“Did you see the way he looked at me?” Hermione sighs and throws herself down on the bed. Her back bounces on the white comforter, and her lake-colored eyes beam up at the ceiling. She twirls a lock of hair around her finger until it turns purple-pink at the tip. “I wonder if he remembers me.”
The comment reminds me. “Do tell? Why should he remember you?” I tease, bending a knee and collapsing to my side on the edge of the bed.
Hermione exhales. “How long has it been?” she whispers as if searching her memory.
It’s been eight years, I answer in my head. Eight long years of wondering what happened to Ben, trying to forget him, and his haunting memories.
“It was the night of the rodeo,” she starts, and I blink at the reference. “The town was filled with people come to visit, and the streets were packed with strangers. We met near one of those games where you shoot a target, and he won me a prize. A large, pink pig.” She sighs, letting her hair fall from her finger and then she turns her head until her eyes meet mine. “He followed me after I congratulated him on his skills.” A deep blush fills her face, and I imagine it matches the prized pig.
“What did you do?” I mock, my lips curling into a questioning smile. My cousin is younger than me by five years. Practically a sister, she’s one of my best friends. When my parents died, my aunt welcomed me into their home as if I was her own child. At the time, I didn’t feel like I had anywhere else to go. Eight years later, I’m still here.
Hermione rolls to her stomach and buries her face into the soft duvet. I smack at the back of her leg. “Tell me,” I tease.
Words vibrate into the duvet and I laugh, jiggling the back of her knee before she turns to her side.
“I made out with him.”
The thought makes me laugh harder. Stolen kisses during a festival and she’s blushing like a school girl years later.
Laughter subsides to a giggle at her innocence, but the look on her face hints at something more. “Hermione?”
“I didn’t give him everything, but he was…”
“Did he force you to do something?” The horrific thought crosses my mind for only a brief second. The glow to my cousin’s cheeks lets me know nothing of the sort happened.
“He was a perfect gentleman.” The disappointed exhale following her declaration makes me shake my head. How gullible she remains at twenty-two. I only wish I could feel the same about a certain someone. My heart is jaded.
“Lucky for you, or I’d have to kick his ass,” I joke.
She peers up at me, eyes filled with concern. “Oh no, Bea. He was…” She sits up abruptly, her long tresses falling over her shoulder. “Bea, he looked at me as if he remembered, right? As if it might have meant as much to him as it did to me.” The statement hangs as a question, and I don’t wish to shatter the naiveté of my cousin.
“Of course, he would remember you. You are unforgettable, Hero.” I use her pet name to remind her how special she is. “A boy like him could never forget a girl like you.” I only hope it’s true. Based on the deep blushes and sly glances of their earlier reacquaintance, I imagine I’m correct in my assumptions. Clay O’Leary fondly recalls Hero.
Her light skin illuminates as she falls back on the bed, her hands covering her face as she giggles. I think about her reference to the rodeo. Five years ago, Hero was seventeen, which means the boys must have been home on leave. Ben Dexton had to have been here but avoiding me. The thought stings. My shoulders sag and sadness trickles through me. Suddenly, Hero’s hands drop from her cheeks.
“He’s not a boy anymore,” she whispers into the air. Her eyes lifting to the ceiling. “He’s a man, now.” A puzzled expression creeps over her face.
“He is a man,” I say, recall the lean body and tall stature of Clay as he stood next to the more solid form of Ben. Clay’s hair hung longer than his ears, waving and wild, windblown like a fair mare. His eyes danced as he looked at my cousin. “But you are no longer a girl.”
“What if he only wanted that girl?” She sits up again and begs me with her panicked expression to tell her what she wants to hear.
“If I were a gambler, I’d bet he’s curious about the woman you are now.” A smile breaks over her lips, and she falls back on the bed one more time. I chuckle at her expense, but the laughter dwindles in my throat. I wonder if Ben might feel the same. Would he only want the girl I was before he left to see the world? Finding a woman who remains in the same place he couldn’t get away from fast enough must be a huge disappointment. I scoff at the thought. He has no right to find displeasure in me. He walked away. I tip my chin as if talking to someone. Besides, it’s my life and I’m where I want to be. Internally, I sigh as I lie to myself, knowing I didn’t always feel this way.
The following morning, we find ourselves heading to Blue Star Manor, which I’m slowly regretting.
“Why are we going there again?” I mutter, tugging my ballcap forward to shield my eyes as Prince’s truck bumbles and bucks over the ruts in the dirt trail between his backfields and the manor’s property. I’d been down these backroads before, and memories return like the spray of gravel behind us.
Bea and I bouncing over divots as we raced down the dirt path.
