Release Date: September 27, 2018
Cover Design: Wicked by Design
Model: Steve Kalfman
I fell in love with Austin before I even knew what the word meant.
Miranda was the only girl who ever had a chance at owning my heart.
Defined by the land we grew up on—ranches, pastures, lakes—Mason Belle, Texas, wrote our story. And then it tore out the pages.
Six years later, Miranda had managed to slip away again. But this time, I refused to let her run.
Miranda lifted her hand to tuck her hair behind her ear. Like a movie, a flashback of the past, a vision of eighteen-year-old Randi, blinked before me. I’d always found that habit seductive, primarily because she wasn’t conscious of the fact that she did it when she was nervous. I loved the innocence in her expression and the way her eyes almost cowered behind her lashes. It was pure and as close to angelic as Randi ever got.
It took effort to soften my tone. I ignored the bell that rang over the door. She was on the defensive. If I wanted to have a discussion, I’d have to make her believe she was safe. “Can we talk?”
Her pupils narrowed, though her expression remained flat. “About?”
I’d thought about this conversation more times than I could count, yet when the chance to have it arose, my mind went blank. I shrugged. “What have you been up to?”
She shook her head in disbelief. “Really? You have me alone in a corner, and that’s the question you want an answer to?”
No. It wasn’t even the tip of the iceberg. “It’s a good place to start.”
Miranda shifted in the seat, uncrossing her legs and crossing them again. She was thinner than she had been in high school. I hadn’t noticed it so much on the ranch, yet sitting across from her, it was quite obvious. “Okay… I moved to New York. I met Eason the day I got off the bus. He helped me get into school for paralegal work and hired me in his law firm. We’ve lived together since, and I still work at the practice.”
She’d summed up six years in a handful of meaningless sentences that told me nothing other than stats I could have found on Facebook if she used social media.
“Are you happy?” It came out before I realized what I’d said.
The question appeared to surprise her as much as it had me. “Sure. New York’s a great place to live.” There was no smile in her voice, nothing that indicated she loved life.
That wasn’t a ringing endorsement. Warning bells, sirens, whistles, they all went off in my head. For a girl who’d been with a man as long as Miranda had Eason, I expected more. He obviously defined her life if she lived with him and worked for him.
“Is Eason good to you?”
Her features scrunched, and that look was all Randi. The Randi I’d loved. The one who died the day that car crashed. “Of course.” She appeared offended, yet she didn’t defend him.
Miranda watched me intently, although she remained quiet. I hadn’t realized until that moment how desperate I was to hear the sound of her voice, to engage in a normal conversation. I wanted to forget the last six years and pretend like there’d never been an accident. I’d kill to see her tilt her head back in laughter or witness one genuine smile.
“I’m not going to bite you, Miranda. You can talk. We can catch up. That’s what friends do.” Friends. I hated that word. She’d never be a friend. We may never be anything more again, but I’d never place her in that category in my life.
“I don’t know what to say, Austin. You’ve made it pretty clear how you feel about me since I arrived at the ranch.”
I needed something to do with my hands. They shook beneath the table, and if I didn’t get my nerves under control, I’d start babbling. “I’m sorry.” I paused, and her facial muscles relaxed. “I wasn’t expecting to see you.” It was an excuse. “Not that anyone had to warn me.” And that sounded awful. “I didn’t recognize you.” That was the painful truth.
She wrapped her hands around her mug, yet she didn’t lift it. Her thumb traced circles on the ceramic. “I don’t look all that different.” It wasn’t just her appearance. “So, what was it then?”
“You cut your hair.” There were days I marveled at my conversational brilliance.
She grazed her fingertips over the ends self-consciously. “You don’t like it?”
I wasn’t sure why it mattered if I did or didn’t. “You always loved your hair. I’m just surprised.”
“Is that it?”
I couldn’t figure out how to get away from this. “I don’t know. You don’t sound like you, anymore. And you showed up in a limo for Christ’s sake. You looked like you stepped off the runway, not an airplane.” I didn’t mean to be harsh. “It caught me off guard.”
