Driving to the Brooks’ family ranch, everything felt surreal. I’d thought about driving that road about a million times. When I’d left it six years ago, I hadn’t moved that far away. About two and a half hours if you drove it fast, and many times I’d thought about doing exactly that.
Now there I was, speeding down the Montana highway toward Kara at 85 miles an hour. I recognized what I passed, the dilapidated Shell station and the abandoned church. The railroad tracks I’d never seen a train use, not once. It all looked familiar yet strange and I felt nearly disembodied, like I was watching myself hurtle toward Kara instead of just doing it.
It might be because I was going on 60 hours with no sleep. That was definitely contributing to things.
I hadn’t slept Saturday night. After the club I’d paced the hotel room like a caged panther. Then, Sunday, I hadn’t been able to fly right out. I’d forgotten I had a couple of commitments in New York, drinks and dinner meetings, all of the bullshit that used to matter to me more than anything else. Now, I could barely pay attention while a guy agreed to sign on the dotted line, victoriously culminating months of work to persuade him into a deal.
At six a.m. Monday morning I’d finally gotten myself on a plane. Normally, I would have used the time to catch up on work, read through some fine print, plan my next steps. Today I nearly chewed off my own arm with frustration, anticipation, anger and impatience. I didn’t know what the fuck was happening with Kara and I was a man who damn well needed to know what the fuck was happening. The more I thought about it—and I thought about nothing else—the more my brain reeled with extremes.
She’d been kidnapped. That one I decided around two a.m. Monday morning. That was the explanation. My sweet, trusting, naïve Kara had been kidnapped and her captors had forged that note. As much as I wanted to pull out a fucking gun at the idea of someone harming Kara, it did in a way present a more palatable alternative. It wasn’t her decision. There was someone else to blame.
By three a.m. I’d discarded that idea. It made no sense. I wanted to think that it did. But, no, there’d be a ransom note if she’d been kidnapped. They’d want my money and they’d have left a note with demands. There was no getting around it, she’d packed up her belongings and left of her own accord.
It really pissed me off that she didn’t take any of her new things. I’d bought them for her. They belonged to her, the clothes, the jewelry, all of it. But she’d cast them off, unneeded, unwanted. The delight she’d pretended earlier that week shed like a snake’s old skin, lying on the bathroom floor alongside that designer ball gown.
She’d even left the apple charm necklace. That one I was sure she’d loved. It was so like her, simple, understated, perfect. I’d ripped the chain in two in my impotent rage.
She’d played me. She’d had another deal worked out from the start, was just taking me for what I’d give her, a trip to New York. She’d been waiting the whole time to see how much I’d write her in a check. I’d taken too long to put pen to paper, so she’d split.
At four a.m. I decided she’d been in love. With someone else. It wasn’t like Kara to turn mercenary, to care about nothing but the Benjamins. But love? I could see her doing crazy things. Maybe she’d been pretending with me to save the ranch while the real man she loved scrambled to get together cash. They were like Romeo and Juliet, forced apart by financial need. Then he’d finally come through, figured out some way for a happy ending. I was the bad guy who got out-maneuvered. When I finally got jilted so she could go be with her one, true love, the audience cheered.
Any way it went down, I had to figure it out. That was why I was back in Montana, unshaven with bloodshot eyes behind my mirrored sunglasses. On my way to Kara’s ranch to see for myself.
So it made sense that at first what I saw seemed like a hallucination. Around quarter to three in the afternoon, I saw Kara’s truck headed toward me on the opposite side of the highway. I recognized Bessie from a long distance away, the way you saw something and knew what it was on instinct. That rusted old heap of junk, I’d recognize it anywhere and so I knew it was Kara on the road heading in the other direction. But I still didn’t believe it until she was right up on me, driving past and I could see her clear as day. She wore a green dress, her hair up in a ponytail with a few strands loose. She looked exhausted and criminally beautiful.
I turned my truck around. I was the scrap of metal. She was the magnet. Pulled to her beyond my will, I followed. I needed to find out where she was headed.
