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Devil’s Lake (Bittersweet Hollow Book 1)

Devil’s Lake (Bittersweet Hollow Book 1)
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Tag: Featured Books
Publication Year: 2014
ASIN: B00LNFP8XU
ISBN: 1500635030
Bittersweet Hollow (Romantic Suspense Series) Book 1: Devil's Lake Book 2: Devil's Creek After two years of brutal captivity, Portia Lamont has escaped and returned to her family’s Vermont horse farm—only to find her parents gone to New York to try an experimental treatment for her mother’s ...
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About the Book
AaronLazar

Author: Aaron Lazar

Bittersweet Hollow (Romantic Suspense Series)

Book 1: Devil’s Lake

Book 2: Devil’s Creek

After two years of brutal captivity, Portia Lamont has escaped and returned to her family’s Vermont horse farm—only to find her parents gone to New York to try an experimental treatment for her mother’s cancer, and her childhood friend Boone Hawke running the farm.

Like the rest of her family, Boone has never given up hope that Portia would return. But when she turns up battered, skinny as a twelve-year-old boy, afraid of everything and unable to talk about what happened, he does the only thing he can—try to help her heal. He summons the town doctor and Portia’s parents, and sets out to put this beautiful, broken woman back together again.

Through her family’s love and Boone’s gentle affection, Portia gradually comes back to herself, and starts to fall for her old friend in a whole new way. But one thing threatens her fragile hope for recovery: The man who took her promised that if she ever escaped, he’d kill her. Slowly. And someone is definitely watching her…waiting to make his next deadly move.

NOTE: This book contains explicit sexual content. For adults only!

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Chapter 1

Portia hauled on the wheel and dragged the old truck around a sharp corner, wincing when the engine popped and belched black smoke. The beat-up Chevy had been running rough since she left the highway an hour ago.

Come on, keep going. Just a few more miles.

Dust clouds marked her progress along the dirt road. She glanced in the rear view mirror for the millionth time, expecting to see the police chasing her.

Or him.

Tears streaked her cheeks, and she hiccupped a few sobs. She’d been weeping all the way from Wisconsin and felt dry, as if she had no more tears to shed. Of course, that was insane. She’d probably cry all day, every day for the rest of her life.

Around yet another corner, and Cupcake slid toward her, scrabbling toenails on the vinyl seat. She steadied the little mutt, who snuggled close to her, blinking round black eyes.

“Sorry, baby.” Her voice cracked, roughened from all the crying.

Cupcake leaned into Portia, nuzzling under her arm.

She stroked the dog’s soft white ears. “Good girl. You’re my good little dog.”

She’d stolen the mongrel and the truck when she escaped—was it really only two days ago? Hurriedly thrusting her little friend into the front seat, she’d roared away from the cabin.

When she’d emerged from the woods in the old Chevy, bleary-eyed and shaken, completely disoriented, she’d followed the dusty road toward a village, where a row of eclectic stores lined both sides of a narrow street. In search of directions, she stumbled into the first gas station she could find.

There she was. Hungry. Weary. Traumatized. Skinny as a twelve-year-old boy. And the store clerk hadn’t even given her a second glance. He’d pointed down the road in the direction of the highway, and had gone right back to texting without meeting her eyes.

Glancing into the rear view mirror, filled with irrational fear, again she half-expected to see him chasing her.

She forced herself to relax.

Just calm the hell down.

Sighing, she patted Cupcake with her free hand.  “We just need to get home. That’s all.”

Home.

Internally, the need to scream clawed at her. Somehow, she stifled it and told herself she’d be there soon.

As if welcoming her, the Green Mountains surged into the clouds in the background, guarding the rolling hills of the valley where her family’s farm nestled in the hollow.

Oh, how she’d dreamed of this day.

Two long years. Two years of wishing. Of wanting. Of daring to hope.

She hiccupped another sob.

Bittersweet Hollow. She’d desperately yearned for it, picturing her mother’s kind face, the smell of her bread baking in the oven. She’d imagined her father quietly helping to deliver a new foal and the scent of fresh pine shavings on his wool shirt. She remembered leaning into his broad chest, feeling so safe. So protected.

