February, Rocky Mountain House
Rafe Coleman sat on the tailgate of his truck and stared into the slate-grey winter sky. He had a six-pack of beer beside him, a borrowed suit on his back, and a shit-ton of guilt raging inside.
Right then organ music was probably playing softly in the church. Background noise as everyone in Rocky shuffled in to settle on the hard wooden pews, awaiting the main event.
If they wanted him there, they’d damn well have to wait a little longer.
Made sense this day would be cold as hell and colourless—washed out and empty. The bitter void fit his mood very nicely, and he was pretty much ready to sit there for as long as he could, thank you very much.
Except it seemed the world, meaning his Coleman family, wasn’t going to allow that option. His cousin Trevor’s truck rolled down the snowy driveway, big tires sliding through the deep snowfall of the previous night.
Rafe eyed the truck with suspicion. Trevor alone wouldn’t be strong enough to move his ass, but if he’d brought Joel, or a few of the other cousins, Rafe’s rebellion could be over fast.
Only it wasn’t Trevor, or Joel, or even his brother Gabe.
It was Laurel Sitko, fire flashing in her eyes as she glared out the window, fishtailing to a stop beside him. She dropped from the cab, her petite body freefalling for a foot before she hit the snow. Her feet slipped on the traitorous groundcover, and Rafe stiffened his spine to keep from leaping to her rescue.
She marched right up to him then planted her fists on her hips. Her pale blonde hair was pinned up neatly, and a warm but stylish winter coat covered most of her dress. The only thing about her that didn’t look as if she should be prancing around in a castle like a princess were the oversized work boots on her feet—she’d probably found them in the truck when she’d borrowed it. Her breaths turned to a cloud of steam on every sharp exhale into the frigid winter air.
Rafe picked up the beer beside him and lifted it toward his lips.
She snatched the bottle from his fingers. “Don’t you have somewhere to be, Coleman?”
“Yup.” He grabbed the bottle back, taking a good long drink before looking into ice-blue eyes filled with sorrow and frustration. “Right here.”
Laurel’s gaze narrowed, and before he could stop her, she’d nabbed the bottle again, twisting on the spot to fling it against the narrow strip of fencing beside them. The glass shattered, the explosion echoing like the lake during spring breakup. Shotgun sharp, cutting like a razor.
She moved like a whirlwind, stealing away the rest of the six-pack. She sent it flying into the deepest snowdrift within tossing distance before turning back to face him. Cheeks red, body shaking.
“You’re going to that church, right now,” she informed him.
Didn’t look so angelic when she got pushed too hard. She looked fiery, and passionate, and Rafe hopped off the tailgate and stepped into her personal space.
She tilted her head so she could keep glaring. “You don’t scare me,” Laurel snapped. “Get your ass in gear.”
He raised a brow at her curse, but her sheer determination and vibrancy just made that icy blade of fear in his gut stab harder. He was one second away from losing her, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Rafe closed the distance between them, dragging their bodies together. He lifted her until their heads were in line so he could stare into her eyes.
If this was goodbye, he was going to take everything one last time.
He caught her by the back of the neck and brought their lips together in a searing hot kiss—
September, Rocky Mountain House, sixteen years ago
The second week into kindergarten, she arrived.
One minute Raphael Coleman had been sitting alone in the sandbox and the next, a beautiful angel stood next to him, and somehow he knew his life would never be the same.
He’d heard about angels, of course. In Sunday school, and from his mama, usually when she was warning that his guardian angel was getting a workout.
More than that, he’d been called one for as long he could remember. The Angel Colemans. To make them different from the other three Coleman families in the area. He’d never been sure what he and his big brothers, Mike and Gabe, had done to be ranked up there with shining creatures with wings, but it was the way things were.
Although, his daddy? Daddy teased him to stop being a devil child and get to work.
Yes, angelic beings had been discussed regularly in his world, but he’d never seen a real angel until now, and she had to be real. Her wings were hidden, but she shimmered with the light of the sun behind her, and he waited cautiously for her to speak, to be sure he didn’t scare her away. Around them, the children from his kindergarten class ran and screamed, laughing and burning off energy before they got pulled back into the portable trailer that was their classroom. But here in the sandbox he’d found a quiet refuge.
She tilted her head to one side, long white-blonde hair in pigtails glowing in the sunlight as she examined him. Her pale blue eyes sparkled, and she nodded firmly as if happy with what she saw.
And then she spoke, and even her voice was different than the other children’s. Sweeter, and kinder, and perfect.
“Want to build a racetrack?”
Definitely an angel. A mere girl would have suggested making a castle, or something equally silly.
Rafe held his hand up, his two favourite Hot Wheels offered like a sacrifice. “Want one?”
