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Tangled in Two


Cannon Cousins Book II





Lizzie Ashworth



Tangled in Two

By Lizzie Ashworth

Copyright 2018 Lizzie Ashworth

All Rights Reserved

Cover Images:

Man on left, ID: 462022501, ©  kiuikson, Shutterstock

Man on right, ID 16185456 © Curaphotography Dreamstime.com

Background, Author 


Smashwords Edition

2018 Copyright Lizzie Ashworth



All rights reserved. This book is copyright material and must not be copied, translated, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any form without prior written permission of the author, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution, circulation or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s rights, and those responsible maybe liable in law accordingly.


This book is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are either a product of the author’s imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


Meant for mature readers only.



Dedicated to Lou, Robert, and Jeff



Oh, yes. Choosing... it has always hurt. And always will. I know.


-Maester Aemon Targaryen, A Game of Thrones 



Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue

Chapter One


Bryn McClure stood at her farmhouse door for a long time after the Ram truck disappeared from sight. Even though her throat and eyes burned, she couldn’t cry about it. What she felt went far past anything that could be expressed in words or tears.

The Cannons had become part of her life. Alex’s smile. Dan’s stern gaze. The men’s scent, their humor, their pleasure in her cooking. Their pleasure in her.

How could something so amazing, so perfect, appear so suddenly in her life completely without warning and then equally suddenly disappear?

Nothing in her life would ever be the same.

For the rest of that day, she mourned and paced and tried to think of ways to distract herself. She let the fire go out and built a new one. She mixed peanut butter cookie batter and mechanically portioned out the dough onto baking sheets. She forgot to set the timer and by the time she smelled them, only burned disks remained. She scraped them off the pan and let the lid fall back on the trash can.

Late in the afternoon she went out and did her chores with the chickens, lingering with distraction of the hens’ amiable company. Their clucking and quizzical expressions made her smile. The temperature had dropped and drizzle was mixed with bits of ice but the henhouse felt warm. She threw an extra handful of grain, waiting as they scratched and pecked at the bits of corn.

The cold air felt good on her face. A test, maybe, whether she had what it took to survive. She invited the cat into the house and accepted its insistent paws on her lap at the couch, combing her fingers through its yellow fur and pleasing it intensely with her attention. Whatever they said on the television failed to penetrate her fog.

At some point, she roused from her desuetude and realized it was dark outside. The cat slept on the far end of the couch. All her tender flesh reminded her of Dan’s discipline and Alex’s loving touch as she staggered into the kitchen in search of dinner. Her distracted rummage through the refrigerator uncovered a pan of chili. It tasted like sawdust and she let the cat finish it.

She turned off the television, added another log to the stove then sat on the side of her bed. It was still like she and Dan had left it. She fanned the sheets to straighten them, sending up the scent of the two men. How many days would it take for the scent to die away? How many days until the last of their essence drained from her body?

She wished she could cry. She wished her wails would rise and fall for hours, and her tears would wash down her neck, and she would beat her fists on the walls and tabletop until they were swollen and bruised. Alternately, she wished she could move from this moment to some distant future where all this was behind her and whatever she learned from it had become part of her armor.

Still fully dressed, she curled up in bed and pulled the covers around her, holding the sheet against her nose to breathe their scent. She kept remembering the way they looked, the way their skin felt under her fingertips. At midnight, she finally undressed and pulled her old terrycloth robe over her pajamas and sat in the dark at the kitchen table with cookies and milk, belatedly reminded to let the cat out after he yowled at the door.

~~~

Bryn’s eyes flew open early the next morning in spite of her lack of sleep. Dark rings circled under her eyes. She stared at herself in the bathroom mirror as she brushed through the tangles in her hair and fastened a fresh ponytail. Who was Bryn McClure, anyway? She didn’t look familiar.

“Bryn McClure is who you make her,” she said loudly. And stuck out her tongue at her reflection.

Sometime in the night with tears rolling down her cheeks, she had determined to take back her life and stop moping over the Cannon cousins. Anger propelled her more than anything, anger that she hadn’t seen this disaster coming, that she hadn’t managed to listen to her rational self and maintain some kind of emotional discipline, anger that she hadn’t managed to change enough from the ridiculous needy female who had let Ethan Marshall walk all over her.

Was emotional garbage always going to spoil her life or was she going to develop a fucking spine?

The only thing left was to get over it. She didn’t know how she would do it, but it had to be done. She recounted the relevant points. Point 1: She wasn’t married to Ethan anymore, so fuck him. Point 2: Her plan to sell hunting rights succeeded! She gained the money she needed to delay foreclosure. Wasn’t that why all this happened, really? Point 3: Big bonus—her sexual fantasies had been fulfilled in a most astonishing way. She should feel wildly happy. Which she did. Except—the sadness of having it then losing it really tipped the scales in the wrong direction.

Well, that was over. She marched into the bedroom and stood with her fists on her hips, staring at the bed. Ghostly scenes played out before her eyes, Alex holding her against the wall while he fucked her, Dan tying her legs and wrists, teasing her until she screamed. If she could preserve every memory of every minute with those two, she would have memories for a lifetime.

And maybe that would be all she ever got, as close as she dared to any relationship. The unexpected truth they’d helped her see about herself was that she wanted to depend on someone to help her make decisions, analyze things, prepare for what came next. And that would never work because at the same time, she didn’t want to depend on anyone but herself. Dependence meant being vulnerable, being played a fool, letting someone cheat and abuse her.

She shivered thinking of what she risked, letting herself feel pleasure, even joy, from the company of a man. Falling for Alex. For Dan.

Two men. Okay, so one big thing she wanted didn’t happen. To have them both. To lie between them with their hands all over her. Make love as a threesome.

The thought still sent chills down her back. Fate works in odd ways. If she’d had them both, maybe she would never recover.

Anyway, none of that mattered now. She had a farm to save and that meant figuring out how to earn enough money to keep paying the mortgage. The Cannons’ hunting trip had furnished a brief reprieve. She had to decide how to make the rest happen, learn how to be the person she wanted to be.

The sheets from her bed hit the washing machine. It surprised her how reassuring it felt to hear the washer’s mechanical rhythm filling some of the silence in the house. The blankets came next, the bedspread. Then her clothes, until as the day progressed every last scrap that had been involved in their stay sat freshly laundered in its drawer or shelf.

Regret came soon after. She had destroyed their scent, washed the fabrics they had touched, that carried traces of their saliva, their semen. A vicious round of tears choked her throat.

Then just as viciously, she disciplined herself. No more, Bryn McClure. Not one more tear.

At midafternoon, with light flakes of snow settling on the icy pasture grass, she shrugged on her coat and rode the four-wheeler down to the cabin. There would be sheets to wash and who knew what kind of mess they’d left in the place. She pushed the door open and stepped into the half-light of the room.

Sheets and blankets had been pulled from the mattresses and rolled into bundles on the table. A few sticks of firewood had been stacked neatly near the stove and the area had been swept. The well bucket and a partial gallon of drinking water remained on the shelf. The coffee pot and few food supplies were tucked into the box.

She picked up the box and a scrap of paper drifted to the floor. After she carried the box to the four-wheeler and strapped down the bundle of linens, she stooped to pick up the slip of paper, almost wadding it up before she realized it was a check.

“Alexander J. Cannon.” A business address and phone number in St. Louis. The amount was ten thousand dollars. “Gratuity,” he had written on the memo line.

She rushed to the cabin door, her pulse pounding in her temples. Surely her eyes weren’t seeing correctly in the dim cabin interior. Ten thousand dollars could not be real. She read and reread the writing, finally reaching the point where she had looked at it so long that none of it made any sense. She carefully folded the check and shoved it deep in her jeans pocket before making one last tour through the cabin.