Her giggles turning to gasps when we parked along it.
Bea had been hungry for me then, and I let her feast. My cock unfurls inside my jeans to painfully pinch with tightness. Damn it, I hiss. I need to stop thinking about her.
“Leo invited us to breakfast,” Prince hollers over the roar of the old clunker’s engine. We hit another bump in the road and I jostle in the back of the cab while Clay grips the edge of the passenger door.
“It’s a wonder we survived Afghanistan,” I mumble, comparing Prince’s current driving ability with his skills at maneuvering a Humvee over dusty terrain similar to this field. Clay chuckles in the front seat.
“So, tell me more about you and sweet Hero?” Prince teases our young friend who disappeared rather quickly last evening when we returned to Donne’s estate. Questioning his flirtatious looks wasn’t high on my priorities as I had places to be and other old acquaintances to greet.
“Have you ever seen such a beauty?” Clay sighs, innocent but honest. He means every doting word, and I snort at his unabashed truthfulness. I have seen such a beauty, but I’d never admit it to either of them.
“You think I’m joking?” he asks, looking over the worn leather seat to appraise me.
“You seem very serious,” I mutter, sarcasm dripping in my tone.
“I am,” he snaps, a hint of the military man squeaking out of him.
“Fine. I think she’s too quiet, and too fair. I’d prefer someone loud and wild.” I wiggle my brow to hint at a sinister, sumptuous preference. “She’s too innocent for my taste, so yes, I believe I have seen someone more beautiful.” Someone wicked sexy and sharply witty comes to mind, and I curse at the thought of Bea once again.
“Tell me more,” Prince mocks, pressing a hand to his chest like a country girl wanting gossip.
“I think he has eyes for Beatrice,” Clay retorts, and I tug at my hat again. My body angles across the long bench seat and my ankles cross. I lower my eyes to peer out the back window.
“What are you two? School girls?”
Prince laughs but Clay replies without thought. “Hero is a rare gem.”
“Gem?” I scoff. “You collecting jewels?” My head swings back to face him, to find a face struck solemn. The corner of his lip twitches.
“You just met her,” I bark, sitting up and letting my feet fall to the floorboard.
His smile curls deeper.
“You scoundrel, what did you do?” I chuckle as I reach forward and punch his shoulder.
“Ow,” he mocks, rubbing the curve of his bone. “She’s just…she’s everything.” He sighs..
“You thinking of putting a diamond on your precious gem?” I tease, groaning after I ask.
His eyes dance as he looks at me over the seat.
“You can’t be serious?” My head twists from Clay to Prince’s and back. Prince can’t look at me, but his eyes find mine in the rearview mirror. One brow wiggles in surprise.
This is a lost cause, I want to yell. Mockingly, I ask, “What are we, some fucking cavalry? Gonna ride in there and claim the girl for you?”
“No. Nothing like that. I just want to spend time with her. She’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever met.” Clay whines like he’s a child being denied a toy.
“How many times have you met her?” I snort.
“Once.” The word echoes through the bumbling truck.
“What?” I choke. “I don’t see how you know such a thing as her being the sweetest girl ever if you only met her once.” A pause fills the space inside the cab, and sweat trickles down my back. “Clay, tell me you aren’t seriously thinking of marrying this girl?”
“I can’t promise that.” His voice softened as he spoke. Facing away from me, I see the back of his neck turning pink.
“Clay,” I snap. “We just got back. Live a little.” The words linger. We know how close we came to death. Life has new meaning to us, and I plan to live every moment carefree…and just free. I thought we all agreed.
“Listen, take Bea for example. That sugar is full of spice and spitfire. You don’t need sweet. You need the heat of July in the chill of December. You need someone who radiates like the sun in the quiet of the night. You need…you need fucking passion, not passive.” My eyes shoot from the back of Clay’s head to Prince’s eye in the mirror. The wiggling brow stills in a raised position of question.
“I think I love her,” Clay mutters.
I groan and fall back against the old leather seat.
“Is this what we’ve come back for? Marrying off before we’ve sown all our seed?”
“To be fair, you’ve already sown quite a bit,” Princeton interrupts me.
I ignore his comment. “Come on, man. We promised we’d live the life. We’d roam the land. We’d rut in the deep fields of available females.” My cock strains at the thought of planting myself in Bea. Her ruts. My seed. Moaning, I tug my cap from my head to swipe through my hair and then replace it.
I need to get laid.
“Can you believe this?” I screech to Prince. A single shoulder of his shrugs, and I turn my head away from them both, staring out the side window at the dust rolling beside us and the house in the distance. “Prince, promise me you won’t turn tail and chase a girl. We agreed to be reckless in a new way. Home. Safe.”
