Authors: Sherri Thomas
She wasn’t going to find out anything of significance. The memories those walls held were already stacked up and bundled for sorting. What the person discovered depended on who searched the details. For her, it was the place of being cherished and loved. A place she needed to see one last time.
Jordan scanned the area as the gelding picked his pace down the ravine until the creek bed remained the final obstacle. The ripple of the current flowed in a gentle race into the mouth of the pond on her right. Large oaks and overgrown brush lined the area, breaking way to reveal a dirt road big enough for a vehicle. The same one Trent used to drive to the enclosure? It had to be. If she closed her eyes, she could feel the truck bouncing over the uneven ground, then jerking to a stop inches away from the creek.
She had laid down next to him in the bed of his pickup to watch the stars. Being relaxed and intoxicated on him, she hadn’t needed the two beers to loosen her tongue. She told him all about her parents, her horse, her dreams, her fears, anything and everything that had been her life.
Jordan could still feel the sensation of his knuckles on her skin as they skimmed the side of her cheek. How his calloused thumb had felt as it trailed over her lips.
She squirmed in the saddle as she recalled those intimate moments when she had nipped the tip of his finger with her teeth. He pulled her body over his and asked her to show him how she rode her horse. Throwing caution to the wind, she straddled his waist. Surprised by the feel of his erection pressed hard against her center, she rocked her hips. He thrust upwards, to imitate the way a horse would buck her off, then he flipped her over and had taken complete control.
“More run down than ya remember?”
The deep Texas accent startled Jordan and caused goose pimples on her arms. She swiveled in the saddle. Trent’s warm gaze made contact, and the breath suspended in her lungs.
“I don’t think anyone comes here anymore.” He leaned a tanned forearm on the pummel.
Inhaling deep, she straightened, shook off the nostalgia, and gave the horse a slight nudge. TJ trotted across the shallow river, stopping inches from the shack.
“You going inside?” His horse splashed through the water, stopping next to her mount.
“No.” At least not with him.
The side of his mouth lifted in a seductive way that melted her resistance.
Not breaking eye contact, he swung out of the saddle, strutted over, and grabbed her horse’s reins.
She dismounted, careful to keep her body from touching his.
“The memories,” he answered, his face inches from hers.
Turning away, she closed out the images and sent up a silent prayer for strength to deal with the tempting cowboy. Her heart pounded as she watched the water travel over the rocks downstream. She’d wanted to make this trip alone, to face the demons by herself. How could she sort through the pain with the man at the core of it all right next her?
“Come on, I’ll go in with you.”
She pivoted to find he had secured the animals to a nearby hitching post and now stood at the door. Stiffening her back, she charged over to the entrance.
“Ladies first.” Mr. Manners held the wooden barrier open.
What sounded like a smart idea earlier now gave the distinct feeling of walking straight into the lion’s den.
Doing her best not to brush against the massive chest filling the narrow doorway, she crossed the threshold and traveled back in time. The cabin appeared exactly the way Darcy described it, and nothing like Jordan remembered. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling in the corner. Dust covered every inch of the small space. Tracing a finger over the wooden paneling, she winced when the grit came off on her skin. She bent and wiped the dirt off on the edge of a folded gray blanket at the foot of the double bed, on the mattress that held many secrets.
The sinfully, delightful things Trent did to her body swirled in her mind. Her gaze rose to his. The heat she encountered caused a shiver of awareness to race down her spine.
Not breaking eye contact, he set his hat on a dust covered, makeshift table.
Jordan took several deep breaths and turned her attention to the room. Wouldn’t take too much to clean the place up, couple of rags, disinfectant, a mop. She walked around, stopping when she did a full circle. Damn, but the space was small, especially with a large cowboy standing in the center, watching her every move.
A warm hand grasped her arm, turning her.
Gritting her teeth, she studied the wall over his shoulder, the fabric of his dark shirt, anything but the depths of the knowing brown orbs. Damn him, and the affect he held over her. She shut her eyes and stood straighter, then called on every ounce of strength she possessed to reject him. She would not let her guard down. She would not give in to temptation. She would not—
Soft lips nuzzled her forehead, and she swallowed the whimper that rose inside as he tugged her closer.
