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Authors: Trish Milburn

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Chapter Nine

When Elly walked up the stone pathway to the Tanner House B and B on Friday afternoon, Janie was sitting on the front porch’s swing.

“That looks peaceful. Chilly, but peaceful.”

“Yeah.” Janie didn’t quite meet her eyes.

Elly tried to calm the nerves roiling inside her. This sensation of being nervous around Janie made her feel like she’d taken a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in an alternate universe. But she did her best not to let it show. She was determined to recapture the type of relationship they’d had before either of them knew about the affair that had happened between their parents.

Instead of seating herself in the large wicker chair adjacent to the swing, Elly deliberately sank next to Janie like she’d been doing since they’d bonded over their mutual dislike of multiplication tables. Elly lifted the large brown bag in her hand.

“I brought five kinds of cookies and every Gerard Butler movie I could find.” Janie had developed her crush on Gerry with
The Phantom of the Opera,
and had been completely done in when she’d watched his washboard abs in
300.

“Bribery, huh?” The barest hint of the old Janie gave Elly hope.

“I tried looking up his phone number to see if he could join us for the weekend, but did you know they don’t actually publish the numbers of famous people? The nerve!”

Janie’s lips twitched.

Elly wrapped her arm around Janie’s and leaned on her shoulder. She hated to change the tone of their interchange, but they couldn’t keep avoiding the big issue if there was any hope for them to move beyond it.

“I felt horrible in the Sagebrush the other night.”

“I’m sorry.”

Elly lifted her head and turned to face Janie. “No, I don’t want you to apologize. If anyone should, it’s me. I’m sorry I got upset about you not telling me about…the situation. I know it must have been a hard thing to bear.”

Janie nodded. “I felt like it was going to eat me alive.” She paused, picked at her cuticles in a nervous habit she didn’t display very often. “I found out that Mark had a different father when Dad was sick. He refused to let either of us help him, not even to donate blood. I thought that was odd and asked Mom about it. She brushed it off, saying Dad was just stubborn. It kept bugging me though, and later I found a letter Mom had sent to your dad back when she was pregnant with Mark. It was returned unopened, but…I opened it.”

“What did it say?”

“Nothing specific, just that she wanted to meet to talk. But it made alarms go off in my head. I had no proof, but I just knew in my gut.”

“Mark’s known all this time?”

“No. I didn’t tell him.”

Elly looked at Janie, her confusion probably etched all over her face. “Why?”

“Dad was dying, Mom was beginning to slip more. I just couldn’t handle anything else, and I didn’t think Mark could either. I didn’t think it was going to do anybody any good to know.” Janie finally met Elly’s eyes. “I swear, I didn’t keep quiet to hurt anyone. Not Mark, not you.”

She looked so haunted by the secret she’d kept that Elly clasped one of Janie’s hands in hers. “I know.”

“Mark didn’t know until recently. He had a blood test done, but all it proved was that Dad was almost certainly not his biological father. He let your dad know what he suspected, but that’s as far as he took it.”

Elly slid back against the swing and used her foot to make it sway gently, trying to absorb the barrage of information. Several quiet moments passed in which the only sounds she heard were the squeak of the swing’s chains and the wind in the surrounding pine trees.

She bit her bottom lip before speaking again. “This has been so surreal. Sometimes when I wake up in the morning, I think for a moment that I just dreamed it all.”

“I wish we had.”

“I feel like everything I’ve ever thought was real was actually a lie, like my family is being torn apart.”

“That makes two of us.” Janie picked at a small hole in her jeans. “Only I feel like I’m losing the only sibling I have.” She didn’t have to say the rest—that Elly was gaining another brother when she already had four. Just as Will had said Janie was probably feeling.

“You know Mark will never leave you, no matter who his father is. He loves you.”

