The Best-Friend Billionaire Cowboy
Her brother’s best-friend and a decade-old crush – both have grown into something tumultuous.
Julianna Johnson is back home for her daddy’s funeral in Clearwater County, Montana. Love is in the air from a recent wedding and she’s close to screaming. She’s sworn off men and anything resembling love or longing when Zack Brough rides back into her life – on her worst day yet.
Zack doesn’t have a choice on attending the Johnson funeral. Julianna’s brother is his best-friend and funerals are something best-friends go to. But when he sees Julianna, all he can think about is how long it took his heart to heal the last time she left town.
Luckily, he has money and he’s jaded from a bad divorce – so there’s no danger of falling for her… or anyone… again.
Except… Julianna is sass and fire and everything he’s ever wanted. Zack can’t stop longing for what might have been – what could have been.
Just when he thinks there’s no chance he can love again, he’s thrown into close proximity with Julianna again and he realizes she’s the reason he can’t be happy with anyone else.
He can’t just give up on what could be. Zack might have the last chance he’ll ever get to convince Julianna they’re worth trying for. If they can’t work things out before they return to their lives, Zack fears his last chance at love will ride into the sunset.
A disconnect between her emotions and the weather would be nice.
Stormy winds and hovering clouds pregnant with impending promises curled around the cemetery.
Looking around at the other mourners, Julianna snort-laughed, covering her mouth with her free hand hysterically. Her eyes wide, she breathed fast and deep through her nostrils, almost hoping to pass out. The fresh woodsy scent of oak, pine, and tamarack left her feeling heady and clear, but didn’t lessen the pain of loss.
Wouldn’t that mess up her mom’s day? If one of her children passed out while she pretended to mourn her husband? Okay, that wasn’t fair. Julianna didn’t really doubt her mother’s sincerity. She just wasn’t sure about anything concerning her mom. They hadn’t been connected in years and Julianna was in enough pain she didn’t mind jumping to the worst conclusions possible.
Rain, or Heaven forbid, snow threatened in the heavy dark clouds hanging over the Montana scenery. Tree limbs, both covered in pine needles and flat multi-colored leaves longing to drop to the ground, moved in the gusting wind.
Julianna had long ago ignored her hair as it whipped around her face and shoulders.
The pastor who spoke over the gravesite had no power with the Almighty, evidenced as he spoke and the varying levels of his voice. He sounded like he was trapped in a television while someone else messed with the volume on the remote control.
Hands tucked into the side pockets of her light but fashionable black jacket, Julianna glanced around. If she avoided looking at the big black box with her dad in it, she wouldn’t have to think about what she’d missed out on. She could store her regret like old packing material, take it out when she had nothing else to do.
A lot of family and friends had returned to the Johnson Ranch to celebrate and mourn the life of Daniel Johnson. Not as many had shown up for Mac’s wedding.
Julianna hadn’t even tried to make it for her brother’s nuptials. Seeing him happy and in love appealed to a self-harming side she didn’t have. She was happy for him, don’t get her wrong, it was that she couldn’t see another so happy and not have it rubbed in her face how unhappy she was.
“We will lay him to rest in the family plot. If his wife and children would throw in the first handfuls of dirt as they lower him in?” The pastor glanced up at the sky, worry furrowing his brow. “May he rest in peace.”
The soft whir of a machine snapped Julianna’s head up. They were going to lower her dad into the ground. She hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye yet.
Panic welled in her chest. They couldn’t. Not yet! Julianna reached out her hand to waist height and then dropped her fingers back to clench into her fist.
Suddenly, the noise was gone and the pastor glanced at the sky again. A man in black coveralls – obviously not there for the funeral as a mourner – leaned over and whispered into the pastor’s ear. The pastor nodded quickly, then smiled tightly at the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re going to close as is right now. The machine is having a slight issue and with the pending weather, it will be safer to get everyone indoors.” He motioned toward the cars parked along the road leading through the hundred-acre cemetery. “There is a wake to be held at the Johnson home for close friends and family.” He didn’t wait for anyone else to take his direction and turned, leaving without looking back.
