Dakota Storm

What if the One That Got Away came back?

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Chapter One

“I didn’t sign up to fix fence by myself today.” Misty Evans raised the pole driver and slammed it down on the steel fence post several times to drive it into the ground. The muscles in her arms stung as though she’d been zapped with electricity from the repetitive gesture, her biceps vibrating from three continuous hours of straightening posts. “Just spit it out. I know something is going on by the way you’re checking your cell every five seconds. If you’re not going to help, you might as well talk. Lord knows you’re good at that.”

She slipped the pole driver off the fence post and stretched her back muscles. She glanced in Matt’s direction when he said nothing. “Well?” she prodded.

Her twin brother flashed his usual shit-eating grin and leaned against Misty’s rusted-out Ford. His dusty jeans and ball cap looked like they’d seen better days. He pointed at her with his cell. “Maybe I’ll wait until you’re finished. No sense in giving you bad news when you have a possible weapon in your hand.”

The news couldn’t be too bad considering he was smiling. “Chickenshit,” she muttered.

“I heard that.”

She’d meant him to. Even if he hadn’t heard her, he’d probably have guessed what she was thinking. Rarely did a day go by that she couldn’t communicate what she was thinking with a mere look when it came to her twin. Came with the territory. She gave her back one last tweak and headed toward him. He sure was getting a kick out of keeping her waiting.

He adjusted his ball cap, bent down to pick up his gloves and pliers off the ground where he’d tossed them earlier, and stood to face her. She had no doubt he was stalling. His trademark grin was gone, replaced with, what she perceived to be, an apologetic grimace. “David’s back.”

“From Afghanistan?” What could possibly upset her about that news? She might walk across a street made of nails barefoot just to avoid running into him, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t prayed for his safe return. She looked down at the ground, not wanting her brother to see the relief on her face. She was more relieved than she cared to admit, but that was an argument for another day. “That’s great. I bet Mike and Nora can breathe a sigh of relief now,” she said, referring to David’s parents.

“David’s back in town.” There was a slight pause. “He’s home, Misty.”

Her stomach plummeted. Standing in the middle of the prairie with endless blue skies and errant wisps of white clouds above, she couldn’t blame her sudden lightheadedness on a lack of oxygen. She’d had four long years to learn to school her expression whenever David’s name popped up unexpectedly, and she’d damn near mastered the knack. But “back in town” had never followed his name before now.

“Say what?” she mumbled. Her lips were numb and useless, much like her brain at the unexpected news.

She imagined she must look like a startled raccoon caught on the side of a busy highway, so she clamped her mouth shut and fought to regain a semblance of the peace she’d owned before Matt had dropped the bomb.

“Guess you want me to kick his ass? Maybe rough him up a bit?” Matt’s smirk was back. Her brother never could stay serious for long.

She ignored his pitiful, misplaced attempt at humor. Gossip ran rampant in this town, and most of the time a person couldn’t weed out the bullshit from the truth. It was likely just a rumor. Please be a rumor. “Are you sure?”

“Has no one texted you yet? Hell, my boots hadn’t hit the dirt before I’d gotten fifty texts about him. Tucker saw him at the gas station yesterday. Shane ran into him at the grocery store this morning. Word in town is that he’s staying at Caroline’s.”

Seriously? Caroline’s? No matter how many years had passed, that bit of news still felt like a punch to the gut. David was back in town, but he wasn’t staying with his parents—he was staying at Caroline’s. Figures. Misty had always known those two had a thing, no matter how many times he’d tried to deny it.

Why had no one told her? Texted her? Called her? Damn.

She snatched her phone out of her back pocket, completely forgetting to keep her usual don’t-give-a-shit expression on her face when it came to anything involving David. The second she glanced at her cell she remembered she’d put it on silent before she’d gone to bed last night. Her closest friend, Abby Spencer, had kept bugging her to go to the Longbranch even though Misty had to get up at the butt crack of dawn this morning. Having overslept, she hadn’t taken the time to look at it yet.

A line of texts popped up, nearly blocking the image of her lock screen, which was a picture of her and her boyfriend, Brandon, at their college graduation last week. One of the texts had a picture attached. She clicked on the image to bring it up.

