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FOREVER VALENTINE

By Jea Hawkins













Copyright © 2018 Jea Hawkins

All Rights Reserved

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used, reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.

© Cover Art by Satyr Designs

For more information:

www.jeahawkins.com

Jea’s Newsletter



Chapter 1



“Taylor, honey, you can’t be serious.”

“I am. You know, that’s one of the problems we had – you never took me seriously. Then again, no one does. Not you, not our manager, not our producers.” Taylor shoved her way out of the trailer, the door clattering open with a thrust of her arm. She lightly hopped to the ground and crossed the dirt lot to her Bentley Continental GT convertible. The aquamarine vehicle remained shiny, despite the perpetual dust in the air, kicked up by both horses and vehicles, and Taylor paused to give it a lover-like caress.

“But the show! The new season!” The voice followed her, cajoling, close to whining.

She turned and folded her arms as the cowboy chased after her, his long, denim-clad legs eating up the distance between them and his black and white plaid shirt somehow pristine, even after a morning of practicing his barrel racing. Brown hair flopped over his forehead under his hat, the same hair more women than Taylor cared to count had probably run their fingers through.

Just the thought made her spit out her next words with more sharpness than she intended. “I don’t really care about the show or the new season. As it stands now, I don’t have any obligation to continue either one, so get over it, Josh.”

“Look, I know you don’t, but can’t we talk about this like reasonable adults?”

Reasonable adults? She huffed like a mare, indignant and noisy. Josh hadn’t acted like a reasonable adult during the past seven years. Fame, fortune, and women – oh yes, all the women – had gone to his head. And, like a complete fool, Taylor had sat by and watched until she finally did something about it.

She’d filed for divorce.

“Babe, come on.”

That was her cue. She opened the door, tossed her Prada bag on the front seat, and slid into the driver’s side. The engine roared to life in that way she adored. My toy, she purred internally, her heartbeat matching the steady thrum of the vehicle. Resolved as she was, she thought she might throw up. Leaving was never easy, even when it was the right choice.

Go.

Stay.

GO.

“Babe!” Josh stopped and braced his hands against the top of the door, cowboy hat shadowing his handsome features. “You can’t do this. I mean, what led to this? Why now and not before?”

Taylor lifted her gaze to his, green eyes locking onto his brown ones. Oh, he certainly had perfected that sad, sweet puppy-dog expression. Too bad it didn’t work on her anymore. Hell, it hadn’t since high school. She tossed her long, curly brown hair and said, “You know, I’ve been asking myself that very same question since the divorce was final six months ago and the answer is that it’s just time. I’m going home, sugar cube.”

“Home. So we can talk later?” The hope in his gaze might have been earnest, might have hooked her in again, if only Taylor didn’t know what she knew about her ex-husband.

Home. As in Valentine, Nebraska, where I probably should have stayed in the first place. We’re beyond through. You agreed to that by not contesting the divorce and, since it’s been final for a while now, I’ve decided I’m done sticking around for this farce. Oh, and Mike and the whole ‘think about the fans’ excuse, well, he can kiss my butt.”

Josh curled his fingers over the side of the door, but Taylor knew he wouldn’t try to keep her from leaving. He had too much respect, and just enough fear, for her to do that. “But we agreed that you’d stay on for one more season of the show.”

“No. You asked after our divorce hearing if I’d stay and I never answered. I shouldn’t have to stick around now that the case is done. I’ve given it considerable thought and I’m done. You’ve already gotten six more months than I should have given you. I just can’t do this anymore, so get over it and enjoy the ratings without me.” With that proclamation, she gunned the engine, shifted gears, and peeled out of the lot.

Damn, it felt good to declare her independence. Every nerve tingled with anticipation. Like she had to get out of California or she’d just burst. The agony over Josh’s indiscretions had long faded, but not the sense that Taylor could do better. Not just that, but she deserved better, and sticking around any longer just because her ex-husband, manager, or producers pleaded for her to made her nothing but a sucker.

Just to add insult to injury, she waved over her shoulder and hollered, “Don’t call me, babe. I’ll call you!” Grim satisfaction filled her when she looked in the rearview mirror and saw Josh scurrying after her. It felt so good to leave that trailer behind, the one where they spent long days preparing to film. The place she knew Josh did other things when she wasn’t around.

The rural California countryside flew by as she ignored the speed limit, the wind whipping in her hair. Admittedly, she’d miss this place. It was beautiful, scenic, and like a little slice of home that happened to be twenty degrees warmer. But nothing compared to the rolling hills and valleys, waterfalls and buffalo-dotted prairies of Valentine, her picturesque little hometown.

Her cell phone buzzed before she even made it into the little town they filmed just outside of so, one hand on the steering wheel, she mounted the cell to her dashboard cradle and answered the call.

“Taylor, babe. Tell me what’s going on!” Mike’s nasally whine somehow managed to cut through the roar of the air in Taylor’s ears.

She eased up on the accelerator, reminding herself this part of the rural road was a thirty-five zone, not a fifty. It’d drop to twenty-five in another mile, where buildings all bunched together along the all but forgotten town's main thoroughfare and the police were always waiting. “Well, if it isn’t our manager-slash-pimp. What do you want?”

“Well, I think it’s obvious. I want to know what the hell is going on with you.” No one – not even Taylor’s bubbly blonde Hollywood posse – could sound bitchier than Mike. Probably because he was worse than even those celebrity hanger-ons. He actually earned money off of her, especially if Taylor signed the contract for the new season of the show. He also knew everything about Taylor and Josh, from their “humble” beginnings as clean-cut Midwestern kids to their rise to fame, thanks to the reality TV show that followed their lives as the hottest couple on the rodeo circuit.