She hadn’t seen me. She didn’t know the truck I was driving. Plus, she’d been watching the road ahead of her like a normal person, not acting like a wild animal eyeing all corners for possible dangers and clues. Good thing I was, too, or I might have missed her. Now I could follow her and see what she was up to.
After a little while, Kara pulled up in front of an old, abandoned warehouse. It looked like the perfect place to take someone to kill them. What the fuck was she doing going in there?
A tenth of a mile down the road I pulled over and nearly jumped out of my truck to run back and stop her. But as the saying went, if you had to ask you’d never know. If I confronted her before she even went in, I’d never really know what was going on. Because she was clearly up to something. That warehouse was not a place you’d head to for above-board dealings.
Maybe there was some other scenario in play here, something I’d never suspected about my innocent, wide-eyed Kara. Was she into illegal drug trafficking? Dog fighting?
I’d lost my mind, that was the truth. I knew it, but that didn’t change a damn thing. I still sat there in my truck like a crazy stalker drinking a cold coffee I’d grabbed at a gas station along the way. It tasted bitter and I savored it.
I’d give her twenty minutes, then I’d go in after her. Down the road I could see the edge of the warehouse. I could make out the rust, the missing slat on the roof. I decided I’d make that fifteen. If she wasn’t out in fifteen minutes, I’d bust in there, fists up and at the ready. The place didn’t even have a sign out front. Someone was up to no good.
Who was she meeting in there? I swigged my coffee, wishing it were stronger. Whiskey, even. I’d like a shot just about now.
Was she in there with him, the highest bidder? Was she in his arms right that second? Rolling down my window, I spat out flat into the dust. I wiped my sleeve across my mouth.
Maybe it was Bruce. Maybe right then she was pressing her soft lips to his, whispering endearments, confessing how much she’d missed him this past week, how hard it had been to pretend with me. Maybe Bruce couldn’t wait. He might be taking her right then and there in the warehouse, against the wall.
I punched the steering wheel, the pain rocketing sharp into my knuckles. What did he have that I didn’t? How had I fucked everything up, just when I’d thought I had it all? That had been my problem. I’d let my guard down. I’d gone soft and look what happened when you did that? You got punched in the gut and then you ended up with bloodshot eyes and scraggly stubble, lurking outside a warehouse, itching for a fight.
I’d had enough. I was going in to find her.
Just as my hand got to the latch on the door, Kara emerged. She looked serious. Eyes down, her mouth set hard, she bee-lined straight to her truck. The engine up and started quick and she drove off.
No one came out after her. Should I go in and investigate? I’d murder any man I found in there, I knew that much. I’d do it with my bare hands, too.
Enraged, I started up my engine. I still didn’t know what was going on. I’d sat outside in my truck and stalked her like a madman but hadn’t learned a damn thing. I needed to think things out, get my head on straight. I hadn’t eaten in over a day. Maybe I’d go get a plate of something, try to sort through a plan. Try not to kill anyone.
For a man who always liked having everything all mapped out, I’d sure lost my way. I didn’t like it. I wouldn’t stand for it much longer. One way
or another, I’d have this sorted and soon.
Surrounded by clothes, I struggled to sort them into piles: Goodwill, maybe, and yes. It had only been that afternoon that I’d signed the papers selling the ranch, but there was no sense waiting to start packing. Eleven o’clock at night, no time like the present. Pulling out every piece of clothing I owned and sorting it into piles felt satisfying. I was taking the bull by the horns. It was either that or cry my eyes out like a baby, so I forced myself into action instead.
I didn’t know where I’d go next, but the only thing to do in a situation like this was hold your head up and take a step forward. Maybe I could move to Billings? Everyone needed a waitress, right? But I might see Declan there and I didn’t want to take that chance. He’d probably walk in with a gorgeous woman on his arm and I’d have to serve them dinner.
I had a cousin in Texas. She hadn’t wanted much to do with me when I’d needed a big loan. But maybe she’d let me crash on her couch for a week or two until I figured out what to do next? There were ranches and diners in Texas. I could probably find some place that would hire me.