Her eyes widened and her smile threatened to blind him. But instead of taking one of his slightly battered toys, she reached into her pocket then settled next to him in the sand. Rafe waited as she lifted her hand and showed him two more vehicles. “I’ll trade.”
They both considered carefully before exchanging—her black truck for his green one. Then they worked together, shaping the sand into circles for the track and racing their new trucks loudly over the course.
Everything went well up until the moment when Jacob MacHalden, the biggest boy in the class, plopped down in the middle of their most exciting race yet. Plopped down and deliberately kicked everything apart with his feet before offering an evil grin as if daring either of them to complain.
Something in Rafe went hot, then cold, then hot again.
He’d spent years begging to go to school like his brothers, and the first days had been a lot like he’d expected. His mama had said there’d be lots of kids for him to play with, which was true. His brother Mike, who was ten years older than him, had warned Rafe might not always like the other kids, which was also true.
After a week, Jacob was already on Rafe’s limited but growing do-not-mess-with list.
His brother Gabe, who was eighteen and all grown up, had told him sometimes people wouldn’t be nice, but it was up to him to not lose his temper. And that throwing tantrums was for babies, and that he expected Rafe to deal with troubles without ever throwing a punch…
Gabe had a lot of things to say, but that was okay. Rafe kind of worshipped him. He’d do anything to make his biggest brother proud.
So all those things were running through Rafe’s mind as he glanced at the angel beside him and saw her lower lip quiver. What he wanted to do was punch Jacob, hard, for ruining their fun. What he should do was something else that would make Gabe happy.
But as he watched, an expression came into those pale blue eyes he hadn’t expected. Between one moment and the next, his angel grew claws, leaping from his side to land her slight, delicate frame on top of the class bully, her shrill scream echoing through the playground.
Her name was Laurel Sitko, and she was the new pastor’s younger daughter. He found that out when they were both hauled into the principal’s office and their families had to come get them.
He didn’t remember much about that visit other than standing close enough to Laurel the back of their hands brushed. She secretly caught his fingers in hers and squeezed before letting go.
Oh, and he remembered she refused to apologize.
“But he was mean, Daddy, and happy about it,” she told Pastor Dave in front of Jacob’s mom, the principal, Gabe and God, because God had to be there since the pastor was.
“We still don’t punch people, even if they’re mean.” Pastor Dave looked stern, but he hugged Laurel tight after she’d promised to not punch Jacob again. Although, she looked pretty satisfied that the bully’s right eye was already turning a dark shade of blue.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
June, twelve years ago
Rafe was tight inside from trying not to cry when he spotted her. Laurel stood in the hallway outside the church hall after the funeral, fingers clutched. Seeing her lips quiver didn’t make it any easier, and he clenched his hands into fists and fought for control.
The past three days had been like nothing he’d ever experienced in all his eight years. His ma hadn’t said much because she was busy crying. Mike—he wasn’t saying anything because he was dead. They’d had birthday cake for him, and a couple nights later Mike had gone out, and Rafe had gone to bed like usual, and that was the last time he saw his brother.
“A terrible accident” and “taken far too soon” people said over and over and over until Rafe wanted to scream.
His big brother Gabe, who was twenty-one and past grown up, had knelt beside him and choked out that if he wanted to cry, that didn’t make him a baby…
For once Gabe didn’t have a lot to say.
Neither did his dad, or anyone, except for Laurel’s dad who had just said a bunch of words during the funeral about how Mike was gone but he’d sure shone bright while he was on earth.
While he liked Pastor Dave, Rafe hadn’t wanted to listen to anyone talk about Mike right then. He wanted his brother back, but he was old enough to know that dead was dead.
Laurel glanced both directions before grabbing Rafe by the hand and pulling him after her into one of the side rooms off the main hall.
Looking at her still made him think of angels, only now they’d gotten into trouble too many times over the years at school for him to believe angelic looks always meant well-behaved.
She closed the door before taking a deep breath. “Gabe is leaving.”
He stared at her. “What?”
“I heard him. I snuck up because it looked as if something interesting was happening. He was talking to one of your cousins, and I heard him. He’s leaving, Rafe. And he isn’t going to tell you, so you need to talk to him before he goes. Or you’ll be sad, and so will he.”
Gabe wouldn’t leave. Not while everyone was crying over Mike.
But it was true. As soon as the whole, horrible graveyard visit was over, Gabe offered to drive him back to the church. Rafe waited for him to speak, but they sat in silence the entire trip. Gabe parked back at the church, took a deep breath, and then let it out without mentioning a thing.
Only when he glanced over briefly, the expression on his brother’s face told Rafe that Laurel was right.
“You’re leaving me,” he accused.
Gabe jerked in surprise. “Where’d you hear—?”
