Running From the Renegade – Book 1 – Sneak Peek

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Running from the Renegade

One town. Two feuding families. A second chance for a man and a woman on opposite sides of the war.

Titus Bailey is the head of the Bailey clan in Clearwater County. The family is huge and cursed. Not your normal curse. The men of the Bailey Clan are destined to be alone. Anytime they fall in love, they lose their hearts and the women they fall for.

The men of Bailey have made a pact that they will stay away from love to protect their hearts and each other. There are only so many brothers and cousins who can survive a broken heart.

But Titus runs into Abby Smythe and their secret romance from years ago resurfaces only to be slapped away by Titus’s participation in the pact and Abby’s renewed hatred for the Bailey family. She can’t tolerate the family, what they stand for, or what they’re doing to the town that should have been named after her ancestors.

When Titus and Abby are thrown together to fight the drilling company lurking along the edges of town, they have to figure out if the family feud is bigger than the love they have for each other.

Could their romance be the slow cure of the curse?

Chapter 1

Abby

So many people described the love of Abby’s life as musty and old. Well, her library was neither musty nor old, thank you very much.

Late afternoon sunlight streamed through the stained-glass windows set high in the cement walls. She’d admit to a few dust particles in the shafts of light, but that didn’t mean anything was musty or old. It just meant… Abby furrowed her brow. She didn’t know what it meant, but it certainly didn’t mean anything negative about her favorite place.

She leaned back in the chair at the main desk – okay, the only desk – in the library on Fifth and Main in Bailey, Montana. Thankfully, the only library in town. She didn’t need any competition getting funds from the town for essentials like new computers for the patrons or the latest novels to stack the shelves.

The chair creaked, reminding Abby she wasn’t on brand new furniture. That was okay. She didn’t need anything new. All she wanted was for her job to stay where it was and to get through each day with little to no drama. She could do that.

She wanted quiet and peace.

Striking four p.m., the clock above the entrance doled out a somber tone. Abby sighed. Normally, she would go through the stacks and make sure no one was still inside, but that would require someone to actually have come in that day. And no one had.

In fact, there hadn’t been any patrons for a few days.

Running her hands over the scarred and well-used wood of the desk, Abby sighed. After another moment of just being in the chair, enjoying her position in the old building, she stood, tucking the chair in. Leaning across the desk, she reset the glass jar of pens and pencils a quarter-inch to the right so it lined up with the brass lamp and the nameplate.

Abby narrowed her eyes and scanned the lower level of the library with its gusseted ceilings and long walls filled with shelves of non-fiction. Stairs at the opposite end from where she stood led up to the fiction section where most people headed when they came in. Not Abby. Non-fiction was the place to be.

Nothing had changed from the day before or the day before that. She had nothing to do to close up, besides grab her things and lock the door. Oh, and the lights. She couldn’t forget the lights. She made her way to the coat area, retrieving her jacket from the hook she chose every morning with its slightly crooked brass curve. She checked her pocket, not sure where she thought her wallet would have gone when no one had even been in. Habits were hard to break.

Purses weren’t a thing for Abby and she’d prefer not carting one around, much to her mother’s dismay. Well, that shouldn’t be a big deal, but her mom fixated on things being proper and done a certain way. Abby wasn’t inclined to agree.

Taking one more deep breath in the calm sanctuary of her building, Abby pushed out the front door, turning the lock before closing the door. She tugged on the door handle, nodding tightly at her inability to reopen the door from the outside.

She zipped up her jacket and headed toward the diner two blocks down from the library on the same street running East to West.

May had hit Bailey, Montana with fervent green grasses in the park across the street from the library. Trees covered in new buds surrounded the town square which ran at least six blocks either way. A small pond on the north side fed a stream that cut through the grasses and flowers, disappearing under a naturally made reservoir just before the end of the square.

The park was the only place in town Smythes and Baileys went without rancor. It was the only place left not claimed one way or the other.

