Twenty years ago, Nicole Baxter left the only home she knewand the boy who shared all her secrets. Now, with nowhere else to go, she's back in Tawnee Valley to figure out her next moveand cry on her old friend Sam Ward's shoulder. Except the gentle dreamer has become a brooding loner who's gearing up to sell the place he loves most.
When Nikki moved away, Sam lost the best friend he ever had. The beautiful, elegant woman who comes home is a world away from the tomboy with pigtails and skinned knees. And he's no longer the dreamy kid who believes in happy endings. Until Nikki starts to convince him they share the same dream: a future together right here in their own backyard
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
At least I'm on the right side of the grass. Better on top than below. Nicole Baxter stood in the last place she'd ever thought she'd end upthe front porch of a farm she hadn't been to in seventeen years. The fields were lush from the months of spring rain they had received. Even the stifling heat of the Illinois summer hadn't diminished the crops. With fall approaching, it wouldn't be long before the fields were stripped of their bounty.
"You all settled in your room?" Her father, John Baxter, joined her on the porch.
"Yes." She smiled up at him and shifted on her high heels. Probably the last time she'd wear them for a while. "Thanks again for letting me stay here. I swear I'll only be here for a few weeks. A month, tops. Just until I get back on my feet again."
"This is your home. You stay as long as you like." His gaze followed the combine out in the western field. Her twin brothers, Ethan and Wes, were out there working.
"Thanks." She could argue with him, insist that she wasn't used to taking charity. That this hadn't been her home in a long time. That this was only a temporary setback. A few weeks in the uncomplicated town of Tawnee Valley would help her heal from her breakup and find a new job that was ten times better than the one that had been eliminated.
"I think I'll take a walk." Nicole stretched her arms over her head and let the heat of the sun melt away her worries. It was only her first day back, and she couldn't imagine spending it inside, searching the internet for a job. It wasn't as if she didn't have time on her hands.
"In those things?" Her father looked skeptically at her three-inch heels.
"I won't go far. Besides, the ground isn't that soft." She flashed him a cheeky grin. "And they match my outfit."
"You're going to do what you are going to do, no matter what I say." Her dad shook his head.
She kissed him on the cheek and stepped off the porch. As she reached the fence gate, she turned and waved at him. Her floral skirt swirled around her knees. While inside the house, her bag was a mess. She'd packed in a few hours, desperate to get out of the apartment she'd shared with Jeremy. Seven years down the toilet because they weren't "connecting" anymore. Whatever that meant.
It was going to take her a few hours to unpack in her old bedroom. But she was through waiting for stuff. She'd waited for Jeremy's proposal. She'd waited for a promotion. The only things waiting had gotten her were no boyfriend and no job. And not enough money to stay in LA.
As she walked far enough away that the house disappeared behind a hill, she took in a full breath and spun in a circle. Seventeen years and she still felt most at home here, where she'd played as a child. After her parents divorced when she was fourteen, her mother had taken her to LA, and the twins had stayed with Dad.
Even though this path was a little overgrown now, she followed it, just as she'd traveled it almost every day until she was fourteen.
Best days of her life. She wanted to recapture that time and forget all the crap that came after. Deep in the wooded part of their land, right where it abutted the Ward farm, was where she and her best friend would meet. She headed toward the tree, hoping their creation was still there.
When her heel sank into the ground slightly, she stopped and pulled off her shoes. Her toes curled into the damp grass. It felt wonderful, liberating. How long had it been since her feet had been in grass? As she approached the fence, she looked around. Didn't her father say that Sam Ward was in charge of the farm now?
A little thrill went through her heart. She went to the post where it was easiest to climb the fence. It wasn't as easy as when she was a kid, but she got over and wouldn't be embarrassed if someone saw her do it with her skirt hitched up over her knees. Back then, she'd worn jeans or shorts and a T-shirt that might or might not have been washed since the last time she wore it. Her mother had put her hair into two braids to keep it from getting too tangled. She'd always come home wearing more mud than a hog trying to get cool in the summer heat. Band-Aids covered her knees. Her nails were broken and dirty. A happy little mess.