~~~

Early dark slid over the countryside, coloring the surrounding hills in luminous indigo. The air turned pink and then slowly faded to the pale illumination of the moon. Bryn closed the last of the curtains and added more wood to the fire then slowly swept around the stove. Everything felt slow.

In deliberate moves, she mixed the last avocado with lemon juice and seasonings. Lime juice and triple sec hit the big bowl-shaped glass and she poured in a generous helping of tequila. With a bag of tortilla chips, the guacamole, and the drink, she made her way to the couch where she clicked past the evening news to find a program featuring undersea creatures.

Beautiful blue seascapes flashed across the screen, but her mind didn’t follow the fraught environment where big fish ate little fish and hermit crabs hid in their adopted homes. She had not looked again at the ten-thousand dollar check. She really couldn’t believe it was real. Could it be real?

Shoving her hand deep into her pocket, she pulled out the check. Unfolded, it looked just like it had at the cabin. Alex’s name, Cannon Company, check number 3415. Ten thousand dollars. His signature. Her thumb brushed over the bold artistic lines of his handwriting.

Another gulp of the margarita burned its way down to her stomach and she lifted the glass. “You did this, Bryn McClure. Now what?”

The cat lifted its head from its cozy nap and stared at her. She laughed, leaning over to drag his reluctant form into her lap. His warm fur comforted her as she petted him.





Chapter Two



Periodically, the ten thousand dollar check re-entered Bryn’s brain and shocked her like a bolt of lightning. In the bright light of the kitchen, she examined it again until the zeros and printed letters turned into indecipherable cuneiform. She sipped her margarita and dug out part of a joint buried in an old wallet, lifting the glass to toast the check and the snow and Thanksgiving. Later, tipsy and bouncing off the walls, she heated a disgusting turkey microwave dinner and made a list in scrawling script of all the things she could do with the money.

The next morning, with a football game blaring from the television and the snow already melting off the ground, she wrote again, this time at the dining table. When she began, she planned to create a nice thank-you letter to Alex, include Dan in her salutation, and tell them she could not accept such a large amount of money. But after scribbling over three pages, she started a new list of all the pros and cons of returning the check. There were far more cons.

The phone rang. Her heart leapt in her throat. But the number was familiar. Stephanie.

“Happy Thanksgiving, BFF,” Steph chirped. “Are they still there?”

“No, they left yesterday. And Happy Thanksgiving to you. Are you going to your mom’s?”

“No, Wade’s folks are having a big deal, all his brothers are in town. I’m sweating out the pies and green bean casserole. Damn it, Bryn, why can’t I make decent pie crust?”

They laughed through a quick coaching lesson on pie crust, improving Bryn’s mood.

“Remember to use ice water. That makes a huge difference,” she told Steph.

She took a deep breath. “So, I’ve got this amazing thing. I don’t even know what to think about it. These guys—they left me a check—for gratuity.”

“Nice. How much?’

“Ten thousand dollars.”

Silence.

“Ten. Thousand. You’re kidding.”

“Not kidding. Actually, I keep thinking it’s not real.”

“That’s fucking high class, Bryn. Wade said they were good people. And rich, so that never hurts. What’s the plan?”

“I think I should send it back, but then, I need so many things. I could easily move back to the city with this and find a great job. But honestly, after living out here, I don’t ever want to leave this place, not only because it’s family and I love living here but because of this—thing, whatever you call it, with Alex and Dan.”

“Oh, shit, Bryn, you’ve got feelings about them? How did it go with the, you know…”

“Christ. I can’t even begin. Tell Wade I owe him. Or maybe Dan is just the most natural dom to ever walk the earth. Amazing stuff. But I can’t think about it.”

“Damn. I thought it was Alex who curled your toes.”

