Authors: Susan Mallery
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary
New York Times
bestselling author Susan Mallery brings you the acclaimed story of two lovers torn apart by fate…and reunited by destiny…
Despite the enormous divide between them, Chase, a mill owner’s son and Jenny, a union leader’s daughter, once forged a bond stronger than steel. Nothing could pull them apart…until one summer night shattered Jenny’s innocence and an unspeakable act drove Chase miles—and memories—away.
More than a decade later, Chase has returned home to care for his estranged father. He and Jenny are forced to confront the betrayal that broke them…and the white-hot desire they both still feel. But with a past so thick with scars, can Chase and Jenny find the forgiveness they need to build the future they’ve always wanted?
More Than Friends
Table of Contents
think we should start seeing other people.”
The words smashed into Chase Jackson like a blow from a steel rod. Air rushed from his lungs and an aching cold crept down his spine. But he didn’t turn around.
Instead, he reached down and picked up a pebble. Running his fingers over the smooth surface, he forced his tense muscles to relax. He tossed the stone with a quick flick of his wrist and watched it skip twice across the sluggish, muddy river before it sank out of sight. Only then, when he was sure none of the pain would show, did he step back and face her.
“Is there someone else?”
The slight tremor at the end of the sentence was the only hint of his turmoil. His father would be proud of his control, he thought grimly. Not that they’d ever discuss this conversation. The elder Jackson didn’t approve of his relationship with Jenny Davidson, but then neither did her family. Or the entire town for that matter.
“Well?” he asked. “Is there?”
She sat in the shade of a willow tree, her back pressed against the trunk. Long legs, slender and tan, were pulled up close to her chest. Was the action for protection? Her arms clasped her knees tighter to her body, her hands squeezing so hard he could see the white knuckles and taut tendons. But she never once raised her eyes to his. Fluffy blond curls hid her face from view.
He wanted to go to her and force her to take back what she’d said, demand that she make the horrible knot in his belly disappear, but something warned him his world would never be the same again.
“Then why, Jenny? What happened? Is your father making you do this?”
“No.” Her chin came up in a familiar pose of stubborn pride and he could see her eyes. Tears darkened the irises to forest green. Mascara collected beneath her lower lids. “This has nothing to do with him. I th-thought…” Her voice cracked. “I thought it would be better—with your going away to college and all. You don’t need to be involved with someone like me.” She hiccuped and the tears flowed in earnest.
In two strides he was beside her, holding her close, murmuring words of understanding. But he didn’t understand. Damn it, what was going on here? He loved Jenny and she loved him. Or so he’d thought until two minutes ago.
Her body felt warm and willing in his grasp. The familiar scent of her skin and hair, the quickening of her breathing, the way she curled up all trusting in his embrace, reminded him that time was limited. He was leaving in a couple of weeks. They had agreed to wait for each other; perhaps the time for waiting was over. He brushed the tears from her face.
“Is it because you’re scared?” he asked, shifting her until she was lying on the cool grass. His right hand stroked her side from ribs to hip, moving slowly over the soft cotton of her tank top and shorts, closer to the swell of her breast. A smile tugged at his lips. “I’m scared too, kiddo. But we can muddle through together. People have been making love for centuries. How difficult can it be?”
“Chase.” She whispered his name like a prayer, and touched his cheek and the line of his jaw. “I love you more than anything. I’ll love you forever. But I can’t—I can’t see you again.”
“Don’t ask me that. Just accept it. Go on without me. It’ll be better. You can find somebody else at college. Somebody who fits in with who you are.”
“Don’t give me that crap.” He sprang to his feet and began to pace in the clearing. “My dad owns the steel mill and yours runs the union. So what? It’s been that way our whole lives. Why should it suddenly matter now?”
“It just does.”
Jenny had also risen. She stood next to the tree, her arms crossed protectively over her chest.
He moved closer. She stiffened but didn’t pull away.
“You’ve been acting strange for a while now,” he said, recalling what he’d thought were unrelated incidents from the past few weeks. “You kept saying nothing was wrong, but I know there’s something you aren’t telling me.”
There had to be. There was no way Jenny had suddenly stopped caring about him. The knot in his stomach doubled in size. Dear God, Jenny was all he had.
Their eyes met. For several seconds he held his breath and watched the battle rage within her. Fear and need competed with an emotion he couldn’t identify, but might have been labeled shame. When he was sure she was finally about to tell him the truth, she turned away.
“I want…” She paused. “Please take me home.”
It was over. Jenny had been his best friend since they were kids and suddenly she was a stranger. A stranger who didn’t give a damn about passionate promises of love and forever. He didn’t say a word. He just pulled the keys from his jeans pocket and walked down the path, Jenny following.
The ride was accomplished in silence. He wanted to ask her again to explain what had happened—what had gone wrong. He wanted to plead with her, to beg her to say she still cared.
Instead, he said nothing. The Jackson pride he hated in his father swelled within him. It straightened his shoulders and ensured his eyes stayed dry.
When they reached Hamilton Crossing, the border of Harrisville, Ohio, he slowed the car. Even looking straight ahead, he could see Jenny biting down on her lower lip.
he demanded silently.
Tell me this is all a bad joke
The powerful Camaro rumbled impatiently; a plane flew overhead.
Drawing in a breath, he pressed hard on the accelerator and they shot forward. All too soon the rural roads gave way to houses and cars. Four streets past the second signal, he turned left, then right.