Now her nails were perfectly manicured. Her knees were smooth and clean with only a few scars from her childhood adventures. Her dark hair flowed over her shoulders, tangle-free with the right products and a straightening iron. Her skirt and blouse were feminine with flowers, the way Jeremy had always liked her to dress. Maybe she should go shopping
As she rounded a bend, she saw it. After all these years, it was still there. The slab of wood they'd built up in the tree and called a tree house. She stopped in front of the tree and dropped her shoes to the ground. Glancing around and seeing no one, she smiled and grabbed the rope.
Sam Ward had never minded chores, but he was getting tired of finding damaged fencing along his property borders. John Baxter was usually good about it; if he found it first, he fixed it. But the new guy who'd bought the place to the south loved to drive his four-wheeler in his fields, but not actually keep up the fencing or anything else.
As Sam walked the fence bordering the Baxter property, Barnabus, his big, shaggy dog, trailed along behind him. Suddenly Barnabus lifted his head and gave a sharp bark before trotting into the woods.
Sam whistled, but the dog kept going. Probably a squirrel or something, but it could be a larger injured animal. He had sheep in the field at this time of year, but even a squirrel would be a welcome interruption into the monotony his life had become. Since his recovery from his valve surgery, he had been feeling ten times better than earlier this spring, prior to the operation. The tedium hadn't bothered him before, but now he felt as if he'd been wasting his life out here all these years. Some days he wished he could just move away and start over. But this was his family's farm, passed down to him by his parents.
A flash of white in a tree caught his attention. He quickened his pace down the old trail. If that new neighbor was littering on his land, he'd need to have a talk with him. But as he got closer, what Sam saw in the tree made no sense.
A slender young woman in a floral skirt and blouse stood on the platform that had once been his tree house. Her black hair lifted and floated on the wind. As he drew closer, he noticed the high heels at the base of the tree.
"You're trespassing," he called up to the clearly insane woman in his tree.
"No, I'm not. I built this place with my own two hands." She turned and leaned forward against a thick offshoot of the trunk. She had the smile of a garden fairy, full of mischief. He couldn't tell her eye color from so far away, but he could tell her eyes were light.
"I built that tree house almost twenty years ago." He squinted as the sun moved to shine into his eyes.
"Sam?" Her voice sounded incredulous. "Oh, my God. Sam Ward, is that you?"
"Great," he muttered, "the crazy woman in my tree knows my name."
She pushed away from the trunk and started down with the use of the rope.
"I wouldn't use that rope," he said and moved closer.
"Why not? It got me up here." Her skirt blew in the breeze and he caught a glimpse of her long legs and pink boy-short underwear before he could look away. "Because it might"
Before he could finish the sentence, the rope snapped in two. He rushed forward and grabbed the woman around the waist to stop her from falling to the ground. Her back pressed into his front. Her hair smelled floral and like expensive perfume with rich undertones, making him want to lean into her and draw in more of the scent.
He set her down in front of him. She spun immediately and pressed the length of her body against him and hugged him around the neck, pulling him down to her height. She was at least a half foot shorter than him. Even if she was crazy, his body responded to the soft curves pressed into his hardness.
"I can't believe it's you," she said. Her tone made it seem as if she was ecstatic to see him. No one was that happy to see him. She must be certifiable.
She finally pulled away. Maybe she'd finally noticed he wasn't holding in return. "Sam, it's me."
He looked into the crazy lady's light green eyes. Surrounded by her dark lashes, the green reminded him of spring and new growth.
"You don't know who I am, do you?" She smiled, and her eyes sparkled. Her lips drew his attention.
Aware of how close they were standing, he took a step back. "Should I?"
"Are you scared I'll give you cooties or something?" She laughed, and it tickled the air around his ears pleasantly. "I cross my heart and hope to die that I have not been infected."
When she crossed her heart with her finger, his gaze took in her breasts and waist and hips. By the time he lifted his eyes to hers, she had her eyebrow raised and was watching him with such an intensity that a spark of awareness flowed through him.
"Oh, I think he might have it, folks," she said in a game show-style voice. "Come on. You never were as fast as I was, but I thought since you grew up so damned tall. When did you get that tall?"
"Nikki?" He couldn't keep the awe from his voice. The corners of his mouth twitched into a quick smile. This couldn't be the same tomboy with hair falling out of her braids and dirty jeans. She'd been straight as a rail and proud of it.
She grinned. "I go by Nicole now. Mom thought it sounded more mature, and who was I to argue with her?"
