Authors: Cheryl Douglas
Book One in the Vista Falls Series
Copyright © by Cheryl Douglas
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Rough Terrain © 2016 Cheryl Douglas
Wes Davis stared across the big mahogany desk at his lifelong friend and business partner and said the words that had been haunting him for fourteen long years. “I want to go home, man.”
Home, for them, meant a small town where people called their neighbors friends and didn’t feel the need to lock their doors. For Wes, Vista Falls held a lot of good memories, and a lot of bad, thanks to the one girl who’d changed the course of his life with just a few words.
“You want to go home?” Colt stared at him, looking stunned. “For what, a visit? Sure, take as much time as you need. I know it’s been rough on your family since your dad passed.”
John Davis had been Wes’s rock, the one who’d encouraged him to drop out of college and start his own business. Without his dad’s guidance, nothing made sense in Wes’s life anymore. The business he’d once loved—born of his passion for hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors—didn’t even fuel him with the desire to get out of bed anymore.
“I’ve been running too long.” Colt was one of the few people in the world who could understand that statement without needing an explanation. He should have. He’d been running too. “It’s time to go back and face my past. Make things right with Sage.”
Sure, they’d only been eighteen. It was the summer before college, and they were both excited about their futures. But with those two little words,
, Wes’s priorities shifted. He wanted to be a father. But he never got the chance. Before he knew what hit him, Sage’s father was making demands, siccing lawyers on him, shoving legal papers in his face, and making threats about bringing down Wes’s whole family if Wes didn’t sign and disappear.
“Come on, man. It’s been a long time. Sage’s probably gotten on with her life just like you need to do.”
Wes laced his hands behind his head as his eyes drifted to the family photo on his desk. It was the last one taken before his father died. “Losing my dad has reminded me what really matters. He didn’t raise me to be a coward, but that’s what I’ve been. I’ve got a kid out there I don’t even know. How the hell am I supposed to live with that?”
Colt sighed, sinking into the leather chair across from Wes. “You don’t talk about it, but I know that’s got to be eating at you.”
“You have no idea.” There were days when it took all of Wes’s self-control to keep him from picking up the phone to call his lawyer or a private detective, the adoption agency, someone who could put him in touch with his son.
“You and Sage made sure it was an open adoption,” Colt reminded him. “I know she didn’t want to have any contact with him, but if he wanted to reach out to you, he could.”
“Maybe he doesn’t know he’s adopted. Maybe he thinks I don’t want him in my life.” The part that hurt Wes the most was the thought that his son might believe he’d abandoned him without a care or a thought. “He probably thinks I’m a selfish, irresponsible bastard who—”
“Don’t do that,” Colt said, shaking his head. “Don’t put words in the kid’s mouth. You don’t know what he’s thinking or how he’s feeling.”
“No, but I need to find out. I have to meet him.” Wes knew none of the pieces of his life could fall back into place until he’d made peace with his past.
“Fine, but how will going back home help make that happen?”
“I left there because I couldn’t stand the thought of running into Sage and her family every time I turned around.”
“I know, but—”
“A lot of time has passed. I’m not going to lie—it still hurts like hell to think she didn’t want me to be the father of her child, but she was just a kid then. Same as me. Can I really hold her responsible for buckling under the pressure from her family, especially when I did the same thing? You know what her old man was like.”
“A real hardass from what I remember,” Colt said, rolling his eyes. “But what do you hope to gain from seeing Sage again?”
“Maybe she wants the same thing I do—to meet our son.” Wes imagined taking that step with Sage, meeting their son together for the first time and trying to explain to him that giving him up had been the hardest thing they’d ever done.
“How do you know she hasn’t already met him?” Colt asked. “Just because he hasn’t reached out to you doesn’t mean he hasn’t reached out to Sage.”
Wes knew his friend was only trying to help by preparing him for all possible scenarios, but right now, he wasn’t helping. He was only making Wes question everything all over again. “Either way, don’t you think I need to know?”
“I guess so,” Colt said, shrugging. “Okay, so how long will you be gone?”
Wes was most concerned about the next part of the plan—trying to convince his partner that going home was not only the right decision for him but for their business. “Don’t you ever think about going back? For good, I mean?”
Colt scraped his hands over his face, looking bone-tired. “Where the hell is all this coming from?”
“Isn’t that where the business was really born? Out there on the water when we were barely teenagers, trolling around the lake in that shitty little boat and talking about how cool it would be if we could do that all day every day?”
“Yeah, sure, but we are living the dream.” He threw his hands in the air, gesturing to Wes’s spacious office. “Look around you. We couldn’t ask for any more, could we? Thirty-nine stores across the country catering to hunters and fishermen who are as passionate as we are.”
“Vista Falls has fallen on hard times in recent years. Moving our operation there could mean jobs for a lot of people. Folks we used to consider family.”
