Fifteen years was a hell of a long time. Some people said you couldn't go home again, and Jared Danville had believed that. He'd left Danville, Kansas, and done his best not to look back. Until now.
Sitting in his Lexus at the end of his parents' long, winding driveway, he looked toward the massive Victorian house on the hill overlooking the town his great-great-something grandfather had founded. Every son and daughter of every generation since had stayed here, had brought wives and husbands here, and had helped grow the town. Except him. He hadn't been able to stay another minute in small town USA.
Right now, with all the crazy turns his life had taken lately, small town Danville held a lot more appeal than it once had. Home.
He owned an expensively decorated condo practically on the beach in Santa Monica. Prime property. As he carefully stretched his still-healing body, he finally understood what "home" really meant. It wasn't how valuable the house was or how big. His California condo--just because of where it was-- easily had a higher monetary value than this huge three-story house with its fancy gingerbread trim, wraparound veranda, and turrets. But this was home.
As always, his parents had put up thousands of tiny white lights lining the numerous turrets, the high-pointed peaks, and the edges of the roof. When he'd been a teenager, he'd once tried to help with putting up those lights. All youthful macho man, he'd gotten careless and rolled off the roof. He'd broken an arm and sprained a leg. That had pretty much ended his holiday decorating.
And he'd stopped celebrating Christmas altogether after he'd left here two days before Christmas almost fifteen years ago.
He squeezed his eyes shut on that raw memory. Pain.
His upper left chest throbbed from too many hours sitting in one position and from trying to help steer with his left arm when his right arm got too tired. He needed to lie down, although he probably should take one of the pain pills first, but he really didn't want to. He hated feeling weak, mentally or physically.
Disgusted, he opened his eyes. He shifted his gaze toward the cottage-style house next door, Holly Jacob's home. How many times had they sat snuggled together on that porch swing? How many kisses had he stolen there with her mother inside the house? Sweet. Her kisses had been so sweet and yet filled with youthful passion. God, he missed them. Missed her.
Smoke curled lazily up from the chimney. Even in the afternoon, Christmas lights already twinkled in the big pine tree in the center of the yard. The three-foot tall plastic Santa and Mrs. Claus with two slightly smaller elves had been put out this time of year for as long as he could remember. They looked worn by age, but they were a Jacobs' family tradition. One that would stop after this season. The worn Santa and Mrs. Santa and the elves would probably be thrown out as Holly thinned her belongings.
His gaze hardened and moved to the For Sale sign only a few feet away from the Santa scene. His jaw tightened. He thought about the much-read and sadly wrinkled letter he'd received out of the blue from his dad just over three weeks ago. Talk about "creepy." Just when he'd been thinking about selling out of the private security business, just when he'd broken up with his second fiancee, just when he'd been balanced in that precarious state of "there's a 50/50 chance he'll make it," according to what his doctors had told his partners in the ICU... Somehow his parents had tracked him down. "Come home for Christmas, son.
Something pinched in the region of his heart. Here he was after all these years. Home. He'd never thought this would happen. He'd left during a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Now he'd returned just after a snowstorm. The remnants of it were all around him. Cold. He felt chilled to the bone even in the heated car. Frustrated, too. "Holly is leaving us. You'd best come back and say your good-bye before it's too late.
He'd read that part of his father's note while still groggy and in the hospital. The words had kick-started his heart again. He'd thought his father had meant she was dying. He'd dropped the note, started pulling out IV lines, and caused all kinds of warning alarms to go off. Nurses had streamed into the private room, even a doctor had raced inside. He'd been a crazed man determined to get the hell out of there to go to Holly. The only thing that had stopped him was one of the nurses finding the note and reading it to see what had set him off.
"This Holly person moving bothers you?" she asked
"Moving?" He slumped on his bed. "Not dying?
"I don't see anything about her dying. Just leaving. Moving to San Diego in January," she'd said as the other nurse and doctor worked at getting him to lie back
"Not dying?" His fuzzy brain had only read part of the note. He'd stopped too soon
The note had haunted him, made him strive to heal faster, and do more physical therapy than recommended. He'd ignored all warnings to be careful, not push himself so hard. Urgency had built within him. He needed to finally face his past and the wrongs he'd done to his family. He felt an even more powerful need to see Holly again. His gut told him if he didn't get back to Danville and confront Holly he would regret it for the rest of his life. His gut feelings had seldom been wrong, so he'd heeded them and decided to check out of the hospital far earlier than his doctor wanted. When he made his mind up about something, nothing and no one could sway him.
