Read an Excerpt
"You look awful." Will Sullivan shoved his hands into the back pockets of his Wranglers and continued his intense scrutiny.
"Well, you haven't changed a bit," Annie Harris said with a laugh. Leave it to Will to cut to the chase.
In truth, he hadn't changed. He was everything she remembered. Hatless today, his blue-black hair was clipped short to control the unruly curls. Will thought he could control everything. Standing inches over six feet tall in a faded blue oxford shirt, jeans and scuffed boots, he scowled.
Annie took an unsteady breath. Oh, how she had missed that scowl.
She gripped her cane tighter and glanced around the busy Tulsa airport. Had it really been two years? For only a second did she allow her thoughts to drift back to when she made the decision to leave for Kenya. The same day she realized she was in love with Will Sullivan.
"Sit down for a minute," Will said, interrupting her thoughts. "You've got to be exhausted."
"I'm okay. Really. The hospital wouldn't have okayed me to travel if I wasn't ready. Come on. Let's get my luggage and get out of here."
"Your leg? Maybe I should get a wheelchair?"
"Oh, I don't need a wheelchair." Determined, she grasped her cane and broke out in what she knew was a clumsy stride.
"Boy, you haven't changed much either, have you, Annie?" His long legs easily closed the distance between them. "Still think you have to do it all yourself."
Annie ignored the comment. She'd been traveling since she left Africa two days ago and was not prepared for a round of verbal sparring with Will.
They continued to walk down the large corridor until it forked. Annie stopped and rested her weight on her good leg while she read the signs overhead.
"This way." Will nodded to the right and walked in front, clearing a path in the hurried, late-afternoon crowds of the terminal. "Slow down," he admonished, as she caught up with him and began to take the lead.
She tried to accommodate, but her pace continued to increase, driving her. Excitement bubbled over. All she wanted was to get to Sullivan Ranch.
"So how was the flight?"
"Much too long." Looking around, she couldn't stop smiling. Her senses greedily feasted on the American sights and sounds. It was the simple things she'd missed; the twang of an Oklahoma accent, the U.S. flag hanging high in the terminal, a sign advertising Mazzio's pizza, the chatter of the crowd in English, and American food.
The tantalizing aroma of a bagel kiosk caused a pause in her steps. Onion, chive and garlic. They all called out to her.
"I do. But not one. At least six."
"Six it is."
When Will stepped toward the kiosk, she laughed. "I'm kidding, Will. I don't want to eat anything until we get to the ranch."
"All right, but it's way past dinnertime, and you sure don't look like you need to be skipping any more meals."
"Are you calling me skinny?" She glanced down at herself.
True, her clothes were a bit roomy, but she was alive and that was what really mattered.
"Turn sideways and you'll disappear."
"Someone is exaggerating." Looking up, she caught the amusement in Will's expression.
"Not hardly," he said.
Annie held up her palm. "Okay. Truce? Just for to night?"
"I suppose so. But that won't be much fun." He strode toward baggage claim.
Annie paused, taken back by his humor. The ever-stoical Will Sullivan had cultivated a sense of humor? Shaking her head, she followed him. "Is Rose at the house?"
"Are you kidding? Baking and cooking like crazy. She's got plans for you."
Annie smiled, knowing he wasn't exaggerating. Rose O'Shea was so much more than just the woman who ran the kitchen at Sullivan Ranch, and Annie couldn't wait to see her again.
Will stopped at the baggage carousel. "Those are mine." She pointed to the well-worn tapestry bags.
"Got 'em." He easily hauled both bags off the moving conveyer as though they were empty. Hardly. Amazing how much she'd collected in two years. The rest of her belongings were shipped out in a trunk to arrive later.
With one bag under his arm, the other dangling from his hand, Will maneuvered out the automatic doors to the curb, where he parked the luggage.
Annie inhaled deeply. The springtime air smelled like rain. Everything was fresh and clean, exactly as she remembered.
"Wait here. I'll get the pickup."
"What? No. That's silly. I can walk."
He leveled his gaze on her but said nothing.
Too tired to argue, too tired to tell him not to get used to compliance, Annie simply eased herself to a bench and watched him cross the street to the hourly parking area.
A few minutes later a huge, gleaming black truck pulled to a stop next to the curb. Dark, tinted windows and spotless chrome glowed.
Will jumped out and picked up her bags, tossing them in the open flatbed.