Kiss my country ass. There was her proof—wearing jeans and a white T-shirt as he walked out of the grocery store with a few plastic bags in his hand. She enlarged the photo before she thought better of it. Her heart raced as she saw David for the first time in four years. He sure wasn’t the tall, lean eighteen-year-old anymore. The bigger she tried to make the picture, the blurrier the damn thing got.

Matt cleared his throat. She glanced up at him, almost immediately dismissing him to look back down at her phone. She didn’t want to eyeball the picture like a sixty-year-old with bad eyesight, the phone only inches from her face, but she couldn’t stop herself.

Had she been the very last person to find out he was back? Judging from the number of people who’d texted her, it seemed the entire town was aware that David Buchanan was back in Garner, South Dakota.

Stands to reason. A person couldn’t take a crap in this town without people knowing what it smelled like. No less than twenty texts, fourteen missed calls, and one grainy picture had blown up her phone. She slipped her cell back into her pocket and tried to ignore the fact that her hand was shaking. She’d known this day would come. Time to suck it up.

With one palm wrapped around the smooth steel handle of the pole driver and the other settled on her hip, she looked up at her brother. She hoped she could snag back that blasé attitude before she lost it completely. She lifted her chin. “You think you can still go a round with him?”

His blue eyes narrowed underneath his ball cap. “Hell yeah I could. He joined the Corps, he didn’t become an MMA fighter.”

From what she’d seen in that picture he looked like one. She refused to look at the photo again, although she really didn’t need to. The image had been burned into her brain cells like a tattoo that a person regretted the instant it was finished. David looked like he enjoyed lifting weights as much as Caroline liked to party. And he sported ink as though he held stock in it.

Most girls in her boots would refer to David as The One That Got Away. But not Misty Evans. Nope. She called him The Coldhearted Prick Who Took My Virginity and Hightailed It Out of Town.

She wasn’t bitter though. Not even a little.

The way she saw it, he’d saved her the trouble of getting in too deep where he was concerned. They had names for men like him. They were graffitied all over the women’s bathroom stalls at the Longbranch, Garner’s go-to bar for getting shit-faced on a Friday or Saturday night.

Unfortunately, they had names for girls like her too. Just one night with a cowboy and you never lost a name like that in a small town. Dirty rotten son of a…

“Just leave it alone,” she mumbled. All she needed was her brother getting his ass kicked for something that happened years ago.

Misty set the pole driver into the back of the truck, made a bill out of her hand to shield her eyes from the sun, and glanced at Matt. “Is he planning to work on the ranch?” He better not. His parents’ ranch bordered on their family’s ranch. Hopefully he was just on leave and would be out of town within a week. If he was staying with Caroline, then perhaps he was just visiting her and would be gone soon.

“I don’t know. I haven’t talked to him yet.” Matt tossed the pliers into the air and caught them. When he glanced back at her, his grin was wide enough to annoy her. “So, what’ll it be? An ass-kicking, or do I buy him a beer and welcome him home?”

She hadn’t been joking. She wasn’t sure Matt could take him in a fight now.

Matt and David had both been tall and muscular growing up, though Matt was blond like her, and David was dark. From what she’d seen in that picture, David had at least fifteen pounds of muscle on her brother now. But that was where their differences ended.

Matt and David had been buddies their entire lives. The two had been inseparable until the middle of their senior year in high school when David started hanging with the wrong crowd. Back then his only contributions to society had been to get shitty drunk, getting tats, and allowing his grades to slip. David hadn’t come around her and Matt much during those months—until she and David hooked up one hot, humid night in the back of his pickup two weeks after graduation.

Gossip ran like a river through Garner. Juicy, fresh gossip tore through town like rapids.

Misty never should have texted her bestie when she got home that night, because when Matt had put two and two together the very next morning—with Abby’s help—he’d been livid. You couldn’t keep a secret in Garner, town of three hundred, and most over the age of sixty, even if you tried. And when her twin decided to throw punches at his best friend at the only gas station in town? Game over.

All the old men who hung out at the gas station drinking coffee and playing cards had excellent memories when something piqued their interest. Their war stories changed over time. The story of her brother nailing David in the jaw after yelling, “You slept with my sister?” didn’t need any embellishment. The truth of the night’s events were good enough on their own.