Every night, she repeated the farm name as a mantra before sleep, after the man tied her to the bedposts. The memories of her parents had comforted her then, and the thought of coming home filled her with a twisty sense of near-maniacal joy.

Her heart slammed against her ribs, quickening with every milestone she recognized.

Almost there.

Portia peered through the dusty windshield, savoring the view of the mountains that rose from the undulating wheat fields and indigo blue foothills in the distance. The scent of fresh-mown alfalfa entered the cab, prompting sweet memories of her childhood. The road dipped into the valley—affectionately called The Hollow by locals—into the protected basin cradled by hills on one side and mountains on the other.

Cupcake raised her head, sniffing the air.

“We’re almost home, baby.”

The dog licked Portia’s outstretched hand.

“When we get there, you can run free.”

Her voice shook, and she realized her words came fast—too fast, really. She’d been holding herself together like a cracked vase hastily glued to hide the broken shards and missing pieces. She knew she’d break apart soon, but if she could just make it a few more miles…

The scruffy dog sat up on her haunches, balancing like a circus dog, sticking her nose out the partially opened window.

They rolled around the last bend. There it was!

A surge of shuddering joy passed through Portia. They drove under an archway made from twining grapevines that reached out to twist together from both sides of the road. Beneath the natural arch, a rustic sign hung, swaying in the faint breeze, proclaiming a welcome to Bittersweet Hollow, a Morgan Horse Farm. Beneath the name in dark blue script: Dirk and Daisy Lamont, Proprietors. Orange berries adorned the edges of the sign, celebrating the farm’s namesake, the beautiful but dangerous berries that filled the woods and burst into vibrant color in the fall.

In the distance, several barns emerged, flanked by emerald pastures encircled with expansive rectangles of white post and board fences. Dozens of horses populated the acreage, with coats ranging from blazing red chestnut to bright bay to dark seal brown. In his own separate paddock, her family’s black stallion, Mirage, raised his head and trotted to the fence near the driveway. He stood proud and strong, his long curly mane rippling in the breeze.

In spite of the lingering pall of darkness, Portia’s heart swelled with uncontrolled exhilaration. After all this time of wanting, wishing, and yearning for The Hollow.

Finally, she was home.

***

Boone Hawke watched the old Chevy truck rumbling toward him along the driveway, spewing a trail of smoke. He straightened, wiped his brow with a blue bandana, and stepped closer to the open hayloft door. Another customer, horse hunting? He couldn’t assume they had no money because they drove an old wreck. It wasn’t unusual for good old Vermont stock to keep their vehicles until they rattled to the junkyard and died. In spite of their frugal ways, they still valued horses and would spend good money on a well-bred mount. He figured if he could sell one of the young mares today, he’d put cash in Dirk and Daisy Lamont’s bank account for when they came home.

If they came home.

It hadn’t been easy taking care of his neighbors’ horses while they were gone, especially in the winter. One month turned to two. Two months became four. Now it had been six months since they left.

The checks they sent to keep the farm running had been just about enough for expenses, but he’d had to pitch in from his own farm’s funds on occasion when the Lamonts’ tractor broke, or when the barn roof needed patching. He didn’t want to add to their troubles, so he kept a ledger of his expenses and figured he’d pay himself back the next time a horse sold. The poor people had already been through enough, what with losing their eldest daughter to God-knows-what and now with Daisy’s illness.

With a grunt, he lifted and tossed the last hay bale onto a pile that almost reached the roof peak. He straightened, dusted off his hands, and started down the wooden ladder. Swiping at his unruly blond hair, he summoned a smile and ambled out into the sunlight.

Chapter 2

Portia parked in back of the barn to hide the truck. Her heart pounded, and sweat popped on her brow.

Cupcake danced in the seat, her eyes sparkling with excitement. She put her front paws on the door and barked, a surprisingly low-pitched sound for such a small dog.

With a shuddering sigh, Portia thrust open her door. “Okay, baby. We’re getting out.”

For one frozen moment, she watched the little dog scamper to the grass beneath a large oak. And then, released from bondage, Portia burst from the truck as if being chased by the Devil himself, heading for the kitchen door.

