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Authors: Desiree Holt

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BOOK: Hard Lovin'
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“Never thought.” He rubbed his face. “What exactly did you think? That you could tag along with me and no one would be the wiser? Was this just some little-rich-girl rebellion and I was the handiest fall guy? A little trip to the lower classes for you?”

“No.” She blinked back the tears burning her eyes. “It wasn’t like that at all.”

He smacked the newspaper. “It says here you’re engaged to some rich lawyer.

What happened? Did you have a fight? Decide to show him who’s boss by walking out on the wedding? Make him beg you to come back? And I was the prize sap who just happened to be convenient?”

She was crying in earnest now, tears rolling unheeded down her face. “I know I should have explained before, but I was just so afraid…I…”

“Afraid? Of what? What does someone like you have to be afraid of?” Suddenly a different expression washed over his face and his eyes darkened. “Wait a minute. Erin, does this have anything to do with those scars? Did this guy hurt you? If you’d just told me from the beginning…”

“If you’ll just listen for a minute I’ll tell you the whole story. Every bit of it. Please.”

He tossed the newspaper aside but his posture wasn’t quite as rigid and the expression on his face had softened. “Fine. Talk. All of it. Don’t leave out one tiny detail.”

“Some of it you’ll think is really stupid and superficial. And some of it I’m— ashamed of.”

“I don’t care. I want it all.”

She managed to get through her father’s over-protectiveness after her mother died.

His efforts to control her life so nothing would ever happen to her. The raging fights they’d had every time he came to Houston to try to drag her back to the ranch.

And then she got to the part about Cal. She couldn’t look at him while she talked about the most humiliating part of her life.

“He was strong and wealthy and I saw him as someone who wouldn’t cave in when my father tossed out threats. I didn’t take the time to find out exactly what kind of man he was, so I guess I deserved whatever happened.”

In a halting voice she told him about Cal’s drinking. His rages. His need for control that far exceeded Rance Braddock’s. His continued efforts to demean her. And the physical abuse.

“That was the worst.” She stared at her hands. “His favorite thing was to tie me to the bed and rape me anally. Listen to me scream. Remind me who was in charge and what he’d do to me if I ever tried to leave him.”

“Jesus, Erin.” Grady sounded shaken. “That’s when you should have called your father.”

“I couldn’t.” She closed her eyes. “I was too ashamed.”

After a long moment he asked, “So what finally happened? Obviously you’re not with him anymore.”

She forced her eyes open. “We…got in an argument on the way home from a party one night. He stopped the car on the highway, pulled me from my seat and threw me out of the car. That’s how I got the scars. He pushed me so hard I couldn’t get up. Then he drove off. Just…drove away. I was lucky that someone stopped and called 9-1-1. I ended up in the hospital, they found my father’s number in my purse and that was that.”

“God, Erin. I can’t imagine. How long ago was that?”

“Eight or nine months. I’ve been seeing a counselor all this time and getting a lot better.” She still couldn’t look at him. “Really.”

“And this guy Elliott?” Now there was an edge of anger to his tone. “Did you just have him waiting in the wings as a backup?”

Erin sighed. None of this was easy nor had she expected it to be. “His father and mine have been friends for years. I guess I knew he loved me—although maybe not in love with me. And I was so destroyed by everything that had taken place that I just let myself be swept along with what the tide of events. He was happy, my father was happy, so I figured I should be happy.” She swiped at her wet cheeks. “I mean, here was this whole wedding-of-the-century thing going on and my father and T.J. tiptoeing around me as if I’d shatter any minute. No one saw I was getting stronger every day.”

Another pause. “So you finally decided to kick over the traces and there I was.”

“No, please. That’s not it at all.” She started to rise from the chair, go to him, but he held up his hand.

“Just…keep sitting there. Please.”

“When my friends dragged me to Smoky’s that first night,” she said, “I had already realized I couldn’t go through with everything, even though the wedding was all set.

Only I didn’t know what to do. How to call it off.” She let out a stuttering breath. “I know you won’t believe me but the first time I saw you I felt something. I couldn’t figure out how to handle it. And I wasn’t sure I could even trust my feelings after the mess I’d made of my life.”

