An Apple Trail Novella 2
Six years apart and my, my, things have changed. Specifically, his wider shoulders and tighter-fitting jeans. Shellie Chambers is supposed to be on a quick, relaxing break, visiting her lifelong best friend, Riley Hamilton. Seeing his dimpled smile all over again has her thinking their friends-only relationship needs to add a lovers option in this small town.
Flings, one night stands, and lovers are a thing of Riley’s past. He’d chased women, took up drinking—and possibly more he couldn’t remember—until smacking rock-bottom. He managed to climb out of that hellhole and had no desire to go back. He has responsibilities now and a sensible head on his shoulders. Then Shellie turns up. She’s saying and doing all the right things while looking just right, too. She leaves him torn: should he have her legs around his waist during her visit, or do right by himself and keep her at arm’s length?
Catching Mr. Right was damn hard work. Shellie had followed her mother’s stupid ideas about flirting, clothes, drinking, dessert-ordering, and here she was. Still single. And worst of all, still stuck with her mother.
Yeah, yeah. Cue the poor little rich girl sob story. Another favorite phrase of her mother’s.
Shellie rubbed at her throbbing temples. The pounding just behind her eyes beat out a drumming rhythm that sounded vaguely like a chant of Jack and Coke, Jack and Coke. Her mother was putting Shellie on a fast track to becoming the next cat lady on the block. That was a serious problem. Shellie couldn’t keep a plastic tree alive. Best not to give her anything but cut flowers that were expected to die. Those, she could actually tend to and get life out of.
Course, when could she have learned how to care for something living between the lessons on table manners, sitting, dancing, speaking, and even that summer with that photographer who worked on her smile? Less teeth, more dimples, Shellie.
She shuddered. Jack and Coke, Jack and Coke.
“Cold?” Riley Hamilton handed her a glass of iced tea and eased onto the rocking chair next to her with a lazy, long-afternoon sigh.
Ah, Riley. The thundering in her head eased a little. He’d saved her sanity growing up, with his quick smile and even quicker ways of sneaking her out of the house for a little fun. Thank goodness that hadn’t changed. She’d asked for a visit and he hadn’t hesitated, just told her to come on.
Following her GPS and landing on a cattle farm in a small town called Apple Trail was the last place she’d ever expected to find Riley, the boy with the quickest hands to ever graduate Jones High School. Take that back. She never would have pictured his long and lanky body living here and dressed up like a cowboy. Minus the hat. Then again, he wasn’t scrawny anymore. His chest had filled out and time had grown him a pair of thick, strong arms. From river rat to cowboy. Her throat dried out and she sipped the tea to clear it. “Not cold. I just had a scary thought.”
“Nothing scary for you.” His smile was still wide and slow, but his eyes seemed darker. “You’re supposed to be relaxing.”
“I am.” Just looking at him had heat warming her from the inside and melting her into a boneless pile. If her mom had shoved Shellie in front of men who looked like him, the whole man-hunting process wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe even be a little tolerable.
None of the men would be him, though. In elementary, he’d put grasshoppers in her backpack. In junior high, it was untying her hair ribbons. Then came senior high. A hot summer night and a few beers they weren’t supposed to be drinking led to a kiss they weren’t supposed to be having. A quick kiss that led to absolutely nothing but an awkward glance. Looking back, she still found that kiss a bit… different.
Of the handful of men who had ever kissed her, Riley’s was the only one who could make her toes curl from the memory. A little chill danced all the way through her snug-fitting boots and pulled her toes in. And it had just barely been a kiss. Not even a kiss, really. A peck. A whisper of lips over one another, but oh, goodness. Be still, heart. There had been his hands cradling her cheeks and his breath across her lips as he’d hesitated a second before leaning in and taking that all-too-quick moment.
An entirely different kind of shudder went over her and caught Riley’s attention again. They never did talk about that kiss, and commenting on it was beyond the bounds of their friendship. She cleared her throat. “I was thinking about my mom.”
He pulled in a slow breath, likely unsure on how to comment. It was a common side effect when speaking of her mom. He rocked in his chair and tapped his glass against the wooden arm rest. “Dangerous territory.”
