left off. “You had to go home early because you were leaving for the funeral the next morning. We took you home and then you and I left Kenny waiting in the truck while we climbed into your room and—”
“. . .and made love for the last time,” I finished the sentence for him. Embarrassment bloomed pink streaks across my cheeks, but I refused to demurely drop my eyes from his. I had to see whether he was as affected by the memory as I was. One look at his face, and I knew that there were too many signs to deny it—narrowed eyes, parted lips, flushed face. Rafe was back in the moment with me. “I didn’t want you to leave. I even hid your clothes to keep you from going.”
“I wish I had never found them,” he said softly.
Our eyes met and held while we remembered our last night together. I was the first to look away. Staring into the passion-filled depths of his eyes was a dangerous thing to do—they were pulling me in, making it impossible for me to think clearly. So, I looked into the fire.
“And the point of this memory-lane stroll?”
“Do you know what happened after I left your room?”
“I never saw you again,” I said sarcastically and poked the fire with a long stick.
“Besides that, Stacy,” he said, a bit annoyed.
“Kenny told me you took him home and drove off.”
“Well, Kenny left out a lot. Do you want to hear the truth?”
Then, Rafe took me back in time to the night he left.
Rafe kissed me one last time, climbed out of my bedroom window, shimmied down the tree, and then hurried over to the truck where a furious Kenny was waiting. He climbed in behind the wheel.
“It’s about time, Rafe. How many times did you guys do it?” Kenny said, his voice thick with impatience, annoyance, and envy.
Rafe just smiled a big, satisfied smile that answered Kenny’s question without his ever having to say a word. Rafe started the engine.
“Let’s party hardy, Kenny boy! I’m in a good mood tonight!” he yelled as the truck spun out on the dirt and gravel road.
They drove to the home Rafe shared with his brother. Home was a beat-up, box of a trailer house parked on a small piece of land. The trailer and the land it sat on were the only two things of real value the Tallen boys hadn’t been forced to sell after their parents’ death five years earlier.
Rafe’s father had been drunk and racing his boat around in the dark on the lake. The boat ran headfirst into a pier and flipped, killing both parents. Rafe and Robert had been left on shore asleep in the tent. Robert, who was older by seven years, was given legal custody of the fifteen-year-old, Rafe.
Rafe and Kenny sat outside in the front yard on blue plastic milk crates Robert had “borrowed” from the local convenience store where he worked part time. They were taking turns swigging from a large, amber bottle of cheap beer. It wasn’t the good stuff, but it slurred their speech, made their movements clumsy, and filled their minds with sweet oblivion just the same.
“You know, Kenny, I gotta tell you, man, I love her. I love her so much I feel like I could do anything in the world.”
“I take it you’re talking about Stacy?”
Rafe closed his eyes, smiled, and nodded thoughtfully. “Yeah.”
“Old news, dude,” said Kenny, who took another big swig.
Rafe slowly opened his eyes to half-mast and looked at his long-time friend. “I’m going to ask her to marry me when she gets home.”
The bottle of beer fell from Kenny’s hand, its contents flowing out onto the ground between his feet. “Marriage?” he echoed, finally grabbing hold of the bottle before more of the amber liquid could spill out. “Oh, man. That’s major. Are you sure that’s such a good idea?” He wiped off the mouth of the bottle with his shirttail, and took another big swallow.
“I want her with me all the time—at night when I go to bed, in the morning when I wake up—just all the time. I go crazy when we’re apart. Yeah, I wanna marry her. I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
Kenny released a deep sigh. “Rafe, I’m going to tell you something that’s probably going to piss you off, but as your friend, I gotta say it. If you want to pop me in the mouth, then I guess I’ll worry about feeling it tomorrow.”
Rafe laughed and good-naturedly punched Kenny on the shoulder. “I’m not gonna pop you, man. What’s on that weird little mind of yours?”
“Marrying Stacy would be the worst thing in the world.”
“What? Why?” Rafe swung his head up to meet Kenny’s eyes. The movement made him dizzy.
“You love her, so you want what’s best for her, right?”
“Of course I do.”
Kenny stood up. “Rafe, nothing against you, man, but look around this place. Look—” he spread his arms clumsily wide. “Can you see Stacy living here with you and Robert?”
Rafe let his glazed eyes wander around and light on one abhorrence after the other—a dilapidated trailer and a yard landscaped with the junky cars that Robert was going to fix up “one day.” A dim light peering out from the dirty, small, slit of a window on the trailer caught Rafe’s red and blurred eyes. He hung his head and sighed deeply. He knew the view was no better inside. In fact, it was worse. He had tried over the years to keep it neat, but Robert’s piles—a jumble of clean and dirty clothes, a castle of old beer cans, a mountain of half-built plastic models of cars and airplanes, a nest of old car magazines and rags, and gobs of other stuff—were spreading out faster than Rafe could hold them back.
The liquor fogging his mind made it hard to concentrate, but he clearly couldn’t picture Stacy—beautiful Stacy—living here among all this ugliness. She was quality and class all the way down to her cotton-candy-pink polished toenails. She deserved better than this.
“You and her folks don’t get along, so there’s not much chance of you living there. The fact is, until you can afford to give her the kind of life she deserves, you shouldn’t be thinking about marrying her. She’s too…good to be put through all that.”
Rafe spoke in his own defense. “I’m working full-time at the shop now and going to college part-time. I’m saving money and—”
“That’s good, Rafe. But at the rate you’re going, it’ll take years for you to give her anything close to the comfortable life she has now. She won’t want to wait years for it, Rafe. She’ll want a husband to provide those things—a house, clothes, a car, a horse—you know how she is about that horse of hers. There’s lots of guys who can give it all to her right now and would jump at the chance.”
“I don’t care about them. She loves me. And she’s not gonna dump me for some rich guy just so she can have ‘things.’ She’s not like that.”
“No, she’s not like that now because she has everything she wants and needs coming from Mommy and Daddy, but how’s she gonna feel if she has to do without? Take it from me, a guy who knows what money can buy, eventually she’ll go with the guy who can give her what she needs, wants, and what she’s used to.” Kenny kept talking, adding fuel to the fire. “Do you want that to happen, Rafe? Do you want some other guy marrying her, making love to her, filling her stomach with babies?”