Everywhere Abby could see businesses, streets, even the park benches, had been claimed by a Smythe or a Bailey. The Fifth Avenue street sign had even been graffitied with Smythe in black permanent marker under the white AVE.

As embarrassing as it was, Abby didn’t blame whichever one of her relatives had done that. The Smythes were just trying to reclaim what was rightfully theirs. She waved at Mrs. Davies, one of her cousins twice-removed or something like that. She didn’t really understand all the idiosyncrasies of genealogy, but she did know they were related. Mrs. Davies nodded from her position on the bench in front of the flower shop, one of the last businesses to be owned by a Smythe in Bailey.

Her heels clicked on the cracked cement of the sidewalk. Abby enjoyed the warmth of the soon-to-be setting sun on her face as she headed toward The Smytheville Diner. The last restaurant in town to be owned by a Smythe.

The diner came into view and Abby stopped, staring. The Bailey Diner. The neon portion of the sign that read Smytheville had been replaced with Bailey. When? When had that happened and why? Cynthia and George Smythe would never have done that unless their daughters had been threatened. Abby stared at the diner. No, probably not even then.

Running her hand down her face, Abby couldn’t control the tightening in her chest. Anger she’d harbored for years slowly simmered into a more heated mess. There had to be something she could do. Maybe she was hallucinating. She wouldn’t be surprised, if she were going insane. Being surrounded by the Baileys day in and day out and not be able to seek revenge for any of their sins or any of their slights took its toll.

Abby had been broken by a Bailey. She’d never recover and it was why she was slowly turning into the town spinster. She refused to get a cat, but she had the books at the library. Wasn’t that enough?

Determined to find out what had happened, Abby crossed the street, noticing fewer cars in the parking lot tucked behind the old brick building. She’d have to call the restaurant the diner for a little while, until she knew what was going on.

Windows filled the middle third of the wall running the length of the building. They let in the light and let the occupants see town as they enjoyed their classic diner fare. Abby glanced up at the changed sign. Why? How was it possible? The diner had been built years after the library, giving in a newer structure design. Most of the buildings on the south side of town had a similar feel to them. The Smythes had developed most of that part of the town and had pushed and pushed for the town to be called Smytheville.

Not the most original name, but that wasn’t the point.

Abby pulled open the right double-door. She inhaled the diner air, grateful the smell of waffles, French fries, and coffee hadn’t changed – even if the sign had. Inside didn’t feel any different as she walked past the benches lining the foyer for people to wait for a seat during a busy rush. The tiles clicked as she walked, similar to outside but more contained as she slowed.

Only three people sat the counter, their shoulders hunched over as they cradled their mugs of coffee. Old James Peters peeked Abby’s way, suspicion narrowing his eyes until he recognized her. He nodded, relief clearing his features.

Abby hadn’t seen an expression like that in the “safe zones” in quite a while. The diner was supposed to be a safe spot. What was going on?

“I don’t care, Anthony. We should have sold to Margaret when we had the chance. Well, you wouldn’t listen and now…” Cynthia wiped at her cheeks as she came out to the front from the back office. George, her husband of thirty-one years followed behind her.

Defeat. There was no other way to describe their expressions.

Abby stepped to the counter, cocking her head to the side. “Cynthia, George, what’s going on? I saw the sign.”

Cynthia stopped at the sight of Abby. She raised her hands in the air while staring at the ceiling and then closing her eyes. She shook her head, bracing her palms on the edge of the counter. “Everyone is seeing the sign. There’s no going back from this.” Glancing up, Cynthia sighed. “They bought us out this morning.”

“Who?” But Abby knew, didn’t she. She knew what had happened, what always happened. There weren’t enough Smythes in town to keep the diner afloat. Especially, not when most of the other Smythe businesses struggled themselves.

The line had been drawn over a hundred years ago. The Baileys didn’t patron Smythe companies and vice versus. Unfortunately, there were more Baileys than Smythes and they were slowly but surely choking the last of the Smythes from the town population.

