“A tortured hero, a love that defies distance and time…this is a book you won’t soon forget.”NYT Bestselling Author, Cat Johnson
“A sexy read. KC Klein’s hero is as hot as a Texan summer’s day. KC is an author to watch.”NYT Bestselling Author, Rachel Gibson
Some wild things can’t be tamed…
Katie Harris loved growing up on a ranch. She had her horse, the beautiful Texas prairie, and Cole Logan, the cowboy next door. But there are a lot of secrets hidden under a Texas sky…
Katie always knew she’d marry Cole one day–until he broke her dreams and her heart. But now that Katie’s father is sick, she’s back home, older, wiser and nowhere near the love-sick fool she once was.
Cole knows Katie doesn’t want anything to do with him. But after so many years, he can’t pretend she’s no more than a neighbor. Holding his ground was hard enough when she was seventeen. Now that she’s her own woman, Cole’s heart doesn’t stand a chance…
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Katie slouched on the peeling wood steps that led to the back porch. With elbows firmly propped up on knees, she dropped her chin into her hands. Everyone else was inside talking in hushed tones, eating rolled up meat and dried crackers with white goo on them.
Her stomach growled. The “finger sandwiches,” which didn’t look like fingers at all, were real small and not one of them had peanut butter and jelly in them. She could’ve complained to Pa. He would’ve found her something good to eat, but she was still mad at him.
Pa had made her wear the yellow dress that had ruffles around the neck, the one that choked and itched. She hated that dress. It made her look like a baby and at eight years old, she was no baby.
How was Cole supposed to know that she was a big girl if Pa dressed her all stupid like? But Katie had seen the look on her father’s face, and learned there was no arguing when his mouth got all tight and small like that.
Still, she’d won one battle. She raised one foot to peek at the scuffed leather boot. Yep, her most favorite shoes in the whole world—her pink boots. She’d waited ’til the last minute so there’d been no time for Pa to send her back to change or else they’d miss the you-la-gee, whatever that was. So she wore her pink cowgirl boots, and had flashed her prettiest smile every time one of the ’dults told her that she sure did look cute.
In the end, wearing them wasn’t worth the trouble she’d get later, cuz the one person who shoulda noticed, didn’t. Cole.
Katie hugged herself and rocked slightly, her stomach still fluttery from when Pa had nudged her to walk to the front of the church where Cole, his sister, Nikki, and his ma had stood. Katie’s stomach did that a lot when she saw Cole. His dark hair had grown shaggy, and she loved how it fell to one side. She loved his blue eyes that always made her think of the Texas sky and how his crooked smile made her smile. He was eight years older, almost grown, but he’d never treated her like a baby. Which was cool, because sometimes even Pa did that.
Most of the time when she saw him, she’d throw herself into his arms, and he’d always give her a hug and twirl her ’round and ’round ’til Pa would tell them to settle down. But today was different. Today, she felt terrible. Cole, her best friend, her cowboy, was sad.
Katie had walked up to Cole’s mom after the funeral, not sure what to do. Mrs. Logan had been a mess. Her hair wasn’t smoothed back into a tight bun like usual, but fuzzy. She had shivered inside her black sweater, which was odd since Katie’s dumb dress was already stuck to her. There was one second when Katie didn’t want to hug Mrs. Logan, afraid she’d knock her over. Then Cole’s mom turned her lips into a half smile and Katie threw her arms around her, burying her nose in the smell of fabric softener and maple syrup.
“Ah Katie, my breath of fresh air,” she said, patting Katie’s head. “You need to help Cole. Be there for him.”
Katie had nodded. But when she’d hugged Cole with all her strength, he just stood there, not saying one word. Even when she mumbled “sorry” like everyone else had, he hadn’t looked at her. Nope, just stared straight ahead like he was picturing himself somewhere else and not at the church at all.
Nikki as usual, had never looked at her. Katie shrugged. Nikki was older, almost ten, and she didn’t play with babies. At least that was what Nikki had told Katie the last time she’d gone over looking for Cole. That was fine with Katie. Nikki was boring anyway. All she cared about was that beat-up, old pool table the Logans had out back. She didn’t care about horses. Not like Katie did.