“I don’t want you to go,” Rafe interrupted.
His brother gripped the steering wheel tightly as he stared out the window into the sad, grey sky. “I don’t want to go either, bucko, but I have to.”
“You’re a grown up. You can do whatever you want.”
Gabe turned a sorrow-filled face toward him. “Sometimes what we want to do and what we need to do are two different things.”
“Will you ever come back?” Rafe got out before his throat closed up completely.
“Maybe,” Gabe offered. He wrapped a hand around the back of Rafe’s neck and made Rafe look him in the eye. “I’m not leaving because of anything you’ve done—don’t you ever think that. You’re one hell of a great brother, and I know you’re gonna miss me. I’m going to miss you too, but right now, this is what I’ve got to do.”
Sadness welled up past his breaking point, and Rafe escaped from the truck, dashing across the churchyard. He didn’t know what he was running from, just that he needed to get away.
He ended up standing in the backyard of Laurel’s house, leaning against the massive apple tree in the back corner. He put his face against the cool bark and let the rough texture dig into his cheek as he stood there, confused and hurt.
He was going to lose both his brothers, and it wasn’t fair.
Soft fingers brushed his, but he didn’t move. Just let Laurel lean her head against his back as she slipped her arms around him and hugged him tight.
She didn’t say anything. Only stood there crying quietly with him, and for him, and it was exactly what he needed. She’d known that. Somehow, she’d known, exactly like a friend should.
September, study hall, eight years ago
“Get out. Seriously?”
Rafe dragged a finger over his chest in the shape of an X before motioning for her to be quiet. “You’re going to get us detention first week of school, Sitko,” he whispered.
“It’s my turn. Last year it was your fault,” she muttered back, glancing at the teacher’s aide pacing the library where the eighth-grade class was supposed to be filling in their homework agendas for the next month.
He and Laurel had their class calendars open on the tabletop, and their notebooks out, but they were more interested in discussing his date from the previous night.
Which might have seemed a strange topic, but not for them. They shared about everything. Ever since kindergarten they’d been thick as thieves, and people rarely blinked at seeing them wandering the school halls together.
No one taunted, either—there wasn’t any use. Rafe would have fought the teasers, but Laurel simply raised a brow in the most haughty way the first time any newcomers tried to poke fun at them.
“Why on earth should we care what you think?” she’d ask in all seriousness.
There’d never been a good answer to that one, so Rafe had grown accustomed to the fact his best friend at school was a girl.
And now that they’d reached the age where everyone was thinking hard about the opposite sex, it seemed pretty natural to talk about that. Laurel wasn’t allowed to date, and until recently Rafe hadn’t done more than look, between chores at the ranch in his out-of-school hours and no way to slip into town to meet up with anyone. But now that his big brother Gabe was back, so many things had changed.
Not his friendship with Laurel, though. That was solid as ever.
Laurel pushed a piece of paper in front of him and pretended to point to something as she leaned in close. “So you kissed her? That’s it?”
Rafe thought back to the previous night. “We held hands in the movie theatre for a while.”
“Holding hands is good.”
“Yeah, but awkward. I’d bought us a supersized container of popcorn.”
“Awkward and disgusting. Go, you.”
She snickered as she pulled away, muffling the soft sound, but unable to stop her body from showing her amusement. She rocked hard enough her shoulders quivered. Rafe glanced at the room monitor, then back at Laurel who looked on the edge of a seizure, she was shaking so hard.
God, she drove him crazy.
His mom said he had to buckle down and not get in trouble as often this coming year. His dad grumbled and cussed, but not about Rafe. He just grumbled and cussed and drank too much at times because everything was terrible, according to him, but at least ever since Gabe had come back, Ben hadn’t lost his temper with anyone.
Gabe said Ben had “issues”.
Whatever. Rafe thought his dad was a jerk, and he should grow up and act like a dad again.
Thinking about girls was far more interesting than analyzing the tension at home.
He poked Laurel in the side, and she shot upright, covering her mouth with a hand to stop from shrieking.
“What’s so funny?” he demanded.
She made a big fuss over straightening the things in front of them, and didn’t answer. Uh-oh. Avoidance, which meant she was trying not to have to lie. She was a truly shitty liar.
He rapped his knuckles on her head. “Earth to Laurel…what is your twisted sense of humour doing in there?”
“Mr. Coleman. Please keep your hands to yourself and leave your study partner alone.”
The aide directed a warning look at both of them, and Laurel had a coughing fit as Rafe smiled politely. “Yes, sir.”
They waited until the TA was on the far side of the room before leaning toward each other. “You sure all you did was give her a kiss?” she asked.
“Duh. You’d think I’d know.” He pulled back, slightly worried now. “Why? What’d you hear?”
