Hidden Trails – Book 4 – Sneak Peek

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Hidden Trails

Prologue

Drake

Uncle Will plopped into the plush micro-suede easy chair across from Drake’s office desk. He sighed, lifting the worn sole of his black tennis shoe and resting it across his knee. “I’ll never get used to the comfort in here. It’s so much better than even at home.” He glanced around the amply furnished office and then at Drake. “It’s pretty lonely though. I brought you some mail.”

Drake glanced up from a financial marketing plan he’d been perusing and studied his uncle. “Mail? You haven’t gotten my mail in a couple years.” He’d moved out of his uncle’s home a long time ago, well not like a decade or anything, but long enough he couldn’t think of anyone who wouldn’t have his address.

Except the people claiming to be his parents.

He set his bone pen on the desk and folded his hands. “Is it from them?” He didn’t need to name any names. Uncle Will knew Drake wasn’t interested in the Bensons. There weren’t many people Drake couldn’t stand, but his parents ranked at the top of the short list.

His palms itched as his breath quickened. Why couldn’t they just leave well enough alone? Why did they have to wait until he’d settled so comfortably into his life? Why couldn’t they just stay out of it? They were absent so long, he’d grown adapted to the sensation of abandonment, to where it didn’t hurt or bother him as much. Then they’d contact him and stir the whole messy pot of emotions.

Uncle Will extended a creamy peach envelope clutched in his fingers. “It is from your family. But remember when you mentioned at dinner a few nights ago that you wouldn’t mind if they disappeared from this earth?” He arched his eyebrows, concern marring his otherwise stoic expression. “Son, you need to be careful what you wish for.”

He didn’t wish for anything. Not anymore. Not when he could buy whatever he wanted. Drake had given up longing for anything – except one thing. One person. But she was so far out of reach. He would have to deal with the family issue before he’d ever be able to wish for her.

“Did you read it? If you read it, just tell me what it says so I don’t have to deal with my mother’s insipid whining.” Drake ignored the envelope his uncle placed carefully in front of him.

Carefully shaking his head and frowning, Uncle Will said reproachfully. “Drake, I don’t read other people’s mail. I just know something’s off. The letter is thick and it’s addressed to you – not in your mother’s handwriting.” He leaned forward, tapping the top of the padded rectangle with a firm finger. “And I don’t mind saying, it has the scent of apricots about it.”

“Apricots?” Curiosity piqued, Drake stole a glance at the envelope. Thick. Good news never came with thick mail. So many people had turned to email, getting snail mail was uncommon anymore.

Drake picked up the missive and turned it over. The slanty writing had more of a quiver to it than he remembered, but he’d recognize Emma’s letter B anywhere.

He hadn’t heard from his older sister in forever. To be fair, he hadn’t encouraged communication with her after the first year. Talking with her was too painful, too drawn out.

When she’d stopped asking when he was returning, he’d stopped wondering when he would see her again.

With an ivory handled letter opener he’d gotten from his uncle at graduation, Drake slit open the top crease of the envelope. About five pictures fell onto the desk and then he pulled out a tightly folded collection of paper, maybe four or five.

“Do you mind, if I read this to myself first?” Drake didn’t want to read anything out loud and be surprised. Who knew what bomb his sister had hidden in there? She wasn’t known for subtlety.

Of course, he would share it with Uncle Will. Their relationship didn’t have many secrets. Drake just didn’t want to read it before he’d had a chance to assimilate the information.

Thankfully, his uncle loved Drake almost more than his own children. He nodded and pulled out a novel he’d rolled up and tucked into his back pocket. “Take your time, I’ve been dying to see what Ole’ L’Amour is going to do to this hero.”

 

Drake,

It’s back.

I’m not getting treatment.

I love you.

Emma

 

Like a horrible haiku, her simple words smacked of energy depletion and effort. How hard had it been for her to talk of “it” like an old friend?

She didn’t have to name it.

It had ruled the majority of the lives for so long, it had almost become part of the family. Resentment jammed through him. Of course, the corrupt cancer and its stinging grasp would reach him in Wyoming.

Drake flipped through the pages she’d included of medical reports and tests and even photocopies of scans. Anger twisted his mouth. Why couldn’t he escape the bitterness of her diagnoses from so far away? Why did the pain of her declaration of no treatment hurt so much? Because having her alive and accessible meant he’d have the chance to see her again. When he was ready.

Not when the cancer was ready.

Once again, Emma’s disease ruled his life. Once again, the cancer claimed his freedom and stole away his choices. Shortening the time he had to adapt to the idea.

And Emma wasn’t innocent. By choosing not to have treatment, she was choosing to speed things along. Choosing to give in.

Like hell. He’d go back and shake some sense into her. Drake would go back and do what needed to be done. Judging by her reports, things were progressing a lot faster than they did when they were younger. He glanced up at his uncle and stood. “Looks like I’m going home.”

Chapter 1

2006

Stefanie

Stefanie traced the whorls and lines of the wood grain in her father’s desk with the tip of her finger. Over the span of her life the character of the wood had softened, faded with wear. She adjusted her cheek on the side of her bicep as she lay across her arm on the desk.

