Authors: Lisa Bingham
“I can’t stop, Bronte,” he whispered, even though he suspected that she already knew.
He spread his fingers wide, cupping her cheek, his thumb brushing over her lips, once, twice.
“I keep telling myself that you’re married—”
“I’m not married. The divorce was official months ago. The marriage . . . a long, long time ago. And the last of the papers was mailed earlier tonight.” The words were whispered—and he sensed that something had happened in the last couple of days to make her believe them. There was no hesitancy in her tone, as there had been the last time she’d spoken of her relationship with her children’s father.
“Tell me if you want me to quit,” Jace murmured, even as he bent down and prayed that she wouldn’t.
“I don’t want you to . . . quit.”
She smiled and he was lost—lost in her smile, lost in the sweet scent of her hair and the velvety texture of her skin. Then his lips touched hers.
Berkley Sensation Titles by Lisa Bingham
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
A Berkley Sensation Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright © 2016 by Lisa Bingham.
by Lisa Bingham copyright © 2016 by Lisa Bingham.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-18417-6
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / January 2016
Cover art by Danny O’Leary.
Cover design by Lesley Worrell.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
To Helen and Syd.
Thanks for being such wonderful friends.
I’d like to thank Leis Pederson and her team at Berkley for all their hard work, my wonderful agents at Browne and Miller for their support, and all the hired hands on the family farm for volunteering appropriate jargon for the Taggart Ranch.
What creatures these,
Broken and reformed
In nests hanging
By a thread,
Hidden in rusty leaves
Away from predators’ eyes?
Do they know
When spinning silken coffins
That fear of the unknown
And the agony of recreation
Must pay the price
Of precious freedom?
Bronte Cupacek tightened her fingers around the steering wheel and swore to heaven that when the government of the United States outlawed cruel and unusual punishment, there should have been special provisions made for mothers locked in minivans for the duration of a cross-country trip. Especially if said minivan contained two adolescent siblings who’d been at each other’s throats twenty minutes into the journey.
What had she been thinking?
But then, she hadn’t been thinking at all, had she? On that first, chilly April morning, she’d been so consumed with guilt, panic—and yes, a healthy dose of fear—that she hadn’t bothered to consider the ramifications of her actions. With the haste of a thief leaving the scene of a crime, Bronte had awakened her two daughters at the crack of dawn, helped them cram their belongings into all the suitcases they possessed, and then stuffed everything into the “Mom Mobile.” Less than forty minutes after their frantic preparations
had begun, she maneuvered away from the brownstone she’d shared with her husband for sixteen years, and began the long drive west.
Bronte hadn’t even looked back as Boston was swallowed up in her rearview mirror. She drove in a daze, the black highway an endless ebony ribbon stitched down the middle with yellow thread. For the sake of her girls, she pretended that she’d been planning this spontaneous adventure for months. They visited Gettysburg, Mt. Rushmore, and highway markers commemorating countless historical sites—all much to Kari’s dismay. At fifteen-going-on-thirty, she considered history of any kind “lame” and Bronte’s choices in entertainment “lamer.” Lily was less inclined to complain, which worried Bronte even more. With each tick of the odometer, she retreated into mute, self-imposed exile—to the point where Bronte would have suffered any personal indignity for just a hint of a smile.
By the time they’d reached the Great Divide, Bronte had given up telling her girls they were “on vacation.” Clearly, she’d been no better at hiding the need to flee than she’d been at disguising the bruise on her cheekbone. Day by day, it faded from an alarming shade of plum to the sickly yellow of an overripe banana. She’d tried to conceal the injury with layers of foundation, but at bedtime when she rubbed the makeup away, she would catch her daughters surreptitiously studying the telltale mark. But they didn’t ask what had happened. Somehow, they must have known that to acknowledge something was wrong would pry the lid off Bronte’s tenuous emotional control.
She supposed it was that need—that
—to finally put this journey behind her that caused her to pull off the road and stare blankly at the sign proclaiming:
BLISS, UTAH—POPULATION 9672
(Sign donated by Bryson Willis—Eagle Scout Project 2014)
The world still had Boy Scouts?
“Why are you stopping?” Kari demanded. She glowered
at Bronte from the passenger seat, radiating the pent-up vitriol of a teenager who’d been forced to leave her friends two months before the end of the school year. “Let’s just get to Grandma Great’s house. The sooner we get there, the sooner we can go home.”
