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After what seemed like a lifetime of bad days, Ali Silver couldn't wait to share a carefree afternoon with her son at the city picnic. Sunshine washed through the valley, giving a glow to the rivers and casting shadows out of the sharp mountain canyons to the west. With the pickup's windows rolled down, the air drifted in, spiced with alfalfa and silver sage. Fields of bucking hay splashed across the landscape, juxtaposed with the occasional lone apple treerelics leftover from once substantial orchards.
Ali drove with one hand on the wheel, the other cocked in the open window. "Hang on to that. We don't want to spill it before the soldiers get to taste it."
Her son, Chance, hugged the bowl on his lap. "I know. This is the special potato salad. The one you only make for special people."
"Like you." She winked at him.
After waiting in a line of traffic to enter the park, Ali maneuvered her beast of a truck into one of the last available spots. She took the potato salad from Chance, and they ambled toward the crowd near the food tables. A couple local firefighters manned the grills. They waved. The smell of sizzling brats tickled her nose.
Hannah, a shop owner in town, signaled to Ali. "Isn't this just the nicest thing? I do believe the Hamilton Civic Club pulled out all the stops to honor these troops."
Ali balanced the bowl against her hip. "Having a picnic to honor the local servicemen who have returned this year was a great idea. I'm glad the town is doing something. And Chance loves anything to do with the army, so he's tickled to meet them."
Hannah clasped her hands together. "Oh, yes. I like them teaching the young people to support the troops."
Chance yanked on Ali's arm.
Hannah chuckled. "That boy's eager!"
Messing up his hair, Ali smiled down at her son. "Go on and find Aunt Kate and see if you can snag an empty table for us."
Without waiting to hear more, Chance took off running. Ali's heart squeezed. He might mirror her brown-sugar-like freckles, but the thick maple-colored hair that stuck up on the side when he woke in the morning, his square jaw, the angular nose and intense pale blue eyesall of that belonged to his father. Chance looked just like
Ali shook her head. She did not want to think about him. Not today. Not ever.
Instead she chose to weave through groups of mingling neighbors, greeting them with a nod since her hands were full. She located an empty place for the potato salad on a table already loaded with deviled eggs, baked beans and desserts. Satisfied that the food situation was under control, Ali snatched a gooey-looking brownie and raised it to her lips.
The voice from her past rocketed through her with the force of a kick drum. The brownie flew out of her hand, leaving a powdered-sugar trail down her shirt on its way to the hard dirt. She spun around.
All six feet of him, clad in jeans and a fitted gray-striped button-down. His bold, masculine eyebrows rose as he surveyed her with look-me-in-the-eyes-if-you-dare blues. He wore a straw cowboy hat with unruly hair poking out, and a five o'clock shadow outlined his firm jaw. More than eight years later, and the man still made her mouth go dry.
It frustrated her that after everything, he still had that power.
So she did the only rational thing she could think to do.
In a fluid movement, Ali sidestepped him and took off sprinting at a breakneck clip. Her hat flew off. He yelled out her name.
And just like in the past, his voice poured sweet and velvety, like chocolate over each syllable. Ali's nails dug into her palms. She didn't want to hear him. She never wanted to fall under his spell again. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes as she ran.
Why was he here? Oh, why hadn't she moved away when she had the chance? Chance! Suddenly she pounded faster, the narrow toe of her boots chafing against her feet.
Jericho couldn't see Chance. She wouldn't let that happen. God, please!
Ali zeroed in on her sister Kate milling next to the volleyball court.
She waved her arms. "Quick! We have to find Chance! Now!" Ali pressed a hand to the stitch in her side as she looked over her shoulder, scanning the crowd for the cowboy with impossibly blue eyes. He hadn't followed her.
Kate jogged toward Ali, her eyes wide. "Sis? I don't see smoke coming from your hair, so if it's not on firewhat is?"
She seized Kate's arms, clamping down on reality. "He's here. He's back. What am I supposed to What if he What about Chance?" Her voice rose in a frenzy.
Kate shook her gently. "Who's here?"
"Ali! Alison!" With his hands looped onto his belt buckle, Jericho kicked, sending a cloud of Montana dust into the air. Maybe he should chase after her, but his knees probably couldn't handle running at that clip.
Great. Just great.
He rubbed the back of his neck as Ali hightailed it like a spooked filly. At that speed, she might make the Canadian border by nightfall. It sure wasn't funny, though. A man couldn't laugh, not when the rejection felt like a sledgehammer hitting him square in the chest. The cold look in her hazel eyes told him where he stood. Unwelcome. Unforgiven. How could he have expected anything else? But her reaction rankled him all the same.
He rubbed his jaw and growled. Could he blame her? No. What kind of man envisions a warm welcome after eight years of silence? Jericho Eli Freed. Stupid man.
A young boy with floppy hair ambled toward him. "Are you really a soldier?"
Jericho cleared his throat, pulled at the fabric of his army pants and dropped to one knee. "I sure am." Or was.
"That's cool. I want to be a soldier someday." At this confession, the child looked down and dug his toe into the ground.
Keeping his voice low to draw the kid out of his shell, Jericho asked, "Do you feel funny around new people? 'Cause I sure do. When I was your age, I just had one friend in the world and she was the only person I'd talk to." Jericho laid a hand on the boy's scrawny shoulder.
Suddenly a shadow loomed over them. "Get your hands off of him."
Jericho jerked back and looked upand his mouth fell open. Fire in her eyes, Ali Silver stood there, an arm wrapped around the boy as she pulled him close.
Jericho jumped to his feet, putting his hands palm up in surrender.
Even seething mad, beauty radiated from her. Sure, she had changed in the last eight years, but in a good way. Auburn mellowed her once fire-truck-red hair. The long tresses he remembered were now cut so they skimmed her ears. Cute.