“What about our employees here?” Colt asked, looking frustrated. “Don’t we owe them? They’ve been loyal to us since day one, helping us grow and work out the kinks. Have you thought about what it would do to them if we moved halfway across the country?”
“I have.” That was the only thing that had prevented Wes from suggesting this idea to his friend before. “I’ve spoken to a few key people in our organization, looked at ways we could restructure so job loss here will be minimized.”
“Are you listening to yourself right now?” Colt asked, raking his hands through his cropped dark hair. “You’re talking like this is a done deal. We’re fifty-fifty partners, remember? That means I get an equal say.”
“I know that.” They’d been fortunate in their partnership, always agreeing about major decisions and the direction of the company. This was the first major roadblock they’d hit in the thirteen years since the inception of their business. “That’s why I’m coming to you now, so we can work this out.”
“Well, you tell me how we’re gonna do that.”
“We could offer everyone the option to transfer to the new headquarters.” Wes knew it was unlikely most people would uproot their lives and families for the sake of a job though. “Our online business is strong. We’ve been talking about expanding anyway. We could find homes for some people in that area.”
“Sounds like you’ve thought about this from all angles,” Colt said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe this is the first I’m hearing about it.”
Wes understood his friend’s confusion, even his sense of betrayal, but Wes wouldn’t have pushed for this if he didn’t believe it was the best thing for Colt too. Their head office was in Houston, and as much as they loved the city, they both missed the simplicity of small town life. “How long have you been telling me you’re getting tired of the rat race… that you’d love to slow down and get back to basics?”
“Having a flagship store in a town the size of Vista Falls doesn’t even make sense, man.”
He’d already considered that and knew his partner was right. Vista Falls didn’t have the population to support a huge store. “So our flagship store remains here. We can open a smaller store in Vista Falls. We know the need exists. There are more avid outdoorsmen there than anywhere, and they have to drive damn near an hour when they want to buy their gear or order it online. But we all know you can’t buy guns and shit online. You need to hold it, get a feel for it—”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re preaching to the choir,” Colt said, raising his hands on a sigh.
Colt’s friend’s reasons for wanting to stay away from Vista Falls were as good as Wes’s reasons for wanting to go back, but he’d been watching Colt wrestle with his past for years, claiming he didn’t need his family in his life. But one bad relationship after another had proven that Colt’s childhood continued to haunt him, making the stability he claimed to want damn near impossible.
“What are you afraid of?” Wes asked quietly. “Facing your old man again?”
Colt’s dad had been a raging drunk while they were growing up, often taking his anger out on his wife and kids. Colt left town the first chance he got, but his mother and siblings stayed. Alzheimer’s finally got the best of his dad, and Colt now footed the bill for his round-the-clock care at a facility just outside of town. They rarely talked about Colt’s family, mainly because Wes felt guilty that his father had been the kind of man his best friend deserved as a parent.
“He probably won’t even remember me,” Colt said, his face an impassive mask. “Which just might be for the best.”
“But you remember every shitty thing he did to you, your mom, brother, and sister. You’ve cut them out of your life too. Is that fair?”
“Dude, sometimes you just need to leave all that behind, start over. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
“How’s that been working out for you?”
Wes thought of the girlfriend Colt had recently broken up with. They couldn’t have been more different. She’d have rather spent an afternoon at the salon than on the water. She hated Colt’s cabin, turned her nose up at camo, and wouldn’t get in his pickup truck until it had been washed and waxed.
“Just because you want to take a trip down memory lane doesn’t mean I do,” Colt said.
“You’re thinking about Gabby now, aren’t you?”
Gabrielle had been Colt’s high school girlfriend and Sage’s best friend. The four of them had been inseparable for three long years, until Sage’s pregnancy drove them apart. Gabby sided with her best friend; Colt sided with Wes. The rift gave Colt the excuse he needed to get the hell out of town.
“Are you kidding? I haven’t thought about that girl in years.” Their eyes met, and Wes would have bet his last dime that his best friend was lying through his teeth. “Just because you haven’t been able to leave the past behind doesn’t mean I haven’t.”
“So you’ve never looked her up, huh?” Wes asked, sliding a pen through his fingers. “No idea whether she’s got a husband or kids?”
“What makes you think I’d even care? That was a lifetime ago. I’ve had a hundred girlfriends since then.”
“Yeah, and you’ve never loved one of them the way you did Gabby.”
Colt swallowed, glancing out the expansive window that looked out on the forest behind their building. “It’s all water under the bridge now. We can’t go back and rewrite history.”
“No, we can’t. But we can make things right with the people we hurt.”
Colt glared at him. “I left home for you, because you couldn’t stand to be there anymore. And now you’re trying to drag me back, claiming I’ve got unfinished business with my family… and some chick I haven’t thought about in over a decade?”
“Then you won’t care that Gabby’s married.”
The color drained from Colt’s face, confirming Wes’s belief that Colt was living in denial. “She is?”