"I had that dream again." Jocelyn clutched the wheel of her rented SUV until her knuckles went white. Beads of perspiration broke out along her forehead as she attempted to stave off the shiver racing up her spine. Taking a deep breath to calm the erratic beating of her heart, she mentally counted down from ten. She hadn't meant to blurt that out, but anything was better than the silence. The silence that gave her a chance to dwell on things she would rather not have.
Even after all this time, reliving the moment over and over again still had the power to reduce her to a bundle of nerves. To make her afraid. Ashamed. Less than human. The nausea welling within the pit of her stomach made her tremble.
"Do you want to talk about it?" Her best friend and traveling companion reached over to rub her thigh.
Jocelyn shook her head, knowing she'd said more than she should have. Why did she have to open her big mouth? What she really wanted to do was turn the vehicle around and go home, back to New York and fade back into her world of pretense. A place where she ceased being just plain Jocelyn Winters, but instead known as Jos Song. When she was Jos, she was beautiful, confident, brave, not constantly looking over her shoulder, unable to trust or give all of who she was. No, the cloak she donned as her public persona would not shield her where she was headed.
She waved her hand dismissively. "Forget I mentioned it."
Kyla tightened her clutch. "How can I when you're shaking like a leaf? You don't look so well, hon. Maybe we should pull over at the next exit."
"No!" The truth was, if she stopped this vehicle, the impulse to turn around and drive back to the airport would be too powerful to resist. And the last thing she wanted to do was let her father down. She owed it to him to make this trip if nothing else.
"Then tell me what's going on, girl. The closer we get to our destination, the more agitated you seem. You've been quiet for the last hour and I figured you didn't feel like talking. But maybe you should. Sometimes vocalizing your concerns puts things into perspective--makes you feel better. Tell me about it. Please?"
Jocelyn's lips tightened briefly. Nothing raised her hackles more than the feeling of being backed into a corner. Deep down she knew Kyla was only trying to help, but Jocelyn grasped on to any emotion other than the cloying despair threatening to descend upon her. Unfortunately, it was anger which came strong and swift tearing through her very core.
"Oh? Like how you're oh so willing to open up about your life? Why don't we talk about how stellar your life has been?" The minute the words left her mouth, she could have kicked herself. Never in a million years would she ever want to deliberately hurt the one person who'd been in her corner these past few years and she feared that's exactly what she'd done.
Kyla snatched her hand away, her eyes widening and mouth falling open and then closing again. It was as if a great invisible barrier suddenly slammed between them. With flared nostrils, and crossed arms, Kyla turned around to stare out the passenger window.
Not another word passed between the two for the next ten minutes. Jocelyn counted every second of it, wishing she had held her tongue. Starting an argument before they reached the ranch wasn't on her list of things to do, but she was so on edge and didn't know how to handle the tension churning within her like electricity.
She took her eyes off the road momentarily to glance at her friend, taking in Kyla's rigid frame, and face devoid of emotion. Jocelyn more than anyone knew about concealing pain, and was familiar with how Kyla dealt with hers. "I'm sorry, Ky. I didn't mean it."
Kyla didn't reply for a moment and Jocelyn didn't think she would, until the other woman released a sigh and the stiffness eased out of her body. "It's okay." The monotone delivery of those words gave Jocelyn pause. She'd hurt Kyla, which made her feel even more guilty.
She pounded her fist against the steering wheel, inadvertently honking the horn. "No it's not. I shouldn't have said what I did. That was really catty. Please forgive me."
Kyla nodded but no other communication was forthcoming. Damn. How was she going to get through this trip knowing her friend was upset? Nibbling on her bottom lip, Jocelyn wondered if she dared to utter the words plaguing her thoughts. Even with many therapy sessions behind her, she still found it difficult to open up about her predicament. "It's just ... the nightmares have been more frequent--more graphic even. I haven't had them in a couple years, but lately..." If she held on to this wheel any tighter, her skin would probably split.
Kyla released a sigh and faced her once again. "I'm so sorry, Jos. I thought your visits to Dr. Scott were helping."
"They are. I mean she's great, but sometimes I believe I'm going to be screwed up for the rest of my life."
"These things take time, sweetie. It's not something one can get over with the snap of a finger. I struggle with my problems every second of my life. You have to take this one day at a time and I promise it will get better. No one ever said the healing was easy. It's actually the hard part. On the positive side, I've noticed a change in how you're coping. Before when the incident was alluded to, you'd burst into tears. You've come such a long way and you've given me hope there's a chance for someone as messed up as me."
Knowing what Kyla had suffered, she almost felt selfish for voicing her concerns. "I guess."
