Time changes everything, except what’s meant to be.
Seven years is a long time – long enough to transform Clementine from a small-town teenager with a broken heart into a woman ready to take on the world, but not long enough to make her forget about the man she was never supposed to see again. A temporary return to tiny Willow Heights thrusts her back into Donovan’s life and home, unearthing heartbreak and obsession that have stood the test of time.
He left seven years ago too, for war and other things Clementine can only imagine. Coming back to the town where he grew up in the shadow of poverty and drug addiction makes no sense, and neither do Clementine’s feelings for him. He could never forgive her for leaving, could he? Even if she had no choice.
Now, she has the freedom to choose … and so does he. Every day in Willow Heights makes it clearer: all he ever really wanted was her, and nothing will change that. Not even a taste of the hell that drove them apart in the first place.
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She didn’t slow down as she drove by the trailer park, but she stared.
The past seven years might as well have been a couple of decades – rust had spread over the dozen or so homes like a fungus, and aluminum siding hung askew everywhere she looked. The grass probably hadn’t been mowed in months, but in truth, there was none – only weeds of every variety, thriving on neglect, growing tall in the shadows of deteriorating mobile homes.
The seemingly exaggerated passage of time weighed her heart down just as thoroughly as the sight of the dilapidated lots. Exerting pressure against the gas pedal, she sent the odometer needle creeping up to ten miles over the posted speed limit, so that when she passed the painted wooden sign reading Shady Side Mobile Home Court, it was only a blur, its faded letters unrecognizable.
Gold and orange, the foliage lining the road out of town was gorgeous and should’ve been enough to wipe the sight of Shady Side from her thoughts. Still, the memory of one trailer in particular – the ugliest one of all – stuck in her mind.
Years ago, it’d been a faded pink, but it was mostly rust-brown now. She’d recognized it anyway – third one back, on the left. She’d never been inside – she’d asked, but he’d always refused – but she could’ve sketched the exterior from memory.
How embarrassing was that? Her cheeks heating with secret shame, she sped a little more, hoping the road would remain empty and devoid of police. She was only a mile from her destination, and for some reason, she knew that laying eyes on it would erase thoughts of rusting trailers and weedy lots from her mind.
The brick house – two sprawling stories of Victorian architecture – loomed around a corner, tall and stately. It was as perfectly maintained as she remembered, from the close-clipped lawn to the whitewashed gingerbread trim. Coming to a rolling stop alongside the country road, she breathed a sigh.
Whoever had bought the place was obviously taking care of it. Thank God. She’d wondered and worried that her grandmother’s pride and joy would be left to deteriorate after her death, but apparently, that wasn’t the case.
Had the new owner moved in yet?
It didn’t look like it. The driveway was empty, and the mailbox was gone from the edge of the yard. The weeping willow in the center of the front lawn looked beautiful but lonely. Everything appeared too perfect for an actual residence. Maybe whoever owned the house had other plans for it, like turning it into a bed and breakfast – it would make a beautiful one, though who would want to vacation in Willow Heights, Pennsylvania, she had no idea.
Buoyed by the thought, she turned into the driveway, tires creeping over gravel. Surely the owner wouldn’t mind if she took a quick look around, especially not if they were going to turn it into something semi-public.
Stepping out of her car, she inhaled her first breath of Willow Heights air in four years. Considering that her last visit to the town had been brief and for a funeral, this occasion seemed markedly better, even if she still had her reservations about returning in the first place.
The air smelled like a storm. Unusually humid for fall and tinged with ozone, it warned her that her time was limited. Striding quickly, she approached the house, rounding the front porch, letting her fingertips trail over brick and wood as she went, determined to make a round of the building before rain started to fall.
The sky seemed to grow darker with each step, deepening to gunmetal grey, thick with clouds. A breeze brought cool air that permeated the weave of her cardigan, brisk after hours spent in the car. By the time she finished her circuit of the yard, she was on the verge of shivering. As she fastened her sweater’s top button, an ominous sound came from the tree-lined road.
A vehicle. A large one. A big black pick-up truck, to be exact – one that was moving way too slowly to be passing by. She was standing in the gravel next to her car like an idiot when the truck came to a halt just behind her vehicle, boxing it in so that she’d have to drive on the perfectly-maintained lawn to leave.
She swallowed a knot that had formed in her throat, standing statue-like with her fingertips on her car’s door handle. She’d make a quick apology, explain that her grandmother had been the house’s previous owner, and then be gone. The new owner would understand.
The truck was so high up and the windows were so dark that she couldn’t make out much of whoever was inside – only that he was a man, and wearing sunglasses. Music blared, rock so loud that the bass reverberated in her breastbone. He must’ve really been enjoying it, because he didn’t exit his vehicle, just sat there for what had to be one, two, three whole minutes … an eternity.
