bad memories. Back for the weekend, she has no intention of seeing the man she never got over…or the two of them getting down and dirty. It’s just a belated goodbye, right? No harm, no foul. Until six weeks later, when her pregnancy test comes back positive…
Daniel Rodriguez hasn’t forgiven himself for how things went down with Hope all those years ago. He knows she’s better off without him, but when she shows up on his doorstep, panicking because she’s pregnant with his baby, he can’t help seeing it as a chance to make up for the past.
Too bad Hope has no intention of going along with his plans.
crossed the town boundary in thirteen years, not since she sat next to an open
grave as they lowered her brother into the ground. Not since she turned her
back on her entire life here, whisked away by her parents to the best medical
facilities Texas had to offer.
knee. She’d never cheered again, never run track, never done any of the things
she’d had planned when she was eighteen and had graduated high school with
stars in her eyes.
and love in her heart.
past that car crash.
love a lot longer to die than it had her knee, but Daniel Rodriguez made sure
she knew where she stood with him.
taking her foot off the gas and picked up speed again. There was no telling if
she’d see him while she was here, but it couldn’t matter. She’d moved past what
happened that night, moved past the disappointment that she’d almost let sour
everything else about her life. It might not have happened like she planned,
but she’d made the best of her college experience, and she’d gone on to create
a successful little niche for herself, helping people and institutions with too
much money on their hands create trusts and scholarships for those in need.
in town to finally do that in her brother’s memory.
Street, heading for the only lodgings someone out of town with no relatives to
stay with would consider—Sara Jane’s B&B. It was a nice little place, but
Sara Jane was nosy to a criminal degree and gossiped more than anyone Hope had
ever come across. The second she checked in and went up to her room, everyone
with a phone would be getting a call letting them know that she was back in
was a secret, but she couldn’t help but feel that she’d always be John Moore’s
little sister, the one who survived when her older brother—her better in a lot
of ways—didn’t. She knew that was her own insecurity. She’d had too many
years of therapy to believe anything else, except in her darkest heart of
hearts, the place she didn’t let see the light any more than strictly
ignore that little voice when driving through Devil’s Falls. No, not through.
To. This was her destination.
been too thrilled about her coming back, even for a limited time, but even they
couldn’t deny that this scholarship she was here to set up was a good thing—the
right way to honor John. He’d been in the middle of a full ride at the
University of Texas when he was killed, and it made sense to set it up to allow
other kids the opportunity he’d never be able to realize.
to her chest and pulled into the nearest parking spot against the curb. God,
even after all this time, it still hurts. Most days it didn’t. He’d been
gone long enough that she’d processed her grief as much as one person could
process grief, and she was able to focus on the good memories.
the sign she’d been staring blindly at, and she frowned. Cups and Kittens. That was new. In a
town as mired in the past as Devil’s Falls, change was something of a novelty.
Or maybe she was biased in a negative way, because the only thing this town
held for her was memories. Some bad, mostly good, all dust now.
grateful for something external to focus on, she climbed out of her car and
looked at the cheery window painting depicting kittens frolicking in between
wait a little while longer. Her meeting with the town board wasn’t until tomorrow,
so there was no reason she couldn’t do a little poking around in the meantime.
Thirteen years was a long time. If anyone had asked her, she would have joked
that she hadn’t expected anything about Devil’s Falls to change while she was
the door and froze in the face of a pair of cats staring at her from their
perch on a table overlooking the big window in the front. The sight surprised a
laugh out of her. “Cups and Kittens, indeed.”
the woman behind the counter, a third cat lounging near the register.