“What happened to change things?” he demanded. “Why did you come back by yourself? Go home with me that night?”

She sniffed. “Every time I came back with my friends the feelings got stronger and stronger. And there was something about your music, about the sound and the words that struck right into my heart. You’re unlike any man I’ve ever known. Ever been with.

The only one I’ve ever really believed I could trust.” She paused. “Could love.”

“Just like that?”

“Just like that.” I know it sounds crazy but that’s what happened. I had no idea what to do or how to approach you. I figured no matter what I said you’d think I was crazy.”

He made a strange sound. “No kidding.”

“So. That Saturday night. The house was jammed with people, the backyard was full of catering staff getting ready for my big day, my father was everywhere telling people how great this marriage would be for me.” She spread out her hands. “I couldn’t breathe, so I just ran. Straight to Smoky’s. And you. When you came to sit at my table I took that as a sign. And then…” She looked at him helplessly, sick to death at how it was all falling apart.

“Yes. And then.”

“Grady, I am so very sorry for putting you in this position, but I don’t regret asking you to take me with you. Or being with you.” Tears dripping from her eyes again, she finally looked at him. “I never believed it was possible to fall in love so quickly. You don’t have any reason to trust what I’m saying but it’s the truth. What I have with you is better than anything I ever thought I’d have in my life. I don’t want to lose it. Please, please, please.”

When he didn’t say a word or make a move a cold ball of ice dropped into her stomach and arrows of pain shot through her heart. She pushed herself out of the chair and stood up, pulling the frayed edges of her dignity around her. “It’s okay. I understand. I’ll get hold of my father and tell him to call off the dogs. I deliberately left my cell phone in the truck so I’ll have to call from here, if it’s okay.”

Then Grady’s face softened, he opened his arms and she ran into them, the ice melting. His arms closed around her and she felt as if she was home.

“Oh, Grady.” She pressed her wet face against his chest. “Please tell me you forgive me. I never meant to hurt you. There was no way I could go back. I couldn’t. And I lost my heart to you the minute I saw you. I was afraid if I told you the truth you’d send me home and honestly? That wasn’t an option for me.”

“Shh.” He stroked her hair. “You put me—us—in a terrible situation, but I can really understand why.”

“You can?” she sniffed, looking up at hm.

“I’d like to kill Cal Stadler, slowly and painfully, for what he did to you. If I ever see him I might. It destroys me that you had to go through something like that. Erin, I’m humbled that after all that you’d trust me enough to respond to me.”

“There was something between us right from the start, Grady. A feeling. I knew you’d never hurt me.” She gave him a weak laugh. “I swear your music seduced me.”

He sighed. “And I think I fell in love with you the first night you came into the bar.

The first time we made love I felt that connection, but the past five years have been such a bitch for me. I was afraid to trust that something this good could happen to me.” He kissed the top of her head.

“Before we let the world in, will you tell me what pain has driven you so hard? You said you would, and I can see it in your eyes all the time.”

His body tensed again and he cradled her head against him so she couldn’t see his face. “I killed my parents.”

Erin stiffened, shock stunning her life a zap of electricity, and pushed back enough to look at his face. “What? I don’t believe that. You’re no killer. I’d have known that for sure. What are you talking about?”

“I don’t mean I shot them or anything.” Tension rippled through him. “We were all on our way to a cattlemen’s convention, my mother and dad and my brother. And me. I was piloting the plane.”

“And?” she prompted when he paused.

“And we hit some bad weather, the plane crashed and they were killed.”

Erin wanted to crawl inside his body and take his agony away. “Grady, it was an accident. Pure and simple. Did your brother blame you?”

“No. He said the same thing you did. But I kept thinking I should have found a way to save them.”

“In a plane crash? You were lucky any of you survived.” A thought smacked her in the brain. “So you left home. Right? You’ve been running away from it for five years.”

“You got it.”

“What about your brother? Don’t you miss him at all? Don’t you think he misses you?”

“I call him once a year.”

“On the anniversary,” she guessed.

“Uh-huh.”

“Did it ever occur to you he must have survivor’s guilt, too? That he could have used you being around to help him work through it? That you might have done it together?”

