Coming HomeM.A. Stacie
Cover art: S Wantling
Editor: M Shalosky
Coming Home © 2012 M.A. Stacie
For my sister, Stephanie, because two cowboys will always be better than one.
My editor, Monti, whose honesty made me see things with new eyes.
The author acknowledges the trademarked status and
trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned
in this work of fiction:
Stetson: John B. Stetson Company
The sharp sounds of her ringtone woke Sydney Jamieson with a start, ripping her from thick layers of slumber. Something had to be wrong. No one called at two in the morning for idle chit chat.
She fumbled, reaching blindly in the dark for her cell and managed to croak out a greeting. "Hello?"
"Syd? It's Paxton. I'm sorry I'm callin' so late, but—" The deep drawl rumbling into the receiver had her toes curling, even though fear seeped into every pore. She knew the owner of the voice, had dreamed of him on a few occasions since she'd left Idaho, and many while she lived there. There could only be one reason Pax Dane would call her.
"What's wrong?" she asked, her anxiety threatening to asphyxiate her. She climbed from the bed and removed her pajama bottoms.
"I want you to know your dad's doin' fine."
"You called me at two AM to tell me my dad is fine? Are you serious?"
Pax cleared his throat. "There's been a fire, Syd. The house… it's a wreck. There's nothin' left."
Sydney slumped down onto the bed, combing her fingers through her sleep-messed hair. Her brain, working slower than her body, finally started to function. Gone. Her home… gone. "How? Why?"
"There was a fire," he repeated. "Electrical, the fire marshals think." She gasped, but Pax continued. "Luckily, your dad was in the stables."
"Where is he now?"
Pax proceeded to explain Jack would stay in the cottage situated within the 4D Ranch land. Her father's horses had been moved to the stables at the 4D Ranch and even her beloved cat, Socks, had been saved. However, the house would need rebuilding.
"Can I talk to him?"
"He doesn't know I'm talkin' to you." She could just imagine the sheepish expression on Pax's face. "I promised him I wouldn't tell you. Jack isn't going to be happy with me. He'll have my hide when he finds out."
"Is he really okay to stay with you at 4D?"
"Yeah, you know he is. He's gonna need help," he added.
Sydney didn't need the hint to know what Pax tried to get at. She already had the bag out and started packing. "I'm on my way. I'll drive. It makes sense for me to have a car while I'm there."
"Can you do that? Just pack up your life and relocate here for a while?"
The skepticism in his tone annoyed her. Choosing to ignore it, she carried on tossing lotions and sprays into a large case. "I write. As long as I have my laptop and an Internet connection, I can be based anywhere. Is there room in the cottage for me too, or do I need to try and find somewhere else?"
The sound of his breathing, punctuated by the odd bark of his dog, filled the silence on the other end of the fun. Leaving Pax to his thoughts, she shoved underwear and T-shirts into the bag, zipping it up and dragging it through her apartment.
"You can stay at the main house with me. The cottage isn't really big enough for you and Jack."
"Okay, but why the reluctance?" His long stretch of quiet had her curious.
"Um, shit, all right. Syd, Caleb still lives here too. He helps out on the ranch."
Trying to feign nonchalance, she assured him it wouldn't be an issue and that she'd soon be on her way. Pax promised to call her if there anything came up while she traveled, ending the call with a short goodbye. Sydney tried not to think about what she'd be headed toward. Not only would she have to deal with her childhood home, now burned to the ground, she'd also come face to face with her past.
Caleb Lowe—the man she left at the altar.
To say she left him at the altar would be a slight exaggeration. It hadn't been exactly there. Nor had it been on the wedding day.
Sydney had ended her engagement with Caleb Lowe the day before they would've said their vows, never telling him the real reason it couldn't go ahead. She'd left Hailey, their hometown, the following day. So instead of walking up the aisle, she'd driven out of Idaho.
Five years ago.