Katie heaved her shoulders and slumped even further. She peeled a blue paint chip off the worn step and held it up against the bright sky. Nope. Not quite. Her Pa always told her there was nothing quite as blue and quite as wide as the Texas sky. And Pa was always right. There wasn’t a color blue she’d seen that matched the best sky in the whole world. Well, except the blue of Cole’s eyes, and she wasn’t going tell anyone that.
Katie flicked the paint chip to the ground and looked out past the giant oak tree. There in the distance was a two-rail wooden fence Cole’s dad had just put up. In the holding area were the new horses that arrived only a few weeks ago. One of the horses, Cole told her, was pregnant and soon the first foal would be born to the Logans’ Horse Ranch.
She’d heard one of the ’dults, Mike Pitt, talking about how the horses had killed Cole’s dad. He’d been real upset and had gone on about how Cole’s dad shoulda known better. And about how the horses had cost lots of money and the stress on Cole’s dad’s heart was too much. Katie didn’t understand and wanted to ask Mr. Mike how the horses could be to blame when Cole’s dad died in his bed. But Katie couldn’t because for some reason Pa didn’t like her talking to him.
But Mr. Mike was wrong. It couldn’t have been the horses. Seemed to her it was the sleepin’ that had killed Cole’s dad. He went to sleep and plumb forgot how to wake up. That’s why from now on when she went to sleep she’d keep the bathroom light on, so she’d remember how to get up in the mornings.
One of the ponies neighed in greeting as Cole and her Pa went toward the fence. Her Pa had his arm around Cole’s shoulder and was walking real slow. Funny, Cole always seemed so big to her, but next to Pa he didn’t. Maybe cuz of the way his shoulders slumped and how his head hung down like he wanted to study the design on his black boots.
Pa lifted his hat and smoothed his hair. He had a habit of fiddling with his hat when a horse was having a hard time birthing a foal or when Katie got a note home from her teacher. So Katie sat real still and quiet so she could figure out what bothered Pa because next to him, Cole was her favorite person in the world.
Pa focused hard on Cole. His head bent low to Cole’s dark one. Cole nodded, swiped at his eyes, and nodded again. Then Pa did something she’d never seen him do. Well, to anyone else except her. He hugged Cole. And not just a one-arm hug, but a real, both-arms-wrapped-around-and-squeezing, making-you-feel-all-safe-and-better kinda hug. And for one heartbeat, jealousy rolled through her. But it was gone just as quick because this was Cole who Pa hugged. And if Pa was going to hug anyone else, then it might as well be Cole because she knew a secret.
It was so secret she hadn’t even told Pa. So secret she’d only whisper it at night and then only into her pillow. She was gonna marry Cole one day.
Thirteen years later, present day
Katie mentally prepared herself for the smells of antiseptic and bleach as she pushed through the double glass doors, but the hospital lobby surprised her. A floral arrangement on the reception desk brightened the space, giving off the scent of jasmine, and the darkened lights of the gift shop toned down the fluorescent glare from above.
The cheery, if somewhat outdated, mauve chairs sat empty and no one tended the front desk. Not much of a surprise since visiting hours had long passed and only loved ones desperate for miracles or updates would roam the halls at this hour.
Katie wheeled her suitcase behind her, glad she had only one bag. She’d packed light, knowing she’d come here straight from the airport. She patted down her coat and found her phone in the side pocket. Even in the deep of winter, south Texas didn’t call for wool, but New York had been spitting gray and sleet when she’d left. Besides, her bones were still chilled from the early morning phone call.
She’d been dead to the world when her phone screeched its annoying ring tone. Half asleep, she’d answered. If she lived to be ninety she’d never forget the way Cole had said her name—as if on a tail end of a sigh. Her mind woke before her body, and she’d literally fallen out of bed. Now, as she touched the screen on her phone, she braced herself for the husky hello on the other end.
It was acceptable to be shocked by a middle-of-the-night phone call, that was something she could live with, but now, having had time to prepare, there was no excuse. Her stomach flopped around like a girl’s first trip to the backseat of her boyfriend’s car at the sound of Cole’s hello.
“I’m here. What room are you in?” She was glad her voice sounded calm, almost bored. That was exactly the impression she was going for—at least with him.