If she closed her eyes and breathed in slow, she could just smell her dad’s favorite soap with a hint of pine. He used to push his palm to the wood and then slap out of a rhythm only he could hear. She’d loved that.

How many years had she sat there with Dad before he’d died? Even more since he’d gone? She tried so hard to stay on top of the books but money had to come in in order for it to go out.

Instead, all it did was trickle in and gush out. And there was nothing she could do to control it.

She didn’t own Bella Acres.

Her brother did.

She didn’t have financial control over its upkeep and bills.

Her brother did.

Nate’s most pressing concern – even over the welfare of their home – was his wife’s declining health.

Stefanie got it. She did. But if they weren’t more careful, Emma would die in the backwoods of Clearwater County while the rest of them begged for food on the dirt roads in the small town of Taylor Falls.

She sighed, unwilling to move. Maybe they could rent out the back quarter – no that wouldn’t work because access would have to go through the rest of the property which would require more fencing.

More fencing meant more money they didn’t have. Sliding up from the desk, she plopped her elbow onto the edge of the desk and rested her chin in her hand, twirling the click pen she couldn’t get to work right. The stupid thing would write for a little bit and then fade, then write a bit more, then fade.

They didn’t even have enough money to buy properly working pens.

A soft knock on the door announced her brother, Nate. He strolled in, his smile questioning as he perused the office, probably checking for something else to sale. “I’m surprised you’re in here and not packing.”

Stefanie scoffed, leaning back in the seat and pushing herself side to side. “Why would I be packing? We’re not supposed to go on the market for another four months. That’s taking preparedness a little too far, even for you, Nate.” She maintained a joking tone, but inside bitterness at her brother’s cavalier attitude over the impending sale of their home ate at her like acid on leather.

Nate claimed the seat across from her. Crossing his ankle to rest on his knee, he picked at a string on his boot and avoided Stefanie’s gaze. He cleared his throat. “Emma’s getting worse – fast. I’m opting for voluntary auction, but the bank will only do one every quarter. That puts the next one in four weeks. Not four months.” He looked up, piercing Stefanie with his eyes. “I need the money sooner rather than later, Stef. You know I wouldn’t be doing this, if it wasn’t… about her.”

Stefanie got it. She hadn’t lived with Emma all those years and not grown to love her. Understanding didn’t stop her gut from feeling like he’d just punched her.

Her home. She only had four weeks. She swallowed the tears climbing up her throat. “I don’t want to lose Emma either, Nate. I just don’t want to lose our home. This is all we have left of Mom and Dad.” She sniffed. He couldn’t see her cry. He couldn’t know how much it hurt. Stefanie couldn’t deal with looking weak and vulnerable.

Nate’s eyes hardened at the mention of their parents. “They should’ve thought of that. They didn’t leave us money or insurance or anything to help us keep the land. I’m sorry, but I can’t hold on to the memory of dead people when I’m trying so hard to hold on to my living wife.” He jumped from the chair, thrusting his hand through his hair. Bleary-eyed, he had the look of a man desperate enough to sell his soul. “I’ll do what’s best for this family. And Emma is our family.”

Stefanie held out her hands and nodded. “I know.”

And she did.

Even with that knowledge, though, losing the land wasn’t an option – at least not as far as she was concerned. “I’ll see what I can do to help. I wish we could save this and save Emma and have more money than we know what we can do with.” The longing to, for once, have enough for everything consumed her and she almost missed Nate’s response.

He snorted. “You know what? I wish we had more than enough for everything we need or want. Not because I care about this ranch, because this ranch won’t keep Emma alive. Medical help will. I need money to keep her going. We waited too long…” His emphatic words faded and he stared into the dim corner of the office. The worst kinds of regret shadowed his eyes.

“I wish for that, too.” Stefanie whispered, softly drumming the desk with her fingertips.

Nate turned pain-filled eyes her way. “Be careful what you wish for, little sis. You might get more than you can bargain for.” He ducked out the room, leaving Stefanie to glower pensively at the pile of ledgers and dull pencils.

Slamming her hand on the top of the desk, she ignored the biting sting of the contact. She bit her lip.

She didn’t know how, but she was going to save that land.

Chapter 2

Drake

Sunlight glinted off the metallic gunmetal gray hood of the Cadillac Escalade as Drake pulled into the long drive of Bella Acres. He turned down the stereo blasting Chris LeDoux and studied the land around him.

Worn and faded siding covered the barn walls. Deck railings sagged as if matching the sagging skirts of the deck itself. Portions of the roof had fallen into disrepair and a window in the top level had been secured with duct tape across a long crack.

Drake adjusted the Rolex on his wrist. He’d been gone so long he hadn’t realized his sister had been living so poorly. Guilt riddled him as he parked the dark suburban, dust settling around the tires.

A woman on a horse, her hat low over a bright blue bandana pulled up around her mouth, reined in at the front of the house. She wheeled the dark mare around and inspected the new vehicle, her eyes hidden by the brim of the hat.

Long dark hair braided in a twist down her back. The tan duster she wore in the heat was splotched and dirty along the edges.

Sliding from the horse, she looped the reins around the post and pulled her hat off while yanking the bandana from her face to wipe at moisture along her forehead.

Stefanie Rourke.