“Mom? Dad!” She pounded up the steps, sobbing again, tripping over her own feet. “I’m home,” she screamed.

“Mom!” Yanking open the screen door, she crashed into the kitchen. “Dad?”

Tears streaked her cheeks, and she darted into the living room, searching for her parents. “Mom, where are you?”

Like a tornado on a rampage, she raced from room to room, finding no one. Up the stairs, two at a time. At the top, she had to stop to catch her breath.

“Mom? Are you up here?”

Dashing from along the hall, she ran again, sobbing harder now. “Where are you guys?”

As she left her parents’ bedroom, someone grabbed her from behind. She screamed when he pinned her elbows to her side.

“God damn it, let me go,” she wailed, trying to jab the man who held her tight in his locked arms.

“Stop struggling,” a rough voice commanded. “And tell me what you’re doing here.”

She collapsed to the floor, pulling away from him until she backed up to the wall. “Get away from me,” she cried. “What are you doing in my parents’ house?

The man jumped back. He leaned against the doorjamb, arms crossed, peering at her from under a shaggy mass of wheat-colored hair. “What? Your parents?”

She looked up at him, wiping her cheeks. “I live here, you moron.”

Light dawned in his dark gray eyes. “Wait one damned minute.” He moved closer, bending down. “Portia?” His face drained of color. “Oh, God. Is it really you?”

She pulled aside a curtain of dark copper hair. “Yes. It’s me. Question is,” she said, with as much defiance as she could muster in her tear-drenched voice. “Question is, who the hell are you? And where are my folks?”

“Hold on now. Let me explain.” He crouched closer to her. “Don’t you recognize me?”

Portia stared at the hulking man. He vaguely resembled the boy from the neighboring dairy farm.

They’d ridden the hills together ages ago, when he was just eighteen and she was fifteen. Ten years. He must be twenty-eight now. No wonder she hadn’t recognized his face. She hadn’t seen him much after he went off to agricultural college, and by the time he came home again to run his family’s dairy farm, she’d left for college. “Boone?”

“It’s me.” He offered her a hand, but she pulled hers away.

Slowly, she stood, putting a hand to her brow. “Now, tell me. Where the hell are my folks?”

***

Boone stared at the woman who hunkered before him like a ghost from the past, her copper hair glistening in the light shining through the bedroom window. She looked thin, and very pale, unlike the robust teenager he’d known years ago. And very unlike the photo in all the posters he’d helped her parents plaster across the county.

She must’ve lost forty pounds.

“I can’t believe it,” he whispered. “It’s really you.”

She nodded, but didn’t smile. “It’s me.” Her voice quavered as if she’d break down any minute.

“Geez, what happened to you?” He stepped toward her and almost took her arm, but she jerked away from him.

“Please. Don’t touch me.”

A sense of dread filled him. Heat rose to his cheeks. “I…” He hesitated. “I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just…we’ve been searching for you, for so damned long.”

A flash of anger filled her eyes, and she stood up. “Right. And you never found me.” She crossed her arms. “One more time. Where are my folks?” She choked out the words and lost her balance. Stumbling toward the wall, she leaned on it to steady herself.

“Whoa, hold on now. Won’t you let me help you?” he asked, eyeing her with concern.

Her face hardened. “No! I need my parents.”

He answered slowly. “I know. But like I said, they’re not here.”

She shot him a teary glance. “Then where are they?”

He slid his hand into his jeans pocket and rocked on his heels, not sure how to tell her. He had so many questions. So much to tell her. Where had she been for the past two years? Was she kidnapped like they originally thought? Or did she run away, like the cops began to think, when the investigators had seemed to give up hope.

He watched her face turn a chalkier shade of gray, then realized he hadn’t answered her. “Um. I’m sorry. They’re in New York City.”

She seemed disappointed, but the panic left her ravaged face. “Oh. A vacation? They used to love going to shows in the city.”

He stalled, scuffing the carpet with one well-worn boot. “Not exactly.”

Distrust filled her eyes. “What, then?”

“Um. Your mom isn’t well. They went to a clinic. It’s a special place where they’re doing experimental studies. You know, a research hospital. It’s called Sloan-Kettering.”