Misty had literally gone from being the nerdy salutatorian the whole town had been proud of, to “Did you hear what Misty did? BTW, you didn’t hear it from me…”

The next day David joined the Marine Corps and she hadn’t seen him since.

“You okay?”

Not really. “It’s not like we were a thing, Matt. I didn’t get my heart broken.” The hell she hadn’t, and they both knew it. Tough talk and tender hearts were commonplace for cowgirls. She was no exception. “The only thing that broke that week was your knuckle when you punched him.” The wind picked up her hair and whipped it into her face. She swiped the strands back and wished she’d worn her ball cap. “Besides, you two should be the ones to make up. No reason to throw your friendship away because of what happened.”

It wasn’t like she hadn’t been a willing participant. Everyone in town knew she’d followed her brother’s best friend around like a puppy for most of their lives.

Matt settled his forearm on the lip of the truck’s bed and adjusted his ball cap. He spit on the ground and shook his head. “He could have taken his licks and that would’ve been that. But he took off, Misty. We both know you were in it for more than the–”

“Can we not talk about it anymore?” God, how mortifying, even after all these years. Everyone in Garner knew what had taken place that night thanks to her talkative best friend, her good-hearted but prone-to-temper brother, and the fact David left a few days later. Some guys in town even nicknamed her the ball buster. Part of the word could still be seen on the back of her Ford where someone had the nerve to tag it with red spray paint. She still didn’t know who’d done the spray-and-run, but if she ever found out, she was going to tag their ass.

“Townsfolk are having an impromptu welcome home party for him at the bar tonight. Older generation will probably trickle out by eleven.”

Not in a million years or for a million dollars. She was surprised Matt even mentioned it to her. “You have fun.”

She wasn’t the type to throw her heart—or anything else—at that man again. Once burned, twice hellz naw. Jesus, he hadn’t even had the common decency to say goodbye to her. Or to anyone, really. Even her brother. David’s actions had been so unlike him that she’d given up trying to figure out what had happened a long time ago.

“You sure you don’t want to go?” Matt asked again.

“As sure as death and taxes.”

“I’m guessing Brandon wouldn’t be too thrilled anyway.”

She shrugged. No, probably not. “Yeah, well, you have fun.” She grabbed the wire stretcher off the ground, tossed it into the rusty bed of the truck, and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of her hand. “Brandon and I are going out for dinner and a movie tonight.”

“What’s playing?”

The town’s theater only had one screen, so she hadn’t even bothered to check. Whatever was playing was what they were going to see. “Don’t know.”

Her brother scrunched his face. “Sounds…exciting. If you change your mind, you can ride with me. I need a DD.”

She grunted. “Fat chance.”

He stared at her for a few beats before he must have finally concluded that she wasn’t even going to consider it. “So, did you hear anything back from that interview with the superintendent?”

“Yeah. He wants a follow-up interview in a few weeks with the board.” Getting an Ag teaching job in Rapid was going to set her life on the path that she and Brandon were gunning for. They’d fallen in love with Rapid City, a gorgeous part of South Dakota, when they’d gone skiing there during their junior year in college. Rapid had hills, trees, and a population of more than a scant three hundred people, unlike Garner.

“You really want to leave all this behind?”

All this? She stopped and looked around at the never-ending prairie in confusion. All what? The few tree lines her grandparents had planted that helped to break the continual wind? Field after field of crops? The scattering of cattle by the barn, and the incessant smell of hay and manure?

Her brother loved the country. She’d loved it once too. It was the kind of small town living where you knew everyone by their first name. You could drop whatever you were doing and go horseback riding, fishing, or hunting. But things changed. People changed. And she’d changed—for the better.

“Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve prayed harder for anything in my life.” That wasn’t exactly true, but she wasn’t about to go there.

“Well, if that’s what you want.” Matt started making his way to his Ford Ranger. “Tell Brandon I said hi,” he called over his shoulder.

She told him she would as she walked around the bed of her truck. She opened the door and slid onto the bench seat. When she started the engine country music filled the dusty cab. Throwing the truck in Drive, she felt an unfamiliar tug in the middle of her gut. And if she were honest with herself, she felt something a little lower as well.

Hell with it. She wasn’t one of those dumb chicks who chased after someone who didn’t want them. Been there, done that, burned the T-shirt. She was going to steer clear of that bar tonight, and the muscled manwhore who’d no doubt be there. Even if it killed her.

