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By Dora Hiers
Pelican Ventures, LLCCopyright © 2014 Dora Hiers
All rights reserved.
The prodigal son was back.
Beck Harmon dropped the book bag off his shoulder and slipped into the back row, ignoring the heads slanting in his direction, the whispers behind cupped hands, and the pointed fingers.
Didn't they know gossip wasn't polite?
Some things never changed. Like rumors and how they raged through the small town faster and with more ferocity than a wildfire.
"Excuse me." He scooted past a middle-aged couple he didn't recognize.
The woman, with striking blonde hair piled high on top of her head in a stringent bun, gasped and jerked her partner's arm before digging a cellphone from the depths of an oversized bag. Her fingers blazed across the keys. Probably tapping out a status update to all her friends.
By now, the entire population of Harrison, North Carolina, knew Burk's twin was back.
He groaned. A wedding was supposed to be about the bride and groom, not the wayward son finally returning home. Scowling, he settled into a thinly cushioned seat, relief flowing into his aching limbs. After two weeks of hiking, dealing with bleeding blisters, and hitching rides when he could get them, he wasn't turning around just for the sake of a few gossips. Not after he'd made it home and hugged his sister. He might have sorely misjudged the timing, but leaving now would break Rori's heart.
It wouldn't be too healthy for his, either.
He could hardly wait to wrap his arms around his mama and meet the man who'd won over sweet, painfully shy Rori. He wanted to slap his twin on the back, and then slither into a giant, soapy bathtub to erase the grime and dust he'd accumulated over the last thirteen years.
If only a bath could erase his mistakes, his failures, as easily.
A late spring breeze drifted over him, ruffling the flimsy material of his cotton shirt and wafting through the holes in his last pair of jeans. Scratching his scruffy beard, he slumped low in the seat, finally forcing his shoulders to relax and allowing his eyelids to droop, the long years of wandering sinking in to a weariness that went bone deep. He could probably sleep straight through until Monday without moving a muscle. But he wouldn't.
He sat up straight, determination to stay awake lifting his shoulders and resolve stiffening his spine. He hadn't traveled all this way just to reconnect with his family. No, he planned to track down Savvy McCord. He owed her an apology. One that was over a decade late.
Why did it always take something catastrophic to make a person long for what could have been? To make a person take stock of their blessings and realize what they'd given up or taken for granted? He rattled his head back and forth.
Savvy was probably long gone, living in a house with a white picket fence, three kids, and a perfect husband who doted on her. That's what she deserved, anyway.
Him? He'd never deserved her love. Not then, and definitely not now. But, at least, he'd feel better after he apologized. Then, maybe he could move on with his life. Tuck the pent-up dreams and the "what if's" behind him, where they should have stayed all along.
He scraped a hand across his bearded face. Besides, what he deserved and what he wanted were two different things, and right now, neither mattered. And with no immediate job opportunity on the horizon, he'd have plenty of time to sleep. Sighing, he blinked back the weariness and rolled his gaze along the handful of people lined up in front with the pastor.
His brother, Burk.
Man, how he'd missed his twin. He'd even missed his brother's controlling nature, but that wasn't something he'd admit to Burk.
The groom. The famous Graham Decker, a racecar driver, was all decked out in a black tux and pinning Rori with a love-struck gaze. If it weren't for all the pictures plastered over the news, Beck would never have guessed that the guy was a celebrity athlete. With his sister's extreme social phobia, how did she ever end up with him?
He'd have to ask Burk. His gaze shifted to the next person in line.
The bride. His baby sister, dressed in a silky white gown, her long chestnut shaded hair pulled back in some type of fancy knot under that veil.
When he'd left, hadn't she been just a kid? The last thing lodged in his brain was her giddy excitement over finally getting her driver's license. Burk had gotten on to him for teasing her unmercifully about being an old lady before she could actually drive, but she hadn't seemed to care. She'd just smiled sweetly and swatted at his arm with the strength of a gnat. Now here she was, all grown up and glowing with a peaceful radiance.
Beck raked a hand across his whiskered cheeks, blotting out the moisture rimming his eyes with a nonchalant sweep of his arm. He'd stayed away too long. He refocused, sliding his gaze to the next person in line.
Sunlight dazzled from the late afternoon sky, glinting like diamonds from a halo-like crown of the blonde-haired beauty standing next to his sister. Savvy?
He straightened in the chair, sucking in a long breath, holding it until his lungs practically burst with the effort.
It couldn't be her, could it?
Burk had never mentioned Savvy.
Granted, he'd only called Burk occasionally, just to let him know that he was still alive and to pass word along to his mom so she wouldn't worry so much. Not that his less-than-sporadic calls would stop her from worrying. But, talking to his twin was his way of holding on to that tenuous strand linking him to his family without the guilt. Burk wouldn't break down like his mother or sister would. No. His brother was always a solid rock on the phone, just like he'd always been for their family after their dad's death. But Burk hadn't bothered to let on that Savvy had matured into this stunning creature, or even that she still lived in the area.
