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Landon Cutter had only been home three times over the past eight years, but even though he'd stayed away from Claremont, Alabama, the majority of his lengthy tour of duty, he still hadn't been able to get Georgiana Sanders off his mind. The town reminded him of her. The farm reminded him of her. Ditto for the high school and the Claremont Community Church. Even the late August weather reminded him of Georgie. Because a decade ago, that'd been the time when the two of them spent so many hours talking about the new school year and all of their hopes and dreams while riding their horses through the Cutter fields and Lookout Mountain trails.
"What do you think, Sam? Reckon I can get used to this place again? Being back home?" he asked his best confidant and faithful companion, who didn't seem to mind the fact that Landon had left her with his brother John when he joined the army.
Sam's velvety lips brushed against his palm to scoop the molasses treat from his hand and then the stunning bay mare nudged his shirt pocket for more.
Landon grinned. Sam had always enjoyed her sweets, since the first day Landon's father brought her home from the Stockville horse auction. Landon was in eighth grade and had been pretty ticked that he'd been told he was getting a stallion and his dad bought the mare instead. While Landon was still brooding, Georgiana had ridden her own mare over from the next farm to see the new arrival. She'd instantly fallen in love with Samantha, who eagerly licked treats from her petite hand. After seeing Georgiana's approval, Landon decided that maybe his horse would do, but he was not calling her Samantha.
She'd been Sam ever since.
"Why don't we go ride the ridge for old times?" He glanced out the barn and across the expanse of land that separated the Cutter and Sanders farms.
Sam nickered as though she completely understood every word and every memory flooding his soul.
He gave her another treat. "Let's go, girl. It's been way too long, and I've got to get someone off my mind." He was finally back in Claremont, and Georgiana was still in Tampa, married to Pete Watson. It'd be good if he could remember that fact and would be even better if he could get his heart to do the same.
Ten minutes later, he and Sam were following the same route they'd taken every summer day back in high school and every fall evening after football practice. Georgiana never missed a ride, never missed a chance for the two of them to talk and grow closer. If Landon had a nickel for every time she told him that he was her best friend, he'd be rich. If he had a nickel for every time he wished she'd wanted more than friendship, he'd be filthy rich. And if Landon had one day to do over, it'd be that day he found her alone in the church and spilled his heart.
He shook his head, tried to stop thinking about the past and instead thought about the lyrics to a contemporary Christian song he'd heard on the radio today when John picked him up from the airport. "You are more than the sum of your past mistakes." Landon did his best not to show any emotions to the song, but John didn't miss a beat and wasted no time asking Landon if he was okay after the music ended.
Trademark answer. "I'm fine."
But he wasn't. He was still sick about the way he'd left Claremont before, about the way he'd left Georgiana before. But leave it to his brother to give him plenty to keep his mind off the past.
"Listen, I should tell you that the economy has taken its toll on the farm," John said. "The demand and the price for beef has plummeted the past few years, and I haven't been able to figure out how to make everything work."
His brother's words shocked Landon. The farm was in trouble?
"I didn't want you to worry about it while you were serving," John continued, "and I thought I'd get the loans caught up before you got back. But" he shrugged "things only got worse."
"How bad is it?" Landon asked.
"Six months. That's how long we have. The bank has given us till the spring to turn a profit and bring the mortgage current."
John's words still echoed through Landon's mind as he and Sam made their way through the trails. They couldn't lose the farm. With their parents gone, the farm was all they had of the past, all they had of the Cutter property, land their family had owned for generations. And this property was amazing. Beautiful and pristine.
Sighing, he focused on enjoying Sam's smooth gait, the cool afternoon breeze against his face and the scents of hay, sweet feed, alfalfa and leather that blended around the farm, then the equally invigorating smells of cool crisp pine and damp earth as he made his way through the trails. The North Alabama surroundings were vastly different from the dry, dusty air and rancid odors from his time overseas.
But the tangible differences weren't the biggest contrast to his life overseas and his life at home. His disposition created the biggest difference of all. There he'd felt a continual sense of duty, but here he felt something totally opposite. Freedom, what he'd worked so hard to help maintain over the past eight years. In spite of the financial problems with the farm, he felt free now in the open fields, towering mountains and natural trails, and the beauty of it touched his heart. However, the splendor also reminded him of how he'd hoped to experience this countryside again one day, with Georgiana by his side.
After her wreck way back then, he'd vowed that he would never hurt her again.
He'd enlisted the next day.
Landon shook his head and attempted to shake those thoughts away. "The past is the past," he muttered. "I need to keep it there." But that wouldn't be easy now that he was back home, where memories filled his thoughts with every sight, every sound, every smell.
Sam seemed excited as she deftly maneuvered through the narrow trail, her hooves creating faint crushing sounds against the leaves and pine straw. "You like this as much as you used to, don't you, girl?" Landon guided her between towering purple rhododendrons and white mountain laurel. Georgiana had loved it when the mountain foliage bloomed. She'd said it was God's way of reminding you that He created these mountains.
Landon had told himself he would merely ride the Cutter acreage, take in the fields, check out the Cha-rolais cattle and then maybe enjoy a little time by the pond. But deep down, he knew he wasn't sticking to the family land. Just like Sam, he realized exactly where they were headed, to the same place they always went before life got so complicated. No, Georgiana wasn't there any longer, and no, they hadn't even spoken since that awful night so many years ago, but he simply had to see the ridge where they had often sat and talked, where Landon often dreamed he'd kiss the girl he loved.
The flat rock that overlooked the Sanders property showcased the picturesque scene of Georgiana's family home. It looked exactly the same as it did back then, an almost exact replica of the Cutter farm, with a big two-story log home in the center surrounded by fields and ponds, cattle and horses, and a large Mennonite barn. The only difference, where the Cutter barn was red, the Sanders barn was forest green.