Rafe jumped up and punched Kenny, who fell to the ground. Rafe stood over him.
“Be quiet, Kenny, before I forget we’re friends and beat you for saying something like that! Stacy’s mine and I won’t let anybody have her. She loves me. She wouldn’t let money come between us.” Rafe cursed, fists punching holes in the night sky, and kicked his crate across the yard. He grabbed the beer, killed the last of it, and flung the empty bottle out into the darkness where it crashed against a tree.
Kenny kept quiet, letting Rafe vent. When he was through, Kenny got up, dusted himself off, and sat back down on his milk crate. Rafe stumbled over to pick up his own crate, set it across from Kenny, and plopped down. The two friends sat in silence for a moment.
“Hey, man, I’m sorry. You’re right,” Kenny said finally. “She obviously loves you.”
“Hell, I don’t know. Maybe…maybe you’re right,” Rafe said, his head in his hands between his legs. “Man, what can I do? I’ve gotta make some money – big money – and fast. At least enough to get a house. Then, the rest will come, somehow. I can’t lose her. I’d die without her.”
“You know, Rafe, my uncle’s in town this week and still bugging me about going to work with him in the oil fields inOklahoma. He said I could make some pretty good money if I stay with it a while. I’ve told him it’s just not for me, but if you’d like to, I’m sure he’d give you a try—”
“Oklahoma? But, I’d have to leave Stacy.” Rafe thought about it, his eyes searching the darkness for answers. Then, he turned to his friend. “Is your uncle still awake—”
Kenny’s uncle was more than happy to take on young, strong workers like Rafe and Robert provided they could leave with him early the next morning, which meant Rafe wouldn’t have time to tell me he was leaving before I got back from my aunt’s funeral. He said he wrote me a three-page letter that night, explaining that he had to go away for awhile, for our future, but that he would be back soon—a few months or so—and would I wait for him and marry him when he got back. He talked of his feelings for me, how much he loved me, and how badly he wanted a future for us. He promised to call and write every week. Supposedly, he gave the letter to Kenny who promised to give it to me when I got back into town. Rafe and his brother packed a few things and boarded a plane with Kenny’s uncle.
Only Rafe was gone far longer than a few months, and Kenny never gave me Rafe’s letter.
“And that’s what happened.” Rafe finished his tale.
We were both silent, still dazed over our discovery that Kenny, our childhood friend, had deceived us both.
“I still can’t believe that Kenny would do something like that,” I muttered, more to myself than to Rafe.
Rafe shook his head. “You can’t believe Kenny would lie to you, but you have no trouble believing that I’d desert you after everything we meant to each other?”
I hesitated, wanting to get the words to come out just right. “Rafe, you know how much I loved you. There had never been anyone else in my heart since the day I met you. It nearly crushed me when you left—with no word at all. I guess I understand why you didn’t tell me in person you were leaving—you couldn’t—but why didn’t you ever call me or write me after you left? If you love me as much as you say you do, you would have contacted me at least once during the time you were gone. But you didn’t. That’s the thing I can’t forget or forgive. It’s what convinced me that you didn’t really love me, what allowed me to. . .to move on with my life.”
“I know this is hard to swallow, but I did call and write,” Rafe said.
Yeah, it was hard to swallow—nearly impossible, in fact. I jumped up from the couch. “Yeah, sure, Rafe. And I never knew about it because. . .oh, let me guess. . .Kenny’s fault again? Let’s see, he just knew when you had sent a letter and he intercepted theU.S.mail and swiped all your letters. And the phone calls, well, I’m sure that was a bit trickier, but for someone with his dastardly talent for sabotage—”
“No, you listen! You know, you almost had me believing you. I wanted to believe you. But that last bit is too much. I could have bought it if you’d said you didn’t call or write because you realized you didn’t love me as much as you thought you did, or because you got scared about how serious we had become, or because you were too pissed off about Kenny and me—something believable.”
He got up and, grabbing my arms, he turned me towards him. “Oh, believe me, I was plenty pissed off about you and Kenny, but honest to God, I did try to reach you, Stacy. I wrote letters—plenty of them—but you never wrote back. I want to believe that your parents or Kenny intercepted them, but I don’t really know why you never answered them. And I did call you. Whenever I managed to get through, your mother always said you couldn’t talk or you weren’t home. The last time I called—I had been gone about six months—it was to tell you that I was coming home. Your Mom delighted in telling me that you couldn’t talk because you were out with Kenny on a date. I can still hear her voice telling me that the best thing I had ever done for you was to leave town because you were happier than you had ever been.” He shook his head. “I was so hurt and mad that I swore I never wanted to see you again. So, I extended my contract with Kenny’s uncle. I worked extra hours, extra days, and let the money just pile up in the bank. I dreamed of the day I could come back and flaunt my success and wealth in your faces. After a while, I realized that despite everything, I still loved you and knew I had to try to win you back. So I came home. That’s when I found out you two were getting married. Great timing, huh?”
“So, all this was about money? We lost a year of our lives together and it was about money? Rafe, we had this talk a long time ago. I thought I had made it clear that I didn’t fall in love with you for what “things” you could give me I told you that all I ever wanted was your love.”
“I know, but Kenny was right. You deserve the best and you deserve someone who can give it to you—or at least someone working side by side with you to get it together. I couldn’t do it a year ago, but I have a good start now. I have this house, money in the bank, and a future. I can be the man you deserve, Stacy, and I want the chance to prove it. Still, there’s something I have to know: If Kenny had given you my letter, if you had received my calls and my letters, and if you had known why I left, where I was, and that I was coming back for you, would it have made a difference in your decision to start seeing Kenny?”
“Rafe, if I had gotten your letter or heard from you even once in all the time you were gone, I would have waited for you. I would have gone with you if you had asked me to. I loved you so much. I never understood why you left me.”
He took my hands in his. “Do you believe me then about what happened—where I was, what I was doing, and why?”