What would happen when the library was the last thing run by a Smythe? Abby’d lose her job because there wouldn’t be any Smythes on the town council to keep her in there.

“Him. Titus Bailey. He came in yesterday and offered us top dollar. We…” She wiped at her damp cheeks, ignoring her husband who’d come up beside her. “No. I had to sell. He had my bank loan and we’re in default. He said we could keep the house or the business.” Cynthia glanced at George, the sloppy bun at the back of her head quivered as she shook her head. “I promised you better than this George. I don’t know how we can stay, now.”

He glanced at the men at the counter, but pulled Cynthia into his arms. Shorter than his wife by a few inches, George had the same issue that most men in the Smythe line had – he had to enter into a matriarchal situation. In most of the Smythe families, the female ran things.

Much to the dismay of the Baileys.

But it fit. How else would a family line where they only had daughters be able to survive? The requirement to marry a Smythe woman was for the man to take on her last name. The name had to be preserved. That was the most important thing that had been drilled into the main Smythe family for generations. Mrs. Davies had escaped that expectation since she’d been distantly related. That hadn’t kept her from being cursed with only daughters in her family as well.

And the Baileys… they’d been cursed with only sons. Maybe it wasn’t a curse. They didn’t have any problems filling each generation with more and more Baileys. They went out into the world and brought back new blood.

The sad part was the fact that the women never made it past a couple sons before they left or died. That was their curse. Abby had read more about the history of Bailey, Montana, then she’d ready about the wars or anything else. Whether she believed in curses or not was something else entirely.

Cynthia took a deep breath and turned her head from her husband’s shoulder to look at Abby. “You don’t have to stay. I’ll understand. We’ll keep working here as managers for as long as we can, but… he said things could continue as they are until he sees a drop-in income and then he’s coming in to restructure.” She tossed a scathing glance around the interior of the diner. “Smythes won’t come to a Bailey diner and Baileys won’t come to a Smythe run business. We’ll be out of here in a matter of days.”

Titus. Abby knew who she was talking about. Everyone knew who Titus was. Abby clenched her hands at her sides beset with memories of her own run-ins with the man. “Well, if it’s all the same to you, I’d like to go into my normal booth.” She smiled at Cynthia who nodded gratefully. Cynthia handed two menus to Abby, even though she and her mom had been to the diner every week for the last eight years. The menu hadn’t changed and neither had their orders.

Abby slid into the booth, stopping in the center of the vinyl cushion. She tapped her toes and bit the inside of her cheek.

Titus. Bailey. She hated him. Everything about him. Everywhere Abby went, Bailey was rubbed into her face. Everywhere she went, she had a reminder of what she’d lost. Who she’d lost.

Her hate hadn’t started out that way. Even as the generational hate had been taught daily starting from when she was very young, Abby hadn’t understood why she should be careful around the Bailey Boys. That’s what they were called – the Bailey Boys. Never men. That would suggest that they had qualities the Smythes refused to acknowledge they might have.

No. Abby hadn’t started out hating Titus. How did you hate someone you snuck out of your bedroom window to kiss in the hayfields? How did you hate someone you swore you were going to marry?

But it couldn’t be. Abby had been willing to give everything up for him. Everything and everyone.

Reality had destroyed her dreams. Even as she’d been willing to give it all up for him, he’d only grown more immersed in Bailey expectations. He’d crushed her dreams and broken her heart. Abby had never been able to get over it. Her love had darkened, soured, turned into a bitter contempt for the man and family. She’d taken on the feud, internalized it, and somehow made it hers.

Peace and drama were Abby’s as long as she continued to search for clues to the rightful ownership of the town. She would take down the Baileys when she discovered the truth. Somehow, some way, she had to prove that the Smythes had legal rights to the town. If she could do that, the Baileys couldn’t destroy any more of the Smythes’ lives.

“Hey, Abby, I’m glad you still came.” Her mom broke through Abby’s distracted thoughts, frowning as she sat across from her daughter. She looked around, pulling her coat from her shoulders and resting it on the side of the booth. She leaned across the table, eyebrows raised. “Can you believe this? We’ll need to find another place to eat.”

