Authors: Molli Moran
She hoped she was strong enough.
“It’s not my fault, you know. If you weren’t so damn beautiful, I could stop starin’ at you.” His drawl stretched the words, stringing the syllables between them like the Christmas lights decorating the tree in the town square.
Quinn squawked something between a snort and a laugh as they left the gravel for dirt. Trees lined the road, stretching overhead, and the sunlight drizzled through in pockets. “You’re such a bullshitter, Jonah Walker.”
He glanced briefly at her, and slowed the car for a steep curve in the road. Houses dotted the side, but the spaces between them yawned, so different from her cultured, picturesque subdivision. “I’m hurt.” But he grinned as he pulled into a long driveway bordered with peach trees.
The two-story house at the end of the drive sat on a good-size piece of land, pastures stretching away on either side. Quinn thought about Jonah working in these fields, and about the deep tan his jeans and plaid shirt over a tee conceal. She’d seen his bare chest a handful of times at the beach before the summer ended, and she knew so much about him, but this was the first time meeting his family. She knew his older brother in passing, because he was friends with her cousin, Darren, but the rest of them were strangers to her.
Their worlds never collided before they met at the diner.
Now, two months and a few days later, she couldn’t imagine her life without Jonah in it—and that was equally amazing, and terrifying on a daily basis.
Jonah opened his door and stepped out then came around for hers. He reached for her hand and gently pulled her into his arms. Quinn turned away, flustered, but Jonah snagged the scarf trailing over her shoulder and reeled her toward him.
“Don’t do that, please.” He eased toward her.
What?” She couldn’t look away. She tried to glare, but it was impossible. She couldn’t even hold the expression for more than a few seconds.
“Pull away from me. You’re always so skittish.” He put a hand under her chin, and rested his forehead against hers. “Like you’re afraid to let me hold you.”
“I—” Quinn knew she needed to be honest with him now they’re progressing past casual. They had been dizzyingly intense from the start, but meeting his family meant he was truly serious about her. “I’m not used to it,” she said slowly. “My parents aren’t affectionate.” To say the very least. After her icy upbringing, Jonah’s constant touches felt like fire; he was casual, unthinking, and overwhelming, and she was incredibly drawn to him.
Jonah frowned at her, and moved his hand to the side of her face. He pulled back to look at her. “Well, I am.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “And so are my family, and I think they’re going to love you. So you should get used to affection from us crazy Walkers.”
Could it be that simple? Could she move beyond a lifetime of learned behavior? Could she believe in his embraces? In him, and them?
Quinn breathed in deeply, then exhaled, leaning into Jonah’s warmth. His honesty and kindness pushed her feelings for him another notch higher. “Okay,” she said. It was easy enough to say, because for him, she’d try. For him, she meant it.
Jonah swiped at his sweaty forehead with his shirt, then shoved it in his back pocket for later. It was only 1pm, but considering Ethan woke him at five in the morning by barreling into his room and landing on top of him, he felt like he’d put in a full day already. The Georgia sun seemed merciless, and Atlanta felt like another continent at this point, not to mention another lifetime. Jonah downed most of a bottle of water, then poured the rest of the liquid over his head.
“You wimpin’ out on us?” Ethan appeared beside him, wearing his trademark Braves cap. Jonah was fairly certain someone had put the damn thing in his brother’s crib, and Ethan had latched onto it at that point.
Jonah knocked the cap off Ethan’s head, chuckling as his brother cursed. “Nah, not yet at least.” He wasn’t sure if this easy banter between them would last. Wasn’t even sure if it was real, or if it was as thin and fragile as the truce he’d forged with Reece. Since the day he met James, Jonah hadn’t seen Reece more than a handful of times, and he wasn’t sure if he was in a hurry to mend that fence.
“We’ll see about
, city boy,” Ethan scoffed, but flashed a grin.
Jonah focused on the row of corn he was planting, but the smile working at his mouth made it difficult to concentrate. He was going to savor this as long as it lasted. Being able to talk to his family anytime he wanted, joking with Ethan, or with their dad. Honest conversations around the dinner table. He wanted to absorb this feeling of acceptance, like good, rich dirt drinking up much-needed rain.
Working in tandem with Ethan cutting the rows, Jonah finished the final four rows of peaches-and-cream. Being outside and working the land was familiar, and right now, he needed the chance to throw himself into hard work. His father had them working from sun-up until dusk, but Jonah didn’t mind. There was always something to do on the farm, whether it was planting, tilling new ground, caring for the livestock, or planning ahead. Tomorrow they were vaccinating all two hundred head of cattle, and although his muscles would likely hate him for it later, Jonah looked forward to it. It was good,
“Yo!” At Ethan’s shout, Jonah followed the sound. His brother held up two bottles. “Want one?”