Drake would recognize her features anywhere. She’d grown into the slender height she’d had as a teenager, her curves subtle but womanly even as she tried hiding them under the masculine clothing. The angles of her face had molded her softer adolescent features into a vision of a younger version of her mother with high cheekbones, symmetrically arched eyebrows, and well-bowed lips.

Had it really been years since Drake had seen her? His heart tugged him back. He hadn’t thought of many others since the last time he’d seen her at that damned party where he’d kissed her but she’d pushed him away.

The red burn of embarrassment branded his skin and he reached for the gear shift. He didn’t need to stay there. He didn’t need to go through that again. She hadn’t wanted him then. Why would she want him now? Top off the anguish of rejection and he had to remember why he’d even grown brazen enough to kiss her in front of everyone that night.

Emma had appeared in that clearing and retrieved him home.

Emma… No turning back. No matter how much he’d rather avoid Stefanie. She’d always had a distinct skill at making him feel smaller than a foal. Not a feeling he was accustomed to anymore. He wasn’t insecure. He had one of the highest levels of confidence in the state of Wyoming.

Too bad he was in Montana again.

Sliding his sunglasses off, Drake tucked them into the breast pocket of his tailored suit. Uncle Will had been a firm believer in dressing the part you wanted in life.

Well, Drake dressed it and then he’d earned it.

Stefanie moved from the side of her horse, wiping her hands on the front of her snug-fitting jeans, a question high in her eyes as she watched his rig.

The dark tinted windows prevented her from seeing inside. Drake had the upper hand where she was going to be surprised. Good or bad, he wasn’t sure he was ready to find out.

Side-swept bangs framed her large blue eyes and Drake dragged a sharp breath across his teeth. “Here goes nothin’.”

Climbing from the glorified ride, he allowed his suit to fall into place, refusing to adjust anything or seem unsettled in any way.

Stefanie smiled, the sun bright on her face. She squinted as she came around the side of his door then stopped with a jerk. The smile faded and her eyes grew wide. “Drake. Benson.”

“Stefanie Rourke. Fancy seeing you here. I thought for sure you’d be married and living with a bunch of kids by now.” He shut his door, pasting a pleasant expression on his face.

He’d hoped she’d be there, at least a small part of him in the very back of his heart wanted her there. He wanted her to see what he’d become, see that there was more to the Bensons than poverty stricken, having ramshackle homes, and sickly people.

Her eyes darkened and her lips twisted. Stefanie lifted her chin. “I don’t need a man, Drake. Took you long enough to get here. Didn’t Nate call you six weeks ago?”

Drake hid his surprise. He’d never received a call from his brother-in-law. They weren’t the best of friends or even mild acquaintances. The short of it was, Drake couldn’t stand Nate and the feeling was undoubtedly reciprocated.

Stefanie turned on her heel. “She’s inside. She can’t move much, so don’t wear her out.”

He watched her walk away with her braid swinging from side to side above her hips. Drake clenched his hands tight at his sides. He wasn’t even there long enough to constitute actually being there, and she’d already driven him into a dangerous level of irritation. Why did she get to him so easily?

He crossed the grass to the steps, careful to tread on the cleaner parts of the lawn. Even the grass looked like it was giving up the ghost with its browning tips and rustling dryness as he passed.

The stairs creaked with each step as he climbed. Using the railing wasn’t an option. Splinters weren’t his idea of a good time.

Knocking on the front door, Drake tried not noticing the flaking paint and the missing shutter or the dead plants in the chipped planter to the right of the door.

A soft voice told him to come in. At least he hoped that’s what was said. If not, he was going inside without permission. In Montana they shot people for that.

He turned the knob then pushed then turned and pushed at the same time. After a moment, he put his shoulder into it and the door gave under his pressure.

Drake stumbled through, a curse contained at his lips. He righted himself and refused to look around to see if Stefanie laughed behind him. The scent of lavender filled the air, most likely from a diffuser. Emma craved essential oils over western medicine. Always believed they would do more good for her than the humidifiers the hospitals wanted her to use.

He stepped cautiously into the sparse interior. No pictures adorned the walls and all signs of rugs had long disappeared. He’d been there when he was younger and the memories contrasted sharply with the reality before him. “Emma, are you in here?”

“In here.” Although feeble, her voice was easily recognizable, happy even when in pain.

Drake turned into the first doorway. His sister rested on the couch, the lone piece of furniture in the room. Her soft brown hair had been half-pulled back and braided. Loose waves rested down the side of her jaw. A faded quilt covered her lap, tucked up underneath her arms. Hollow cheeks were shadowed with fatigue and thin from hunger.

The sparkle in her eyes was gone.

He bit back a curse. The last thing she needed was him losing it. Drake moved into the living room further. Tucking his hands in his pockets, he rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. “Emma. You’re looking good.” Why did she look so wan? So hungry? Had the cancer spread so fast she couldn’t eat?

Emma’s eyebrows arched. Her smirk threw him back into their childhood. She’d always been able to laugh. Even with needles poking in her arms and chemotherapy sucking her energy. “No, I don’t. I look like hell. How dare you come in here and so blatantly lie.” Her words, while weak, contained her old humor.

She patted the cushion beside her knees, which she adjusted against the back of the couch, giving him room.