Except where? All the rest of the restaurants were Bailey-owned. There was nowhere left.

Abby shook her head, trying to rid her memories of ruined dreams and lost hope. She’d gotten through the last ten years. She could survive another fifty without him. She could do it. They never saw each other anyway. He stayed to his side of town and Abby stayed in hers.

Her mother placed a paper bag on the table, right in the center and wiggled her eyebrows at Abby. “You’ll never guess what I found.” She bounced excitedly on the seat. Her silver-laced blonde hair moved with her animation.

“Anne, you look giddy as a school girl.” Cynthia set waters in front of them, then poured hot water into mugs on the table. Tea bags sat in the bowl beside the sugar, salt, and pepper on the table closest to the window. The booth was intimate without being confined.

“I have good reason to, Cynthia. I found our great-great-great-however-many-greats grandmother’s journals in a trunk this morning.” She patted the bag and flicked her gaze between Cynthia and Abby. “I brought them so Abby could look them over.”

Her excitement became Abby’s. Abby stared at the bag. “Really?” How long had Abby been looking for something from the Smythes to further her research? There wasn’t a lot of family history on the family since the names came from the women and genealogy programs focused on the patriarchal names. She couldn’t wait to read them and hoped the library wouldn’t get any patrons for a few more days.

The door opened, a bell chiming to let the staff know they had more customers.

Cynthia turned. Her shared excitement over Anne’s news faded and she patted the table. “I’ll bring your meals in a few minutes, girls.” Her broad back covered Abby’s view of the newcomers. Cynthia called out, “Are you here to dine?” Her tone was tight and unwelcoming.

Abby dipped her tea bag into the steaming water, waiting for Cynthia to move out of the way so she could see who had come in to deserve such treatment.

“We’d like to dine.” That voice. Abby’s heart skipped, even through its hardened shell. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. She’d never forget that voice with its deep timber and husky edges. The lemon wedge on the side of her tea cup slipped out of her hands, hitting the spoon from its position on the saucer.

The metal clanked on the laminate tabletop just as Cynthia shifted to the side. Abby glanced up as Titus Bailey looked in the direction of the noise. His gaze locked on hers and his smile faded as his startlingly green eyes took her in.

He recognized her. No matter how much it hurt, at least he recognized her.

Was it fair that not only was her favorite eating spot no longer an option, but her ruined dreams had just walked back into her day? No. Abby could answer that one without much thought. It wasn’t fair at all.

Chapter 2

Titus

Abigail Smythe. Titus didn’t find anything about his day amusing. The newest addition to an already cruddy day shoved a knife into his heart and twisted. Twice.

Even in the small town of Bailey, Titus hadn’t been in such close proximity to Abby since… he’d broken things off with her over a decade ago. He’d seen her around town, but he’d always ducked out of sight. Yeah, big, bad, brave man that he was. He hid when Abby was around.

Everything inside him screamed for him to run, leave, this couldn’t be good, but he stayed. He hardened his expression and ignored her. That was all he could do. What should he do? Run to her and beg her to let him back into her life? He couldn’t do that. It’d been too long. She had to have moved on by then. He’d never heard of anything to suggest she had, but the Smythes and Baileys didn’t exactly share information on each other. Sadly, there wasn’t a spy system in place to cross the family feud either.

Motioning toward Nolan and Archer, Titus pointed to the booth closest the door. “Let’s sit here.” He didn’t wait for Cynthia to seat them. She’d probably offer them a table in the back, furthest from the door. Titus didn’t blame her. It would be the smartest thing they could do, at that point. Too bad Titus didn’t care.

His job was to keep Bailey progressing, keep it thriving. The Diner needed work. He wasn’t under any false hope that it would become the biggest restaurant in town, but the owners had defaulted on their loan and that meant that the economy of the town in that specific spot was failing. Titus couldn’t allow that.