Ali. His Ali. She'd been a slim thing, barely entering womanhood when he left. Now she had gentle curves that he had to school his eyes not to explore. Her hazel eyes held a soft sincerity that drew him in. A familiar tightening gripped his stomach as his pulse started to go berserk.
The kid pushed against her. "No, Mom, he's not a stranger. This is a soldier. We were becoming friends."
Jericho's mind raced like a mouse caught in a maze. Mom? The single word sent a zap through his body, like someone had dumped a vat of ice over his head. Ali was a mother? Had she remarried? Impossible. The kid was what? Six? Seven?
"Ali?" He tried to meet her gaze, but she looked away.
"Hey, Chance." Ali leaned over to speak close to the child's ear. "I think I see your teacher, Mrs. McBride, over there. Can you do me a favor and find out how she liked those pies we made her?"
"Ali?" Jericho repeated. His mind latched onto the name Chance and filed it away for later.
Chance's brow creased. He looked at Jericho, then back at his mother. "How come he knows your name, Mom?"
Despite the sweltering day, a cold sweat pricked the back of Jericho's neck.
Her mouth went dry. No matter what, Ali had to get Chance away from Jericho. She placed her hands on her hips. "It doesn't matter, Chance. Now go visit with Mrs. McBride for a minute." After sending Chance away, she took a deep breath and turned to address Jericho, but couldn't make herself completely meet his gaze. "I don't know why you're here"
"We need to talk." He shoved his hands into his pockets.
"There is no 'we.'"
He quirked an eyebrow. "I disagree. Unless I slept through signing some sort of papers, you and I, well, we're still married."
Her tongue suddenly felt like a dried-up riverbed. We 're still married. Fear skittered down her spine like racing spiders. Of course. As a teen mom on her own, she didn't have spare money to toss around on lawyer fees.
She balled up her fists. "I want you to leave."
He shook his head, reached a hand out toward her, then dropped it to his side. "I'm back, Aliback for good."
"Why?" The word came out more whisper than force.
She stared into his intense blue eyes, her gaze dipping to the single freckle above his lip. Same dime-sized scar near his eye, the slight tug of his lipsalways ready to joke.
He stepped closer. "I need to talk to you. Explain about being away."
"Just being away? How nice. Sounds warm and fuzzy, like you took a vacation."
He ran a hand over his hair, cupping the back of his neck as he tipped his head to the side. "I always wanted to come back. But"
"Stay away from me. Stay away from my son."
"I need to" He reached for her. She slapped away his hand.
"Ali " He grabbed her elbow, and a thrill skittered up her arm and down into her stomach. She let out a muffled cry. Why? Why, after all these years, was his name still branded across her heart?
Fighting the hot tears stinging her eyes, she jerked from him. "Don't touch me. Please, don't touch me." A sob hung at the back of her throat. "I can't do this. I can't handle being this close. I can't talk to you."
"But I have to talk to you. Give me fifteen minutes. Please?" His voice flowed, soft and reassuring.
"No!" She swiped at the traitorous tears squeezing from her eyes.
A warm, steady hand touched the small of her back. She turned to find Tripp Phillips, local lawyer, old classmate and friend, beside her. In his usual dress pants and polo, his stability brought an ease of calm to her shaking nerves. She gripped his arm.
"Alison, is something wrong?" Tripp's voice came out controlled and comforting. He had a manner that made even the most skeptical of strangers immediately warm to him. "Is Freed bothering you?"
"Tripp Phillips, I don't believe you were a part of our conversation." Jericho's voice hardened.
"Rightly so, but I'm not going to stand around while you make Alison cry."
"I'm not crying," Ali mumbled.
Tripp turned her into his shoulder. His hand cradled the back of her head as he wedged his body between her and Jericho.
Chance chose that moment to come bounding back. "What's wrong, Mom?" He wrapped his arm around Ali's waist and peered at her from under thick black eyelashes. "Mrs. McBride liked the pies, but I didn't tell her about the green worms we found in the berries. Did you think I did? Is that why you're crying?"
"I'm not upset about the worms, honey." Ali caressed his tanned face, and Chance rewarded her with an impish grin.
Tripp cleared his throat. "I think your mom's not feeling well today, buddy. We better take her home."
Jericho held her gaze. "Ali, I'm not done trying to talk to you."
Tripp turned and led her away from the monster of her past. Good old Tripp. At least one dependable man remained. If only Tripp had been the one to chase her in high school instead of Jericho, life might have turned out differently. At least Tripp stood by her now, always helping and advising her. His sound counsel lifted a weight from her shoulders, and she was grateful.
Chance twisted around, then cupped his hands around his mouth. "Wait! Are you going to be at the fireworks show tonight?"
A chill ran through her veins.
Then that voice from her dreams over the last eight years answered back. "'Course, Chance. I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Jericho wanted to hit something. No, he wanted a drink. A nice, tall amber malt with a high head of foam. Hadn't wanted that for five years, but there you go.
Looping a hand over the back of his neck, Jericho tensed as Tripp guided Ali away, like an auctioneer showing off a prized mare.
Could Tripp be Chance's father? Fear sliced through him.
Jericho stalked past the picnic and grabbed the door handle on the rusted Jeep he had found at his dad's house. So she ran into another man's arms when he left? And if he was right about the kid's age, she didn't even wait for sunset before finding comfort in Tripp.
He kicked the tire.
Maybe he had left Ali, but he'd always been faithful. Always loved Ali, and only Ali. Left because he loved her too much to stay and watch himself destroy her.
Jericho climbed into the vehicle and slammed the door. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. What was a man to do? He came home to mend his marriage. After all his wandering, Jericho finally felt like a man worthy of being a husband. Was he too late?