Authors: Mary J. Williams
IF TOMORROW NEVER COMES
HARPER FALLS BOOK TWO
Mary J. Williams
FOURTH OF JULY in Harper Falls was much like it was in cities and towns all over the United States. A large crowd gathered every year at Riverside Park for picnics and games. People came and went throughout the day, but everyone made sure they were there when the annual fireworks display was set off. Even though the bursting lights could be seen for miles around, most people preferred to pack together and watch them with their friends and neighbors.
Dani Wilde could remember coming here as a little girl and impatiently feeling like it would never get dark. It was the one time during summer vacation that she wished the sun would go down early. The time would arrive, and her father would hoist her onto his shoulders so that she could be just a little bit closer to the colorful lights. Then her mother and brother would gather close so that they could enjoy the display. Eventually, she grew too old to sit on her father's shoulders. Though she and her brother would spend all day running around with their friends, when the time came they always found their way back to their parents so they could watch the fireworks as a family.
One of the things she'd missed the most after she had left for college, and a career away from Harper Falls was coming to the park with her mother and father. Dani had even missed her annoying brother Caleb though she had to admit he was much easier to get along with now that they didn't have to share a bathroom.
As Dani searched the crowd, it didn't take her long to find her father. As usual he was manning one of the propane barbecues that the city set up every year. For a few dollars, anyone could buy a huge plate of food. It consisted of tender pork ribs, potato salad, and corn on the cob dripping with butter. And for dessert, a piece of chocolate sheet cake personally made by Dani's mother and topped with a thick layer of her famous caramel frosting. People bought tickets weeks in advance for the dessert alone.
When she and her friends had returned home almost two years ago, Dani had wondered if the Fourth of July celebration would possibly be able to live up to her memories. She shouldn't have worried. There were minor changes, but nothing worth mentioning. Familiar faces mingled happily with newcomers. Her family still gathered together when it got dark, only now, the family included Caleb's wife and two children. Changes, but good ones.
Changes were affecting her little circle as well. Oh, Rose O'Brian and Tyler Jones were still the best friends she could ever hope to have. Rose was now madly in love and engaged to be married. Dani was thrilled, and she couldn't have picked a better man than Jack Winston. It was obvious to anyone who saw them together that he adored her. That meant Dani and Tyler enthusiastically opened their circle to fit another member. Jack made Rose happy, and if Rose was happy so were her friends.
Deciding to give her skin a break from the afternoon sun, Dani found a relatively deserted place under one of the park's many shade trees. She leaned back and closed her eyes, concentrating on muting the noises around her. As a result, she was able to bring the din of the crowd down to a gentle roar. Unfortunately, her peace didn't last long. The distinct rumbling of a motorcycle pulling into the nearby parking lot broke the spell. There was nothing gentle about
Dani lifted one eyelid to get a peek at the new arrival. Motorcycles weren't unheard of at the picnic, but most people tended to come in groups of friends and family. There were trucks, mini-vans, and even a few RVs. It wasn't the mode of transportation that was unusual, but the fact that the driver had arrived alone.
From where she was sitting the rider looked to be tall and well-built. A helmet covered his head, but as he removed his leather jacket she could see that under his black t-shirt were well-muscled arms and a flat stomach. Nice butt, too. His faded jeans showed off long legs that Dani imagined were as muscled as the rest of him. As he unbuckled the strap under his chin, she sat up a little straighter. If his face was even a fraction as good as the rest of him, Dani was ready to be a welcoming party of one.
The man removed his helmet revealing thick, longish dark hair, slightly damp with sweat and having a tendency to curl. Better and better, she smiled. As he turned toward her, Dani froze, certain her eyes must have been playing tricks on her. Five years later and covered with a shaggy beard, that face was still as familiar to her as if she had seen it yesterday. She felt a burst of joy overtake her body. She jumped to her feet, ready to welcome him with open arms. Before she could move someone beat her to it.
"Alex!" A curvy brunette burst from the crowd and threw herself at the man. He laughed and caught her in his arms with ease, as though he'd done it a hundred times before.
Lila. Rose's friend who owned the flower shop. Dani felt as if her heart was being ripped from her chest. He hadn't come for her. The ridiculous fantasy that she had secretly kept alive all these years was just that—ridiculous. As she watched Alex look down at the woman in his arms with what any fool could see was love, she felt the last bit of hope slip away forever.
Unable to watch for even another second, Dani turned to go. Her day was ruined, and all she wanted to do was leave the park as quickly as possible. Just then, Alex Fleming's head swiveled in her direction, his eyes meeting hers. Dani held her breath. The jolt was the same, like the very first time she had looked into the dark brown depths. Theirs gazes held for just a moment, a heartbeat. There was nothing for her in his eyes. No flare of recognition. Just the sight of him had sent a burst of joy cascading through her body, but she saw none of it echoing back. Alex turned away from Dani to the woman whose greeting had been so enthusiastic and so welcome. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close again. Dani felt the knife in her heart twist a little deeper. She could only hope that he was here for the picnic and then would be gone again. If Alex was in Harper Falls to stay, Dani didn't know what she would do.