"All right. Apparently it's going to take you some time to catch up. Yes, my mom and I moved to California when I was fourteen after the divorce. I'm back now. Staying with Dad until I can get back on my feet."
"Are you sick?" He took a partial step forward, searching for signs of sickness. His own brush with illness was still a fresh wound, though he was almost completely healed.
Her brow furrowed and she shrugged. "No, just having issues with life in general."
He rubbed his hand over the back of his neck. His brain was still trying to reconcile the beautiful woman in front of him with the rough-and-tumble tomboy best friend he used to know. "What were you doing in the tree?"
She swung around and looked up into the tree. "I wondered if I could still climb it."
"In a dress?"
She looked at him over her shoulder and smiled. "It's a skirt. I didn't think anyone would be out in the field at this time of day. I just remember how many days we spent up there and wondered if I could feel that way again."
"What way?" He squinted up at the old tree house. "Dirty with splinters in your feet?"
Her laughter made his gut tighten. He wasn't sure if he wanted to hear it more, or not at all. It made him feel strange.
"Maybe," she said before she turned back to him and closed the distance between them until her toes were only a few inches from his boots. She put a hand on top of her head and moved her hand toward his chest. "How did you get so tall? We were the same height when I left."
Her hand reached out and touched his arm lightly. He automatically flexed his muscles beneath her touch.
Her green eyes looked up at him with a twinkle in them. "You certainly did. Do you spend all your time bench-pressing cattle?"
The image struck him as funny, and a slight laugh, more like a release of air, escaped before he could stop it.
"Did you lose your funny bone, too?" She squeezed his elbow. "Nope, it feels like one is still in there."
His lips tried to curve up again. She was something else. He didn't know what to say, so, as usual, he remained silent, trying to figure out this situation.
She breathed in deeply and wrapped her arms around his waist again, resting her head against his chest. "It is so good to see you again. I was afraid you'd changed too much, or that, once I saw you, I wouldn't recognize you, but here you are. Oh, my goodness, we always had so much fun together. Climbing trees, running through the fields, snowball fights."
She squeezed him slightly. He held his breath, willing his body not to respond to the temptation of her pressed against him. It was only a friendly hug. It didn't mean anything. Certainly not what the lower half of his body wanted it to mean. He shouldn't be thinking about her that way at all. This was Nikki. His best friend who left when he was fourteen, barely a teenager.
"Maybe I should take up cow lifting." She stayed cuddled against him. "I could definitely use some definition in my arms. But then that would be a lot of work and someone would have to spot me, because I can't lift a cow on my own."
As she leaned against him, he didn't know what to do with his arms. The top of her head almost reached his chin.
She lifted her head and looked up at him. "Would you spot me?"
With her this close, he could lift her the few inches he needed to be able to kiss her pretty pink lips. Would she taste as rich and darkly seductive as she smelled? Or would she taste like the spring her eyes promised? Strawberries and mint.
"Sam?" Her smile kept his eyes glued to her lips. "Would you spot me?"
Her words made no sense. He shook himself and lifted his gaze to her smiling eyes. "What?"
"In cow lifting? You would definitely keep a cow from falling on me. Wouldn't you?"
"What?" Apparently she'd lost a few marbles in California.
She released him, and the lack of her warmth hit him the wrong way. "I guess you're right, cow lifting isn't for me. I'm sure there are other things that could help me improve my figure while I'm here."
She bent down and picked up her shoes.
"You don't have to improve your figure." The words slipped out.
"Thanks." Her cheeks flushed pink. "You always were sweet. I can't wait to see what you've done with the house and the farm. Did you keep those rocks we collected? The ones that had the crystal-like appearance?"
"From the creek? Yeah."
She was like a whirlwind that he had no chance of escaping or keeping up with. A very unintentionally sexy whirlwind. When they were younger, there'd never been anything but friendship between them. More often than not, she'd beat him at racing. Now the only thing racing was his heart; if it weren't for the attraction pulsing through his veins, he'd be worried that another fainting episode was about to happen.
"So what are you doing in the woods at this time of day? Searching for fairies and dragons? The twins are out in the field, joyriding."
Her smile was a constant that he was beginning to appreciate. People didn't smile at him this much. As soon as he opened his mouth and said something, they generally stopped smiling. He didn't mind keeping his distance from folks. It made things easier.