She smiled, appreciative of his honesty. Since her mother married the owner of a company of household products, more people tended to suck up rather than get honest. “No kidding.”
That should have been laughable, but she wasn’t laughing. “No. I guess I don’t know what to do.”
Riley shrugged. “I don’t care what your mom thinks or wants. You can do whatever you want. You’re a grown woman.”
“Thank you.” She warmed over at that and wished it was possible to truly do whatever she wanted. Her mother never made it that easy. Shellie had made a break for it in college. Her mother had shoe-horned her back into place. When she owned everything but Shellie’s skin and body parts underneath, it was damn hard. Popping in the pizza place where Shellie had waitressed in college for money her mom wouldn’t know about was one mother-crashing experience to last a lifetime. How her mom found out she even had that job… well, that still remained a mystery.
The only reason Shellie was sitting on Riley’s porch was because she’d gotten in her car and just left. Knowing Shellie was with Riley was the only thing keeping her mom at bay. Her mom could control a lot of people with the flick of a few fingers. Riley Hamilton was not one of them, and she knew it.
Oh, Shellie, no, her mother had said. He’ll never make something of himself. Just look at him. Look at his parents. White trash. No, stay away from him before you find yourself knocked up and then nobody will want you. Not even him.
Her mom get caught on “that white trash’s” property? Not unless she was desperate. Shellie couldn’t stay here forever on his little farm, and her mom would cross that line soon or send someone to do it for her. Until that happened, Shellie would take what time she could get from the never-ending list of Shellie Faults.
Relax your shoulders. Straighten your back. Shellie, can’t you even stand normal without me correcting you?
Is it too much to ask that you at least look like you’re having fun?
Is that your second piece of cake?
Knots wound through her stomach. If she didn’t stop, she’d have to get her antacids.
Shellie rested her head against the worn wooden back of her rocker and soaked in the cool autumn breeze. She was here for a relaxing vacation, not reminiscing about her life. The weathered chair squeaked against the old, paint-peeling porch, lulling her into a dazed zone. It was so different from Dallas here. There seemed to be miles of open fields and swaying grasses enclosed within a circle of pine trees. Brown cows speckled the grounds, and a small pond rippled next to a grouping of trees wearing fall colors from brilliant yellow to fiery red.
Somehow in the middle of all that fit Riley. God, she’d missed him over the years. They’d graduated high school and been tugged in different directions, with only the Internet keeping them tied together. This was the first time seeing him in some six years.
He reached across the tree trunk serving as a small table and covered her hand with his. “I’m not just saying that. You are better than what your mom tells you.
Do whatever you want. I remember you stopping by that flower shop back home every time we walked past it and saying one day, you were going to own that store.”
Lord, her mother would croak at the idea of doing anything with her hands that didn’t involve flirting. Mom’s plan had Shellie following in her footsteps and marrying a mostly absent and wealthy man.
Shellie gave a good push off the floor to get the rocking chair moving. A flower shop wasn’t a feasible dream anyway. Her mom kept her on a tight leash, so Shellie had never built up credit to even have the money to buy something like that.
Riley’s breath slipped out in slow but heavy exhales. The flannel sleeves of his shirt were rolled up almost to his elbows, showing the flexing tendons of his arms. A thick swallow moved down his corded throat. With her heart beating unexplainably fast, she lifted her gaze to his dark eyes and found him staring at her.
Their stare lasted for only seconds before he looked away. Something was a bit different about him than the man Shellie had known. Not just his physical size. Where he used to be light and fun, she often caught an intense look etched on his square-jawed face. A look capable of tossing her breath for a loop. Dashing and charismatic features had become honed into dark and careful.
Dark and careful was far more intriguing.
She couldn’t recall him ever looking at her quite like that before. Like that kiss, that look wasn’t something a girl would forget. “Thanks for letting me crash here for a while.”
“Now that I remember to close my door, stay as long as you like.”
That quick moment flashed. She’d walked past his bedroom, and he’d moved so fast. Nothing more than a smear of tanned body and the door closing. She attempted a laugh and tried not to picture his sculpted body that would no doubt be sweating in jeans unbuttoned around his hips.