“I’m so stupid. Yes, Alex, just…I absolutely hate myself about it, because that’s not what I want, not what he wants. At least, that’s my instinct. I couldn’t actually ask. Anyway, I’ve already decided I have to get over it. Over Alex, over Dan. After Ethan, do you think I can ever hook up? This just keeps hope alive when I want it to be over.”

“What? Isn’t Ethan over?”

“No, it’s this ridiculous craving for a man. I can’t do it again. I need to focus on my future. I have no idea what I want to do in life but I’m pretty positive it’s not bookkeeping or living in a city. I need dirt under my feet, chickens strolling around in hay—all that stuff feels so right for me. But, if I stay here, there aren’t any jobs, and even if I use the ten thousand to get by, it’s nowhere near enough to pay off the mortgage. About eighteen months is all it would buy me.”

“Obviously you’ve been giving this some thought. But look, who knows what might come up? You’re still in early days getting over the destruction Ethan caused you. You’ve been down there living like a fucking nun, so of course guys like Dan and Alex would rock your world.”

Bryn huffed. “Rock my world. More like blow up my world.”

“Hey, you’re smart and creative, so what’s wrong with giving yourself some time? Think of this as the rebound period. Stay open to the possibilities. Meanwhile, cash that check.”

Fuck. Ten thousand dollars. Alex.

“Thanks. Love you for that. But wouldn’t it be completely irresponsible to spend it for living expenses? I need to invest it in my future, whatever that is.”

“Isn’t it an investment in your future to give yourself time to figure out what you want?”

Bryn paused. “Damn, you’re good.”

“I am, aren’t I? But so are you and don’t forget it. Wish I could talk more, but these pies can’t wait. You should be here to fix this for me.”

They said their goodbyes and Bryn let the phone drop, thinking of the Thanksgiving she’d shared with Steph and Wade back when she and Ethan were still together. All that time she had believed they would live happily ever after, have a child or two, and life would follow its prescribed pattern. They had worked hard, saved money for a house, talked about the future as a certainty.

Since childhood, as early as she could remember, her expectations for a traditional life had never wavered. What else was there, really? That had to be the main reason her life didn’t make sense anymore. If she wasn’t going to be a wife and mother, what was left?

Now, even if someone offered that, she didn’t think she could accept it. Maybe Ethan had done her a big favor, now that she considered it. The idea of being tied to him, especially with children, appalled her. He’d be a terrible father with his over-the-top self-serving arrogance. What had she been thinking?

Worse, if she could look back now and totally criticize what she had believed little more than a year before, how would she look back five years from now on whatever she decided today? Could she trust herself to make any good choices? How did anyone? Was it her perception or her analysis that was wildly inadequate?

Steph was right. She needed time to get her head on straight.

~~~

The next day an email came in from someone wanting to hunt over Christmas break. Much as the additional money would have eased her mind-numbing dilemma about income, she couldn’t make herself do it. She wrote back that the cabin had been booked through the end of the season and then took down her page.

What exactly should she do? Okay, she was giving herself time like Steph said. But that didn’t mean she could stop thinking about her options. Sooner or later, ten thousand dollars would be used up. Should she start booking hunting trips for the next season? Search again for another local job? Make plans to get a job in St. Louis and put the farm up for sale? That might be the responsible route, but the thought filled her with anguish.

Her phone rang.

“Brett Thompson here,” the familiar voice said. “Are you ready to sell?”

Fury flashed through her. He had a lot of nerve. “No. Are you ready to pay me my wages?”

He laughed. “Still tough times in my world. But we could both come out great if you’d let me list that place. You’re being silly.”

She gripped the phone so hard her hand hurt. “What I do or don’t do is my business, Mr. Thompson. Not yours. Don’t call me again.”

“You’ll be sorry you passed up such a great opportunity.”

“Is that some kind of threat?”

“Just some advice from a more experienced person. You have no idea how things work in this world. I’m trying to help.”

“Just leave me alone,” she said.

She hated that her voice shook. She hated that clammy perspiration suddenly wreathed her body. She hated that a bit of doubt entered her mind. What if he was right? What if his offer was the best she could expect? As far as she knew, he was the only realtor working in the area which meant if she needed to sell, she’d need him.

Her eyes closed as she shook her head. “Do you hear me, Mr. Thompson? Do not contact me again.”

“You’ll wake up soon enough and then I might not be so nice.”

She swallowed and hung up on him. What would have happened that morning Thompson knocked on her front door? What if Dan hadn’t arrived just at the right time? What would happen if Thompson figured out she was here alone? That guy gave her the creeps.

~~~

The check sat radiating heat from the center of the big table where she had tucked it under the edge of a vase. Part of her still wanted to send it back. Part of her demanded that she keep it like Steph said, stretch it out as long as she could in hopes of figuring out what she really wanted.

Working off anxious energy, she threw herself into cleaning, moving all the living room furniture to mop and wax the old wood floors. She washed windows, her hands numb in the cold as she leaned on outside ladders, wind blustering her hair. Periodically a vehicle passed on the roadway sending a quick jab to her stomach. What if it was Thompson? She cut the window washing short, came inside, and locked her doors.

Which was ridiculous, she scolded herself. Thompson wasn’t going to try anything. He was married, an upstanding member of the community. She was letting her imagination run away with her.

After spending too long staring out the windows at the highway, her attention shifted to the faded curtains and rickety mini-blinds. The sight depressed her, and she went online looking at new window treatments, which only brought her back to the money. Maybe it was reckless to give one more moment to the idea she would stay at the old farm. The house needed lots of work and the furniture had seen its best days.

The snapshot of her granddad’s dog Hero caught her eye as she came out of the bathroom. So many happy memories here at this farm. Not only of her family and all the gatherings but now Dan and Alex. Alex and his father’s hound Red.

Was putting the farm up for sale the right thing? Move to the city and set herself up in a nice apartment? She’d have enough money to live until the right job came along. She had a good resume and references, so it shouldn’t take long.