Bronte had heard that same demand at least once an hour for the last
miles, and it took every ounce of will she possessed to bite back her own caustic reply. Her daughter didn’t know it yet, but Bronte had serious doubts about ever returning to their “life” in Boston.
Phillip had seen to that.
There was a stirring from the rear of the van. Like a groundhog cautiously emerging from its burrow, Lily raised her head over the edge of the seat and blinked in confusion.
“Is this Great-Grammy’s?”
Kari rounded on her sister before Lily had the time to rub the sleep from her eyes.
“What do you think, genius? That Grandma Great lives on the side of the road?”
“Enough,” Bronte barked automatically. The fact that Kari rarely got along with her younger sister had only been exacerbated by hours of travel. The teenager was like a chicken, pick, pick, picking at her more sensitive sibling until both Lily and Bronte were raw.
“If you can’t be nice, keep your opinions to yourself, Kari.”
How many times had Bronte said
in the last hour . . . week . . . lifetime?
Kari rolled her eyes and huffed theatrically. She was barely fifteen and already filled with rage and defiance. Bronte had to get a grip on their relationship before Kari discovered the truth about her father or . . .
Don’t think about that now. Not yet. Later. Once you’re at Annie’s, you can take all the time you want to decide what to do. Away from Phillip’s influence.
She nearly laughed aloud. Yes, she was away from her husband’s influence—thousands of miles away. But he could have been sitting in the seat beside Bronte for her inability
to forget him. His ghost had accompanied her every step of the way—and her phone was filled with unread messages, texts, and emails that she should have erased the instant they appeared.
Should have erased.
Because there’d been a time when she had loved him so much that a handful of kind words from him had felt as intimate as a caress.
But that had been a long time ago.
A million years and two thousand miles ago.
Ultimately, the state of her marriage had become a case of fight or flight. This time, she’d chosen flight. And after coming so far, she didn’t have the strength to confront her own actions, let alone those of her daughter. But soon. They were almost at her grandmother’s farmhouse. Once there, she could burrow into the peaceful solitude of this tiny western town and begin to piece together the torn remnants of her lifelong dreams.
“Are you going to drive anytime soon?” Kari inquired, her tone dripping with sarcasm. “Or are you waiting for a sign from God?”
Closing her eyes, Bronte counted to ten before responding.
“I haven’t been here since I was seventeen, Kari. I need a minute to get my bearings.”
Kari huffed again, fiddling with the button to the automatic window, making it go up, down, up, down. The noise of the motor approximated an impatient whine.
“I thought that’s why we bought a map at the last gas station,” she grumbled under her breath. “If you’d get a GPS like everyone else . . .”
Please let me get through the next few miles without resorting to violence,
Bronte thought to herself as she put the car in gear, waited for a rattletrap farm truck laden with bags of seed to pass, then eased into the narrow lane.
As they drove through Bliss proper, Bronte grew uneasy. Over the years, she’d imagined the area would remain like a time capsule, unchanged and completely familiar. Either
her memories were faulty, or urban sprawl had begun to encroach on this rural community. To her dismay, she could see that some of the mom-and-pop establishments had given way to newer, sleeker buildings bearing franchise names and automated signs.
For the first time, Bronte felt a twinge of uneasiness. She’d tried to contact Annie, without success. What if they’d come for nothing? What if Annie couldn’t offer Bronte the haven she hoped to find?
Instantly, Bronte rejected that thought. Grandma was the one constant in the world. A beacon of love that made no demands. That’s why, when Bronte felt as if she’d drown in her own silent anguish, she’d gravitated instinctively to the spot where she’d been happiest. A place where she wouldn’t have to present a chipper façade to the world to hide the fact that everything she’d once held dear had long since crumbled to dust.
Bronte had stopped at a red light—probably the only one in town. In her efforts to orient herself, she’d missed the change to green. There wasn’t another soul in sight, but trust Kari to pound home her irritation at the minute delay.
“It’s this way,” she murmured—more to reassure herself than her children.
Turning right, she prayed that she’d chosen the correct side road. Victorian farmhouses and bungalows from the thirties were crowded by newer, turreted McMansions that looked alien in such a rural setting. But as she wound her way along the old highway, she began to pick out landmarks that were familiar to her: the train trestle that spanned the creek; the box-like outline of pine trees surrounding the pioneer cemetery; the old mill which had apparently been converted into a bed and breakfast.