Josh got to be cast as the sexy, All-American cowboy and Taylor as the beautiful, horse whispering woman at his side, capable of soothing even the most fretful of steeds. Their show gave everyone an Instagram-style filtered look at their life and sold the modern day dream of western perfection to viewers.

It was bullshit.

Right now, the last thing Taylor wanted to do was explain herself to anyone, least of all her manager. Out of everyone she could have talked to, he was the one least likely to have her best interests in mind. Furthermore, a girl needed time to grieve, even for a relationship she’d known it was over almost as soon as it began when they arrived in L.A. seven years prior. Not that a man could understand or respect her needs. In fact, over the past decade, they’d proven time and time again that they couldn’t.

“What’s going on is I’m done with everything. Josh and I are long over, and I’m going home to get my head back together.”

“But the show is a hit and it needs you! You just have to sign the contract for the new season, Taylor.”

Taylor wanted to punch Mike. If he’d been sitting next to her, she might have done just that. No, it didn’t matter that her persona on and off television was that of a country lady – emphasis on lady. The kind who glided up to horses wearing a ridiculous long, flowing dress not at all suited to riding, and soothed them with gentle words, soft strokes along their noses, and an apple ready in her palm. “A modern-day Epona,” they called her, “goddess of horses.”

Well, she certainly hadn’t felt very goddess-like when she found out Josh was nailing his little harem of groupies on a regular basis, that the cheating not only started before they even got to L.A., but got progressively worse through the years. Sometimes, lady or not, she just needed to lash out and take what she deserved – some respect. And if she couldn’t get that, it was time to leave and re-evaluate her options. With that in mind, she took a long, deep inhalation through her nose and willed herself to be calm.

“I’m not renewing my contract or signing on for the new season.” The finality of the statement made her shiver with excitement. It was a declaration she couldn’t have imagined making so many years ago, but now she wanted to sing it at the top of her lungs.

“B-b-but…” Mike sputtered. She knew this trick. Next came the begging, and she didn’t have time for it. Not anymore.

“Deal with it!” Now Taylor finally allowed herself to yell, sick of the attempts to coax her into going back to a situation that benefited everyone but her. “I’ve been divorced from my so-called husband for six months now, and long over him for years, and no one has given me even a moment to process that. Not one damn moment. And I’m done with people using me for what they want. This is about what I want, and right now I want to get away from it all.”

“Sweetie, do you need a spa? A shrink? Tell Mikey what you need,” he wheedled. “You know I can get it for you. Even drugs. Do you want drugs, Taylor? Just to help you through it all?”

Taylor winced and her stomach heaved a bit. It definitely wasn’t just Josh she needed to flee. Not by a long shot. But there was no way Taylor could explain herself to Mike without the conversation sickening her further, so she simply said, “I need home. Don’t call me again, Mike. I’m not your client anymore. You’re fired.”

The jab of her finger at the red hang-up icon cut off anything else her now-former manager might have said. WIthin moments, the phone buzzed again and the temptation to chuck it into the road pulsed through her. Instead, she braked at the blinking red light in the center of town, counted to five, and wrenched it off the dashboard mount.

Regret pierced her when she read Mike’s text.

Just keep the divorce mum for now. We’ll tell everyone you’re taking some time off until you’re ready to come back.

That cut it. Taylor drew her hand back, ready to throw, until she remembered what her mother had always told her.

“Don’t do something you might regret,” she muttered, and lowered her hand. “And they say the dead tell no tales, but you’re right, Mom. You’re right.” She lowered the volume to vibrate only and then shoved it under the driver’s seat. Out of sight, out of mind would work for now.

Besides, she didn’t need the navigation app to help her get home. Twenty-one hours and interstates almost the entire way. She’d driven it a number of times since leaving Valentine, because she preferred road trips to flying. Taylor didn’t need some swanky private jet to get her from point A to point B. Not when point B was Valentine. Then she just needed to follow her heart.

****

The first rest stop was probably the worst. It was just over the border in a dusty Nevada town, where other travelers gawked at her without shame. Why had she sought fame at the cost of everything else? Sometimes it was hard to remember.

Moments like this were when Taylor pulled out her favorite coping mechanism. She put on her big shades, leaned back against her Bentley, folded her arms, lifted her chin, and hoped she put off an aura of “Don’t mess with me.” With enough camouflage, she might manage to look like any other twenty-five-year-old woman with long, wavy brown hair and a good bone structure. It just involved covering the famous green eyes six million viewers saw on TV every week and not saying a word, if she could help it.

It didn’t always work. Plenty of people still minced up to her and managed to ask if she was who they thought she was. In those instances, she usually shook her head, mouth in a grim line. They’d move on, maybe look back wistfully as if certain she must be Taylor Sweet. It wasn’t something she did often, because she truly wanted to sign autographs and chat with fans, especially the kids. It broke their little hearts if she couldn’t stop and make time for them. But the Taylor Sweet they thought they knew from TV sometimes needed not to be that person. Especially now.

As soon as the snap signaled that the gas was finished flowing into the tank, she put up the nozzle and strolled into the convenience store attached to the filling station. The Taylor on TV glided. The Taylor eager not to be recognized moved quickly and efficiently, first using the restroom that was a far cry from the tiled and porcelain ones of Hollywood, and then tossing a selection of not-so-sensible road trip food into a small shopping basket.

This was one of those moments she was grateful she always carried cash for emergencies. Better than having to flash her credit card and ID, and get the wide-eyed, “Oh my god, you’re Taylor Sweet! I love your show! How’s Josh? Which horse is your favorite? Will you come look at my aunt’s horse? She could really use some help.”