Her eyes searched his, already flooding with tears as if she knew the answer. “Research for what?”

He hesitated, then blurted it out. “Cancer. I’m sorry, Portia. But they’re hoping the new meds will—”

Her eyes rolled. She crumpled to the ground before he could catch her.

***

Portia woke in her own bed, in the lacy pink bedroom of her dreams.

She opened one eye, taking in the filmy curtains blowing softly in the window, the white bureau with blue, red, and yellow horse show ribbons fluttering on the mirror. Cupcake slept on the bed next to a big chocolate Labrador retriever.

“Boomer?” she croaked. The dog lifted his head, flapped his tail on the bedspread, and squirmed closer to lick her hand enthusiastically.

A voice came from the doorway. “He’s been staying at my house. Would have been too lonely all by himself, y’ know?”

In a flash, it all came back to her.

She was home. Home in her own soft bed, in her safe, pink bedroom. Home, at her family’s Vermont horse farm, with the beautiful Green Mountains all around. It wasn’t a dream this time. It was real.

In the next second, the awful truth stabbed her and she bolted upright. “My mother. I have to see her. How can I…”

Boone sailed across the room in three long strides. “Whoa, there. Doc’s coming out first. We’ve got to make sure you’re okay before you go gallivanting off to New York.”

“I’m fine,” she lied. She felt horrible. Weak and wobbly, she could barely sit up. “I think I just need food.”

His face darkened. “When’s the last time you ate?”

She frowned, as if trying to remember. “Um. I think yesterday.”

“Crap. I’ll be right back.” Turning, he disappeared into the hall.

She heard noises in the kitchen below. While she lay under the comforter trying to collect her thoughts, the phone rang.

Boone’s deep voice reverberated from the first floor, but she couldn’t make out every word. He hung up quickly, and within minutes, appeared in the doorway with a tray of steaming soup and crackers.

“There isn’t much in the cupboards,” he said apologetically. “Just some Campbell’s soup and a box of Saltines. Hope you like chicken ’n stars.”

“I have so many questions,” she said. “My mother. This place. The horses. What’s happened in the last two years? And what about my sister? Is she still in school? Is she okay? She was such a mess back then.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Whoa. Hold on, let me set this tray down first.” He laid the tray on the night table. “Can I help you sit up?”

She froze inside, suddenly reminded of him and his ministrations after he’d hurt her. “No. I’ve got it.” With a huge effort, she scooted up on the pillows.

“Blow on it, it’s hot,” he said. He stepped back and grimaced. “God, you’d think I could come up with something more original than that.” He sank into the chair in the corner. “Sorry. I want to answer all your questions, in order, but I have so many of my own, they’re jamming up my brain, y’ know?”

She nodded and bit into a cracker.

He leaned back and looked toward the ceiling. “You already know about your mother. She’s getting the best care in the country, and there’s hope for her yet.”

Portia felt her knotted stomach relax, just a little.

Boone continued. “Grace is okay.” He frowned when he mentioned her little sister’s name.

Portia figured it was because Grace had given her family such trouble.

Drugs. Court. Rehab. More drugs. More rehab.

Life had been tough with Grace.

But Boone had been there for her family when her sister had fallen apart, when she’d even dragged criminals into their lives. Portia had been away in college when they dealt with the worst of it, but her mother told her Boone helped her father take Grace up to the rehab clinic—three times. They’d finally gotten the rebellious girl to a point where she agreed to stay clean and study art, her favorite subject, at the University of Vermont. Portia wondered if she’d kept with it.

“Is she still in college?”

“No. When you disappeared, she went nuts.”

Portia almost stopped breathing. “I thought she hated me.”

“Don’t think so. She helped us put posters all over town. Made phone calls. Went on the radio to appeal to whoever took you. The whole enchilada.”

Portia suddenly remembered the newspaper clippings he had put up on his corkboard, showing the whole family and each of their appeals to the kidnapper. He’d collected them from all over, relishing the news coverage.

“Did she go back to drugs?”

