He’d balked when his boss, Adam Cavanaugh, tasked him to collect Aubrey from the airport. He hadn’t been alone with her—a conscious decision on both sides—since she left the Hill Country ranch at eighteen. In her brief visits home since, she had been eager to get back to the city, which made him wonder why she was coming out two weeks ahead of Christmas.
And how he was going to keep his distance from the boss’s daughter, his first love.
In his rearview mirror, he saw the security cops confer, then start toward his truck. Just then, Aubrey Cavanaugh pushed through the glass door, wearing shades and a leather jacket, looking like ten miles of bad road.
She tossed her bag into the bed of the truck, yanked open the door and heaved herself in. Even across the cab, the alcohol fumes burned his eyes. Well, he guessed he knew what had delayed her.
“My folks still on their California RV trip?” she asked, her words carefully enunciated, not slurred.
“They turned around when they heard you were coming home, but they won’t be back for a few days. They were all the way up by Eureka.” He let his voice trail off, hoping she’d pick up on it and tell him why she was home so long. The drinking led him to his own conclusions—a break-up, maybe? His brain immediately formed an image of another man making her cry, making her hurt, and a swell of protectiveness rose in him. Funny thing was, Aubrey had never been one who needed to be protected. But something in her had changed, made her vulnerable, and that tugged at him.
She buckled herself in, then slumped against the door. “Aren’t you the foreman now? How did you get roped into coming to get me?”
“I needed to pick up some supplies.” He gestured to the truck bed, loaded with feed and a few spools of barbed wire, a task that had taken too long when his mind had been wrapped up with thoughts of her.
“Great. Now I’m just another sack of feed.” She turned to look out the windshield, arms wrapped tightly around herself.
“I’d say more like the barbed wire,” he countered, and she whipped her head around to look at him, her expression unreadable behind the shades.
“How’s Houston? How’s the cop life?” he asked as he pulled out of the airport and onto the frontage road.
He never expected she’d become a cop—she’d been pretty spoiled growing up as an only child, a daughter of a prominent rancher—but he’d thought on her previous visits that it had suited her. She’d always had a sharp mind, and now she was a detective on the Houston PD. He forgot which division. Vice, he thought.
The furrow between her brow deepened. “Just peachy.”
She was usually a lot more chatty, but to be honest, he’d never seen her drunk. Drunk on him, maybe, drunk on lust, back when she’d lived at the ranch and he’d been a diversion, the cowboy who’d popped her cherry and so much more. Maybe she was thinking about that, which was ridiculous because it had been a dozen years since she moved to the big city, and on the rare occasions she’d come home to visit, she’d pretended that nothing had been between them.
Still, he couldn’t look at her without seeing her naked, though damn, now she was too thin.
“Did you get anything to eat? Want to stop somewhere?”
“I thought maybe we could stop at Barney’s on the way.”
He frowned. Barney’s bar might have chips, but not food. He’d seen his favorite chain restaurant on the way into town. “Why don’t we stop there?” He pointed to a billboard advertising it.
She shrugged, and he signaled to exit the highway.
Once they were seated in a booth near the bar, beneath a flat-screen TV playing a sports channel, she ordered a margarita first thing, didn’t speak much until she got it, then drained it and ordered another one. This one she drank slower, but she didn’t seem interested in conversation, just traced the patterns in the tiles on the table.
Erich was no conversational wizard himself, but he didn’t care to eat with a sulky companion. “Going to help out with the Cascade Christmas Festival this year? I know your mom was hoping you would.”
Aubrey made a face. “I’m not feeling much like socializing.”
He chuckled. “Then you came at the wrong time of year.” The town of Cascade loved nothing better than a party, and took every advantage to do so. Christmas was their very favorite time to celebrate.
She said nothing.
“What’s going on, Aubrey? Why’d you come home for Christmas two full weeks early?”
She took a long drink and finally met his gaze—just as the waitress arrived with their food. She picked at her meal—no wonder she was so thin—but he couldn’t help devouring his. She didn’t answer his question, which meant she had a reason, but wasn’t going to share, and he didn’t bring it up again.
