Dedicated to my favorite avid reader, Rachel.
COREY BRADY AWOKE WITH a pounding headache. The sun blasted through the open curtain as he fought to keep his eyes shut. He dragged his aching body out of bed and felt his way around the room until he was standing in front of the window. Grabbing the cord for the blinds and tugging hard was a big improvement, but it wasn’t enough. Cracking an eye open, he reached out for the curtains and yanked them shut, the room dark, thankfully.
He trudged to the bathroom, used the toilet, and then clambered back to bed. He knew he should be up, work awaited him, but he felt like shit, too shitty, in fact, to head outside into the heat and blaze of the August morning.
When he closed his eyes, he grinned, remembering the dream he’d had. Megan—so sweet—her face glowing, while throwing caution to the wind as she rode him in her car. His groin hardened. The crystal clear vision made him think for a fleeting moment it could have happened. Unfortunately, he knew Megan well enough to know that she would never let loose, even with him. Erotic dreams of Megan out of the blue did seem strange though.
“Hell,” he muttered getting out of bed. He’d never get back to sleep now. He headed into the bathroom again to take a shower, and then he’d get a quick bite and take something for this hangover.
After grabbing some of the fresh strawberry muffins his mother made, Corey headed outside. Stopping on the porch, he realized he didn’t have any transportation. Where’s my truck? He couldn’t even remember leaving The Stix. How did I get home?
“YOU LOOK LIKE HELL,” Nolan commented as Corey got into the truck.
Nolan laughed. “Let me guess,” he said driving away from the house. “You and Dad lost the mare and her foal, and since you’re so damn arrogant, thinking you can save the world, you decided the best way to handle the loss was to go and get plastered.”
Corey scowled at his brother. “Just take me to The Stix. If I would’ve known I was going to be criticized, I would’ve walked.”
Nolan shook his head. “Sure. With a hangover, the sun beating down on you the temperature climbing to 95, try again.”
Corey pulled the brim of his Stetson lower over his eyes, wishing his brother could just sit quietly while he drove him to his truck.
“Cat got your tongue?” Nolan asked after a few minutes of silence.
“How’s the wife?” Corey questioned, changing the subject nicely.
“She’s great, but you already know that. You two were yakking on the phone just last night.”
Corey sighed. “It would be nice if Anna could play best friend instead of sister-in-law just once.”
Nolan pulled into the parking lot beside Corey’s truck. “So who brought you home last night?”
Corey opened the door and got out. “Don’t remember.” He closed the door and unlocked his truck, which was a waste of time since it was already open.
“That’s not good, Corey. You could’ve wound up anywhere, dumped into the river, tossed out on the side of the road in some ugly woman’s bed with all kinds of diseases.”
Corey’s stomach heaved. “Thanks for the visual.”
“Want some advice?
He turned around and glared at his brother. “Nope, but if I ever do, you’re at the top of my list.”
Nolan threw back his head and roared. “Everyone knows that’s Anna’s spot. Good thing she doesn’t believe in keeping secrets.”
Corey sighed. “Don’t remind me. Thanks for the ride. I’ll talk to you later.”
He drove to the 24-hour drug store to get something for a pounding headache. He parked the truck and headed inside, assaulted by the cool breeze from the air conditioner.
Rounding the corner of the second aisle, his breath caught as Corey saw her. He’d just dreamt about her, and here Megan was, looking like an angel. Her long hair hung loosely down her back. No ponytail today, he noticed. Shoving his hands in his front pockets, he moved forward.
“Hi,” he said, waiting for her to look up.
The small box she held fell to the ground. He bent down at the same time she did, both reaching for the box of pain reliever. Corey smiled at her, snatched the package off the white tile floor, and handed it over.
“Thank you,” Meg said standing. Without another word, she turned and walked away.
What in the hell is that all about? Corey followed her down the aisle, grabbed a hold of her arm, and spun her around. “Is something wrong?”
Megan flinched and yanked her arm out of his grasp. “Excuse me?” Anger flashed in her hazel eyes as they narrowed and shot daggers at him.
“What’s the matter with you?”
Megan shook her head. “You don’t remember.” She rolled her eyes. “Why should I be surprised?” She turned and walked away.