She still got the curiosity-filled assessment from the otherwise bored-looking clerk, an eye-raking from head to toe as the cashier pursed her frosty-glossed lips, but nothing more. Sometimes it felt good when people recognized her. Sometimes, though, the deferential treatment was suffocating beyond belief.

Being back in the car felt like armor, a tank that kept everyone else out of her little world. The plastic bag fluttered, crinkled, and then snapped as Taylor increased her speed. Navigating back to the highway was easy enough and she lifted her face to the rushing wind. A full tank of gas would allow her to drive well into the night, if she wanted. Anything to get home that much sooner, away from the perpetual desert dust. Or at least northeast of Vegas.

Beyond the neon lights of that city, she’d find not just another sixteen hours of driving, but freedom. Or at least something resembling it, if only she could figure out what the concept meant to her.

She glanced up into the rearview mirror at her reflection, realizing she hadn’t given much thought to what everyone back home might think when they saw her. It wasn’t exactly her best trait, this impulsiveness, but Taylor had nowhere else to turn. Nowhere else to go. Odds were everyone would welcome her with open arms. Well, almost everyone. Margaret Jane Hartman might be the exception.

Taylor furrowed her brow and dropped her gaze back to the wide open road before her. That was something to worry about in a day or two, when she finally rolled into Valentine, Nebraska. Welcome or not, she wasn’t about to turn her car around, just to go running back to the lie she’d been living for so many years.

A flick of the wrist to crank up the radio, which just so happened to be playing her favorite Dixie Chicks song, and off she drove, into what would soon be one heck of a spectacular sunset.

She just hoped she wasn’t getting her hopes up too high, like she had when she’d left Valentine as an eighteen-year-old newlywed. She wouldn't let the fact that she hadn't communicated with her best friend in seven years bother her. Surely that wouldn't come back to bite her in the ass. Surely Maggie would be impressed with all she’d done with her life.

Surely.





Chapter 2



“Robbie!” Maggie hollered up the stairs. She hated to yell, especially early in the morning, but sometimes it was the only way to get her teenage brother’s attention. Goodness knew her voice carried when she raised it, so there was no ignoring her. “Did you do your chores?”

“Yeah!” he called back down to her without elaborating. Well, that was useful. With Robbie, there was a difference between doing chores and doing them well.

Maggie gripped the rail, rolling her eyes. As with every day of her adulthood, she’d been up and working since the crack of dawn, and had the aches and pains to prove it. She highly doubted Robbie could say the same, though he did have some intense chores. Fingers curling in her rough work gloves, she shouted again, “The trough is still frozen over! You need to take care of that before you go to school.”

“I’ll get to it.” The sixteen-year-old clattered down the stairs, rushing past her. Maggie got the briefest look at mussed dark hair, blue eyes, and a face that mirrored hers, before the boy was out the door, backpack bouncing against his shoulder. He darn well better be heading to the trough or there’d be hell to pay later.

“He always says that,” came a higher-pitched voice from above and Maggie looked up to see the youngest Hartman, her little sister, Winn.

The siblings’ age gap was the result of their father’s constant deployments when he was in the military and their mother’s focus on maintaining the ranch, rather than having a family. The nearly fifteen year age difference between Winn and Maggie certainly didn’t get in the way of having a loving relationship, though. Sometimes, Winn reminded Maggie so much of herself, it frightened her. The eleven-year-old was tough and smart as a whip. She’d be trouble someday soon. Maggie just hoped she’d be able to guide her in the right direction – and avoid the bad decisions that Maggie had made at that age, like punching annoying boys in the nose when they tried to play pranks on her. After school detention still remained the three most feared words she’d ever known.

“Maybe he does,” Maggie agreed, “but shouldn’t you also be getting on your way, instead of worrying about him? You know you always have your chores done. Let Robbie figure out his own stuff. Just worry about handling yours.” It felt like the wiser response, instead of “I’ll worry about Robbie. You need to mind your own business.”

Winn sauntered down the stairs, a drastic counter to Robbie’s house-shaking, thumping rush. Unlike her brother, her black hair was combed straight, her jacket was zipped, and her backpack situated squarely on both shoulders. “I do handle my own stuff. I did my morning chores and I finished my homework last night, and I already had breakfast. Also, I got all A’s on my last report card. Robbie can’t say that.”

Maggie fought to keep from rolling her eyes yet again. The kids sure had the ability to bring out the kid in her. “I’m aware that Robbie doesn’t approach your level of awesomeness, Winn, but do you have to mention it constantly?”

The younger girl walked to the basket by the door and plucked out her mittens. “Of course I do. Someone has to put him in his place and since I’m youngest, it’s my job. But if you want, I’ll stop mentioning it. I just know you never have to yell at me.” She had the kind of sass Maggie had always admired, matter-of-fact and not afraid to speak her mind. It seemed like the kind of luxury afforded only the very young or old. Even now, Winn heaved a sigh that made her seem more adult than Maggie was ready for her to be just yet.

“You do a great job,” Maggie said, reaching for the right words to validate her sister’s feelings without sacrificing Robbie’s dignity. “I think you’re pretty much the bee’s knees.”

“I don’t know about that. I just do what I’m supposed to do. It’s not a big deal. Maybe Robbie will grow up one of these days. He’s just lost in hormone land right now. There’s probably some girl at school he likes. I bet you remember what it’s like.”

And what, pray tell, would you even know about hormones? But Maggie knew better than to ask Winn. Asking might mean receiving an answer she didn’t want.

Considering her own teen years didn’t do Maggie much good, either. Had she been lazy or forgetful when she was that age? No. And it wasn’t all that long ago. She was only twenty-five, after all. It wasn’t that hard to remember being eighteen or even younger. “Well, go on or you’ll miss the bus.” Maggie kissed her sister on the top of her head and shooed her out the door.