Julianna didn’t want to go home. She didn’t want to go anywhere. Any moment her daddy would jump out of the casket and yell surprise. If she wasn’t there, he would be so disappointed. She just knew it.
“I’m glad to get out of here. Did you see that guy ride up by the trees? I wonder if he wants to be my tall, dark and handsome stranger.” Two women standing behind Julianna – she thought they were distant cousins, but she wasn’t sure – giggled as they shuffled with the group to leave.
Tall, dark and handsome strangers had no business at her father’s funeral, nor did the women chasing them. Julianna stood with her back stiff as her brother and his new wife stood beside Paris, Julianna’s mother. Like in a receiving line, the trio accepted hugs and handshakes and well-wishes with appropriately somber expressions. Even with tears, Mother’s makeup was flawless.
Julianna looked away. She didn’t care. She stared at the casket with its chrome trim and shiny black paint. Dad would have hated the pretention of the thing – of the whole event. Even rich as sin he’d hated anything that wasn’t simple and fresh. He’d been so excited to have Mac settled and married. How many emails had Dad sent her, prodding Julianna for something similar?
Her brother and his happiness. His ability to find happiness, unencumbered by mindfulness of others. He had no idea the unhappiness around him because of his choices and his feelings. While that ignorance of the situation wasn’t his fault, Julianna couldn’t help being angry and placing the blame on him for the moment. It was easy to do when she was so lonely.
She had never told her dad she wasn’t meant to be happy. She wasn’t meant to find what he wanted her to find. She’d tried. She had honestly tried. But who she really wanted was so far off-limits, he might as well be a character in a book or a movie star.
A crack of thunder snapped the crowd out of its trance. A few people exclaimed in surprise and the crowd as a whole shifted toward the parked cars, ducking their heads and stepping around other headstones in the sea of well-kept grass.
Fall in Montana didn’t mess around.
What had taken an hour to gather around the gravesite took less than three minutes to empty. The droves of people disappeared and, in seconds, even Mac and his wife along with Julianna’s mother were gone.
No one cast her another glance as they ran to save themselves from… water.
Nothing was moving her. Julianna didn’t move. She wouldn’t move.
She wasn’t even curious about the tall-dark-and-handsome stranger her cousins had mentioned. She’d sworn off men and her daddy’s funeral wasn’t the place to decide to ger burned again.
The pastor was long gone and the burial men had left to find shelter from the storm.
Storm. Julianna tried not to scoff. She was a lifelong resident of Montana. The clouds overhead only promised a torrential downpour with some thunder and lightning. Nothing to be worried about.
Plus, Julianna didn’t care. She wasn’t leaving. Another crack of lightning and the rolling crash of thunder curled around the trees of the cemetery. Then the pattering started in the silence after the storm’s anger.
Pitter-pat-pitter-pat, faster and faster, harder and harder.
And Julianna didn’t care. She stared at the black box, regret and guilt more cantankerous than any storm, weightier than anything else that could possibly pull at her.
Rain hit her hair, her shoulders, dripped down her cheeks to her chin. She hadn’t worn any makeup, uncertain if she’d be the one who claimed not to cry and then sobbed uncontrollably, ruining her makeup.
She reached up, pushing her mass of hair behind her, off her face.
The rain came down. Why did she feel like she couldn’t move? Her limbs were heavy laden. But the silence under the blanket of rain was captivating. Entranced, she glanced around the site once more. Finding it empty, she approached the casket, step by step, determined to keep her control.
Her legs grew shaky as she drew nearer and nearer. Right beside the box adorned with flowers – lilies and white roses – Julianna dropped to her knees. She reached up and grabbed onto one of the chrome handles as if the casket was a life line and not something keeping her from her father.
“Dad, I’m so sorry.” The rain ate her words, the constant downpour had no interference from the wind. Water persistently came down.
