Authors: Shiloh Walker
Always for my family. Love you all.
And for my new friend Nicole…who is saving my sanity on a weekly basis.
“Chase’s back in town.”
Those words, once upon a time, might have toppled the very foundation of her world.
Once upon a time…thirteen, fourteen years ago.
But Zoe didn’t believe in fairy tales anymore.
Glancing up at Beth, she cocked a brow. “Is he?” Then she focused on the glass cabinet and finished wiping it down. Damned fingerprints. She couldn’t keep them off.
“Yeah.” Beth leaned on the counter and sighed, a familiar look in her eyes. “Damn, Zo. He still looks…wow. Just…wow. Came riding into town this morning on a Harley, and man, may I say, I think my heart stopped.”
“Hmmm.” Zoe scraped her nail over something sticky and opaque. It looked suspiciously like some sort of candy residue. Like some little child had been sucking on something sweet, and then went and touched their fingers to her display cases. Absently, she grabbed the glass cleaner. Before she could do anything, Beth reached up and caught her hands.
“Are you hearing me?” Beth said, staring at her. “
Zoe frowned. “Yes. I hear you. But what does it have to do with me?” She looked down at her hands. At the gold band on her left hand. The diamond anniversary band had been a gift for her tenth anniversary. Just the sight of it made her smile.
She was married.
To the man who’d been Chase’s best friend in high school.
Neither of them had spoken a word to Chase since he’d up and disappeared the day after graduation. He’d just…left. Just like that.
Glancing up, she smiled at Beth. “Honey, it’s been fifteen years. I’m married. I love my husband—he loves me. You know this. Chase…well, we don’t even know each other anymore. It’s not like he could have expected me to wait around, right?”
Even if her gut was all in tangles over her husband lately.
The town of Warren hadn’t changed much in fifteen years.
But Chase Cochran hadn’t much expected it to.
Honestly, he had hoped it wouldn’t. He’d returned here hoping to find…home.
And so far, that was just what he’d found.
He didn’t realize it, but he was smiling as he strolled through the town square.
He hadn’t thought he’d miss it.
When he left here right after graduation, all he had been able to think about was getting out, as fast as he could, as quick as he could, as far away as he could. Getting away from his dad, this town, all of it.
Not because he didn’t love the old man. He had. His dad had been everything. Mom had decided she couldn’t be a mom, after all, a decision she came to right before Chase had turned a year old and she walked out on them both. Ever since then, it had just been Chase and his dad.
And then Chase had gone and done the same thing, walking away without much more than an, “It’s been fun”.
Chase couldn’t have stayed, though. He’d been strangling here—strangling, choking. Getting out had been paramount. At the time, it had been the right decision for him. The only decision for him.
Still, it had been a selfish one.
He didn’t doubt his dad would welcome him back. They’d kept in contact and Chase was still amazed that his dad didn’t have some leftover resentment for him. Walking away like he’d done—walking…
Sometimes, Chase wished he had more of his dad in him. But that was part of the reason he’d left…he could see himself spending his entire life in the same small town, doing the same job.
It had taken him fifteen years to realize that really wouldn’t have been such a bum deal.
Slowing to a stop, he studied the small town hall.
Dipping a hand in his pocket, he pulled out the gold necklace in there.
The stylized gold Z still gleamed.
Was she still here?
Dad would know.
After he’d left, it had taken him a year to call back home, but since that first call, he had kept in touch with his dad. Regular calls, letters—hell, they were closer now than they’d been when he was growing up, and they’d had a pretty good relationship then.
But Zoe had always been off limits in those conversations.
His dad wouldn’t discuss her. Period. But now that he was home…well, hell. His dad would have to discuss her.
Chase closed his eyes and blew out a breath. Shit. Rubbing a thumb over the smooth surface of the Z, he looked up at the town hall. He needed to prepare himself for the fact that he just might find out that Zoe wasn’t here.
That she was here…and married.
Considering how he had left, he really didn’t have any right to expect much of anything different.
He hadn’t warned her, hadn’t told her. Not until the day he left. He’d gone by there, told her he was going, kissed her… And that was it.
He had left her behind, even though he had loved her like crazy.
But he’d just needed to get away. He’d been eighteen, edgy and restless, and the girl who had looked at him with her heart in her eyes had…hell. It had made it worse somehow, because part of him had wanted to stay. Wanted to give her everything she’d wanted and never asked for.
“Get it over with,” he muttered, rubbing a hand up and down his face. “Just get it over with.”
Setting his jaw, he jogged up the steps.
Dad wasn’t expecting him, but that didn’t concern Chase.
The mayor’s office was quiet—half of the staff out to lunch.
The secretary, though, she recognized Chase and with a beaming smile, ushered him in.
In his dad’s office, a faint smile curling his lips, he studied the certificates, plaques and pictures on the walls.
His dad, the mayor. From small town police officer, to chief of police, to mayor.
What the hell.
One picture caught his eye and he narrowed his eyes, moved closer.
Roger. Roger Kirkbride. “I’ll be damned,” Chase murmured. He skimmed the article below and then started to laugh.
Roger had been his best friend in high school. Apparently the guy had decided small town life—and politics—was his thing.
He was Dad’s right-hand man.
Still smirking, Chase set the picture and moved on, studying the rest of the framed pictures.
The third one he picked up wiped the smile from his face and just about knocked the breath right out of his lungs.