He quickly told her the room number and which floor to get off on.
“See you in a minute then,” she said, glad to get off the phone. She had no illusions her calm demeanor could withstand long conversations with Cole, especially when all she should be thinking about was Pa. She grabbed her suitcase and headed toward the main elevators. Stepping inside, she pushed the button for five and took a deep breath as she watched the digital numbers begin their upward count.
She pressed the palm of her hand flat under her breastbone to ease the tightness.
Had it always been this bad?
If she were a good daughter, she’d be worried about Pa. Worried about his surgery tomorrow, worried if he’d even make it out of the hospital. But instead her mind flashed on a time long past with a different man and one very scared horse.
She fished in her front jeans pocket, found her ChapStick and then whipped on some cherry lip balm. She was such a fool. It had been close to three years and still her breath hitched at the thought of being in the same room as Cole.
Three years couldn’t negate a lifetime of bad habits.
Katie closed her eyes and massaged back the headache that threatened. Apparently, three years wasn’t long enough.
No, this wasn’t about Cole and her. This was about Pa. And it was high time she remembered that Cole had been nothing but a passing fancy in a young girl’s heart.
“Pa, I’m here,” Katie whispered into the darkened room. Even though the lights were dim, Katie could still make out the form buried under layers of generic white blankets. She stepped closer, almost afraid to make noise in the hushed stillness, but then Pa’s eyes opened and he smiled.
“You made it,” he said in a raspy imitation of his voice.
“Of course,” she said, surprised at how broken he sounded. Coming to the side of the bed, she grasped his hand in one of hers and squeezed. Pa grimaced. She looked down and realized she’d bumped one of the multiple tubes attached to him. The thought of causing him more pain filled her with guilt.
The man she called Pa was robust, had red in his cheeks, and a paunch that filled out his whole frame. The man being swallowed up by white sheets and bulky pillows wasn’t her father, but a pale and sunken husk of the James Harris she knew. She closed her eyes and bit back a sob. She wouldn’t cry. No, now was the time to be the strong daughter her father could lean on.
Katie searched his features, desperate for a glimpse of the familiar. She found them in the coffee-colored eyes and the deep lines that bracketed the same wide mouth she saw in the mirror every day.
Pa propped himself against the raised hospital bed. Blue-tinged lips were cracked with flakes of dried skin. His hands, splotched with purple-inked bruises, lay listless in his lap.
Her father had the strength of ten men, or so it seemed to her when he had hauled her up on her first horse, taught her how to drive a stick, change a flat. Now, she wondered if he’d ever walk under his own strength again.
“Honey . . . so glad you’re here,” Pa said, pinching his throat with his fingers as if it hurt to talk.
“What’s wrong? Are you in pain?” She reached out to comfort, but realized she could do nothing, and let her hand fall to her side. She was no good at this. Some people were at their best during a crisis; she was just awkward. The guilt that had plagued her the whole day rose as a hard knot in her chest.
Pa, I’m sorry. So sorry. I should’ve never left.
Pa reached for her fingers and squeezed, then shook his head, but instead of answering, he shifted his gaze to the man who sat in the corner.
Katie knew Cole was there. She’d always been aware of him, had been from the moment she’d opened the door, but concern for her father had given her a small reprieve. Not anymore.
Cole stood, unfolding long denim-encased legs and booted feet with the grace of a man comfortable with his size. Dirt smeared his dingy tee as he held an equally dusty Stetson in front of him. His dark hair fell forward and brushed his shadowed face. “It hurts him to talk. They had to intubate him in the ER. The doctor said his throat would be sore for a few days.”
And there it was. Even after all this time, her breath still hitched.
Such a fool, Katie.
Katie cut her gaze back to Pa’s pale complexion under his sun-browned skin and nodded. She stroked the remaining white tufts of his hair, then kissed his smoothed forehead. “It’s okay. You don’t need to talk. Cole’s filled me in on all the details.”
She brought Pa’s fingers to her lips and said a thankful prayer that he was alive. She’d almost lost him. “You gotta get well. You can’t leave me alone,” she said, using a smile to soften her words though she knew her eyes were filled with tears.
Her father swallowed hard and pressed his fingers to his throat. “You’d have Cole.”