She'd returned on a few occasions but had always managed to dodge Caleb. The most difficult part had been avoiding the questions from her father. How could he understand she had been in love with more than one man?
And her feelings hadn't changed.
Sydney had known Pax all her life. His family's ranch sat next to her father's. However, her feelings changed toward him around the age of seventeen. Four years older than her, Pax garnered his fair share of attention. Most females in the area melted at his model good looks and his toned six pack. Pax showed little interest, firmly referring to her as the little sister he wished he had. It left her worshiping him from the sidelines, watching girls fawn over him, kiss him in public and gossip about him in the bathroom at school. There were a great many dirty little tales about him and the way he liked to have sex. Sydney committed each one to memory, only recalling them when alone. Maybe those memories were the reason her toes still curled at the sound of his voice?
Caleb had been her diversion. He'd been a waif Pax's father had taken in, after the two boys became friends. He'd treated her like a princess, adoring the ground she walked on. Sydney got lost in a whirlwind of emotions. Caleb swept her off her feet, but it never erased her love for Pax.
And now she'd be living with both men, inhabiting the same space, and breathing the same air. They would come home from a day working on the ranch all sweaty and worn, needing food, relaxing massages and… good grief, she'd gone to daydreaming again. How could she be thinking such erotic thoughts after all that had happened?
Swallowing her nerves, along with a good dose of guilt, she cranked up the AC. It had grown oddly hot in the car. The stereo blared and she focused on the road. She avoided looking in the rearview mirror, not wanting to see her own regretful green eyes staring back at her.
Invariably, her thoughts drifted back to the two men and she tried to work out how to deal with them. Caleb would want answers, and so would her father. She'd managed to avoid talking about the past when she'd visited him, but she had a feeling sidestepping their questions with ones about the house would only work for a short time.
Pulling into a gas station, she checked the GPS. In another twenty minutes or so she'd be entering Twin Falls, which meant she needed to sort out what to say to them—how to deal with the situation.
In less than half an hour, she'd be home.
Sydney spun around, the world tilting on its axis when she tried to focus on the shadow walking toward her. Under the dark bleachers, the only light came from the moon and the embers of her cigarette.
Clutching the bottle of tequila tightly, she blinked. "Pax?"
"Daddy's gonna be real pissed if you're drinkin' liquor, Syd."
Sydney slurred her words, "I'm nah t-that drunnnk."
Pax didn't believe her. "Liar. I knew you were up to somethin' when I saw you slip under the fence. You know the library's not open when school closes, don't you?"
"Shut it," she spat, annoyed he knew exactly where she usually ran to. She heard a low chuckle, one she didn't recognize. "Who's with you?"
Someone stepped forward, shuffling into the slats of light. She squinted, making out large, expressive eyes and a shaved he
ad. He appeared to be slightly taller than Pax, but since she swayed on her feet, she couldn't be certain. He also looked more toned than Pax—not that Pax didn't
have loads of definition. His friend just had… more.
"This here's Caleb. We came to see if you needed help with the tequila. Wouldn't want you drinkin' alone."
Waving the bottle in front of his face, she pouted. "Did my dad send you?"
"Nope, can't say he did, but I can see somethin' sure rattled your cage." Pax moved forward, placing his hands on her shoulders. "What's goin' on?"
Sydney shook her head, causing the ground to shift beneath her feet. Pax's fingers shot to her biceps, gripping them tightly and holding her up. He laughed, taking the bottle from her hand and passing it to Caleb who proceeded to take a large swig.
"Hey!" she complained, reaching around Pax to get to it.
"You need to sit down and tell me what's eatin' you. Your dad's looking for you, turning up every rock he sees. You should be happy it was Caleb and I that found you. Now sit your ass down and spill." Pax pulled her to the ground with him, leaning back against the supporting wall of the bleachers and taking the bottle from Caleb. Sydney's head slumped onto Pax's shoulder and felt the sparks from their contact even in her inebriated state.