His right fist clenched. A sharp pain jabbed into his palm and he looked down, opened it. Dazed, he realized he’d still been holding the necklace.
The door opened and he turned, stared at the man in the doorway.
All of a sudden, he understood why Zoe had been off limits.
“Chase…” A smile creased the older man’s face and he crossed the room.
His father hugged him and Chase briefly returned the embrace.
But then he eased back and looked at the picture he had yet to put down.
Zoe’s wedding picture.
James Cochran lowered his eyes to the picture and sighed. Reaching out, he took the picture and studied it. Then he looked up at Chase and shook his head. “What do you want me to say, son? You were gone.”
“You could have told me,” Chase said, his voice harsh, flat. “You could have told me I’d spent the past fifteen years of my life thinking about a girl who is pretty much out of my reach now.”
“If she meant that much to you, you shouldn’t have waited so long to come back. Or maybe you should have given her a little bit more thought before you decided to disappear from her life,” James said quietly. Then he took the picture and put it back on the shelf. “And I wasn’t going to tell you, because there were…issues.”
Chase studied Zoe’s lovely face. She wasn’t smiling, but she looked so lovely, so delicate, ethereal, even. They looked like a matching set, her and Roger.
“When did they get married?”
There was no answer. Lifting his head, he looked back at his dad. Quietly, he said again, “When?”
Shit, he could imagine the issues.
had been the issue. Roger had always had a thing for Zoe. He hadn’t ever made a move on her but still…
“They’re happy?” Envy, disbelief—
—warred inside. She was gone. Out of reach. Turning, he looked at his dad and asked again, “Are they happy? Is she happy?”
“Yes.” James tucked his hands in his pockets and nodded. “They’re very happy.”
“Okay. Yeah. Okay.” It wasn’t okay, though. Carefully, Chase set the picture down and then he turned away. Just as carefully, he tucked the necklace back inside his pocket. If he was smart, he’d throw it away.
But he wasn’t smart.
He’d never been smart.
If he was smart, he would have taken her with him when he left.
Or he would have written.
Would have tried to call back and talk to her.
If he was smart, he wouldn’t still let her have a hold on him after all this time.
Looking at his dad, he asked, “Yeah?”
He gave the old man a smile.
“Why wouldn’t I be?”
But as he turned away, he could have sworn he heard his heart shattering inside his chest.
Six months later
“Ungrateful slut.” Grace Childers peered at her daughter through milky, unhappy blue eyes, her mouth pinched and angry, her hands curled into tight fists. “Just go away and leave me alone. Stupid, ungrateful slut.”
At eighteen, those words had hurt. They had slashed through her heart and her tears had been like salt water in an open wound.
Now, as she stared at her mother’s aging, unhappy face, she felt more pity than pain. Still, she couldn’t completely hide the wince as her mother continued to mutter in disgust.
Not that the woman entirely understood just what she was ranting about. Not now. Early onset Alzheimer’s had taken a miserable but sharp woman and made her into a miserable woman who barely remembered her own name.
Stroking her mother’s tangled hair back from her face, Zoe said, “Mama, it’s time to eat. Aren’t you hungry?”
In response, Grace Childers picked up the bowl of soup and if Zoe hadn’t moved, she would have been wearing it.
One of those days. It was going to be one of those days.
Her phone rang and she glanced down, saw Roger’s number. As she went about cleaning up the soup, she answered. “Hey, sweetie. How was the doctor’s appointment?”
Some days just went from bad to worse. They started out miserable and just went to outright fucked up as the day progressed.
This had been one of them—it had started out shitty, and hit the fucked-up stage well before lunch had rolled around. Chase hadn’t even gotten around to eating lunch, something his hollow stomach wasn’t about to let him forget.
He had been back home for six months.
Six lousy, awful months and every damn day, he thought about just leaving. He could sell the car he’d bought, load up his bike and just leave. One of the reasons he’d come back no longer existed…at least not for him.
And because of that, he’d deliberately created himself another reason—he’d bought the town’s sole bookstore. He didn’t know jackshit about running a business, although thank God the store’s manager
and she’d been delighted to hang around, not to mention delighted to hang around with somebody who wasn’t opposed to bringing the store into the current century.
But that was a nightmare of work and today was the pinnacle of those nightmares.
But Tiffany finally had things under control and as she chattered with customers, he slipped into the back office and took five seconds to swear under his breath.
“Lousy day,” he said. “Lousy fucking day.”
The day was done, he could go home, eat. Collapse.
No, he had some books to sort through, he remembered as he stared at the box sitting on his desk. Okay, go home, eat, sort through the books,
Hefting the bag of books onto his shoulder, he headed out of the office and slipped out the back door.
The Book Nook had been Warren’s only bookstore for as long as he could remember. Now it was
bookstore. It had gone up for sale just two days after he’d come back home, when he’d seriously been considering whether he’d should get the hell out or really trying making this place his home.
In the end, there hadn’t been much of a contest.
Warren had always been home.
Even if he wanted to snarl or break something every time he saw Zoe and Roger together, he couldn’t leave just for that. He hadn’t come back
for Zoe. Even though part of him had hoped…
He’d come home because it
Her being married—to his best fucking friend—didn’t change that.
Get over it,
he told himself. Just like he’d told himself a hundred times over the past few months. Easier said than done.