Tonight, the thing I could do to get the ball rolling was start getting rid of junk. I needed to strip down, give away most of my belongings. I needed a fresh start and there was no sense lugging stuff around, or paying for storage with money I didn’t have when I didn’t even know where or when I’d need it again. Never having moved, I’d never really fully cleaned house. I had so much crap to go through, so much to give away or sell. It seemed to make sense to start with my closet, plunging in deep and making significant cuts.
When I really got in there, I found stuff I hadn’t worn since high school. Like one of those tiny tank tops and flippy little mini skirts I used to wear back in the day, during those hot summer months when I wanted to tease Declan. I’d shamelessly pranced around, wearing next-to-nothing and trying to drive him crazy. I’d had no idea what I was playing with, how much I could get hurt by waking that sleeping bear. I’d been so buoyant and carefree back then, unable to even imagine the kind of heartbreak life could bring.
I felt so different now, sifting through the remnants of my former life. My heart hurt so much it felt like I was suffocating. If I started thinking too much panic would build up in me, pressured and tight, constricting the air in my throat, leaving me gasping for breath and wanting to claw my way out but not knowing how. I couldn’t stop to think. I had to mercilessly attack my closet like a hot knife through butter.
Should they stay or should they go? Holding up the tank and skirt, I wondered if they even still fit me?
That’s how I ended up standing in front of a mirror in a tiny tank top and a flippy little mini skirt. They did still fit, though they looked scandalously skimpy. Maybe I’d gone up a cup size, or maybe I’d grown more modest at 24 than I’d been at 18. The clothes left nothing to the imagination. The top looked painted on, drawing more attention to what it didn’t cover than what it did. My breasts fairly popped out of it, no bra, the sheer fabric stretching across my chest. I remembered how I used to prance around in front of Declan, how one time I’d washed the car hoping he’d watch. He sure did watch as I soaped things up and got all wet bending over the hood of the car.
Damn, he brought out the slut in me. I’d always been such a good girl, fighting off my dumb high school boyfriend, icing out everyone while I nursed my sick father. How did Declan do it? What kind of a spell did he cast that made me so crazy? Even now standing in front of the mirror, looking at myself in these clothes, I could feel his gaze on me. Hot, heavy, molten, so much power pent up in him. He lit me up like a match. It wasn’t just this past week. It had always been like that with him, back when we’d known each other last. Those long summer nights in the barn.
Turned out he liked me in these types of outfits. I hadn’t known it at first. He’d barely looked my way. I hadn’t realized he was handing me a Get Out of Jail Free card.
Instead, I’d kept beating down the walls of the prison until I’d finally gotten inside. I’d offered my wrists right up into the manacles and let him cuff me. And once he had me fastened and trapped, I’d loved it.
I could still recall it all so clearly, those nights together. In my reflection in the mirror, I could see my nipples press against the thin fabric, my body responding to just the memory of his touch. The urgency, the darkness, the fear we’d get caught, I could still feel it all. Back when we’d first kissed each other, he’d held back, like a gentleman. I’d needed more. I’d been the one to push us further, to beg for his touch.
As if I were spellbound, powerless in the tractor beam of memory pulling me forward, I found myself leaving the house and heading toward the barn. It wasn’t a conscious decision. Back in that outfit, in the heat of the summer night, it simply had to happen. I found myself standing in the hay-filled darkness of the wooden barn asking to relieve memories, needing to feel them close to me one last time. I couldn’t fight it.
I knew I shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t allow myself to wallow in the past, to linger down there in the barn where I’d spent long, hot nights with him. But I’d be moving soon. Within days I’d be miles away, who knew where. I might never come back. I didn’t have Declan, never would again. All I had were memories. And this would be one of the last times I’d ever have to come down here to the barn, where memories surrounded me fast and thick, so real I could almost touch them. Like an addict, I returned for one last hit.