All potential discomfort faded. “Well, acknowledging that you look like hell is the first step. Where are your nurses?” Drake settled onto the couch beside her, taking her hand in his. Her once elegant hands looked emaciated, too thin for her young age. He studied her. The question begged asking. “Where’d my sister go?”

“What do you mean?” Emma tried to draw her hand from his, but Drake refused to let her go. Her fragility wasn’t lost on him, and neither was the fact that he could hold on easily while she had to extend extreme effort to even try.

He watched her, as if the bat of an eyelash or the wiggle of an ear would tell him everything he needed to know. “You know exactly what I mean. Why’d you give up? Why aren’t you fighting this? You beat it before.” Heat from his hand warmed hers. At least he could do that for her. “And don’t tell me you’re not quitting. There’s not an IV, there’s no PICC line in your chest. There’s no evidence of any medical procedures having been done recently.”

“I’m tired. I’m tired of beating it. I’m tired of fighting. Tired of being weak, exhausted, hungry, and always wondering. I’m sick of being afraid. I’m sick of being tired.” Emma looked down. She avoided his gaze, looking everywhere but at him. Finally she met his eyes with hers. She offered a half smile. Her dry lips had split at the side, the red bright against her pale skin.

“Bull. With how happy you’ve supposedly been with Nate? I don’t buy it. My sister is a fighter. What’s going on? And don’t lie to me.” Drake pierced her with his gaze and refused to back down. She would tell him. Or he’d know the reason why.

Her smile faded. Goosebumps grew on her arms and she twisted her frown into a martyr-type grimace. “We didn’t find out soon enough. Money was… well, it’s always tight, isn’t it? Anyway, I hadn’t been in for a checkup in over a year and then I started feeling…” She sighed. “Tired. I’m always tired though, you know?” Her words broke on a tiny sob. “How was I supposed to know anything was different? They were supposed to have gotten it.”

Her thin shoulders moved in a jerky form of a shrug, but could’ve just been her body rejecting her efforts to hold in her tears.

“How long have you known?” Drake folded his other hand over the top of hers. He willed his energy and health into her.

“It’s been quite a while now. Almost four months, maybe? Mom and Dad still don’t know. I don’t want to deal with them, too.” Emma scratched her nose, tried making light of it. “You know how Mom can be.”

“Mom and Dad don’t know? Are you kidding me? What… What are you doing? What can be done? They’re going to flip out. You have to tell them.” Just because he hadn’t spoken to them in years didn’t mean Emma had the right to cut them off. Especially when they’d always sacrificed so much for her health.

A realization dawned on him and he tilted his head, raising his eyebrows. “You can think again before I’m going to call and tell them for you.”

The sudden silence left the room quiet enough to hear the whispering breath of the diffuser on the window frame, the thin tendril of oil-filled steam curling and twisting into the air.

Emma ignored his outburst as if he hadn’t spoken. “I wanted to see you before… anything else. I’ve been waiting. Nate called…” She put her other hand in his, sighing as his hands wrapped around hers. “You’re warm.”

“Yeah, Stefanie said he called me. What six weeks ago? I never heard from him. What number was he using?” He still wasn’t sure what happened with that one. His uncle would never hide something like that from him. At least not attempts from Emma. His parents, maybe. Uncle Will had a strong tendency to lean toward protecting Nate.

Maybe they had the wrong number. Or maybe Nate never actually called. Drake wouldn’t put it past him.

“Mom and Dad gave us the most recent one they had.” Her face contorted and she clenched, then released her spasm like movements and gasped for air.

She’d always hid the pain so well. Drake hated that about her. Why couldn’t she hurt like normal people? Feel the pain like normal people? Probably because she’d always been in pain.

Drake cleared his throat softly. “I get that you don’t want to fight. Put that together with the stage of your illness, and I’m not surprised you’ve given up. I can’t even imagine your pain. I’m sure we still have time, Emma. Come live with me. I’ll buy you the best nurses and medical care and medicine and anything else you want. No strings.” He could offer her so much more than that deadbeat husband of hers. “Come on, it’s not like you’re really happy here with him.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m extremely happy with Nate.” Emma’s old determination shined through the weakness on her face. “I’m not leaving my husband, Drake.”

Drake clenched his jaw. He spoke through gritted teeth. “I can afford to fix this. You fought for less when you were younger. If you’re so happy with him, then come live with me until you’re all better. Then you can come back,” he glanced around, trying not to display his derision and all its sharp edges of judgment, “to this.”

“You won’t be able to understand. Nobody understands. The doctors said I’m too riddled. There’s a reason there’s no Stage V, Drake. Stage IV is as high as it goes because that’s as bad as it gets. I might have been able to do something when they first found out.” She wrinkled her nose. “I think I was only Stage III then, but it was already pushing IV.”

She stared past his shoulder for a moment, then refocused on his face. “I’ve already accepted this.” Her mirthless partial laugh had less enthusiasm than her words. “I’m the only one who has, I think. It’s really clear in my head what’s going on. I can accept this course because there’s a lot more going on than just the cancer. The cost of everything, what it’s doing to Nate, he can’t have anything that I want to give him.”

Drake didn’t interrupt as she spoke. She obviously didn’t have anyone to explain herself to. She wanted to be heard, but maybe no one was listening.

