"Talon. Why are you here? Why now?" She wouldn't cry if it killed her.
"I heard about your father's bet. I heard what Jed had done to you." Talon's grip loosened a bit, but he didn't let her go. He held on to her upper arms, supporting her sagging weight.
Alison's heart melted at his gentle tone, and she desperately wanted to run her fingers through his hair. Even after all this time, she was still smitten with him--the only man who'd given her the time of day. But those childish days were long gone.
"My father...gambled me away. I'm getting married next week."
Talon's look darkened. She recognized that scowl. She imagined what he'd be like if he hadn't been found by a white man as a child. Talon would be running with the Comanche Indians, sweeping across the desert and living off the land. That untamed wildness was not dead in him. He'd once told her he still remembered flashes of his life with the Comanche. She saw some of that wildness in him now.
"You are not getting married, Allie. Not if I can help it."
A faint ray of hope lit in her heart. "What do you mean? What are you going to do?"
"I'm going to fix your father's mistake, that's what I'm going to do. I'll be damned before I let you pay for his blunder."
Alison swallowed hard and looked deep into his eyes. Seeing him again after all this time was nearly too painful to bear.
"Why?" she asked.
He seemed shocked. "What do you mean, why?"
Shaking her head, she broke his eye contact and twisted away from his hands. She took a step back before answering him.
"Why do you care?"
"You're my friend, Allie. I owe it to you."
She gave him an incredulous look. "You don't owe me a thing, Talon Holt. I did just fine when you left me. I'll do just fine without you now."
He sighed. "You're mad at me."
"No," she said, regret lacing her voice. "I'm well beyond mad at you. You left Banning. Without even talking to me about your decision. I knew the day I watched you ride away that you didn't care about me. Please don't pretend to care now."
Lifting her skirts, she attempted to walk past him, but he caught her arm in his painful grip.
"You know damn well I care for you, Allie."
"Do I? Because all those nights I cried into my pillow convinced me otherwise."
"I'm sorry, damn it! Is that what you want me to say?"
"I don't want you to say anything, especially words you don't mean."
"I mean every single word I say, you know that."
"No, I don't." Alison pulled out of his grasp once again. "I'm not your responsibility, Talon, I never was."
"You've done a lot of growing up since I last saw you. But so have I. I'm not running anymore, Allie. I'm here in Banning to stay. And I'm not going to stand by and watch you get married to some gambler you don't love."
"You can't stop it." Alison stared at the ground as her hand absently played in the folds of her skirts. "Sumrall threatened to kill my father if I don't comply."
Talon hooked a finger under her chin, forcing her to look at him. Once she saw the tender light in his eyes, tears welled behind her own. "That won't happen. Sumrall will marry you over my dead body, not your father's. END EXCERPT If I could undo what I did five years ago, I'd do it in a heartbeat, you've got to believe me on that. Allie, I'm so sorry."