“Want me to box that up for you?” the waitress asked Aubrey, who shook her head and opened her mouth to order another drink.
“Can we get a couple coffees to go?” Erich interjected.
The waitress nodded and headed off.
Moments later they were in the truck, Aubrey as far away from him as possible.
“You didn’t answer my question,” he reminded her once they were on the road to the ranch. But when he looked over, she was asleep.
* * *
Aubrey walked into her parents’ empty mission style house in a fog. Fog was good—it blurred everything: pain, fear, helplessness, guilt. And it buffered her against the jostle of emotions at being home. She hadn’t had a bad childhood, but as the only child, there’d been expectations she didn’t want to live up to. Being back here brought back that smothering feeling along with other, happier memories. The fog kept the edges blurred.
Just as well her parents were gone—Aubrey wasn’t up to facing them just yet, having to rehash everything, because they’d want to know. They should know, since she’d come running home with her tail between her legs seeking—well, she didn’t know what she was seeking, actually. Peace wasn’t something she often felt in Cascade, despite the quiet, the open land, the distance from neighbors. Distance?
Right now she’d settle for oblivion. She went into the sun room where the dry bar was, snagged a couple of bottles from the cabinet and headed up to her old room. With any luck, she’d pass out, and when she woke up, she’d have some defenses back in place.
Sad she felt she needed them when she came home, but her parents hadn’t been in favor of her decision to become a cop, had been even less supportive when she moved to Houston. She didn’t know what they wanted—okay, she did. They wanted her to live out here in the middle of nowhere, be a rancher’s wife. Well, she’d already been a rancher’s daughter and discovered small town life wasn’t for her. Her mother had adjusted, falling in love with Adam when she was a successful lawyer in San Antonio, and was now a pillar of Cascade society, but that wasn’t the life for Aubrey. She liked having restaurants within ten minutes instead of half an hour away or more. She liked the bustle, the noise.
And she’d loved her job until a few days ago.
She battled back the images that assaulted her, the smell of blood and trash and death. As she walked into the bedroom that hadn’t changed since she left home twelve years ago, still decorated in what her mother called “shabby chic” and she called “nothing like her,” she wondered if she would ever love her job again.
* * *
Knowing Aubrey was home and not seeing her was odd. Sure, she’d been home on break in the past, but those had mostly been whirlwind trips. Usually she was out and about, hanging with her parents, but so far she’d been rattling around in that old house all by herself. The few times Erich did see her wander out on the patio, she had a tumbler in her hand. He needed to get her out of there, though he wasn’t sure just what being together would change. He knew what he’d want to change, but Aubrey had always gone her own way.
Finally he had a break in mending fences on Thursday morning. He saddled two horses, his roan and Mrs. Cavanaugh’s bay mare, the daughter of the mare Aubrey used to ride, and headed for the house. He looped the reins over the post in front, the post Mrs. Cavanaugh wanted removed but Mr. Cavanaugh insisted on keeping, since they were a working ranch. Erich strode to the door and banged the wrought-iron knocker against the oak door. Silence on the other side, so he banged again. And again.
Finally the door swung open and Aubrey glared at him. He realized it was the first time he’d seen her eyes since she’d arrived. What he saw there made him take a step back, almost wish he hadn’t taken the initiative to come for her. They were shadowed, reddened and haunted.
“You need some fresh air,” he said. “Let’s go for a ride.” He gestured at the waiting horses.
“The last thing I need is to go for a ride,” she muttered, hunkering in the shadow of the house, her hand on the door.
Quickly he moved forward, blocking her intent. Her eyes widened as she looked up at him. Too late he realized he might have frightened her, but no, Aubrey wasn’t afraid of anything.
“You need to quit feeling sorry for yourself and come for a ride. I’ll give you a couple of minutes to change.” She was wearing city shoes, not good for horseback riding. “And dress warm.”
He’d never had to talk her into going for a ride before. She’d always been eager—because the rides had meant getting away from the house, finding privacy and getting naked. He shifted as his body reacted to the memory of laying her down on a blanket, filling her, letting her flip him onto his back and ride him.