“Maybe if Robbie applied himself, he could get his license and we wouldn’t have to take the bus.” Winn shrugged and then walked down the short ramp where their steps used to be, and continued down the winding driveway, past the trucks parked there.

Too much like me, Maggie thought again, and just as damned opinionated.

She folded her arms and leaned against the door, watching. Robbie caught up with Winn a moment later, coat and backpack still askew. They arrived at the edge of the road just as the bus pulled up, opening its doors. He might have been running against the clock, but at least that meant he’d attended to the trough.

Everyone in the Hartman family certainly had their personalities, Maggie mused. Most people thought Winn’s outspokenness was “cute.” She just hoped her little sister would retain that sense of powerful self-confidence into adulthood. Robbie… Well, he was a typical teenage boy, just as Winn had suggested. All procrastination and fart jokes, and not much else. Yet, anyway. And Maggie got the dubious honor of being the much-older sister who kept everyone and everything going, so her parents could focus on other things.

There were days Maggie knew this shouldn’t be her job – running the ranch and managing the family. Not at twenty-five. She’d done it since she was eighteen, though, and couldn’t complain. This was small-town life, exactly what she’d signed up for, so to speak, by choosing to stay.

She wandered into the kitchen, where her mother was at the table, scrutinizing a laptop. The way her graying brows drew together, Maggie knew Hannah Hartman was either cursing technology or questioning an account entry. “Why I let you talk me into this, I’ll never know.” Her mother blew out a sigh and Maggie bit back a chuckle. Technology: one. Hannah: zero.

“It’s not that difficult to get used to, Mom.” Maggie reached for the coffee pot and refilled her cup, which sat half-empty on the counter. Steam rose from the liquid and she inhaled, savoring the scent. “It’s faster than an adding machine and more accurate.”

“But I’m comfortable with my adding machine. Your grandmother used it and then I used it. Besides, I miss the sound it used to make – the clacking and whirring.” Hannah rested her chin on her hand, a few strands of her dark hair, with a few white streaks, hair falling in her face, though most of the long hair was contained in a braid. Maggie wore hers the same way, and had for years. When people said she was like her mother, she took it as a compliment. Hannah had that same Midwestern grit and loyalty Maggie hoped to grow into one day.

“Sometimes using an excuse that that’s the way things have always been isn’t good enough anymore.” Maggie added liberal amounts of sugar and cream to her coffee before sitting across from her mother at the table. “Would it help to know everyone else is using computers now?”

Her mother dropped her hands from the keyboard and cocked an eyebrow. “Maggie, do I even need to say it?”

“Nope. But this doesn’t merit the ‘If everyone else jumped off a bridge’ analogy. And you know I wouldn’t. The computer is just supposed to make life easier.”

“I know it is, but I still have to learn it.” Her mother folded her arms atop the table and smiled at her. “So I heard Robbie and Winn got off to school with the usual fanfare. What are you up to for the rest of the day?”

“Same ol’, same ol’, I guess.” Maggie hated it when her mother asked that question, as if there should be any variation in her day. Running the ranch consisted of early mornings in the stable feeding the horses and busy afternoons seeing to whatever needed doing. It rarely changed, except on weekends, when Robbie could help. Maggie hated to ask her brother to work too much, though. As far as she was concerned, school should be his main priority. Winn, however, gladly lent a hand and Maggie didn’t mind.

There was no censure in the way her mother looked at her with brows still drawn together. Just concern. “At least do something different once in a while, sweetie. Maybe you should get your hair done.”

“Me?” Maggie snorted. The wide-brimmed western hat was enough when it came to doing her hair. That and the braid that kept her long, unruly locks from getting in the way of work. “I do it like yours.”

“I know. You wear the same hairdo every day and the same hat. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, maybe it’s time for something new.”

“Hey, I’ll have you know that’s not true. I’ve let my hair down for things like weddings and I’ve got my party hat for special occasions.” Jabbing a finger into the surface of the table, Maggie said, “Just because someone does the same thing every day doesn’t mean they’re stuck in a rut. It just means they’re consistent.”

Her mother let out the kind of tsking sound only a woman in her fifties, dealing with a frustrating child, could. “You know what I’m saying, Maggie. Take some time out for yourself. It’s March and it’s still cold as heck out there. No one is riding and they won’t for at least another month. The horses are cozy in the barn. You should go to town, and I don’t just mean to run errands. See your friends. Grab coffee or lunch together. Do something besides work all the time on the ranch and your college courses.”

“Fine.” Maggie couldn’t help but huff as she pushed away from the table. A little mock exasperation might have gone a long way, if her mother didn’t narrow her eyes in response. Leave it to her to see right through Maggie.

Maggie didn’t really mind going into town. There was usually a good reason to drive to Valentine. With a teenage boy in the house, they could always use more groceries. It also gave her a chance to catch up on local news, and, yes, see her friends. The other twenty-somethings who’d stayed here to work in the family businesses. Plenty of them were doing it – running ranches and farms and stores, like responsible people should.

Unlike some friends who’d left for shallow reasons.

It’d been seven years, so Maggie really didn’t need to think about that anymore. Right? Right. Her friendship with Taylor Sweet was a thing of the distant past and she knew it didn’t fix anything to ruminate on it. Life went on, especially on the ranch with two younger siblings and a paraplegic father.

From the moment she got into her truck, she sank back against the seat and relaxed. Both her mind and body felt at ease when she was behind the wheel of her Ram, crunching down the gravel road and then passing the scenic rolling hills. The twenty-minute ride into town reminded her of the beauty surrounding her home, something she cherished about western Nebraska.