Her shoulders shook and she gave in to the need for release from her pain. She couldn’t wail, she couldn’t do anything but sit there and wish for a do-over. Her moans hurt as they seemed to remove a small level of the pain.
After a time, her sobs finally abated and she slowly forced herself to stand, leaning over the coffin like she could somehow feel her father through his loss and the thick walls of the container.
But she felt nothing, just the emptiness she lived with every day.
A movement out of the corner of her eye made her turn in a startled whir.
Under the big willow tree just up the knoll from the graves, a man stood beside his horse. His hat pulled low to cover his face in shadow and protect him from the rain. A long black slicker kept him dry and he faced Julianna with his shoulders squared.
How long had he been there? Had he just witnessed her break down? Julianna lifted her chin, blinking as the rain pelted her lashes. She turned back to the casket. The man was obviously someone who hadn’t really known her father. If he had, he’d know that sitting there watching someone grieve wasn’t respectful and her father had been all about being respectful.
The rain came down harder, if that was possible, now in sheets that drenched Julianna to the core. She didn’t want to move. Where would she go? Back to her mother’s house where everyone would stand around and eat the food and laugh? Laugh… at what? There was nothing left to laugh at.
Julianna didn’t want to go back there. Not yet.
Suddenly, she was wrapped in warmth as a slicker was draped over her shoulders, still warm from the man’s body heat.
Unwilling or unable to turn down the warmth for the moment, Julianna ducked her head, welcoming the protection of the slicker. She inhaled deeply, snapping her eyes open as the familiar scent of a man she’d wanted to forget for the last decade washed over her, permeating her mind.
Zack Brough. He’d been there. He’d seen it all – her break down, her weakness and vulnerability. And he’d come to rescue her.
Sometimes too late wasn’t just a phrase, it was a reality.
It was her reality and Zack Brough was the trigger.
Watching the pastor stumble through the eulogy and the twittering extended family as they wondered how to get a piece of the Johnson wealth was harder than Zack had planned.
He hadn’t wanted to come to the funeral for multiple reasons, the biggest being blonde, curvy, and with green eyes that could slice a man’s intentions in half. Sometimes, though, a man had to ignore all of that and just be there for his best-friend.
He’d left his truck at Mac’s mom’s place and grabbed his old friend, Ruby, to ride to the cemetery. Parking had always been difficult and with the mare, Zack didn’t have to worry about parking or door dings.
Standing on the knoll, beneath the large willows, he’d watched everyone going through the actions of mourning. Julianna had caught his eye shortly after arriving with her stiff shoulders, downcast head position, and her arms wrapped tightly at her waist. He wanted to run to her and admonish her for not dressing appropriately for the weather. Her fashion-focused jacket had been anything but Montana weather friendly.
Zack’s hands tingled to hold her one more time, as they had over the last ten years. Even through his short, regrettable marriage, he’d longed for the ease he’d had in one night with Julianna.
They were perfect for each other and yet, their obstacle was one they couldn’t climb over.
Mac. Zack sought out his life-long friend, smiling at the love in Mac’s eyes as he gazed upon the woman at his side. Zack hadn’t been able to make it to the wedding, but he’d heard it was unmatched in recent Clearwater history. Not the size, but the luxury and conveniences. Mac had rushed the wedding to make sure his dad could attend.
Zack was glad for his friend.
He’d never admit to the slight bitterness in his heart that Mac got to be happy with the woman he loved while Zack had to find substitutes while the woman he loved got away. Again and again.
He clenched his fists at his sides as the pastor excused the group. Everyone rushed their respective directions – except one.
A lone blonde with no regard for the weather or anything else braved the storm with a stubborn tilt to her chin. Oh, how Zack recognized her will.
Her thin jacket pulled in at the waist and accentuated the curves of her hips. Her long legs were encased in black tights under a denim skirt with a slit up the side. Black cowgirl boots finished the outfit and looked like they’d be chilly as they drenched through with water.
She’d leave in a few seconds. The rain wasn’t letting up and her hair had taken the brunt of it. Even when she reached up and pushed her hair back from her face, Zack was sure she was getting ready to leave. He should leave, but she was hypnotic to watch and he hadn’t been found out yet.
