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Southwind

Loves

BOOK TWO


A novel by

MEL SCHANZ

Copyright

Copyright December 4, 2017

Cover art copyright December 4, 2017

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced stored in a retrieval system or transmitted by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, photographic recording or otherwise) without prior written permission of the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages, in a review to be printed in a newspaper, magazine or journal.

All characters of this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons living or dead, is coincidental.

It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something. ~ Franklin Delano Roosevelt

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 2 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 3 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 4 ~ Avery

Chapter 5 ~ Vera

Chapter 6 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 7 ~ Victor

Chapter 8 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 9 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 10 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 11 ~ Vera

Chapter 12 ~ Victor

Chapter 13 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 14 ~ Vera

Chapter 15 ~ Victor

Chapter 16 ~ Vera

Chapter 17 ~ Victor

Chapter 18 ~ Vera

Chapter 19 ~ Victor

Chapter 20 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 21 ~ Vera

Chapter 22 ~ Ashlee

Chapter 23 ~ Victor

Chapter 24 ~ Vera

Chapter 25 ~ Victor

Chapter 26 ~ Vera

Chapter 27 ~ Victor

Chapter 28 ~ Vera

A Note from the Author

Chapter 1 ~ Ashlee

We sat on the porch swing story-telling over everything in our lives from the past twelve years. I was sideways in the seat, my knees pulled to my chest. Avery’s feet dangled under the swing and he pushed off, continuing our motion. I felt incredible. For the first time in years, I felt as if the air surrounding me was clean. Sure, I had a wonderful family, a beautiful son and great friends... But, something had been missing. I hadn’t known it until Avery and I reconnected. And, it left me in wonderland.

I watched our intertwined fingers dance together between us. My petite, fashionably manicured, hand fitting comfortably inside his tan, rough one. He exhaled slowly and deeply, bringing my attention to his eyes. He had the most amazing blue eyes I ever knew. Placing my hand on his chest I felt and watched his chest rise and fall with his next breath. If only we could hold this moment forever, I thought.

We had a few obstacles before us, as most couples did. It’d all work itself out. He’d said those words to me an hour before, but… I had reservations, and… he could tell. I’d told him I was going to put everything I had into finally having our happily-ever-after, however, we both knew there’d be bumps in the road. My eight-year-old son, Eli, for one. Not to mention my brother, Toby, and his wife, Jenna, who’d raised me since my parents’ death.

Yes. We most certainly had a wide road ahead of us. But, with the truth finally out in the open, we decided we could manage, as long as we did it together. I smiled once more at the thought of Avery and I, together at last, before I turned my gaze on the clear night sky and the thousands of stars before me.

He watched me a moment before inquiring, “Problem?”

I squeezed his hand in mine, "I was thinking..."

“Mm... You think Eli will have a problem with us?"

“Eli?” I met his eyes in question again before smiling. "I highly doubt it. That kid welcomes anyone and everyone into his heart, animals included. I think the biggest obstacle will be Toby. Probably not Jenna, but Toby hasn’t seen me in a relationship and is super protective. Heck, he's the one responsible for not letting me in on the truth of my parents’ accident, and your involvement. Or, should I say, lack of involvement? I mean, why was he keeping the truth from me? Did he want to keep me from coming back to you? Or, was he truly concerned with my mental state of dealing with our parent’s deaths again, as he says?”

“Good questions,” he replied. “However, only Toby will be able to give you answers. Until then, do you think you can relax and let me hold you a little longer? I'm enjoying the holding you in my arms thing; I don’t want it to end anytime soon.”

I turned around on the porch swing facing him. I let my knees fall to the seat and leaned over his legs, chest to chest. Wrapping an arm around his neck and pulling him closer to my lips, I whispered, “I can do one better than holding.” My lips met his.

He returned the passion with his lips moving from mine down my neck and nibbling a path back to my ear, where he whispered, “I'll fight anyone and everyone for you, Ash. I've waited too many years, wanting to hold you, to give up now.”

I shivered. Not only because his words struck me to my core, but also as I felt the difference of heat between our bodies and the cool evening. Daytime, July in Kansas, could climb to scorching levels. Nighttime, was a different story. We’d already swiped a horse blanket from the barn when we came back to the house from the lake, but now, even the blanket wasn't warm enough. I buried in closer.

“Cold? Come here, I have an idea,” he lifted me into his arms, blanket and all, and cradled me like a small child. After carefully configuring the front porch steps, he headed toward the barn, stepped inside and walked straight to the farthest stall. He opened the door and stepped inside. Slowly, he set me down in the corner, on the hay, before lying next to me.

I giggled, “Avery, I don't think it’ll be good when Frank finds us in the barn, asleep, in a few short hours. I like the way you’re thinking, and it's definitely warmer than the front porch, but how will I explain this,” I waved my hand between us and the stall, “to the boys?”

“Yes... Yes, I agree. And, if Frank caught me in here with you, I’d most likely be a dead man, but I want a few more minutes of snuggling and smelling you,” he pleaded as he pulled me tighter and nuzzled my neck.

“Smelling me? Why on earth would you want to smell me, Avery Harrison?”

He leaned closer, exaggerating an obnoxious, audible sniff, “Yes, smell you. You smell of honey and wild flowers and something I can't place,” he sniffed again. “It's not food and it's not perfume. Hmm...what is it?”

“Well, I have no idea, but I doubt I smell of honey or flowers. Maybe straw,” I picked a piece off my dress and tossed it at him. “And, maybe, I smell like I need a shower or horses since I have on a horse blanket,” I scrunched my nose, looking disgustingly about myself. “What do you smell of? Here, let me smell you?” I demanded as I leaned closer to his neck and breathed in. I gasped, “Oh.”