Almost as if she'd read Jocelyn's mind, Kyla returned her hand to Jocelyn's thigh and gave it a light squeeze. "Don't ever think what you're feeling is insignificant. Only you can determine that. You're beautiful, strong, and I know eventually the hurt will fade." She removed her hand. "Maybe you're having these dreams again because you're going home for the first time in years. When did you say was the last time you saw your father?"
"I suppose you're right. Maybe I'm just antsy about returning to my old stomping ground. It doesn't help matters when I haven't seen my father in nearly seven years. Part of me is excited to rekindle the special bond we once shared, while the other half is shaking in these designer boots. You might think I sound ridiculous for saying this but, what if he's stopped loving me? I've shunned all attempts to visit and..."
"Jos, he'll be thrilled to see you. If that weren't the case, he wouldn't have invited you to stay until his wedding."
"Actually, it was Lavern who asked me to help with the planning. I'm not sure my dad had anything to do with it."
"Why do you think that?"
"Whenever I talk to him on the phone, he seems distant."
"Sometimes feelings aren't as easily expressed when they're not done in person. When you see him again, I'm sure it'll be like you'd never left."
"I hope so." Her father had meant so much to her and still did. She must have hurt him when she'd stayed away with no explanation. He probably believed she was ashamed of him. Or worse, maybe he was ashamed of her. If only he knew the truth. What would he say then? The very thought nearly sent her into panic mode.
A brief silence fell between them before Kyla spoke again. "Are you nervous about seeing Cade again?"
Jocelyn closed her eyes for a second and then opened them, mindful of keeping her attention on the road. She tried not to think about him, knowing how futile it was to dwell on the "what might have beens". The deep agony lurking within the depths of steel blue eyes, which had quickly morphed to cold hard anger, still haunted her. They frequented her dreams more than she cared to admit.
An indescribable pain shot through Jocelyn, making her shoulders shake. The kind that felt like someone had taken her heart in their palms and squeezed until she couldn't breathe. They said time healed all wounds, yet Jocelyn still ached to her very core. Most days, she could carry on as if her life hadn't been irrevocably changed by one damning night. Other times, she didn't have the strength or the will to get out of bed. Cade remained prominent in her thoughts even after all these years. He hated her. She'd made sure of it. It was better if Cade despised her for what he believed to be her callousness than the slow agony they would both suffer over time if he knew the truth. Jocelyn cursed herself for her weakness, but dammit, she wasn't strong enough.
Still, she couldn't help but wonder; was that bitterness she'd glimpsed at their last encounter just as strong or was he happy? Did he think of her? Had he moved on with someone else? He would be twenty-seven now, so it stood to reason that he had. The image of a tall loose-limbed man with a rock-hard body filled her mind. "Rarely," she whispered, silently congratulating herself at how easily the lie had tumbled from her lips. "Not that it matters anyway. I'm not going there to see him. I intend to spend time with my father and get to know my future stepmother better. I'm sure Cade will have his hands full with the ranch."
"I don't know much about ranch life but, don't he and his brothers employ people to take care of the place for them? You said it was a pretty successful spread."
"It is, but everyone pulls their weight around the ranch, even them. Actually, they probably work harder than the people they employ. They never ask anything of anyone they're not willing to do themselves. I believe one of the reasons for the Devlin Ranch's success is their work ethic. And their subordinates respect them for it. None of them walk around flaunting their money or position. I think you'd like the Devlin brothers. They're probably some of the most genuine people you'll ever meet."
A slight curve tilted Kyla's full lips before she released a sigh. "They sound nice. Besides you, I don't think I've met a genuine person in a long time."
"What about Nigel? He's a sweetheart. He's crazy about you."
Kyla snorted, rolling her eyes. "That's the problem. I don't want to be anyone's cause. Enough about him." She waved her hand dismissively. "Tell me more about the ranch. It sounds exciting. I've always pictured cowboys riding around the range, roping cattle, sitting around a campfire at night telling ghost tales while eating baked beans from a can."
Laughter tore from Jocelyn's throat. "You watch entirely too many movies, my friend. Ranch life isn't as glamorous as most people think. It's a lot of long days and even more hard work."
"I thought you mentioned it being a Dude Ranch for tourists."
"Part of it is. Decker runs that side of the operation, but he puts in long hours--rises early and goes to bed late."
"Sounds exhausting. I hope I can keep up with the hectic pace."
"It can be, if you're not used to it. When it's all you know, it's simply a way of life. But you don't have to worry. You're coming with me to rest, remember? Doctor's orders."
"Ah, yes. It'll be nice to take a walk without a member of the stalkerazzi jumping from behind a bush to snap my picture. And to finally have a little bit of peace. The road to redemption is definitely a tiring journey. I wonder what the press will make of my disappearance this time."
"I wouldn't worry too much about them, sweetie. They'll find someone else to harass soon enough. They always do."