"You bought a new truck?" She was more than surprised. Will never indulged.
Life's short? Annie silently repeated the simple words to herself, the same words that had haunted her since the accident.
Finished with the luggage, Will stood straight and grinned, wiping an imaginary fleck of dirt off a shiny bumper. The expression on his face as he faced her was nothing less than pure male expectancy.
"That is one beautiful truck," Annie said.
He chuckled. "Good answer."
"What's that logo?"
"The Sullivan Ranch logo and URL. Brand-new. Like it?"
Her eyes widened. "Are you telling me you have a web page?"
Will gave a quick shrug. "Sullivan Ranch was taken, so I had to go with thesullivanranch.com."
"That means you have a computer."
"You bet. New laptop in my office."
Annie grappled with the concept of a modernized Will, while he opened the passenger door. She stared at the seat.
"What's the matter?"
"I'll need help to get up there."
"Turn around." He placed his hands around her waist and lifted.
The heat of embarrassment crept over her when he gently settled her onto the seat. "All r-right, th-then," she said. Will walked to the other side of the truck and climbed in, apparently unaffected. "Sit back and relax," he said, as they pulled away from the curb.
"Yes, sir." She settled into the soft, smooth leather upholstery and released the breath she'd been holding.
Will smiled. "Tuckered out? Well, don't worry, after a little R & R you'll be back in tip-top shape, ordering right back at me."
When a yawn slipped from her mouth, Annie leaned her head back, content not to think, hoping her mind would continue to cooperate and block the events of the past few weeks.
The silhouette of the familiar city faded as he led them out of town toward Granby, south of Tulsa.
What happened to the lights?
Annie searched in the dark, panicked. Suffocating fear clenched her body.
No, the antiseptic smells of the clinic were absent. She wasn't at the medical camp. Confused, she reached out and touched a warm arm. Her fingers automatically slipped down to the wrist to check the pulse. It beat strong and regular.
Annie blinked, eyes adjusting to the semidarkness.
Will? Thank goodness, it's Will.
She was still in the cab of the pickup, which was now parked. The knot in her stomach relaxed then tensed again as Will's face inched closer, peering down.
"Hey, take it easy," he soothed.
"Yeah, sure you are. I've been trying to wake you for the past five minutes."
Annie scooted to a sitting position, wishing she could extricate herself from the awkward intimacy of the small space.
"I would have let you sleep, but I thought you might want to know when we got to the ranch."
"I do. I do. I've been waiting too long for this." Pushing back her hair, she crooked her neck to see past the dash to the sky. Burgundy streaks twined across the blue velvet, weaving themselves between the golden clouds of sunset.
Annie sighed. How many times over the past two years had she looked up at the night and paused, wondering what Will was doing in his part of the world?
"Looks like we're in for more rain," he commented.
"Red sky at night, sailors' delight."
Will scoffed. "I don't think so. Barometer's dropping. Weatherman says eighty percent chance of precipitation. Bit late in the season. I'm hoping he's wrong, but who knows? Might even get a good old-fashioned tornado for you."
Annie barely heard his response as her gaze took in the ranch's entrance arch framed by the Oklahoma night. The black wrought-iron gates stood proudly; "Sullivan Ranch" was spelled out across the top in black letters, with a distinctive letter S.
"You fixed the arch," Annie said, delighted at the sight. She had never seen anything more beautiful.
"'Bout a year ago."
"That long? It looks brand-new. Why didn't you write and tell me?"
"Why didn't you come home?" His answer was a low rumble that resonated through Annie.
"Now, Will, don't start that again." She knew the lecture by heart.
Home? Yes, it was Will's home, but she had no real right to call Sullivan Ranch home.
He bristled. "You didn't have to go halfway around the world to be a nurse."
"Are you questioning the call on my life?"
"No, but why is it when God opens a door you feel the need to run through the next three?"
Annie closed her eyes for a moment, regrouping.
His tone became gentle. "Rose has missed you, Annie. You know you're the daughter she never had."
What about you, Will? Did you miss me?
She couldn't ignore the frustration in his voice and countered with her own. "I know that, and I'm sorry. But Rose isn't always going to be around to pick me up and dust me off."
"That's just what I'm getting at. Rose isn't getting any younger." He rubbed his palm along his denim-clad thigh. "If you weren't happy at St. John's, why not work at another medical center in town? With the nursing shortage and all, you could have taken your pick." He continued without pause. "For the life of me I cannot figure you out. They're pulling Americans out of Kenyan refugee camps and you have to go in. Why can't you ever do anything the easy way?" His fingers clenched the leather steering wheel. "Where will it be next? Siberia?"