She was seriously considering climbing back into her car and driving away without a word when one of the truck doors swung halfway open, revealing a black leather work boot. Even with only his foot visible, the guy really didn’t seem like the bed and breakfast proprietor type.
Maybe she’d made a mistake. Something in the center of her chest deflated at the thought, even as she prepared to explain, to defend herself. She’d only wanted to see her grandmother’s house – the happiest place she’d known as a child, or ever, for that matter. Now she felt like a trespasser.
The mystery man descended from his monster of a pick-up with a crunch of gravel and a sound that could only be described as a grunt. “Clementine?”
Shock rippled through her system, making her stand a little straighter. “No one calls me that anymore.” The words died on the tip of her tongue as the man shoved his truck door shut, revealing himself fully.
Tall, dark and – God – twice as muscular as she remembered, he stood with his arms crossed. Time had filled out the frame that had once been all lean muscle, adding bulk. She could practically smell the testosterone it had to take to maintain that body, just like she could smell the promise of lightning in the air.
“What do they call you then, if they don’t call you by your name?”
Her gut clenched and knotted up as images of Shady Side flashed in her mind, only half as vivid as other memories of the man who stood in front of her. Even with seven years and God knew what else between them, she knew in her bones that he wouldn’t play along when it came to the moniker she’d adopted during her college years. “CeCe.”
For a moment, he was silent. “CeCe? That doesn’t go with your name. How about Clem?”
She tried not to make a face, but the urge was too powerful. “Clem? That’s one letter away from clam. No way.”
He gave the barest of shrugs, his thick arms flexing beneath the sleeves of his plain white t-shirt. “Fine, I’ll call you Clementine. Like always.”
Like always. The words shot straight into the center of her, piercing some emotional reserve she hadn’t known she’d possessed. Or at least, one she’d done her best to pretend wasn’t there. For fuck’s sake, was she really standing in her dead grandmother’s driveway discussing nicknames with Donovan – Donovan who should’ve seemed more like a ghost than a man, though he was too solid for her to doubt that he was all flesh and bone.
“What are you doing here?” The words tumbled out – hopefully they didn’t sound like a plea.
“Shouldn’t I be asking you that?” He crossed his arms a little more tightly, and she felt the distance between them – years and years, instead of mere feet.
“I was driving by and wanted to check out my grandmother’s old place.”
“Where were you headed?”
“I was taking the scenic route to the other side of town – you know, to check out the fall foliage.”
“You always sucked at lying.”
She frowned. “I am heading to the other side of town.”
“You don’t give a shit about the leaves.”
“No? Fine. I wanted to see my grandmother’s house. That’s all.” Her hackles went up, though she couldn’t say exactly why. Maybe because he looked kind of smug, like he’d just blown her nature-loving cover. “Is that a crime?”
What right did he have to criticize her when apparently, he’d pulled over when he’d seen her, just to talk to her? That must’ve been what he’d done, though it was surprising that he’d recognized her, and she was at a total loss to explain what he was doing in Willow Heights in the first place. As stealthily as she could, she gave one of her thighs a pinch, just in case she was dreaming.
“Well, this property’s not posted, so no. If I told you to leave, though … then you’d be trespassing.”
“Oh, right. What are you – the caretaker, come to run the trespassing out-of-towner off the grounds?”
A hint of a smile curled one side of his mouth, but his jaw was so strong and darkened by stubble that it looked more like a snarl. “You’re no out-of-towner, even if you did run away. And I’m no caretaker. You’re standing on my lawn.”
“You’re messing with me.” She shook her head. “Who bought this place, really?” It wasn’t like her mom had shared that information with her – she’d heard, only recently, from her cousin, that her mother had finally found a buyer for the house she’d inherited.
A million reasons why he had to be lying filled her head – he was supposed to be somewhere far, far away, he couldn’t afford it, he’d never want to live here. Would he? Did he?
Still, she believed him, but only because she knew Donovan Kemp didn’t lie.
Thunder rumbled overhead, and raindrops pelted her head and shoulders, as if on cue.
“It’s gonna be a bad storm,” he said. “Flash flood warnings on the radio have businesses closing and everything. Seems like we’ve had nothing but bad storms since summer.”
“I wouldn’t know.” So, even though the house had only sold two months ago, he’d been in town since summer, at least. “How long has it been since you moved back to Willow Heights?”
“Oh.” Her lame reply came out softer than she’d intended it to. He’d been back in town for six months? She hadn’t suspected, hadn’t dared to hope for it or dread it. “I thought you were off being a soldier.” Years ago, the news that he’d joined the Army had reached her through a dying grapevine just weeks after she’d left the state for college. Had it only been a rumor?
