Chapter 2

1763 Words
Chapter Two 20 Years Ago Ben set out from the barn with his favorite horse, Blackhawk, and turned north along the dirt road that cut through their property, past the Big House and beyond the hundred and some-odd year homestead. Afternoons like this didn’t come around often, and he meant to take full advantage. He loved nothing more than getting out on Blackhawk and feeling the sun beat down on his shoulders. Ben had scrambled to finish his chores early so he could spend the afternoon exploring the property on his own. His favorite place, by far, was a secret bend in the creek he’d discovered about a month ago. Steele Creek divided Sinclaire land from Hansen land. Stories had been passed down about how the families had feuded off and on for over a hundred years. There was no feud now that Ben knew of, but he was wary of the Hansen boys. They were older and bigger. He wasn’t afraid to take ’em. Blake had already taught him how to throw a good punch. But he didn’t want to pick a fight either. Ben loosened his grip on Blackhawk’s mane as they approached the riverbank. From the south, the bend in the river was obscured by a stand of gnarled oak trees and a lone white-barked sycamore, making his hideaway safe from prying eyes. A flash of movement through the trees followed by a splash, caught his attention. He slid off Blackhawk and dropped the rope halter. He could be stealthier on foot, and Blackhawk would come when he whistled. Silently, he snuck up through the trees, crouching low and darting behind bushes. His breath stuck in his ribs as he saw a skinny girl on the far bank skipping rocks. Given her blondish-reddish hair, she must belong to the Hansens, but he didn’t recall seeing her at the school. And she was tall, too. He studied her rock throwing technique. She pulled her arm back, furrowed her brows as she aimed and flicked her wrist and let go of the stone. One, two, three, fourfivesix. Admiration flickered through him. She didn’t throw like a girl. But who was she? And what was she doing in his secret spot? He stepped through the trees. “Hey. What are you doing here?” Mama would tan his hide for a greeting like that, but he’d learned from his brothers that it was best to assert ownership early. If she was surprised at his presence, it didn’t show. The girl merely raised an eyebrow, giving him a mildly annoyed look. “What does it look like?” Her voice held a pouty note and a little bit of a sniffle. Like she was upset. She crouched and after a moment picked up another stone. She flicked it over the water, this time hitting seven. He nodded in the direction it had skipped. “You’re pretty good at that.” She shrugged. “My brothers are better. But they won’t play with me.” Her lower lip stuck out. “Well, you’re gonna have to play somewhere else. This is my spot.” She put her hands on her hips and gave him a hard stare. “Says who? I was here first.” “No you weren’t. I was.” “Since when?” “Since a few weeks ago.” She crossed her hands across her chest. “Well, I’ve been playing here since ever. And you can’t make me leave.” She stuck her tongue out at him. She had a point. “Okay, why don’t we throw for it?” She stared at him quizzically. “What do you mean?” “You know. Skip rocks.” A sly grin pulled her mouth up. “You wanna skip rocks against me?” He nodded. Why shouldn’t he? He had at least three or four years on her, and by his reckoning, was a head taller. Or more. He could out-skip her with a hand tied behind his back. “Okay.” She immediately dropped to her knees scouring the bank for the perfect stone. He did the same. After a minute he found an oblong stone that fit snugly in the arch between his thumb and forefinger. “Ready.” He stood. She did too. Her eyes dancing like the light reflecting off the water. “Wade over here. This is the best spot.” He slipped off his shoes, leaving them on the bank, and stepped into the cool water. The bend in the creek naturally pooled the water into a small swimming hole. Not as big as the one downstream, closer to the homestead, which was why he assumed his brothers hadn’t discovered it. He waded in, then paddled the short distance to where his feet touched ground again. Never in his ten years of existence had he crossed the creek to the Hansen side. A little thrill went through him. She was right. The bank was flatter over on her side. Better for skipping rocks. Beating her would be a piece of cake. “Ready?” She nodded. “Girls first.” She shook her head. “Winners last.” A spark of irritation flashed through him. She was stubborn. Not that he should be surprised. He’d heard his dad rail about how stubborn the Hansens were. “Okay fine. We go at the same time. On three.” She began to count. “One. Two. Three.” They both threw. She turned to him. “I won.” “No you didn’t. I had more.” “Mine went farther.” He narrowed his eyes down at her. “Then it’s a tie.” She narrowed her eyes up at him. “No it’s not. I won. I’m not leaving.” She turned and flounced