“It’s not far now,” she reassured her children.
“I hope so,” Lily admitted, her eyes wide as she studied the passing scenery.
Ashamed, Bronte realized that she shouldn’t have let so much time elapse before coming to Utah. But Phillip had
insisted that any place without a Starbucks or a subway wasn’t worth visiting. So, Bronte had kept the peace and arranged for Grandma Annie to visit them every year. But her children had been denied so much because of Bronte’s cowardice. They’d never ridden a horse or hiked up a mountainside to drink from an icy artesian spring. But this summer, they would have a chance.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” Lily whispered. “Will Grandma Great let me use her bathroom?”
“No, she’ll make you pee in a bush, stupid.”
Raindrops splattered against the windshield. Leaning forward, Bronte eyed the flickers of lightning with concern. They were almost there. They should be able to outrun the storm.
Lily stirred restlessly in her seat. “How much farther?”
“Less than a mile.”
Intermittent drops continued to strike the glass, leaving perfect circles in the dust, but Bronte hesitated to turn on the wipers. The blades—much like her tires—should have been replaced months ago. If she turned them on now, the rain and dirt collected on her car would muddle together in a streaky mess, and she needed to see the towering willow tree that marked the end of the lane . . .
For the first time in years, Bronte felt a flutter of joy and hope. They were here. They were finally here!
Slowing the car, she turned into a narrow gravel road. The tires crunched over the weathered ruts, the noise bringing a sense of excitement that edged out the weariness and pain.
A strip of winter-matted grass grew up the middle of the track, and puddles gathered in the potholes. On either side of the lane, fence posts had been linked together with strands of barbed wire. The fields beyond were as she’d remembered, loamy carpets of brown sprigged with chartreuse shoots of sprouting grain. As they drew closer to the house, the fences gave way to dozens of lilac bushes, which had grown so closely together that they formed an impenetrable
hedge. To Bronte’s delight, she saw that the first bud-like leaves were beginning to appear. Sometime in May, they would explode into a fragrant wall of purple and pink and the air would grow rich with the scent of the blossoms and the drone of bees.
“Look!” she exclaimed to her children. “It’s only the second week in April, but Annie’s lilacs are starting to get their leaves.” She cracked the window, allowing the heady fragrance of rain and soil to fill the car.
Lily eagerly pressed her face against the glass, but Kari remained stony and silent. Nevertheless, Bronte sensed an expectancy in her daughter’s posture that hadn’t been there before.
“Where’s the house?” Lily breathed.
“Past the next bend.”
As Bronte eased around the corner, a part of her was a child again. She expected to see Annie waiting on the stoop wearing a cotton dress cinched tight by an all-encompassing apron. Bronte could almost smell the yeastiness of freshly baked bread that clung to the house and taste the moist carrot cookies that were pulled from the oven as soon as she and her siblings arrived. As soon as Bronte ran up the front steps, she would be enveloped in her grandmother’s warm, bosomy embrace. She would breathe deeply of Annie’s unique scent—face powder, lilies of the valley, and Nilla Wafers, which Annie stowed in her apron pockets for when she needed a boost.
Bronte was so enveloped in the memories that it took Kari’s sharp inhalation and Lily’s plaintive “oh” to pierce the fantasy.
Easing to a stop, Bronte peered more closely through the rain-streaked windshield. As her eyes focused on the weathered farmhouse, a mewl of disappointment escaped her lips.
If not for the porch light and a dim glow emitted from the garret window, Bronte would have thought the house had been abandoned. Weeds choked the once beautiful flowerbeds and the lawn was burned and nearly nonexistent. The sagging wrap-around porch was missing half a dozen
balusters and the front steps were rickety and threatening to collapse.
The outbuildings had suffered a similar fate. Bronte remembered the chicken coop, barn, and garden being painted a pristine white. When she’d seen them last, they’d been perched on an immaculate lawn edged by tufts of peonies and irises. But if any of those perennials had survived, they would have to fight their way through thigh-high weeds and thistles.
“I thought you said this place was
Kari’s tone made it clear that she thought Bronte teetered on the verge of senility.