Ben Sinclaire was in a whole mess of trouble, and as near as he could tell, there was no getting out of it. The question was what to do about the bomb that had been so casually dropped in his lap yesterday afternoon by Axel Hansen?
He paused his mucking long enough to wipe a bead of sweat from his eye, then attacked the stall he was cleaning with renewed vigor. He’d always held that sweat could solve any problem, bring perspective to any conundrum.
And it wasn’t working. Not even close.
With a grunt of frustration, Ben tossed a final scoop of manure-filled hay on the wheelbarrow. He’d thrown himself into every undone project on the Sinclaire ranch over the last twenty-four hours. And for what? He’d accomplished a laundry list of tasks he and his brothers had put off – mending barbed wire along the north pasture, changing the oil in the tractor, fixing the dry rot in one of the unused stalls, even deep cleaning the tack. But hard work hadn’t brought peace of mind. Only a blood blister and an achy back.
And demons that haunted him with every turn of his spade.
Hope Hansen was coming home.
Ben hadn’t seen Hope, in what… eight years? Hell, who was he kidding? He knew exactly when he’d last seen Hope. Memorized every detail of their last encounter. Played it over in his mind countless times.
The scene floated in front of him like it was yesterday. Unquenched desire briefly coated his tongue. And then, just as quickly, he tasted the bitterness of regret, of longing that had frayed like a sheet in a windstorm.
The girl dreams were made of… for someone else. Not him. That ship had sailed without him.
Being alone sucked. Especially now, with his older brother, Blake, newly married and expecting a baby, and his younger brother, Brodie, getting married at Christmas.
He was the odd man out. A third wheel at the family bonfires.
He swallowed back a ripple of envy over his brothers’ newfound happiness. They deserved every bit of it. But Ben knew in his heart of hearts, he was a one-woman man. And he’d blown his chance with the woman of his dreams on a sultry night eight years ago.
Hope was packing for college, leaving in a few days to study equine sciences at the University of Kentucky. Horse country. She wanted to be a horse vet. Every moment they’d shared that summer crackled with s****l tension. He’d started staying away from the tree house where they met regularly, because lately, all he’d wanted to do was kiss her.
And he couldn’t kiss Hope.
She’d been his best friend since he was ten. The person who knew him better than anyone. Not to mention, their families would have had a fit. At that point, reconciliation between the families would have been impossible. Especially for a budding romance. And Hope was a kid. Barely a day over eighteen. But that didn’t stop him from taking himself in hand nearly every night and fantasizing about touching her. Kissing her. He was an awful human being for wanting to make love to his best friend.
And then, two nights before she left for college, she’d done it. She’d gone and slipped off her shirt. His mouth had gone dry as he took in her creamy, moonlit breasts. Perfectly round and untouched. He couldn’t help himself. He’d tugged on her braid and pulled her close, allowing himself one perfect kiss. And kissing Hope had been perfect. Her lips soft and sweet, her tongue hot and demanding. Then reality had crashed in on him like ice water.
What would their families say? Her brothers, Axel and Gunnar would beat him to a pulp. Or worse. It would be outright war between the families. And she was so young. Too young.
He’d broken the kiss and pushed her away, fear turning to anger and getting the best of him. He’d raised his voice. Something he rarely did.
“Are you trying to ruin everything? What were you thinking, Hope?”
“I-I-I thought… I thought–” She scrambled for her shirt, trying to cover those perfect breasts.
“Well you thought wrong.”
The stricken look on her face ripped through his gut.
“But I love you. I want you to be my first.”
His stomach flopped at her declaration. “Are you crazy? You don’t know what you’re asking.”
“Please, Ben. I know–”
“You don’t know anything. You’re just a kid.”
Her expression had turned fierce then, her eyes shimmering in the moonlight. “Then get out.” Her voice held a steely quality he’d never heard before. “Don’t ever come back.”
He’d paused at the entrance on his way out of the tree house. “This is for your own good, Hope. You’ll thank me someday.”
“I hate you,” she whispered fiercely. “I hope I never see you again.” A sob caught in her throat, and she turned away.
The look in her eye scorched him. Her staccato words, heavy with injury, landed like the arrowheads he’d hunted for as a child, shredding him to ribbons. But what could he do? Someone had to be the smart one and think about the consequences. So he’d climbed down from the tree and hiked home. Only to spend the night in misery.
In the light of day, he realized he’d been an i***t of colossal proportions. Damn the feud between their families. He loved her. He wanted her with an ache that nearly crippled him. He never wanted to see that flat, broken light in her eyes again. His stomach churned at the knowledge that he’d put it there.
But when he’d returned to their tree house the next night, he could hear her laughing with someone else. He’d gone hot, then cold at the realization she wasn’t alone. For the first time in his life he’d wanted to punch something – someone. White-hot jealousy turned his insides to ash. That was his Hope. In their spot. Laughing with someone else. Devastation rolled over him like a spring storm and stole his breath, an intense ache in his chest rooting him to the spot.
His chest hurt again just thinking about it. To this day her betrayal still stung. And yet… he couldn’t help but wonder what if? What if he’d been brave enough to climb back up the tree and confront her? Confess his true feelings?
A couple years back he’d heard through the grapevine that Hope was in town. He’d gone and waited at the tree house every night for days. She’d never come. Hell, he’d had half a mind to show up on her front porch, family feud be damned. But ultimately, he’d chickened out. He was too afraid she’d tell him for the second time that she never wanted to see him again.
“I don’t think the barn could get much cleaner.” Blake leaned against a post, two beers in hand. “You gonna tell me what’s got under your skin that you’ve done the work of three men in the span of a day?” He offered up one of the beers.