“Do you realize he wanted eight children before he and I got married? Eight. I can’t have one. He wanted to run his ranch. But he can’t. Because I am using up too much money for medical expenses. So he and his cousins have to work as ranch hands for other people. Other ranches, Drake. Do you understand how awful that is?” Tears welled in her eyes.

“If Nate loves you as much as you say he does, or even half as much as Mom and Dad think he does, none of that matters.” Drake considered his sister for a moment. He’d been there when she went through all of her chemotherapies growing up, all of the tests, the results, the drain and fatigue on their parents.

“I can’t fight anymore, Drake.” Her tear-laden admission wrenched at his heart.

When she said fight, she meant battle and all the loss that came with it.

They stared at each other for a moment, lost in memories.

Emma pulled her fingers from his grasp, wiping at the moisture on her cheeks. “Do you remember that time in Seattle at the Children’s Hospital? Mom and Dad forgot to feed you, because they were so busy talking with the doctors about my results? How about the time we didn’t get a Christmas because I was in the hospital and Mom and Dad didn’t have the money?” She turned it back on him, grabbing his hand in hers. “Do you remember? Because I do.”

Leaning forward, she pierced him with her gaze. Her words vehemently tore through the whispering wind breaking through the cracks in the windows. “Nate isn’t the only one suffering. I’m not the only one suffering. I’ve seen your suffering, Drake. I’ve seen it. You can’t hide from me. Your sacrifices have not gone unnoticed. I refuse to do this to anyone else, simply because I want to live a little bit longer with zero quality of life.”

Drake closed his eyes, squeezing them tight. He hadn’t cared about anything he’d lost when he was younger, just so long as he didn’t lose his sister. And now here she was asking him to let her go. What was he supposed to do with that?

“What you want me to do? I don’t want you to give up just because of things people have had to do for you. We all love you too much for that.” Drake had been there, he’d seen the pain. He knew what she’d gone through. Had to be harder as an adult when she was more aware of the procedures and the pain and ice cream couldn’t fix everything.

Emma considered him. Leaning back on the cushions, she met his gaze. Complete calm smoothed her features except for a slight pinch to her eyes that she’d always had from constant pain. “I don’t have a future. Not if this is what it’s going to be like. I’ve done this my entire life. I don’t want to keep doing it. This isn’t a way to live.”

“So what are you going to do? Just quit?” Drake stared at his hands. “How can you do this to Nate? I don’t like the guy. I mean let’s be honest. But that doesn’t mean he deserves this. I don’t know anybody that deserves this.” He looked up meeting her gaze. “Especially me.”

Emma closed her eyes. The long drawn-out silence was tense and regretful.

She opened her eyes again, tears welling within them. “Drake, this is not about you. I have to watch out for myself. All those years fighting this sickness, this disease, was never for me. It was always for them-Mom and Dad, Nate, his family. You. But never me. I hate the needles. I hate the hospitals. My whole life has been this disease. This is a blessing. I need you to see this as a blessing. This is forcing me to accept what my body has been trying to tell me my whole life.”

Sniffing, she lifted her chin. Her eyes darkened and she straightened her shoulders. “I love Nate more than I can say and I love his family. The last couple years has made me realize that shackling them to this disease is not the way I want to live my life. It’s not how I want to be remembered.”

Drake’s heart sank. She wasn’t going to give in. She was stalwart on this one. He could see it. Even now. She’d accepted the prognosis of the final Stage and she wanted everyone else to accept it as well.

He nodded, slowly. “Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. Just know that this is not going to be easy on anyone. Whether you think it is or not. While you believe that you’re setting them free, you’re actually going to chain Nate to a lifetime of sadness and regret. Just remember that.” He lifted his gaze and studied her.

He had one last nail to drive into her figurative coffin, even if the appropriateness of the analogy might not be spot on at the time, he couldn’t help visualizing it. “You realize you need to tell Mom and Dad? There’s no fixing this one.”

She shook her head the smallest amount. “No. You do.”

Drake jerked back. “The hell you say. I already said I’m not calling them. I haven’t had to call them this whole time. In years, Emma. Why would I want to do it now?” But a tightness in his chest told him he would do it. At that point, looking at his sister, who was willingly facing death, he’d do whatever she needed him to. Whatever she’d let him do to help her.

He would call. He’d go through the rodeo of Hell for her.

His sister’s whisper dragged across space between them as her energy lagged. “I have two things I need to ask you to do. One, call Mom and Dad. Let them know I’m sick and that I’m not going to fight this one. Ask them to come here.” She closed her eyes and dragged in a breath, licking her lips. “And two, I need your help fighting the family on this one. I need you to stick up for my decision. No matter what. Even though you don’t agree. Promise me.”

She asked the impossible. He couldn’t decide which one was harder. Calling his parents or fighting the entire Montana Trail family.

Stefanie would be the least understanding of them all. Especially when it came to Drake.

He considered Emma’s requests. Her proposal didn’t sound as easy as she wanted to make it. He cocked his jaw to the side. “Dang it, Emma. Growing up with you wasn’t this hard.”

Her laugh tinkled between them. “No, growing up with you was harder.”

They didn’t speak for another minute, just sat there in each other’s company, remembering.

“Drake, I need to know if you can promise me that. I need to have someone on my side.” Her words caught as if she struggled to breathe.