I looked deeply into his eyes before answering. “Yes, I believe you.”
His head rolled back, his eyes closed and a smile of relief appeared on his handsome face. “Thank you,” he said, “you don’t know how glad I am to hear that.”
I fell into his embrace, and we stood holding each other, a comfortable silence enveloping us. It felt so good, so right, to be in his arms, our bodies already conforming to each other like a favorite old pair of jeans hugs the body’s curves. I was home, and it had been a long, tiring journey. His hands caressed my head and back gently. His lips dropped light kisses on my hair.
I lifted my head from his shoulder and looked at him. My lips, slightly parted, asking, begging, for the taste and feel of his kiss. He didn’t disappoint me. He claimed my lips with his, and I clung to him as if he were my only hope of survival in the middle of the ocean. He took his lips from mine just long enough to speak, his voice husky with desire.
“Stacy, I love you, and I want to be in your life again. Do you love and trust me enough to start over?”
I laughed softly at his stunned look. “I don’t want to start over. I want to pick up right where we left off before this whole mess started. Can you do that?”
“Yes, Rafe,” I whispered against his mouth before claiming his lips with mine. I wrapped my arms around his neck, letting the blanket fall down around our bare feet.
“I’ve thought of nothing but you for the past year. I hope this isn’t just another one of my dreams,” he whispered in my ear.
“If it is a dream, it’s the one I’ve had every night and day since you left,” I whispered back. “Make love to me, Rafe, before we both wake up.”
“First,” he looked at me, “tell me who you’re going to marry.”
“Nobody but you, Rafe Tallen. Nobody but you.”
“That’s all I need to hear,” he said.
He scooped me up in his arms and carried me down the hall to his bedroom. He lowered me to the bed and settled down on top of me. With the serenade of the rain pelting against the roof and the windowpanes, we spent the next couple of hours in passionate bliss, shutting out all but the joys of old pleasures and the thrills of new discoveries. Soon enough, though, the hard, cold reality of life slipped back into the forefront.
“I want to kill him,” Rafe said hours later as he fixed us both some hot tea. We had been discussing what to do about Kenny but hadn’t come up with a decisive plan.
“I’m more concerned about how to tell my parents,” I told him, watching him stir several spoonfuls of sugar into his tea. “You can imagine how they feel about you now, Rafe.”
He raised his eyebrows. “Your dad cleared up any lingering doubts this morning when his gun and I came in close physical contact with each other. You’re not worried about Kenny?”
“What do I have to be worried about? All I do is tell him I know how he deceived us and that I never want to have anything to do with him ever again.”
“Darlin’, I don’t think he’s just going to let you walk away.”
“He doesn’t have a choice.”
“Stacy, he’s crazy in love with you and was so close to marrying you. Think about it, if he went to all the trouble of getting me out of the picture and making you fall in love with him—”
“I was never in love with him.”
“Okay, to marry him then, you can bet he isn’t going to let you go now that he has you—not without a fight.”
“Then I’ve got to tell him in a place where he won’t want to cause a scene—like maybe the wedding ceremony.” I grinned. “Wouldn’t that be something to see? You and me walking down the aisle together toward him—”
He pulled me into his arms. “No, way. I don’t want you anywhere near that place.”
I laughed and kissed him on the mouth. “What could he do with everyone around? He’d be so furious that he’d just stand there, stone-faced and silent. You know how he is. Believe me, he’d be too humiliated to ever have anything to do with me again.”
Rafe shook his head. “There’s a side to Kenny that he doesn’t show often—a dark side. In all the years we were friends, I only saw it a handful of times, but let me tell you, it was vicious, almost evil. You know that old saying, ‘don’t get mad, get even?’ Well, I’m just sure Kenny was the one who started it.”
I grimaced. “I just don’t get it. I mean, what he did to us was selfish and hateful, but he was always good to me and—” I had almost let Ellie’s name slip out. I didn’t really know why I hadn’t told Rafe about his daughter yet. Ellie was a blessing, a precious gift. I guess I just didn’t want to bring her into this confusion until I had a better idea how it was going to play out. “…and my family,” I recovered. Luckily, Rafe didn’t seem to catch my slip.
We spent the rest of that day at the cabin, talking, making plans, and making love. Later that evening, we set out on the long road home to face the aftermath of today’s actions. Unfortunately, my parents had the cops there, and they seized upon Rafe like a pack of buzzards upon ripe road kill. Daddy had his shot at him first.
“You no-good loser. You just had to come back and ruin her life for the second time. I swear this’ll be the last time. If she has so much as a broken fingernail, so help me I’ll—”
“Shhhh—“ Momma stood behind him, reminding him to watch his language and his temper.
“. . .I’ll make sure you never touch another woman again.” He punched Rafe in the jaw and shouted to the sheriff, “Get that pile of garbage off my land.”
Despite my protest to his innocence, they handcuffed Rafe and took him away in a patrol car. I tried to go to him, to explain to the deputy what really happened, but my parents restrained me and pulled me, screaming all the way, into the house.
The house was full of people with pale, worried faces. Most were from the wedding party. I recognized some of Kenny’s family, my friend and maid of honor, Lucy, her boyfriend, Jacob, Reverend Barnhart, and others whose names escaped me at the time. Then, Kenny was rushing across the room toward me.
“Oh, Stacy, I’m so happy that you’re all right.” He wrapped his arms around me in a smothering clasp. From his red-rimmed eyes to pale face and shaky voice, I could tell he had spent more than a few hours worrying over me. I ignored the pinprick of guilt needling me in the heart. I didn’t care about his feelings. My anger was bubbling over thanks to the unfair treatment Rafe had been given. I shoved him away from me.
“Get your hands off me, Kenny. You make me sick.” He was obviously taken aback by my words, because he immediately dropped his hands from me and stepped back ever so slightly.
“Sweetheart,” Kenny began again, “let’s sit down somewhere alone and talk.”
“You bet I want to talk to you, but right here will do just fine. I want everyone to know what a weasel you are.”
All eyes in the room turned toward us.