Plus, if he didn’t buy the business, he’d lose the land to a potential investor lurking around the township, trying to buy up anything that went on the market. Titus wasn’t sure who the man was or what he wanted, but there was something there and Titus had to find out what it was.

He sat with his back toward Abby. Titus couldn’t stare at her longer than he already had. Opening the menu in front of him, Titus stared at the words and pictures without seeing anything. Nolan and Archer commented on the food, but Titus was lost as he retraced every line of her face in his mind’s eye.

She’d kept her hair long. He’d once asked her to never cut it. She’d been sixteen at the time and she’d giggled. “Never is a long time, Titus.” He’d wrapped her in his arms and kissed the tip of her nose. They’d hidden their romance in the Bailey fields between their homes. Sometimes they’d found themselves along the river at the edge of Bailey. But never out in public. Never in school where they couldn’t even be seen talking to each other.

Never was a very long time. Filled with longing and heart break, never was the closest thing to hell Titus could imagine.

“Titus, do you think we should be here?” Nolan leaned across the table. The next oldest in line for the Bailey cousins, Nolan embodied the Bailey lineage with his dark hair and green eyes. Looking at his youthful face, Titus could almost see himself in the confident breadth of his shoulders and the dark hair under his cowboy hat.

Shaking his head, Titus tapped the table. “We need to be seen in here, boys, or the rest of the Baileys won’t come in. We need this diner to pick up or I won’t make my money back.” As head of the Bailey clan, Titus had examples to set and a family to provide for. No, not a wife or children, although he’d always dreamt of that in his future. He provided for the boys who moved in with him when their moms died or left.

The curse wasn’t a joke and the Bailey men were doomed to a life of loneliness and heartache even as their line would continue.

What had the old Salish shaman said? When parts of the halves make it whole, then will the injured lines be cured.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if it was a Smythe and a Bailey who had to fix things, the curse was never going to be lifted. There was stubborn and then there was the Smythe line.

“Yeah, okay, that works.” Nolan glanced toward Abby’s table, arching an eyebrow and lifting his water glass to sip from. “Dang, those Smythes know how to make beautiful women. Isn’t that Abigail Smythe? Titus, didn’t you go to school with her?” Nolan nudged Archer with his elbow, nodding in the direction he spoke.

Titus cleared his throat, looking up at Cynthia who returned to their table again albeit begrudgingly. “We’d like three specials.” He took the menus from his cousins and stacked them together, handing them up to the woman who definitely didn’t want them there. He didn’t blame her, but he did have an investment to check on.

The three old men at the counter slid their cups away from them as if they’d practiced doing exactly that. They each shifted from their seats, adjusting their hats or coats as they walked along the counter. Titus could see their reflections in the window. Each man was a Smythe which meant they weren’t exactly men. They took on their wives’ names, and for what? To lose themselves in Bailey? To succumb to the eventual death of their prosperity?

Anywhere else in America had more potential for success for the Smythe name than in Bailey. Titus wasn’t sure why they kept coming back, why they hadn’t all left yet. It was a question he might never understand.

“Yeah, you’re right, Nolan.” Archer lifted his chin, narrowing his eyes toward Abby. “Too bad she didn’t stay away when she went to school. Now, she gets to fade into Bailey like the rest of that family.” Archer scowled, his enmity for the Smythes rivaled many of the Bailey men’s similar feelings.

Too bad, indeed.

Titus stared at his hands, remembering the last time he’d touched her, held her. He was only two years older than her, but back then, it could have been a decade between them.

The moon had risen high into the August night sky, warring with the stars in a battle of brilliance. Titus hadn’t slept in two nights. He had to break it off with Abby. She deserved better than him, better than what a life with him would bring. She was a Smythe and she’d never be welcomed into his family.

They’d agreed to meet at the spot beside a small branch of the river that cut through the center of the field. A large copse of locust and tamarack trees protected a small pool there. In the August evening warmth, they could sit on a fallen log and dangle their feet in the water while sitting side-by-side.