“No. Your mother finally convinced her to return to school, even though it didn’t last.” Boone shifted on his chair. “It might be hard for you to imagine, but she’s married now. She met a professor who wanted to take care of her. Older guy. At first your folks were against him, but he sort of won them over. Happened really fast, too.”

“She’s married?” A sense of loss filled her. There had been a wedding while she was gone. White dress. Flowers. Family and friends. And she’d missed it all.

Anger built again in her gut. He’d taken that away from her. He’d taken it all away from her.

“Yep, she’s a married lady now. Still struggling, goes to therapy twice a week, and occasionally she disappears for a few days, but she comes home again. Poor old Anderson has a hell of a time keeping her in line. But she’s better than when you knew her.”

He stood and looked out the window. “Aside from dealing with your disappearance, everything’s been sort of okay. The horses are fine. But I think Mirage missed you.” He took a deep breath, and then turned to her, his clear gray eyes searching hers. “Now it’s your turn. What the hell happened to you, Portia?”

Inside, she felt her throat freeze, her heart drummed against her chest. The words would barely come. “I can’t…I can’t talk about it. Not yet. I’m sorry.”

He dropped back into the chair, stretching out his long legs and clasping his fingers over his stomach. A long, soft sigh escaped his lips. “It’s okay. You take your time.”

She tore her eyes away from his and leaned over to take a sip of soup, swallowing several mouthfuls greedily now that it was cooler, then ate four more crackers and drained the water glass.

“Is it okay? You want more?”

She looked at him with weary eyes. “No. I’m good, thanks.” She pushed the tray back. “Who just called?”

He gave her a crooked smile. “My brother. Dad’s prize cow just had her baby. Looks like it’s gonna be a nice one.”

She relaxed. Not the police. Not him. “Did you tell your brother about me?”

“Not yet. I thought you might need a bit of time before the whole village descends on you. Figured I ought to get your permission first.”

Grateful, she smiled, for the first time. “Thank you.”

As if called to duty, he suddenly stood. “I need to tell your father. What do you want me to tell him?”

“I’ll call him,” she said, pushing back the dishes. But as much as she tried to sit up straighter and before she could ask for her father’s hotel number, against her best efforts to keep her eyes open, she felt herself being drawn into sleep. Within five minutes, she’d succumbed.

Chapter 3

Boone watched her sleep for half an hour. She seemed exhausted, completely wrung out. And she’d been hungry. Starving, really.

Why?

Where had she been? And where’d she get that old wreck of a truck with Wisconsin plates that she parked behind the barn? If she escaped from a kidnapper, wouldn’t she have gone to the cops?

If not, why not?

If she did, they should’ve arranged transport home. Right? Or at least to a hospital? Why hadn’t they fed her?

And where the hell did she come across that little scruffy dog?

Maybe he was all wet. Maybe Portia had just left home for some unfathomable reason. Maybe she’d been living on the road, hand-to-mouth, never enough to eat.

He’d have to ask her again about the details, when she seemed calmer, when that scared, panicked look faded from her eyes. And maybe she’d tell it all to her folks. Why had he expected her to open up to him, anyway?

Meanwhile, he needed to call the Lamonts. He leaned over to pet Boomer and Cupcake, checking to see that they still had water in the big stainless steel bowl he’d set in the corner. Earlier, Cupcake had drunk her fill, then settled on the bed beside Portia, as if she knew she were home.

He slipped out the door, pulling it closed. Downstairs, he dialed Dirk’s number.

The phone rang once and Dirk’s no-nonsense voice answered. “Lamont here.”

“Dirk? It’s Boone.”

“Boone.” He hesitated. “I’m…I’m sorry I didn’t call last week. It’s been crazy here.”

“No problem. Listen,” Boone said. “I have something important to tell you. Are you sitting down?”

He could almost feel Dirk stiffen. “What is it? Are the horses okay?”

“It’s Portia, Dirk.” He shifted the cell to his other ear and looked up the stairs, as if she might wake up. “She’s home.”

Dirk’s phone must have clattered to the floor. Boone heard him cry out, then the sound of him scrambling to get it back to his ear.

“Boone? Oh my God. Is she okay?”