Prince doesn’t respond, but a smile cocks the corner of his mouth. He nods his head in a non-committal way, and I smack my thigh.
“Shit, I can’t believe this.” I don’t know why I’m so worked up other than I’ve been in Clay’s position. Once upon a time, I wanted the ring on a girl and it was all for nothing.
“Me thinks, it’s so,” Prince jests in ancient language. “Our boy’s in love.”
“Ugh,” I groan, my eyes rolling to the heavens.
“What’s wrong with falling so quickly, feeling so passionately about a girl?” Clay asks, his voice strengthening in earnest.
Prince guffaws, and then says, “Nothing,” at the same time I choke out the word, “Passion.” I recall the blushing brunette and her shifting eyes from the night before. That wasn’t passion. Passion was a word for women like Bea, not Hermione.
“You mock me.” Clay’s accusation startles me.
“Truthfully, I don’t,” Prince replies, stealing a glance at Clay. He can’t possibly agree to instant love, right?
I blink in utter disbelief.
“You’re lying,” Clay snorts.
“I don’t,” Prince assures, and I grunt again. “She is pretty and sweet and worthy of you, if you love her.”
Clay shifts in his seat, and once again I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Clay’s face expresses his relief and excitement at Prince’s approval of his feelings.
“I don’t understand how she’s worthy. You don’t know her,” I retort.
Clay’s grin matches that of Prince. Somehow, I sense I’m the one missing something. I’m fighting a losing battle trying to argue my case against insta-love and quick proposals.
“Well, I’ll just be thankful it isn’t me. I’m never marrying. Never gonna fall in love.” Again, I mentally add. My head falls back to rest on the seat. Never again.
“Stranger things have happened,” Prince warns, and I sense his eyes on me through the rearview mirror. Refusing to return his gaze, I stare at the ceiling. The strangest thing to happen to me was meeting Bea in an untimely period before I left for the service eight years ago. It was an awful tease on a life already considered a cruel joke.
“Just ignore him, Clay,” Prince states. “He doesn’t believe in things, like love and destiny.”
My head snaps forward. “Damn straight.” Fate knocked when I needed to leave, and I didn’t open the door. I secured the lock. “Women forgive me for not loving them. They know the deal. I’m not misleading. They get what they see, and I haven’t had a complaint where my stick stirs the pot.”
“You didn’t just…” Prince busts into laughter.
Clay turns to peer at me. “What do you mean?”
Prince laughs harder at Clay’s questioning voice, the innuendo lost to our young friend.
“I’m making an oath to remain a bachelor. Unbridled. Carefree. If need be, I’ll swear it in blood.”
Prince’s laughter slowly dies before he speaks. “And I swear you’ll fall in love before summer’s end.”
“Never,” I hiss. “Fall into a pile of horse shit. Maybe. Fall into a bottle of whiskey. Definitely. Fall into bed with some willing lass. Absolutely. Fall in love? Take all my blood and stop my heartbeat now because that’s what love would do to me.”
“One day, your stick is going to stir only one pot, and I’ll be the first to remind you of your words.” Prince chuckles after throwing my metaphor back at me.
“When an earthquake rattles a mountain peak,” I jest.
“I look forward to Shakes Peake quivering,” he jokes about the mountain shadowing our valley. “Let’s wager, shall we?” His brow rises and I meet his glance in the mirror.
Knowing this is a bet I can’t lose, I reach forward with an extended hand. “Deal.”
“Deal,” Prince says, reaching over his shoulder to awkwardly shake while he drives. His sapphire eyes spark in the reflection of the mirror, and he gives me a look like he knows something I don’t.
I hate when he gives me that look.
+ + +
We arrive at the main house after parking near the stables once again. Blue Star Manor is a huge estate, and Prince has told me how Leo has made a few changes to their daily operations. They still raise cattle but intend to make additional alterations to their business. I’m curious to learn more from Prince, but Bea steps onto the front porch and all thought escapes me. Tight jeans, a tank top, and pursed lips dress her today.
The instant I see her, I want to run the other way. My heart patters like the gallop of a filly, and air catches in my throat. I can’t seem to breathe when I look at her azure eyes stabbing me. My cock stands at attention, ready to fight back with twisting bodies and melding mouths stopping the sharpness of hers before she can utter a word.
“Gentlemen,” she snaps, her eyes shifting to me. “Excuse me. Two thirds of you I consider gentle, the other…” Her voice falters as she roams my body from boot tips to baseball cap. I curse at the sweet pleasure her glare gives me, and my dick jolts again, wanting to enter her for the ride she’s sure to give me. Harder and faster are words which remind me she liked it any way but gentle.