“What?” he straightened, meeting my eyes. He pulled his shirt out from his chest and inhaled deeply, “Do I stink, or something?”

I also straightened, smoothing my dress with nervousness, “Uh... No, not at all, actually, you smell amazing.” I stood, wrapping the blanket around my body.

“Okay... Then, what's the problem, Ash?” he asked as he too stood and faced me. “Why are you suddenly trying to get away?” He pulled me close to his body, blanket and all and held me tight against him. “Did I say something?”

I tilted my head and met his eyes. It was about the only part of my body I could move due to his embrace, but I didn't care, it was warm and my inexperience with men wouldn’t show while I couldn't move my body. “No. You don’t stink Ave. I... I just... I think I need to be going inside and getting to bed. I'm sure the house will be coming alive in a few short hours and Eli will have a thousand questions...” I pulled onto my toes and swiftly landed a peck on his lips. Quick and sweet.

“Uh huh. Not so fast, Ashlee Bracken. I’ll hold you all night long, exactly like this, until you spill it. I remember enough about you to know when you’re keeping something. So, your choice, Darling, stand here all night… Or, start talking.”

I stared into his gorgeous eyes.

He stared right back into mine.

I broke.

“Okay, okay,” I exhaled as he loosened his grip, “You smell like hay, nighttime air and... And, my father's after shave.” Tears threatened my eyes, but I blinked them back.

“Oh,” he dropped his gaze from mine, let go of me and kicked the hay into the corner.

I took hold of his hand as a lone tear spilled onto my cheek, “Hey... Hey, it's okay. It just...it took me by surprise, is all.”

As much as I could feel he wanted to let go of me, I wouldn’t let him. Instead, I forced him to let me hold his hand as he continued kicking his frustrations away.

“I'm sorry, Ash. I'm going to be a constant reminder of what you’re missing with your parents, aren't I?”

“No. No, you aren't, Ave. It's this place in general that's the reminder. Everywhere I turn, my parents are there. I should be the one who’s apologizing,” he met my eyes with confusion; I explained, “It's not your fault, remember? You may have blamed yourself for their death, but it was never your fault.” I dropped his hand and paced a circle in front of the stall gate, “I mean, you should’ve seen me the first few days I was here, I was a total wreck. I kept it together for Eli's sake, but deep down, I was screaming. Or, rather, I was lying on my father's office floor, bawling.”

He stopped me from pacing. Placing a hand on each arm, he turned me toward him and pulled me close. A quiet sob escaped my throat, “Ashlee? What can I do? I can chuck the after shave and wear something on the opposite end of the fragrance line. How about peppermint? You like peppermint?”

My sob turned to laughter, “No!” I blurted. “Do not change your cologne. I never thought I'd smell that scent again. I remember how much my mother loved it. I was too young to understand what they were talking about when they spoke of each other’s scent, but now, I understand and wouldn't want you to trade it for anything in the world.” I took my own obnoxious sniff of his neck and smiled, “You smell like a small slice of heaven has come for a visit.”

“Smoke.”

“Excuse me?” I asked as I leaned back, reading his face.

“Smoke. I was trying to think of the other thing you smelled of earlier. You smell like a bomb. Not bad, like a bomb went off, more like the remnants of an explosion,” he explained when he witnessed my expression go from humorous to explain-yourself-right-now-mister.

I laughed, “Oh, well, that’d probably be the firecrackers we set off earlier tonight, err...yesterday.”

“Awe... That would explain it. How’d it go? The in-town celebration?” he explained, when I gave him a second look of confusion. He wrapped his arms around me, blanket and all, once more as he waited for my answer.

“Eli loved it. You know, I never let him celebrate Independence Day before. In California, there are big time rules on firing off fireworks. They have spectacular shows, but as far as lighting your own off, there are more restrictions than one can count.”

We swayed around the horse stall, “I’m glad Eli was able to experience it in Kansas, then.”

As we moved, he began humming.

I laid my head against his chest and reveled in the vibration, “What are you humming?”

“A patriotic song. It seemed appropriate.”

“Will you sing it for me?”

I couldn’t see him, but felt him rather, as he nodded and began singing. He sang slowly. Vocalizing each syllable with exact pitch and honor. He sang about a person on a plane. The person saw the land stretched out before him; it was the land of his birth. He sang about the scars of the land, how they were a problem...or, could be a problem...they could cause problems for the land if the people lost sight of what it stood for. Next came the mountains, and the ocean, crashing into the shore.

The words chosen were a poetic description of America. Probably the best I’d ever heard. Tears again sprung to my eyes as I thought over the writer’s thoughts. The feelings came through the lyrics as if I felt them myself.

He sang the chorus. Home. I understood why he loved the song and why I too, would cherish it forever. The song depicted everything a person should feel about their home country. Americans were proud people, we shouldn’t be any different. I’d always loved singing the Star-Spangled Banner when given the chance, but this song... Home...it made me feel another level of proud.

I closed my eyes as he danced me around the small space to the sound of his voice. He sang another verse and repeated the chorus, twice more. His voice was deep and flowed richly through the notes.

When he finished, I lifted my head and sought his eyes, “That was beautiful, Ave.”

His smile met his eyes, “Thank you, but I can't take credit for it. It's a Dierks Bentley song, my favorite song about America. The third verse, when it talks about all the blood running red and laying them down in sacred ground, I get goose bumps every time. I can't imagine living a life where I'd give my body and soul for the freedom of others. I wish I could live it, but it’s not the way I was raised, you know? I mean, my Pops did all right, but he wasn't a huge patriot or anything. He respected the military but didn't understand war. Sometimes... I wish... I wish when I came out of Juvie, I would've enlisted in the junior ROTC program in Wichita, and then, the military,” he exhaled slowly. “But... I suppose God had other plans in store for me, huh? And now, I'm rambling,” he squeezed my back and dipped me low before planting a kiss in the hollow of my neck.