She needed distance, but her feet inched forward. The heat from his body felt good.
You aren’t a teenager any more. You’re a grown woman.
But being in his embrace was as shockingly stimulating as she remembered, and she was caught between heaven and hell, between the memories and the desires.
His arms tightened, making any argument next to impossible. What was wrong with her? Her brain turned to mush, and the flashbacks gained free access. Memories of his lovemaking, their talks, more lovemaking, that feeling of belonging and contentment, of someone understanding and listening to her weakened her resolve all the more.
Then came the flames…the smoke…the smell…
Trent gazed at the woman curling into his chest as if she couldn’t get close enough. Her body tensed, and he felt a tremor run through her; a slight shiver he may have missed had they not been standing completely still. As much as his ego wanted to believe he could affect her that much and the reaction was pure physical pleasure, he suspected otherwise.
“You all right?”
He raised her head. Worried now over the paleness of her skin, he placed a palm on her slender shoulder. “Sit.”
The bedding wasn’t the cleanest, but beat the alternative of having her land on the floor if she passed out, which he figured was highly likely by her ashen color.
Taking a seat beside her, he seized her hand. “Jesus, your fingers are like ice.” The air wasn’t cold in the cabin or outside. He rubbed her skin, trying to warm the digits.
“I’ll be okay. Give me a minute,” she mumbled, staring straight ahead, inhaling and exhaling slowly.
. A trip down memory lane shouldn’t cause her to go into shock. Grabbing the blanket at the end of the mattress, he rose, shook the dust off outside, then wrapped the cotton around her shoulders. “Look at me.”
She shook her head, refusing to show him those baby blues, something he very much wanted—needed—to see. He grasped her chin and tilted her face upward.
Jordan’s eyes shut, but not before anguish and pain flashed in the endless depths.
“Let me rest a minute.” She extricated herself and reclined on the bed.
“Why?” he asked baffled. “What’s going on?”
She rolled over facing the wall.
“Damn it, what’s with you? Is it that hard for you to let me in?” Silence met his ears. “Are you sick? Answer me?” What the hell did he get himself into now? When he followed her to the cabin, he figured they’d share a few memories, a kiss or two, and hell, who knew what else. When they were together, he lost all common sense.
“I just need a minute.” She took several more slow, steady breaths.
He placed a hand on her side. Her body quivered beneath his palm. Not sure what was happening, he was torn between staying and going for help.
Unable to desert her, he stretched out behind Jordan and rubbed her back, hoping to have a warming effect. “Talk to me.”
After a few minutes she sighed. “I told you about my parents?” she asked.
“You told me they’re older than your friends’ parents. Your dad’s in a wheelchair because of an injury from a war, and your mom spends most of her days caring for him.” He grinned, recalling her words. “They’re strict and unfair and don’t understand anything, especially yo—”
“They died the night I was with you.”
Shocked over her whispered words, Trent wrapped his arm around her middle. “Damn. I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Unable to imagine losing his own parents, he kissed the crown of her head. “Why didn’t you call me?”
“I couldn’t find the number you gave me.” She sighed. “Six years later, and the day feels like yesterday,” she mumbled. “I was so immature, always complaining about them when all they were trying to do was protect me.”
He rose on an elbow and shifted her until she lay face up. The distress in her features tore at his heart. “Darlin’,” he began, caressing her, “that’s a long time to be carrying around this guilt.”
She sat up and clambered over him.
“Jordan?” He grasped her arm, but she shoved him away and began pacing the room.
“You don’t understand. It’s more than that. My parents are dead because of
He reared back and blinked several times. “What?” Had he heard her correctly?
“I went home to a pile of ashes. Our house burned to the ground. My parents couldn’t get out.” Crossing her arms, she stared out the window.
“How’s that your fault?” He stood, grasped her small but solid biceps, and spun her around.