Just once, he wanted some unabashed time to see her. Creepy as it was, Zack just wanted to watch her – unashamed – for a few more minutes. Just until she disappeared again.
Instead of running like Zack expected her to, Julianna approached the casket, her hand outstretched. When she fell to her knees, Zack blinked back the moisture in his eyes that had nothing to do with rain.
Losing Daniel Johnson had been hard on everyone. They’d known he was sick, but he was a fighter. But even with Mac’s warnings, Julianna hadn’t returned home. In fact, she’d been so stubborn about coming home, Zack had no doubt her own regret and guilt would be crushing. Zack didn’t wish that on anyone – even the woman who had taken his heart and never returned.
Except, she hadn’t returned to him. She’d come back to say goodbye to her father. Then she would leave. Again. Zack would go his own way. Miserable.
On her knees, Julianna cried and mourned and Zack couldn’t move. He couldn’t interrupt her loss as he struggled to face his own. Minutes passed and finally, Julianna stood, bracing herself on the casket.
Zack shifted on his feet and the mare moved beside him. Julianna turned, her eyes distinct even from that distance of maybe thirty yards.
She turned back as if she didn’t care or recognize him. The rain intensified and still she didn’t move as her clothes became darker and drenched. And she didn’t move.
The chill worked on Zack and he’d been prepared for the weather with his thick oil slicker and wide brimmed Stetson. He slowly closed the distance between them, his horse moving silently at his side.
Behind her, he refused to think and just removed the slicker and wrapped it around her. He didn’t bother announcing himself or even giving her a heads up on what he was going to do. If he knew Julianna, and he did, she wouldn’t accept it. Instead, it was hard to turn down something when you already had it.
After a moment, she stiffened. Somehow she knew it was him. What gave him away? They were both frozen and Zack didn’t want to make the first move or speak first. His heart hadn’t recovered from the last time they’d spoken. He just wanted to be near her and not fight, not regret. Just be.
She reached up, wiping her cheeks and then she turned. Up close, without makeup, she was breathtaking and Zack wanted to freeze time. Just give him a minute to appreciate her with no strings attached or expectations to have a snarky comeback. Please.
She reached up to pull off the slicker, her jaw tight. “Thanks, I don’t need it.”
Zack held out a hand, arching an eyebrow. “You’re a wet noodle. Keep it. I’ll get it from you at the house.”
Her chin lifted at the noodle part. He probably should’ve used a different term or added the word beautiful before it. Wet hair clung to the sides of her face and neck, framing her large eyes and naturally rose-colored lips which were a paler pink with the chill. Eyes flashing, Julianna took a deep breath, focusing on the last part of his words. “You’re going to the house?”
Hesitantly, Zack nodded. “Yeah, Mac invited me to stay for a few days before I go back to Brough Ridges.” His ranch spanned thousands of acres along the norther curve of Clearwater County. He had to make sure she knew he was a good match. He had value. She wasn’t the only one with money.
Julianna narrowed her gaze. “Fine.” She readjusted the slicker he’d let her borrow and spun on her heel, uncaring that the slicker dragged on the floor behind her. She’d always been petite and his clothing dwarfed her.
She stomped a few feet before stopping by the casket as if she wasn’t ready to leave yet but felt forced to. She reached out, running her fingers over the edge of her father’s coffin.
Why did she have to leave? Why did she hate Zack so much?
Forget it. He didn’t have to take her sullen one word replies. Long strides carried him to her side and Zack reached out, gripping her upper arm and gently turning her toward him. He studied her face as he spoke. “Are we doing this?”
“Doing what?” She challenged him to spell it out as if he wouldn’t dare. Her eyes flashed in the dim storm lighting.
He motioned between them, an eyebrow arched as he accepted the challenge. “This. You and me.”
Julianna’s bitter grimace would have passed as a smile with anyone else. He wasn’t just anyone else. She almost spit the words. “No. We aren’t. Which is why you can’t be at my house. I’m not risking any replays of that night.”