Abby had one leg up while letting the other hang into the dark cool water. Her long, corn silk blonde hair had been braided to stay off her face and she’d watched Titus in the moonlight. “What’s going on, Titus? Why are you so quiet?”

He’d been quiet because he wasn’t ready yet. He wasn’t ready to do what he had to do – both for his family and for Abby. Finally, he pulled his cowboy hat from his head and set it to the side of the log and turned to Abby, facing her with as much courage as he could. Ripping out both their hearts would be hard, but he could do it. He loved her that much. “We need to be over, Abs.”

She’d blinked at him. The blue of her eyes clear in the moonlight. “What? I don’t understand.” She dropped her other leg to the other side so she straddled the log. She braced her hands on the wood in front of her and stared at Titus.

He swallowed. His heart screamed at him to laugh and say he’d been kidding, but he couldn’t. He had to finish what he’d started. He took a deep breath and reached out, grazing her cheek and chin with his thumb. “We can’t ignore the feud, Abby. We can’t fix it, either. There’s too much… hate.”

“I don’t care about some stupid feud. I love you enough to erase all of the hate. Isn’t that enough?” Her chest rose and fell as she’d gasped for air, the realization that he wasn’t joking slicing all joy from her face.

He’d done that. He’d demolished her hopes. Might as well finish it off. “I’m the oldest, Abby. Everyone is looking to me to lead the family. I can’t be selfish. We’ve been together in secret and we talk about how great it would be to be together in public like others, but we can’t. Do you have any idea what would happen if the truth came out? You’d grow to hate me, like we’ve been taught.” His gaze didn’t waver.

As reality washed over her, Abby’s expression had gone from hopeful rejection to disappointed failure. Abby had slowly pushed herself to her feet, her chin high as she glared down at him. “Too late. I’m already there.”

Titus hadn’t argued with her. He needed her to hate him. He needed her hurt and suffering. As long as there was animosity between them, he wouldn’t have to regret his decision. Sitting a couple booths down from her, though, he couldn’t deny that everything since had been one big regret.

Chapter 3

Abby

As much as Abby loved the old Smythe house out on Temperance Lane, she’d stopped living there a long time ago. She claimed an apartment in town to be closer to work and away from the memories wrapped up in seeing the Bailey ranch out her bedroom window every day. She didn’t mind living in Bailey to be closer to her Mom and Dad, but she wasn’t going to go back to the insanity of pining for a man she couldn’t have – who wouldn’t have her.

There had to be better things to do with her heart than torture it.

She’d chosen an apartment on the Smythe side of town and reveled in her view of the town square with its large park and stream. The closer to June they got, the warmer the days.

With the weekend upon her, Abby packed up the old journals her mom had brought the night before to the diner and carried them in a waterproof canvas tote down to the park with its welcoming trees and multiple benches around the perimeter of the square.

On her salary at the library, she could afford a bigger place, but she didn’t want to stay in Bailey forever. One day, she’d like to move away and she needed money in savings to accomplish that. Living frugally now, meant she could escape when her parents passed on or were ready to leave themselves.

A bench on the south side of the stream sat empty that morning, like it waited for her in the dew-covered grass. The park was the one place in town that wasn’t owned by either family. Even there, though, the feud had divided the square into sides separated by the running water and small pond. The Baileys stuck to the north and the Smythes stuck to the south. There was no mingling. Even the bridge that had once crossed between the two sides had been torn down during a fight between the two families in the late 1970s. Ironically, the women of both sides had torn it down and burned the remains.

Abby crossed her leg over her knee and took a deep breath as she leaned back against the bench. The journals of her long-ago ancestor had to share something with the happenings of the past that so affected the present day. She needed to understand why she’d been denied being with the man she’d loved more than anything and what was more important than being happy together. Abby deserved to know the truth. Once she went through them, maybe she could put them on display in the library. Everyone deserved to know the truth.