I allowed myself to be danced around. It wasn’t something I was used to, but something I could easily find myself craving.

“Maybe you can't take credit for the song, Ave, but the singing is all yours. Your voice is deep and angelic. It's an interesting combo and… I'm surprised you didn't try to go farther in a singing career. Or, did you?”

He twirled me around while my blanket grazed the barn floor, “Oh, well... I played in a band in Portland while I was going to school; met some cool guys I still keep in touch with, but the scene wasn't for me.”

I planted my feet, stopping him from twirling me a second time, “Why? You must’ve been young and ready to rock-n-roll, what scene would stop you from living it up as a rock star? Or, country star, if that's what you wanted?”

With our movement halted, he opened the gate to the stall and waited for me to walk through, “It's getting late, err...early, I'm not sure, but I think we should call it a night. We can pick up the conversation sometime soon, after we've both slept.”

I stepped through the gate as he offered his arm for balance and continued questioning, “No way, Avery Harrison. You told me, not long ago, you knew when I was keeping something from you, well, now I’m throwing your words right back at you. I know you're keeping something from me; spill it.”

He smiled for a long moment before nodding, “Fair is fair; but, you have to promise not to laugh, Ash?”

I stopped walking and shot him another questioning look.

“Promise?”

“Fine, I promise. This better not be something hysterical, or I won't be able to keep that promise. You do understand that, don't you?” I questioned. “I mean, c'mon, do you not remember how you used to tease me? You used to chant: Little Ashlee Bracken can't keep a secret, if you tell her something she seems to weaken, and, don't be a dummy, if it's something funny, she'll laugh hysterics until she hurts in her tummy. I hated you for it, so spill the secret and like I said, it better not be funny.”

“Oh, how I’d forgotten that rhyme. I remember the day I made it up. We were at the tire swing. You were so mad about it, you ran home and wouldn't come out and talk to me. Frank persuaded me to help him in the barn. I worked my butt off for him, and got the lecture of my lifetime about teasing girls,” he pointed out.

“Wouldn't come out? I bawled myself to sleep that night. I refused dinner and Lannie's ice cream, crying for hours. My mother comforted me, but she ended up saying something stupid like how a boy who is mean to a girl actually likes the girl and has an odd way of showing it. I didn’t understand it then, but now I get it. You were hitting on me,” I declared. “We were ten!”

“What can I say?” he shrugged his shoulders, “I knew a good thing when I saw one, I guess.”

We stood by the barn doors holding hands. Avery smiled into the night. I watched his face as it went from smile to serious.

“What is it, Ave?” I pleaded.

He exhaled, “Do you drink often, Ash?”

“No. Actually, not really at all. But... The night you took me home from The Barn... I was drunk. Does it bother you?”

He was silent as he looked from me out into the night, “No. Okay... Maybe, a little. I guess drunkenness bothers me more than people drinking,” he admitted. “I don't want to make you feel bad for drinking, or being drunk, I had no qualms with taking care of you, but you know my dad was a drunk? I didn't get heavy into the music scene in Portland because after every show, the party was laden with alcohol and drugs.”

“I see,” I mustered in response.

He turned to me again, “I've never had a drink of alcohol. Well, besides chugging my pop’s flask after the accident so the police would believe me when I told them I was drinking and driving, but other than that, I've never drank anything or used any drugs.”

“Wow.”

“Yeah, the twenty-six-year-old who still drinks non-alcoholic drinks. It's extremely attractive, I know, but… I'm afraid of genetics and alcoholism. If my father was an alcoholic and I started drinking, would I become one too? It's what they say would happen, so... I decided in juvie, I wouldn’t have anything to do with the stuff, when I was released.”

I cleared my throat, “I find it admirable and attractive, Avery.” I stood on my toes and kissed the tip of his nose, “Rarely do I drink, sometimes a glass of wine, but that night…at The Barn, it…it was a crazy night. I think traveling home and dealing with all of this...” I waved my hand in the air clarifying I meant the ranch, “You're not appalled that I drink occasionally, are you? Because… I can give it up. I'm not attached to alcohol or anything, and if it made you feel better, I'd never drink another sip in my life.”

He shook his head, “No, no, no, Ash. I only want you to know why I don't drink and didn’t pursue the music business any further. The guys in Portland made fun of me constantly. And, the girls... Well, we'll just leave it at, they wanted nothing to do with me once they found out I didn't party-like-a-rock-star,” he laughed. “It was embarrassing. So-much-so, I would order drinks and stand by, letting them go to waste. Or, I’d give them away.”

I smiled mischievously, “Well, I for one am happy they made fun of you.”

He squinted at me in the moonlight, “You are? You like making fun of people?”

It was my turn to shake my head, “No, not at all, but let's say you did like to party and one of those girls caught your attention, you could be married and have her children right now. How would we get together? See? I'm the winner because you chose not to be involved with the scene.”

We stood, smiling at each other, like two total goofballs in love. He bent and kissed me.

“Well then, Miss Ashlee Bracken, I suppose it is my pleasure to be a non-alcoholic and have waited for you until now,” he held up a finger. “However, I'm not waiting any longer,” I opened my mouth to protest and he shushed me with his finger, “I want to be yours and yours alone. I want you to be my girl. I want to get to know your son. I want all of it and all of you. Do you want the same? Because, if we can't try this life...this life together, I might as well be dead and gone. I can't do this if you push me away again. I've lived twelve years of my life wandering around as a lost soul, waiting for the pieces of my life to fit back together. Right now, holding you, they fit together. I can feel again. My soul feels complete with you,” he took a deep breath. “Do you feel the same, Ash?”