Soon, the speed limit dropped and the highway intersected Main Street, where Maggie took a right and parked her pick-up truck in front of the grocery store. When she took her key out of the ignition, she noticed three women gathered outside the shop. On a cool, early spring day like this, she’d expect them to catch up on their gossip indoors. Not outside with hoods drawn up over their faces and gloved hands rubbing together to chase the chill.

“Mags!” one of them called and waved her over before Maggie even closed the door to her truck.

“Hey, Alicia. What’s going on?” Maggie thrust her hands into her coat pockets and strolled onto the sidewalk. She hunched down a bit into her heavy work coat, the fur from the hood tickling her face. There was no need to lock the truck. It wasn’t like anyone was going to dig around in it here in Valentine and, if they did, they’d probably just end up with splinters from the last batch of firewood she’d hauled home a few weeks ago.

“Mags, get over here.” This time it was Brittany who spoke from within the cluster. “You gotta see this. You’ll never guess who’s here.”

Maggie joined the huddle and shrugged. “You’re right. I won’t. What are we looking at?”

“The car. How did you not notice it?” Brittany pointed at a sleek, shiny blue vehicle that Maggie realized she should have noticed. After all, a convertible stuck out like a sore thumb among the pick-up trucks lining the streets of Valentine. Especially at the end of March, when winter had barely wound down and the air still carried an icy nip to it.

Seeing the vehicle didn’t really impress her, but apparently it made an impact on her friends, who looked at her with wide, expectant gazes. Maggie knew they’d want her to be just as curious, so she hazarded a guess. “Is… I don’t know, some politician visiting from Lincoln?”

“Girl.” Alicia blew out a breath that lifted her straight blonde bangs. “You don’t know?”

“Don’t know what?” The conversation was getting old, as far as Maggie was concerned, and she took a step toward the grocery store entrance.

This was another reason she didn’t hang out with her friends as much as her mother urged her to. While Maggie had a passion for ranching and her horses, all her friends were married and had become the next generation of small-town gossips and baby makers. Not exactly relevant to her own interests.

“Taylor Sweet is back in town.”

Her stomach dropped. Maggie’s head swiveled toward the car again and, as if by some kind of magic, there she was, like a wraith from memory gusted in by the western Nebraska wind. But it was a fleeting image as the women nudged Maggie in a different direction – the diner next to the grocery store. Maggie peered through the window and had her first real glimpse of Taylor in seven years.

The petite, distinctively hourglass form of her best friend in high school was perched on a stool, elbows braced against the counter as she tossed her long, wavy brown hair and laughed with the waitress. The ombre highlights looked fairly fresh and gave Taylor’s face a radiant glow. Maggie felt her throat go dry at the sight. This wasn’t a day for unexpected surprises or getting lost in her memories, and she took a step back from the window.

“Well, that’s something you don’t see everyday.” Maggie turned back to the women and nodded. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to finish my shopping.”

She hurried away from the little huddle, crossing the street to find shelter elsewhere. How could anyone possibly understand that it wasn’t just Taylor Sweet sitting in that diner?

As far as Maggie was concerned, it was also the woman who’d broken her heart seven years ago, and the last person she wanted to see in Valentine.





Chapter 3



Valentine hadn't changed at all in the last seven years. Taylor had visited enough times to see the lack of progress. But something about the strange stasis of the town felt comforting. Like it was possible to go back in time, start over again, and make new, smarter decisions. Maybe if she closed her eyes and cleared her mind, everything would be like it once was in both life and love. Heck, maybe her parents could even live again, at least for a few sweet, self-deluded moments.

Being there soothed Taylor’s worries, made her troubles seem a world away. And, really, they were, because L.A. had nothing on Valentine. For just a little while, she could pretend the horribly hectic pace of shooting and promoting the show, the nights out with her so-called posse, and the constant pressure to look and act perfect no longer existed. As well as pretending to be a loving wife.

Here in town, she could just be the girl next door, Taylor Sweet, head cheerleader, voted “Most Popular,” and everyone’s friend. The girl who could charm her teachers into changing a B+ to an A- by batting her eyelashes and offering to do extra credit work. The one who’d set records for selling the most Girl Scout Cookies year after year, because no one could say no to her pretty face.

Of course, it was impossible to miss the trio of woman huddled just outside the diner, casting her furtive glances. They were about as subtle as the paparazzi and Taylor smiled as she blew away the wisps of heat curling up off her hot coffee. She recognized two of them – Alicia and Brittany, but not the third. Another glance at the window showed her a fourth woman had approached them, but her back was to the diner, a bulky, fur-trimmed hood covering her head.

Then the woman turned and Taylor flicked her glance toward the back of the diner. That breakfast wasn’t sitting too well in her belly, now. It felt like a hard lump, one she wasn’t sure she could keep down. She blinked. Anything to keep from meeting the gaze of the woman she’d considered her best friend all through their childhood.

Maggie Hartman looked good, at least from what little Taylor saw of her. She was still tall and slender, but probably just as muscular as ever under that heavy work coat. The grim set of Maggie’s mouth, though, told Taylor she wasn’t in the best mood.

Which was probably Taylor’s fault, just for daring to exist.

It wasn’t like she hadn’t expected to run into Maggie. This was a small town, after all. Yet Taylor had hoped she’d feel at least some confidence when the moment arrived. When she glanced back at the window, Maggie had left the group and the other three women dispersed, all looking over their shoulders with interest in their eyes.

Taylor tried not to think of everything that’d happened on prom night, but how could she not? Seven years later and her reaction had set off a chain of events that’d led her to this very moment.