But the more she tried to convince herself to take the check and start up a new life back in the city, she more she knew she could not do it. Her dad grew up here. It was all she had left of him. The thought of selling the family land hurt so much she almost couldn’t breathe.




Chapter Three


“Bryn, honey, what are your Christmas plans?”

The voice of Marjorie McClure came clearly over the phone.

“Hi, Mom. I hadn’t completely decided, but I really think I’m going to stay home.”

“Well, that’s too bad. We’re going to gather at Marta’s house. Grace and all your cousins will be there. We’d love to see you.”

“Yes, well, I just don’t think it’s going to work out this year. Maybe next year.”

“That’s what you said last year. Honey, are you sick? Is there something going on I need to know about?”

“Not at all. It’s just—the farm, I have chickens and a cat to feed. You know how it is.”

Her mother sniffed. Of course. Bryn pictured her mother, salt-and-pepper hair teased up into its perpetual short pouf, her makeup perfect, her clothes immaculate.

“Yes, I know perfectly well about the farm. Your father always wanted to be there for Christmas. God knows I’ve spent plenty of holidays there. But Bryn, there are other things, like parades and shopping in the city and all my family. Virginia is such a lovely state. You haven’t been here in such a long time. Everyone is anxious to see you again.”

“Sorry, Mom, but it’s just not going to work. Maybe next year.”

They chatted a few more minutes before ending the call. The last thing on earth she wanted was to drive to Virginia. Not that she could. The old truck wouldn’t make it. She hadn’t told her mother about losing her car. She’d have to answer more questions she didn’t want to answer.

What she wanted was to wrap herself in the house and flannel shirts and mugs of hot chocolate while she stood exactly where Alex had stood and stared out the window down toward the cabin and felt sorry for herself. The check still glared at her from the dining table. She couldn’t bear to look at it. Her letter sat beside it along with a stamped envelope addressed to Alex, thanking him for his generous gift but saying she simply couldn’t accept it.

Despite the logic of keeping it and Steph’s advice, the check meant she would continue to be tied to the Cannons. That wasn’t an option. If she was going to stand on her own two feet, she had to figure this out without being dependent on them or their money. Or Brett Thompson and his persistent offer. There was no way he cared about her enough to make that offer because he wanted to help her. There had to be something in it for him.

Bryn spent the rest of the afternoon and the next several days scouring the internet for any job openings within a twenty mile radius. She searched online jobs. She made lists of self-employment ideas, even outrageously unrealistic ideas like opening a delicatessen or a bakery in Manford.

Every day she carried out some small element of her temporary plan, so far mostly baking even though the idea of a bakery ranked way down on the list of possibilities. Okay, she loved to cook. And baking bread was cheaper than buying it. That was her mantra today.

It was raining. The cat was in again. She’d been taking her emotions out on bread dough when the phone rang. She only managed to grab the phone after several rings.

“Hello.”

“Hello, Bryn?”

“Yes?”

“This is Alex.”

“Oh, Alex.” Blood drained out of her head. Her sticky hands gripped the phone. She held her breath.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes, fine. Making bread.” Her brain disappeared, leaving in its place a blithering idiot. “And you?”

It sounded like a kind of chuckle on the other end. “Bread, huh. Sounds wonderful.” He paused.  “Listen, I was wondering if you found the tip we left you. The check hasn’t cleared.”

“Oh, yes, yes, sorry. I should have let you know. I couldn’t decide what to do, I mean, I thought I should send it to you, it’s so much money. Or call you and tell you I’m tearing it up.”

“No!” His voice came strongly over the line. “Do not send tear up that check, Bryn McClure. That’s your money. We want you to have it.”

Heat rushed up her face. The room had become stifling. She went to the kitchen door and opened it, gulping in cold air. “I ...well, first of all, thank you, thank you so much. It’s so generous, I don’t even know how to thank you. But are you sure? Really?”

Now he was laughing. She was babbling.

“But it’s not just that I can’t thank you, Alex, it’s...I don’t know what to do about it, I mean, I could spend it on all my bills, but then I need to figure out some kind of future financial security...” She stopped herself. What was she doing? These weren’t his problems. “I’m sorry, I really don’t need to go into all that with you. I’m sure you’re really busy. I’m sorry I held up your bank balance that way.”

“Oh, for god’s sake, Bryn, that’s not even why I called. I want to come see you.”

Her hand gripped the ice cold porch railing to keep herself from fainting. Maybe she didn’t hear him right. Her breath sucked in. “You want… to come here?”

He paused. “Is that a problem?”

“No, no, that’s wonderful. When?”

“I wondered what was best for you. I know you’ve probably got family for Christmas.”

“No! I mean, I only have family in Virginia, my mom, and she’s got two sisters there. I’m not going.” She swallowed hard, trying to keep up with her thoughts. She sounded too eager. “So what works best for you?”

“Christmas Eve was what I had in mind, maybe stay a couple of days. Our offices are closed then. I have something to discuss.”

“That would be great, I can’t think of anything better.’

“Okay, great. Go cash that check, you hear me?”

“Yes, yes I will, sorry again.”

“See you soon.”

Dried bread dough glued her hand to the phone. She stood for a long time with a finger on the disconnect button before pulling herself loose. The whole time she forced herself to breathe normally because otherwise she might hyperventilate and pass out.

He wanted to come see her. Alex! In her house at Christmas! She jumped around the kitchen in little hops making squealing noises. The cat leapt off the chair and ran to the door, its tail poofed.

She washed her hands for a long time, cleaning off the dough and staring out the window with her mind somewhere in St. Louis, wherever Alex was. She remembered his mouth, his eyes, his hands on her body, his arms around her. She took the towel to dry her hands and realized she hadn’t finished kneading the bread dough.