Boone tried to sound calm. “She’s alive. But she’s skin and bones and totally exhausted. She hasn’t told me much yet.” He glanced up the stairs again. “She wants to see you both. And I had to tell her why you were gone. I’m sorry.”

Dirk expelled a long breath, and he choked out the words. “I can’t believe it. She’s really home? Did she tell you what happened?”

“No. She hasn’t said much about it, like I said. Seems pretty messed up to me. You know, like whatever happened to her was bad, really bad.” He paused, waiting for Dirk, but the man didn’t say anything for a few beats. “You want me to get her on a plane down there when she’s fit to travel?”

Dirk finally answered. “No. I’m bringing Daisy home tomorrow. She’s on this new medicine, and so far, she’s holding her own.”

“Whoa. Excellent news,” Boone said. “Glad to hear it. And you three need to be together.”

“Can I speak with her?”

“She just fell asleep. Want me to wake her?”

“No, let her rest. I’m going back up to the room to tell Daisy. She’s gonna go ballistic. It’ll be all I can do to keep her in bed ’til tomorrow.”

They hung up and Boone headed for the door. There were chores to be done. His father and brother could manage the dairy farm while he helped out at Bittersweet Hollow, and the Lamont horses needed their stalls cleaned. Straightening his shoulders, he headed outside.

***

Dirk flew up the hospital stairs two at a time, his heart hammering beneath his ribs. He burst into his wife’s hospital room, bending over to catch his breath. “Daisy, I…”

Daisy sat on the edge of the bed, disconnected for the first time in months from multiple IV lines. Tomorrow’s hospital release looked like it might actually happen.

Her eyes danced with worry. “Dirk?” She stiffened, turning toward him. “Honey? What is it?”

Dirk caught his breath and went to her side, taking her hands in his. “Baby, listen. It’s gonna be a shock.”

She huffed. “Don’t torture me. Just spit it out.”

“Sorry.” He straightened and locked eyes with her. “It’s Portia. She’s home.”

There wasn’t much color in her cheeks to start with, but now she drained to pale gray. “What? Portia?”

“She’s alive, honey. And she’s home. Boone just called.”

Tears sprang to her eyes, flooding her cheeks. “Oh my God. My baby. She’s alive?” She jumped up, wobbly and weak, flinging herself onto him. “I knew she would come home!”

“I know,” he said, distantly aware that his own cheeks were soaked and his shoulders shook as they held each other.

After a few minutes, they pulled themselves together, and the questions tumbled one after the other. Dirk tried to answer her rapid-fire inquiries, but realized he knew very little. “She didn’t tell Boone much. Guess she was exhausted, fell asleep right away. But we’ll call her later, okay?”

“Call her?” Daisy snorted. “Sure we will. But we’re going home. Now.”

Pride welled within him. He knew she’d react this way. Hell, he’d felt the same, wanted to rent a car and drive right up there, cancel all previous arrangements. But he tried to stay calm. “You know our flight’s arranged for morning, right? And the hospital plans to discharge you at ten o’clock?”

“We’re leaving, I don’t care who we have to kiss to get out of here today. Change the flight. I don’t care what it costs. I want to see her. Tonight.”

Dirk straightened, knowing it would be tough to get Daisy released from the hospital, collect all the experimental meds, and arrange flights within the next few hours. But he would do it, for Portia. She needed them. And they needed her. His mind raced with thoughts of seeing his daughter again. Alive.

Alive!

He hadn’t realized how deep the fear had penetrated, how low his hopes had fallen. He kept thinking that she would certainly have contacted them if she were alive. Wouldn’t she? The idea had taken hold too deeply, entrenched in his subconscious. He realized with a start he’d almost lost all hope before this call. Almost.

“I’ll do my best,” he said, grinning and kissing her wet cheeks. “You call Grace while I work on it, okay?”

The sisters had fought like she-cats growing up, but when Portia disappeared, Grace went through hell. He thought that her sister’s reappearance and her mother’s sudden improvement with the new experimental meds just might be enough to bring her out of her depression.

With resolve, he collared Daisy’s oncologist, Dr. Kareem, in the hallway, and began to beg. Come hell or high water, he would bring Daisy home as soon as humanly possible.