Landon searched the horses in the field for Fallon but didn't spot Georgiana's palomino. He wondered if Pete might have bought a horse farm in Tampa and taken Georgiana's favorite mare. That's what Landon would have done, if he and Georgiana had married and he'd taken her away from Claremont. Then again, if they'd married they would have stayed in Claremont, close to family and friends.
A movement by the green barn caught Landon's eye, and he watched as a striking horse sauntered into its paddock. The golden coat, stark white mane and equally white tail gleaming in the twilight gave Landon no doubt that this was Fallon. So Pete hadn't taken Georgiana's horse after all. Landon wasn't surprised Fallon was still at the farm though. Mrs. Sanders would never sell Georgiana's favorite mare.
He glanced toward the log cabin and thought he saw a shadow pass by one of the windows. Georgia-na's mother lived there alone now, he guessed. Her father had passed away when Landon and Georgiana were seniors in high school, just three years after Landon's father had died. Landon had gone to the funeral, where Pete had stayed by Georgiana throughout the ceremony and held her while she cried. But that evening, when she wanted to ride the ridge and quietly reflect on her father's life, Landon was the one by her side. He'd understood what she was going through, having lost his own dad. Even if her father died of a heart attack and his had died in a farming accident, they'd both died way too young. And that night, when she'd sobbed until she fell into an exhausted sleep, Landon had been the one to hold her when she cried.
A few cows lifted their heads to glance toward Fal-lon as she neighed from her paddock, her long neck stretched as though trying to get the most enjoyment from the setting sun. Landon was so absorbed in watching Georgiana's horse that he nearly didn't see the second movement at the barn. But sunlight catching long strawberry-blond hair quickly drew his eye and held him captive.
She wore a green T-shirt, fitted jeans and boots. Her hair, even longer than in high school, was clipped back somehow and formed a red-gold waterfall of curls that fell nearly to her waist. She didn't readily move away from the barn, but stood nearby staring into the fields, her face tilted toward the sun so that Landon could see her clearly and had no doubt..
Apparently sensing Landon's exhilaration, Sam nickered happily, and Georgiana turned and looked directly toward the flat rock, directly toward Landon.
His breath caught in his throat, heart thundered in his chest. How many nights in the heat of turmoil in Afghanistan did he dream of seeing her one more time? And now that the dream was reality, he had no idea what to do. He lifted a hand and knuckled his Stetson. Then he waited, hoped, prayed.
But instead of returning the greeting, she turned away from the mountain and toward the house, where the front door had opened and a young girl scurried down the porch steps. She called something to Georgiana, but Landon couldn't make out her words. Even from his vantage on the ridge, he could see Georgi-ana smile, and then he clearly saw the girl, her hair the identical hue as her mother's but shorter and curlier. She looked around six or seven, Landon supposed, which went along with what he'd heard about Georgi-ana's pregnancy back when he'd still asked John about her in e-mails. After that e-mail announcing her pregnancy, Landon had stopped asking, and John hadn't volunteered.
So it was true; Georgiana had the little girl she'd always wanted. Landon suddenly wanted to know the child's name and whether she loved horses as much as Georgiana always had. Did she have that deep throaty laugh like Georgiana? Did she talk nonstop when she was excited like Georgiana? Was her nose sprinkled with copper freckles that spilled onto her cheeks like Georgiana's?
And did Pete Watson appreciate everything God had blessed him with the way he should? Had he changed back then, the way Georgiana thought? Landon had prayed that his quarterback would settle down, truly stop the wild partying ways and treat Georgiana the way she deserved.
The little girl said something else, caught up to her mother and took Georgiana's hand. Georgiana squatted down eye-level with her daughter, stroked her fingers down her little girl's curls and then pulled her close.
Landon's throat thickened. It wasn't right for him to watch them this way, and it certainly wasn't right for him to long for Georgiana this way.
God, help me understand why she isn't mine.
Then Georgiana slowly stood and Landon held his breath as, once again, she turned toward the mountain. Should he wave? Could she see him on the ridge? And now the little girl looked too.
Landon waited. If they acknowledged his presence, he'd simply have to ride down and say hello. With the way the sun was setting and the fact that he was at the edge of the tree line, he wouldn't think he'd be easily spotted. But if they had indeed seen him, then the neighborly thing to do would be to ride down. However, chances were that Georgiana and her daughter weren't the only ones visiting from Tampa. Pete would undoubtedly be at the Sanders home too. And Landon wasn't certain whether his old friend would find the gesture neighborly at all. Pete knew how much Landon had loved Georgiana. If anyone knew, it was Pete.
The little girl shielded her eyes from the brightness of the setting sun and scanned the mountain then she stopped and pointed toward Landon. "Hey!" she yelled, her voice loud enough now that Landon heard clearly.
He lifted a hand, started Sam toward the Sanders farm and prayed that God would give him the courage to get through whatever happened next.
Georgiana used to love watching the sun set against the backdrop of the mountains, the orange-gold sphere easing its way behind the trees and putting the farm in a majestic glow as it dipped. She took a few steps out of the barn into the open air, turned her head toward the direction where she knew the sun was setting and imagined seeing it again. The vision was beautiful; she knew that. And that should be enough. She shouldn't have to see it to know.
She merely had to remember.
But memories of sunsets brought back memories of Landon Cutter. How many sunsets had they viewed together growing up? And how many times had she felt a little hint that there might have been more between them than friendship? Why hadn't she acted on that? And why had he waited until that day in the church to tell her that he did feel something? And, more important than any other question, why hadn't she simply told him how she felt instead of running away?
She heard a horse nicker in the distance, and it didn't seem to come from the fields, so she tilted her head and listened again.