With a fresh coating of flour on her hands, she returned to the dough and lost track of time. Finally, after what might have been five minutes or an hour, she covered the dough with a towel and set it by the stove to rise. Then she made herself a martini and sat at the dining table to start a fresh list.

Deposit check.

Then she chewed on the pencil and stared out the windows at the rain dripping off the roof as her mind raced through a thousand ideas. She could replace the curtains and shades, fix the place up a tiny bit before he got here. She needed to figure out menus and get the groceries a few days in advance, in case the roads got bad.

God, what if the roads got so bad he couldn’t come?

What did he want to talk about? Something else about Dan? Did he miss her, want to see her?

Damnation! What was she doing? Wasn’t this obsessing the very thing that led to all this agony, where emotion snarled her common sense?

First, they hardly knew each other. Second, if she had to guess, she would assume it had to do with Dan. That was the whole thing to start with. Maybe the ‘recovery’ for Dan hadn’t lasted and he was back to risky behavior. She wasn’t sure what she could do about that—it seemed like their game had played out. There was the last minute request, that she wanted sex with both of them. Alex hadn’t been willing and that was that.

So what could it possibly be? Everything else she had built out of thin air. She gulped the last of the martini and swayed back to the sideboard for another.

Third, this wasn’t what she wanted. She needed to learn how to stand on her own two feet without a man to prop her up. Protect herself from being used and betrayed. Why couldn’t she stay focused on that?

Instead, she imagined Alex on his knee with a diamond ring, his eyes blazing as he proclaimed his undying love. They would whisk away for a honeymoon on some tropical island and she would spend the rest of her life in utter bliss.

Bryn sat up in the chair. What was she doing? If her wild imaginary proposal by Alex happened, what would happen to the farm? What if things went wrong? If she didn’t have the farm and things fell apart with Alex, where could she go?

Worse, what would happen to her self-esteem, her need to prove she could live without a man. Why did she need Alex to rescue her?

Well, damn it, she didn’t have to figure out anything now. Besides, this was probably more about Dan. Dan and his temper. Dan and his instinctive ability to make her yield. What would happen if she let herself get completely caught up in Dan and his dominance?

No. She shook her head firmly as she carried more firewood into the house. No Dan. No Alex. If Alex came for anything but some kind of business offer, she would politely thank him and say ‘no.’ She had to. Her self-respect depended on it.

Dinner blurred by, television, all while she kept remembering that Alex would soon be in her house again and beside that, silly romantic thrill that it was, nothing else mattered.

~~~

In the ten remaining days before Christmas Eve, Bryn cleaned her closets, the kitchen cabinets, mopped and waxed the worn wooden floors she had skipped before—the kitchen, bathroom, hallway, and her bedroom. She inventoried her best underwear and decided what she would wear during his stay. When UPS delivered the small package, her nipples tingled as she pictured Alex seeing her in the new white lace bra and panties.

A wreath of cedar limbs tied with red ribbon hung from the front door, and another from the mailbox. A small pine tree she cut from the creek bottom stood ornamented in the living room window near the dining table. Glass globes painted with fake snow, long spirals that glistened, and little bubble lights emerged from their careful wrapping where her grandmother had tucked them away. Bryn had seen them most every Christmas since childhood. A mixture of emotions swelled in her chest as she carefully placed them on the tree and plugged in the lights.

A frenzy of baking resulted in brownies, oatmeal raisin cookies, and sugar cookies cut into holiday shapes she carefully decorated with colored icing and spangles. Orange, cranberry pecan, and banana walnut breads were sliced and wrapped in thick wedges to add to the gift bags she put together for the mailman, the newspaper delivery guy, and the town senior center. Creamy fudge and delicate divinity with black walnuts topped off the brightly-colored gift bags.

She delivered a bag to each neighbor, stopping last at the nearest, a farmhouse a quarter mile north. The yard and surroundings had been kept tidy. She knocked, remembering coming here to sell Girl Scout cookies so many years before.

“Mr. Hodges?”

The old man eased the door open wider, blinking at her in the bright morning light. His blue eyes peered up at her. He’d always been such a strong man. Now he stooped slightly. He reminded her of her granddad.

“Who’s that?” he said.

“Bryn—McClure.”

“McClure? Barker’s kid?”

“Yes, that’s me. I’ve got some Christmas goodies for you.”

“Well, it’s been a long time. Come in then.” He shoved the door wide, holding the screen door while she stepped over the threshold.

The house seemed smaller than she remembered, the furniture more worn. The floor creaked as she walked in. He motioned to the couch and sat across from her in a recliner.

“Getting old,” he said, easing into the chair. “Don’t get old,” he said with a laugh.

“Glad you’re still around.”

“Yeah, well, maybe not much longer. I appreciate you thinking of me. I heard you’d taken up residence at the farm. Everything okay down there?”

“Doing okay,” she said. “Got a few chickens. Not much to look after. I just wanted to bring some holiday treats for you.” She scooted the bag of baked goods across the coffee table. “I’ve been cooking. A lot more than I can ever eat.”

“Well, you’re a sweet girl,” he said, tipping the bag toward himself and peeking inside. “You sure loaded me up. Is that divinity is there?”

“It is. With black walnuts.”

“Mm, that’s the best kind.” His gnarled hand reached into the bag and withdrew a piece of the divinity which he quickly unwrapped. Grinning widely, he popped the white mound of candy into his mouth.

“Mm,” he said. “Great.”

“Will you have family for Christmas?”

“Darcy’s coming with her kids. Sam, of course. He’s always coming over to take care of me. Maybe Randy. Don’t know about Skeeter. Her bunch is always in some kind of trouble. That’s the way of it, I reckon.”

The names quickly conjured memories, kids she’d played with—Hide And Seek, Midnight The Witches Are Out, Red Rover. She’d had a terrible crush on Sam. Five years older, he hardly knew she existed. Skeeter had been the trouble maker, even then, one time sneaking out of the house with chocolates she shared when they climbed into the hayloft. Happy sunshiny days.

She stood up. “Well, I don’t mean to stay. It’s good to see you. Please, don’t get up. I’ll let myself out.”

“I sure appreciate the thought,” he said, glancing up from staring into the gift bag as she left.