“Holy Hell,” I whispered before my hand covered my mouth. I giggled as Avery's eyes widened over my sentiments. I removed the hand to speak, “I'm sorry. I meant yes. Yes, I feel the same. Yes, I want this with you. I'm... I mean... I’m just not used to someone telling me things like that. I've only read those words in romance novels. I didn't know people actually said them, and now I'm rambling...say something, Ave.”

He bent and kissed me. When we parted, he declared, “I love you, Ashlee Bracken. I've loved you since the day I met you, whenever that was because I was too young to remember, but I did. I loved you then and I’ve never stopped.”

I gazed into his pale blue eyes, “I love you too, Avery.” Again, I giggled. And, once again, I covered my mouth, “I can't believe I said that. Are we crazy? I mean, not even twenty-four hours ago, I was yelling at you in the cemetery, demanding you leave me and my family alone. I know I didn't have the truth about our past, and now that I do, it opens my eyes to you and your extremely generous heart, but… Is it too fast to feel this way?”

He tightened his hold on me, “Nah. I think we both had strong feelings for each other underneath the mask of hurt. Now that the mask has been removed, we're allowing ourselves to feel as we truly do. I feel more alive tonight, right now with you, than I have in my entire life. It's like my soul has been waiting for you and has finally awakened.”

We stood holding each other in the ambient light of the night sky. I held him like I was never going to see him again and I felt the same in return.

After a long moment, I broke the silence, “So... What now?”

The question of the hour, it seems, hmm?” he replied. “Well, I for one, don't care as long as it involves you and me, together.”

I nodded in agreement, “I have to tell Toby, Jenna and Eli our entire story. It doesn't matter if Toby or Jenna has anything to say about us, which I highly doubt they will because I already made them feel bad enough over not telling me the truth. But... Eli...he's a different story.”

“I agree completely. Your kid comes first.”

“However,” I continued, “Like I said earlier, I don't think he’ll have any problem with me in a relationship with you. He's a great kid and loves everyone and everything.”

“Mm... I really hope so; I can't live anymore without you, Ash,” he murmured with his lips pressed to my forehead. “How about this? How about I find a way to peel you from me and send you inside for the remainder of the early morning, and how about you and Eli come see me at my house, later?”

“Peel me from you, huh? I think it's the other way around.”

“You're probably right about that. I can't seem to let you go, can I?” he conceded, planting another kiss on my forehead. “Can you blame me? I've waited twelve years for this.”

Stepping onto my toes, I kissed him on the lips, long and slow. When I broke, I replied, “No. I can't blame you; I've been waiting for you too.”

Chapter 2 ~ Ashlee

“You what?” Toby asked for the third time in the past five minutes.

“Ugh...” I sighed as I held Jenna’s stare. She sat across the kitchen table from me and next to my brother’s empty chair, “Seriously? How do you live with him?”

She lifted her coffee mug toward mine, toasted and winked, “Still trying to figure that one out, Sista. You'll be the first to know, when I do.”

Toby currently paced the kitchen. He’d been wearing a hole in the floor since I told him I spent the evening, and most of the morning, clearing the air with Avery. I also told him our plans of moving forward with a romantic relationship. He hadn't quite put together a full sentence of complaint, or question, which couldn't be answered with, we discussed that, yet.

“Toby,” I stared at him until he stopped pacing, and faced me, “I don’t understand what your problem is with Avery and me. You don't know our history or how it was before mom and dad died. We were in love. Yes, it was young love, as you say, but we both had, and still have, feelings for each other. We all know Avery wasn’t responsible for the accident and that he took the blame for a crime he didn’t commit, all to protect me,” I took a breath, “Now, sit down and listen.”

My brother watched me a moment before he sat next to his wife. Jenna rubbed the backside of his hand. “It's okay,” she whispered to him before nodding for me to continue.

I sipped my coffee, set it back down and returned to the conversation, “The plan, is to see where our feelings lead us. Right now, we’re rediscovering each other as adults; there’s been a lot of life come between us and we want to figure it out. Can you not support that? Please?” I implored. Toby sat motionless, staring at me, “Listen, I'm twenty-six years old. I don't need your permission to date anyone; I wanted to let you know because I thought it was polite. I thought maybe, just maybe, you’d want to know who I was seeing and what the story was. If you don't need to know, fine, I won't tell you, but you won’t stand in my way of happiness with Avery.”

He buried his head in his hands for a long moment while Jenna comforted him. When he lifted his head, his eyes were red-rimmed, “I'm sorry, Baby Sister.”

I gasped as he said those words. The last time I’d heard him call me Baby Sister, was after he traveled from California back to Kansas, when our parents had passed away. They were the first words he’d said as he pulled me into his arms. My eyes filled with tears.

“I'm sorry, Ash,” he repeated the apology. “I'm sorry, if I’d have known you felt this strongly for him, I would’ve let you know of his innocence ten years ago.”

This time, I gasped out of shock. All this time, I thought he was mad at me for talking with Avery and my decision to see him romantically, but… He was truly beating himself up over his attempt to keep me from the truth. A tear spilled onto my cheek and then another. I wiped them away quickly.

“Toby...” I stammered, “I... You... You don't have to feel...feel guilty. It's what happened. It's how it was done, no big deal. And, who knows how I would’ve handled it back then. Maybe, I wouldn't have been old enough to understand the entirety of it all; maybe, I would have. Either way, we will never know and I'm not at all upset over it. I have Eli. I don’t think you understand... I wouldn’t have met Devin, nor had Eli, if I knew Avery was innocent. I know I would’ve begged to come back to Kansas and live with Frank and Lannie in order to see him again. So... In a way, you saved me. And, your actions gave me Eli. The greatest blessing I've been given. I can't complain, so... Thank you, Toby.”