Corey caught up to her with a few long strides and rested a hand on her shoulder. Megan stopped, keeping her back to him.
“Talk to me,” Corey urged, hating to see her so upset.
“How did you get home last night?”
He sighed, “Honestly, I don’t know. Nice to know you care, though.”
Megan trembled under his hand, and then spun around, her face red as her free hand balled into a tight fist at her side.
“You are unbelievable,” she seethed. “I took you home.”
Corey swallowed hard. Never had he seen her so angry before. “Okay.” Corey spotted something on her neck and reached forward, brushing back a thick strand of her hair. The purple hickey stood out like a sore thumb. Rage pulsed through his veins. What man had taken her innocence?
“Get that from Joe?”
Megan slapped his hand away and pointed one long finger at him. “You stay away from me,” she said through clenched teeth.
Before he could utter a sound, she turned and took off practically running to get away from him.
Present Day ~ One year later
COREY STOOD NEXT TO an oak tree, the leaves blocking the hot July sun as it beat down. His eyes stayed on his sister-in-law and best friend Anna, a somber smile on his face. She was glowing, the perfect picture of happiness. When Nolan moved behind her and wrapped her in his arms, Corey couldn't help being envious. He could admit to himself that he was just plain lonely, but at no time would he acknowledge that fact to another. He felt ready to settle down, but the woman he wanted seemed out of reach. Megan plagued him night and day. Dirk's threat kept him away most of the time, but he didn't intend to obey the man forever.
Everywhere he looked, people spread out over the park. Families of all shapes and sizes walked around the fountain and threw loose coins into the clear water while they made a wish. Others lingered at picnic tables, still working on their fried chicken lunches provided by the local Knights of Columbus. Children tossed water balloons, then laughed and screamed when it burst and soaked them. They even chased each other around the park joyously. Some younger kids cried when their dripping scoop of ice cream fell off the cone. The smell of buttery popcorn roused a smile, for it was the one thing he could never get enough of at these things.
The red, white, and blue banners flapped in the warm breeze as Corey continued to watch the festivities like a voyeur. He'd done his part by purchasing a lunch, donated to the High School's Homecoming fund. Watching the families gathering in clusters from the sidelines had become an annual event for him. His focus returned to his brother and sister-in-law. It was only a matter of time before Anna and Nolan made him an uncle, which he'd welcome with open arms, but it would probably hurt like hell.
"When are you going to let her go?" Megan asked her voice subdued. "They've been married for a year now. Anna's your sister-in-law."
Corey spun around to face her, hating the implication. "Listen, little girl, I've told you before that we're just friends. Not that it's any of your business." He rammed his hands into his front pants pockets. If only she was a little girl, he might find it easier to deal with her. Dirk's voice rang in Corey's ears, the threat of exposing a long-buried secret something he didn't want to deal with.
Megan stepped in front of him, her eyes searching his black ones. She shivered and fear flashed in her hazel depths.
Corey took a step towards her, making Megan retreat backward as he progressed until mere inches separated them. "Afraid of me?" he asked. He touched her face, brushing a thumb across her moist, bottom lip until her mouth parted.
He lowered his head and his mouth came down on hers, crushing at first. Too many erotic dreams of kissing her made the need strong. She responded every time he kissed her. Her arms linked over his shoulders as she went up on her toes, her body brushing up against him. Corey's tongue dove into her mouth, sliding against hers. His hands moved up and cupped her face, tilting it to the side to get better access. Megan's mouth was hot, and faint coffee lingered as his tongue stroked hers. He wanted to strip her out of the shorts and tee shirt and take her right there.
He came to his senses and broke the kiss, taking in a ragged breath. Why do I continue to torture the both of us?
"I shouldn't have done that," he said, his hands still holding onto her face, their foreheads pressed together. His thumb stroked her cheek, the feel of that silky skin under his fingers making his hand tingle.
Her hands unlocked and slid to his chest, her palms flat. She pushed him away breaking the contact between them. Megan looked up at him for a moment; her lips parted and she closed her mouth realizing he was staring at her mouth.
Disappointment flooded the warmth of her eyes before she turned and marched off.
Corey watched Megan storm away, her black hair jerking from side to side as she marched through the green grass, her hips swaying.