“So he says, but I don’t know. I already feel I’ve lost part of him to Nicki. I mean, don’t get me wrong. She’s great, and she’s really good for him. I’ve never seen him as happy as when he’s with her. It’s just…”

Elly squeezed Janie’s arm. “Things are changing, but you’ll always have Mark. And me.” She hugged Janie and watched as the sun’s bottom edge dipped below the horizon. As if on cue, the breeze turned colder. “Let’s go inside and start a fire.”

After a moment, Janie nodded.

They tossed their overnight bags in their respective rooms, then Elly started a fire while Janie put the cookies on two large plates and poured glasses of milk.

When Elly turned back toward Janie, she could tell something else was still troubling her friend. “What is it?”

“I bet Jesse hates Mark even more now, doesn’t he?”

“Hate is a strong word.”

“They’ve never been the best of the friends.”

“No,” Elly said as she moved toward the couch and sank onto one of its arms. “I can’t even remember why this dumb rivalry of theirs started.”

Janie looked like she wanted to say something, but she remained silent.

“You know why?”

Janie lifted her gaze to Elly’s. “Because Mark always felt like he had to work three times as hard to accomplish what Jesse did. It’s not Jesse’s fault. I think it’s more a sense of inferiority on Mark’s part. They were always competing, but Jesse had the better equipment, better horses.”

“Mark does really well. He’s just as likely to win the Finals as Jesse.”

“Yes, but…it was just harder.”

Elly did her best not to sound defensive when she responded. “Jesse works hard, too.”

“I know that. And I think Mark does, too, though he’s been loath to admit it at times, especially the way they try to mess with each other’s heads at rodeos.” Janie sighed and leaned against the kitchen table. “You know Mark isn’t a big talker.” She laughed a little. “I guess he’s a lot like Jesse that way.”

Elly nodded, unable to deny the similarity. She suspected that if she let herself, she’d find more.

“I’m not saying this to elicit pity. You know I hate that. But I think all Mark ever wanted was for things to not be so tough. He doesn’t mind hard work, but I know he worries about Mom and her care. About me, though he shouldn’t. I can take care of myself. Honestly, I’d be more worried about him if it wasn’t for Nicki. And goodness knows I wasn’t too easy on her when they first got involved. But even though she’s been good for him, I still feel like he’s walking around with a lot of self-induced pressure on his shoulders.”

Elly thought the same about Jesse—only he didn’t have a woman to love and be loved by. But he had lived an easier life than Mark. No one could argue that point.

Having access to the Cody coffers—through blood and not charity—could make all the difference in the world to Mark and his family. Elly couldn’t begrudge him that.

She stared at the top of the coffee table for a few seconds before lifting her gaze back to Janie. “As difficult as it is, I think we have to sit back and let them work it out for themselves.”

Janie nodded, then brought the cookies and milk to the coffee table. “I don’t know about you, but I’m up for a little escapism at the moment.”

“Your wish is my command.”

They sank onto the couch, and Elly held up two DVD cases. “So,
The Ugly Truth
or
Gamer?

“I’m more in need of some half-naked men.”

Elly lowered the DVDs and cocked her head to the side. “How many times have you seen
300?

“Not enough.”

Elly tossed the cases on the coffee table and grabbed another. “Scantily clad Spartans, it is.”

Despite Janie’s request for the movie, however, Elly sensed she wasn’t as into it as normal, that she couldn’t escape her thoughts. But she waited until Janie initiated more conversation.

“I’ve heard people talking in town. They’re saying Jesse hired Will so Mark doesn’t get his hands on Cody money.”

Elly lowered her half-eaten snickerdoodle. “It’s not that ugly. Jesse just takes his responsibility for our family very seriously.” She paused, tried to view the situation from her brother’s perspective. “And he’s hurt, just like the rest of us. All these years, he’s thought he was the eldest son, and now he finds out it’s all been a lie.”

“Mark wouldn’t do that, go after your money.”

“I know. But he might be entitled to it anyway.”

“What has Will said?”

“I don’t know. He only discusses the case with Jesse.”

They watched the scene where Gerry and Lena Headey got hot and heavy before he marched off to certain death.

“So, have you kissed him yet?” Janie asked.