It’d been dark, except for the small, white lights hanging around them, dotting the night with pinpoints of brightness. And then there’d been Taylor’s fear, palpable in the way her heart thumped as she asked the question she’d been wanting to ask for weeks. She’d grasped Maggie’s hands, leaned forward, and whispered, “Tell me I shouldn’t marry him,” as a tear rolled down her cheek. Then Maggie met her halfway in an unexpected kiss.

Neither of them seemed to know who started it, but it’d been Maggie who shoved her away and answered hotly, “I’m not your little experiment! You can’t just play with people’s hearts. Figure out your own future, Taylor.”

After being friends for so long, Taylor just couldn’t believe she’d read Maggie all wrong. Once upon a time, they’d shared everything, including their deepest secrets and fears. And instead of journeying through their lives together, they’d gone separate ways. It wasn’t supposed to be like that, but the damage was done.

Taylor wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. The delicate movement must have caught the waitress’s attention, because she approached and held up the steaming pot of coffee. “Would you like a refill, Taylor?”

“No thank you, Miranda. That breakfast was absolutely delicious and I don’t think I’ve eaten so well in a long time.” They both glanced down at the empty plate in front of Taylor. It’d had an assortment of fruit and two egg whites, not exactly the kind of food the diner was known for, but Taylor reminded herself that getting away from Hollywood didn’t mean she could let her diet go to hell. Her hips had a nefarious way of letting her know when she’d had too much of something.

“I’m glad,” Miranda said and reached for the plate. The grimace told Taylor the waitress wasn’t convinced, though. Fruit certainly wasn’t a hearty breakfast by most people’s standards, especially farmers, but Taylor gave Miranda the smile that’d won plenty of people’s hearts.

“Could I get the check, please? I need to go make some visits today.”

“Sure thing.” Miranda left with the plates, disappeared into the back, and then returned to scrawl out the total on Taylor’s check. “Where are you staying?” she asked.

Taylor reached into her wallet for a twenty-dollar bill and handed it to Miranda. “With my brother, if he doesn’t mind. But with all the kids, I don’t know. He’s got quite a houseful with the four of them.”

“Actually, he’s up to five now, I think.” Miranda finally cracked a strained smile and Taylor felt the tension within rise. “I take it you haven’t you met all of them?”

“Darn, you’re right. I forgot about the baby they had after Thanksgiving. That’s pretty awful of me.” Taylor tried to keep the rueful grimace off her face as she watched the waitress operate the cash register to get her change. This line of conversation was fine, even it it made her look bad for being so self-centered. As long as it didn’t go to…

“So, what about you, Taylor. Any kids for you and Josh, yet?”

Taylor kept the smile plastered on her face as Miranda turned back to her with the change. “Nope. Too busy for kids. I mean, hey, I can’t even keep my own nieces and nephews straight, as you can see.”

“Well, you might want to get on that. Aren’t you about twenty-five or so, now?”

“About that, yeah.” Taylor left five dollars on the counter and pushed off away from the stool. She plucked her expensive purse up off the stool beside hers and said, “Thanks again, Miranda. I’ll be seeing you.”

As soon as she stepped out into the cold air, she sucked in deep breaths. It didn’t matter that it slid through her lungs like ice. She just needed to center herself. A little shiver wracked her body and she shrugged fully into her coat, an impulse purchase somewhere in Utah, when she’d realized the weather inland wasn’t nearly as temperate as the weather closer to L.A. Some differences weren’t so welcome, like going from fifty-five degrees to thirty-five. Whatever. She’d grown up here. She could deal with the cold.

And she could sure as heck deal with being twenty-five and divorced, and figuring out a better way to tell people that having children was the least of her concerns at the moment.

The grocery store next door seemed like the most logical next stop. If she was going to show up on her brother’s doorstep, she certainly didn’t want to be empty-handed. He had enough to think about with five kids and a farm to run. A farm she knew was probably not in the best of shape these days. Taylor figured her sister-in-law would appreciate anything she brought, even something as frivolous as flowers.

Heat blasted her in the face and lifted her hair as she stepped through the door into the store. She’d forgotten it was one of those bulk food sort of places with a rather countrified selection. Even though she had no idea what her brother liked to keep in the house, she browsed the shelves and gathered a few items that seemed practical for a large family.  

Despite the fact that the store was small, she somehow didn’t run into Maggie until she reached the counter. And she should have known Maggie would be in there, because why not? Still, Taylor stifled her gut reaction and dredged that smile of hers back to the surface. They were going to have to make peace sooner or later. It might as well be now.

“Magpie!” It was something between a greeting and a squeal, the perfect balance. At least, Taylor hoped so. She was grateful her voice didn’t shake or betray the tightness in her chest.

After all these years, Maggie looked incredible. The glimpse through the window hadn’t done her justice. Taylor couldn’t help but look at her lips for a split second before tearing her gaze away. Oh yes, they were still there. Two of them, in fact, perfectly aligned and just as lush as ever.

Maggie drew back, hand resting on a large block of cheese she’d placed on the counter. “Taylor.” Her tone came out far more measured, like she expected something unpleasant to happen between them.

Taylor lifted the cheese she had in her basket. “I guess great minds still think alike.”

Whatever response Maggie opened her mouth to make, she clamped her lips down on and turned away to push her items toward the cashier. Taylor didn’t let her smile falter. Sure, she knew she couldn’t come into town and not see Maggie. But she’d expected her former friend to at least be a little more civil. It’d been seven years, after all. Seven long years and they’d grown up by now.