MEGAN COULDN’T WAIT TO go home and get far away from Corey. She'd been a fool again, dreaming of something that would never be. Why do I try so hard to make him love me? All these years of torment would be enough for anyone, but she couldn't make herself forget him and move on with her life. He only saw her as a child, would probably always see her that way, and she didn't know how to change that.
Her thoughts drifted back to the sweet kiss they shared, desire replacing the anger in an instant. Her face tingled from his touch, and her heart pounded like a steady bass drum. When she brought her hand to her mouth, she could still feel his lips there, warm and hard, pressed against hers. No man had ever kissed her this way before.
Megan shook all thoughts of Corey out of her mind, and went in search of her father, needing to get out of there. The Fourth of July celebration would drag on for hours, complete with fireworks at night. She just wasn't in the mood for that. She approached the table where her father sat with his drinking buddies. His face contorted and sweat beaded his dark forehead. Dirk Evans clutched his chest and fell off the picnic table bench and to the ground. Megan started running toward him, and then her body froze as her feet stopped moving. Panic seized the instinct to push on.
"Dad!" she screamed, bringing others to where she stood frozen in place. It took a moment before her body responded to the command to move forward and kneel beside him.
Within a moment her best friend, Joe Adams appeared. "Call an ambulance." He knelt down to check for a pulse. Joe rested his ear on Dirk's chest.
Megan couldn't stop the tears from springing out of her eyes and trailing down her face. If he was gone, she'd be all alone in this world. The thought clenched her heart so tight she swayed. Memories of her mother's death from cancer flooded her mind.
Luckily, a fire truck and ambulance were on hand from the Endurance Volunteer Fire Department. Randy Kerr, one of the town's paramedics, moved through the crowd. "Is he still breathing?"
"It's raspy," Joe relayed, his eyes focused on Megan. He stood up and moved to her side. "Everything will be all right."
He pulled Meg into his arms where she broke down in tears.
A crowd gathered. Another paramedic pushed through the onlookers with a stretcher. Randy looked up and nodded. The newcomer lifted the backboard off the stretcher and moved to Randy's side, setting the board beside Dirk.
Megan watched as they turned her father on his side, slid the board underneath, and then rolled him back onto it. Dirk remained pale and unmoving. They strapped him in, lifted him off the ground, and placed him onto the stretcher.
"Let's go," Randy said. "You can ride with us, Megan."
She nodded, pulled out of Joe's arms, and followed to the ambulance. Megan saw the grim expressions on the faces she passed, heard the whispers, but no one bothered to say a word to her. She got into the ambulance and looked out the window as the siren screamed and drowned out the sounds of children's laughter and the chatter of conversations. The ambulance made its way out of the park, heading to the hospital. She watched the scenery roll by, fighting back the tears that seemed to turn the landscape into a green blur. Dex needed to know, but she just didn't have the strength to call her older brother with bad news.
They pulled up at the emergency room entrance and the paramedics whisked her father away. The only thing to do; was wait. Again, the loneliness seeped in, overwhelming her to the point that her heart actually ached. What will I do if he dies? What will happen to the horses?
SHE PACED THE WAITING room, and her fears grew.
She spun around, looked into those black eyes, and shivered. He held his beige Stetson in his big hand, dark eyes focused on the gleaming white tiled floor instead of her.
"I don't know anything yet. I'm still waiting. They said it would be a while before they know his condition."
He brought his eyes up to meet hers and she saw pity there. "Is there anything I can do?"
"Go home, Corey," she ordered. He winced, but remained, shifting his weight from his left foot to his right and opened his mouth to speak again.
"Megan," Joe said flying past Corey. He pulled her into his arms. "We got your Dad's truck tucked away at the house. What can I do?"
Corey cleared his throat. "If you need anything, just call," he muttered, then turned, plopped the hat back on his head and strode out the door.
Megan stood watching, her heart heavier than ever. Why did Corey walking away exacerbate my feelings of abandonment?
"Don't let him get you down. Corey Brady's not worth it," Joe said, squeezing her tighter.
Megan pushed out of his familiar embrace. "Please, Joe, I can't do this right now. I don't even know what's happening with my father."
Joe ran a hand through his blonde hair. "I'm sorry. Why don't you sit down?"
She shook her head and then wrapped her arms around her middle. "I can't. Not until I know something."