The only concession he'd made to anyone's loudly voiced concerns was he wouldn't fly home. Air pressure changes would have played havoc with his many healing stitches and his recovery from the fairly serious concussion. So he'd driven. Two and a half days of fighting fatigue, staying off his pain meds, and disregarding everything but the need to see Holly.
He leaned his head back. Now that he wasn't driving, his mind was getting muddled. Tired, so tired.
He'd left here a strong-willed, tough kid. He'd become even tougher, harder, more determined. He rubbed at his shoulder and smiled. His partners called him Alpha Stud on Steroids. There'd been plenty of times when he fit the title, mainly because he'd been searching for the right woman. The one who fit him, who understood him, who could keep up with him in bed. His gut told him that woman was Holly, had always been her, and would always be her.
He rotated his left shoulder. Damn but that hurt. His partners also called him Kick-ass Badass. At the moment he didn't feel like he could kick anyone's ass.
Something thudded against his windshield.
He immediately reached for the lock box beneath his seat and the gun inside. Then he noted the smashed snowball and the water dripping down from it. He sucked in a steadying breath and the tension eased from his body. A snowball? Someone would have had to work darn hard to scrape up enough snow to make a snowball from the spattering of snow on the lawns nearby.
Before he could open his door, five foot maybe two of clearly pissed off female stomped over to glare at him. He gaped in shock at brown eyes darkened so much they looked nearly black, at a perky nose scrunched in disgust, at pink lips pursed so tight her mouth had to hurt. Holly. Rigid with fury. Even buried within a thick, red ski jacket she looked so damn cute in a full-blown woman way he ached to pull her into his arms.
He'd missed this hell on wheels. Yes, this was the only woman he'd ever wanted, would ever want.
She stepped back so he could get out of the car. But before he could speak, she snapped, "You sonofabitch!" And then she stormed away.
Not exactly a loving endearment, but he could work with it.
"Come back here!" Jared yelled behind her as Holly marched back toward her cottage.
She couldn't believe she'd actually thrown a snowball at his car. How immature! She'd come outside to check on her lights and watched him pull into the Danville's driveway. She'd recognized him instantly. All the hurt she thought she'd gotten over had burst free again. Just the sight of him had peeled away almost fifteen years of maturing from the often reckless teenager to the calm, respected woman she'd worked hard to become. She'd always had strong reactions to Jared Danville. Darn it! Darn it! Double darn it! She was soooo over him. She was! Really!
"Holly! Dammit, Holly, stop!"
His voice had deepened into a husky, sensual growl. It did funny things to her insides, spiraled warmth through her, especially low in her body. It made her think of... No!
"Go. Away! Disappear back into the ether like you did before." She hated the way her voice had choked up. She refused to look back at him and moved faster.
She'd almost made it to her porch when a snowball hit her just above the collar. With her short hair there was nothing to prevent cold drops of melting snow from going down her back. She stiffened, curled her hands into fists, and rounded on the man who'd once been the boy she'd believed she would one day marry.
As Jared stopped a few feet away, she took in the changes the years had made in him. Where the boy she'd teased, tormented, and had a mad crush on had been the hottest eighteen-yearold in Danville, Jared, the man, was a breath-stealing hunk to warm any woman's dreams. Pitch black hair had thinned in front to a widow's peak, but was otherwise still thick and begged for her hands to slide through it. Crow's feet etched the tanned skin of his face at the corners of deep, rich chocolate eyes. And beard stubble caressed his carved face. A slightly pale face, pinched with white lines of...pain?
"Are you done yet?" he asked, ending her close examination and making her forget what she'd just noticed.
She blinked in annoyance. "More than done," she lied, spun around and continued marching to her house. Something she'd seen nagged at her. What had it been?
A big hand snagged her arm and Jared jerked her to a stop.
"Let me go or else..."
"Or else what?" He sounded amused. With another tug, he pulled her to him.
She hadn't been sure what threat she'd intended and all thoughts of threat faded from her mind the instant her coat-covered chest bumped against him. She got the immediate impression of well-defined pecs beneath the black cable knit sweater. He'd gotten out of the car without a coat and it was freezing cold out here. Yet heat blazed between them. Beads of sweat formed on her back, in her cleavage. Her heart raced. And all of that ticked her off. She tried to wriggle free.
"We need to talk."
His brown gaze held hers, so many emotions swimming within it. He didn't look like a man who accepted defiance. He looked hard, dangerous...not the bad boy kid he'd once been. Sadly, she found the dangerous man very appealing. But she'd spent years trying to get over him walking--no, running--out of her life.
"I don't think so." She pushed back with all her might and barely managed not to fall on her backside. "Why couldn't you have stayed away?"