My brother shook his head, “I can't believe how level headed you are, Ash. Your life has been totally messed up by a ridiculous number of unfortunate events and you still sit here, thanking me. It's puzzling to say the least.”

I reached across the table and took his hand in mine. “Toby,” I appealed, “I'm not any different than you are. You’re an amazing husband, father and big brother. Jenna loves you. I love you. Hell, even your kids love you. Actually...they adore you to death. Stop beating yourself up over this.” I stood and refilled our coffee mugs, “Can you let me go on my own?”

He shook his head as he glanced into his mug. He lifted his eyes to Jenna, “I can’t believe this. She’s truly grown up, isn’t she? I mean, all grown up, doesn’t need her big brother making decisions for her or watching over her anymore. When did this happen?” he turned his blue eyes toward mine.

I smiled as I reached my hand across the table and squeezed his, “A few years ago, Bubba. But, it’s okay, I didn’t tell you; I knew you’d freak out.” It was my turn to wink at Jenna. She nodded in response. We secretly knew we were all right without Toby doing things for us, but we let him anyway. If it meant he felt he was helpful and nurturing, we’d let him do everything in the world. But, now… It was time for him to let me go my way.

“Well, I’m sort of freaking out about it; let me have a few moments; I think I’ll be fine,” he laughed. “Well, I guess this is good practice for when Sarah and Bekah get to this point. Lord knows I’m going to go insane if either ever tells me they’re ready to grow up, or don’t need me. I’ll probably have a coronary.”

This time, we all laughed.

Jenna, who’d remained quiet through most of our discussion, turned from her husband to me, “So, what’s the plan?”

“Well, Avery said for me to talk to you guys and Eli before we go any further. He wants me to come over to his house later, with Eli, so he can meet him,” I stated. “Even-though the two already met,” Toby gave me an inquisitive look, I explained, “I guess they met the other day at the tire swing, before we made it to town,” I waved my hand between Jenna and myself.

It was hard to believe, only two short days before, Jenna and I were traveling to Kansas from California in search of my run-away son. It turned out, Eli had hitchhiked with his unknowing uncle when Toby announced to his family he’d be going to Southwind. He was needed by our lawyer to sign-off on the sale of five-hundred acres of the family land. Eli took the opportunity to stow-a-way in the back of Toby’s SUV and didn’t bother telling his uncle until he feared peeing his pants. They were 3 hours from home. Toby called Jenna, letting her know about his precious cargo; they decided to let Eli go on to Southwind and see his beloved animals, which, apparently, I made him leave behind. When I found out, a full day later, I drove the twenty-four-hour trip like a mad woman. I was irate with my son for being sneaky, clouded with anger at my brother for not checking his car for eight-year-old stow-a-ways, and scared out of my mind at what could’ve happened to my son if he’d tried getting to Kansas on his own. And, believe me, I knew my son. If it was on his radar to climb into his uncle’s car to get here, it was on his radar to get back anyway he could. As it turned out, everyone was safe, and I couldn’t be too upset with Eli, he was extremely apologetic.

Toby and Jenna shared a knowing smile with each other.

“What?” I questioned, “C’mon you two, I know when you’re keeping something from me. What’s the big secret?”

Jenna laughed, followed shortly by Toby. They carried on for a long moment before I grew impatient and slapped my hand on the table in front of them. They both jumped.

“Spill it,” I demanded.

“Well... It’s just that it’s Eli we’re talking about,” Jenna finally answered, “The kid likes anyone and everyone. You said so yourself, he’s already met Avery, somehow that doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think you’ll have a problem with him. The question should be more on the lines of: how will Avery react to an eight-year-old boy? Does he have any fatherly skills that you know of? Does he even like kids? How will he feel about sharing you with your son?” Jenna rubbed her thumb over the back of my hand which still lay on the table where I slapped it, “I don’t mean to scare you, Ash, but these are real questions you have to ask yourself when dating and introducing him to your son. Eli loves everyone. Immediately, the kid falls in love with every person he meets. If something goes wrong between you and Avery, and for some horrible reason the two of you don’t make it as a couple, will Eli be okay? I know you’ve gone out on dates before, but Eli was with us and his cousins and none of your dates ever got past the appetizer; there was no need to introduce Eli.”

My sister-in-law sat back in her chair. No longer laughing, Toby nodded in agreement with everything she’d said. I stared at the space on the table between us, thinking. Avery did say he wanted to meet Eli, formally. He did seem excited to have him around and he did ask if I would bring him to his house. I knew what my gut feeling was. I had no doubts.

“My gut tells me he’s excited to be introduced to my son. He’s already met him and when I had enough nerve to tell him I had a son, he blew it off and said, Oh, Eli? Yeah, I already met him. He’s a good kid, even if he is a run-a-way. Like, it wasn’t a big deal. I told him the story behind Eli’s father and how he died. He couldn’t believe the sadness; that Eli would never know his father,” I stood, taking our mugs to the sink. When I turned around, Jenna and Toby were smiling at each other again. “Seriously? What is up with you two?”

Toby answered, as he too stood from his seat and came around the table, his arms open wide, “It’s nothing, Sis, only… We’re proud of you. You’ve grown up a lot this past month; beyond how you had to grow up when you became a young, single mother,” he kissed my forehead. “You’ve done good, kid. Now, when do I get to meet this lucky man?”

I wiped at the tears, which had sprung to my eyes again, “I was thinking of having a barbecue here, on Saturday. Kind of a late Independence Day celebration and... Also, we could celebrate the saving of Bracken Ranch andthenewlandtenant,” I threw the last part in quickly, not sure how he was going to take the news; I wiggled out from under his arm and headed for the stairs, “I’m going to check if my sleepyhead son, is awake yet. I’ll catch up with you two later.” Unfortunately, I didn’t make it more than a half-step in the direction of the stairs before Toby stopped me.