A tear trickled down her cheek. “If anyone had told me you worked at the ranch, I wouldn’t have come.”
My chest constricted painfully. All these years, I’d believed she hid from Jack. Now I had to wonder if it was me.
She swallowed hard and closed her eyes. When she opened them, any emotion that had surfaced had cleared. They were empty again, soulless. “I didn’t mean it the way you took it.”
“How’d you mean it?”
Charity came around with the coffee at the perfect moment for Miranda and the wrong one for me. It didn’t escape my attention, or Miranda’s for that matter, that Charity refused to look at her and only spoke to me. People in Mason Belle hurt for a long time over Miranda’s disappearance. And if they continued to treat her the way Charity and I had, they wouldn’t have to worry about her ever returning.
She waited for Charity to leave before she responded. “I owe you an explanation. You more than anyone.” There was a pause, and I was afraid if I filled the silence then she’d quit talking. “I never meant to hurt you.”
I ached, seeing her this way. Nothing about her had healed in New York. She’d withered into something unrecognizable. “What did he do?” I whispered.
“It doesn’t matter.”
But it did. Without regard for my actions, I reached out and placed my hand on top of hers. “You can always come home.” I didn’t have a clue where that had come from. Mason Belle would not open its arms to the princess who’d shunned them, not without a lot of explanation.
She snickered, and her shoulders dropped. She did not, however, remove her hand from underneath mine, and I took the chance to give her fingers a gentle squeeze.
“It’s not that easy, Austin.”
I kept my voice low. “Why not?”
“Sometimes you can’t come home.”
That was bullshit. It might be uncomfortable. People might expect apologies. Even still, she absolutely could make that choice, just like she’d made one to leave.
“Why? Because of some guy? Some job? A fancy town? You can leave every bit of that behind.”
She stared at me with wonder instead of gall.
“If you want to come back, you can. But it would take the gumption of the girl I knew, not the one who showed up in a Hummer with a man in a suit.”
As if I’d slapped her, the mention of Eason had her withdrawing her hand. “And just walk away from my life?”
“You’ve done it before.”
She flattened her lips and nodded defensively…slowly. “And there it is.”
“Damn, Randi. Come on. What do you expect?”
“Nothing. That’s why I’ve tried to keep my distance. You came looking for me, remember?”
“Your sister sent me.”
She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of cash. “Of course, she did. I should have known you’d never come on your own. God knows you never made any attempt to find me before, but Sarah waves her hand, and you’re on a mission.” She tossed a few dollars on the table and slid across the bench.
Shit. I pulled my wallet out and tossed a couple of bucks down. Miranda had made it to the front door and grasped the handle when Charity decided now was the time to chime in.
“You’re wastin’ your time, Austin. Let her go. She’s not worth it.” Disgust lifted her lip in a snarl, and I’d never hated the sound of a Southern twang until that moment.
“Ah, shut up, Charity.” I’d have to apologize for that later. Hopefully before Brock found me to turn my face into a punching bag for speaking to his wife that way.
Miranda had heard her and pushed open the door with all the strength she could muster. The bell rang wildly, and I took off after her.
The last thing either of us needed was another scene, especially in the middle of town. “What?” She spun and then screamed, “What do you want, Austin? To humiliate me? Are you out for blood? Tell me what you need so I can make it happen. I’ll do anything you ask. I just need this to end.” Tears ran down her cheeks, her shoulders shook, but she held her ground.
I didn’t have an answer, because I didn’t know.
“That’s what I thought,” she murmured in defeat.
One of Five ARC’s for Gravel Road
About the Author
Bestselling author, Stephie Walls is a lover of words–the more poetic the better. She lives on the outskirts of Greenville, South Carolina in her own veritable zoo with two dogs, three cats, and Magoo (in no preferential order). She would thrive on coffee, books, and Charlie Hunnam if it were possible, but since it’s not, add in some Chinese food or sushi and she’s one happy girl.
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