“Hell, no,” Rafe shouted in surprise.
Their classmates, including the young lady he’d been playing tonsil hockey with the night before, twisted on the spot to watch as the aide bore down on them double-quick.
“Oops,” Laurel muttered, gathering their books into two piles. “Your fault, again.”
Rafe bit the inside of his cheek to stop from laughing out loud as the TA snapped up a hand and pointed toward the door. “I assume you two remember the route to the principal’s office?”
Laurel waited until they were out the door and on the stairwell landing before turning to him, and wearing her most innocent expression, sweetly asking, “Shall we go straight there, or take the more scenic road to hell?”
She smiled from ear to ear then let her laughter loose. Rafe joined in, because the fact they had names for the trip to the office was beyond stupidly funny. He had to prop himself up with one hand on the wall to keep vertical as they both laughed until they were gasping, stomachs hurting, in spite of being in trouble.
Or maybe because of it—best friends who did everything together.
June, three years ago
Lights sparkled off the shiny disco balls hanging over the school gymnasium floor, sending twinkling flashes over fancy dresses and borrowed suits and tuxes. Stars spun overhead, hung from long threads, and the entire room looked like a throwback to some cheesy eighties movie.
Rafe leaned on the nearest wall and watched with amusement.
Graduation night—small-town style. As the youngest in the Coleman clan, he’d heard stories from his cousins who’d experienced it before, some many years before him. He’d compared their memories to what he’d seen on TV and in the movies, and come up with a pretty realistic set of expectations.
Grad in Rocky didn’t run to rented limos or extravagant hotel banquet halls at an expensive hotel. There was no sneaking off to check into hotels with prom dates to have sex…
Heck, their classmates who wanted to have sex were already having it, and the holdouts wouldn’t bother trying tonight when everyone would be on the lookout for anyone going wild.
His amusement lingered as he searched out one feminine figure, making sure she was having fun and didn’t want to leave.
Pastor Dave’s ban on dating still stood, but for once Laurel’s argument that they were just friends had made a difference. Rafe had gotten permission to pick her up and bring her home, and he was not going to do anything to mess up at this point. Not with Laurel going away at the end of the summer.
She was off to school, and he would stay in Rocky to help his brother, Gabe, with his new fiancée, Allison, hopefully turn around the Angel Coleman ranch troubles by going organic.
A whole lot of years of friendship were about to come to an end, and there was a knot in his belly as he considered it. A sense of sadness.
She was spinning in a circle, holding her friends’ hands, the girls a tangle of laughter and joy. Heads thrown back, bright happiness pouring off them.
Rafe stepped forward, unable to resist being a part of it.
Bad timing on his part, or maybe it was brilliant. The music changed as he took her hand, pulling her close for a dance. A slow ballad filled the air—something that called for their bodies to be pressed together as they swayed under the flickering lights.
It wasn’t unexpected for his body to react. Especially when Laurel looked up at him, nibbling on her bottom lip, eyes full of trust.
Rafe went hot everywhere.
“Stop wiggling like that,” he ordered. “You’re turning me on.”
She snickered. “Stupid man hormones. You get turned on in a high breeze, Coleman.”
He wondered if it was more than just stupid man hormones. At this point, thinking about her turned him on, but he knew better than to push it. He eased away, trying to create some room so his cock didn’t rub up against her. She didn’t cooperate. Instead, she stepped closer with that determined expression in her eyes.
“Devil woman,” he warned, forcing her to a safer distance as they danced. She gave in to his superior strength, finally going back to the modest clutch that he found just as tempting without being deliberately seductive.
Even him getting a hard-on around her on a regular basis hadn’t messed up their friendship. It’s not as if they were fooling around. Laurel could be pretty blunt when it came to talking about sex—like she was blunt about everything. And he appreciated it, he really did, although sometimes he wished…
He didn’t even know what he wished.
They were in his truck, and he was driving her home when she dropped the bomb.
“I’m going to Bible College in September.”
“Knew that,” Rafe said, taking the long route. The one that took them all the way around Rocky, because he wasn’t ready for the night to end.
She sighed. “You don’t know I’m going on a mission trip first.”
He tightened his grip on the wheel. “Where?”
“Belize. They had a last-minute opening, and I was on the wait list. I’ll be doing volunteer work in an orphanage for two months.”
He did the math and ended up with an aching pit in his stomach. “When do you leave?”
She laid a hand on his arm. “End of next week I head to boot camp.”
“Rafe…” Laurel chastised.
She laughed, but her heart wasn’t in it. “I know. Me too.”
Rafe had known it was coming, but he’d kept hoping it wouldn’t really happen. “Will you be at home at all before you start school?”
Such a simple word. Such a damning, horrible, heart-and-soul-killing word.