Silence settled, thick and sticky like tar.
And wasn’t that just like Pa to call out the giant pink elephant in the room. Well, the elephant could dance on the damn bedside tray for all she cared. She wasn’t about to go there.
“You’re lucky,” Katie said. “The cardiologist on call tomorrow is the best. Everything I’ve read about him says he’s conservative, but thorough.” She continued to stroke Pa’s forehead, cool to the touch. “But right now you look like, well, like you’ve had a heart attack. You need to get some rest. I’ll be back tomorrow before the surgery. Do you need anything?”
Pa shook his head, but glanced toward the daunting presence in the corner. This time she allowed her gaze to linger. Cole had stepped out of the shadows and for one second her heart lurched as if trying to synchronize rhythms, but she violently shut it down with the clamp of her jaw. He wasn’t her home anymore; she’d made a new place with someone else.
But Katie knew Cole’s face. It had changed a little over the years, less roundness, more fine lines, but was oh so achingly familiar. He was two days past clean-shaven, and it annoyed her that she’d know the degrees of his five o’clock shadow. But his eyes were the same. As true a blue as the water of the ocean.
His presence ignited an unwarranted response, and Katie had to slide her trembling hands inside her coat pockets to hide their sudden dampness.
“He wouldn’t rest until you got here,” Cole said, his voice even deeper than over the phone. “His surgery is scheduled for the morning. I’ll drive you home and bring you back.”
And quick as spit, images flashed—a dark cab, a hushed night, the imposed intimacy of sharing the same air. “No, I’m fine. You’ve done enough. I’ll call a taxi and—”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Katie,” Cole said, as he walked closer. “I live right next door. Besides, I have to get your dad’s truck back.”
The fact that Cole now stood between her and the exit wasn’t lost on her.
Pa pressed his hand to his throat. “No, let Cole take you. I can’t relax thinking you’d be all alone.”
Katie repressed a sigh. And here she’d been living on her own in New York all this time.
“He was upset that you wouldn’t let me pick you up at the airport,” Cole said from behind her since she’d turned her back to him. She’d refused to let him coax her attention from where it should be, her father. “He hasn’t closed his eyes for more than a few minutes since your plane landed.”
Her father’s eyes were smudged with deep purple as he fought to keep them open.
She was just being stupid. She was an adult now, no need to play childish games. “Yes, of course.”
A weakened smile played across Pa’s lips; then he nodded. Katie kissed him one last time and turned to roll her suitcase back the way she’d come. But a stronger hand already gripped the handle.
“I got it,” Cole said, his eyes now hidden beneath the low brim of his Stetson.
“No, thank you, I’m fine.” She tugged again. Overly aware of how close she was to touching him.
He didn’t let go. “I said I got this.”
Katie looked at him from under her lowered lashes and let her most insincere smile spread across her face. “And I said no thanks.”
In the dark, a white smile flashed. “You’re not going to win this one.”
Her jaw clenched. A voice inside her head told her to let it go—she was tired. It wasn’t that big a deal. “That implies I’ve won at least some.”
She needed to work on being reasonable.
“Katie, you’ve always won,” he said as if everything was one big joke.
Damn him. And damn the way he addressed her, as if he only fully exhaled when he spoke her name. Anger, hot and bright, seared her blood, and she balled her hand against her stomach to keep from slapping his smirking face.
Liar! She’d lost the biggest gamble of her life with him.
With the suitcase now unencumbered, he wheeled the luggage out the door and down the hall. She stole a glance at Pa to make sure he hadn’t witnessed the episode. His eyes were closed and his mouth slack. She turned back around. Her icy glare was lost on the dirty tee stretched across Cole’s broad back and the faded jeans that molded what some would consider his best asset. With no real choice, she followed.
What did she expect? That things would be different? They’d been fighting since she was seventeen. Before that he’d been her best friend, but the summer of her senior year things changed. Heat rose to her face, and she was glad Cole walked in front of her.
She’d been so naive, and at the same time so sure of herself. What she wouldn’t give to take the summer of her senior year back, to wipe her shame off the world’s slate. And yet she would’ve never left for New York, and she would’ve never found love . . . true love. A love that didn’t hurt like the swallowing of a heated blade.