Sugar Springs

Wait, Paige.”

She stopped. Turned and faced him. “I did not want you to come to Sug­ar Springs, Mr. Had­dock. You were not invit­ed to come, and you are not wel­comed,” she said even­ly. “If you still want to pur­chase my script, I’m grate­ful. But I have noth­ing to say to you, about it or any­thing else.”

Wheel­ing, she hur­ried to her front door. He had to stop her before she got in the house, or he knew he would have lost all chance of speak­ing with her.

I’m the boy,” he shout­ed in des­per­a­tion. “The boy—from the din­er. In Owens.” He swal­lowed, pray­ing she would react.

She did. She froze, her body so still that he held his breath, won­der­ing if she had heard him. Then she turned grad­u­al­ly, as if she were in slow motion. Her jaw was slack. He saw tears brim­ming in her eyes.

Care­ful­ly, Tan­ner approached her, every step cau­tious and mea­sured. She watched him, her lips mov­ing silent­ly, no words uttered aloud.

When he came to stand in front of her, she bit her lip, try­ing to keep from cry­ing, but the tears already streamed down her cheeks. He reached out, his fin­gers brush­ing them away.

Her gaze inten­si­fied. It was as if Paige Laramie saw through to his soul.

You are that boy,” she said, won­der in her voice. “I nev­er thought I would see you again.”

With­out warn­ing, she threw her­self at him, her arms lock­ing tight­ly about him. Auto­mat­i­cal­ly, his arms came around her. He caught a faint scent of vanil­la and the sweat from her run.

Thank you,” Paige whis­pered. “Thank you. For sav­ing me. For help­ing me to come home again.”

Rory gazed at Walk­er a moment—and then did some­thing spon­ta­neous. Some­thing she had want­ed to do since she met him.

She stepped to him and looped her arms about his neck, press­ing her mouth soft­ly to his. His arms slipped around her, and he stepped clos­er, their bod­ies flush against one another.

The kiss was lin­ger­ing. Sweet with a bit of pres­sure. His lips felt right against hers, even though she knew they both held back. She felt the warmth of his body. Smelled the tang of his cologne. Yearned for more, but knew now wasn’t the time.

Walk­er was the one who broke the kiss and stared down at her. “We’ll def­i­nite­ly con­tin­ue this lat­er,” he said huski­ly. “But we shouldn’t keep Granny Bea waiting.”

He cra­dled her cheek with his palm. “When I kiss you again, Rory, it’s going to be for hours.”

She shiv­ered, think­ing how she want­ed the same. She longed to explore his mouth. His body. She had nev­er had such an intense response, both phys­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly, to a sin­gle kiss.

Step­ping away from him, Rory said, “Let me know when you’re ready, Walk­er. Because I’m more than ready to see what hap­pens between us.”

Nova’s cell dinged with a text mes­sage. She refused to look at it even though her phone blew up with mes­sage after mes­sage. Going ot the liv­ing room, she wait­ed in the dark, know­ing Cole would show up.

Half an hour lat­er, she heard his truck in the dri­ve­way and went and unlocked the front door. Open­ing it, she did some­thing she had nev­er done since she had returned to Sug­ar Springs.

She placed the latch on the screen door.

Nova need­ed a bar­ri­er between them.

Cole stormed from the truck and raced up her porch steps. She could only see him in sil­hou­ette since she hadn’t turned on the porch light.

Nova,” he said, des­per­a­tion in his voice. “Talk to me. We can fix this.”

Steel­ing her­self, she said, “That’s the key word—we. I don’t want to fix it. I’m done. Let it go. Let me go.”

Not with­out a fight,” he said, pulling on the screen door and find­ing it locked.

Nova tried anoth­er tact. “If you tru­ly love me, Cole, then respect my deci­sion to end things. We had some good times, but I’m ask­ing you to walk away.”

With that, she qui­et­ly shut the door, lean­ing against, her fore­head rest­ing on it as tears streamed down her cheeks.

In the still­ness, she heard him say, “I love you, Nova. I always will.”