Drake didn’t look away. “Alright, sis, I’ll do both. But don’t expect me to hang around when Mom and Dad are here.”

Emma’s face tightened. “Of course you’ll be here. It’s the whole reason I’m calling them. They don’t need to know that I’m getting sick. They don’t need to see me die. They need to see their son again. The only reason I’m doing this is for you. So you’ll call them, they will come here, and you’ll talk with them.”

Drake jumped to his feet. He paced the room, his boots thudding on the wooden floor. No rugs were seen. Hopefully she had warm slippers to put her feet into. “You’re asking a lot, a lot I’m not sure I want to give.” He thrust his fingers through his hair. The slippery whisper of his suit material was loud in the immediate silence. “I’ll call, I’ll do what you need me to with the family, but I’ll decide later what I want to do regarding them.” He held up his hand. “Don’t push this, Emma.”

Emma shrugged, folding her hands at her waist. “You’ll do it. Now go get your stuff. I’ll have Hannah set up a room for you to stay in. Don’t argue.” She cut him off before he could even start.

Drake hadn’t planned on staying at Bella Acres. He just wanted to rent a room at the hotel in town. The idea of staying with Emma had merit. Seeing Stefanie around would better help him figure out his feelings. He hadn’t realized just how much he’d missed seeing her.

“I saw Stefanie is still staying here.” He moved to glance out the window, see if he could catch a glimpse of her long dark braid.

“She is. But I’m sure it won’t be long before she finds someone and moves out. She’s a very pretty girl.” Emma laughed, a little spark back in her smile. “I’ve been trying to fix her up with boys in town for a while now.”

An unfathomable irritation welled within him. “Why does she need to be fixed up with anyone? Maybe she doesn’t want to date anybody.” Or maybe she was waiting for him, like he was waiting for her. A man could hope, couldn’t he?

Emma shrugged, settling lower on the cushions. “Maybe. Or maybe she is too stuck on meeting her family’s needs.”

Ironic laughter burst from Drake. He eyed his sister with an all-knowing smirk. “Well, I know how she feels.”

She snorted, the unladylike sound so perfect for what he remembered of his sister. “Don’t even start. You already promised.” Emma rustled the blankets as she shifted on the couch.

He didn’t want to fight. The entire trip had taken more out of him than he’d planned. “I already agreed. I want to add a condition. You have to let me help in some way. I have plenty of resources at my disposal, I need to help.”

“There’s nothing else for you to do.” Emma shook her head, pursing her lips. She wouldn’t even consider his help for anything. The truth stung.

“Are you rejecting my offer?” Drake couldn’t believe it. After he promised two very difficult tasks, she was going to throw this in his face?

“You offered, Drake. What I asked you to do is all I need done.” Emma turned to rest her cheek on the back of the couch and gaze out the window. “I wish there was a way for you to make it go faster.”

Drake froze. Horror gripping his gut and washing him with an icy blast of shock. “Not doing that. I can’t believe you would even suggest it.”

Emma turned to him, her eyes wide and her mouth in an O. “No, that’s not what I meant. I just meant I want to stop hurting.” She turned back to rest on the couch, her words fading as she spoke. “I just want to stop hurting.”

But Drake couldn’t shake the feeling her words had stirred. His sister wasn’t a coward. She wouldn’t take that way out. Yet, he’d always assumed she would fight, too.

The only reason she was giving up like she was, was because Nate couldn’t take care of her well enough. He couldn’t afford his wife. He couldn’t do what needed to be done. So Emma had to suffer and die because of the things Nate couldn’t do.

Drake glowered at the empty wall. What else was she being deprived of?

“Now go get your stuff. I’m sure Hannah will make dinner soon.” Emma waved him off, a quagmire of emotions thick on her face. “And, Drake? It’s so nice to see you again.”

Her emotions were rich with feelings Drake didn’t want to inspect too closely. Her words left him feeling less optimistic, like she was saying it was nice to see him again before…

Yet, why would he understand what was running through her? He could barely understand the feelings flooding him.

Chapter 3

Stefanie

Drake Benson. The shock still hadn’t worn off from seeing him step out of one of the most expensive vehicles Stefanie had ever seen.

She huffed into the barn, plopping onto the rickety bench by the back door.

Leaning forward, she rested her elbows on her knees.

He still got to her. After all these years, he still rankled her. How could that be? How could he affect her so much after the way he treated her in high school? Wasn’t like she owed him anything. Wasn’t like he was better than her.

Or was he? He’d escaped. He’d been able to make something of himself. Obviously. And there Stefanie was, still living at home with her siblings with no real purpose in life.

Pretty soon, she wouldn’t even have that house to say she lived at. No, she’d be nomadic, living from ranch to ranch. And Nate hadn’t even said anything about where they would sleep in between jobs. Where was Emma supposed to live?

The breadth of Drake’s shoulders enhanced in his tailored suit had taken her breath away.

She’d been sharper than she intended which seemed to happen a lot lately.

Stefanie removed her hat, dust sifting from its brim. She had to look lovely. Snorting, she stood and walked to the bathroom. Not many things would survive the auction.