He shook his head. “I guess not.” He put two fingers beneath her chin and tilted up her face. “I guess we both made some pretty stupid choices.”

“All except being together,” she said. “That’s no mistake.” She pushed her hair away from her face. “I guess I’d better call the ranch. And you should call your brother.”

“You’re right, but first there’s something else I need to tell you. Then we’ll put a plan together.”

“Oh, god, what else?” She didn’t know how many more true confessions they could handle.

“I’m sure Rance Braddock will think I’m after your money, but Erin? I’m rich.”

She stared at him. “What? Rich? I don’t understand.”

He shifted her so he could cradle her face in his palms. “We have a family ranch in Wyoming that’s close to the size of Braddock Ranch. And a few other enterprises, too.”

“What?” she repeated.

“Don’t be mad, okay?” He chuckled. “But I don’t have to take any of the family money. If you’re running away from the lifestyle as much as anything else. And here’s another thing. I don’t use money as clout.”

“W-Will you want to go home and run things with your brother?”

He shrugged. “Maybe. Would you be okay with that?”

“Will he be okay with me?”

“Are you kidding? He’ll probably throw a party to celebrate that I’ve decided to rejoin the living.”

“Then it’s all good. I don’t care where I am as long as I’m with you. I just hope whatever plan you have works.”

* * * * *

The homecoming had been much easier than Grady had any right to expect. Aaron had nearly broken down in tears during the phone call, and Grady himself was overcome with emotion as he explained the last three years of his life.

“But why didn’t you just come home?” Aaron kept asking. “I still don’t understand.”

“You know why.” Grady’s fingers tightened on his cell phone.

“Grady, it wasn’t your fault. If you’d given me a chance I could have told you.”

Grady frowned. “What do you mean? Of course it was my fault. I was the pilot.”

“It was a problem with the plane,” Aaron told him, so much pain in his voice.

“Something routine maintenance wouldn’t have found.”

“I was the pilot,” Grady insisted.

“Maybe, but you’re not the controller of the universe. Do you think Mom and Dad would have wanted this for you?”

Silence hummed across the connection for a long moment.

“So are you coming home now?” Aaron asked. “For good? I need you here, Grady.”

Grady managed a chuckle. “Yeah, I think it’s time. And let me tell you why.”

* * * *

Erin watched the brothers hug each other silently, the emotion roiling between them almost palpable. Finally they broke apart and Grady drew Erin forward.

“Here she is, bro,” he said. “The woman of my heart.” He grinned. “I knew it the minute she walked into the bar where I was playing.”

Aaron’s smile was almost an imitation of his brother’s. “Thanks for helping bring him back to me, Erin. I’ll owe you for that forever.” He looked at Grady. “So are you here to stay? For good?”

Grady nodded. “Yeah. The love of my life has convinced me we need to run this place together, as long as I still have time for my music.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Grady put his arm around Erin. “She’s a rancher’s daughter so she’ll make a hell of a rancher’s wife.”

“We’re gonna have a party,” Aaron insisted. “Everyone will want to welcome you home. And meet Erin.”

Grady frowned. “I’m not sure—”

“I am,” he brother interrupted. “This calls for the biggest celebration we’ve ever had.” His face took on a sober expression. “Let me do this, bro.”

“Say yes, Grady,” Erin told him. “It will kind of make everything official.”

Grady laughed. “How can I say no to that? So let’s get busy.”

* * * * *

“I have no idea why we’re doing this,” Rance grumbled. He shifted to look at Brad Hollis, sitting in the back seat of the SUV in which they were being driven. “Why the fuck didn’t you just have him arrested? Some itinerant musician gets my daughter to run off with him and we let him call the shots?”

He’d been gripped by a volatile mixture of relief and outrage when Brad told him Erin had called and she was fine, but didn’t want to talk to him. Not yet. He demanded to know where she was and if they’d arrested the money-grubbing piece of trash who had stolen her away. It had taken hours for the sheriff to calm him down and convince him to do exactly what Erin had asked.

“Take a pill, Rance,” Hollis offered. “Remember your blood pressure.”

BOOK: Hard Lovin'
4.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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