off to one of the oak trees that grew on her side of the river. “Fine,” he called after her. “Stay if you want, but you can’t bug me.” He splashed into the water, crossed back to the Sinclaire side, and started to look for chert along the bank. Last time he was here he’d found an outcropping perfect for making arrowheads. He could sit here and smash rocks together and ignore her. Ignoring lasted all of five minutes. She was busy on the other side, hauling branches twice her size over to a large oak. Ben stopped smashing chert and watched her. The look of determination on her face was magnificent. Awe inspiring, given how young she was. Heck, she didn’t even acknowledge his presence. Finally, he couldn’t resist. “What are you doing?” Not sparing him a glance, she answered. “Tree house.” He scowled. “That’s not a tree house. That’s a lean-to.” She let go of the large branch she was dragging. “It’s not a lean-to. It’s my tree house. And you’re not invited.” That rankled. She was building the wrong kind of structure, and judging from the way the branches were stacked against the tree trunk, it was likely to collapse. He might not want to play with her, but he’d never let a girl get hurt. Not while he was around. He stood, wiping his hands on his shorts. “I’m coming over.” He splashed back into the water and paddled across. Shaking the water free from his hair, he approached her and squatted down. He could see her eyes up close now. Bright blue irises with a pale center, and a fierce expression. Her strawberry hair escaped from her braids and haloed her face. He grinned in spite of himself. He liked her spunk. “So you want to build a tree house?” “I am building one,” she corrected, her mouth thinning into a determined line. Ben bit the inside of his cheek, trying not to laugh. “Don’t you need a hammer and nails? And a ladder?” She blinked rapidly, her face a mask of determination. He softened his voice. “What if I helped you?” He didn’t know why he was offering. His brothers would give him grief for weeks if they found out. They’d just have to not find out. She studied him, suspicion lingering in her eyes. “I can do it myself,” she murmured. A little pang went through him. Clearly her brothers left her to her own devices. Just like he and his brothers did with their little sister, Emma. But Emma was only four and couldn’t run around after them. “What if it was our secret?” Her eyes lit. “Like a secret hideout?” The idea grew on him. He’d build it and let her use it. She couldn’t be that much of a pain, could she? She didn’t seem… prissy. She definitely wasn’t a crybaby. He nodded slowly, the idea sealed in his mind. “Yeah. I can bring Blackhawk, my horse, down here with tools, and we can build a proper hideout.” “And you won’t tell anyone?” “Not a soul.” She grinned at him, spit on the palm of her hand, and extended it. “Shake on it?” He spit on his hand. He’d never spit-shook with a girl before. He opened his palm but moved it away suddenly. “What’s your name?” “Hope.” “I’m Ben.” She nodded once. “I swear never to tell anyone.” “Me too.” She shook her head once. “Nope. You’ve gotta say it.” He rolled his eyes. “Fine. I swear never to tell anyone.” He grabbed her little hand in his and squeezed. She squeezed back just as hard. His heart thumped in his chest. He’d never kept a secret before. A coyote yipped in the distance, pulling Ben out of the memory. The picture of her had been so vivid he glanced over at the river, certain he’d see her shadow. What would she think of the neglected tree house now? Maybe it wasn’t as bad on the inside as he suspected. Stepping up to the ladder, he gingerly placed his foot on the first rung and tested his weight. It held. Moving slowly and testing each rung, he climbed up to the hole in the floor. Peeking through, his heart sank further. The floorboards showed signs of dry rot. The remains of an animal nest, most likely a squirrel or an owl, lay in a corner. His heart sank to his toes. The whole thing would have to be torn down. A fitting end, given his last interaction with Hope. In spite of the disarray, the memory of their kiss came crashing back, eating at him and lifting off the scab he’d carefully constructed over the old wound. The acrid taste of regret rose in the back of his throat. Dammit, someday he’d think of Hope and not relive every stupid mistake he’d made. Tonight though, every memory acted like salt on a scrape. Well, f**k that. He was done wallowing. A plan began to shimmer before him. He had two weeks, maybe three, if he was lucky. And if the weather held. Hope was coming home. And this time… this time would be different. Come hell or high water, he was going to set things straight. The tree house he and Hope built together when they were kids had always been her sanctuary. She’d return to it. He’d bet his last dollar. And he’d be there waiting for her. He wasn’t letting Hope Hansen get away a second time.
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