“I should’ve been there. I could’ve helped. I’d have gotten them out. They’d be alive today if I hadn’t…” She sniffed, but tears failed to fall. “The fire chief’s report said it appeared my dad’s wheelchair tipped, and my mom couldn’t get him back in before a beam from the ceiling fell, trapping them.”
“You honestly believe you’re to blame?” Astounded by her logic, he tightened the hold and refused to let go.
“Yes.” She tugged away.
His heart ached. How could he get through to her? Had anyone tried? He didn’t think so, if years later she continued to take such blame. How different would his own mishap have turned out if his family abandoned him during those rough days? His family…the very ones he continued to give a hard time.
“You’re not,” he whispered, kissing her cheek.
“I could’ve saved them if I’d stayed home, if I grew up to be the respectable young lady my mom prayed for…if I hadn’t missed curfew that night.”
“Most teenagers don’t listen to their parents. I didn’t.”
“But I cost mine their lives.”
“Jordan.” Taking her head in his hands, he brought her inches from his face. “That’s crazy. What could you’ve done?”
“Gotten them out.”
tryin’.” The words sliced through him, and his throat muscles constricted. He wanted to shake sense into her, make her listen to reason, alleviate the distress.
“Don’t say it.” He pulled her into his arms.
“My parents needed me, and I let them down.” Her breath slid across his skin as she tucked her face into the crook of his neck. “I always disappointed them.”
She didn’t say it in hysterics or for attention. Her words were quiet, but spoken in a strong manner, which worried him all the more. Had he traded one unstable woman for another? Distrust fisted inside him.
No. He refused to believe that.
“Lord, help me,” he whispered.
That wasn’t right either.
Lord, help the female I hold in my arms.
was the difference. With April, the need to get away when she carried on consumed him. With Jordan, the craving to stay surged strong. She didn’t break down in tears as he suspected, but the pain on her face showed real emotion. The anguish evident in every feature. He possessed an uncontrollable urge to correct her way of thinking, to aid as her crutch, as his family aided him.
Her head raised and honest blue eyes shot straight to his soul. She withdrew and fled toward the door. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to fall apart. I really should be going.”
“Jordan.” He stepped across the small space and stood in front of the exit.
“You think I’m a whack job. I see the accusations in your eyes.”
“No.” He squeezed her hand, praying for the right words.
“I’m usually able to keep my emotions in check and keep the anxiety to a minimum.”
“Anxiety, huh?” Now that was a condition he knew about. Although his symptoms were slightly different, he recalled the heaviness in his chest, the uncontrollable shaking. He spent countless days and nights consumed by the demons. His brother, Sam, witnessed the first attack and helped him deal with the hell—later, medication aided him.
“You need to let go.”
“I have let go. I’ve cried. I—” She yanked away, but he held fast.
“Is that why you parade around in those fancy clothes, afraid to laugh or get close to anyone?” He shifted, fighting the urge to rub his shoulder. The brawl with Nick definitely hadn’t helped the damn ligaments. “Why are you punishing yourself?”
She twisted one more time, then stood still, staring him in the eye. “My reasons may seem ridiculous to you, but my mother always dressed nice. She hated when I wore jeans. She was a bit old fashion and said men wore denim, not women…”
“So, to honor her memory, you banned the clothes from your wardrobe?” The whole situation seemed preposterous, but he saw real hurt lurking in the shadows of her gaze. She truly believed everything she told him. Over the years, she let remorse and guilt weave their way in until, little by little, the emotions ate away at every aspect of her life. “Is that why you hold yourself back from people, not letting anyone see the real you? Because you’re afraid of who you are?”
“I don’t. I’m not. Look at Darcy and I…” She folded her arms across her chest. “We’re close. She knows me.”
“That’s why she knew nothing about us?” The tip of his thumb swept across her soft lips. “Come on, darlin’, I see the shame in your eyes. I feel your pain. I hear your words before you speak.” He may not have been sappy with April, but he was certainly making a jackass out of himself right now and sounded like a sappy love song. What worried him more was the fact he didn’t care.