Pulling out a journal at a time, Abby tried to determine which one she should start at and which ones to wait on. The old leather bindings didn’t give any indication as to which was first and which was last. She lifted the covers, careful not to tear or rip anything. The dates on the first pages told her which ones to start with and after packing up the rest of the leather-bound journals, Abby adjusted her shoulders and bent her head to read.

The quiet of the park made it easy to slip into the script-style narration of a girl in her late teens. Her long-ago grandmother had the same first name as Abby, the connection anchoring Abby’s interest in her story. Maybe Abby had been named for her.

Judging from the story in the pages of the first journal, Abigail Peters had been desperately in love with a man named Gabriel. She referred to him as her angel, describing his dark hair and green eyes over the courses of pages and pages. Abby smiled as she recognized a piece of herself in the writings. Abigail’s excitement to see Gabriel in secret seemed to echo the sensations Abby herself had enjoyed – the thrill of not being caught, the butterflies when she caught sight of the man she loved, and the stolen kisses.

Abigail’s words curled with sorrow and longing and need and so much teenage hope it tasted bittersweet on Abby’s tongue.

Wrapped up in the story, Abby didn’t acknowledge the sound of someone else joining her on the long bench. She was in a safe place on the south side of the square. Most people wouldn’t be out yet. Anyone sitting beside her would be family anyway.

Glancing at her watch, Abby winced at the time. She had to go visit her parents that afternoon. Her father would need to quiz her again on who came to the library and had any of the “blasted Baileys” bothered her.

Shutting the book, Abby glanced to her left and froze. Her breathing shallowed and sped up, taking some of her calm. Finding Titus sitting a couple feet from her when she’d only moments ago been thinking of the blissful time they’d spent together left her reeling. Thankfully, she was seated and wouldn’t teeter to the side or embarrass herself.

She stared at him for a long moment, taking in the chiseled angles of his face that had once been softened in adolescence and the wavy length of his hair that curled beneath the rim of his hat. Long legs stretched out in front of him with well-stacked jeans over worn black leather cowboy boots. He had to know the figure he struck as he exuded confidence and cocky self-assurance on the wrong side of the park.

If she ignored him, she could get out of there, and prove once and for all that her heart didn’t pine for him any longer. If she spoke to him, who knew what would come out of her mouth. She had years of pent up speeches that she’d rehearsed of things she’d say for closure, or say differently to get him to change his mind.

Abby dropped her gaze and tucked the journal back into the tote. None of it mattered. Not what she said or what she did. Too much time had passed. Her heart had to get over him. Maybe the time to move was closer than she thought. She’d have to bring it up at her parents’ house that afternoon. If she could get them to move, who knew where the wind would take them.

She pulled the straps of the tote up her arm and leaned forward to stand, and stopped as he spoke.

“Abby.” As long as he didn’t touch her, she could handle it. She could.

Turning her head to take in his presence once more, Abby hardened her expression into a neutral mask. “Titus.” She hadn’t spoken to him in years. In fact, the night before had been the first time she’d heard his voice since he said it was over. Hearing her name on his lips didn’t help with her longing. In fact, she wished he’d say it the way he used to say it – soft and gentle like he’d never whispered anything so sweet. She took a deep breath and turned more fully toward him. She arched an eyebrow. “Are you following me, now?”

He’d taken over the diner and many other businesses. What did he want, now? The library? Well, he could take that up with the town council. They owned the building and the materials inside. As far as Abby was concerned, they decided what happened and what didn’t. Titus could stuff it.

“It’s not that simple.” He turned a bit, draping his arm over the back of the bench, settling into his spot. If he peed on a tree, he couldn’t be marking his territory more.

“You’re on the wrong side, Titus. Don’t Bailey Boys belong on the north side of the park? On the north side of town?” Abby lowered the tote from her shoulder, letting it set on the bench slats beside her. All those years and she was raring for a fight. Did it really have to be in one of the last places she had left that hadn’t been tainted by the Baileys or by Titus, himself?

Apparently.