She folded her arms stubbornly beneath her breasts. “That’s not who I am anymore.”
“I’m not taking you out to get laid,” he growled.
He couldn’t decipher the look on her face, but it kind of looked like he’d punched her in the stomach. He blew out a sigh. “Aubrey, just get changed. You need to get out of the house.” And away from the liquor he could smell on her breath. Damn, it was early for that. The pain she was trying to mask had to be pretty bad. Not a man, he was pretty sure. The Aubrey he knew wouldn’t let herself get that worked up over a man.
Finally she turned and headed toward her room. He followed, not sure if she was trying to ditch him. She stopped and faced him with her hand on the bedroom door.
“I’m going to change, all right?”
“You have five minutes before I come in there.”
Her nostrils flared and she slammed the door in his face. But less than five minutes later, she was standing in front of him in a sweater that hugged her curves, cowboy boots that went up to her knees, and a look on her face that told him he didn’t know what he was asking for, a look he’d seen many times before. He swallowed and took a step back, his blood running hot.
“You might want a jacket, too,” he managed, and turned around to lead the way out of the house, away from the bed behind her.
A few moments later they were out of sight of the house, loping over the field, stirring up dust behind them, taking the same route they’d taken time and again, always ending under the big oak on the hill, always ending with multiple orgasms. What was he doing, bringing her the same way? Tempting fate, was what.
“The place hasn’t changed much,” she said when they slowed to walk the horses up the path.
He looked over the winter-deadened grass, the scrub brush still a deep green against the gold of the thirsty grass, the occasional bunches of cactus. This was the land he worked, never an easy job, sometimes disappointing, but he always loved it. Always wanted to be a cowboy. “We had some trouble during the drought, had some fires, had to sell off quite a few head at a loss. But your dad always had good business sense and we pulled through. Could use some rain right about now.” He took a deep breath. “So what’s going on, Aubrey?”
She stiffened in the saddle, toyed with the reins. “Don’t know what you mean.”
“You’ve been home a few days, don’t leave the house, don’t do much besides drink. Something’s going on. You break up with someone or something? Because I can go kick his ass.” He already knew that wasn’t the issue—she would never give another person that much power over her life, her happiness.
She offered a wan smile. “No, nothing like that.”
Relief warmed his chest. “Well, what then?” He’d lost patience with her evasions. “It’s not like you to be here so long before Christmas, for one thing, for you to be cooped up in the house. You always say you come here to get outside. So what’s different?”
She heaved a breath, sagged a little. “I guess you don’t get Houston news out here?”
“You know we get San Antonio news.” What was she talking about?
“Let’s wait until we get to our spot.”
Curiosity piqued, he nudged his horse forward and she fell in behind him.
Once they reached the hill where they used to rendezvous, he dismounted and tethered his horse. She did the same, her movements stiff and out-of-practice. He kicked a couple of rocks and branches out of the way, tugged a blanket out of his pack and spread it on the ground. Again his groin tightened, remembering happier times. He sat, but she stood at the edge of the blanket, arms wrapped tight around herself.
“You didn’t happen to bring any wine to go with that blanket?” she asked, the corner of her mouth lifted.
Still he had an idea that she was mostly serious. “Nope.”
She walked toward the tree and leaned her shoulder against it. “Remember when we used to steal wine coolers and bring them up here?”
He did. For years he’d associated the taste of her with the taste of those fruity drinks. But he refused to be distracted. He kept his posture relaxed, though he didn’t feel relaxed, with her standing over him, tense.
“What happened in Houston, Aubrey?”
She picked up a blade of dried grass and twirled it between her fingers. “I had this case. Drug bust. Only the bad guys knew they were coming and recruited some kids to haul out some of their supplies, including guns, while we were approaching. One of the kids thought he was a bad-ass and raised his gun at my partner. I shouted a warning, but he didn’t lower his weapon. I could see his hand shaking, right, his finger on the trigger.” Her hands clenched into white-knuckled fists, her eyes grew unfocused. “I couldn’t risk my partner, so I shot the kid in the leg, but he was so skinny. The bullet shattered his leg and severed his femoral artery. He bled out before the ambulance got there. He was fourteen.”