“Celebrate the what?” he pulled on my sweater and brought me right back into the kitchen. He placed both hands on my shoulders and turned me in a half circle, facing him, “What did you say we could celebrate? A tenant? Ashlee, we don’t have any land to lease, so where would we get a land tenant?” he pulled out the chair next to Jenna and sat me in it. Suddenly, I felt seventeen and having to explain to him how I got pregnant by a boy who he’d never met and who had died before he could ever meet, “Explain please.”

My eyes slowly met his, “Well, it’s sort of a funny story. And, by the way, you’ve already met Avery, in the lawyer’s office. You see, the land that you drove back here to sign-off on the sale of, well… Avery sort of knew it was for sale and he really wanted it to build his workshop for his craft lumber business called Harry’s Wood, but… He thought, there’s no way in hell that I’m going to buy land from Ashlee’s family, they’ll think I’m pure evil and out to ruin their lives forever, so… He bought it and re-sold it to us without our knowledge.” I said the last part quietly, hoping he wouldn’t hear me and ignore my mumbling.

“He what?” Toby yelled.

Well, I guess he heard me.

Jenna covered her gaping mouth.

Toby began his pacing once more. He stopped. He glanced my way before continuing his pace. I sat still in my chair. I didn’t dare look at him or Jenna. I knew he’d be mad, but had also wondered if he had put two-and-two together in the lawyer’s office. From his reaction, I gathered he didn’t know about the fake-land sale.

He stopped and glanced at me again. I didn’t see, but felt his stare, rather. I knew he was attempting speech, and knew he was at a loss. He paced again. He stopped again. Again, no words came out when he opened his mouth.

“It’s okay, Toby,” I began, “Avery doesn’t want to own the land, he merely wants to build his wood shop closer to his home and be able to work from there rather than going back and forth to Wichita every day, retrieving materials. He’s saved his profits for years for this very reason and thought if he bought the land and re-sold it to us, he was doing something good for our family after all the bad that has happened. He knows it doesn’t make up for his dad killing our parents, but it’s something he wanted to do and all he wants to do is work from his building. He won’t take up more than twenty acres of the land, so... We can still run cattle on the rest. I know you’re mad because you don’t want freebies, I get that, I even told Ave that, but I truly believe he did this from the bottom of his heart. He has a good heart. A giving heart.”

“I’d say,” he finally found his voice. “A six-hundred-thousand dollar giving heart,” he rubbed his hands across his face roughly. “Ashlee, we can’t accept this gift. It’s generous to say the least, but it’s not ethical, is it? I sure as hell don’t feel good about him helping us out this way. And, is it even legal? I mean, I don’t remember signing anything on a purchase or gift, do you?”

I began pushing my chair back from the table, watching Toby the entire time, “Can I get up now?” I asked before rising all the way with his nod, “Good. Now, I had the same questions, and I told him I was going to contact Jacob...err...we know him as Mr. Shields, the lawyer, first thing Monday morning and find out what we can do to reverse the sale and gift, but Avery assures me, it is legal and binding. Apparently, it’s our fault for not reading the contract thoroughly,” I laid my hands on my brothers’ shoulders and looked him squarely in the eyes. “And, you are not allowed to do anything about it, Tobias Michael Bracken, the fourth. Avery did what he felt he needed to do without even trying to get to me in the process. Actually… He was hoping, since I was in California, I wouldn’t find out for a couple of weeks and then be so over the thought of seeing him ever again that I wouldn’t bother with any of it. So, we are going to graciously accept the gift and do whatever he needs done in erecting his wood shop, quickly. Also...” I looked deep into his eyes, “We are not going to charge him a lease fee on the land. Ever. Understood?”

He exhaled and shook his head back and forth, “Little Sister, you amaze me with your business sense as well as how level headed you are. I need to quit doubting and start believing in you more, don’t I?”

I shared a look with Jenna before turning my eyes back to my brother, “Yes. Yes, you do. Now...” I released him and turned to go up the stairs, “I’m going to wake my child and see if he wants to go for pancakes. Do either of you want to go? If you do, I suggest you get dressed.”

Chapter 3 ~ Ashlee

Eli and I sat at the counter of the café, in town. The same one which had housed my mothers’ bakery from 1982 until Toby sold it in 2002. Eli enjoyed a small stack of blueberry pancakes as well as bacon and chocolate milk. “You’re acting weird, Mom,” he stated without looking at me.

I ruffled his hair and he met my eyes, “Weird?” I questioned, “What am I doing that’s weird?”

“Uh... Let’s see, you cut my pancakes for me when you know I can cut them myself; you’ve been staring at me while I eat, smiling a stupid smile, oh, and touching my hair,” he listed.

I laughed and squeezed him once more.

“See!” he exclaimed, “Weird.”

“Okay, okay,” I admitted, “I’m acting a little weird. You’re right. But, before I tell you the story, I’m going to tell you not to say stupid. You’re not old enough to say words like that. Comprende?”

“Si Senora,” he answered, and I nodded at him to eat.

“So… How was your first Independence Day Celebration in Southwind?”

“Excellent,” he replied with skepticism. “Why? Wait, what do you mean by my first celebration in Southwind? Are you saying we’ll come back for more?”

“I’m saying that, or... You and I could move to Southwind and you could start school here,” I let the words sink in for a moment; he stopped eating and dropped his fork onto his plate, “Bud?”

“Are you serious, Mom?” he begged, “I mean what about that man from before and what he did to my grandparents? Aren’t you going to be sad if we see him again?”