“Sure.” Jonah took off his work gloves and ambled over to Ethan. His brother held out one of the beers, and Jonah grabbed it. He twisted off the cap and tipped the bottle to his lips. He didn’t drink very often; while the rest of his dorm went to frat parties, Jonah spent the nights he wasn’t studying in one of a few places he found that hosted open-mic nights. But there was something indefinable about a cold beer with his brothers that set things to right.
“Thanks, E.” He nodded at Ethan, who lifted his chin. “Wanna go for a ride after this?”
Ethan side-eyed him. “Like I really need to be asked?” He killed his beer, and tossed the bottle in the back of his truck. “Mac’s been sad lately, so we need to spend some quality time together.”
“How’s Finn?” Jonah pulled his shirt out of his pocket, then over his head. “I missed him. Y’all better have treated him right.”
“He’s a shit head.” Ethan chuckled, and pushed himself up onto the lowered tailgate.
“Dude, that’s my horse you’re talkin’ about!”
“Well.” Ethan drew out the word, managing to make it into two syllables. “Listen to that accent comin’ back. Guess there’s some country in ya still, big brother.”
Jonah shrugged, but he was smiling. It was nice to know that Atlanta hadn’t rubbed away everything that made him who he was. He hoped he’d left more bad traits there than good. Despite everything he learned in college, the friends he made, and the life experience he gained, this was home.
Crossing his arms over his chest, Jonah leaned against the tailgate, and tipped his face toward the sun. Truth be told, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere other than the south. Even though Atlanta was definitely still in Georgia, at heart he was a small-town boy who’d left, and grown up, and realized how good he had it at home. He liked being in a place where people knew him when he went places, and not just as “guitar guy” or “black coffee, one sugar guy.” He liked being “Sam Walker’s boy,” and “Jonah.”
“Hey.” Ethan flicked his shoulder, and Jonah glanced at his brother. Ethan nodded toward Reece approaching them. “Whatever’s going on between you two…”
“Ain’t gonna be fixed today,” Jonah finished. He pushed himself off the tailgate, but that left him standing there, open. He shoved his hands in his pockets for something to do, and exhaled to steady himself.
Reece sauntered over to them and stopped a few paces away. “Hey.” His eyes were unreadable behind his sunglasses, and he didn’t smile in greeting. “Finished with the corn?”
“Yeah, we are. We were about to go riding.” Ethan didn’t even have the grace to look ashamed for volunteering the information, but after he glanced at Jonah, he took off his cap and bunched it in his hands. “Corn’s done though. Crop’s gonna be a good one.”
If Reece was pissed that they didn’t intend on inviting him to ride with them, he didn’t comment on it. “I’m sure it will be.”
It was the longest they’d been in the same vicinity since the argument, if that was even the right word for it. Jonah wasn’t sure scraping a barely-there scab off a deep wound counted as an argument. The mutual hurt and distrust between them went so much deeper than disagreeing over what to have for dinner. Reece and Hannah’s son was precious to them, and yeah, Jonah had been and
an ass. But he didn’t think that warranted the entire family hiding Jamie’s existence from him. And since he couldn’t be mad at
, he was focusing his anger on Reece.
“Come on, Ethan, let’s go get the horses ready. We can clean this up when we get back.” Jonah walked away, flicking a glance at his brothers out of the corner of his eye. He ignored the shrug Ethan gave Reece before falling into step beside him. Jonah knew Ethan thought their differences were bull, and it was likely he’d make sure Jonah knew it. And Jonah didn’t expect Ethan to be upset with Reece; this wasn’t his fight, after all. He wasn’t trying to put his little brother in the middle, and neither was Reece, but Jonah wanted to start making up for lost time with Ethan.
At the barn, they fell into the familiar routine of saddling the horses, checking their hooves, and getting them ready to ride. Once they walked Mac and Finn out of the barn, Jonah swung into the saddle, and felt his horse’s muscles shifting beneath him. Leaning over, Jonah whispered into Finn’s ear. “Ready to run, buddy?” Finn whinnied, and Jonah didn’t know if he was imagining it or not, but he thought the horse sounded happy. He knew what it was like to live cooped up in a small space, and to finally be let free, so he urged Finn into a canter.
He and Ethan didn’t talk for the better part of an hour, just rode. It felt amazing to not
to say anything. They rode the perimeter of the farm, and then traveled toward a freshly bush-hogged field. Jonah nudged Finn, and that was all it took for the animal to break into a gallop. Jonah leaned in, loving the feel of the wind roaring around him, and the sound of Finn’s hooves drumming on the ground. He didn’t try to dial his horse’s pace back; he let Finn run it out of his system, soaring parallel to the road that ran past their house. Familiar sights flew by, and Jonah laughed out of sheer joy.