"It was a stupid argument," she confessed.
Pax took a drink of the liquor, hissing when he swallowed. Caleb grunted, snatching the bottle back and moving to sit on the other side of her. It felt nice to be snuggled between two hot guys. With anyone else she would have been scared. But with Pax? She could never be afraid of him.
Over the next hour they drained the bottle until they ended up laying side by side, laughing raucously and telling each other dirty jokes. Pax turned on his side, his hand resting on Sydney's waist. Caleb's hand lay lower down on her thigh. She gazed into Caleb's eyes, licking her lips, desire curling low in her belly. Pax lowered his head to her shoulder, his breath skimming across her cheek.”Is it still a secret?" He whispered into her ear.
"Huh?" she responded, her head far too clouded with alcohol and lust. Two attractive men in close proximity overwhelmed her senses.
Trying to focus on Pax, she became aware of Caleb's hand, crawling slowly higher up her thigh.
"Your argument with your dad?"
Her skin heated, mortification searing her flesh when she recalled what her dad had found in her bedroom. Confessing to Pax would not be an option.
"What time is it?" Caleb asked, his voice gruff. Arousing. He toyed with her red hair, curling a strand around his finger.
Lifting her arm, Sydney stared at her watch but the hands kept blurring. "I think it's after twelve."
Caleb cursed, propping himself up on his elbow. He grunted toward his friend. "Gotta go."
Sydney closed her eyes, feeling Pax exhale. His warm, liquor-laced breath floated across her shoulder, causing delicious little tremors to breakout along her body. "How about a goodnight kiss, Sydney?"
Her eyes flew open, startled by the close proximity of Caleb's face to hers. She averted her gaze, moving it toward Pax, almost like seeking permission. Her body felt so hot, so taut with desire that any minute she thought she might go up in flames.
Caleb lowered his head, his lips millimeters from hers when Pax spoke up. "If you get a kiss then so do I."
Sydney's gasp of surprise got captured in Caleb's mouth, lost when he slid his tongue against hers. She wasn't innocent, she'd kissed plenty of boys before, but Caleb's felt different, like nothing she'd ever experienced. Slow and gentle, but it left her with no doubt he led the kiss. He gained exactly what he wanted from it.
She'd barely adjusted to his delving tongue when he ripped it away, only to be replaced by a hot, much more thorough one. Pax. The man kissed like he owned her, and she had no complaints. His mouth locked to hers, nibbling and sucking her to oblivion.
A hand cupped her breast, kneading softly, and another hand swirled her navel. It had to be a dream, she mused when Pax nipped at her bottom lip. There could be no possible way two guys were currently kissing her.
Sinking into Pax's lips, she moaned and reached up, trying to grasp his shaggy brown hair. She delved her fingers into the soft strands, tugging lightly and he tilted his head to deepen the seduction. His hands cupped her jaw, the rough pad of his thumb skimming her cheeks.
Caleb's fingers crept up under her top, tickling along the edge of her bra. A nervous anticipation built within her, along with a healthy dose of shame. Maybe she should stop? What if someone caught them? No normal woman allowed two men to fondle her, did she? But then most people didn't have fantasies like Sydney did, nor did they write them down.
Pax sucked on her tongue, snapping her from her thoughts. Caleb's hand pushed under the cup of her bra, rolling her nipple between his fingers. Gasping from the touch, Sydney pulled away from the kiss and opened her eyes. She panted, the toying with her nipple sending sparks in one direction. The same direction Pax's hand drifted toward: her pussy.
"Shit, stop! Stop!" she shouted, using her feet to push her body away from them. Her head swam, her feelings confused, and nausea rose. She would never drink again. Ever.
Pax started to speak but she cut him off. "You guys need to leave."
"Syd, we can't leave you here. You're drunk and it's late. Your dad would skin me alive if he knew I'd just walked away."