That night. She’d dubbed it with a general term that carried more weight than Zack realized a term could carry. He tamped down the emotions and longings just remembering that night and knowing she remembered. All control would fly out the window, if he inspected the meaning behind her words too closely.
Rather than rise to her bait, he decided to give her a taste of her own medicine. He folded his arms, rain still spotting his shirt and pattering on his hat. “I don’t know what you’re worried about. I don’t have any reason to replay that night – then or now.” He stared back at her, refusing to respond to the hurt in her gaze or the thinning of her lips as she frowned.
He hadn’t needed to be that mean. With them it was always cut as hard and fast as you could. They didn’t have to be like that. They could be gentler, kinder. He didn’t want to long for her like he did.
Julianna nodded slowly, holding his gaze with hers. Something hardened in her eyes. “Yeah, me either.”
The lie lay between them like a cold slab of ice. Why didn’t he deny it all? Why didn’t he throw himself on her feet and beg for another night like that one? Pretend that they didn’t have obstacles outside of the realm of normal. They weren’t just a man and a woman trying not to love each other.
They were stuck in a family dynamic he couldn’t explain.
Zack made his lips work. “Then what’s the problem?” He knew what it was. He wanted to be with her, always, and all he could do was lie about it. Lies and pride.
“None. You’re right. I’m not sure what I was thinking. See you there.” She half-shrugged and a mask of neutrality slid into place over her grief. She turned, trailing her fingers along the smooth top of the casket and then she stepped away from the site, her shoulders back.
How was it fair that Zack had never loved her more? Dang her and her intoxicating ways. He hated that he’d pushed her so far away with choices to protect Mac’s feelings as his priority.
Mac would never forgive Zack for falling for his sister. With too many business deals between them and more friendship than they could shake a stick at.
Nothing had changed and yet, he had the feeling everything was shifting.
Even though she wasn’t sure how she felt about her mother, Julianna had missed her home. She didn’t miss the demands for perfection or propriety, but she missed the familiarity of the family house. She missed hearing her father’s voice – something she would never do again – and she missed being comfortable without feeling lonely.
Slipping up the back stairs had been easy as she’d escaped to the bedroom she’d always used. It had been years since she’d visited and she sighed when she realized, at least, Mother had made sure she kept the rooms cleaned and ready for visitors at any time.
Julianna locked the door behind her and kicked her boots off and to the side. She’d have to grab her things later from her car, but not right then. Pulling off Zack’s slicker, she wrapped it in her arms and held it close to her chest. Could she pretend that the warmth was still from him?
A few quick steps placed her by the bed, and she slumped onto the well-padded mattress. For just a minute, she curled up with his gear, pretending he wasn’t out of her reach and hadn’t claimed a lack of feelings. She closed her eyes and breathed in his cologne and the soft combination of man and hay.
What was she doing home? She didn’t have to stay. She’d come and said her goodbyes to her dad, what else did she have to do there?
Obviously she enjoyed punishing herself for mistakes made a long time ago.
Her brother’s best-friend. What was she thinking? He was as off-limits as they came. She couldn’t mess up that relationship between Mac and Zack. There was too much history, too much business between them.
That was a zone she could never venture into. Except… she’d done that before and then run away, leaving her past at home. And even as wrong as their night together was, she never regretted it. She should, but she didn’t.
Julianna blinked back the tears. Okay, it was fine. She was there to mourn Dad and then go back to her meaningless life. She had lots to grieve. It was okay to cry. No one would think poorly of her for reacting to her father’s death. No one else needed to know that she also cried for things she could never have.
Pushing herself from the bed, she left the slicker where’d she lain, abandoning it there as if his smell didn’t call her back like a siren.
Her socked feet sank into the plush carpet and she padded into the attached luxury bathroom.
She could do with a shower and some pampering. She most likely had some clothes from her last visit a few years back left in the closets and some makeup. She didn’t really care, but she couldn’t wear the cold wet clothes much longer without getting sick.