The question caught Elly off guard. She didn’t know whether she should tell the truth, so she fell back on teasing. “Gerry? Nah, I’m more of an Eric Bana in
Troy
gal myself.”

Janie swatted Elly’s leg. “Will, you goofball.”

Elly sat for a moment, recalling the feel of Will’s lips on hers, the comforting strength of his arms wrapped around her, the subtle brush of his body against hers.

“You have, haven’t you?”

Elly nodded.

“Can I say I told you so now?”

“Are you okay with that?”

Janie thought for a moment then nodded. “Yeah. I always thought he was nice. And he certainly did grow up to be easy on the eyes.”

Elly bumped Janie’s shoulder with her own. “Hey, get your own guy.”

A look of longing, momentary but strong, passed over Janie’s face.

“Hey, is there someone you like? Who is it?”

“No, there’s nobody.” The way she said it left Elly with the impression her friend was lying, but she didn’t press her. She didn’t feel like tempting their reconciliation.

But as the rest of the movie played out, she kept wondering who it could be. And why Janie hadn’t confided in her—unless it was a recent development? Elly tried to push away thoughts that another secret sat lodged between them.

They ordered pizza and watched
The Ugly Truth
next.

By the time they were halfway through
Dear Frankie,
the pizza and countless cookies were beginning to take a toll. Elly leaned her head against the back of the couch.

“I think I’m going to explode.”

“Want me to call Will to come rub your tummy?”

Elly’s mouth fell open as she stared at Janie. When she made a dive for her, Janie squealed and took off running. Elly chased her, swatting her with a decorative pillow. They ran and leaped over furniture until they tripped over each other’s feet and ended up sprawled in the floor, side by side, staring up at the ceiling.

“You really like him, don’t you?” Janie asked.

“Yeah.” Elly didn’t even try to mask the dreamy quality of her voice.

“I could tell.”

“How?”

“The way you were looking at him. I’ve never seen you look at a guy like that.”

Elly lifted the back of her hand to her forehead. “It came so out of the blue, so strong that it shocked me. He’s so different than I remember him.”

“People grow up. They change.”

“I haven’t. I’m pretty much the same now as when we were in high school.”

“Beautiful, talented. What needs to be changed?”

“How I look at people maybe. I mean, I remember him being kind, even if we did tease him. But I never knew about his sense of humor, how he looks at the world, what he wanted out of life.”

“Maybe he didn’t either. Sometimes people have to leave home to find out who they are.”

“I left, but I came back exactly the same. Ranch, photography, training. Training, ranch, photography.”

“What else do you want?”

“I don’t know really. Maybe more of the world than horse barns and arenas.”

Janie lifted onto her elbow and looked down at Elly. “But you love racing.”

“I do. Right now, I want to get to the Finals so much I can taste it. But I won’t be racing my whole life. I haven’t really thought beyond it.”

“But now you’re beginning to?”

“Yeah.”

“Is Will Jackson in the picture?”

Elly smiled at the thought of him. “I hope so.”

Janie lay back down. “I feel sorry for him.”

Elly turned her head to look at Janie’s profile. “What?”

“The poor guy is going to be subjected to the Cody brothers gauntlet.” She snorted. “And I guess now there might be five of them instead of four.”

Elly stared, unsure how to respond until a laugh escaped Janie. Then they were both laughing, just like on so many other girls-only weekends.

Elly grabbed Janie’s hand and squeezed it. “I can’t tell you how happy I am that we’re here.”

“Me, too.”

“Whatever happens with our families, let’s swear we won’t let it come between us again.”

Janie made an exaggerated expression of considering the proposal. “Only if you promise to give me all the juicy details about Will. No fair leaving anything out.”

Elly smiled when she thought that there might be future juicy details to spill. “Deal.”

Chapter Ten

Elly expected Will to call when she got back from her trip with Janie, but Saturday night passed with no ringing of the phone. So did Sunday. By midday Monday paranoia had set in. And it affected her training.