ALEX FLEMING LISTENED
to Lila's excited chatter with half an ear.
Five years down a long, hard road and nothing had changed. He would have known her anywhere. Hell, he'd
her before he'd
her. Even a blind man would have noticed that familiar spark in her emerald green eyes, the imperceptible sway of her body towards him. It was as if she were saying, "
Here I am, I've been waiting
." Instead of opening his arms as he longed to do, he turned away as if he didn't recognize her. As if she weren't worth remembering.
His gut clenched. He'd known she was here in Harper Falls, just as he'd known it would be better for them both if he stayed away. But there was a little voice in his head that kept urging him to take a chance. Maybe she could be his again. No matter how damaged he was, didn't he deserve a chance at happiness? Didn't he deserve to once more hold in his arms the only woman he had ever loved? More than anything he wanted to believe—to hope. But one look at her and he'd known the answer. It didn't matter what
wanted. Dani deserved better.
"Alex?" Lila asked. "Are you okay?"
Bringing himself back from his tortured thoughts, Alex forced himself to smile at his sister. "I'm fine. Really. Just getting my bearings after being on my bike so long. In a few minutes, I'll have my legs back under me."
Lila threw her arms around him again and squeezed.
"I can't believe you're here." She sighed happily. "I've been so worried about you, knowing you were wandering through Europe on your own. I might have felt better if I'd had a way of getting in touch, but you didn't even have a phone. Who doesn't have a cell phone in this day and age?"
The day Alex had been released from the Army hospital he'd made two calls—one to his sister and one to Jack Winston. Once he had assured them both that he was amongst the living and would call again soon, he had thrown his phone into a nearby river. All he wanted was to be free, if only for a little while. If no one could call, then no one could ask questions he wasn't ready to answer. He liked the idea of being out of touch with the world. After everything he had been through in the past year, a little anonymity had sounded like heaven.
Sensing it wasn't a subject her brother wanted to talk about, Lila kept the rest of her questions to herself. Alex looked good—healthy. And that was what mattered. When she had heard, months after the fact, that he had been hospitalized, Lila had been out of her head with worry. She knew he was alive; his voice on the phone had told her that. But Alex hadn't shared any details. There was nothing new about that. Whatever he had done while in the Army was never talked about. Whatever had happened to him was not open for discussion.
Lila knew it wasn't just about his injuries. Alex had left the military, honorably discharged. When he had joined right out of high school, he'd planned on it being his career. However, something had changed and Lila was thrilled. He was out of danger and planning on staying put in Harper Falls. Alex could keep his secrets—she was just glad to have her brother home safe and sound.
"Alex." A welcoming voice rang out drawing Lila's attention to a tall, dark-haired man with startling blue eyes.
"Jack." The men exchanged hugs, pounding each other enthusiastically on the back.
Lila watched the two old friends. Jack Winston had been her girlhood crush. He and Alex had been inseparable during high school, playing sports and getting into mischief. As Alex's younger sister, it was only natural that she was thrown into Jack's company. As far as her brother's buddy was concerned, Lila was strictly little sister material. He had been the one who encouraged her to come to Harper Falls and open her flower shop. Luckily by that time she had stopped thinking of him as anything but a friend. Since he was responsible for bringing Alex here with the promise of a job, he had reached hero status.
"When you called this morning to tell me you were only a few hours away, you could have knocked me over with a feather." Not satisfied with the hug, Jack gave Alex a quick punch on the shoulder. "I knew you were finally in the country, but I had no idea that you were so close."
"I know it's been a few months since you made me that job offer," Alex said wryly. "And you've been great about keeping it open. I want you to know how much I appreciate it, Jack."
"I told you the job was yours whenever you could get here, and I meant it. My partner will be glad you finally showed up, however. He's gotten soft sitting behind a desk. Getting back in the trenches to help train our security crew has been a real strain on Drew."
"I heard that." Another equally imposing male joined the two men. A little taller than Jack, Drew Harper's rugged good looks would have been enough to draw the attention of every woman for miles around. But the three of them together? It was almost eye candy overload.
"Alex Fleming, I'd like you to meet Drew Harper." Jack made the introductions with the usual twinkle in his eyes. "Don't let his solid appearance fool you. My friend here prefers to take it easy these days. You got here just in time to save him from a week of hand holding and butt kicking six new recruits."
Alex looked at the two men. In spite of Jack's words, it was obvious there was a great deal of affection between them, the kind that could only be achieved by working closely with someone over a long period. Alex felt a twinge of regret. There were a lot of things he was going to miss about the Army, but the comradery with his fellow soldiers was at the top of the list. There was nothing equal to the bond you formed with someone when you had to rely on them to stay alive. And there was nothing more agonizing than the realization that the one person you had trusted the most had betrayed you.
"I know it sounds like we're expecting you to jump right in. But don't worry, you can take all the time you need to get settled." Jack grinned. "Is the day after tomorrow too soon?"