When Maggie locked her gaze on the cashier, Taylor rolled her eyes. Apparently, this wasn’t going to be as smooth as she’d hoped. At least, Maggie wasn’t about to make it easy on her, so Taylor shifted her basket to her other hand and stood her ground. There was no way Maggie could exit the building without having to look at her and Taylor wasn’t about to cede territory.

“Can we get together later? We have a lot to talk about and I’d love to see you.” Taylor knew they couldn’t do this in public. It’d have to be somewhere semi-private, where she could really get into everything that had gone down between them back then.

“No,” was Maggie’s brusque response. She still kept her gaze focused on the cashier as he worked behind the counter, his own head lowered as if to avoid both women. It wasn’t that difficult to feel the tension weighing down the air.

“Please? I… I don’t know when I’ll be back in town.” Taylor also didn’t know when she’d be leaving town, but that wasn’t here or there at the moment.

Maggie paid for her groceries, put the bags in her cart, and turned it toward the door. Feet planted, Taylor stayed put between her and the exit.

“Magpie,” she whispered.

“Don’t call me that again,” Maggie answered through gritted teeth. She moved toward her, pushing the cart, clearly intent on getting outside as quickly as possible. Taylor finally stepped aside to set her basket on the counter.

“I’ll be right back,” she assured the cashier and then followed Maggie out of the store. “Look, we need to talk. Please. Don’t make me beg.”

Maggie opened the back passenger side door of a heavy duty pick-up truck and started loading her groceries into it. “Talk about what?”

“Us, I’m thinking.” Taylor folded her arms around her middle and stamped her feet. Trying to stay warm, even in a coat in late March, wasn’t easy now that she was accustomed to warm winters and even warmer springs. So much for thinking she could handle it.

“Us as in what?” Maggie finally turned to face her. Those blue eyes of hers in that perfectly-sculpted face took Taylor’s breath away. Maggie had always been all angles, while Taylor tended toward more Botticelli-esque with her softness. Yin to Maggie’s fiery, active Yang.

“As in how we used to be friends and maybe could have been more.” Taylor kept her voice low. The last thing she needed was for anyone to wonder what she meant. As far as she knew, the kiss was still her and Maggie’s secret.

“I’m not sure why you want to even discuss it after all these years. Shouldn’t you be back in Hollywood with your perfect cowboy, living your perfect life? Where’s Josh?” Leave it to Maggie to ask the dreaded question, but that’d always been one of the reasons Taylor liked her – because she was a straight-shooter. That kind of directness was refreshing after spending so much time in a place where nearly everything felt contrived.

“Oh, I guess he’s back there.” Taylor gave a swish of her hand that indicated he meant nothing more to her than a gnat or fly buzzing around her face. She didn’t feel that carefree, but she hoped she gave a good imitation of it, because Maggie was getting awfully close to opening some fresh wounds.

Maggie’s brows drew together and her frown deepened. “He’s not here with you?”

“Of course not. He’s probably back in L.A. licking his wounds, I suppose. Please don’t tell anyone, but we… Well, we’ve been divorced for a while now and I couldn’t carry on the charade any longer. Our manager and producers have been trying to keep the whole divorce thing hush-hush, while I try to figure out if I’m doing another season of the show, but I don’t know if I have it in me. I just had to get away from it all for a while.”

“What?” Now Maggie finally reacted, narrowing her eyes and placing one hand on her hip. “The head cheerleader and the quarterback got divorced? Are you serious? You’re going to break the hearts of millions of Americans who think you have the perfect marriage.”

“Yeah, well, nothing’s forever.” Taylor tried to ignore the way heat shot through her body. Their friendship should have been forever, but sensing Maggie didn’t think so made her feel like she was suffocating. Had she come home just to find even more rejection?

The way Maggie glared at her made it clear that she disagreed. “This is Josh’s hometown too, you know. What made you think coming back here to get away from everything is such a good idea?”

Taylor closed her eyes and drew in a long breath through her nose. The same way she centered herself before dealing with a nervous bronco or moody mare. When she opened them again, she focused on Maggie. It was funny to be at odds with someone in the middle of nowhere, after spending the past several years surrounded by yes people. “I came here to sort myself out and I thought you could help me out with that. So do you think you could get over yourself and be a friend to me?”






Chapter 4



Maggie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, or just get in her truck and drive away from Taylor as fast as her eight cylinders would let her. The fact that Taylor had kissed her, kissed her, and then run off with Josh, breaking her heart in the process, still stung. Every inch of her body prickled with irritation. She just wanted to get away as fast as possible and not look back.

Why would Taylor do this – get divorced and then come back to rub her circumstances in Maggie's face after all these years? She hadn't called or written after leaving Nebraska. No doubt Taylor felt she was too good for everyone else back home. Certainly she’d thought she was too good for Maggie. Did she think this turn of events would elicit sympathy from the townspeople? From her?

Maggie clenched her fists, feeling the slice of sensible, square-cut nails in her palm. Any response she gave would come out badly. Already she felt a poisonous brew forming on her tongue, begging to be unleashed. Maybe the best thing she could do was walk away, rather than cause a scene. She shut the truck door, making an effort not to slam it, and walked the shopping cart back inside the store. When she came outside again, Taylor was still there, arms folded and head cocked to one side. Leaning against her door like she had a goddamned right to.

“So that's all I get from my so-called best friend?” Taylor's lips twitched. Lips Maggie hated to admit she remembered feeling on hers after all this time. Feeling and wanting on hers. Some sensations, moments, you can’t forget no matter how desperately you try to.

“Best friend?” Maggie scoffed. So much for not reacting. “You left town years ago right after graduation, married Josh, got famous, and never wrote or called. In what world are we still friends?”