Didn’t matter that they’d once been close friends. Didn’t matter that he’d stood up for her just as much as her brother had while they were growing up. And that necklace he’d brought her back from the Black Hills when they were sixteen? Going straight in the trash when she got home.

She stopped the truck and leaned over to one side to fish the cell from her back pocket. She had no plans on running into David. No plans on ever speaking to him again. Didn’t care if he was back in town or not.

If only that damn picture of him weren’t so blurry.

***

David Buchanan was good and stuck.

Caroline Parker was three sheets to the wind and hanging more on the line. The woman didn’t possess a shy bone in her body, but when she was tanked, that paper-thin filter of hers was nonexistent. She’d literally sent cowboys fleeing from their table, all of them unwilling to put up with her antics. From sitting in people’s laps to snatching their shots, it was no wonder they were the only two people left at the table. It shouldn’t surprise him that Caroline could count her friends on one hand—him being one of them. He’d like to say their friendship was only because he felt sorry for her, but that wouldn’t be entirely true.

Considering he was staying at her apartment for the unforeseeable future, he couldn’t let her make a fool of herself in the Longbranch. Not that she hadn’t done it a thousand times before, but when it came to Caroline, he felt a brotherly obligation to protect her. Lord knew no one else was going to step up and do it.

He checked his watch. It was only ten thirty. Plenty of time left to have a few drinks and catch up with everyone. He’d endured nearly two hours of war stories from all the old vets in town. Told a few of his own. Hadn’t paid for a beer yet. Hell, he hadn’t taken a sip. Three longnecks were sitting in front of him getting warm—all because he had to play babysitter.

He spotted an old friend who’d just arrived at the bar and couldn’t be three sips into his beer. Perfect. “Hey Tucker, you want to take Caroline home? I think she’s had enough.”

Tucker, a big guy who’d played football with him back in high school, widened his eyes over the beer he had halfway to his mouth. He slowly shook his head before he mouthed the words, “Fuck no.

Great. He couldn’t find anyone else that hadn’t thrown at least two beers back. Yep, he was good and stuck.

Caroline giggled about something incoherent while she played with the front of his shirt. She undoubtedly thought she was sexy. He knew within the hour she’d likely throw up on him, so he had to work fast. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

If her sudden hooded-eye look was any indication, she’d taken what he’d said the wrong way. She pursed her lips as only drunk girls could and leaned into him. He shot another desperate look at Tucker, but his old friend only threw his hands up and walked away.

That was the thing about Caroline that annoyed him the most. She’d been pushing to be more than friends since they were seniors in high school, but she’d never taken the hint that he wasn’t interested. Hell, he’d thrown out more than hints. He’d flat out told her how he’d felt.

Matt, the closest friend he’d ever had, stared at him from the other side of the dimly lit bar. He was probably reading this scenario completely wrong. David couldn’t exactly go explain it to him, what with Caroline wrapped around him the way she was. He hadn’t had a chance to talk to him, but once he dropped Caroline off at her apartment, he was coming back. Maybe Matt would still be here.

David half walked, half dragged her out of the bar. He knew her bartender shift had ended at five and she’d never come back to the apartment, so her car was still parked in the back of the lot. “We’ll get your car in the morning.”

“M’kay.”

She leaned against him and slipped her hand under his T-shirt as they started down the sidewalk. He pulled her hand away from his abs as discretely as possible. He nodded at Paul, the manager at the bank, as he passed them, probably on his way to the bar. “I’ll be right back. Just have to drop Caroline off at her place,” David said with a tight smile.

“Sure, buddy.” Paul’s gaze zeroed in on Caroline’s roaming hands then flicked back up to look at David. The crooked smile on his face said it all. “Take your time.”

There were a few distinct types of people in a small town. They could be put into three simple categories: the kids, the young, and the old. The kids rode their bikes around town and played with no fear of “stranger danger”. The young foamed at the mouth, wishing they were in a bigger city so they could have something to do. Since there was nothing to do in a small town, they usually ended up doing something stupid—and it almost always involved alcohol. And the old people talked about how cute the kids were and followed that with all the shit the young did the next day over coffee.