Familiarity rolled over Hope. “Jules Rodriguez.” Daniel’s little cousin. Not so
little anymore. Last time she’d seen Jules, the girl had been lanky to an
almost awkward degree and had braces with bright green bands. She’d grown up
pretty, and there was more of Daniel about her now than there had been when she
was a kid.
back in Devil’s Falls and seeing Daniel wherever I look.
cleared. “Hope? What are you doing back in town?” She hesitated. “I don’t
suppose you’re here to sweep my brooding cousin off his feet and shove him back
into real life?”
over itself trying to keep up with the other woman’s verbal gymnastics. Jules
had always been like that, now that she thought about it—a bright and bubbly
steamroller. She tried to weed her way through what the woman had just said,
but there was only one thing she could focus on. Daniel. Always Daniel. “What
do you mean, back into real life?”
didn’t. She studied Jules’s face, the way she wouldn’t quite meet her eyes. “Is
he okay?” She hadn’t missed the way Quinn Baldwyn had frozen up when she’d
asked that same question a few weeks ago at his sister’s wedding, and worry had
been simmering in the back of her mind ever since, no matter how many times she
told herself it wasn’t any of her business. Daniel was a grown man, and he had
always been more than capable of taking care of himself—and everyone else
around him. Things changed, but she couldn’t see that changing.
hand darting out to pet the calico on the counter and then darting away when
the cat swiped at her. “Define okay.”
business. It stopped being her business a very long time ago.
her from clearing her throat and asking, “Is he…is he married?” Did he build
the house we always talked about and have those two wild boys and one sweet
girl? Does he bring his wife waffles for breakfast in bed on the weekends?
already shaking her head, her mouth turning down. “Nope. No wife, no kids, no
serious relationship in, well, thirteen years.”
calculating look came into her eyes, but then she shook herself and it was all
guileless enthusiasm. “What are you doing for dinner?” She rushed on without
waiting for a response. “We’re having a little thing with Quinn and my friend
Aubry, and, well, I kind of went and married Adam Meyers.”
grown into a wild-eyed man, better than she remembered Jules. No one had
expected him to come back to Devil’s Falls after he blew out of town that last
time, let alone to settle here and…get married. “Wow. What’s Daniel have to say
our wedding.” Jules laughed. “Though he was pretty furious at the beginning.
Here, sit down. You look like you could use a coffee, and I’ll tell you the
story since we’re generally pretty dead Thursday nights. Then I’ll close up and
we can go to dinner. The boys will love to see you. Quinn was just talking
about you the other day.”
actually agreed to any of it, but the next thing she knew, she was drinking
coffee while a cat curled up in her lap and listening to Jules’s wild tale
about a fake relationship that turned into a real relationship. Somehow in the
middle of that, she was bundled up into Jules’s truck, and by then it was too
late to change her mind.
seat, consoling herself with the fact that Jules had very specifically not
mentioned Daniel’s name. There was no reason to think he’d be there, but it would
be nice to reconnect with some of her old friends. As much as it had hurt when
things went south with Daniel, knowing that she’d lost Quinn and Adam, too, had
just been salt in the wound. She’d chased them around since she could toddle
after her big brother and his friends, and they’d turned into true friends over
the years. She understood why they hadn’t reached out, but she wasn’t going to
turn down a chance to catch up with them.
the only nice thing about being back in Devil’s Falls.
heard what I’m asking.”
Daniel Rodriguez leaned down and unbuckled Rita’s saddle and hefted it off the
horse’s back. They’d had a good run today, the hot sun making it impossible to
think too hard about anything other than whether a human being could roast
alive in Texas in August. He hadn’t yet, so that put the odds ever so slightly
in his favor.
finish here and head back to his place for a cold shower and an even colder
fucking figure that the universe had other ideas. He glanced up, but Aubry
Kaiser hadn’t moved. In fact, with her arms crossed over her chest and her chin
up, all signs pointed to this adding up to an argument he couldn’t possibly
“It’s your birthday. You can’t just sit at home by yourself.”
birthday, this is the one day a year I should be able to do exactly that
with no one bitching at me.” He regretted the harsh words almost as soon as
they were out of his mouth, but Aubry wasn’t like his little cousin. She was
meaner than a rattler and twice as likely to bite.
amber eyes at him. “Your cousin misses you.”
she was out here when he knew for a fact she thought horses were akin to
goats—as in, the devil’s own creatures. Hell, she was giving poor Rita a
suspicious look even while guilt-tripping him using the one person in his life
he couldn’t say no to.
explain why Jules herself isn’t here.
birthday.” Aubry sighed and rolled her eyes, looking put-upon. “Look, it goes
like this—Jules has worked really hard to put together a surprise birthday
party for you, and if you don’t show up to be surprised, she’s going to be
want a surprise birthday party.” The fact that it was no longer a surprise said
a whole lot about Aubry’s priorities, and he couldn’t blame her for that.
