Twenty years ago, Nicole Baxter left the only home she knew—and the boy who shared all her secrets. Now, with nowhere else to go, she’s back in Tawnee Valley to figure out her next move—and cry on her old friend Sam Ward’s shoulder. Except the gentle dreamer has become a brooding loner who’s gearing up to sell the place he loves most.
When Nikki moved away, Sam lost the best friend he ever had. The beautiful, elegant woman who comes home is a world away from the tomboy with pigtails and skinned knees. And he’s no longer the dreamy kid who believes in happy endings. Until Nikki starts to convince him they share the same dream: a future together right here in their own backyard…
When Nicole wasn’t touching him, Sam could think straight. They grabbed a couple of flashlights and the beer and headed into the fields. Barnabus and Rebel, Barnabus’s puppy who was almost a year old, followed them. Sam had promised himself that he was going to allow himself to live, even if he couldn’t leave his family’s farm.
Following Nicole wouldn’t hurt anything. He was curious what had happened to her after she left Tawnee Valley. In the early years after her departure, he’d started letters to her but never finished them. Time had been against him with school and chores. Then so much time had passed that it seemed strange to write to a girl who had once been his friend.
“With the rope gone, how are we going to get up?” Nicole spun to face him. She’d been quiet while they’d trekked deeper into the woods. Maybe because the woods themselves were so quiet. Their tree house loomed ahead of them in the huge oak tree.
“The same way we did as kids?” he said.
She contemplated the tree. “I’m not sure I can climb a tree these days. I think I was a lot more spindly back then. Don’t get me wrong. I exercise, but climbing trees hasn’t been a specialty. The trees out in California weren’t good for climbing.”
“I can give you a boost.” He closed the distance between them and pointed out the spot that would be easiest to climb. For the first time in a long time, his shoulders felt lighter, and his chest didn’t feel as tight. The responsibility of the farm seemed far away. “Remember this was your idea.”
“I haven’t exactly been known for my smart decisions lately.” She set the beer on the ground and positioned herself in front of the climbing route they’d zipped up as kids. “I’m counting on you not to let me land on my backside here.”
She glanced at him over her shoulder. The darkness obscured the color of her eyes, but the moonlight streaming through the tree leaves gave her a glow that made her look ethereal, unworldly. He’d never noticed before she left whether she was cute or pretty; they’d always just been buds. She used to punch him in the arm for flinching. They’d had belching competitions. There’d been nothing girly about her then.
As she hoisted herself up, he grabbed hold of her waist to help support her. From her curves to her seductive scent, she was all woman now. A very attractive woman. When she moved beyond his reach, he let go of her waist and watched her.
Her foot slipped, and his hands automatically braced her nearest body part, which happened to be her bottom.
“Thanks.” Her voice was higher pitched than normal. She lifted herself up onto the platform and then brushed her hands over her bottom. “Hand me up the beer.”
He passed her the beer and studied the tree. One wrong move could pull at his chest muscles, which still bothered him from time to time. The small incision wound was healed, but the muscles still weren’t quite up to full power yet.
“Are you coming, cow lifter?” Her tone was teasing. “Don’t worry, I’ll give you a hand if you need it. But please don’t need it, because most likely we’ll both fall out of the tree and break something. They won’t find us for a few days. We’ll have to eat grass and the fallen leaves. It might be a great diet, but we’d soil ourselves and when they found us, there’d be all sorts of questions. Why did you think climbing a tree at ten at night would be a good—”
“Would you be quiet for a moment?”
“Why? Are you afraid I’ll be right?”
She was just a shadow in the tree, but he glared up at her anyway. He climbed carefully, feeling stupid the whole time. What thirty-one-year-old climbed trees besides Nicole? He’d been responsible for the farm and his brothers since he was eighteen. Even as he chastised himself for doing something so foolish, after staying inside the lines for so long, it felt good to do something just because he wanted to and not because it needed to be done.
When he reached the platform, he pulled himself up the rest of the way with only a slight protest from his chest muscles. When he straightened, she held out a beer to him.
“I knew you’d make it,” she said and lowered herself to the planks of wood. She patted the spot next to her.