Annie turned and met his glance head-on. "I already checked. They don't have any openings in Siberia."
He stared at her for a moment, before the tension finally eased from his broad shoulders and the corners of his mouth pulled into a smile. "Keep it up, smart-mouth."
"Will, you have to do what you have to do, and I have to do what I have to do. It doesn't get any simpler than that."
"What are you running from?" Barely a whisper, his question floated to her.
Silence stretched between them.
Annie tipped her head back against the seat. Running? The man thought he had all the answers. This time he was much too close to the truth. "Will," she pleaded.
"Okay, you're right. Now isn't the time." He let out a breath. "I'm sorry."
"I'll say you are," she said, taking a light tone again. "One sorry Sullivan."
"Hey, I'm trying to apologize here."
"You don't need to apologize to me. Keep shooting straight. I count on that from you. Give me a few days. Let me rest, clear my mind and sharpen my wits, then we can have this conversation. Deal?"
"Always have to have the last word."
She opened her mouth to protest, then clamped her lips shut.
The sound warmed her like a quilt as her gaze found the May moon. So many stars. Was the sky really clearer here? Were stars really brighter? She released a deep breath of contentment.
When she turned her head their eyes met in the moonlit truck.
"I want you to know I'm proud of you." She bowed her head, locking the words away to be savored later.
Will reached out and strong fingers gently pushed the hair back from her face. "You're wearing the earrings," he said, his voice a husky murmur.
Annie moved back imperceptibly; she wasn't strong enough to feign indifference to his touch. She reached up to finger the pearl studs.
They were a gift from Will her first Christmas at the ranch. She was only thirteen. It had been a bleak holiday for all of them. Will's first Christmas following his father's death. Annie's mother had recently dumped her with Rose before taking off yet again. It was just the three of them, and that was the way things stayed until Annie left for Africa.
"Yes. I hate flying," she replied.
"What?" Confusion played across his angular face.
"I wear your earrings when I need to be brave." She tried to laugh off the admission.
Blue eyes searched hers, before his hand dropped to her shoulder for a light squeeze.
Will looked up the road. He couldn't believe what he saw. The white clapboard farmhouse sat like a candle on the hill. "Rose has every single light on."
"Is she trying to tell you something?"
"Me? She wants everyone to know you're home. The woman is so excited and proud of you she can't stop telling everyone."
As the truck stopped Rose O'Shea burst through the front entrance, sending the screen door slamming against the house. Her gray topknot bobbed and the white apron around her ample waist flapped as she ran down the porch steps.
The passenger door was yanked open, and Annie slid out of the truck and into Rose's arms before Will could pull the parking brake.
"What on earth took you so long, Will? You stop for every squirrel in the road?"
"She made me go the long way." He lifted the suitcases from the flatbed and set them on the porch.
"I did not," Annie protested from within Rose's embrace. "He drove like an old woman trying to keep his truck clean."
Will watched Rose fuss over Annie, making clucking noises as she took the younger woman's face in her hands. "You've lost weight."
"Well, naturally," Annie said, stepping back. She gave a dismissive toss of her dark head. "Nobody cooks like you."
"How's that leg? Hurt much?" Rose questioned.
"No, it's more of a nuisance than anything." Annie stepped forward.
"Easy. Will, come and help her up the steps," Rose directed.
"Help?" He moved next to both women. "She bites my head off every time I try to help."
Before Annie could protest Will had scooped her up in his arms and started up the steps. He realized his mistake the minute she frantically wrapped her arms around his neck.
Annie Harris wasn't a scrawny little kid anymore. She might have lost a few pounds, but she felt exactly like a woman, with curves in all the right places.
Annie was a woman. Will stumbled at the realization.
When he deposited her on the porch like a hot potato, she grabbed the railing for support.
The phone echoed from the house.
"That'll be my sister wanting to know if you're here yet." Rose flew past them.
"What did I tell you? It's just begun," Will said. He pulled open the screen door for Rose.
Annie still stood holding the rail, eyes wide and accusing. "That wasn't necessary," she said with a quiet voice. She yanked her pants and shirt straight and wouldn't look him in the eye.
"What?" he asked.
Her gaze flew to his, sparks of gold flashing in the dark eyes.