A small town was like a well-oiled machine. Work hard. Play hard. Church on Sundays. Gossip always. It was predictable and worked well, and as a young he’d just passed an old who was going to spread the rumor that he and Caroline had been screwing in an alley.

Damn, he loved this town. Predictability at its best. They really were good people, gossiping aside. They just wanted to know what was going on with everyone, half of whom they were related to, and sometimes stretching the truth kept your audience interested.

He’d missed this town something fierce while he’d been gone.

God willing, he wouldn’t have to leave again. Most folks looked out for one another in towns this size, which was why he was putting up with Caroline’s wandering hands. He gave her ten minutes—maybe fifteen—before she vomited. Still, there he was, half carrying her as they made their way down Main Street.

He pulled his keys out of his pocket, hoping they would get to his rental car before they ran into anyone else. It looked bad enough that he was staying with Caroline until he found a more permanent place, but thanks to their running into Paul, the rumor that they couldn’t keep their hands off each other was already going to run the length of this town. David sure as hell didn’t think his father would greet him at the door with open arms, so he hadn’t had much of a choice. He had to bunk at Caroline’s—on her couch of course.

No such luck on hoping they made it to his truck without running into anyone. The few good folks in town were just coming out of the movie theater, and he’d parked on the other side of it.

“Hey Caroline, can you control yourself for five more minutes?” he asked, pulling her hand away from his nipple. He had one arm draped around her to keep her vertical, and the other in constant motion to keep their stroll through town somewhat decent. The keys in that hand jangled every time he moved, sounding like a shotgun blast in a deserted field.

She stumbled and smiled up at him as if she thought her drunken stupor was cute, which was ironic to say the least. Caroline could be gorgeous if she took half her makeup off and acted her age. Everyone knew that, except for her.

“And what happens after five minutes?” she asked.

“You’re probably going to puke,” he said irritably.

One of the streetlamps towered over the front of the theater and cast light over the crowd that headed toward their vehicles. The closer he and Caroline got to his rental, the more people stared at them. He felt like a criminal. And stumbling down the sidewalk from the bar, they certainly looked the part—horny, drunk redhead wrapped around a tall, tattooed man.

Damn, he’d left this town with a black mark on his person, and here he was, not back for more than a week and already strolling down the street looking like he was about to have a one-night stand.

He’d never call what happened between him and Misty a one-night stand though.

As if thinking of Misty made fate comply with David’s desire to see her, she glided out of the theater with her hand linked to a blond man. David’s heart tried to break out of his chest as he came to a dead standstill. Caroline didn’t. She pitched forward with a grunt, and he managed to get her standing straight again without taking his gaze off Misty.

Her sun-kissed blonde hair was longer than it had been in high school. It curled and weaved down her back in several thick strands. She wore a simple cotton dress and cowgirl boots. After taking several mental pictures of her in his head, he turned his attention to the man with her.

Brandon? She was dating Brandon Reynolds? The same Brandon who’d been on the track and golf team and kept a 4.0 all through high school? The only person who’d given Brandon a run for valedictorian had been Misty. David grimaced as he noticed they were both the same height and very blond. With Brandon wearing khaki shorts and a white polo shirt, and Misty in a little dress and cowgirl boots, they made for one odd-looking couple.

They didn’t actually, but he enjoyed believing they did.

Brandon had been in his class from kindergarten through senior year, just like Misty and Matt, but he and Brandon had never hung out after school. David’s mom had worked for Brandon’s dad in his law office on Main Street as his secretary for a few years, but other than that the two had no ties. He didn’t really know Brandon all that well.

David turned his attention back to the person he had known. Misty’s blonde hair looked angelic under the light of the streetlamp as she walked toward them, as opposed to the devilish red of the sorority girl currently trying to undo his zipper.

He couldn’t take his gaze from Misty. She couldn’t seem to take her gaze off Brandon.

If fate had given him a high-five so he could see Misty, fate screwed him when Misty, who he’d hoped would keep walking and miss seeing him and Caroline together, suddenly turned her head. Misty leveled her gaze directly on him…and then to the red-clawed hand currently attached to his crotch.

Misty’s gaze snapped back to his face. David opened his mouth to explain that he was only making sure Caroline got home when Brandon, Ken Doll replica extraordinaire, held out his hand to shake. Couldn’t the dumbass see he had his hands full of redhead? David unwrapped his arm for a quick shake. Caroline teetered backward on her hooker shoes, but he quickly righted her again.