“Focus, dang it,” she said to herself as she lined up to take another run at the cloverleaf pattern around the barrels. But when she knocked over the second one, she didn’t push Pepper too hard the rest of the run. To make matters worse, she spotted Jesse walking past the end of the arena with an “I told you so” look on his face.

As if he never got thrown off a bull.

Needing to get away from the ranch for a while, she called Janie and asked her to meet for lunch at the Sagebrush. When Elly arrived, she sank into the booth across from Janie.

Janie shoved her textbooks aside. “Bad practice?”

“I’ve had better.” Elly nodded toward a biology book that looked like it weighed twenty pounds. “Sorry to interrupt your studying.”

Janie waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “My eyes were crossing anyway. So what’s really bugging you?”

“Will hasn’t called in days.”

“Have you called him?”

“No.”

“Very modern and liberated of you.”

“Whose side are you on?”

“I’m your best friend. I tell it like it is.”

Elly sat back and pouted. “Why am I getting so worked up over this?”

“Because you’ve fallen for him.”

“You can tell that, from seeing us together one time?”

Janie lifted her gaze from her cheeseburger. “And from listening to you enumerate his many wonderful attributes. And from the goofy smile you get on your face when you say his name.”

“I do not.”

“Sorry, toots. You do.”

Elly responded by shoving two piping hot cheese fries into her mouth.

Janie leaned forward. “So, listen, I’ve got an idea.

We’re not exactly swamped at work today. How about I take the rest of the day off and we go into Cody to see the new exhibit on cowgirls?”

Elly suspected her friend had ulterior motives for taking her to Cody, but she agreed nonetheless. After all, it wasn’t like she was going to comb the streets of Cody looking for Will. But if they happened to bump into each other again, she wasn’t going to avoid him either.

But by the time they’d gone through the exhibit, checked on the stock of her photos at the gallery and perused some new offerings in a couple of stores without even a glimpse of Will, she’d resigned herself to the fact that she wasn’t going to have any lucky encounters.

 

W
ILL LOOKED AT THE PAPERS
spread across his desk and sighed. They didn’t change no matter how long he stared.

The paternity test proved that Mark Hansen was, indeed, John Walker Cody’s son. His firstborn son.

Jesse wasn’t going to be happy.

And he feared that the news would reopen wounds for Elly, wounds that had only begun to think about healing.

Will sat back and rubbed his eyes. He still couldn’t believe J. W. Cody had knocked on his front door at daybreak and handed him an envelope containing DNA testing results.

“The proof,” J.W. had said.

“Why are you giving this to me?”

“The sooner Jesse gets his proof and realizes I’m not so senile that I’d hand over the ranch to Mark, the better.

Mark has known for a while and made no demands.”

“Why not tell Jesse yourself?”

“I’m not his favorite person at the moment.”

Will imagined how Jesse might not be giving his father any opportunities to get near enough to talk to him.

“I’m outta here,” Delia said as she stood in the open doorway putting on her coat, bringing Will back to the present.

“Okay.”

“Are you all right?”

Will leaned back in his chair. “Yeah, just tired.”

“Then unchain yourself from that desk and go home. Better yet, go see Elly.”

He nodded enough that Delia took it for agreement and left. Then he leaned forward and looked at the report again. With a shake of his head, he shoved it into the case file and locked the file in his desk. Going home sounded like a good idea. Maybe he’d call Elly because he wasn’t sure he could face her right now, knowing what he did. Could he even keep the knowledge off his face? He had to until he talked to Jesse.

Damn, why couldn’t he have crossed paths with Elly again without all this family drama complicating the situation?

He grabbed his coat and headed out the door. As he walked down the sidewalk, he smelled snow in the air. Out of nowhere, a memory of Elly during a snowball fight at school stopped him. She’d been beautiful with clumps of snow sticking to her blue knit cap and melting on her reddened cheeks.

Of course, she was always beautiful. Always would be.

