A home she felt comfortable enough to spend her afternoons writing in. Her once-empty notebook was overflowing with answered questions, drafts of chapters, revisions, characters based on people she’d met through the ranch, and steamy scenes she couldn’t believe she’d been able to write. Sarah had never felt more alive or at peace.
This is where I belong.
Thursdays had become days she looked forward to. She’d been apprehensive when Tony had suggested she invite everyone to dinner again, but he’d reassured her things would be different, and he’d been right. Everyone, including Dean, had been on their best behavior, and real conversations had replaced the previous ribbing and uneasiness.
Tony would never be a man of many words, but when he’d patiently answered questions from the young men around the table regarding his training philosophy—and even praised one of them for his work with a horse—Sarah’s heart had soared. Like rain coming to the desert, the change in Tony brought his ranch alive. After dinner, she and Tony often walked, hand in hand, through the barn and paddocks. Tony greeted the men he came across, and she even caught him smiling more than once.
Everything was perfect.
So perfect that Sarah accepted that Tony didn’t talk about his feelings or the future. She told herself that she didn’t need the words because his actions showed the world he cared about her.
Maybe even loves.
Sarah hugged her notebook more tightly.
In the main barn, Tony absently brushed down the horse he’d just exercised and fought to empty his mind of the images from his latest nightmare. Sarah didn’t know he was still having them, and he wasn’t about to tell her they were getting worse rather than better.
Images of the girl who had died tormented him long after he awoke. The happier he was during the day, the more pleasure he found with Sarah in his bed, the uglier and more graphic his nightmares became, until the message in them began to overshadow what should have been a good time in his life.
Are you haunting me or am I torturing myself?
Which one of us is convinced that I don’t deserve to be happy?
His hand paused as an image of Sarah, smiling sweetly up at him during one of their evening walks, mocked him. How can she be the best and the worst thing that has ever happened to me? Is that the hell I earned for myself? To have everything offered to me and not be able to enjoy it? To watch a good woman fall in love with me and know that ultimately I’ll disappoint her?
And Sarah was a good woman. Everything she touched was better for the attention she gave it. His house finally looked lived-in, his employees were happier than he’d ever seen them, and David said their clients appreciated the sparkly hoof polish she applied to each horse they sold. Dean dropped by the ranch a few times a week, and each time he did he mentioned how good everything and everyone looked.
So I smile and lie.
I let everyone believe that Sarah’s magic has worked on me as well.
Because the truth is as ugly as my nightmares. No matter how much I want to, I’ll never be the man she needs me to be.
Sarah was sitting on the porch steps and had just finished revising a chapter in her book when a long black limo pulled into Tony’s driveway. She stood up and shaded her eyes to see it better. A prospective buyer? Had Tony gotten to the point where he was willing to meet with them now? A swell of pride rushed through her. He’s come so far.
When the tuxedoed driver walked around to open the rear passenger door, Sarah held her breath and then instantly recognized the expensive shoes and business suit before she saw the face of the man they belonged to. Charlie!
She sprinted down the driveway, her smile growing wider as she did. She’d wanted to tell him the details of her new life in Texas but had been waiting for the perfect time. Now she could show him instead.
He took off his dark sunglasses and looked around even after Sarah had come to a near-sliding stop in front of him. “So, this is where you’ve been all summer.”
Despite how serious her brother appeared, Sarah threw her arms around him and hugged him. “I’m so glad you came.”
The hug he gave her in return wasn’t as enthusiastic as she would have liked, but she blamed fatigue. He’d traveled a long way, and no doubt his formal attire was making him miserable in the heat of the afternoon sun. He replaced his sunglasses and without smiling said, “Mom and Dad sent me after you spoke to them. They said you think you’re staying here.”
Sarah waved an arm behind her and said, “I’m happy here, Charlie. For the first time in forever I feel like I know where I belong. And I’m writing. I’m halfway through a book. Can you believe it?”
He didn’t say anything, but his mouth pressed into a straight line of displeasure. “It’s time to go home, Sarah.”
Before she had time to say more, Tony appeared beside them. Country met city as they sized each other up. Two men who were used to intimidating those around them squared off in a bit of a standoff, as if waiting to see who would blink first. Sarah took Tony’s left hand in hers. “Tony, this is my brother, Charlie.”
Tony held out his hand and said, “Welcome.”
Charlie hesitated just long enough to make Sarah want to kick him. Not here. Not now. Don’t judge this, Charlie. He means too much to me.
“Charles,” her brother said, correcting Sarah’s name for him. Their handshake looked a bit brutal on both sides. “So, this is your place.” He released Tony’s hand and looked around.
Tony nodded once.
Trying to lighten the mood, Sarah asked, “You must be tired, Charlie. Let’s go in the house. It’s much cooler in there.”
Her brother glanced over his shoulder at the white ranch house, then back at Sarah. His tone was arctic cold. “Is that where you’re staying?”
Tony answered for her with one curt word. “Yes.”
Charlie turned and said something to the driver, who nodded and reentered the limo, moving it to a place in the shade. “Then by all means, let’s go inside.”
As the three of them marched toward the house like it was a guillotine, Sarah searched Tony’s face. It was impossible to tell from his guarded expression if he was nervous about meeting her brother or put off by his attitude. Charlie could be a bit of a pill, but he was her only brother and she wanted these two men to get along.
As they stepped into the main foyer of the house, Melanie and her son came out of the kitchen to meet them. Melanie’s reaction to seeing her brother was almost comical. Her eyes rounded, her jaw went slack, and she instantly started shoving her loose tendrils back into her ponytail.