Not that he'd ventured to ask about her. What had he expected? That when he up and left, she wouldn't stick around, either? Get real, man.
"Graham, you may now kiss your bride."
The kindness in the pastor's voice snagged his attention back to the couple, now enjoying a lingering wedding kiss, but he quickly glanced back to the profile he believed belonged to Savvy. Was it really her?
She'd always been beautiful, but the woman who stood silhouetted as she faced the wedding couple ... she was a stunner. Even though her arms were covered, he could still see well-defined muscles. A silky looking jade gown dropped midway to her slender ankles, the material hugging her waist, and wrapping her soft, feminine curves real nice.
He didn't like the direction his thoughts were going. Forcing his gaze up, he tamped down a sigh and silently scolded his wishy-washy heart.
Curly wisps of golden hair had come untucked from the clasp gathering it in the back. Her chin jutted out, and her eyelashes were flickering, as if she was desperately trying to hold it together.
He angled his body to see around the person in front of him. Since there were only five rows of chairs for the guests, he caught a glimpse of the tear that trickled down an ivory cheek. The woman swiped it away with her fingertips, leaving a tiny smudge of dark makeup across her cheek.
Oh yeah. That confirmed it.
He leaned back, shock pinning him to the chair.
Savvy had always worn makeup rather heavy around her eyes, creating a smoky effect that he'd always considered alluring. She'd never realized how beautiful she was. No, make that didn't accept. She'd always shrugged off his compliments with a fierce toss of that silky mane of hers. Did she still not believe it?
The happy couple practically danced down the center aisle, love glowing from their faces as they made their way to the back of the gathering.
His sister shared a secret smile with him, flicking her head towards the reception area. He nodded and released the breath he'd been holding, filling his lungs with the sweet scents of roses and cake mingling with the more enticing aroma of coffee and roasted pork.
He'd meet up with Rori in a minute.
After he had a chance to track down Savvy, who never once glanced in his direction as she filed down the aisle, hanging on to Burk's arm and smiling up at his twin with a familiarity that unsettled him, leaving him feeling more than a bit ragged inside.
He hadn't expected a hero's welcome, but he surely would never have guessed that Savvy had fallen in love with his brother, either.
* * *
Thirteen years. Without one word to her, although she knew he'd called his brother plenty of times.
Did he expect that she'd just waltz into his arms now that he was back? So not happening!
Savvy clung to Burk's arm with her tightest firefighter grip, doing her best to sail past the long-legged man whose dark head perched higher than the rest of the guests seated in the last row, but that was proving harder than she expected.
She'd caught sight of him just as she stumbled down the abbreviated trek to the altar. Almost like an apparition, he'd hiked onto Rori's property, his face hidden by the sun's blinding glare. Then she'd glimpsed the weariness seeping from his limbs and the fatigue glimmering from his face. And judging by his tattered jeans and shabby-looking boots, he'd probably walked the whole way back to Harrison from wherever he'd holed up.
When she'd angled towards Rori and Graham, she'd caught his movements out of the corner of her vision. She knew the moment he'd recognized her, which wasn't until after the ceremony had started.
If she had her way, he wouldn't see her now. Maybe if she didn't glance his way, if she ignored the emotional tug that drew her to him, she could sneak out of here unnoticed. Rori would understand.
"Well, would you look at that? He made it back." Burk leaned in close to her ear, pleasure lacing his bass voice. So much like his twin's, yet Burk's tone had such a completely different effect on her. Burk was like the brother she'd never had.
But Beck? Beck's voice had always made her heart do a little skip. Most of their friends in high school had trouble telling the twins apart. Not her. Her heart always raced whenever Beck walked in a room.
"It'll all work out." Burk patted her hand, acknowledging her deep intake of breath. "Come on."
"But I'm with —" She tried to tug her hand away, but he didn't release. The rat.
She couldn't escape now. Not without making a scene.
Burk led her behind the back row. He yanked the chair out from behind his brother and clapped a hand on his shoulder to pull him into a hug.
But Beck was caught off-guard. He turned, and his boot caught the chair leg, sending him sprawling —
Right into Savvy's chest.
The breath squeezed from her lungs, and she staggered backwards two steps, trying to keep her balance. Her spiked heel snagged in the grass. Her arms flailed as she felt herself falling backwards —
A long arm snaked around her back, saving her from smacking the ground, as effortlessly as if they were professional salsa dancers performing a complicated dip. She closed her eyes and breathed deep of freshly mowed grass, thankful that Burk had kept her from making a fool of herself.