This is the face of a woman who doesn’t give two fucks what you care about.
What I care about is Jules, and that means you’re going to go shower off
the smell of that animal and show up at their house in an hour, right on time.”
She paused, her brows slanting down in an expression that was downright
forbidding. “You helped me out not too long ago, so I’m going to do you a solid
and give you the lowdown. Ready?”
about you. Really worried. If you don’t show up tonight, she’s going to take
that as a sign to go forward with plan B.”
to regret it, but he still asked, “What’s plan B?”
smile. “A full-scale intervention with everyone in your life, including your
parents. The kind where they sit you down in a circle and each speak their mind
in the most uncomfortable way possible until you’re ready to beg the ground to
swallow you whole.” Her smile dimmed. “She’s worried about you, Daniel.”
worried about him, though they usually did him the courtesy of at least trying
to hide the looks exchanged when they thought he wasn’t looking. The whispered
conversations with his various cousins and his parents. The never-ending work
that was only there because they were throwing him a goddamn bone. It didn’t
seem to matter that he hadn’t done anything requiring an intervention. He’d
just stopped enjoying the company of people, mostly because he was such shitty
company these days. But try telling that to the family, and they acted like he
had just confessed to being an ax murderer.
mostly stayed out of it. Up until today.
grabbed the curry brush and went over Rita’s back. Aubry was right. Showing up
to a party he didn’t want on a day he sure as fuck didn’t feel like celebrating
was vastly preferable to the alternative. “Explain to me what the plan is.”
did nothing to reassure him. “Dinner and drinks. It’ll be nice. Adam and Quinn
assholes every day.” Kind of hard not to when they worked the ranch alongside
him. It felt right to have Adam back, to have Quinn there, but at the same time
it was a constant reminder that they were a man short.
you know it,” Aubry continued, obviously enjoying how miserable he was. She’d
always been a mean one, which never failed to amuse him because Jules was her
polar opposite—as bright and happy as a spring day. Rita shifted in her stall,
and Aubry went even paler than she was normally. “Dinner starts at six. Don’t
be late.” Then she was gone, moving at a clip fast enough that a less cautious
man than Daniel would call it running.
five minutes before he followed, hauling the saddle into the tack room and
sorting out the bridle. He didn’t begrudge Quinn his happiness—or Adam, for
that matter—but sometimes it sure as fuck was hard to be around them and their
women. The fact that one of those women was his little cousin barely entered
truck and took the pitted dirt road leading around the edge of his parents’
property to the little house he’d built a few years ago. It wasn’t anything
fancy, but it got the job done, and it was far enough outside town that most
people thought twice before stopping by unannounced.
including his family.
nothing to ward off the feeling of pending doom. It wasn’t that he didn’t like
Jules or Adam or Quinn or whoever the fuck else was going to be at this damn
party, but he wasn’t in the partying sort of mood. Truth be told, he hadn’t
been in that mood for over a decade. It was almost enough to make him call the
whole thing off, but the knowledge that Jules would have no problem bringing
the party to him got him moving again. Not to mention the potential intervention
he needed like he needed a hole in the head.
there, he could hang out for the appropriate amount of time, make his excuses,
and slip out while everyone else was occupied. Two hours, tops.
significantly better, he pulled on a pair of his favorite old jeans and a
T-shirt and grabbed his keys. It struck him as he walked out the door that he
was thirty-fucking-four years old. How the hell did that happen? He
shook his head. He knew damn well how that happened. One day turned into a
week, a month, a year, a decade. All while he kept on keeping, the world
changing around him, but never changing enough.
watch. “Two hours starts when I get there.”