Finally, he slowed Finn gradually, noticing Ethan doing the same with Mac. They brought the horses to a slow walk, guiding them onto the road for the trip back to the stables. Jonah closed his eyes for a few seconds, savoring the rush.
“Thanks for coming with me, Ethan.” Opening his eyes, he glanced over at Ethan. “It’s been too long since we got to spend time together. I miss that, just kicking back, and shooting the breeze with you.”
“No problem.” Ethan grinned at him. “I missed it, too. I mean, I know you had your reasons for leaving, but this place wasn’t the same without you.”
“You’re gonna make me blush.” Jonah put a hand to his heart, but he couldn’t hold back a laugh.
“Sarcasm doesn’t look good on you, brother,” Ethan shot back.
Jonah shook his head, fisting his hand around Finn’s reins so the horse didn’t get any ideas. He’d been known to wander off; it fit that his horse was the one who didn’t like to follow the well-known path, but instead wanted to go somewhere he’d never been before. “Seriously. I did have my reasons, but it wasn’t right, how I did y’all.” He paused, searching for words. “And I know I can’t just come back and expect things to be…the same.”
“Is that why you’re fightin’ with Reece?” Ethan caught his eyes, and Jonah frowned. “Things with him aren’t the same? ’Cause none of
The reminder was gentle, but burned all the way through him, and Jonah frowned. “I don’t really want to talk about it—”
“Joe, you’re going to have to at some point.”
And that, combined with the old nickname was more sobering than anything else his brother could have said to him. Which, illogically, was irritating. Jonah was grinding his teeth together before he even realized what he was doing. He hated that he couldn’t just let it go. He understood the basic nature of protecting one’s own, and he reckoned when you were a parent, that instinct doubled. But he couldn’t get over feeling betrayed by Reece.
“Makin’ you feel like you couldn’t see Jamie was a dick move, yeah, but so was leaving and shutting all of us out for years.” Ethan met his gaze, and Jonah felt pinned to the wall.
Jonah felt the flush creeping into his cheeks, and there was nothing he could do about it. Ethan was absolutely right, which didn’t surprise him. His brother was known for being the most levelheaded of the Walker boys. Reece was the hothead, Jonah the impulsive one, and Ethan kept their asses in check.
“I didn’t think it would be this
.” Jonah stared at Ethan, unsure what else to say. “I just…fuck, I don’t know.”
it would be, bro?” Ethan’s jaw clenched. “You’d come home and it would be like you never left? You
, Jonah, and that hurt like hell. It felt personal, because you did everything you could to keep us at arm’s length.”
The silence was a vacuum, leaching all the air out of the spaces around and between them. Jonah lowered his head, focusing on the swaying motion Finn made as he walked. One of the horses whinnied softly, but other than that, neither Jonah nor Ethan spoke. Jonah knew Ethan had likely wrestled with his admission before deciding to say it. Ethan was a still water, as their dad was fond of saying, and he wasn’t careless with his feelings or with his words.
“I didn’t mean for you to feel that way. For any of y’all to get hurt.” Jonah raised his head, seeking out his brother’s gaze, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Ethan’s expression said so much, and Jonah knew he was an even bigger failure than he’d imagined. “Ethan, you have to believe me. It had nothin’ to do with you or anyone. I was a mess, and I needed to escape, but I stayed gone too long.”
“Four years, and we barely heard from you or saw you,” Ethan reminded him. “We didn’t even know if
or when you were coming
. Can you blame Reece for protecting his kid? He didn’t want to bring Jamie around you or get his hopes up for meeting you, if you didn’t come through.”
Jonah sighed, and cursed under his breath. “Boy, you go right for the jugular don’t you?” Shaking his head, he scratched at the stubble on his jaw, trying to let the sting of his brother’s words settle in. “I know why he did it, and I know being mad at him isn’t doing me or him any good.” They rounded the bend in the road, and he glimpsed the stables. “I don’t know how to get past it, or how to do right by you, or anyone.” The admission hurt, but he couldn’t take it back.
Ethan didn’t say anything right away, but the silence wasn’t completely uncomfortable, either. They neared the stables, and Ethan dismounted, his work boots striking the ground with a thud. Jonah did the same, and they led the horses into the barn. Neither of them spoke while they removed bridles and saddles, and each grabbed what they needed to brush the horses. They fell into a familiar rhythm Jonah wasn’t sure he wanted to disturb.