Impulsively, he pulled into the parking lot at the wilderness center, stopping the engine so they could sit in silence and watch the sunset paint the nearby Rocky Mountains with gold and red as he tried to deal with reality.
His angel was flying away. It had to happen. She’d leave, he’d stay—friends knew the world went on. Friends didn’t expect forever.
Rafe turned to face her. “Going to miss you.”
She nodded as if unable to speak, her pale blue eyes filling with tears.
Damn it. They’d talked about this, but now that it was real, he couldn’t accept it. He caught her in his arms and pulled her close, hugging her as if that could change anything.
She clung back, fingers on his shoulders, the soft scent of her filling him more and more with every breath he took. Warmth and connection growing.
As they cuddled together in the growing darkness, he found himself playing with her hair. His fingers teased her fancy up-do until it came apart in his hands, and silky seduction draped over his fingers. A shiver took him as he imagined the long strands sliding over his naked skin.
Rafe went cold, then flaming, wickedly hot.
She lifted her chin and stared at him with wonder in her eyes.
It was wrong. Completely and utterly wrong, but everything right between them until now had led to this moment.
“I’m going to kiss you,” he warned.
She opened her mouth slightly, and the soft sound of longing that escaped ricocheted through his system, hitting all his on buttons and shoving them to high.
They both leaned in, and their lips met.
A brush together, then apart. Yet with one taste, he was lost. He curled his fingers into the hair at the back of her neck and gripped tighter.
He went in for another kiss, this one deeper. Longer. Totally and utterly blown away by the fact that everything they’d ever joked about while watching their friends fall in love—like seeing stars and feeling the earth shake—all of those hokey clichés were true.
They fumbled in the dark, kissing harder, moving together until she was straddling his lap and he had his hands sliding up her bare legs, under her skirt. He cupped the soft fabric covering her butt and dragged her closer, putting heat and pressure over his fully engaged cock.
She’d untucked his dress shirt and was frantically undoing the buttons, her bare palms bumping his abdomen as she worked, and he was going to die because they couldn’t do this—
And there was nothing he wanted more.
He caught her wrists, trapping them beside their hips. It forced him to stop groping her as well, and they shifted their torsos far enough apart they could catch their breaths. Chests heaving as they struggled for control.
“We shouldn’t,” he whispered, “but I have never wanted anyone the way I want you right now.”
“Me too.” She took a deep breath and blew it out in a long, steady stream. “So, what do we do?”
For some stupid reason his brother Gabe’s words rolled in. “Sometimes what we want to do and what we need to do are two different things.”
Laurel wiggled her wrists and he released her. She caught the front of his open shirt, tugging until she could smooth the fabric over his chest.
Even with a layer of material between them, her touch scalded him.
“I bet what we need to do is cool off with a walk by the river before you take me home,” she offered.
“Cool off with a jump in the river, you mean.”
Rafe groaned as she lifted herself up and settled on the seat beside him, their hands brushing lightly. His body was a burning mass of need and guilt.
Walking together beside the water in the moonlight was all kinds of perfect and terrible. Rafe held her hand and wished for a way to go back to what he’d felt before, even as he never wanted to give up what was churning inside.
They turned in unison toward the old tree hanging over the water, the surface of the curved trunk worn smooth by time. Laurel crawled up and sat demurely, arranging her skirt carefully before lifting her face toward him.
“When you leave, you live every day to the fullest. Don’t wait for me, you hear?” Rafe ordered.
Laurel’s eyes were shining pools of moonlight, a thin line folding between them as confusion drifted in.
“I mean it. You’re going away, and you get to date for the first time—heck, you might fall in love. If that’s what’s waiting out there for you, you’ve got to take the chance. Life’s too short to be put on hold, but…” he caught her by the chin and poured every bit of himself into the words, “…but if you come back, and we’re both single, I’m warning you right now, you will never get away from me again.”
“What if I want to wait?” she asked.
Even though her words gave him a thrill, he shook his head. “That’s not living. You’re my best friend, Laurel. How could I want you to put everything on hold for years when we don’t know what might happen tomorrow?”
The lesson he’d learned from Mike’s death. Don’t wait, don’t waste a minute.
She nodded before pressing a hand to his cheek. “You’re right. We don’t know—so when I leave, you need to live too. You need to date, and maybe fall in love.” A burst of laughter escaped her. “Hey, don’t make that face. Not after you finished trying to boss me around.”
“That’s different,” he attempted, only to have her cover his mouth briefly with her palm as she leaned in close and glared.
“Don’t push it, Coleman. I have it on the best authority I’m the devil to deal with when I want to make a point. No, you will do all those things that mean you’re living, including not letting your father make you bitter.”