“The other is more man than you can handle,” I quip.
“Ha.” Her sharp exhale smacks my cheeks, but her face heats as her eyes leap to my zipper region. I thrust forward just enough to hint I know she’s looking at me down there, and her cheeks turn a sweet pink. Her blazing eyes could melt me, and suddenly I want to be burned. Scorched. Prodded. Claimed.
“I’ll be gentle if you want me to be,” I hush-whisper, leaning forward as if conspiring to share a secret. Prince chuckles and Clay digs a toe in the dirt, possibly embarrassed by the banter with Bea.
“Where’s Hermione?” Clay asks, interrupting this torturous tease leading to the foreplay I desire.
Not that I desire her, just my dick wants to play, I tell myself.
“She’s waiting in the kitchen,” her sweet tone addresses Clay, stealing her eyes away from me.
“Good place for a woman to be,” I snark. The drop of her mouth, her tongue exposed, fuels the fire burning in me, but the low hiss of Prince and the dying whistle of Clay tell me I crossed a line.
“You bastard.” Her head snaps back like I struck her. Hurt paints her cheeks, and I instantly regret my comment.
“Fuck off, Ben.” She looks away from me, and I know her eyes won’t meet mine again. She concentrates too hard on holding Prince’s gaze. “My uncle held breakfast until you boys arrived.” With that she spins and storms to the porch, swinging her backside, and my eyes can’t leave the sight of her ass in snug jeans. Of course, seeing her back to me rips at my gut, but watching her backside sway like a slow dance makes up for the pinch in my chest.
“Ben,” Prince warns after she hits the porch. The screen door slams as she disappears into the house.
“I shouldn’t have said it,” I grumble, knowing I touched on a deep-set fear of hers. Of all the things I remember most about Bea, one thing remains prominent in my memory. Bea did not want to be saddled as a stereotypical wife. No kitchen duty. Laundry. Routine of cleaning and vacuuming. She wanted things on her terms and that meant no commitment. And no me.
My mouth needs breakfast to force back the apology lingering on my tongue. I take a step forward, but Clay stops me.
“Wait. What do I do when I go in there? Does Hermione have any brothers I should be concerned about?”
“Oh, for fuck sake,” I groan. “This is why you can’t marry her. You know nothing about her.” Clay ignores me and turns in question toward Prince.
“Hero is the only child of Leo and Toni,” Princeton assures our love-smitten friend.
“Okay.” He sighs, brushing fingers through his wild ringlets. “Okay. I can do this.”
“What the—” I start, but Prince interrupts me. “What’s going on?”
“I’m nervous,” Clay says. “What if she doesn’t feel the same about me? What if she doesn’t remember me like I remember her?”
“But you like her, right?” Prince prods.
“More than anything. When I met her, I was still in the army and unable to act. I was only flirting. A fling on leave, right? My mind was elsewhere, but she has haunted me. Now that we’ve returned and sworn to live life to the fullest, I find my life cannot be filled without her.”
My eyes roll. For the love of…
“I want to hang a no-vacancy sign, claim the guest rooms all taken. The space in my heart is now occupied.”
“Oh, for heaven’s—” I begin, but Clay interrupts me.
“Saying I like her is a lie. The truth is I love her.”
“For fucking crying out loud,” I snap, my palm slapping my jean-covered thigh as I tug at my ballcap with my other hand. He can’t be serious, I think for the forty-millionth time.
“Okay, let me help,” Prince asks of the young lover. “I’ll talk to Leo. He respects me. I can see if she has other interests…other men in her life.” He snaps his fingers like an idea strikes, and nervous sweat rolls between my shoulder blades. I don’t trust the expression on Prince’s face. It’s like the look he gave me in the truck, like he knows something I don’t. “Better yet,” he begins, his smile spreading. “The upcoming barn dance is the perfect night to ask her myself. It’s a masquerade of sorts. I can speak to Hero in disguise to find out how she feels.”
My gut sucks inward. Something feels a little off in this plan.
Prince continues. “I’ll play like I’m you and share your feelings with her. If she doesn’t reciprocate, I can tell you. If she does, I’ll speak with her dad. Like I said, he respects me.”
“Oh, man,” I hiss. This sounds bad. Real bad.
“It’s perfect,” Prince states, clapping Clay on the back.
“It can’t hurt,” Clay replies, nodding in agreement.
“This has disaster written all over it,” I mumble. Trying to fool a woman into loving you never works. But both men already turn for the house, Prince laying out his scheme to woo a girl for another man.
© 2019 L.B. Dunbar. All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author.