He appeared to hold his breath, jaw tensed. Finally he said, "Because it's time I made peace." He started to reach for her again, but stopped. Instead, he swept his gaze over her once more. "You haven't changed a bit and yet you've changed so much."
Holly frowned. "What the heck is that supposed to mean?"
A hint of a grin appeared at the same time his gaze heated. "You're still the contrary female you always were. But you're also damn cute."
"Cute! Not pretty, not beautiful, but cute!"
He had the gall to chuckle, though she had the impression he wasn't a man who laughed often. In spite of her anger with him, she wondered what had happened to him over the missing years. There was a sense of hardness about him. In the stiff way he carried himself. In the hints of having seen too much that lingered in the depths of his eyes. Yet she felt a vulnerability about him as well.
"Honey, you're puffed out to probably twice your normal size in that down jacket. You're wearing thickly lined suede boots. You could have the shapeliest legs I've ever seen, but I sure can't tell now." His rusty grin widened a bit. "Cute is the best I can do at the moment."
Annoyed with her softening attitude toward him, she curled a lip in disgust.
He chuckled once more.
Fighting against an unwanted attraction, she leaped back even further into her old, immature ways and shoved at his rock-solid chest.
Caught off guard, he flinched, groaned, and landed on his butt in the mushy, wet brown grass. "What the hell!" He glared up at her and rubbed at his upper left chest.
A lesser woman would have been alarmed by the ferocity in his tone. She wasn't, but her childish behavior mortified her. She sped toward her house, but she didn't escape fast enough.
"First chance I get, Holly Jacobs, I'm warming your bottom!"
Face flaming, she gripped the handle of her front storm door and scanned the area, hoping no one else had heard what he'd said or had witnessed her behavior. When she didn't see anyone, she called back, "In your dreams, Stud Boy."
He climbed gingerly to his feet and brushed off his wet slacks. "Did you call me 'Stud Boy'?"
Unable to believe she'd actually said such a thing, she shoved open the inner door and fled into the safety of her house. She slammed the door and leaned back against it. She'd just started making plans to leave Danville to begin a new life. She'd met a man in San Diego online a year ago, visited him several times since then. Eric wanted her to move there and take their relationship farther. She'd dragged her feet until he'd almost given up on her. Now, when she'd finally made plans, Jared came home.
"No!" she snapped, shoving away from the door. Jared being back in Danville had nothing to do with her life. She was selling her business, selling her house, and moving half-way across the country. Done deal.
His body aching, Jared started to follow after Holly. He wasn't finished with her. He just needed to catch his breath, force down the demanding need for the pain killers he'd avoided taking. He'd gone through dependency and withdrawal once before. He wouldn't go through it again. He hesitated, rubbed at his shoulder wound, and steadied his breathing. Another minute...
Footsteps sloshed their way across the driveway behind him and then the lawn. He stiffened. Panic crept into his consciousness. The fight or flee feeling. He stood his ground. He'd been a Marine, a trained badass. "The few, the proud" had turned him into a man who could face anything, do anything, and bear anything. His breathing ability returned. His confidence as well.
Slowly he turned. His mother raced across the yard toward him. For a seventy-two-year-old woman she still had a lot of zip. And she sported the reddest hair he'd ever seen, a sort of orange-red. Wow! Not something he ever would have expected.
"Oh Jared! My sweet, sweet Jared!" She threw her arms around him, hugged him with amazing strength. "I saw the strange car. I had a feeling, a mother's intuitive moment." She sniffed back tears and hugged him harder. "I just knew. I knew it was my baby boy."
Baby boy. He was hardly that anymore, but, damn, if it didn't sound good to be called that once more. Her hug nearly brought him to his knees. He couldn't show weakness in front of her. "Mom," was all he could manage to say.
Then she released him, stepped to his side, and swatted his bottom. "That's for hurting me like you did."
He gaped at her. Few people would even consider taking him on. Yet this woman who barely reached his chin had smacked him on the butt.
"No doubt I deserved that. More, too." In spite of his tenuous hold on his pain, he pulled her to him, inhaled the once familiar scent of his mother, and savored the feel of her. He'd hoped, but he'd never really dreamed he'd have this moment again.
"About time you showed up," his father stated in a deep tone much like Jared's. "Guess you got my note."
Jared looked at his father, recognized the physical similarities, saw the same wariness he felt. And then the sense of distance faded.
His father stepped beside them in Holly's front yard and wrapped his arms around Jared and his mother. "I'd hoped. Prayed." He audibly swallowed hard, and he hugged them both tighter.
Jaw tight with strain, Jared swallowed down years of regret. "Sorry." A lot more needed to be said, later.
After a final squeeze, they separated. His mother took his big hand in her much smaller one to lead him back to their house. She refused to let go of him.