Taylor's lower lip quivered in a way Maggie recognized. She wished she didn’t have such a vivid memory of Taylor’s perfect lips. Worse still, she wished she didn’t still think they were the nicest lips she’d ever seen. And she had kissed a lot of women’s lips over the years...

“I haven’t had a lot of time to reach out.” Taylor kept her arms folded and leaned away from Maggie, her eyes brimming with tears. “My filming schedule isn't exactly forgiving. You could have kept up with me, too, you know. I have a website and Instagram, and –”

Maggie held up her hand. “Oh, oh my god, Taylor! Follow you on Instagram?! If that isn’t the most selfish answer I’ve ever heard, then I don’t know what is. I point out you didn’t maintain our friendship and you promote your social media? Take your big reality TV show star sensibilities and go back to L.A., because we don’t need your celebrity crap here.”

Turning on her heel to walk away from a stupid conversation had never felt so satisfying. For once, Maggie had more sass in her strut than Taylor Sweet had in her entire “Most Popular” body.

If only Taylor’s next words hadn’t stopped her, the moment would have been perfect.

“Well, Magpie, you better get used to me being around, because I’m not going anywhere for a long time.”

Maggie turned, sure she was flushed with anger. Her heart pounded so hard in her chest, it was hard to catch her breath. “Stay as long as you like, but don’t expect me to give you a warm welcome home.”

“That’s not the nice, caring Maggie I remember. Really, what did I do wrong?” Taylor pressed her hands to her chest and fluttered her eyelashes, another expression Maggie remembered far too well. How many members of the football team had she gone through when they were teenagers all because of those lashes? How many adults had given in to her whims and requests, all because Taylor was cute? Shit, she’d seen it on the TV show, too – not that she’d admit to watching. Like Taylor was acting, even now.

“Maybe you’ve spent too much time around people who will tell you whatever you want to hear. But you’re back in the Midwest, Taylor. So if you want the truth, you came to the right place.” Maggie held up her hand and ticked each point off her fingers, one by one. “You left and never looked back. You never called any of your old friends. You couldn’t even be bothered to come back after Jeremy Ryan lost his life in the line of duty while serving as a police officer in Kearney.”

Taylor paled. “I made a statement on my social media and for interviews when people asked me about him.”

“Oh, yes, because a public statement about how devastated you were to lose a friend was more effective than coming to his funeral.”

“My filming schedule –”

Maggie lifted her hands in exasperation. “If I hear about your damn filming schedule one more time, I swear I'm going to throw up. No one here is interested in your first world problems, least of all me. Take your entitled crap back to Hollywood.”

It was long past time for her to be going, Maggie realized, so she turned and walked around to the driver side of her truck. But Taylor followed, apparently unwilling to give up just yet. “I’m dealing with a divorce. It’s not like my life is all roses. In fact, it’s been downright painful, no matter how it appears on television. I need someone to talk to about all of it, from the marriage to the divorce, and everything in between.”

“A divorce you won’t even talk about because publicity reasons?” Maggie shook her head and swung open the truck door. “You want someone to talk to, hire a fancy shrink with all that money you made, and excuse me if I just can’t bring myself to care.”

And, really, she didn’t care. She was too old to hold on to what she’d wanted in the past. Sure, she wasn’t letting go of her resentment, but she figured she had reasons. Once bitten, twice shy. Maggie wasn’t about to let Taylor hurt her again. Not when she had more important things to consider, like taking care of her family. Like a father who’d been in a wheelchair thanks to injuries he’d sustained while serving his country. Something else Taylor was probably blithely unaware of and wouldn’t care about even if she knew.

She slid into the driver’s seat and shut the door, eyes focused straight ahead and hands on the wheel. Taylor didn’t move toward her, but she didn’t step away, either. Even though Maggie didn’t look back, she knew her old friend was there, watching her drive down the road.

Putting Taylor out of her mind was easy enough, what with all the work she had to get done. It wasn’t until dinner that Maggie realized the past had followed her home, unwilling to let her go.

“Guess who’s in town?” Winn scooped mashed potatoes onto her plate and then passed them to Robbie. Without waiting for anyone to answer, she announced, “Taylor Sweet.”

“Taylor Sweet? Really?” Their mother lifted her eyes to Maggie’s, but Maggie gave her a subtle shake of her head before lowering her gaze. As usual, her father remained silent. Maggie appreciated that he was a man of few words, especially at a moment like this.

She looked across the table at him and her heart softened. Russell Hartman might be in a wheelchair, but he still had a powerful presence. His posture was straight, his hair cut as short as he’d kept it when he was in the Army, and his body still muscular from doing any work he could on the ranch. The only thing he didn’t do these days was ride horses, something he used to do every chance he got. Maggie knew she’d learned most of her traits from him, something she was proud to admit to anyone.

“Did you see her?” Winn turned and nudged Maggie. “I heard she was downtown today. Didn’t you stop by Old Mill to do some shopping?”

Leave it to her precocious little sister to be so straightforward and one step ahead of everyone else. Maggie offered a one-shouldered shrug and raked the tines of her fork through her mashed potatoes, creating parallel valleys in the soft, white peaks. Melted butter filled the tiny gorges. “I might have. I was busy doing the errands, so I was focused on that.”

“Well, what I wonder is where Josh is.” Winn tapped her own fork against her lips and Maggie glared at her.

“Winn, you’re eleven. You were in preschool when Taylor and Josh left Valentine. Why do you even care?”

“Hey, I’m technically an adolescent now, so I’m very concerned with current events. It’s a statistical fact that my generation is the one that drives marketing decisions these days, and that includes how they market shows like Taylor’s. Plus, Taylor is pretty much the only celebrity Valentine has. Everyone cares when she shows up.”


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