As he started walking again, he spotted movement on the opposite side of the street. Elly and Janie came out of Carlton’s Coffee Shop, their gloved hands around large paper cups. He guessed their trip had gone well.

He sighed. Why hadn’t he called her? Maybe a part of the nervous, unsure boy he’d once been had survived after all. Some irrational fear that things were going too well, that the proverbial rug was about to be ripped out from under their budding relationship, had dogged him all weekend.

After the day he’d had, he considered fleeing before Elly saw him, but he was too late. She spotted him and put out her hand to stop Janie, who looked his direction, too. He waved and crossed the street.

He nodded at the cups. “Looks like you two have the right idea.”

“Yeah, when the snow starts flying, I start chugging,” Janie said.

Will heard her but kept his attention on Elly. She looked awkward, like she’d been caught doing something she’d rather keep secret. He doubted it was buying coffee.

“So, how about I treat you ladies to dinner?”

“I’ve got to get going, but I’m sure Elly would love some dinner if you can take her home.”

Will almost laughed at the expression on Elly’s face as she stared at her longtime friend, like she was on the verge of throttling her.

“I think I can manage that,” he said. He just had to not think about the proof of paternity sitting in his desk.

“Great. See ya later.” Janie waved as she turned away without making eye contact with Elly.

When she rounded the corner, Elly continued to stare in her direction. “Well, that was subtle.”

“I wonder if she’s been taking lessons from Delia.”

Elly laughed and finally looked up at him. “Oh, God, we can’t handle two of them.”

He extended his hand. “I was just heading home.”

She hesitated for a moment but then placed her hand in his. He imagined he could feel her skin through both of their gloves. They crossed the street and walked the final couple of blocks to the house he rented.

Once inside, he took her coat and hung it on the coat rack next to the door. “So it looks like you and Janie made up.”

“Yeah. We had a nice trip.”

“Good.”

Awkward silence filled the space between them.

“I’m sorry I didn’t call. Can I fall back on the excuse that I’m male and therefore an idiot?”

Elly pursed her mouth, considering his suggestion. “Okay, I’m good with that.”

Unable to stop himself, he slid his hand along her jaw then lowered his lips to hers for a kiss. She melted against him, the absolute best feeling in the world. After the kiss, he framed her face with his hands.

“When was the last time someone told you that you take a man’s breath away?”

“Hmm, I think it was Corky Stephens, rodeo clown at the Missoula Hoedown. But he’d knocked back a few by then.”

“Well, I’m stone cold sober, and I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”

All teasing left her expression. She looked up at him as if stunned by the compliment. How could it surprise her? She had to know she was stunning.

And if she didn’t, he was going to tell her every day until she believed it.

 

E
LLY FEARED HER RIBCAGE
might fail in its job of restraining her racing heart. Sure, other men had said she was beautiful, but she’d never felt they believed it without some ulterior motive that usually involved her pants. But when Will said it, she felt it down to the tiniest cell in her body.

She lifted her hand and placed her palm against his strong jaw, felt the hint of afternoon stubble. “And you, William Jackson, are a very handsome man.”

“Who’d have ever imagined that in high school, huh?”

She continued to examine the planes of his face, the flecks of green in his warm brown eyes you could only see up close. “A diamond in the rough, that’s all. You always had beautiful eyes though. I should have told you that then. Instead, I was too busy being a teasing twit.”

“You were never a twit.”

“I know you didn’t like that Billy the Kid nickname, and yet we persisted with it.”

“No, but I’m man enough to be able to look back and know I wasn’t exactly a catch.”

“But you were. I just didn’t know it.”

“Elly,” he said in a disbelieving tone.

“You were always kind, Will. And that’s more important than anything.”

“Tactful,” he said with a smile.

“I’m sorry.”

“No need to apologize.”

“Yes, there is,” she said. “For that day when you offered to take me to prom and I laughed. That was horrible of me.”

“It was a long time ago.” Something in his tone told her that despite the passage of time, he still remembered what it had felt like.