“Estacia Marie!” Momma said, shocked by my outburst.
Kenny’s pale face took on a pinched, angry look, but he said nothing to me. Instead, he appealed to my parents in a controlled, hushed tone. “Mom, Dad, if you don’t mind, Stacy and I need to talk privately. Do you remember the influence Rafe had over her? It’s obvious that he’s been filling her head with his lies, trying to wedge his way back into her life.”
“Of course, how about Clay’s office?” Momma suggested and Daddy nodded his agreement. Kenny grasped me by the shoulders and forced me after Daddy, who led us into his office at the back of the house.
“Daddy, I’d like you to stay here and hear this,” I said.
My dad just looked at me with shame on his face. “No, Stacy,” he said, “you’re a grown woman and this is your business.” Shaking his head, he left me alone with my fiancé. It was only after I caught my reflection in the mirror on the door that I saw myself through his eyes and understood his shame and pain.
I still wore Rafe’s blue T-shirt—it hit about mid-thigh, exposing most of my legs. I wore no shoes, no bra, and my hair was a mess. I looked bed-tousled, and it didn’t take a genius mind to guess who I had been tousling with. On my wedding day, I had spent hours in the embrace and in the bed of another man. There was no hiding it.
I couldn’t face Kenny with feelings of shame and guilt running through me. I had to be strong and confident. So, I replaced those feelings with thoughts of Rafe, our love, and Ellie. They gave me courage to turn and face my soon-to-be-ex-fiancé.
He sat with one leg on the edge of the desk, the other jean-clad leg solidly on the floor. His right elbow rested in his left palm, while the fingers of the right hand rubbed his forehead in a slow, rhythmic pattern. He always assumed this pose whenever he was annoyed. It didn’t take three tries to guess what, or rather, who, he was annoyed with.
“Did he hurt you, Stacy? Are you alright?”
“Of course he didn’t hurt me. I’m fine.”
“Good. I’m relieved. Then you won’t have any trouble telling me what lies he has told you to make you act this way on our wedding day. Does he have such influence over you that a few hours with him can erase everything we’ve built together?”
Kenny, who was tall and in good physical shape, prided himself on being able to intimidate almost anyone with just a look. But after his disparaging remark about Rafe’s honesty, I wasn’t intimidated. Instead, I was infuriated.
“Everything we had was an illusion, Kenny, because it was built on lies—your lies,” I spat out. “I hate you for what you did to Rafe, to me, and to Ellie. I blame you for all the grief and pain I went through.”
“He deserts you and that precious little girl upstairs, who has been crying for her Momma all day long, and suddenly I’m the cause of your grief? That’s choice.”
I couldn’t help but wince as his well-aimed barb struck my conscience, but I hid the pain and didn’t comment.
“What did he tell you, Stacy?”
“The truth. He told me the truth about why he left.”
“And what truth is that? His? I bet he came out looking like Prince Charming in his version.” He folded his arms across his chest and looked at me.
“I believe him, Kenny. Rafe has never lied to me.”
Kenny laughed, an amused little sound accompanied by head shaking that made it clear how naive he thought I was.
“I’m glad you can laugh about this, because you’re going to need a sense of humor when I cancel our wedding and our engagement. Hey, while I’m at it, I think I’ll cancel our whole relationship, too.” My voice was wound so tightly that the words came out sounding more like the hissing of a snake than human speech. Their tone didn’t matter, because Kenny understood their meaning. His face turned a shade or two paler.
“Stacy, listen to me. Just give me a few minutes. Then, if you want me to leave and stay out of your life forever, I will. But, please, hear me out first. That’s all I ask.”
“I’m not interested in hearing any more of your lies.”
“No lies, I promise,” he said.
I rolled my eyes doubtfully, but kept my silence. He continued.
“Since we’ve been together, have I ever lied to you? Has anything I ever told you ever turned out to be a lie?”
Hesitantly I answered him. “Not that I know of, but after what I found out today—”
“Then why can’t you have a little faith in me now, that what I’m going to tell you just might be the truth?”
“Alright, Kenny, have your say. But, don’t count on it changing anything.”
He held out his hands wide. “I just want a chance to keep the woman—and the daughter—I love more than anything in this world. Now, what did he tell you?”
I told Kenny everything that Rafe had said. When I finished, Kenny just shook his head.
“Well, he was right on two instances. Yes, there was a letter, and no, I didn’t give it to you. The rest of his points are pure fabrication.”
“Then you admit there was a letter?”
“Listen to me, Stacy—”
“You ruined my life!”
“I thought you were going to give me a chance to explain my side,” he said sternly. At my silence, he continued. “First, let me say that Rafe and I drank a lot that night. First at Rowdy’s, then at the river, and especially after we dropped you off and went to Rafe’s house. When he gave me some folded sheets of paper and asked me to give it to you when you got home, I said sure and just tucked it inside my jacket pocket. I didn’t think any more about it until the next time I wore than jacket a couple of weeks later. I couldn’t remember what it was. I could barely remember how to open my eyes that night. It wasn’t until I had unfolded the papers and began to read that I realized it was a letter to you from him. All I can say is that I’m really glad I read it instead of just handing it over to you like I had promised.”
“What do you mean? What did it say?”
“I had wanted to protect you from this, Stacy.”
“Just tell me what it said!”
“It said that he was breaking up with you. That he needed to move on, away from this dead-end town where people would always see him as nothing but a poor, no-good troublemaker. He said he loved you but wasn’t ready for a wife and baby. It said that there were too many things he wanted to do with his life and that you two would tie him down. He said he was sorry. I guess it could have been the liquor talking that night. I don’t know. We had been talking about what we’d like to do with our lives, bragging about all our big plans for the future, so maybe that—”
As Kenny rambled on, I could feel the blood drain from my face, and my legs suddenly felt like they were made of Jell-O. I wanted desperately to sit down but didn’t want to show any weakness and give Kenny the satisfaction, so I braced myself against the desk.
“He knew I was pregnant? How?” I interrupted.
Kenny shrugged. “I don’t know how he knew. He wasn’t really clear about that part, just the part about not being ready to be a father.”