Flashbacks of the agony the news had brought rained down on her, sharp and hot. To think that she’d tortured herself over a rumor, hiding from her roommate in their little bathroom, taking extra showers just so she could cry without being seen or heard…
His expression didn’t change, but his voice hardened. “Marine.”
“A marine, not a soldier. There’s a difference.”
“So you were in the military. And now…”
“A standard contract is only four years. Surely a college graduate can do the math.”
“You could’ve reenlisted.” She’d imagined him doing so for some reason, maybe because Willow Heights had held nothing for him. At any rate, it’d never crossed her mind that he’d return.
“Four years was enough.”
She didn’t ask why. He was radiating a strange energy, intense and dark, like the clouds overhead. His thin t-shirt had quickly been soaked, though he seemed impervious to the discomfort. Semi-transparent, the cotton clung to his torso and shoulders, revealing … everything.
As casually as she could, she swept a dampened lock of her dark brown hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear so she could see more clearly. Specifically, so she could see him more clearly.
His shoulders were as broad as ever, deep olive skin stretched taut over pecs that looked like something out of a fitness magazine and abs that rippled. Even the trail of dark hair that led to his groin was visible, thick between slashing muscles that showcased his athletic hips. Clementine’s mouth watered, and she swallowed, grateful for the thunder that drowned out the sound.
God, she’d been cut off from so much at college, then during graduate school and even her internship. Men who looked like Donovan just hadn’t been present strolling around campus or working in the firm she’d interned at. The men she’d known then had been softer, smaller, their thoroughly average bodies shrouded in sweatshirts or suits. Getting an eyeful of Donovan in a wet t-shirt was like being struck by lightning.
“You going to stand in my driveway all day?” He raised one brow over the rim of his sunglasses.
“You going to wear your sunglasses all day?” she shot back, unwilling to answer his question … unable to just walk away. “It’s so dark out here it might as well be evening.”
He peeled away the glasses, and the shiver that raced down her spine had nothing to do with nearby lightning and everything to do with awareness. Unlike his body, his eyes hadn’t changed. They were the same dark grey she remembered, the color that always made him look like he was brooding over something. With his black hair and slashing brows, brown – like her own eyes – would’ve been the expected color. Grey was always a surprise, no matter how many times she met his gaze.
“Do you want to come inside?”
His invitation sent another bolt of something down her spine. A sense of longing rose up inside her – for the home she loved and longed to revisit, for a past that had included Donovan – but was quickly suppressed by common sense. “I should go. I need to check out my new place.”
Something flashed in his eyes – surprise? “You’re moving back?”
She nodded. “For the time being.”
“You ran away to college in another state just so you could move back to a wide spot in the road that you hate seven years later.” His statement was flat, not a question, and dripped with disbelief.
Ran away. It grated on her more every time he said it like that. “It’s not any weirder than you coming back and buying my grandmother’s house for God knows what reason.”
He shrugged like he was above explaining his bizarre choices, broad shoulders rising and falling, straining the wet cotton that clung to his skin.
Two could play at that game – and she was fully aware that her decision to return, even temporarily, was bizarre, even if it made sense on a strictly practical level. “I have to go. This rain is getting ridiculous.” She spoke the words even though her feet felt glued to the ground, resisting as she willed herself to climb into her car.
Donovan was like a planet of his own, a heavenly body in every sense of the word, complete with his own gravitational pull, which she’d never been able to resist – another thing that hadn’t changed.
“You sure you don’t want to come in and dry off?” He broke eye contact, his gaze dipping below her collarbones before coming up again.
Heat blazed across her cheeks even before she looked down.
Her cardigan hadn’t fared much better than his t-shirt, nor had the cami she wore beneath. The light knit was plastered to her body, molded to her breasts. Pebbled with cold, her nipples stood out like beacons. Beneath Donovan’s gaze, they hardened a little more.
Damn her traitorous body. Seven years meant nothing to it, apparently. Donovan had to be radiating pheromones or something. Why else was she standing there like some bimbo in a wet t-shirt contest instead of the professional woman she’d felt like when she’d left New York with a graduate degree and an internship under her belt?
Maybe coming back to Willow Heights had been a bad idea. After less than an hour inside town limits, she felt like a teenager again.
“I’ll dry off in my car.” Finally, she opened the door. “Bye, Donovan.”
She almost choked on the farewell, but she had to get away, fast. Feeling eighteen again had her heart racing, her head pounding. A lot of time had passed since then and she’d relished that fact, taken comfort in it. This – these feelings – were unbearable. Feeling as if she were moving deep underwater, the air forced out of her lungs by pressure on all sides, she slid into the driver’s seat.
As soon as she settled her hands on the wheel, she remembered something important: she was trapped. With Donovan’s truck blocking her in, the only way to get back onto the road would be to drive over his lawn. Rain was falling so thick and hard that water was collecting on the ground’s surface – her tires would carve trenches in the soft earth, in the grass he’d obviously taken pains to keep perfect. Her grandmother’s grass.