“He’s a jackass—”
“Yes, I know, but that doesn’t mean you get to—” Laurel interrupted herself, eyes flashing. “Not having that conversation. Not here. Not now. Now is for us.”
He leaned their foreheads together. “For us.”
They stared at each other for the longest time. Rafe stood between her legs, the warm summer breeze tangling around them as they silently said goodbye, thank you, and everything else words couldn’t say.
Then between one breath and the next, she took his world and changed it forever.
“You’re right, Rafe. There are no guarantees, and we don’t know what might happen tomorrow. So if you promise to live, then so will I.” Laurel stroked a hand down his cheek, “But if all we’ve got for sure is today, I want everything.”
She wrapped her arms around him and pulled their bodies together…
June, current day, Rocky Mountain House
Lies, Deception and Why We Keep Secrets
Laurel stared for a moment before rolling her eyes then moving the library cart toward the nonfiction section. Books were wonderful. Books were amazing, and some of them had double the entertainment value the author intended.
An entire book on why people keep secrets. Umm, duh? Because it was no one else’s business? Try that one on for size.
“Laurel, when you’re done, I’m going on break. Man the desk?” Wendy Tomes—unfortunate name for a librarian—stood beside her, pressing a hand to her baby-full belly. “I need to get off my feet for a minute.”
“Go now. I can finish this later,” Laurel offered, pushing the rolling cart back toward the front desk of the Rocky Mountain House Public Library. “Did you ever consider keeping your maiden name?” she asked suddenly.
Her supervisor snickered. “I don’t think so. Tomes is an improvement over Ripper.”
“Ouch. Yeah.” She pushed the swinging gate aside for Wendy. “Good decision.”
The other woman grimaced as she pressed a hand to her back and stretched her baby bump forward. “Dawn is starting the Reading in PJs program in a few minutes, so you’re on crowd control as well, okay?”
Laurel resisted the urge to hum happily as she surveyed her almost brand-new kingdom. Returning to Rocky Mountain House after three years away was an exercise in joy and sorrow.
Joy, because this was home. Sorrow, because not everything that had happened while she was gone had been perfect, and there were deep hurts inside she had to learn to deal with.
The front door opened and a familiar face marched forward, and for one breathless moment, she thought Rafe had walked through the door. Then the man took off his cowboy hat, revealing hair that was far too dark, and she forced herself to take a few slow breaths and dig for calm.
Helping one of the Coleman cousins find a book brought her back to here and now instead of drifting into daydreams about her friend who she hadn’t seen or heard from in a long, long time. They hadn’t kept in touch through texts, or emails, or anything.
Rafe had suggested a clean break would make it easier to do that “live life to the fullest” stuff. She’d teased him it was more because he was too lazy, but she had to agree it’d been the right decision. The total cutoff from him had been hard. Real hard, but she’d gotten on with her life, and now…
Now she was back in Rocky.
The temptation was strong to ask Trevor Coleman if he’d seen Rafe recently. The words were nearly out of her mouth before she restrained herself. It was too dangerous to ask that personal of a question in case the answer made her sad.
Rafe could have moved away. He could be in a relationship—they’d said they weren’t going to wait around for each other.
Passing over a copy of the children’s book Trevor wanted, she slipped away for a moment, waiting for her racing heart to settle to a normal pace. She replaced books on the shelves automatically as her thoughts turned to the real question.
What if Rafe was with someone?
No. She wouldn’t do that to herself. If he was with someone, she’d be fine. And if he wasn’t, maybe they’d be able to pick up their friendship.
She refused to let her brain go to the section labeled “more than friendship” for all sorts of reasons, the strongest of which—she wasn’t sure exactly what she wanted.
On the other side of the stacks, someone spoke sharply, followed by an even louder hushing noise. Little children thinking they’re being quiet.
Laurel moved quickly toward the children’s area where moms and their toddlers were gathered on pillows on the floor, listening to Dawn read out loud, the oversized book twisted toward the group to show off the pictures.
Her gaze drifted past what looked to be an unusually well-behaved gathering of little people toward the magazine section. Trevor was there, but he wasn’t alone. He was talking with a blond-haired Coleman, and this time there was no mistaking who it was.
Rafe spoke loudly. “Shut. Up. Not here.”
The entire group of toddlers turned and pressed a finger to their lips. “Shhhhhhhhh.”
He glanced up, and his gaze met hers, and for a split second she thought she saw hunger before his face twisted into a familiar expression. The same one she’d seen far too many times before—his sweet who? innocent me? fake-o one he’d whip out in the hopes whatever trouble they’d gotten into, the punishment would be reduced because they’d meant well.
Her feet felt light, and she wanted to dance across the room.
She should have expected it. He would show up and it would be like they’ve never been apart, only now they were both old enough and smart enough to know what type of trouble they were getting into.