She could ignore the tingling sensations along her nerves with his proximity. No big deal. She could do that. Breathe. Just ignore his green eyes and the slant to his strong jaw. Ignore it. She almost snort-laughed at what she was telling herself to do. Ignoring Titus was… impossible. Ignoring the way he made her feel even more impossible.

“Let’s ignore the division of town for a few minutes. I need you to hear me out.” He clasped his hands together at chest level, still indolent in his posture as he lounged on the bench like it was a couch.

“You need me to hear you out? Are you joking? Is this some kind of hidden camera or reality show or something? What’s the joke, Titus?” Abby blinked rapidly, unsure what was happening and not amused by his demands. He’d lost the right to demand anything from her a long time ago.

He leaned forward, shedding the relaxed façade he’d worn. Resting his elbows on his knees, Titus angled his body to face her more fully. The shadow from his hat darkened the green emerald of his eyes. “Look, I’m not joking. I need to talk to you. It’s about the town.” His gaze searched her face.

Abby bit back the surly answer she wanted to push at him. As much as she despised bits of the town history like how it got its name from the family of the man who had rejected her, Abby couldn’t deny her loyalty to her home town. She nodded her agreement to listen. If nothing else, she could at least listen and then walk away.

“There’s an oil company representative lurking around town. I did some research last night and it looks like they’re trying to buy land and businesses here and a couple other towns around Clearwater County to test for oil.” Titus looked away from Abby, toward the stream as it gurgled peacefully over rocks and pebbles on the bottom.

She held her silence, her curiosity piqued, but not enough for her to ask any questions. Certainly not to ask what he wanted from her.

He glanced at his hands and then back at her. “Look, the word around town is you’re the best researcher this side of the Rockies. I wouldn’t ask, but I don’t want to take any chances. I’ll pay you, but I need to know what they want with Bailey. There’s no history of oil in Clearwater County and Cabo Oil is only an oil company – as far as I know. That’s where I’m hitting a wall. I can’t figure out where to look next. I need your help.” He swallowed, laying it all out there.

A mystery that Abby would be able to do at her job. She had nothing else to do besides study the journals of her ancestor’s. Tightening her grip on the straps of her bag, Abby studied Titus. She had to get a dig in while she considered what he asked. “I think you mean Smytheville. Not Bailey.” She didn’t flinch at the name. She didn’t like the Smythe name any more than most people, but she was loyal to her family and that had to count for something.

Titus chuckled, breaking the ice even further. “Yeah, that’s not the town’s name and you know it. We deserve a name that says strength, sacrifice, and heritage, not whatever that is.” He laughed again, but the mirth faded from his expression as he sobered up. “We need a name that gives back some pride because of everything the town has taken from us.”

Taken from us. As if Titus had any idea what Abby had lost. He’d been able to walk away, while Abby had never been the same.

He slid across the bench, closing the distance between them until their knees were less than an inch apart. If she leaned forward or shifted even the smallest amount, they’d be touching. Abby stared at the space between them, captivated by what the distance represented. So little space, so much holding them apart.

His hand raised halfway and then he stopped, dropping his fingers back to his leg. He cleared his throat. “Put what’s happened behind us, Abby. I’m only bothering you because I have reason to believe someone is after this town. If they get it, they might raze it to the ground. Feud and all, this is home and I don’t want anyone else coming in and ruining what we’ve all worked so hard to build.” He smiled, his lips as masculine as ever. “Think about it.” He studied Abby another moment and then stood and walked away.

Abby blinked again at his disappearing figure. It might not be a bad idea to look into what he mentioned. She didn’t have to do it for him. She could do it for the town. The last thing she wanted was for Bailey to fall into another tyrannical family’s hands. Hadn’t the last century and a half been enough?

On the other hand, maybe oil would be a good thing for the town of Bailey. Maybe not for the actual Bailey family, but maybe for the other residents of Bailey.

Abby wouldn’t mind researching things, but only to prove Titus wrong. She couldn’t let him be right about anything.

If he was right about this, then would that mean he was right about them?

Kindle

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