"You're probably right. Hmm." Kyla rolled the window down and inhaled deeply. "Ah, I needed that."
Jocelyn flicked off the air conditioner. "I know what you mean. Nothing beats fresh air. I'd almost forgotten how much easier it is to breathe out in the country than it is in a huge city." She stifled a yawn with the back of her hand. Her emotional outburst had tired her.
"I wish I knew how to drive, otherwise I'd offer to take over for you."
With a shake of her head, Jocelyn pasted a smile on her face. "I appreciate the gesture, but I'll be fine. We're about a half hour away from Devlin Ranch. I can handle this last stretch. This is supposed to be your vacation, too. The only thing you need to worry about is rest and relaxation."
Kyla raised her shoulder in an elegant movement. Everything she did was with style and grace, her movements fluid. "I don't intend to laze about for the next couple months. I'd like to help out where I can ... and to offer the moral support you're going to need."
"Thank you, but I'll be fine. Your first priority is to rest and I fully intend to see you do exactly that."
"Are you sure? I didn't imagine you tensing up when I mentioned Cade's name. You were the one to bring up that dream of yours so it's obviously bothering you. Sweetie, you can't heal if you refuse to acknowledge it happened."
"It's easy for you to say. You don't understand what it feels like to be afraid wherever you go, to freeze up when someone so much as touches you. I know I've been labeled eccentric, but I feel physically ill every time I get that closed-in feeling. Do you think I want to live with this constant looking over my shoulder? Trust me, Kyla, if there was a way I could get over it in an instant, I would."
"Jos, I'm not trying to oversimplify what you've gone through, because God knows, I've been through my own private hell and I sympathize with your plight. You stood by me when I was going through my ordeal and I want to return the favor."
Jocelyn glanced at her friend with a great amount of affection swelling within her heart. If it weren't for Kyla's support and encouragement over the past few years, she might have suffered a serious breakdown. To look at the regal brown-skinned beauty, dubbed "the ice queen" by the tabloids and gossip blogs, one wouldn't think she too, had her own demons to battle. No one knew the kind, giving person she actually was. Jocelyn wished Kyla would allow more people to see that side of her.
"The simple fact you're here with me is comfort enough. I have a feeling I'm going to need it." With shaking hands, Jocelyn flipped on the radio, wanting to drop the uncomfortable subject she wished she hadn't brought up.
Kyla groaned. "Isn't there anything else on other than country music? I'm not really in the mood to hear another song about some guy whose pickup truck was stolen, wife left him, and dog got rabies."
Despite the heaviness of their prior conversation, Jocelyn giggled. "Not all country music is like that. I'm sure after you've been on the ranch a few days, you'll love it."
Kyla rolled her eyes, slouching deeper into the leather seat. "Yeah, only if I get a lobotomy within that time," she muttered. "I'm going to catch a little shut eye. Wake me up when we get there."
"Will do." This time around, Jocelyn welcomed the peace that followed. It allowed her to think about the events to come. Her stomach rumbled with each mile they drew closer. How much had the ranch changed in her absence? Had her father aged noticeably? Was the tire swing that hung from Old Hickory still there? Did Gertie still cook the best chili in the state of Texas? Most importantly, what would Cade say when he saw her again?
He'd probably moved on with his life and found happiness in the arms of another woman. Who wouldn't want the tall, blond hunk? It had been her decision to end their relationship, so she had no right to feel the shattering pain that gnawed at her insides when she imagined him with someone else.
One thing she knew with absolute certainty, the next couple months would be a testament to her strength and Jocelyn hoped she had it in abundance.
Jocelyn gulped as she stepped on the porch of the house she'd grown up in. The two-seater swing chair, where she would sit for hours and sketch, was still there as was the weather-beaten rocking chair her father had favored. Everything was just as she remembered, down to the green shutters and slightly askew welcome mat with mini cows painted on it. Yet, she felt like an intruder, like she didn't belong here, didn't have the right to be here. A lump formed in her throat and she froze. Once she rang that bell, there was no turning back.
Kyla gave her a slight tap. "Are you okay, Jos?"
Jocelyn nodded. "Yeah, I guess I'm nervous. What if he--" She wasn't able to finish that thought when the door was abruptly open. A pleasantly plump woman of short stature, with dirty blonde hair liberally streaked with grey, opened the door. Laugh lines framed her eyes and she wore a wide grin, revealing small white teeth. "Jocelyn! Welcome!"
Before Jocelyn could respond, the other woman engulfed her in an embrace and rocked her from side to side. "It's so good to finally see you face to face. I've seen your pictures in that television special they did on you, but you're even prettier in person. Jack will be over the moon when he gets back. He's gone into town to pick up some material to mend a fence."