No matter what Nate said, they were losing more than just their land. Stefanie’s entire childhood was flushing down the toilet. She turned on the water and washed her hands. All the mirrors had been removed and sold.

Nate had even been forced to sell the majority of their dad’s metal forging equipment. Nothing was safe.

Even Bella Acres.

Stefanie’s heart hurt, maybe because of the reintroduction of Drake into her world, or maybe because the rest of her life was tumbling down around her like the worst tumbleweed ever. She blinked back tears. No way would she give into the emotion of the day. Of every day.

She clenched her damp fist into the soft flesh of her belly. An aching sensation claimed her gut most days. Why did these things have to happen to her? First her parents died, then a good thing happened when Nate met Emma. But then Emma was sick all the time and there wasn’t much positive left with Emma’s health failing as hard as it was.

On top of all that, their home was next.

None of it was good for anyone.

Emma was the best thing that ever happened to Nate – to the entire family – but now, if Emma had her way, he wouldn’t get to keep her.

The whole thing sucked.

Stefanie’s irritation and frustration welled inside her. Nodding and twisting and curling until her arms shook and her fingers went numb. She splashed cool water on her face to bring her emotions under control.

Everything would be okay. Drake showing up the way he did with a brand-new shiny rig would get to anybody. Plus, he was Emma’s brother. He would fix things. He would make Emma see that she had to fight. It didn’t matter how far along the cancer was. It couldn’t matter.

Drake would make her fight.

Another splash of cold water on her face was all it took to remove the rest of the grit on her skin. She wouldn’t put on makeup. That was taking the need to impress Drake too far. She didn’t care how she looked, so long as she felt cleaner than she had.

He’d be gone soon, and she wouldn’t have to deal with any of the emotions he stirred in her. Dang Benson, anyway.

Pulling off her duster, Stefanie shook out its length and hung the worn leather from a hook on the wall. At least she hadn’t been forced to give up her clothing. She wouldn’t give Nate the idea. The man was on a mission to sell anything not tacked down.

Smoothing the front of her shirt, Stefanie left the barn with a cautious step. Drake could show up outside the house again when she least expected it.

She wouldn’t put it past herself to wait.

With her horse out to pasture, Stefanie claimed a spot on the fence. She lifted her foot, bracing herself on the edge and leaning over it with her elbows. Resting her cheek to the side she watched a couple horses in the field.

Nate had their pickup date set already. They’d be leaving in a couple days.  Nothing was safe. At least they still owned his horse and another mare.

A soft Montana breeze cooled the back of her neck as her braid fell past her shoulder. Even the faded summer lavender blossoms had a forlorn smell.

Used to be Stefanie would think about Bella Acres and her heart would swell with such happiness.

But now, just the thought of Bella Acres shrouded her in sadness.

It would be like losing her mom all over again. Like losing her dad.

Stefanie had been helpless then. She hadn’t been able to save them. How many times had she wished and prayed to go back in time and warn them against leaving? Even placed herself in the car instead of them? In seconds, they’d been gone.

The years since had never dimmed their memory or their presence.

If they lost Bella Acres, the entire Rourke family would have nothing to hold onto.

No, she couldn’t let that happen.

Stefanie lifted her head, her eyes narrowed. She was going to save Bella Acres. And there was nothing anybody else could say.

She had a job. She worked her butt off with the Trails.

She’d get a loan from the bank. Maybe the only thing keeping Nate from getting a loan was Emma’s medical debt.

Stefanie didn’t have any debt. She had nothing like that. She was the perfect answer for Bella Acres. She could save the family home. Hope surged upward from a spot behind her breastbone, straightening her from her spot on the fence.

Just then Drake slammed the front door behind him.

Stefanie turned, watching as he paced back and forth above the steps on the porch. His golden blond hair sparkled in the sun.

Dang the man for being so beautiful.

Stefanie cleared her throat softly. She’d never let him see how he got to her. She couldn’t. That kind of control was something no one needed. He swung his arms, his fists meeting in front of him with a thud and then splitting apart to the sides. Why was he so upset?

Stefanie left the safety of the fence. She walked up to the deck, bracing her foot on the bottom railing of the stairs.

Eyeing Drake, she held her hand up to shade her eyes. “You alright there, cowboy?”

He was nothing like a cowboy though. His dark suit and crisp linen shirt contrasted sharply with the downtrodden appearance of the home. He didn’t even have a cowboy hat. Stefanie would wager – she would place bets all over the state of Montana – that his hands were smoother than the cream from a cow. But there was nothing soft about his jaw or the way he held himself.

Drake stopped pacing, he dropped his hands to his side like he’d been caught smoking an illegal substance, kind of like Cyan’s dad. He glanced at her and then away, like she might turn him to stone or something.

Stefanie arched an eyebrow, watching Drake. “Hey, you gonna pass out or something?” The midday sunlight beat down on her shoulders and back. She blinked, waiting for him to do exactly what she suggested.

His lips twitched, and he inclined his head. “Stefanie, only you could make a man feel conflicted in a time when his emotions should be pointed one way.” He glanced back to the house, sadness and doubt dragging his gaze back to her. “I’m not sure if I’m alright or not to be honest. She’s so chipper considering…”

The melancholy in his eyes held Stefanie’s sarcastic retort tight to her tongue. She sensed it wouldn’t take much to wound him with his raw emotions so close to the surface. Stefanie didn’t want that. She’d never wanted him to hurt more than she was.