As rain poured down even harder, she was a prisoner to loyalty, to a horror inspired by the idea of desecrating any part of her grandmother’s estate, even the lawn. Agonizing moments ticked by, each filled with the roar of a thousand pelting raindrops against her windshield.
The sound of a closing door reverberated through the noise, and her gaze was drawn to the rearview mirror. Through a screen of rain and dark glass, she could just barely make out Donovan in the cab of his truck, slowly backing out of her way.
When the driveway was clear, she backed out, leaving him behind.
He’d been right – she didn’t give a shit about the leaves. All she cared about was getting to her new residence and retreating to the sanctuary provided by four walls. Four walls of her own. For the next three months, anyway.
The weather was uncooperative. The rain worsened so much that she could barely see a few yards in front of her car. Thunder rumbled overhead, a roar even louder than the rain. If lightning followed, it was too far away to be seen through the dense clouds overhead. Rain fell so thickly she felt as if she was underwater, driving on the ocean floor.
Forced to move along at a crawl, she persevered. Willow Heights was small – her destination was only a few miles away. A little more time on the rural road circling town and she’d be there, ready to claim her place on the outskirts.
Or maybe not. She clung to the wheel for dear life when she hydroplaned, her tires – shit, how overdue was she for a new set? – sailing across the pavement like she was in a boat instead of a car. With a groan, she clenched her jaw, setting her teeth against the impact that would be sure to come if she veered off either side of the tree-lined road.
When it finally happened, it came from below her vehicle instead of from one side. Bouncing in her seat, she squeezed her eyes shut as she pumped the break, her overworked calf quivering with desperation. When she finally came to a stop, it rattled every bone in her body.
Pouring rain drummed against the roof and windshield, drowning out the sound of her breathing. She could feel her heart pounding in every pulse point her body possessed. Swallowing, she unbuckled herself and stepped out of the car, grateful that the airbags hadn’t deployed.
Water immediately filled her shoes, and she nearly lost her balance.
“Damn it.” Gripping the open door for support and shielding her eyes against the rain with a hand, she surveyed the recently-purchased three year old coupe, which she was still making payments on. The right front wheel had careened into the overflowing ditch that lined the road – she hadn’t even realized it was there, the water was so high.
Just a few yards ahead, the road was completely flooded, muddy water roaring up from a stream that was supposed to run under the road and exit through a pipe that stuck out the other side.
Getting back into her car, she turned the key in the ignition and gave backing out of the ditch her best attempt.
It didn’t work. If anything, she could actually feel the car sinking lower, the spinning wheel entrenching itself in the ditch’s muddy interior. Breathing a curse, she stopped, grabbed her purse and fished out her phone.
Minutes ticked by as she stared at the screen, reality setting in. She had no one to call. This wasn’t New York City – Willow Heights’ only cab company had maybe three vehicles in its fleet, and it wasn’t like she could expect any of them to come out in the flash flood that had wrecked her car.
As for friends … seven years had a way of making them disappear. And family was a definite no now that her cousin had moved out of the area.
Stuffing her phone back into her purse along with her keys, she stepped out of the car, slamming the door behind herself. She’d just have to make it back to town on foot.
What the hell did it matter, anyway? She was already soaked, already had liquid squishing inside her shoes. What difference could more rain make? Her car was stuck – that was the real problem. Teeth chattering, she walked as quickly as she could in the direction she’d come, kicking up a constant spray of dirty water as she went.
Swearing helped a little. Completely alone and surrounded by the noise of pounding rain and rumbling thunder, she cussed up a storm that would’ve put a sailor to shame. It gave her a channel for her anger and kept her lips from going numb as cold water ran over them, getting in her mouth.
Spitting out rainwater as she went, she made it all of a quarter of a mile before light cut through the premature twilight cast by storm clouds, harsh and yellow.
Headlights. Her heart leapt, torn between hope and alarm. Should she try to flag the vehicle down, to stop the driver before they reached the flooded section? Maybe he or she would give her a ride back into town – she was desperate enough to ask. On the other hand, she didn’t want to be run over if the driver didn’t see her. Remembering how low visibility had been when she’d been driving, she stepped off the road, slogging through flooded underbrush at the edge of the woods.
The vehicle crept along at a snail’s pace, gradually coming into view. She walked as far from the side of the road as possible until she could make out more than just headlights. Then she froze.
It was a truck – a big black pick-up. She didn’t have to see the driver to know it was Donovan’s. Crossing her arms over her midsection and trying to retain some trace of body heat, she stood still as the truck stopped in the middle of the road.
Copyright 2013 Ranae Rose
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