Jocelyn had no choice but to return the hug. She could only assume this was the Lavern her father was planning to marry and with whom she'd corresponded over the last several weeks. There was something very genuine about the other woman that instantly put her at ease. "It's nice to finally meet you face to face as well." She pulled away in order to introduce her to Kyla. "And this is the friend I told you about. She'll be staying with us."
Lavern walked over to the model with outstretched arms and hugged her as well. "Of course. Kyla. I'm mighty pleased to meet you. Jocelyn didn't tell me how pretty you'd be, but I should have known, you being a model and all."
Kyla shot Jocelyn a questioning look. She'd made Jocelyn promise not to tell anyone who she was. Without the makeup and fancy clothes, Kyla looked a lot different than she did on the runway or within the pages of fashion magazines, but it didn't change the fact that she was still an incredibly stunning beauty. "I didn't say anything," she mouthed to her friend.
Lavern must have caught on because her grin widened. "She didn't tell me you were a model, but it's not that difficult to figure out. With your looks you're going cause a riot among the men. You're a mite skinny, dear, but no matter, we'll fatten you up with some good old-fashion Texan cooking."
Kyla offered a small smile. "Thank you for having me."
Lavern waved her hand dismissively. "Don't think about it, honey. Any friend of Jocelyn's is obviously a friend of mine. Come on in, girls. I'll call one of the boys over to get the rest of your things out of your truck later. I just made some iced tea. I'll pour you two a glass."
Jocelyn followed Lavern inside and halted. It was like stepping back in time. There were new curtains and a few new paintings on the wall, but the d�cor was basically the same. The throw rug in the middle of the sitting room floor with its Aztec designs was still there. The old brown leather recliner her father favored rested in the corner. It even smelled the same. Like home. And there was no turning back.
"It's just like I remember."
"It's very nice," Kyla murmured politely.
Lavern returned from the kitchen with two refreshing-looking glasses of iced tea. "Here you go, ladies." She handed them each a glass. "What are you standing around for? Have a seat."
Once the three women were situated, Jocelyn and Kyla on the sofa and Lavern cattycorner in the loveseat, the tension slowly began to ease from Jocelyn's body. This wasn't as bad as she'd thought it would be. She felt comfortable in Lavern's presence and was happy her father had found someone who seemed like a genuinely nice person. At least now she wouldn't have to worry about him being lonely once she left again.
Lavern smiled at them. "I was so nervous to meet you. Jack is always telling me about his famous daughter. I've never met a celebrity before."
Jocelyn stilled. "My father talks about me?"
"Oh, yes. All the time. He's sure going to be surprised to see you here."
"Didn't he know I was coming?"
Lavern shifted in her seat, a look of discomfort briefly crossed her face. "Well, he knew, but uh ... he didn't think you'd show up."
"Oh." Her cheeks flamed in her embarrassment. So he had actually given up on her. The invitation was all Lavern's doing and maybe she shouldn't have come.
"Don't look so glum, honey. He just thought you'd be busy is all."
The older woman's assurances didn't help. Jocelyn, however, didn't have long to ponder those words before the front door opened. "Lavern, if that tea is ready, I sure could use a glass."
Jocelyn's heart sped up as a man topping six feet with broad shoulders entered the room. His checkered shirt was rolled up to the elbow and the top two buttons were undone to reveal a farmer's tan. His sun kissed skin was lined more prominently than she remembered. He was still lean at the ripe age of fifty-six and just as handsome as he removed his Stetson to reveal a crop of salt and pepper hair ringed with the outline of his cowboy hat. His green eyes were still startling beneath dark bushy eyebrows. Her father.
She wanted to say something to draw his attention to her, but the words got stuck in her throat. Placing her glass on the end table, Jocelyn stood, drawing his gaze in her direction.
"Jossy?" He whispered her name as if he couldn't believe she was standing there. Squinting and then shaking his head as if to banish an illusion, he rubbed his eyes with his fist.
"It's me, Daddy." A bundle of nerves, she closed the gap between them, halting a foot away from him.
He moved closer, extending his hand to cup the side of her face. "Baby?" There was still a hint of disbelief in his voice.
Jocelyn leaned into his touch, enjoying the warmth of his palm against her face. "I'm home, Daddy."
His response was to take her in his arms and envelope her against him into a big bear hug. Jocelyn could barely breathe he held her so tight, but she didn't care. Wrapping her arms around his waist she squeezed him back, and tears flowed freely down her face. "I'm so sorry I stayed away so long."
Her father stroked the back of her head as he rocked her from side to side. "It's okay, baby. You're home now and it's all that matters." He grabbed her forearms and pulled away from her to reveal tear-moistened eyes of his own. As her gaze locked with his, love welled within her heart. She was finally home.