Ben straightened, leaning on the spade, and accepted the bottle. “Just working things out.”
Blake narrowed his gaze. “I haven’t seen you like this in years. You wanna talk about it?”
Ben took a sip, the cool liquid welcome relief. He shook his head. “Nope. Gonna saddle up Sergeant Pepper and go watch the sunset.”
“Gonna go commune with the ancestors?” Blake teased. It had been a running joke between the brothers since they were kids. Ben liked to go off by himself and think. He noticed things his more boisterous brothers didn’t. So at an early age they’d decided Ben had inherited their ancestor’s, Stands with Eagles, second sight. He’d never bothered to dissuade them.
“Somethin’ like that. Or maybe I’ve had enough of yours and Brodie’s kissy faces.”
Blake burst out laughing. “I highly recommend married life.”
Ben grunted noncommittally. Easy for Blake to say that when he was married to the woman of his dreams. Ben was married to the ranch. A fate, that for better or worse, he’d resigned himself to a few years back.
Blake shrugged. “Suit yourself. You know we’re here for you if you want to talk.”
The irony of Blake’s offer wasn’t lost on Ben. He’d been the family’s go-to problem solver and chief listener since they’d been adolescents. That Blake was offering showed how changed he was as a result of being married to Maddie.
Ben took another draw of beer wishing its malty tang would quench more than his thirst. “Appreciate the offer. But it’s nothin’ hard work and a long ride won’t cure.”
“It stands. Jamey’s serving dinner at eight. Brodie says she’s concocted another one of her Irish heritage dishes.”
Ben shot Blake a grin. Brodie’s fiancée was a fantastic chef. One of these days she’d put Prairie on the map. “I won’t be late.”
He hurried through the remaining chores and made his way to Sergeant Pepper’s stall. The horse snuffed a greeting and pushed his nose over the stall. Ben nuzzled Pepper’s cheeks, giving the horse a good rub, and for the first time since he’d heard the news that Hope was returning to Prairie, he felt his pulse begin to slow. “Here ya go, boy. Have a treat.” Ben slipped his hand into his shirt pocket and pulled out a sugar cube, offering it to his companion. “You ready to go for a ride?” He grabbed the halter from its hook outside the stall and slipped it over the horse’s ears. Opening the stall door, he led the horse to just outside the tack room and in no time had him saddled and ready to ride.
“Just another minute, Pepper,” Ben spoke in a low voice as he led the horse out of the barn and looped the reins over the corral fence. He shoved the barn door closed and checked the cinch one last time, then mounted up and wheeled the horse westward, away from the barn and the Big House.
The late afternoon sun cast everything in gold. The Flint Hills stretched out before him in every direction, gold and red tall grass punctuated by the tips of trees in the river bottoms. Today, there was a distinctly October bite to the air. The first one he’d experienced all fall. Tonight would be the first frost. He was certain.
When they hit the north-south line, Ben turned them northward. The main bison herd was up this way. Perhaps he’d check on them. Anything to get his mind off Hope. Not that he needed to check the herd – the herd had just been culled and vaccinated.
Aww, hell. Who was he fooling?
There was only one place he wanted to ride right now. Giving up on the idea of searching for the bison, Ben clicked his tongue, and with a squeeze of his knees, turned Pepper eastward. Twenty minutes later, he and Pepper were picking their way through the brush above Steele Creek. Cedars had squeezed out much of the native vegetation. Brodie and his crew hadn’t cleared this far up the creek last summer, and Ben made a note to put more clearing on the calendar for spring. His goal was to have the remaining bottomland repopulated with native hardwoods by this time next year. Not only would that help the hunting lodge they’d recently built, it would be better for the bison as well.
Splashing into the creek and making his way along the Sinclaire side, Ben turned the horse southward, looking for the wide bend that held his best-kept secret. Another minute, and he recognized the old hickory tree whose branches hung far out over the river, providing the perfect jumping-off spot growing up.
The picture of a bikini-clad Hope, legs for days, budding curves, and pale copper braids flying behind her, rose unbidden. He’d never forget the first time he’d seen her in a bikini. He’d just finished his sophomore year of college. She was barely sixteen.
His mouth grew dry at the memory.
What a fool he’d been. He’d been crazy about her even then, but was too honorable to make a move. She was simply too young. He grunted in frustration. f**k being honorable. What had it gotten him?
Certainly not the object of his affection.
If anything, it had earned him the nickname Gentle Ben and made him the confidant of practically every woman in Prairie. He was thirty years old, dammit. Both his brothers had settled down and were starting work on the next generation of Sinclaires. He secretly wanted what they had. In spite of what he liked to say about his commitment to the ranch. Jealousy snaked through him for the second time that afternoon.
He slid off Pepper, and dropped the reins. The first tree house he and Hope built had been on the Hansen side. It hadn’t lasted long or been very sturdy. The subsequent incarnations had been in the old oak tree just upland of the hickory. Ben scowled at the number of cedars that had sprouted in the few years since he’d last visited. He’d drive over with a chainsaw first thing tomorrow to clear them.
Hiking the short distance to the oak, he stopped and looked up, heart sinking in dismay. The structure listed precariously to one side. Several wallboards had disappeared, and half the roof was gone. At least one spring storm had had its way with Hope’s beloved structure.
The tree house as it stood was nearly as bad as the first one he’d helped Hope build all those years ago. In spite of the October air, his skin heated at the memory of a hot, sticky June day, the summer he’d been ten. As long as he lived, he’d never forget the first day Hope Hansen had burrowed under his skin.