~~~

Christmas Eve. She was a nervous wreck in her jeans, boots, and a slightly threadbare pale pink cashmere sweater. Not too dressed up. Couldn’t make Alex think she expected anything. She’d taken her nerves out in the kitchen. A baked ham sat in its golden crust on the stove. A lemon cake in pale yellow icing waited on the cake stand. She mixed dry ingredients for gingerbread to wait until later in the afternoon because the only way to eat gingerbread was hot from the oven with butter melting on top.

With the baking finished, she paced in the living room. She’d memorized the Google map of the route from St. Louis down to the farm, a winding road through mountainous land once he turned south off I-44. Every five minutes—or more often—she looked out the window at the rainy sky and the muddy driveway and worried the weather would delay him.

Anticipation and excitement reached fever pitch. Her body hummed. Her mind darted from thought to thought. At the mirror, she realized her face had flushed with bright red spots on her cheeks, and her eyes stared back at her with a crazed expression. Alright, she was crazed.

By 3 p.m., she decided if he didn’t arrive soon she might spontaneously combust. By 3:30 she had resorted to sitting in the overstuffed chair facing the living room window and staring at the driveway turnoff from the road.

Finally, at a little past four, a sporty black coupe eased off the road and rolled to a stop by the house. She squeezed her shaking hands as she watched the car door open and a dark head emerge. There he was, looking toward the house carrying a valise and a large bag, his wide shoulders framed inside a fleece-lined denim jacket.

She threw the door open and stood at the opening as Alex stepped onto the porch. His eyes, his body, all of him in real time, in the flesh, walking toward her. Her heart pounded in her ears.

“Bryn,” he smiled, shaking rain off his things. Droplets beaded up on his eyebrows and hair. Her eyes locked on his blue stare, his lips. Her knees had no strength as she turned to welcome him into the house. She forced herself not to throw her arms around him.

“Did you have a good drive?” she managed to breathe. “Here, you can put those things on this chair.” She motioned to where she’d been sitting. “Or the couch.”

She watched him walk, his butt and thighs tight in the jeans. Dear god, she would have an impossible time of keeping her hands off him. But she managed, barely, to remain firm in her vow to wait for him to initiate anything personal. She honestly didn’t know if she more fervently wished that he made a move or that he didn’t.

Chapter Four

 


Alex dropped his things at the side of one of the chairs and pulled off his thick jacket, trying not to stare at the vision before him. Bryn—ethereal in a pink fuzzy sweater that clung to her like a second skin. Jesus Christ.

How could he have forgotten the effect she had on him? Dan was right—he needed his head examined.

He cleared his throat. “Bathroom first.”

“Oh, of course,” she said.

Her fucking cheeks were pink and not from the heat pouring off that cast iron stove. Hopefully she was excited to see him. He wanted to sweep her up in his arms, kiss her, and take her to bed. But he couldn’t. He’d promised himself. This had to go down exactly as planned.

God, he loved this place. As he passed through the bedroom, a flood of memories about his time here roared to the surface. Bryn in his arms. Bryn in that bed. By the time he managed to close the bathroom door and open his zipper, he was almost too stiff to pee.

One step at a time, Cannon. Do not fuck this up.

He hurried back to the living room and stood by the Christmas tree. “Nice job—did you cut that yourself?”

“Yes.” She came to stand nearby. “Down past the cabin in that little thicket of pines.”

“I know the spot,” he said, instantly picturing Bryn in her jeans and warm jacket down there sawing away at the tree trunk. The multicolored lights on the tree twinkled and reflected against the window glass. Daylight was fading fast. Ornaments shifted slowly in the movement of air, old-fashioned baubles and bubble lights that reminded him of his mom’s parents. His heart wrenched. He hadn’t thought of them in a long time.

Or his mom.

A tumbling sound from the wood stove caught his attention. “Let me,” he said, immediately crouching at the stove to poke the coals before adding more wood. “One of the things I love about being here,” he said, grinning up at her. “I always enjoyed playing with fire.”

She smiled, dazzling him again. “Feel free.”

The sight of her lean legs clad in jeans sent another shiver of intense happiness through him. Maybe he was a hopeless case. He only hoped that her reaction to his proposal didn’t send his plans—and his heart—crashing through the floor.

It wasn’t a good sign that she had not yet said anything personal or touched him in any way. But then, in so many ways she was a complete stranger. He’d been here before on a specific mission for Dan. Nothing about that three-way relationship had made sense. The last thing she had wanted was the three of them in bed together.

He’d had nightmares about that. Bryn turning from him to Dan. Bryn in Dan’s hands. Bryn kissing Dan.

Fuck.

Somehow he’d gone down the wrong path in all this. He’d had sex with her, sex like he’d never had before. The emotions she stirred in him scared the hell out of him, opened doors he didn’t want to open. Could never open. And he hardly knew her.

What if he got to know her better? What if things got even worse? Dan—damn it. Dan might be right.

“Would you like a drink?” Her soft voice interrupted his internal torment. “I’ve made baked ham and mashed potatoes for dinner.”

His mouth instantly watered. “Umm. Sounds wonderful. I’ll have a drink, if you’re having one.” He smiled, standing up from the stove and brushing off his hands.