Kenny’s words stung like jagged, flesh-piercing daggers being plunged repeatedly into the entire length of my body. This was nothing like what Rafe told me. Who was telling the truth—Kenny or Rafe? I had doubts, now. Confusion, hurt, fear, and betrayal gnawed at my stomach and my heart. My mind flicked back to just a few hours ago when I had so willingly opened my heart and soul to Rafe—again. What if he were lying? But if he knew about the pregnancy, why hadn’t he said something about it when we were at the cabin?
“No. I don’t believe you, Kenny. I would have known if he wanted to break up with me, if he was unhappy with our relationship. He would’ve just told me. That’s the kind of person he is. He doesn’t keep his feelings inside, he makes sure everyone knows—”
“I know it’s hard to hear, especially since you were always so intimate with each other, but it’s the truth.”
“You still haven’t explained why you never gave me his letter.”
“Are you kidding? You were devastated with his leaving you without a word. I didn’t want to see you hurt any more than you already were, and I knew that letter would kill you. I loved you too much. I wanted to protect you. I thought it was the best thing to do for your sake, and Ellie’s.”
“I see.” As much as I hated to admit it, Kenny’s story sounded as plausible as, maybe even more than, Rafe’s. I turned away from Kenny and walked to the window. The rain had started again and was streaming down the windowpane. I traced the movement of slow-crawling water snakes with one fingertip.
“Do you still have it?” I asked.
“No. I burned it right after I read it. I didn’t want to take the chance that someone would see it and make things more difficult for you and Ellie. But I’d give my entire fortune for that letter to prove to you that what I’m saying is true.”
Silence stretched between us for a long moment. Then, I heard the soft swish of his boots on the carpet as he crossed the room to stand behind me. His reflection joined my own on the window glass. He reached out and, taking my hands in his, turned me toward him. I looked up into his face.
Why couldn’t I love this man? It would be so much easier. My parents adored and approved of him, Ellie liked him, he could provide a comfortable life for us, and, before Rafe came back, I was not unhappy with Kenny—I had planned to marry the man after all. I had left the cabin completely believing Rafe’s version of why he left. Now, after hearing Kenny’s side, I wasn’t as sure. I allowed Kenny to pull me into his arms. The embrace he offered held no warmth, no passion. I didn’t love him, and since my reunion with Rafe, I didn’t think I could go back to pretending that I did. I had some hard decisions to make.
I told Kenny that I was putting off the wedding until I could sort out my feelings. He didn’t like it, but he didn’t argue. The sheriff let Rafe out of jail because without my pressing charges—I had refused to—they couldn’t hold him on anything. Still, he was warned to stay away from me and from my house or face further jail time. I hoped the warning wouldn’t stop him because, despite my doubts, I missed him terribly.
A few days had passed since the “catastrophe,” as my parents were calling it. I loved them, but I couldn’t stand being around them. All they did was bad-mouth Rafe, praise Kenny, and harp on me about what a mistake it was to put off the wedding.
I didn’t want to think about this situation any more, but it was all that occupied my mind. More and more, I turned to my only solace—long rides on Amigo, my ten-year-old gelding.
One morning, before dawn, I rode out along the river. I sat atop Amigo’s warm, hairy back, feeling the huge lungs inside his body expand and contract against my legs. The rhythm was strangely comforting, like the sound and feel of a mother’s heartbeat to a slumbering infant.
The last slashes of night were dissolving into the eye-popping streaks of dawn. I gave myself up to the power of the silence, let it fold itself around me like a thick, heavy blanket. Then, like a miracle, like some kind of marvelous magic trick, blacks faded to purples, purples gave way to reds, oranges, and pinks. Then, in a flash of brilliance, the great ball of white fire rose out of the river and took its command of the day. I watched the naked sunbeams dance and dip themselves in the river, turning the water into a shiny-speckled playground.
I breathed in deeply, savoring every drop of color and freshness. Then, reluctantly, I pressed my knee into Amigo’s side to command him to head home. Ellie would be up soon, demanding nourishment and a clean diaper. I pulled up short when I realized that Amigo and I had not been the only spectators to greet the morning. Sitting on a log, the required number of feet behind us, was Rafe.
My heart leapt to my throat and my pulse quickened. I could feel my blood rushing through the entire length of my body. How could one look at this man cause such ferocious reactions in me? Love. I loved him. Still, I had to be cautious.
He stood. Our eyes met and flashed as brightly as the rays splashing in the river behind us. He said nothing, but the look on his face said volumes. Faint, dark smudges rimmed his eyes, telling me that he had been sleeping about as much as I had. He seemed a little thinner than when I last saw him—had it really only been a week ago—and his face sprouted several day’s beard growth.
There was a part of me that wanted to rush to him and throw my arms around him. I had always felt so safe and secure wrapped in his embrace. I wanted to hold him, touch him, kiss him, and love him, but I didn’t dare.
All my reserves crumbled and fell, though, when he spoke.
“I knew you’d show up here sooner or later. This was always our place. Oh, the times we had here. Do you remember?” His eyes looked around at the brightening landscape and then came back to me. “God, I miss you, Stacy. I feel so empty without you.”
His whole being beckoned to me, pulling me to him as a magnet pulls metal to itself. I could resist the force no longer. I slid off Amigo, not even taking the time to wrap the reins around a branch, and I rushed to fill Rafe’s waiting arms. So much for caution. We held to each other in an embrace so tight that nothing short of dynamite could have separated us.
It felt so right to be against him. I was where I belonged. Body pressing body, heart beating against heart, breath mingling with breath, mouth upon mouth. Long, perfect moments ticked by, but we held time still in each other’s embrace. His voice broke the quiet.
“No. Don’t talk,” I interrupted him in a whisper. “Let’s not spoil this with words.”
He hugged me tighter and gently rocked with me. “We have to talk,” he whispered against my hair.
“No. When I’m in your arms everything is perfect. Words only allow doubts to sneak in. Then, I don’t know what to think or what to do.”