“There was more space up here when we were kids.” When they were fourteen, they hadn’t needed much space. Now there was just enough room for them to sit side by side with their shoulders touching.
At one point they’d known each other’s secrets and fears, but now they were little more than strangers. All he knew about her life now was what she’d told him. It was more of an outline than the complete picture. How much would she expect him to share? How much was he willing to share?
“Did you find a new best friend after I left?” Nicole took a drink of her beer and stared up into the canopy of leaves. The stars twinkled beyond the leaves. The moon didn’t overpower the stars, the way streetlights did.
“No.” There was no secret in that, just a fact. “I had a group of friends in high school but never got close to any of them.” Not like he’d been close to her. Because he lived out on the farm, it made it hard to connect with his friends, and with his chores, he didn’t always have time.
“Do you still see any of them?” Her voice was soft in the darkness, not quite a whisper, like they were sharing secrets and not just talking about what happened between then and now.
“Every once in a while, someone comes to town to visit their folks or something.” The truth was, everyone moved away after graduation. It was rare to find anyone in Tawnee Valley between the ages of twenty and thirty who wasn’t married with kids.
“I tried my hardest to fit in at my new school,” Nicole said. “Mom insisted I start dressing like a girl since I wasn’t living on a farm anymore. I made a few friends, but I couldn’t tell them any secrets without someone spreading it around school. I certainly couldn’t make blood pacts or belch in front of them.” Nicole bumped his shoulder with hers.
“You were the one who wanted to do the blood thing.” He took a swig of beer. It had been a while since he’d drunk alcohol, probably since Brady’s wedding.
“Only because I saw it in a movie.” They sat quietly for a moment. “Do you think we would have stayed friends if I hadn’t moved?”
Sam took a deep breath and followed a shooting star across the sky. “Honestly? I don’t know. It wasn’t too long after you left that I started looking at girls differently.”
“Like they grew horns and tails?”
He smiled slightly. “You know what I mean.”
“Of course, but it’s much more fun to tease you.” She leaned her head on his shoulder. “Who knows what might have happened between us if I’d stayed?”
Would he have noticed her? As more than his friend? Would it have felt as awkward as it did now, or would they have fallen into it naturally?
She took his hand in hers and held it. “I wish I knew what to do now. I wish my future was laid out before me like yours always was.”
“Don’t wish that,” he said harshly. No one wished for his life. Not even him.
“You have the farm. I’m sure you’ll find someone who will make you an excellent farm wife, and you’ll have a passel of children to help raise your livestock.” She sighed. “I have an accounting degree but barely any work experience in forensic accounting. Finding another job is going to be confined to large cities. Once I start working, I won’t have the time to date. I’ll probably die alone, but independently wealthy because I didn’t have any time to spend any of my money. Maybe I’ll leave all my money to my cat. If I had a cat…”
“At least you have options.” He couldn’t give up his birthright, and unless he wanted to date the few eighteen-year-olds in town, he didn’t have options on the dating front. There was no way he could relate to someone over a decade younger than him with her future burning bright before her, confine her to the land that had been in his family for generations. His parents had trusted him to keep the tradition going. He couldn’t let them down, so he was bound to the land and cursed to be alone.
“Ugh, when did this become so serious?” She snuggled closer to him and pointed up through the branches. “What constellation is that?”
“What makes you think I know?” He tensed with her touch, but it felt nice to have someone trust him and not want to rehash the bad stuff. Someone he hadn’t let down. He relaxed and drank some beer, breathing in the cool night air.
“Please.” She snorted derisively. “You know everything.”
He didn’t know anything. All he could do was follow the path his parents laid out for him. Whether he wanted to or not. But right now, he could forget about his responsibilities for an hour and point out the stars to someone who could be his friend before she left him again.
Between walking her Jack Russell-beagle mix, petting her two cats and driving her two kids all over creation, Amanda Berry writes contemporary romance novels (thanks to a supportive husband). A Midwest girl stuck in the wetlands of South Carolina, she finds inspiration in her small-town upbringing. A list of her current releases and backlist can be found at amandaerry.com and https://www.facebook.com/amanda.berry.52, https://twitter.com/amandasberry