She tugged at the thick turtleneck suddenly choking her. He was the guy who put peanut butter in her hair and prickly things in her shoes. Not the lusting-after-and-wanting-to-take-his-clothes-off kind. Such a pity, and she had to all but rip her gaze away.
The pretty scenery would have to make do over him, but instead of seeing the fall trees, a little brown and white speckled cow trotted around the side of Riley’s house. Shellie blinked. There was a cow in Riley’s front yard. Riley stared at his boots and didn’t notice. She flicked her hand out, trying for his attention. It took longer than it should to get words out. “There’s a cow standing in your yard.”
Riley looked up and set his tea aside with a heavy sigh. “Now where did she get out?”
The animal moved around and munched on the grass by the porch steps like it wasn’t a problem. Like this was just a regular routine.
Dear God, there was a cow in Riley’s front yard, steps away from the porch. Growing up, Riley hadn’t hunted, fished, or did any of those things. He was into sports, girls, and fast cars. Now it was farming and animals in backwoods Arkansas.
He pushed out of his chair when a second one walked around the corner. “And there’s another one.” Riley stomped down the steps and walked right past the pair of cows chewing grass along the side of the house. He even patted one on the backside on his way by. It was a wonder the thing didn’t kick him. “Part of the fence is probably down somewhere.”
The fence was down? It just fell down? He had a hundred cows out here. She glanced around looking for a stampede and sent a warning glare to the old, paint peeling porch that it better stay standing. “What are you going to do?”
Riley glanced over his shoulder, his brows raised. “Put them back up.” He stared at the horizon, and she followed his gaze to dark clouds hunkering and sweeping over the treetops. “Looks like rain will be here faster than they called for. It’s rained every afternoon this week. My pastures are mush.”
She swallowed as he walked on, completely sure of his actions and plans. Confidence. He still had that in spades. And she was still jealous how he always seemed to know what to do and how things would work out in the end.
He marched onward, and her gaze dropped to how his jeans fit around his ass. No longer was she concerned about the cows because, Lordy, how had she never noticed the way his jeans cupped his very nice ass? She blinked and stared again. She’d never noticed because he’d worn baggier jeans in high school. And he’d been skinner. One of the cows ripped at the grass by the porch steps and she snapped out of it. Cows. On the loose. Right. “How?”
He spun, taking a few steps backward. “You could come with me and find out.”
She glanced at her black suede boots and frowned.
“What’s the matter?” He laughed and spun again so that he walked forward and then disappeared around the corner.
She grabbed the handles of her chair, fully intending to shoot from her seat and march after, but she stopped. There was nothing she could do but be in the way. Not to mention the two cows stood guarding the steps. She walked the length of the long porch to the edge and peered around the corner but didn’t see Riley. The side door of the wooden barn was open. It was too dark and too far away to tell what he might have inside.
The breeze moved a bit cooler and stronger off this side of the house. It lifted hair from her ears and seeped through the thick turtleneck sweater to prick goose bumps on her skin. No sign of Riley. Was he getting rope things like horses used? Not that she knew anything about horses, but she had watched a Western movie or two and been to the Derby. She could follow him to find out as he suggested, but the ground was mud soup and the cows were still blocking the steps.
A groan vibrated up her throat and she swung a leg over the railing just as she did, years ago, out her bedroom window to follow after him. This was what she was here for, right? Didn’t she come out here to get away from her mom and to find the fun Riley had shown her in high school?
She jumped down from the side of the porch and, just like that, lightning streaked overhead. Thunder rumbled through her body all the way to her toes in her nine-hundred dollar boots. She hurried toward the barn, skipping and hopping around puddles best she could while trying to beat the rain.
Thunder banged out again.
Why are you drenched, Shellie? Get away from me and go take a shower. Don’t touch anything!
Shellie froze as her mother’s hateful words hit her just as hard now as they had when she was seven and she attempted to sneak a hug. She stood still in the middle of the yard and, for the first time since that day she played in the rain, she waited for the drops to pour down. And then those damn cows ran past, bumped her side, and sent her flying right into an icy cold puddle.