Then the sound of his boots going down the steps echoed in the night. His truck start­ed. Cole drove away.

He was now gone from her life.

Gideon did some­thing he had nev­er done before. He’d watched fel­low cops check out their dates online, using police data­bas­es to dive deeply into their research. He’d no inten­tion of doing that, but curios­i­ty drove him to type Hope’s name into the search box, want­i­ng to learn what he could about her before their next date.

Sev­er­al women with her name popped up, and he scrolled through, try­ing to locate any arti­cle about her. When he couldn’t, he refined his search, adding Doc­tor in front of Hope Keller and Hous­ton after her name.

This time, one Dr. Hope Keller popped up, an oncol­o­gist at M. D. Anderson.

Where the hell was his Hope?

Gideon began drilling down, putting her name in with Hous­ton vet­eri­nary clin­ics and ani­mal hos­pi­tals. He tried her name and Texas A&M Uni­ver­si­ty and the vet school. Again, nothing.

It was as if Dr. Hope Keller, vet­eri­nar­i­an from Hous­ton and grad­u­ate of Texas A&M School of Vet­eri­nary Med­i­cine, did not exist. Warn­ing bells went off in his head. Why wouldn’t Hope have left any kind of dig­i­tal foot­print on the Internet?

It trou­bled him that she had arrived out of thin air, ready to buy Dr. Bisch’s prac­tice. She said her par­ents had died recent­ly, and so he typed in Keller, Hous­ton, and Obit­u­ar­ies.

Again, no hits lead­ing to his Hope.

Being a cop wasn’t always good in these sit­u­a­tions because his thoughts went dark places it shouldn’t. What if she had killed some­one and was try­ing to out­run the law, tak­ing on a new iden­ti­ty and name?

Gideon closed out of the sites he’d been scour­ing and stepped away from his com­put­er, his thoughts in a jumble.

Dr. Hope Keller didn’t seem to exist—and yet she had turned up in his town, intrigu­ing him. Mak­ing him want things he had long ago set aside.

He got ready for bed, promis­ing him­self when he got to work tomor­row morn­ing, he would use every resource at his fin­ger­tips to dis­cov­er who the hell Dr. Hope Keller real­ly was.

Ford saw the last mourn­er out. When he entered the house, he was tak­en by the qui­et. For the first time in days, he was alone. A wave of lone­li­ness poured through him, an ache so raw and painful that he knew it would take a long time to grieve for his uncle.

Then Ford heard a noise come from the kitchen and real­ized he wasn’t alone, after all. He went to it and saw Vivi scrub­bing a glass Pyrex dish. She was hum­ming soft­ly to herself.

I didn’t real­ize you were still here,” he said.

She glanced up. “I thought I’d wash a few items before going.”

I’ll dry,” he vol­un­teered, pick­ing up a dish towel.

They cleaned the dish­es in com­pan­ion­able silence. It didn’t seem awk­ward hav­ing her here. In fact, Ford liked the fact that she was here.

Vivi drained the sink and rinsed it clean of suds, remov­ing the bright yel­low gloves she wore, and plac­ing them in the drain­board to dry.

He set down the dish tow­el and took her hands in his. A rush of emo­tion swept through him, and he didn’t think he could be by himself.

Squeez­ing her fin­gers, he urged, “Stay. Just for a lit­tle while. I don’t want to be alone.”

All right,” she said qui­et­ly, gaz­ing at him with those lumi­nous, amber eyes that drew him in.

A sud­den long­ing ran through him. A yearn­ing for some­thing he couldn’t put into words. All Ford knew was that he need­ed Vivi Romano, more than he had ever need­ed any­one in his life. He pulled her to him, and his mouth sought hers. The kiss wasn’t a ten­der one. It was greedy, and Ford released her hands, reach­ing for her face. He held it as he devoured her, need and greed and want intermingling.

His arms encir­cled her, hold­ing her tight­ly against him as he con­tin­ued his assault on her mouth.

For her part, Vivi gave to him, let­ting him con­sume her. But he need­ed more of her.

He need­ed to be inside her.