Oh, the trouble they could get into…
Heat rushed in as she moved toward the men. Her cheeks were blazing hot, and she deliberately looked Trevor in the eye before turning to face Rafe.
She jerked her gaze away before he set her off giggling. “Would you guys take your conversation outside, please?” she asked primly.
Two could play the innocent game.
Trevor demanded her attention, cocky smile in place as he held forward the Winnie the Pooh books she’d found for him. “No problem. Can you help me check these out, first?”
It was as good an excuse as any. She snatched them from his hand along with his library card then all but ran to escape. Behind her, the guys spoke a little more, but quietly enough she didn’t need to kick into librarian-police mode, which was good because she probably would’ve burst out laughing.
Rafe walked out without saying goodbye, which was also a good thing. It let her keep her cool while explaining something inane about how to get a library card to Trevor.
By the time he left her cheeks were cramping from holding back her laughter.
Luckily, Wendy came back on shift right then. Laurel grabbed the shelving cart and fled to the back of the room, hiding in the farthest corner of the library where tall windows stretched from floor to ceiling. She pressed her face against the cool glass in the hopes it would lower her temperature.
It had been three years and she’d never forgotten what he’d said.
Never forgotten what they’d done.
Fortunately, some of the items on the cart actually belonged in that corner of the library, so she wasn’t completely wasting time as she forced herself to concentrate and accomplish some work. All afternoon she kept waiting for Rafe to return, and being thankful when he didn’t.
She left at five o’clock sharp, slipping into her little car and taking the first full breath she’d gotten since spotting him.
Tucked under her windshield wiper was a folded note.
So much for breathing. She jerked open the door and grabbed the note, ripping it open.
Do you want to build a racetrack?
She headed to the schoolyard, heart pounding.
Rafe sat at a picnic table on the edge of the playground. He’d rested his elbows on the tabletop as he stretched his long, jean-clad legs in front of him. She took her time walking across the field to appreciate the view, from the sturdy cowboy boots all the way up to his hair that stuck out slightly from underneath his cowboy hat.
He needed a haircut.
Or maybe not. The slightly ragged length looked good. It fit, and it fit the rest of him as well as she continued admiring him.
Since she’d left, the boy had become a man. The muscles pressing the sleeves of his T-shirt were far more solid. His face had matured to sharper angles, his high cheekbones and square jaw just that much more defined now that he’d moved into his twenties.
The expression in his eyes was the same as she remembered, though. Hell-bent on mischief, and one hundred percent on her side.
Laurel came to a stop a few feet from the table. She didn’t quite know where to put her hands. “I missed you.”
He rose instantly, not one bit hesitant about where to put his hands. He wrapped her in a big hug, lifting her off her feet as he swung in a wild circle. His hat tipped off backward as he buried his face in her neck and squeezed her close.
She clung to him tightly, wondering how this could feel so much like coming home and still like the beginning.
He lowered her to the ground, leading her to the picnic table to sit. “Couldn’t believe it when I heard you were back.”
“And I can’t believe that nobody stopped in to tell me everything about you,” she returned, crawling up on the tabletop. “I figured the minute I hit town, the entire Coleman clan would be in my back pocket, giving me the rundown on everything you’ve been up to for the last three years.”
Rafe shrugged. “I don’t think anybody except your family, my mom, and the people we went to school with really remember we were that close.”
“That makes no sense. The sheer amount of time we spent in the detention room together means somebody should’ve noticed.”
He laughed. “Yeah, but we’re younger. Nobody looks that direction. They were all focused on their own stuff and the people they’re chasing.” He ignored the rude noise she made. “You know I’m right. It’s like hiding shit in plain sight, or above people’s heads. Heck, by the time we hit junior high most of my extended family had graduated, and they didn’t give a damn about what was happening back in school. We were two years behind my nearest cousins, Lee and Lisa, and three years behind the Six Pack twins. And compared to them, we were saints.”
“Still think it’s weird.”
He smiled, stroking his thumb across the back of her hand, and a shiver rolled over her. “Being invisible isn’t a bad thing. It means we get to deal with us on our own timing.”
“Us?” The word came out a little squeaky.
“Us.” He slid his hand over hers, and heat sizzled up her arm. “You’re single?”
She nodded, heart in her throat.
Somehow in the past ten seconds every nerve in her body had gone from tingling in anticipation to full-out electric storm. “Oh, boy.”
She wanted to move to the next thing very very much, whatever that next thing was, but there were enough other things going on, she was worried.
“Rafe… What if I need some time?” A burst of laughter escaped her. “That sounded stupid. It’s been three years, and I think I want to…whatever it is we’re going to do—”
“Date. We’re going to date.”