Shedding them, she tossed them into the hamper the maid-of-the-month would gather in the morning. Her mother wasn’t the easiest to work for and only a few of the staff had stayed on longer than a few months.
Since Mac was around more, Julianna understood the staff was given more incentives to stick around and put up with her mother’s issues. She didn’t envy him the job of making up for their mother’s short-comings.
After Julianna’s shower where the heat finally sank beneath her skin, Julianna dressed in black jeans and a black and white button shirt she found in the armoire beside the bed.
She blew out her hair, the heat on medium as she worked out the tangles with her fingers. She didn’t care what she looked like, honest.
But she still couldn’t help wondering who exactly would be there. Zack had said he was coming back to the house. Was he there already? Would he really come back after their confrontation at the cemetery?
Julianna hoped not. She couldn’t handle the stress of being around him and not having him, not being with him. It was in her loneliest moments that she could understand why siblings didn’t like each other. If only Mac wasn’t in the way…
Mac was over-protective when he knew what was going on in her life on a good day. If he actually knew what was going on, he’d never forgive either of them. Nothing she did, though, could make her tell him. What if Zack didn’t feel for Julianna the way she felt for him? Had always felt for him? She’d be a fool and she’d cause problems for no reason.
Leaving her room, she took the long hallway to the staircase and descended to the foyer, following the sounds of voices talking in a somber volume.
The house wasn’t different. Drenched in expensive elegance, the expansive home looked even larger than it was with creams and golds and various muted colors to keep class at the forefront of a visitor’s mind. No matter how much Julianna questioned her mother’s motives, she couldn’t deny her mom’s decorating talent.
Opened to include some of the living space, the dining room’s buffet had been set up along one wall and delicious smells wafted around the open air. Savory gravies and stuffings sat alongside sweet cinnamon rolls and brownies – comfort foods for any who might need it.
Julianna hadn’t been feeling particularly hungry lately, what with her father’s death and stress from investing. Suddenly, faced with a full buffet of comfort foods she would normally never indulge in, Julianna couldn’t believe how hungry she actually was.
Mac and his wife sat at the table while a small boy with Mac’s blue eyes sat between them. “Try the rice, I promise you’ll like it. It’s like eating maggots.” Mac wiggled his eyebrows at the child.
Sydney dropped her jaw and shook her head, hiding the smile on her lips as she held Mac’s gaze for a moment. “Sh. Don’t tell him that.” She rolled her eyes and looked down at the boy. “Daniel, you know the rules, you’re going to try everything. We’ll talk about how much you eat after that, if you want desert.” She rubbed her forehead and looked up, catching sight of Julianna.
No matter how delicious the food looked, Julianna couldn’t stomach the overflowing love in the room. But Sydney caught her before Julianna could turn around and go back upstairs. Watching Mac and his little family was the last thing she wanted to do for the rest of the day or week.
“Julianna, I’m so glad you’re here. We were just about to make our announcement.” Sydney smiled and pointed at Julianna as Daniel looked up. “Daniel, do you remember Aunt Julianna?”
Julianna moved closer to the table. “No, remember, it’s Aunt Jules. Julianna is a mouthful for an adult let alone a strapping kid your size.” Julianna glanced at Mac. “Seriously, what are you feeding him?” The small boy was adorable and Julianna didn’t want to get wrapped around his finger. She was so close to asking his parents if she could steal him for the day. He made her want her own children and that wasn’t safe.
Everyone laughed and she glanced around the table at the rest of the occupants. She nodded at each as she acknowledged them, pausing for a moment before his name. “Zack, nice to see you again.” She moved past him, ignoring the demands of her tightening heart to return to him. “Mother, thank you for having me.” As much as she didn’t want to be around her mom, she had been raised to always use her manners and be polite.
No matter what.
Julianna claimed a plate and filled it with scalloped potatoes, ham, asparagus, broccoli and cauliflower au gratin, and some salad. She might have grabbed two rolls and smothered them in raspberry jelly, but as soon as they were eaten, she’d deny every second of it.