“Jesus, Aubrey.” What could he say to that? Horror clogged his throat, horror that a kid would be in a situation like that, horror at the decision Aubrey’d had to make, that she had to live with.
No wonder she was drinking.
He reached over to take her hand but she shifted out of reach, locked inside herself.
“It was the first time I’d fired my gun in the line of duty, and I killed a kid.” She threw the blade of grass away and shoved herself away from the tree. “It was justified—I was cleared of any charges, but he died in my arms. I see that every time I close my eyes. I replay the scene every time I try to go to sleep.” She stood over him and nudged his pack with the toe of her boot. “Sure you don’t have something to drink in there?”
He dragged it closer and pulled out a bottle of water and handed it to her, deliberately misunderstanding. She gave him a rueful look, but took the bottle anyway. She folded her legs to sit beside him, closer than she’d been before, and drank. So maybe not locked inside herself. Maybe looking for a way out.
“So you’re here because?” Had she been suspended because of her drinking?
“The captain wanted me to get my head together, and away from the media, who as you can imagine had a field day with a cop shooting a teenager. I had vacation time, but not a lot of vacation cash, so I came home.” She stared out over the distance. “I could be on a cruise ship somewhere getting sloshed.”
“And falling overboard.”
She dragged a hand through her hair. “Or jumping.”
“Aubrey.” Her tone made his gut tighten. Surely her thoughts hadn’t really headed in that direction. “Are you talking to anyone?”
“Sure, the department makes sure I talk to a therapist. Since I’m out here we’re doing it through a video chat.”
Was that enough? “What about someone you know, are friends with? Your fellow officers?”
“Sure, but people I’m particularly close to don’t know what it’s like.”
He sure as hell didn’t, could hardly imagine the helplessness, the uncertainty. But Deke...Deke would get it. “I may know someone.”
She turned sharp eyes to him. “You? How?”
“I have a friend who was in Afghanistan. I’ll see if he’s willing to talk to you, if you want.”
“Does he have whiskey?” she teased, though an edge sharpened her voice.
He didn’t answer, refused to, just watched as she sat back, her hands braced behind her, and closed her eyes, lifting her face to the breeze. She almost looked peaceful, and he imagined that was rough for her, after what she’d just told him. Damn it, this protectiveness he felt for her was going to kick him in the balls, but he couldn’t help himself. He reached out and stroked her hair, just as soft as he remembered. He thought she’d pull away, but instead she turned her face into his hand and rested her cheek against his palm.
Against his better judgement, he leaned over and brushed his lips against hers, just to see if she tasted like he remembered.
She opened her mouth on a moan and turned into his arms, digging her fingers into the back of his scalp like she was drowning and wanted him to save her. Jesus, he wanted to save her, especially when he tasted the whiskey-flavored desperation on her lips.
He should have pulled away. He sure as hell shouldn’t have let her climb on his lap, press her body against his as her mouth devoured his. She reached between them to unbutton his shirt, dragged her fingers over his bare skin. Everything in him wanted to tumble her back on the blanket, wanted to kiss his way down her body.
Instead, he captured her hands and eased back, breaking the kiss.
“Please,” she whispered, and broke his heart with the haunted look in her eyes.
“Not when you’re hurting.”
“I won’t be, not if you make love with me.”
He took a breath, considered. “When you’re sober.”
She gave a harsh laugh and pushed herself off his lap. “That was never a problem before.”
“We were involved before.”
She made a sound he couldn’t decipher. “We were involved with getting each other naked.”
Had it been like that for her? He had been in love with her, with her sass and her dreams and her daring. He’d missed her like hell when she left, and it had been more than sex. He’d missed the rides and the conversation and the laughter.
He didn’t want to make love with her until he could hear her laugh again.
She was pissed now, though, as she rose to her feet in a fluid movement and turned toward the horses. “I need to get back. Dad has a bottle of Scotch calling my name.”
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