"How come your backside's all wet?" his father asked from behind them.
His mother stopped to look and questioned in maternal disapproval, "And where is your coat?"
Warmth curled inside him in a way it hadn't in far too long. He nodded toward the cottage. "It's all Holly's fault."
"Is she okay?" Concern filled his mother's eyes.
"She hits my car with a snowball, shoves me onto my ass in the wet grass...and she's who you're worried about?" He raised an eyebrow, more in amusement than irritation with Holly's behavior. "She's a bit pissed off to see me."
"That's probably putting her feelings mildly."
His father headed for Jared's car. "Let's grab your bag and get out of this cold. Your mom just took a pumpkin pie out of the oven. I've been drooling over the smell for almost an hour. Maybe we can--"
"James Danville, the pie is for tomorrow's dinner with the kids." She tugged Jared along, smiling up at him. "I've got gingerbread cookies, though. You used to like..."
When tears trickled down her gently lined face, Jared felt lower than slime. "Gingerbread cookies and a glass of milk sound awful good, Mom." Damn good
A few minutes later he sat in one of the chairs in the eating nook attached to the over-sized kitchen. The house felt warm after coming in from the below freezing temperature outside. Scents of pumpkin pie and gingerbread drifted around him, making his stomach rumble, making him remember similar smells from so long ago. The faint sounds of Christmas music played on the stereo from the great room. He closed his eyes, felt swamped with so much guilt, so much pain. The music he'd worked hard to avoid hearing tortured him with all he'd turned his back on.
"I..." he began, uncertain how to apologize, how to explain why he'd left. He'd been tired of arguing with his father all the time. Of the four Danville kids, he'd been the one with the biggest ego, the most daring, and the hardest head. He'd lacked the ability to see beyond what he wanted. His two older brothers had excelled at almost everything. He'd been the family rebel. His grades had been less than stellar. He'd gotten kicked off the football team. He couldn't remember the number of times the Sheriff had personally delivered him home after some prank or another. Yes, Black Sheep of the Danville Family had definitely been his well-earned title. His parents had struggled to deal with his title and reputation.
His mother jammed a cookie between his teeth. "Not now, Jared. I only want to enjoy having you home."
His father sat down opposite him and took a cookie from the plate between them. "We'll talk it out later, son."
Jared chewed on the cookie, absorbed the comfort of being with family again. He'd missed them. All the places he'd been, all the things he'd seen...none of them compared to being with people who loved you or with being back in your family's home. Why had it taken him so damn long to figure this out? Probably because he'd kept himself so busy all these years, desperate not to have time to think about what he'd left behind.
His shoulder ached, but he didn't think Holly's push or his landing on his butt had done any damage. His head pounded. He had trouble focusing, but he didn't want his folks to know about any of his problems. He didn't want to worry his mom.
"So how're Jason and Kandee? Jim and..." He hesitated. "Oh right, he's divorced now. And what about Jocie? Wasn't she engaged?"
His father studied him curiously. "You've been keeping up with your family?"
When Jared would have answered, his father waved it off. "Glad to hear that."
Guilt weighed even heavier on him. The first year he'd been away, he'd sent an occasional postcard to let them know he was at least alive and breathing somewhere. When he'd joined the Marines, he'd stopped sending the postcards. He'd gone places his mother would have been worried sick about. Stupidly, he'd thought she'd be better off not knowing where he went. After he'd got out of the Marines, he'd decided it had been too long since he'd communicated with them. Why stir them up by contacting them again? Yet he'd always kept up with what happened in his family and in his hometown. His parents had good, happy lives. They had two sons to be proud of, who'd taken over the family's law firm of Danville and Danville. They had a daughter who had a successful real estate company. His father still managed the Danville Bank, started by his great-great-grandfather a hundred years ago. They had grandchildren. They hadn't needed him. At least that's what he'd told himself.
He ground his teeth in annoyance. Pity party, like some girl. Get over it! You screwed up. Now man-up and fix things. They'd tried in a way. They'd managed to track him down in
L. A. and get a note to him.
He was about to speak when his mother said, "Jason and Kandee have three grown kids of their own and two grandchildren." She slid a glass of milk in front of him. "Jim's still bitter about the divorce. Long story for another time. And Jocie is on-again, off-again in the engagement thing with her partner in the real estate business, Parker Greene."
"You can catch up with them tomorrow," his father said. "Everyone is coming here for Sunday dinner, as usual." He sighed and his brow furrowed. "I'd better warn you, your brothers are still a bit hostile about the past."
Jared nodded and took a drink. He'd figured as much. "I'll mend fences, if I can."