She expected to smell his familiar woody fragrance, but all she took in was the scent of outdoors, of long walks in the sun, definitely masculine ... but definitely not Burk. Her lids flashed open.
"May I have this dance?" Beck's familiar face smiled down at her, tiny crinkles fanning out from those luscious emerald orbs. The brown speckled flakes seemed a bit faded with time, but they still twinkled. One arm still latched around her back. The other gripped his brother's forearm.
With extremely little effort, he hoisted her so that they both stood safely upright, but her head huddled close to his chest. So close that his short puffs of air tickled her cheeks.
Her pulse ratcheted up to rocket speed, and dampness blanketed the palm that gripped the bouquet. How could he still have this effect on her? She wouldn't allow it! She wedged a sweaty palm against his chest and gave him a not-so-gentle shove, brushing his hand away in the process. Then she tugged the awkward shoes off and gripped them with two fingers, her gaze sliding to the other hand holding the now withering buds. Blades of grass pricked her bare feet, sparking her ire even further. "I can take care of myself." She'd survived a long time without his help, and she didn't need it today. Immediately she regretted the words.
He gave a slow nod of his head and then firmly clamped his lips.
But she melted into a puddle of emotions when the giant lone tear trickled from his long lashes and tracked down his whisker heavy cheek.
Her heart twisted, and she sucked in a breath, warning her primary organ to behave.
He squeezed his lids closed and pressed a thumb and finger against them. "Savvy." When his hand fell away, all traces of the moisture had disappeared, leaving his face void of emotion. Not his voice, though. The single whispered word was full of it.
"Yeah. It's good to see you, Beck." As much as she might want to, she couldn't deny it.
"I'd have to say it's a whole lot better to see you." His eyes gleamed with appreciation. His lips quivered into a smile, and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down along his throat. It was obvious that the man who stood before her now, allowing her to witness a glimpse of his vulnerable side, wasn't the same cocky guy who'd thrown away her love years ago.
Her only response was to pull her shoulders back, steeling her spine against the onslaught of good memories.
Snuggling together at high school football games. Holding hands as they walked to school. Licking from the same chocolate covered dipped cone on Saturday nights. Sharing kisses that singed the hair from her arms. Treasured memories that she'd stuffed deep down and then encased with blocks of concrete. That way his leaving couldn't hurt her so much.
It hadn't worked.
She'd forgiven him a long time ago, but that didn't mean she planned to make this reunion easier for him. And he still hadn't opened his arms for her to step into.
"You must be Beck Harmon." A male voice broke into her thoughts, sounding hollow and far off at first, before it finally seeped into her consciousness.
As if she needed the reminder that she wasn't here alone, an arm wrapped around her back, and Corbin pulled her next to his side in a rather possessive gesture.
She narrowed her eyes, debating how to handle this awkward situation.
In a moment of weakness, she had accepted Corbin's invitation to escort her to Rori's wedding. They'd been friends for a long time, but that's all she'd ever permitted their relationship to be. Until tonight. When she'd planned to allow their friendship to advance to the next level. A committed relationship. But she hadn't told Corbin that yet.
She'd finally waved the white flag of surrender on casual dating. How many times did she want to acknowledge the hideous scars marring her body? Or decide to dress in a pair of shorts just to catch her date's reaction? Or watch a guy try to cover his horror behind a hand or turning his head? It didn't matter which guy it was or how long she'd known them. They all reacted the same way. With revulsion.
Except Corbin, who seemed to have a morbid fascination with the medical miracle of skin grafts.
Yep. She was done with the dating scene. But, neither could she imagine a lifetime of loneliness, of pining for a man who didn't care whether she existed or not. And her heart literally ached from putting her dreams of love and children off forever.
Corbin seemed to be the logical choice for a future. They enjoyed each other's company. He made her laugh, and he was pleasant and easy enough to talk to. Her scars didn't matter to him. But the biggest reason? He had no control over her heart. None whatsoever.
No, her heart had only danced to the tune of the man in front of her. The man whose shoulders had suddenly stooped, as if long, backbreaking years of manual labor had aged him right before her eyes.
But he'd willingly snuffed out the music to their dance a long time ago.
Beck stared at the arm that had disappeared around her back. The brown flecks in his gorgeous eyes widened, and a heavy brow arched. A muscle ticked along his clenched jaw.
Surely he wasn't ... jealous?
She considered snuggling closer to Corbin. For about one second. She'd never been one to play games, and she wasn't about to start now just because Beck showed a flicker of emotion where she was concerned. Jerking away from Corbin's side, she stepped out of his reach, determined not to be sucked into the bitter surge of feelings threatening to drag her back out to the sea of despair she'd almost drowned in on the day she graduated high school.
Excerpted from Beck's Peace by Dora Hiers. Copyright © 2014 Dora Hiers. Excerpted by permission of Pelican Ventures, LLC.
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