She nodded firmly. “Right. But I’m just back from school and need to figure out some stuff. I’m worried about dealing with my parents, even though they’re mostly great, but it’s still—”
Rafe soothed her, placing her hand on his thigh before leaning in closer. “I’ve got bad news, too. I’m going to be gone most of the summer. Just before I heard you were back, Gabe asked me to do pickup and deliveries all over Western Canada, and I promised I would.”
Disappointment rushed in, along with relief. “All summer?”
Rafe nodded. “I’ll be home only a few days at a time, and none of them with much warning.”
It wasn’t exactly what she’d been hoping for, but the instant decrease in her stress level told her a lot. “I’ve been gone for three years, and this is the first time I’ve held a full-time job.” She made a face. “Maybe it’s good you won’t be around to distract me or get me in trouble.”
“Ha. Look who’s talking, kettle.” He brushed the hair off her face. “God, I missed you. I missed talking to you, getting lectured by you, and the way you blurt out ideas soon as you think of them.”
“Gee, thanks. You like all the awkward things about me.”
He leaned forward and looked up into her face with a brilliant smile. “Yup, I sure do.”
It didn’t seem right they were sitting there in the middle of the playground, with three years to catch up on, and she was obsessing over the feel of his thumb against her skin. “Speaking of awkward things, I don’t quite know how we’re planning to do this.”
Do this. It sounded far too sexual.
She glanced up to discover his eyes had gone dark with desire.
As usual, Rafe had far more control than she did. “I don’t want you to have to put up with the Coleman Inquisition, so I suggest we wait.”
“Wait for sex?” Drat. She didn’t miss his sharp intake of breath. She couldn’t see his face, though, because she’d buried her face in her hands. “Go, Laurel. Silver-tongued as usual.”
His soft laughter slid over her. He put an arm around her shoulders, squeezing briefly before letting her go without offering anything more intimate. “September sixth.”
She checked his expression closer, pretty sure he wasn’t suggesting that as the date for sex. “Go on.”
A slow, heated look rolled over his face. “We met September sixth, so how about we wait until then to start over?”
“You’ll be done traveling?”
“And you’ll have time to settle in without anyone giving you grief about me popping in and out of your life like a broken jack-in-the-box.”
“I don’t care what people say,” she insisted. “It’s not that.”
“I do,” he snapped back. “About this? About you? I want it clear from the first minute we’re together that you’re mine. No one will take me seriously if I’m gone ninety percent of the time, not even you.”
Too many questions shoved forward. Did his resolve to be taken seriously have something to do with recent events? Three years was a long time. A lot could have happened…
A lot had happened.
Laurel gazed across at her best friend who had no idea what had shaken down in her recent life. The only way to know if they had a future, though, was to try.
She nodded firmly in acceptance. “September sixth? It’s a date.”
His smile widened. “Hell, yeah, it’s a date. I’ll pick you up.”
“Wait—” She hesitated to mention it, but… “What about Trevor? He saw you in the library. He knows something’s going on.”
Rafe’s grin morphed back to his aww-shucks one. “I told him I was lusting over you, but too chicken to ask you out.”
Her jaw fell open, and she hurried to snap it back into position. “You? Chicken? Does he even know you?”
“Not as well as he thinks.” Rafe’s smile faded.
Definitely things to relearn about each other.
She eyed him for a long moment, wondering what was the right move next. Did she shake his hand then head home? Hug him farewell?
Kiss him passionately the way she really wanted to?
“Not only have you failed to learn how to lie, you’ve got a terrible poker face.” Rafe cupped her chin. “I want to kiss you too, but we’re waiting, remember?”
She flushed. “Then why even mention it?”
“Because I want you to think about it all summer while we’re apart. Think about how the next time I see you, we won’t be waiting anymore.” The deep velvet of his voice stroked her as surely as the motion of his thumb over her lips. “When I see you in September, I’m going to take a hell of a long time relearning how you taste, and what makes you moan, and what makes you scream.”
The temperature seemed to have soared in the past few minutes.
Laurel made a show of fanning herself if only to distract him from how hard her pulse was beating—had to be nearly loud enough he could hear it. “Good job, DC.”
Rafe raised a brow. “Devil child? Wow, I haven’t heard that one for a long time.”
“If the shoe fits…” She rose to her feet, walking at his side back to the parking lot.
“It doesn’t fit,” he insisted as she crawled into her car. He lowered himself beside her, reaching across her lap to do up her seatbelt. The movement squeezed them together for a brief instant, and she sucked for air.
“I’m not a child anymore,” he informed her clearly. He pressed his lips to her cheek then murmured, “I’m all grown up, and I can’t wait to prove it to you.”
She had trouble swallowing as he stepped back, offering a cocky smile before sauntering away.