Blue-collar workers living in blue-collar homes. Some of the houses were freshly painted, others run-down. They were small; well, smaller than the three-story mausoleum he lived in.
Chase and Jenny had never understood the fuss everybody made about their relationship. But now, with Jenny so withdrawn beside him, he saw the neighborhood with clearer vision. Men stopped working in their yards to watch him drive by. Children paused at play, and lace curtains were pulled away from kitchen windows.
The town hated him, almost as much as it hated his father. The people resented their dependence on Jackson Steel. The animosity hadn’t bothered him before. He and Jenny had planned to leave—to start over and do something with their lives, something other than form endless sheets of steel.
Now all that had changed. He was going away to college and Jenny…Jenny wasn’t going to wait.
He slowed the car, then pulled to a stop in front of a yellow clapboard house.
Fall was two weeks away, but old man Davidson was already hard at work, hanging storm shutters. When Chase cut the engine, Davidson paused in his task, then stopped altogether. After setting the shutter on the ground, he wiped his hands on his jeans and walked slowly toward the car.
Great, Chase thought as he stepped out and stood beside the hood. It wasn’t enough that Jenny had dumped him. Now Davidson looked ready to take off the first two layers of his hide. Not that they’d ever gotten along. The mill owner’s son and the president of the local union weren’t likely to have a whole hell of a lot in common. Except Jenny.
“Afternoon, Mr. Davidson.”
Davidson ignored him. He jerked open the passenger door. “Go inside, Jenny. Your mother’s waiting for you.”
“Daddy.” She got out and touched his arm. “Are you all right?”
He offered her a slight smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Go inside,” he repeated.
She paused, then looked at Chase. Emotions skittered across her face. “I love you. I’ll always love you. I know it doesn’t seem that way now—” She reached out her hand toward him but the car stood between them.
He took a step forward. She shook her head to stop him.
“I’ll never forget you, Chase Jackson,” she said, then turned and ran into the house.
He watched her go and sensed more than saw the older man move closer. Davidson wasn’t tall, but he was beefy. The barrel chest strained the buttons of his red plaid flannel shirt. Well-worn jeans hung low on his hips, cradling the overhang of his beer belly. He might not be pretty, but he was fast and mean.
When Jenny’s father stepped off the curb and onto the street, Chase fought the urge to back up.
“Is there a problem?” he asked, managing to keep the apprehension from his voice.
“You bet there is.” The neutral tone of voice had given way to raw anger. Davidson kept coming, then stopped when he was less than a foot away. “You think because you’re some rich brat you can just take what you want? I’ve got news for you, sonny. There are laws against people like you.” The older man’s blue eyes were cold and threatening. “And if the law won’t help me, I’ve got lots of friends to make sure you pay.”
Chase swallowed. “Mr. Davidson, I don’t understand what…”
“See if you understand this, boy.”
Without warning, he threw a fast right hook. Chase started to duck, but the heavy fist crashed into his cheek and jaw. It was like running face first into a stone wall.
Everything dimmed, and he slumped against the car. In the distance he could hear Davidson’s harsh breathing and muttered curses. Blood dripped from Chase’s nose and down the back of his throat.
Shaking his head to clear his vision, he pressed against the hood and straightened. Red-hot pain throbbed in time with his heartbeat. He probed his rapidly swelling cheek. He could taste blood. Three teeth were loose and his nose felt broken.
“I’d kill you if I could,” Davidson said as he flexed his bruised knuckles. “But with the local judge being a good friend of your father’s…” Hatred clouded his eyes and hardened his expression. “Remember what I said about my friends. If any of us see you around here again, you’ll regret it. You hear that, boy? I’ve got my shotgun primed and ready.”
Chase wiped his face with the back of his sleeve. “I got it, all right.” He opened the front door of his car, then hesitated. “But you mind telling me what you think I did?”
For a moment he thought the older man might make good on his threat to kill him. Rage mottled his skin and the veins in his neck and forehead bulged. “You cocky SOB” he growled. “She trusted you. I never liked you sniffing around my baby, but she claimed you were just friends. With friends like you, a man needs to be checking his back for a knife.”
Chase shook his head again. The blow must have affected him more than he thought. “I don’t…”
“You bastard! She’s pregnant!”
Chase caught his breath in surprise, then groaned as pain shot through his jaw. But it was nothing compared with the tearing he felt inside. Pregnant? Jenny?
“Wait a minute,” he ground out. “I never… That is, we didn’t… Who—”
“You’ve got a helluva nerve asking who.” Davidson moved closer. “Clear out—before I lose what’s left of my temper.”
Chase glanced at the house, but Jenny’s bedroom window was empty. Slowly, fighting back the throbbing in his face and his gut, he stepped into the car and started the engine.
The water in the basin was bright red. Chase washed the rest of the blood from his cheeks and mouth, then pressed a towel against his nose. He could go to the family doctor, but then his father would find out. He’d rather patch himself up than have to answer any questions.
The bedroom door opened with a bang.
“This time you’ve gone too far.”
Perfect, he thought, turning toward the man in the doorway and straightening up. News traveled fast in a small town.
“Davidson called you,” he said as he tossed the towel on the counter and slipped off his shirt.
“Do you have any idea how it feels to get that sort of information about your own son?”
“No, sir.” Chase stared directly in front of him while he spoke. The older man paced the room.
His father was six feet tall. Despite his fifty years, he stood straight, as though his spine were made of the steel produced in the mill on the other side of town. Dark hair streaked with white swept off his forehead. Eyes, once blue, had faded to an ice-cold gray.