I smiled a goofy smile as an image of Avery entered my mind. Shaking my head, I took a piece of bacon off his plate, “No. I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all, Bud. You see, that man, Avery, he and I talked last night. We had a long conversation about things from the past and things from the present. It turns out he didn’t have anything to do with the accident, but he felt responsible, and horrible my parents, your grandparents, had died, so he took the blame for everything,” I checked his expression, hoping he could follow the conversation. “Do you understand?”

He slurped his chocolate milk through the straw, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure. It’s like whenever Bekah broke a vase in the living room and Sarah told her parents she did it, instead. Sarah didn’t want Bekah to get in trouble for it because she was jumping from one sofa to the other when Sarah was the one who dared her to jump,” he gulped audibly. “Oops, I was sworn to secrecy. Don’t tell Uncle Toby or Aunt Jenna what really happened. Bekah will never talk to me again if she knew I couldn’t keep a secret. Please!”

I laughed, “The secret’s safe with me, and yes, it is sort of the same thing, except people actually died and Avery went to a place called juvenile detention. It’s a jail, but for kids.” I put the rest of the bacon in my mouth and chewed. I wanted my son to ask any questions he had, and figured he might come up with one or two while I waited. I was not wrong.

“Did you forgive him? The man… Avery?”

I smiled, “Yes. As a matter of fact, I did. We had a long discussion last night. Although, there was nothing to forgive him for because he didn’t have anything to do with the accident.” My mind went to kissing Avery in the hay and how wonderful it felt to be in his arms; already a sweet memory and one that I wanted to repeat soon. I shook my head and concentrated on my son, “Eli?” he met my eyes; I continued, “I told you that when Avery and I were kids we were best friends; no one could keep us apart, didn’t I?”

“Yep,” he answered quickly.

“Well, when the accident happened, Avery and I were more than best friends. We were dating. We were boyfriend and girlfriend. I know you know what that means because your cousin Sarah has a boyfriend. You know, Chase? Well, I don’t know how to say this to you because I’ve never talked to you before about boyfriends and girlfriends...” I trailed off deciding this was harder than I expected it to be.

“You want to tell me that you and Avery are boyfriend and girlfriend again?” my perceptive son asked.

I smiled, “Well... Yes, sort of, or... We would like to try the dating thing, but,” I held my finger up signaling I had a condition, “Only if you agree it’s okay for me to date. I want you to meet Avery and he wants to get to know you too, but if you say no, that you need more time; I understand.”

“I already met him. He’s cool,” he took another long slurp of his drained milk.

Laughing at my courageous son, I said, “Oh, I know all about your meeting. He told me he liked you as well. He’s excited to meet you again. Did you know he’s the best fisherman I’ve ever known? Even better than my dad. When we were kids, Avery and I would fish all day long. Sometimes Clare would come along, but she’s a horrible fisher...anyway each time we went fishing, he’d catch the most fish. It was ridiculous. My mother always said he should have his own fishing show,” I smiled at the memory of my parents with Avery. They’d always loved him.

“Is it weird?” he questioned. I tilted my head in a question of my own. “Weird that you have these memories of your parents with Avery?”

After finishing off my coffee, I sat my mug down and turned to face him again, “It was at first, but I think I’m getting used to it. It’s nice when I remember something involving my childhood, here with Avery, Clare, Toby and even our parents. I tried to forget everything about this place when I moved away. Now, I feel like each memory is a gift.”

Eli giggled as I handed the waitress the money for our bill, “What’s so funny?”

He uncovered his mouth and replied, “That was deep, Mom. I don’t care if you want to go out on a date with Avery. And, I’ll go meet him, again, too,” he scrunched his face in thought. I was just about to ask him what he was thinking when he continued, “Do you think he knows how to throw a football?”

“Throw a football?” I answered with my own question. “I suppose so, but I really don’t know, why?”

“Because Uncle Toby doesn’t know how to throw a football and I want to know.”

I laughed as I ruffled his hair again and we pushed our stools back to leave. On our way out, I caught a glimpse of the owner, in the kitchen. She was a petite lady with mousy brown hair piled high on her head. Her apron was covered in flour and her jeans had flour hand marks where she’d previously wiped her hands. She glanced at me for a moment as I passed through the doorway and we both nodded in acknowledgement. I smiled as I closed the café door. She reminded me of my mother; except for the hair color, she was the same size and shape. And, more than appearances, she was doing exactly what my mother was doing at her age, baking and covered in flour. The lady appeared frustrated or busy, but also as if she wouldn’t rather be anywhere else. I was still smiling when we climbed into the Jeep and headed back to the ranch.

Yes, I thought. I’m going to enjoy being back in Southwind. I’m going to make the most of it and relish in the small-town scene for a while, hopefully forever.

Chapter 4 ~ Avery

Avery walked from his back door to his wide, front windows and glanced outside for what seemed like the hundredth time. It was late afternoon and he hadn’t heard from Ashlee. The plan, in the early hours of the morning, was to part ways, attempt sleep, Ashlee would talk to her brother and her kid and then she’d bring Eli to his house where they would formally meet. What was keeping them? Did Toby say no? Did Eli throw a fit? What would happen if the people in Ashlee’s life refused her a relationship with him? He couldn’t handle it. All he’d ever wanted, since that horrible day, years before, was to keep Ashlee safe and make her happy. She’d said the night before, being with him made her the happiest she’s been in a long time. What if she changed her mind? He exhaled and ran his hands through his hair. Settle down, Avery. None of these questions can, or will, be answered until Ash shows. He was not going to run to the ranch like some stalker. After another moment of staring out the front windows, he decided to do what calmed him the most, play his guitar.

He retrieved the instrument from his bedroom, before sitting on his front porch steps, tuning. When he was all set, he began with one of his favorites, The Thunder Rolls by Garth Brooks. It was a crowd pleaser when he played at The Barn every other Saturday night. In a few days he’d be playing. Would Ashlee come out and listen? She said she enjoyed listening to him play and sing when she heard him and didn’t know it was him. But... What if she decided she didn’t want to be involved with a part time musician?

