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Nate Calhoun held up one hand to shield his face from the sun. He'd forgotten what it was like to look out over the land, to see grass stretching so far into the distance that he couldn't tell where their ranch ended and the next one began.
Sand he was used to, but not grass.
He pulled the door shut behind him and stretched out his right leg, trying not to grimace. His damn calf wouldn't stop throbbing, and no matter how much he tried to ignore it, walking wasn't as easy as it used to be.
Nate glanced up at the main house, knew exactly what he'd find if he walked over. Nancy, their long-time housekeeper, would be clearing the breakfast dishes; there'd still be the smell of strong coffee lingering in the air, and there'd probably be some leftovers waiting to be eaten. But he wasn't ready to be part of that life again, didn't know when he'd be able to answer the questions his family seemed so intent on asking him whenever he spent time with them.
It was why he'd walked away from them all on his first night back and taken over the unused guesthouse.
Nate turned and walked a track that was still oddly familiar to him. As a boy, right up until he'd left the ranch to join the army, he'd wandered to a massive tree tucked far enough away from the house to be private. Where a weathered timber swing had tilted back and forth in the breeze. Somewhere that he'd never shared with anyone except for Who the hell was that?
Nate stopped and squinted. He was close enough to see the tree but not close enough to figure out who was sitting on a swing that he'd expected to be long gone by now.
He straightened and tried his hardest not to limp, even though he knew that disguising his injury was impossible.
Then the mystery figure on the swing turned his way.
Nate gulped. Hard. Before grinding his teeth together and walking toward her.
It was Sarah. After all these years, he'd managed to find Sarah Anderson under his tree.
Some things would never change.
She stood as he approached, a shy smile making her lips tilt ever so slightly in the corners, a faint blush creeping across her cheeks.
He did his best to return the smile, but the truth was that simple things like grinning at a friend didn't come so easy to him anymore. And besides, he didn't even know if he could call Sarah a friend these days, not after what had happened between them.
"Sarah," he managed, stopping a few paces from her.
She hesitated, flushed all over again, before leaning awkwardly into him and giving him a hug.
Nate stiffened, tried to relax and found it impossible. Even with Sarah's gentle embrace, her arms so softly around him, her long hair brushing against his cheek. Once, he'd thought he'd never want to leave the comfort of Sarah's arms. Now it only made him want to run.
"You look good, Nate," Sarah told him as she pulled away and sat back down. "It's so nice to see you back here. I can't believe you're home."
Nate nodded, thrust his hands into his back pockets. "It's" he couldn't lie to her, not to Sarah "different being back."
"I'm so sorry about your father." Sarah's eyes flooded with tears as she reached for him, her fingers curling around his forearm as she leaned forward again. "He was always so nice to me when I was here with you."
Nate smiled. He didn't even have to force it. "Yeah, he was pretty fond of you, too." Back in the days when he and Sarah were joined at the hip, his dad had loved him having Sarah over all the time. Everyone had, because there wasn't a person in Larkville who didn't like Sarah Anderson.
He looked up as she removed her hand from his arm and immediately wished he hadn't. Because he'd never forgotten the warm amber color of her eyes or the way she seemed to be able to look straight through him, to see what he was thinking, what he was feeling.
Only there was no way that even Sarah could know what was going on inside of him, not now.
Sarah sighed like she wasn't sure what to say, before turning a sunny smile his way. "Have you heard that I've been roped into organizing the Fall Festival?" Sarah shook her head. "I mean, I'm looking forward to the tribute for your dad, but trying to get everyone in this town into line is harder than it looks, I tell you!"
Nate couldn't help but smile back at her, and for once it was genuine, not him trying to act happy to get the people around him off his back. "I bet you're loving it."
Sarah glared at him, a playfulness there that had been missing in his life for so long he'd forgotten it had ever even existed. A spark of happiness that for a moment, the briefest of moments, made him feel like he'd never left the farm, never seen what he wished he could forget, never Nate swallowed hard and tried to focus on Sarah's pretty face instead of the memories that haunted him.
"Are you home for good, Nate?"
Her question surprised him, made him crash back to reality. "Yeah." He grunted out the word, still unable to believe that after all these years his career in the army was over for good. That he was back home, and in such a short time he'd lost both his mom and his dad, too. Home sure wasn't what it used to be.
Nate braved making eye contact with the girl who had stolen his heart when he was a teenager. "Yeah, I'm sure." He wished he hadn't snapped at her, but he couldn't help it. What did she want to hear? The truth of why he wasn't going back? Because not even Sarah could get details of that story out of him.
"I'm sorry, I know better than to pry." Sarah sighed again and looked away. "Moose!" she called.
Moose? Nate was about to ask her who the heck she was calling when "What the hell?" Nate spun, ready to fight, body alert even though his leg was starting to throb.