“I was afraid that they’d mess with your mind again. Look at me, Stacy. Just think about how you feel, how happy we were before this whole mess started,” he said, brushing a lock of hair from my cheek.
“Is that the truth, Rafe? Were you happy when we were together?”
“I love you, Stacy. I’ve always loved you and have since the first day I saw you, at your fifth birthday party.”
“Now I know you’re lying. You hated being at that party and you hated me.”
“I hated being forced to go just so my mother could pretend she was still part of the champagne society, instead of being married to my beer-guzzling father. But I didn’t hate you. Why do you think I was always trying to get you to hang out with me and Kenny?”
“What? I had to practically beat you up just to get you to let me play.”
“I liked the way you fought. Like a little wildcat, spitting and scratching at me until you got your way. It was a real turn-on.”
The remembrance brought a smile to my face, but it quickly disappeared when I realized what his words could mean in light of the present situation. “Is that what you’re doing now, Rafe? Toying with me because of some sick need for amusement at my expense? Do you like to see me upset, angry, confused?”
“Gosh, Stacy, no. That was a long time ago. I was a kid. I didn’t know how else to show you my feelings. Don’t you know by now how I feel? Haven’t I told you and shown you more ways than one these past few years for you to know without a doubt that I love you more than anyone or anything in this world?”
“Oh, Rafe. There was a time when those words from you would have been enough, but too much has happened now. Kenny said that the letter said that you wanted to break up with me, to go on to something better. That that’s why you left me—not to make a future for us like you told me at the cabin. Is that true?”
“So, he actually admitted that there was a letter.” Rafe shook his head. “I’m surprised. I didn’t think he’d have the guts. Everything I’ve ever done in my life since I met you I did to make you proud of me—making good grades, getting a job after school, taking a college class or two every semester, taking care of the way I looked, watching the way I acted and talked, trying to get along with your parents, and especially taking that job with Kenny’s uncle. I didn’t care what other people thought or said about me, but it mattered a great deal to me what you thought. I never told you this, but I was always scared to death that one day you would just wake up and realize that what everyone was saying about me was true—that I wasn’t good enough for you—and you would break up with me.”
“Rafe.” I reached out and touched his face. “I never—”
“Wait, let me finish,” he said. “At the cabin, I blamed Kenny. But what happened is my fault, too. I didn’t trust your love enough. I thought I needed a lot of money if I was going to keep your love. So, I took the first shortcut offered to me—the job with Kenny’s uncle. All I learned is that shortcuts lead to dead ends, because everything I gained by taking that job means little if I lose you.
“To answer your first question, I didn’t lie to you about why I left or about any of it, and I never wanted to break up with you. I was trying to do something that would keep us together forever. I guess I can’t blame you if you’re having a hard time believing me, but I hope you will at least trust in your feelings. If you want to be with me, I’ll spend the rest of my life making you happy. If being with Kenny is what will make you happy, I’ll leave and never bother you again. But one way or the other, I have to get this settled between us. I can’t go on like this. I have to know if we have a future together. If we don’t, I can’t stay around here and watch you and Kenny live together happily ever after.”
When I was a little girl and had stormed over to my grandparents’ after fighting with Rafe, my grandmother had always given me the same piece of advice about relationships. She’d say, “you’ve gotta decide whether it hurts more to be with ‘em or without ‘em, then stand by your decision.” I remembered the pain of being without Rafe those many months. I remembered the bliss of being with him. I called on these feelings and my grandmother’s advice now in deciding which man I would spend my life with. Kenny? Or this man standing before me with his heart in his hands? Kenny? Or my first love, my daughter’s father, my one true love? Kenny? Or Rafe? I stood still, watching him, his eyes, his movements, looking for a sliver of dishonesty. I saw none. The eyes that looked back at me were sincere. I closed my eyes and tried to picture a life without Rafe. I couldn’t, and shook my head.
“I’ll never stop loving you, Stacy,” he said softly, and stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. His head was hanging low as he turned to walk away.
He took that one gesture as a rejection! Watching him walk away from me, I felt an overwhelming mixture of panic, fear, and adrenaline flood my veins. In that instant, I knew I couldn’t let him walk away from me. I couldn’t lose him again. I loved him, loved him more than life itself.
“You’ve got that leaving thing down pat,” I called out to him.
He swung around. “You decided this, not me,” he said.
“No. Actually, I didn’t decide anything. Just like the last time you left, you made up your mind and just did it. I had no say.”
“What else can I do? You’ve made it clear how you feel.”
“Oh, is that so?” I started walking toward him slowly. “And just when did I do that? When did you ever give me the chance to tell you that I love you more now than ever before? Or that I never stopped thinking about you? Or that there’s never been anyone but you in my heart—or in my bed? Or that I want to spend the rest of my life with you?” I stood right in front of him. “Or that I can’t stand being apart from you another minute, so you better kiss me before I—”
Rafe reached out and, grabbing me to him, kissed me. He lifted me up and swung me around, laughing. He put me down, but still held me to him, smiling.
“Oh, Stacy, darlin’, I love you. Are you sure about this?”
“I’ve never been more sure about anything in my life.”
“But, you had doubts.”
“They all vanished when I watched you walk away from me. I lost you once and it nearly killed me. I can’t lose you again.” I kissed him.
“I’ll never leave you again.” He kissed me.
“Never leave me again.” I kissed him.
“Never—” He kissed me and gently lowered us to the soft leaf-strewn ground.
Rafe wanted us to confront Kenny together, but I insisted on telling him myself. Rafe didn’t like it, but he agreed as long as he could be somewhere nearby.
I arranged to have Kenny come over to the house that afternoon. Momma and Daddy were thrilled when they opened the door to a smiling Kenny. They welcomed him in with hugs. I hadn’t told them the news, yet. I knew they were going to be disappointed when they found out that I was breaking it off with Kenny to be with Rafe. However, as my Daddy had said, I was a grown woman and it was my life. I was doing what was best for me and for Ellie.
Kenny and I went into Daddy’s office to talk. Now that I had him in front of me, I knew it wasn’t going to be as easy as I had thought. We had once been good friends; this would change that relationship forever. I was glad that Rafe was outside waiting for me. It gave me strength to say what needed to be said.