With a nod of acceptance, his father asked, "What about you, son? Are you married? Any kids?"
He looked at his parents. They appeared hungry for any kind of knowledge about him and his life, which made him feel even worse. "I've never been married. Engaged a couple of times." After learning about Holly planning to leave, he'd panicked. He'd finally realized exactly why he'd broken off those engagements. They'd both been beautiful, caring women. But they hadn't been Holly. "No kids either."
"You weren't ready before, were you?" his mother prodded. "To settle down with someone." She studied him another second. "Something tells me you're ready now."
His gaze shifted away from her knowing look. "At the moment I don't have a job or even know where I want to live, or what I really want to do. Settling down doesn't seem to be in my immediate future." But he'd figure it out. And Holly
would be included in that future!
"I need--" his father started to say.
"Not now, James," his mother interrupted heatedly. "Don't you bring up the bank. I've just got my son back. I won't have you driving him away again."
"Mom," Jared started, and then stopped. The bank had been part of why he'd left. He hadn't wanted to be molded into taking over a job that held no interest for him. His brothers had already joined the law firm, being almost twenty years older than him. He'd been a "surprise" baby born late in his parents' lives. He'd been his father's last hope of having an heir to take over managing the bank.
"No! We're not getting into any of that now." She raised her stubborn chin. "You'll figure out what you want to do and we'll back you unconditionally."
Jared suddenly blinked at tears that threatened. He reached for another cookie. Where was the hardened Marine? The tough bodyguard he'd been for the last five years that could face down the most dangerous attackers?
"Your mother's right. We just want you to be happy, son." His father reached over and patted Jared's hand. "It would be awful nice if you could be happy here, doing whatever you want to do."
When he'd decided to make this trip, he'd never expected to be hit with homesickness. He hadn't known what he wanted here beyond making peace with his family and convincing Holly to make a life with him. Now he wondered about staying here in Danville. L. A. didn't appeal to him anymore. He'd told his partners he wanted to sell out of the private security firm, although they were balking at his sudden decision. He could sell his beach house pretty easily.
He shook off those thoughts. "I've got a lot of thinking to do, Dad. My life has been kind of complicated this last year. Getting shot a month ago--"
"Shot?" His mother stepped closer, used a mother's x-ray vision to look over every inch of him. "You do look sort of pale, kind of pinched around your mouth. Are you in pain? Should you be in bed? James, maybe we should call the doctor." She leaned down and hugged him, nearly strangling him.
Jared sucked in a breath and gritted his teeth, endured as best he could. "No doctor."
"Darlene, he can't breathe."
She reluctantly released him but looked at him in concern.
He waited until his pulse slowed down and the pain eased. His dad had been right; his mother had had the strength of a Python. "It wasn't that bad. Well, okay, it was. But I didn't know how to tell you, or if you'd even care." The flash of hurt in his mother's eyes told him what a fool he'd been, then and now.
For a second it looked like his mother intended to give him a royal lecture, which he deserved. But then she blew out a sigh of frustration. "I'm putting you to bed. You will tell me all about it. Later. Right now I don't think I could handle it."
His father wasn't quite ready to drop the subject. "What were you doing that got you shot?" Clearly, with his other sons being small-town lawyers and his daughter a realtor, the thought of his youngest son doing something dangerous had shocked him.
"Acting as a bodyguard." All the traveling he'd done the last couple of days was getting to him. He yawned and stretched his long legs out. "Unfortunately, getting shot can be a hazard of the job."
"But you're not one now, right?" His mother's eyes flashed with disapproval.
"Time will tell. I've been a partner in a private security business with some old Marine buddies for the last five years. But I'm trying to sell out of the company." He yawned again. "My partners are trying to change my mind."
"Tell them No!"
He had to smile at the fervor in his mother's tone. "I'm not a little boy, Mom. You can't tell me what to do anymore."
She huffed. "Never could." Then she calmed down and smiled. "You always were my toughest child."
His father nodded. "If you didn't find trouble, it found you." He looked thoughtful. "Holly was always the same way. And you spent a lot of time getting her out of mischief."
"What a pair you two were!" His mother shook her head sadly. "Are you going to make things right with Holly before she leaves town?"
Jared fisted his hands on the table, ground his jaw.
She went on without noticing the tension emanating from him. "Our Holly has decided she's finally had enough of Danville. She's trying to sell her quilt shop and putting her house on the market." Tears glimmered in her eyes.
"There's a man in San Diego she met online, that she's visited a few times. He wants her to move there and marry him," his father finished, looking every bit as unhappy as Jared felt.
"It's not happening!" Jared stood, grimaced, and headed out of the room.