She claimed a spot on the table down a seat from Zack who had barely replied to her hello. Fine. She didn’t care. She didn’t want to play games anyway. Her emotions weren’t stable enough to deal with anything just yet.
Julianna smiled tightly. “This looks delicious, Mom, thanks.” She picked up her fork and cut some ham, listening to the side conversation between Mac and another uncle who was there.
After a few minutes, a large portion of the local family members departed, people Julianna hadn’t seen in years. She wasn’t sad to see them go, but she bid them goodbye with the breeding her mother had instilled in her.
Then it was just Mac and his small family, her mother, and Zack with Julianna left to feel like the odd man out. She didn’t want to be there and she’d never felt it so stridently as she did right then.
Sudden tiredness flooded over her and she just wanted to go to bed.
She glanced up at Zack, unable to keep him from her thoughts. She blinked at the sight of him staring at her. She glanced down and then back up at him. After a moment, she screwed her lips to the side in a mocking smile. “Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” The childhood retort just appeared on her tongue, but she was feeling childish and churlish. She didn’t want to, but with the tension in her at seeing him again and all of the other pent up frustration surrounding that day, she wasn’t in the mood to be kind.
“Nice. I don’t want to break the camera.” He winked at her, his lips curling in a teasing smile.
Julianna snarled, resting her forearms on the edge of the table and shaking her head. She wasn’t in the mood for his backwards flirting. He might think he was charming, but it wore on her.
Zack glanced at her a couple more times in the space of a minute and Julianna dropped her fork on the plate. “Enough, Zack. Quit looking at me. Got it?” She leaned her elbow on the table and picked up her drink, sighing as she tried not to throw her glass Zack’s direction.
“Julianna Johnson.” Her mother snapped and picked up her napkin, eyeing her daughter with disapproval. “Manners.”
“Mom, I hate to break it to you, but I’m almost thirty and I don’t need to be told how to behave.” Her anger didn’t slow as she turned her attention back to Zack. Anger swirled inside her in an out of control turmoil and she didn’t even try to leash it in. “Why are you even here? He wasn’t your dad. Go away.”
As soon as the words left her lips, her face drained of heat and she held out her hand. Closing her eyes, she sighed. “I’m sorry. That isn’t true. I just…” She just what? What could she possibly do to explain her hateful actions? She couldn’t. There was no way to tell Zack that she was lonely and she wanted to be with him. Not when she just snapped at him and told him to leave.
“Julianna, that’s enough. Get yourself together. Hopefully, tomorrow, you’re acting more like yourself.” Mac stood, setting his napkin at his place. He stopped before walking out, ushering toward his wife. “Oh, I forgot you had an announcement. I’m sorry.”
Beaming with her cheeks flushed, Sydney smiled and took Mac’s hand. Julianna shifted uncomfortably in her seat. Sydney glanced at the rest of the table then back at Mac. She licked her lips and took a deep breath. “Well, I wanted to share our news with the family since everyone is here.”
Not everyone had made it actually, but Julianna knew what Sydney was getting at. As much of the family that was going to come had finally arrived.
They all stared at Sydney expectantly, waiting for whatever she was holding at bay. Then Julianna blurted out, “Oh, my George, you’re pregnant!” She covered her mouth with her hand, eyes wide as she reeled back in horror at her faux pas.
Sydney’s joy wasn’t to be deterred. She pointedly excitedly at Julianna and beamed. “Yes! Great guess, but that’s not all.”
“Not all? That’s amazing. How can get a baby get any better?” Mac’s face was wreathed in joy. He reached down and played with Danny’s hair.
“When there’s two?” Sydney asked shyly, watching Mac like she expected him to be unhappy about the situation.
Mac froze, his mouth slowly opening into a circle and then he whooped and hollered, grabbing Daniel and Sydney in his arms and swinging them around. “Twins! I’m having twins. I mean, we’re having twins. We are.” He set his wife down and beamed at her. Their happiness was thick and covered every inch of surface in the room like it was a coating of sticky syrup.