He thought about Ash as he sang the song. As he ended the tune he laughed because he couldn’t remember running through the entire lyrics, yet it was over. I’m seriously obsessed with knowing what her answer is. As the thought ran through his mind, he noticed two figures walking up the lane, toward his house. A woman and a child, holding hands and laughing. He grinned stupidly. Here came his answers. And, his future.

Trying not to appear impatient, he strummed a few cords as they walked toward him. He couldn’t take his eyes off Ashlee. Her blonde hair glistened in the afternoon sun. She had the most beautiful tan skin he’d ever seen, showing it off in a yellow tank top and faded blue jeans. And, the pair of them couldn’t contrast any more than they did. Eli had hair as dark as night and steel blue eyes. He was tall for an eight-year-old, lanky legs and slim shoulders, like his mother. He wondered if the boy’s father had been tall. He shook the thought away as he stood and met Ashlee’s green eyes and gorgeous smile.

“Hi,” she breathed.

“Hi yourself,” he responded. He knew he needed to take his eyes off her and give his attention to her son, but he couldn’t do it. She was gorgeous; an answer to every prayer he’d bent God’s ear with.

She saved him from embarrassment, “This...” she pushed Eli a step forward, “Is my son Eli. Eli, this is Avery. I know you two already met, but I want you to meet again and get to know each other,” she cleared her throat. “Eli is eight-years-old and loves every animal on the ranch. Back home... I mean in California, he loves to surf; he’s a natural.”

Avery smiled at her, she was nervous, he could tell, and it eased his own worries seeing her this way. He turned his attention back to Eli, “Well, Eli, I’m happy to meet you, again. And, although I don’t have a beach around here, I do know how to fish and ride a horse. Oh, and play guitar,” he added as he tapped his guitar he still held by his side.

“My cousin Bekah can play almost every instrument, hey, can you throw a football?”

Avery laughed at the unique compound answer-question response he received from the kid. Kids. Weren’t their brains always going a mile-a-minute? He decided to talk more later about the music and focus on the kids’ interest, football. The kid was in luck, he knew how to throw a football. At Juvie they played many outdoor games and a kid a year older than him taught him how to throw. He also taught him how to throw a punch, but Eli didn’t need to know that...yet. Avery squatted in front of Eli, eye level, “Throw a football? I sure do. I don’t have one though, do you?” The kid shook his head in answer, “Well, I’m sure I can get one. They sell footballs at the sporting goods store in town.”

“Blacko has one,” The kid looked up at his mama as if asking if it was okay to mention Blacko. She nodded for him to continue. “He threw it to me before, but I wasn’t good at throwing it back. I want to know how, and I also want to go fishing,” he glanced at the ground, when he lifted his eyes back to Avery’s they were filled with hope, “That is...if you’ll take me, Mr. Avery.”

Avery held out his hand. Eli’s eyes enlarged; he pushed his hand forward into Avery’s, “Deal. But, only if you call me Avery, no need for the mister. We’re all friends here, right?” he questioned, Eli nodded his agreement, “Actually, I was thinking of going night fishing tonight. Have you ever been night fishing?”

Eli glanced again at his mother, “Yes. Frank took me when I stayed the night with him and Lannie, but I want to go again; really bad. Can we go, Mom? Please? Pretty please?”

Ashlee giggled. God, how he loved the sound of her happiness. She’d already been watching him, not her son, throughout the conversation, probably trying to gage his response.

He nodded he was genuine and she replied to Eli’s request, “I don’t see any reason why we can’t. I haven’t been night fishing in a long time, not since I was a kid, myself. Avery might have to remind me how to fish.”

“It’s like riding a bicycle.”

She smiled a shy smile and Eli appeared confused, “It’s an expression. Fishing isn’t really like riding a bicycle...well then, it’s all set. Who’s hungry? I have a chicken casserole in the fridge that needs to be eaten. I can throw it in the oven to warm for about thirty minutes, and we can play some checkers while we wait, if you want?”

He noticed Eli squeezing Ashlee’s hand; it was a yes answer.

“That sounds excellent,” she replied.

Avery led the way to the front door and held it open as his company stepped into his house. Wow, I have Ashlee Bracken and her boy in my house. I never thought this day would come. He followed them inside and placed his guitar in the guitar stand. They stood in the middle of the room, Ashlee taking in the décor and Eli frozen in front of the fireplace. He stared at the glossy Largemouth Bass, mounted above.

“Wow!” he exclaimed as he took in the sight of the fish, “Did you catch that?”

Avery walked over to the fish and examined his own handiwork. The fish was mounted on a craft piece of lumber he’d sculpted. Intricate waves and various fish surrounded the mount. “I did. Some buddies of mine and I went on a fishing trip to Lake Michigan. There are thousands of fish in the lake, but the Largemouth Bass is the most elusive,” he watched Eli, wondering if he knew what elusive meant. “That means it’s difficult to catch. Many people try, but not many succeed. In fact, I was the only one of our group of twelve men, who caught one,” he beamed as he bragged on his fishing skills. He caught Ashlee appearing interested as well, “Do you want to touch it? You can’t hurt it; it has epoxy blown over the entire fish which makes it hard as a rock, almost.”

“Can I?”

“Absolutely,” he bent, lifting him into his arms. His little arm immediately went around Avery’s neck as if it was the most natural thing in the world. His other hand slowly lifted to touch the fish. Avery also reached out and touched the fish, showing the kid, it was fine. Once they both had their hands on the fish, Eli became comfortable and touched an eye. He put a finger inside the mouth and rubbed the gills.


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