Kenny tried to take me in his arms, but I pulled back.
“Thanks for coming over, Kenny,” I said very business-like, with very little emotion.
“Well, it’s my pleasure, Stacy,” he said, a little disappointed by my greeting, but not letting it dampen his enthusiasm. “I know you wanted time to make sure of your feelings, but now that you have, we can get back to making our plans for—”
“Kenny, there’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it. It’s over with us. I love Rafe, and we’re getting back together.” I removed Kenny’s engagement ring from my finger and placed it in his hand.
All the while I was speaking, Kenny’s face was turning red. Rafe had been right, this wasn’t going to be an easy goodbye.
“There’s really no more to say, so I’ll ask you to leave now,” I said and walked to the door with the intent of opening it and escorting him out. Kenny, however, had other ideas. He walked across the room and closed the door.
“Stacy, wait. There’s a lot to say. We have to talk about this. I can’t believe you’re going to throw away all the happiness you and I have shared over the past year. We’re so good together. And, Ellie is crazy about me, you know that.”
“I know how much you loved Rafe, how you have feelings for him still, he’s the father of your child, but you’ve got to put those feelings where they belong—in the past. I’m your future. I can give you and Ellie everything you need and want for the rest of your lives. Rafe can’t give you anything but a lifetime of poverty, hardship, and heartache. Think about Ellie. Is that how you want your daughter to be raised? Always having to scrounge for things? Never knowing when her daddy will run off again?”
“You just don’t get it, do you Kenny? Love, I mean. To you, it’s about spending money on someone. My love for Rafe never had anything to do with what he could buy me. He completes me, makes me whole and happy. I’m at my very best when I’m with him. I’ve always loved him, Kenny. I always will love him. You know that.”
“What I know is that he will hurt you, Stacy. Again, and again, and again.” There was desperation to Kenny’s voice.
“Enough, Kenny. This conversation is pointless. I’ve made the decision and nothing you say will change my mind. I’m sorry to hurt you, but let’s don’t make things worse by—”
“I can’t believe you’re being so idiotic,” he growled at me.
“Ok, that’s it,” I opened the door and pointed the way out… “get out!”
He slammed the door. “I will not let you throw your life away on that loser. I didn’t go to all that trouble to get rid of him just to let him strut back into town and reclaim you. I won’t let him.”
“So you admit that you schemed to get rid of him? You actually admit it?”
“Yes, I admit it. You were mine before he slid into town with his boozing father, lazy brother, and simpering mother. I knew then he was just trash, but I didn’t know how to stop him, so I befriended him so I could keep an eye on him and keep him away from you. When you two started sniffing around each other, I tried to get you to see that he was no good. But you were blind and deaf to all his faults. You wouldn’t listen to anyone. I found a way to get him out of your life. He made it so easy. I would do it again in a heartbeat. It was for your own good, Stacy. It was for your happiness, our happiness.”
Kenny’s mood was a swinging pendulum that ranged from boiling mad to nearly bursting into tears. He looked like he was going to break, but I couldn’t stop myself from giving him a piece of my mind.
“Kenny Grayson, I hate you for lying to me about Rafe. I hate you for causing trouble between us. I hate you for keeping that letter from me. That letter would have made all the difference in the world to me, but you used it for your own selfishness. You stole a whole year of my life, Rafe’s life, and Ellie’s life. Rafe left because of you and I hate you for that.” I was practically screaming at this point, anger and tears vying for control.
I hadn’t realized it, but the ring was still clinched tightly in his hand. He threw the diamond and gold band against the wall behind me. I heard it zing past my ear then clink to the floor. “You hate me? Rafe knocked you up, left town without a word, never called you all the time he was gone, and now you just up and forgive him and decide you want to spend your life with him? Of all the stupid, ungrateful—”
He grabbed my upper arms and shook me to emphasize his words. “I was there for you. I dried your tears. I pulled you out of that sinkhole of depression you had slipped into when he deserted you. I stuck by you when your belly began to grow large and round with his vile seed. I was the one who was so in love with you that I wanted to marry you and raise his bastard child as my own, even though my parents were against it and threatened to disinherit me. I wanted you even though everyone in town was laughing at me behind my back for so eagerly accepting Rafe’s leftovers. I wanted you even though I knew you would always love him more than you would love me. For this you hate me? I just don’t get it. Is he that good in bed that you forget everything but satisfying your lust with what’s between his legs?”
“You are sick.” I swung at his face, but he caught my arm before my hand could connect with his cheek. Then he caught my other arm in its mid-arch swing toward the same target and pinned both arms behind my back.
“Let go of me,” I shouted at him, but even shouting through a bullhorn right in his ear wouldn’t have gotten through to him at this point.
“My whole life I’ve been there for you, ready to do anything for you. This whole year, I wined you, dined you, romanced you, showed my love for you in every way, and every time I tried to get intimate, you turned me down, always ready with the handy excuses. Then, he comes back into town, breaks into your room, throws you into the back of his truck like a cheap slut, keeps you out all day and most of the night on the very day you are to marry me, and despite it all I’ll bet my entire inheritance that he was between your legs in less than an hour.”
Hearing the truth stated as a bleak fact caused my face to burn red. “Rafe said you had a dark side to you and I can’t believe I didn’t see it before now. I’m glad I found out what an imbecile you are before I made the mistake of marrying you. The fact is, Kenny, you never turned me on. I could never work up enough enthusiasm for your clumsy attempts at lovemaking. It was a waste of my time.”
Kenny’s face, from the tips of his ears to the dimple on his chin, exploded in wave of bright crimson, but I knew it was from anger not embarrassment. Then, he surprised me by laughing. It was an evil sound that shot fear straight to my heart.
“I can’t believe it. . .all this time. . .all these years I’ve known you. . .and I never realized until right this moment that I was going at this all wrong,” he said, laughing again.
“Well, better late than never. Good for you. Now, you get the hell out of my house and my life.” I was speaking but he wasn’t listening.