"Moose!" Sarah called again, crouching toward the long grass where the noise was coming from.
A massive dog appeared, launching from his hiding place and landing in front of Sarah. Nate could have sworn his heart was about to beat straight from his chest and thump to his feet.
"Since when do you have a dog named Moose?" he asked.
The dog glared at him, sitting protectively beside Sarah.
"You know me, sucker for animals in need," she replied, stroking the dog's head lovingly. "Your brother found him one day and nicknamed him, because he looked like a gangly baby moose. No one knows how he ended up around here, but he's been with me ever since."
Nate eyed the German Shepherd, not liking the way he was being watched in response. The canine was acting like he was challenging his authority and Nate wasn't used to being the one on the back foot. "Is he as staunch with Todd as he's being with me right now?"
The smile fell from Sarah's face like water thrown over a flame at the mention of her husband.
"It was really nice seeing you, Nate, but we'd better be off."
He watched as she moved past him, her eyes damp again like she was about to cry. "Yeah, nice seeing you, too."
He should have asked her to stay. Should have patted the damn dog instead of acting like his territory was at stake. Because Nate was alone and seeing Sarah hadn't been half-bad. At least she hadn't quizzed him like his family had the moment he'd stepped foot on the family ranch again.
After so many years surrounded by other men, of living and working with other soldiers at his side, he was alone. His family were like strangers to him; he had no one to talk to, no one he wanted to talk to, and seeing Sarah had been the first time he'd cracked a smile in what seemed like forever.
But instead of calling her back, he watched her walk away. And it felt like they'd just gone back in time six years, when he'd told her that he was staying with the army instead of coming home. When he'd ended their relationship for good.
Sarah touched the top of her dog's head before sending him away in front of her. She tried to focus on him bounding ahead, tail wagging back and forth. But the only thing she could feel, the only thing she could think about, was the man standing behind her. Nate Calhoun.
After all these years, seeing him for more than a fleeting moment was. Sarah dug her fingernails into her palm. Refused to turn around to see if he was still standing where she'd left him. Nate had been the love of her life, and no matter how hard she tried to pretend that there was nothing between them anymore, she was still drawn to him like a magnet to metal.
Why after so many years, after he'd left her, could she still not push the man from her mind? When he'd left her brokenhearted, discarded like their romance had been nothing more than a holiday fling.
"Sarah, what are you doing here so early?"
She looked up, forgetting how close she was to the homestead. The ranch house never failed to impress her, had always had a warmth and homeliness about it that she admired, even though it was easily one of the largest homes in Larkville.
"I came to check up on my new horse, but Moose ran after something and I ended up following him."
Kathryn Calhoun leaned against the doorframe, eyebrows drawn together. "What's wrong?"
Sarah sighed. It didn't matter how hard she tried to keep something to herself, she always seemed to wear her emotions all over her face. "I saw Nate."
Kathryn frowned. "Did you talk to him?"
"Yeah, but.. " What did she say? That she still felt a flutter of something for him, even though she could see from the darkness in his gaze, from the drawn expression on his face, that the old Nate wasn't even in residence anymore? Twenty minutes ago she hadn't even known Nate was home and now.
"You don't have to tell me, I know," Kathryn told her.
Sarah's face flushed hot, but she bit her tongue, waiting for Kathryn to continue. She liked Kathryn a lot, but it didn't mean she wanted to talk to her about her former flame, especially given she was married to Nate's brother, Holt.
"Sarah, he's changed. He's not the Nate his family knew, and he's not the happy-go-lucky town charmer that everyone seems to remember, either," Kathryn confessed.
Sarah was overcome with a burst of anger, wanting to defend him. "He's been through a lot, so don't we owe it to him to be patient? To give him some space to deal with being back here?"
Kathryn smiled at her, but there was a sadness there that Sarah couldn't miss. "I hope you're right, Sarah. I do. But Holt's not so sure that Nate's ever going to be the same again."
A wet nose thrust into Sarah's hand reminded her that she wasn't alone. "I think that's my cue to go," she told Kathryn. "I'm meeting Johnny to see how he's gotten on with my mare. He started her under saddle for me a few weeks ago."
Sarah waved to Kathryn as she turned, but the smile f led her face as soon as she walked away. Nate was hurting. It might have been years since they'd been together, but she still remembered every expression his face had ever worn, how much pain he must be experiencing to hide away in the guesthouse, away from the family he was once so close to.
She threw a stick her dog had dropped at her feet and tried to focus on where she was walking, rather than the man she could see in her mind.
Nate had left her. Nate had walked away and de- cided not to come home. He wasn't her responsibility and he'd already made that perfectly clear.
So why was her heart racing like it was in a speedway competition, and her mouth so dry it felt like she hadn't consumed water in days?
Because it was Nate Calhoun, and for as long as she was alive she' d never, ever forget him.