Almost sleepwalking, in a trance, I moved toward the corner where we’d lain together, legs tangled, mouths searching and finding each other in the darkness. He’d always slowed things down when we started to get too heated up. He’d rest my head against his chest. I could hear the rapid beating of his heart, pounding for me while he played with my hair.
I knew I should hate him. And tomorrow, I would. But not tonight. Tonight in the darkness, I’d remember our last night together that summer six years ago. I’d gone down to help him get a thorn out of his back and we’d ended up in his cabin on his couch. With his hands on me, his lips at my throat, my hands roaming his massive, hard chest, he’d nearly driven me insane. I remembered how I’d ground against him, my short skirt pushed up at my waist, my legs parted and wrapped around his thick, muscular thigh. Driven by need, desperate for his touch, I’d brought his hand to my pussy and begged. I’d pressed against him, pleading with him to touch me.
I’d been so wet. He always made me wet for him. I played with the short hemline of the skirt I now wore. No wonder Declan liked these flippy skirts. They gave such easy access.
My fingers swept right up my thighs to press against the soft satin of my panties. Standing in the darkness, secluded in the barn, I slipped my fingers down under the fabric. Slick and wanting, I stroked myself where no one could see. Lips parted, I allowed myself this, only this secret moment in the middle of the night. Tomorrow I’d become hard-hearted, put up a cold stone façade for the world. But tonight, for a brief stolen patch of time, I’d melt.
I remembered how he’d groaned when he’d first discovered my wetness. Moaning slightly, I began to slide my finger the same way he’d slid his that night so many years ago. I’d been so wild for him. When he’d touched me like that for the first time, coaxing the slick, sweet juice from me and using it to circle and press on my clit, I’d never felt anything so good. He’d talked dirty to me, making me admit things I longed for, even though I felt embarrassed admitting it myself.
He’d touched me and forced me to remember how he’d caught me, back then, touching myself on his bed. He’d watched me bring myself to orgasm thinking of him, calling out his name. I’d been so mortified, but then so turned on that night in his cabin when he’d stroked me and made me admit it all, confess how I was thinking about him when I worked my own pussy on his bed. When he caught me coming on my own fingers, I had been thinking about his powerful, muscled body, his strong, demanding hands. I’d thrust my finger up in my wet pussy, my
other hand up pinching my nipple as I moaned. Just like I was doing now. Stroking myself, naughty in the dark. I yearned for him.
“Kara.” The voice, gravelly and low, emerged from the darkness.
I gasped, stumbling back and hitting a bale of hay. Had I imagined it? Flustered, I pressed my guilty hands down by my sides.
“Who’s there?” My voice shook and no one answered. Had my sanity finally snapped, merging memory with reality here in the dark?
Then Declan emerged from the shadows like a memory sprung to life.
“Declan?” I cried out and clasped my hand over my open mouth, shocked and mortified. How long had he been there? Had he seen me?
“I remember what I did to you here that summer six years ago.” He stepped closer and spoke in a low, sizzling voice. “In this barn, and in my cabin. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Backing up against the wall, I froze. I knew I should run. I needed to get away from him. But my feet stayed fixed to the floor.
He looked like hell, dark shadows under his eyes, rough stubble on his chiseled cheeks. A far cry from the debonair man I’d last seen in the New York hotel, he looked like a tortured soul. He came closer.
“Do you remember what I did to you here, Kara? Were you thinking about it?” He whispered now, standing near. A deep sound came from my throat, caught. I couldn’t move but couldn’t meet his eyes. He looked haggard and wild. I knew I should yell at him, push him away, but instead I wanted to bring my hand up to his hair and smooth its tousle. His eyes looked haunted.
“Declan, please!” I pleaded. I needed to leave. I couldn’t think with this man near me. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to find you, Kara.” He spoke with low, ferocious intensity. “What were you doing here in the dark?” He brought his hand to my wrist and wrapped his fingers around my jumping, pounding pulse. The power of his grip made it pick up even more, leaping to his attention. I closed my eyes, trying to keep my wits about me.