“I’m surprised you want to even talk to me, but then you’re a better person than I am. I would have probably sought revenge.”

“Let’s just forget it, okay?”

“Will you forgive me if I say that I’m glad you came back here before someone got wise and snapped you up?”

He wrapped his arms around her waist. “Perhaps. Maybe I’ll think of some other requirements, as well.”

Elly’s mind immediately went to all kinds of delectable possibilities, some of which caused her skin to heat and tingle in anticipation.

“Yeah? Any ideas?” She moved even closer to him and ran her hands underneath his coat and over his back. Oh, he had what felt like a very nice back.

She saw the moment the desire deepened within him, felt it in the way his muscles stiffened beneath her hands. Had she pushed him too far?

Or not far enough?

Her own body itched for more. Not just for sex, but more…of something. Deeper emotions, deeper connections, deeper meaning.

“Elly.” Her name came out more ragged than normal.

“Yes?”

“I think we better get some dinner.”

As she looked up at him, her heart expanded enough to envelop him. She looked over the edge of the cliff, opened her arms wide as wings, and jumped.

“I don’t.”

She could almost see the question marks dancing across his eyes. In answer, she started walking backward, pulling him with her.

Halfway across the living room, he pulled her mouth to his and kissed her with such power that she felt like her muscles and bones had turned to liquid. He must have sensed her waning ability to stand—Will lifted her in his arms as if she weighed no more than a newborn chick and carried her down the hallway, into his darkened bedroom.

He didn’t pause to ask if this was what she really wanted. That much was obvious. And there was no need to ask him either. In fact, they said nothing as they kissed, shucked clothing, then kissed again before moving on to the next layer of attire. Her head was still spinning when she realized she stood naked in front of him and he was running his hands lightly over her skin like she was a goddess. She couldn’t explain it any other way.

And if she was a goddess, he was no less a god. All that kayaking and mountain biking had sculpted his body into a vision that left her breathless. She wanted him wrapped around her, wanted to touch every inch of his sinewy, tanned skin.

“I won’t break,” she whispered.

He lifted her into the bed and followed. The procession of kisses that followed nearly drove her mad with longing. He placed them on her lips, her cheeks, ear-lobes, neck. When he reached her breasts, she gasped and arched into him. He groaned in a way that made her feel powerful and beautiful and like the luckiest woman in the world.

She grabbed the back of his head and pulled his lips to hers again, ran her finger through his hair and then down that marvelous back. When his chest touched hers, she moaned into his mouth. She broke the kiss and used his name as a plea against his lips.

He needed no further prompting as he joined with her with such exquisite ease it was the very definition of perfect. But as he began to move, all she could think about was moving with him, inhaling his scent, feeling the muscles in his back strain beneath her hands, reaching for the ultimate pleasure with Will, giving him the same.

When she reached her peak, she didn’t hold back and let herself enjoy it fully, didn’t care how much noise she made. She was able to open her eyes in time to watch Will enjoy his own release. Tears of joy gathered in her eyes.

Will noticed them the moment he shifted to her side and pulled her close, wrapping his leg over hers. He lifted his fingertip to the corner of her eye.

“What is it? Did I hurt you?”

She ran her own fingertips over his lips. “No, I’ve never been better. It’s just…you’re the one who is beautiful, inside and out.” She hesitated for a moment, but she found she didn’t want to hold anything back. “I’ve never been happier. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve you.”

“I could say the same thing.”

“But—”

He cut off her words by kissing her again, causing whatever she’d been about to say to sizzle and disintegrate.

“Don’t analyze. Just enjoy,” he said.

After a few minutes of rest, they enjoyed each other all over again.

In the afterglow of the second round of lovemaking, Will nuzzled against her temple and spoke close to her ear. “You hungry?”

“I want to say no so we can stay here like this, but I’m afraid my stomach will start growling and prove me a liar.”

He kissed her temple. “You stay here.”

When he left the bed, she was afforded a full view of him, every magnificent facet. Feeling a little wicked, she whistled in appreciation.

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