“I’ll walk you out. I wondered if you were looking a little peaked.” Julianna’s mom rounded the table and shot a look at her daughter as if to say “behave” as she wrapped her arm around Sydney’s shoulders. “I’m so excited for you two. We need to talk about a layette.”
Mac waved his hand at Zack but didn’t say much as they left the room in a cluster of fast talking and excited phrases.
The sudden silence around them was deafening and Julianna didn’t know what to say. She picked at the food on her plate, glancing toward Zack with embarrassed chagrin. She cleared her throat and set her fork down. “Zack, I’m sorry. You loved my dad, too. I had no right to say that. I don’t even think it. I…” She shrugged, heat warming her cheeks. “I’m sorry.” She wasn’t sure what else to say. She really didn’t have anything else to give him.
“Thanks, I appreciate that. I know how hard that had to have been.” He set his cloth napkin on the linen tablecloth beside his plate. “I’m going to be honest. I expect this time to be hard on you, on all of you. So, a little leeway isn’t unheard of.” He met her gaze with his, his eyes hard. “Are we going to talk about this?”
“Talk about what?” Julianna looked away from him, her brazenness defeating her as she faced a difficult conversation she couldn’t have. She’d run because she was a coward. Nothing had changed since then.
“Jules…” The tender endearment wasn’t welcomed from him. Not when he couldn’t back it up with the affection he used when he addressed her with it. She didn’t want empty flatterings from him. She wanted the real thing.
Julianna looked back at him, blinking back tears. “Okay, you want to push it? Here’s what we can say. It was a mistake. Obviously, it wasn’t something we repeated, right? It’s probably something that we won’t repeat.” Wasn’t it? That’s what she had to call it. A mistake that wouldn’t be repeated. She couldn’t help hoping Zack would argue with her, claim it wasn’t a mistake or that it was worth repeating.
“Ahhh. Okay.” Zack breathed in slowly, nodding with his jaw clenched and eyes tight. “Right, neither of us are interested. We agree on that.” Something flashed in Zack’s eyes that did a funny thing to Julianna’s chest.
He wasn’t interested. It didn’t get plainer than that.
She stood, pushing her chair back and leaving it where it stopped. “Yep. We can agree on that.” She set her chin to the side, frustrated she couldn’t say what she wanted to say and more to the point, what she should say.
Walking to the door, she found herself whirled against the wall, Zack’s body pressed against hers. His heat was pervasive and Julianna wasn’t sure if she wanted to shove him off her or keep him close.
Leaning his face closer to hers, Zack’s gaze roved her face. He lowered his voice, his eyes steady as he finally held her gaze in his. “Do you really believe that? Do you think I believe you? I don’t believe any of this.”
Julianna bit her lip and studied his expression. Was that raw pain in his eyes? After a minute, she caught her breath enough to whisper, “Quit trying to hurt me.” She wanted to cry. Of course, he didn’t want to hurt her, but what else could she think when every time they were around each other, she stung?
“Sweetheart, I haven’t stopped hurting from the things you do to me. You have that market cornered.” He let her go, defeat strong in his eyes. “You’ll get your way. I’ll leave you alone.”
Julianna paused, hesitating before running from the room. Of course, she’d hurt him. That was the only way to protect her own heart. As long as she kept running, she wouldn’t be able to linger over the pain – his or hers. But her self-preservation didn’t care about fixing the shame she felt about hurting him.
Someone had to stay sane in their relationship – which meant they couldn’t have one. Julianna could do it. If not, they’d both end up hurting Mac. They were off limits to each other. Mac would never allow it. One more reason to stay away from her family. She loved Mac but she didn’t have to like him when she was unhappy because of him.
No matter what she thought, she couldn’t help but acknowledge the truth. If she and Zack gave a relationship a try and they didn’t work out, Mac’s feelings and loyalties would be trampled. No. Julianna would have to be the responsible one in the situation.
Two broken hearts were better than three.