His gaze ran up and down her gorgeous body. His cock ached. Surely she would notice. But he couldn’t help himself. Maybe the best thing here was to climb back in the car and head north.

~~~

Gin, Campari, and the rest of the Negroni ingredients swirled in the shaker. She couldn’t resist the delicious drink, slurping half a glass in a couple of long thirsty gulps. The bitter aftertaste exactly matched her mood. She slid a second orange slice onto Alex’s glass and set the pitcher onto a small tray along with a tangy cheese ball and savory crackers.

He had seated himself on the couch and watched her sit down across from him. His eyes burned into her with an intensity that made her nervous. She bit her lip, resisting the urge to demand he say why he was here.

“To you, Bryn McClure,” he said, lifting his glass. “The most magnificent hostess ever known.”

She lifted her glass to his and then sipped. “Thanks, Alex. That’s—well, I enjoy creating pleasure.”

“Well, you damn well know how to do it,” he said, grimacing at the drink. He spread a cracker with a generous chunk of cheese ball, popped it into his mouth and licked his finger.

She lingered on the sight of his hands, of his tongue slipping over his lips. The instant she glanced up to see if he had caught her staring at his mouth, his expression told her ‘yes,’ smiling and almost mocking. She flushed. The room had become intolerably warm.

“What’s in there?” he said, motioning to the candy dishes on the coffee table. Two of her grandmother’s dishes. Maybe they went back to earlier grandmothers—she didn’t know. The old glass had developed a pale pink tinge. She loved looking at them, loved the memories of when her grandparents kept old-style striped wavy candies in there. All her good memories of the season filled her heart with emotion so great she thought she might explode.

And now Alex, sitting here, in her living room.

“Divinity in that one, and fudge.”

“Damn. It looks delicious. Homemade candy. Incredible.”

“And the tree?” He looked at her, questioning.

Long hours of struggle resulted in two wrapped gifts for Alex under the tree. What could she possibly give him that he didn’t already have? With the small budget she allowed herself, nothing she might buy could measure up to his standards. She ended up with a locally-crafted reed basket filled with things to eat—blackberry jam and peach preserves from the winter farmers market, candied walnuts, a loaf of her best orange pecan bread, a loaf of garlic poppy seed bread, little packets of fudge and divinity, and a potpourri of dried sage, rosemary and thyme she had dried from her garden, partially crushed and neatly tied in a muslin pouch.  A calendar for the next year featuring Ozark scenes nestled in its own wrap as the second gift.

“What about the tree?”

“Can I put gifts under it?”

“Oh, yes, of course.”

He pulled two wrapped gifts from the large bag before walking to the tree to place them underneath. “I love the tree. Those old ornaments. Is it your tradition to open gifts on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?” he asked as he settled himself back on the couch for another gulp of the Negroni.

More cheese on crackers, more tongue, more of her inability to keep her stare from following every movement with rapt attention. Joyful bursts of pleasure kept exploding inside her like Fourth of July fireworks. What had he said?

“Oh, definitely Christmas morning,” she said, laughing. “You have to wait for Santa, you know. Never open on Christmas Eve. What about you?”

He nodded. “Christmas morning. Stockings first, then the wrapped gifts.”

“Wow, I think I was maybe ten when the stockings stopped happening.” She hadn’t thought about stockings in a long time. “We didn’t have a fireplace in the house we moved to that year. Maybe they kind of forgot about it, or maybe they thought I was too old.”

“I think I was maybe twelve or thirteen when Dan and I graduated from stockings.” He glanced up at her. “Dan and I... His folks raised me after I was eight. My folks...” he cleared his throat. “There was a plane crash, they didn’t survive.” He finished in a matter-of-fact voice. “Dan was an only child, so, it worked out. We’re like brothers. Share everything…” He stopped, although his eyes said he had more to say.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Alex, that’s horrible. Your parents?” His tragedy squeezed her heart to a painful knot in her chest.

“I’ve had a long time to adjust,” he said. A shadow crossed his eyes. “But you know, things like that—it’s never completely forgotten.”

Bryn resisted the urge to throw her arms around him. What a devastating thing to happen to a child.

“It’s wonderful it worked out with Dan’s family,” she said, searching for the right words. “That must have been—really awful. I can’t imagine. You were eight?”

He nodded. “We were a good little family, lots of memories. It all seems like a dream now. I don’t think about it much anymore. Lots of years have gone by since then.”

“What about your dad’s dog? You had her, right?”

His blue eyes filled with an expression of consuming sadness. “Red. She died a year later.”

“Alex. That’s awful. I don’t know what to say.”

“You don’t have to say anything. It was a long time ago. There’s nothing about it that can be changed.”

“No, but…and Dan’s parents—are they still alive?”

“Very much so. Great people. They retired a couple of years ago and left us with the whole thing.” He laughed, scooping up another slab of the cheese ball and heaping it onto a cracker. “We have to call them every so often to get advice on how to get out of one mess or the other. I think they like knowing we can’t quite get along without them.”

So much she wanted to ask. Everything about him—his life, his pleasures, activities. She didn’t know where to begin.

Was he married? A girlfriend? Aside from the random glance or smile, this all seemed so casual and friendly, not what she would have expected from a man who had come to further a relationship. But of course she knew that had been an outrageous idea from the start, and she had managed to put it mostly out of her mind. Well, not completely, she realized now as disappointment crept in.

“Did you always know you would work in the company?”

He nodded. “The folks involved us even as kids. The Cannon brothers started it, and always wanted their sons to take it over someday. Of course there were times when I imagined myself doing something else. But somewhere in the middle of my architecture degree, I fell in love with design and couldn’t wait to sink my teeth into the real world.” He finished his drink and leaned back.

“Some of that excitement died down soon as I realized how much hard work was involved in meeting clients’ expectations. Or should I say, mostly not meeting the expectations.” He shook his head. “We hardly ever have clients with budgets to match their vision.”

A slight pain raced across her forehead. This was nothing like she had imagined it would be. No declarations of love, no ring proffered on bended knee. Which of course had been absurd expectations. She needed to get the potatoes on to cook.