“I was trying to be a gentleman, trying to court you and make you feel special, when all I had to do to get into your panties was treat you like a cheap whore.”
“Get out,” I screamed.
“Ok, Stacy. I’ll go,” he said quietly and crossed the floor. But instead of opening the door, he paused in front of it and leaned his forehead on the wood. “But not before I get what I deserve for all the effort and money I’ve put into this relationship.” His hand moved toward the knob and my heart jumped into my throat when I heard the click of the lock falling into place.
“The only thing you deserve is to leave my house,” I sneered, trying to sound braver than I felt.
Kenny pushed away from the door and turned to face me. “Oh, but you’re wrong, sweetheart.” Slowly he moved toward me. “Let me tell you what it is that I deserve: that hot, sweet part of yourself that you have always been so willing, so eager, to give to Rafe whenever and whereever he wanted it.” He curled his lip and shook his head in obvious disgust. “I wanted you to come to me, Stacy, share your body with me willingly, but since you seem to prefer it rough and sleazy, I have no qualms about taking it.”
My heart did a dive to the bottom of my stomach. Standing no less than two feet from me, his words, though delivered in a whisper, filled the room with a cold, tangible air. His voice was evil and his face was a twisted version of its normally handsome look. How could I have not seen this side of him before? It was obvious what he meant to do, and I knew I had to get out of that room. I moved toward the door.
As if reading my thoughts, he grabbed me and clamped his hand over my mouth. Dragging me to the couch, he fell with me onto it, the leather emitting an audible whoosh of air as my back hit the cold material. He pinned my arms beneath me and pried my legs open with his knees. I knew the thin material of my dress would provide little barrier against his attack. He easily stifled my attempts to scream and escape, and his hand was so tightly clamped on my mouth that I thought I was going to pass out from lack of oxygen. I managed to sink my teeth into one of his fingers, and when he jerked his hand back in surprised pain, I gulped in air and got out a lightweight yelp before the hand came back down across my mouth.
“I’m really going to enjoy hurting you as much as you’ve hurt me.” Kenny arched up slightly, long enough to undo his jeans. A full orchestra of panic blared loudly in my ears. If I didn’t think of some way to get away from him, he would rape me.
Suddenly, the window behind me broke and a rock the size of a softball crashed through and rolled across the floor. The action startled us both, giving me the opportunity I needed. I got my knee between Kenny’s legs and jerked upward as hard as I could. He doubled over and let out a loud groan. I shoved him away from me, and he fell to the floor, writhing in pain. I tried to get to the door and unlock it, but he managed to catch me by the ankle. At the same moment, Rafe reached through the gaping hole in the window, unlocked and opened it, and climbed into the room. He grabbed Kenny and punched him a few times. An already wounded Kenny fell to the floor. Rafe rushed to my side.
“Stacy, are you alright?” At my nod, he pulled me into his arms and whispered in my hair, “If he hurt you, I swear I’ll kill him right here.”
“No. I’m okay. He just scared me. I thought—”
My parents, having heard the breaking glass, burst into the room. When they saw Kenny on the floor, doubled over and moaning, the broken window, and Rafe with his arms around me, Daddy headed straight for Rafe’s neck. Wade, our ranch foreman, who had come through the window right behind Rafe, stopped him. Together, he and Rafe explained that they saw Kenny attacking me so they broke the window to get in to rescue me.
Daddy and Rafe wanted me to press charges against Kenny, but I just wanted him out of the house and out of my life. Daddy and Wade carried him to his car and he left as quickly as his aching body would allow.
Then, Rafe and I sat down to talk to my parents. We explained Kenny’s deception, Rafe’s reasons for leaving, and what Rafe had been doing that year he was gone.
“Let me tell you, Rafe,” said Daddy when we had finished, “I’m still mad that you left Stacy the way you did, her pregnant and all, but if she can forgive you, then I guess I can learn to.”
Rafe’s eyes nearly popped out of his head and his mouth dropped to his chest. “What did you say?”
“Oh, Daddy. I didn’t—”
“Stacy Marie, you didn’t tell him—”
“Look who’s awake.” Mom walked into the room, a still sleepy Ellie in her arms. The baby’s dark hair, curled with sleep dampness, was identical to Rafe’s dark, silky locks. One chubby little fist rubbed robin-egg blue eyes that were fringed with the same long, dark lashes as Rafe’s.
Rafe looked at the baby, then at me, then at the baby again.
“Mama.” Ellie had seen me and reached out for me to take her. I cradled her in my lap and searched for the words to introduce her to her father. My parents left the room to go take care of the broken window.
“She’s my daughter.” It wasn’t a question, but a statement.
“Did you know you were pregnant before I left?”
Rafe dropped his face into his hands and stared into them for a moment. When he raised his head, his tear-filmed eyes met mine.
“Ah, Stace, why didn’t you tell me?”
My heart leapt with happiness and relief. He hadn’t known about the pregnancy after all.
“I was scared and I thought you wouldn’t want me—or her. I didn’t want to force you into something you weren’t ready for and have you resent me or hate me for it.”
“You’re the only woman I’ve ever loved, Stacy. I’ll always want you, always love you. I thought I had made that clear to you.”
“I know that now, and I guess even then I knew, but this was a pretty big thing to hit you with. I know how scared I was. I was going crazy thinking about how you would react.”
“And you had to go at it alone. No wonder you turned to Kenny.” He pounded the armrest. “I’m so sorry.” He hugged me until a little squawk sounded between us and we parted. “I want to make it up to you both. Will you give me that chance?”
In response, Ellie reached out a chubby little finger and poked her Daddy in the nose and laughed. We took that as a yes.
Rafe completed the last few months left on his rigging contract and we married that next summer in a small ceremony at our new home—the cabin in the mountains where he had reclaimed my faith and my love. Since Rafe had saved most of the money from his last six paychecks, we used it to pay the bills while we worked and went to school part time.
Today, we’re still working to build a loving life for each other and our family. It’s better than anything we ever dreamed about all those years ago when we thought that wishing on stars was the way to happiness. Now, we know the truth—that we make our own happiness through love, trust, and lots of hard work.