He wished he was back in the sand getting shot at.

Misty leaned toward him and nailed him with a glare. “Already playing the Good Samaritan?”

It was a good dig, he’d give her that, but completely unlike the Misty he’d known. Caroline didn’t help when she hiccupped and muttered in a singsong voice, “Awkwaaaard.”

Awkward didn’t begin to describe the situation. “Just making sure she gets home all right,” he said in his defense.

If the look on Misty’s face was any indication, she wasn’t buying it. Instead, she glared at both of them. She looked at Caroline mostly in disgust, and him somewhere between acidic hate and violence. He could literally feel her laser-like stare on his arm as his tattoos garnered her attention. He knew Misty didn’t care for tats. Girls like her usually didn’t, but girls like Caroline ate them up.

He’d bet his next paycheck Brandon didn’t have tattoos and would never consider getting one.

Boy, seeing Misty after all these years was really doing a number on him. He’d almost forgotten the light blue color of her eyes—so light they were almost teal. And they were narrowed on him, spitting out so much hate he felt the need to cup himself.

But Caroline was doing a good job of that.

He put his keys back in his pocket, snatched Caroline’s hand away from his groin, and squeezed her fist until she let out a yelp. “Just helping out a friend,” he said through clenched teeth.

Caroline pressed up against him. “He’s good at that. Isn’t he, Misty?”

Lord help him, he was going to kill her.

Misty’s face bypassed a simple blush and went straight to crimson. Brandon, full of indignation for his date, girlfriend—whatever she was—stood straighter, until amazingly he was standing taller than the gorgeous blonde he was with.

Now that David thought about it, what exactly were Brandon and Misty? Just out on a date? Something more? They couldn’t be boyfriend and girlfriend. Caroline had never mentioned the two were together. Whatever they were, David had enough.

“I’m taking her home and that’s all there is to it.” The second the words were out of his stupid mouth, he knew he’d made a mistake. They’d been the same words he’d said to Matt the night he’d taken Misty home—the long way, of course.

Leaning toward him again, Misty didn’t disappoint when she said, “Now where have I heard that before?”

Caroline howled with laughter while Brandon tightened his hold on Misty to bring her back to his side as though she were his possession. David looked between the two, still trying to figure them out. Yeah, from the placement of Brandon’s hands, he’d say they were more than dating. More than friends.

Don’t want to think about it.

David imagined his meeting with Misty would go somewhat along these lines, but without Brandon and Caroline balancing on every word. Their presence made his muttered comeback a little vanilla. “You know damn well that was different.”

Misty raked him with a glare, slipped her arm though Brandon’s, and pivoted away from him and Caroline. She practically dragged Brandon alongside her as she marched across the street in indignant horror. The simple maroon dress she wore swayed back and forth against the middle of her tanned thighs. Her blonde hair bounced violently against her back as if it, too, were angry at him.

“David… I don’t feel good.”

That was all the warning he got. At least they hadn’t been in his rental car.

With her head hanging in some unlucky bushes, Caroline gave a good show to those who were still milling around outside the theater. David stood on the sidewalk like a lightning rod: tall, unbending, and ready for the next strike that was surely going to burn his ass.

Hell, seeing Misty with Brandon made him want to vomit. He’d returned to Garner with one goal uppermost in his mind. He wanted to mend fences with his old man. From what his mother had said, his dad wasn’t doing too well in the health department, and she wanted David home to help on the ranch.

At first he’d considered not returning to Garner, even though he’d missed the town. He and his dad had butted heads when he’d been in high school, and David had done his damnedest to make his dad proud of him. Never happened. He’d given up trying to include his dad in his life right around his senior year in high school. David had turned to drinking, and he’d shut out two of his closest friends.

Until the night he and Misty had taken things a whole lot further than either had anticipated.

Watching Misty walk away on the arm of another man reminded him of the other reason he’d come home. The main reason he’d come home. He wanted more than to mend fences with his old man. He wanted to make a life in Garner. Being stuck in Southern California for most of his time in the Corps had made him ache for simple country life again.

Yes, he wanted to build a life here. And he wanted to build that life with Misty Evans.