“What about you?” Alex said. “How did you end up here?”

He followed her to the kitchen while she finished dinner. She told him about her degree in accounting and how in hindsight she should have become a CPA. But by then her folks had moved to Virginia take care of her mom’s mom and there weren’t resources for more college, plus her student loans had accumulated to outrageous levels and her dad had become ill. She told him about the bookkeeping job in St. Louis.

“And there was a guy,” she said before turning on the mixer. The noise ran on for a few minutes until the butter and milk had meshed with the fluffy potatoes. She popped the beaters out of the appliance and went to the sink.

“And there was a guy,” Alex repeated, leaning against the cabinet. “And?”

“And...” She shrugged, looking down. She hated to reveal to Alex how much of a loser she had tangled up with, what that said about her. “I met him just after college. We married. I thought it was a forever thing, you know, kids someday, a nice house. We both worked, had some money to play with, savings for a house. Or, I thought we did.

“One day in the middle of lunch he confessed that he had been embezzling at his job and was about to be arrested. All our savings were gone. Thousands dumped on gambling and drugs. I don’t know if there were other women but there probably were. It was like he had a whole other life. But I didn’t realize that at first. I thought I could save him. He made promises, begged me to help him. It was like, what did our marriage mean if I didn’t help him when he was in trouble. You know, the “for better or worse” thing?

“It cost a fortune to get him out of it. I should have let him rot in jail, but at first I believed in him, couldn’t imagine that what we had was all a lie. He and I—the domination thing… I didn’t question him. So I borrowed against the farm to save him.”

She looked at Alex, sick with the memories. If Alex ever doubted how dumb, how gullible and weak she was, this should pretty much prove it.

““I was a fool,” she said quietly.

A fierce frown lined Alex’s forehead. “Damn, Bryn, that’s rough. I’d like to punch the bastard.”

“Yeah, well, I despise him now. He was such a selfish pig. I feel so stupid. I should have known. How could I have not known?” She shook her head. “I’m just glad he’s not in my life anymore.”

“So that’s what’s behind your general attitude about men?”

She shrugged with a quick smile, remembering that conversation, their circumstances that night, how he’d touched her. Gooseflesh ran down her arms and she made long work of cleaning mashed potatoes off the beaters. When she glanced up at him, he had turned to lean back against the counter with his arms crossed, staring into space.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to dump all that. I don’t like to think about it. It makes me feel like I’m nothing.” She re-tossed the vinegar slaw, pulled the rolls out of the oven and started carrying things to the table.

“Do you want me to slice the ham?” he called after her.

“Yes, that would be perfect.”

She breathed a sigh of relief that he hadn’t made any further comment. Somehow they were seated at the table and eating, but she hardly knew how it tasted. The reciprocal question burned a hole in her brain. She had to ask.

“So how about you, Alex? Did you...I mean, I know it’s none of my business, but…is there a woman in your life?”

A look crossed his face. She instantly regretted her question.

“You could say that, I guess.” Frowning, he cleared his throat and sipped his tea. “It’s a complicated relationship, but something I feel intensely about. Not sure exactly where it’s going yet, but I’m determined to hang in there.” After a long pause, he said, “By the way, Dan sends his regards.”

For a minute, she thought he might be talking about her. But he wasn’t. If it was about her, he would have said so. Instead, he was being polite.

“Oh, thanks,” she said. A knot had formed in her throat and kept her from swallowing the mouthful of food that had turned to straw in her mouth. He had someone, and he changed the subject to Dan. “Well,” she managed to whisper then cleared her throat. “I hope he’s doing better.”

“He’s definitely better. Pretty amazing, actually, how much he’s improved,” he said.

He had an odd expression on his face, not that she looked at him very long. She had pried into his personal life. He’d made his boundaries clear.

“Bryn, I…” He cleared his throat. “Look, I’m here for a reason. Something I’m eager to tell you about. I want to discuss your land.” He waved his fork in the air. “It’s a prime location here. I’ve talked about this with Dan. He agrees this is a perfect investment for us right now. If you’re interested, I can go into detail.”

He had someone else. And he didn’t want to talk about it. This was a new angle on this man she thought was so perfect. He had someone else but that hadn’t stopped him from touching her. Having sex with her. No matter how much of a swoon he put her in, he wasn’t very different from Ethan.

She’d been an accidental encounter, a diversion on a brief outing from his regular life, an outing meant to heal Dan. Like any man, he’d taken advantage of the situation to get a little piece on the side before going back home to, what, a “complicated relationship”? Something he felt “intensely” about?

He was here not because he wanted to see her, wanted to build a relationship, for god’s sake, but for business. Business!

When, when would she ever learn?

She tried to focus on what he was saying, but the words kept slipping out of her mind faster than she could process their meaning. She wanted to hit him, throw things at him until nothing remained in reach. She wanted to scream.

“You want to buy my land?” she managed after a silence.

His expression registered surprise. “All of it? No, no, not at all. That’s not what I’m talking about.” He had finished eating and stood up. “Do you want me to take your plate?”

She looked down at the plate, nearly half of her food still there. “Yes, I’m not very hungry.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he called over his shoulder. “I thought this would be great for you.”

“I’m sorry,” she murmured. Whatever might have been a future with Alex, she needed to get past it. Hadn’t she already thought this through? Why did she want Alex and feel disappointed about this when she had made up her mind about relationships? About men? She took a big drink of water and rubbed her forehead where a sudden headache raged.

“I know you’re attached to this land,” he continued, sliding back into the chair across from her and leaning forward as he eagerly pursued his discussion. “This project would use only a hundred acres, less if you want. And it would be the strip along the road, assuming you have the kind of frontage I’m thinking about. Do you have a survey?”

With all the conflict raging in her mind, she couldn’t pay attention to what he said. “I don’t know. Probably. There was something with the deed when I inherited the place.”


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