Stefanie glanced to the side, nervous to share her own vulnerability about Emma’s problem. Drake needed reassurance and Stefanie couldn’t let him hurt more than was necessary. She wasn’t cruel.

Shrugging, she gripped the railing with her hand, careful to not show her own beat up emotions about his sister. “Emma… She’s got her own path. Not sure why she’s doing what she’s doing, but she’s determined. Not sure what hurts worse, knowing I’m going to lose her. Or knowing Nate is.”

“Why does it always have to be about you and your family? What about us?” Drake’s tone snapped Stefanie’s attention to his face. His melancholy had faded, replaced by bitter anger.

She stepped back from the railing. Lifting her hands into a defensive position, she spoke slowly. “Okay, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to make it about me. I was just trying to…” Her words trailed off at the mounting anger in his eyes.

He growled, “I don’t care what you’re trying to do. It’s always about you guys. You and your brother. He stole my sister and now she’s —” Drake bit his words off before they really got going. He clenched his fists at his side.

Slowly shaking his head, he meticulously stepped down the stairs, each step carefully placed. He stared at his rig. Even passing by her, he didn’t acknowledge her. The white in his knuckles said more than any word he could say.

An icy sensation blew over her as he walked by.

He held his pace to the Escalade. He didn’t go to the driver’s door but to the rear instead. Maybe he needed to rest a second so he wouldn’t pass out. Combine the heat with the emotional turmoil visiting with Emma could bring and he had to be feeling the weight of his brief visit.

Hannah burst from the front door, a smile brightening her lovely face. “Drake! You’re back. Emma just told me. Grab your bags and come up. I’ll get that room ready for you in a snap. I can’t wait to talk to you some more.”

He what? Room? Wait a minute, they didn’t have an extra room. Hannah would probably be moving her crap into Stefanie’s room and then sleeping on the couch. Stefanie snapped her head around, staring at Drake’s silhouette at the end of the rig.

Hannah’s room was next to hers. Stefanie didn’t want that kind of proximity to him. She didn’t want him staying with them. As bad as she felt for him, she didn’t want to disrupt her life or her plans to save Bella Acres with his disturbing presence.

Stefanie thundered up the stairs, coming to stop in front of her younger sister. She clenched her jaw to keep from yelling at Hannah. It wasn’t the girl’s fault. She breathed in deep before blurting out, “Hannah, what do you mean stay with us?”

Hannah smiled, her eyes wide and bright. It was the first time in a long time Stefanie had seen her smile. “Emma said Drake is going to stay with us, at least for a little while. You should see how happy she looks just talking about him being here. It brought a little bit of color to her face. I can’t wait to talk to him some more. He’s been in Wyoming all this time. He might as well have been all over.”

Stefanie wrinkled her nose. “He hasn’t been all over. He’s just been in Wyoming. That’s smaller than Montana.” She wouldn’t give him any more to build him up than absolutely necessary or true. The man was already more than she’d ever imagined him to be.

She’d always hoped he’d done well, but seeing him at Bella Acres with his Cadillac and his tailored suits just made her feel dowdy and homespun. She tugged at her more-patched-than-not shirt and hoped at least her jeans fit her okay.

Tapping Stefanie’s shoulder, Hannah bent down until their faces were on level. “Stefanie, stop. You don’t need to constantly put people down. Plus, he has nowhere else to go. It’s not like you own Bella Acres. You don’t get to say who does what or who stays where.”

But wasn’t that her plan? Wasn’t owning Bella Acres something she wanted more than anything? Stefanie jerked her head to the side. “You know what? I am going to own Bella Acres. This place can be mine. And I’m going to toss him out on his butt. And you too, if you don’t straighten up.” She grinned to lighten the end of her comment.

She was doing it. Purpose rose within her, like foam expanding and strengthening and hardening. She would own Bella Acres. She had to. She would save them all.

Hannah curled her lip and folded her arms over her chest. “Yeah, who’s gonna help you?”

Even if Stefanie wanted to, she couldn’t back down now. What might’ve been a joke or random thought grew to consume her. “No one. I can do this on my own. Just watch.”

“Be careful, Stefanie, you’ll get what you want and it might not actually be what you want.” Hannah reached forward, squeezing Stefanie’s shoulders in a half hug. “This is hard for me, too, sis. I don’t want lose our home either.”

Straightening up, she motioned into the house. “Come on in Drake. We’ll eat soon and then you can meet everybody. It’s been a long time.” She patted Stefanie’s back as she passed, her grin widening again. Under her breath she added. “I think someone has a crush.” She giggled when she dodged Stefanie’s swing toward her leg.

Stefanie didn’t acknowledge Drake as he passed. What would she say? I want to buy Bella Acres and kick you out? Even if she wanted to, she had to admit, at least to herself, the thought of Drake Benson being under the same roof as her for even one night was too tempting to ignore.

Dang that tailored suit making his shoulders look so good.

She better take a shower to cool off and clean up. Both her anger and work on the ranch had taken its toll. She needed to rinse more than just her attitude from her body.

Plus, she planned better when she was clean. And she had some serious planning to do.

Kindle

 

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