Chapter 4

Portia woke on her side with Boomer pressed behind her legs and Cupcake snuggled in her arms. She made a purring sound, yawned, and stretched.

Nobody stood over the bed, leering at her. Her legs were free from bonds.

She rubbed her tender ankles absentmindedly, although the sores had started to heal two days ago, when she’d broken free, when she’d left him, unmoving on the cabin porch.

The sun had just dropped behind the Green Mountains, and she wondered what time it was. Her stomach rolled with hunger.

A distant whinny thrilled her, filling her with an urgent desire to race out to the barn, throw her arms around Mirage’s neck, and head to the hills for a ride. But the weakness running through her arms and legs was palpable; she felt shaky, exhausted. She realized it was a miracle she’d even made it home in one piece.

She needed to forget. Really forget. But it was hard to push him away, the memories bubbled beneath the surface of her consciousness, always nudging, always threatening to burst free and paralyze her.

She shook her head.

Don’t think about him.

The kitchen door downstairs opened and closed. Water ran in the sink and she heard the clinking of a teakettle being filled and set on the stove.

Portia sat up in bed, her head swimming.

How had she even made it here? Sheer willpower? Probably the two cups of coffee and burger she’d had before she headed for the road.

She felt debilitated, damaged. Needy.

I want my parents.

My parents. 

My mom. 

My mother has cancer. 

A wave of fear and worry burbled into her throat, and a raw sob escaped her just as Boone stuck his head in the doorway.

She tried to bite back the cry, but it didn’t work, spewing forth in a harsh wave.

Boone hurried to her side, but he didn’t speak. Instead, he sat on the chair he pulled up to the bed, one hand on the bedspread beside her—near—but not touching her hand.

“I’m…I’m sorry,” she said, wailing. “It just hit me. My mom…has cancer?” Guilt slid through her. She should have escaped sooner. She should have—

“Portia, listen. She’s coming home tonight. They’re on a plane. Your dad called an hour ago. They’re coming home.”

He reached out to pat her hand, but she shrank back from him.

He tried again, his voice even gentler now. “Your folks are coming home, Peaches. Home. And your mom’s doing better. The new meds are helping.”

Peaches? Why is this stranger using my childhood nickname?

She sat and rocked, heart pounding, trying to figure it out.

Stop it! 

It’s just Boone, all grown up. No need to be scared.

But she couldn’t push the raw fear from her chest, or open her arms for the hug she needed so desperately. She shifted back against the pillows and tried to force a smile, stuttering her words. “She’s…she’s coming home?”

“They’re on their way now.” With a sigh of relief, the big man hoisted himself to his feet and grinned, standing over her. “Well, then. Things are looking up, right?”

Inside, she trembled. His shadow fell over her, and this presence, this monstrous big form near her made her want to scream.

She could scream now.

Yes.

Her mouth was free.

She let it out.

***

Boone watched the girl shy away from him, like a skittish filly, unused to human hands stroking her fur. Her eyes had grown wide, as if he’d pointed his rifle at her and threatened to shoot. But he’d just delivered good news. Great news. Daisy’s getting better, and—

When she opened her mouth and let out the scream, his jaw dropped.

“Portia. It’s okay. It’s just me, Boone.”

The sound pierced his soul, sounding almost feral, like a coyote in pain. But this poor young woman who lay before him was quite human.

She pulled back again and buried her head under the covers, sobbing uncontrollably.

“Listen, Peaches.” He stepped back. “I’m not going to hurt you. Please. Don’t be afraid. It’s just me. Your riding buddy. Remember?”

The weeping slowed a bit.

“Remember when we used to ride up to the gully? When Monty threw you and I had to bind your ankle with my shirt? Remember that?”

She slowed. Sniffled. And peeked out of the covers. “Boone?” The name came out in a child’s voice. Uncertain. Shy. Soft.

“Yes, hon. It’s me. Now don’t you worry. We’re gonna take good care of you. Doc’s on the way. He just had to close his clinic and finish up. Should be here soon to take a look at you. That okay with you?”

Fear stamped her face, but she seemed to pull together and gave a quick nod, answering in a small voice. “I guess so.”

 

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