"He won't know, will he? Because to tell him, you'd have to admit you were both drinking with me. And yeah, he'd be pissed at that, though not as pissed as the next revelation about what you and your friend were doing with his daughter under the bleachers."
"Go. Please. I don't ever want to talk about this again. I'm drunk. So are you. Both of you."
Pax reached out, wrapping his fingers around her ankle. She flinched, pulling it back and scuttling against the wall. Her stomach roiled, the alcohol burning like acid as it worked its way up. She couldn't see their faces from where she sat but she heard their muted whispers. Seconds later Pax knelt beside her, placing a hand on her shoulder. "I'll call your house in thirty minutes. You'd better answer, or your daddy better tell me you're tucked up in bed."
He left with Caleb and the first wave of sickness arrived just moments later. Holding her hair back, Sydney purged her stomach alone in the dark, wishing she could also purge her memories.
Sydney couldn't resist, she had to see the house before she drove to the 4D. It also meant she could put off seeing Caleb and Pax.
Fooling herself she had the strength to do this alone, she drove up to her childhood home completely unprepared for what faced her. Pax hadn't been exaggerating when he said the house needed to be rebuilt. Nothing remained but a crumbling, burned wooden frame. The fire had decimated everything, including the attached stables.
Her knees wobbled when she climbed out of her car, the air still pungent with acrid smoke. She didn't walk too close, though she could clearly see piles of scorched possessions. Everything her father owned had been in the house and in the space of a few short hours—all gone. Nothing left but ash and embers.
Tears pricked her eyes, and not wanting to look at the wreckage any longer, she walked over to what remained of the stables. There were no horses in the paddock, or further out so far as she could see. Chastising herself for not asking Pax about her horse, Roman, she turned back toward her car and walked directly into someone.
Strong hands grasped her arms. "Took them to my stables," he mumbled, holding her biceps. "Roman, too."
Sydney exhaled, knowing who had spoken. Pax. Dammit if her body didn't instantly respond to his voice.
Her breath whooshed out. "Pax." She could only manage his name.
He smiled at her—the one she remembered where the right side of his mouth lifted higher than the left and created a little dimple. His hair flopped into his deep brown eyes, but he didn't take his hands from her so that he could push it back. Instead, he looked her in the eyes through the strands. "Welcom
e home, sweetheart."
Rolling her eyes, Sydney pulled away before he could hug her. "Not much left of it."
"And I'm real sorry about that but we'll make it good again."
Trying not to stare too much at his broad shoulders, she asked, "Are you sure my dad's okay? You wouldn't lie to me, would you?"
Pax moved his finger across his chest. "Cross my heart. Jack's just fine. In fact, right now he's out ridin' Blue, after just givin' the insurance company hell."
A weight lifted off her chest, feeling instantly lighter now that she knew her father was dealing with the fire. After seeing the house, it became clear how much work needed doing, and how long that work could take. It meant she would be seeing an awful lot more of the cowboy in front of her. Along with his friend.
"How did you know I'd come here first?"
Pax chuckled, a low rumble that had her nipples puckering. "I didn't. I was here checkin' everythin' out and heard your car drive up. Total coincidence."
"You don't believe in them," she shot back, needing to see his smirk again. "I know you, Paxton Dane."
He licked his lips, his tone dropping to wet your panties level. "And I know you."
Heat burned her cheeks from the memories of what he hinted at. She chose to ignore his comment, changing the subject as quickly as she could. "I didn't ask, but you do have internet, right?"
"Sure do. It's ready and waitin' for you to abuse."
Sydney spluttered, far too many images flitting through her head and causing it to spin. The man proved toxic to her sanity.
"Um, does Caleb know I'm coming?" she finally asked, unable to avoid it any longer.
Pax rubbed the back of his neck, taking a step closer to her. "He was the one who told me to call you. He said you should be here no matter what Jack crowed about." He exhaled. "He's doin' okay, Syd, but you cut the guy to shreds. I know it's been a while, but it still smarts. All I'm goin' to say is go easy on him."