The old farmstead could not have screamed go away any louder, unless it had been seeded with land mines and draped with loops of razor wire.
A low-grade spin of anxiety had been riding in Daisy Grace’s stomach since she’d made the decision to come here. But now that she’d reached her destination, that spin had become a nauseating, nervous tornado in her gut.
She gripped the steering wheel tighter, casting out all the voices that had warned her to leave well enough alone—those who’d told her that Mark Cooper had made up his mind, and there was no force on this earth powerful enough to change it.
She hadn’t seen him since the funeral. Her few mumbled words of condolence, shoved out a throat tight with tears, had been ignored. He’d brushed past her, his expression bleak. Even now it was hard not to cry when she thought about Janey. And they’d only been friends. Daisy couldn’t image how hard these last eighteen months had been on Mark after losing his fiancée.
The steering wheel became slick with nervous sweat. My brother is not the man you knew. He’s changed, Ellen had told her. Stay away. For your own good.
But Ellen had been Daisy’s best friend since kindergarten, and if she wanted her brother Mark to be there for her wedding, then Daisy was going to make it happen. No matter how much he’d changed.
She did her best to avoid the muddy potholes dotting the long dirt driveway leading to the farmhouse. Spring rains had been hard, spaced perfectly between warm days, making hearty plants burst back to life. Tall weeds scraped along the undercarriage of her work van. Long forgotten piles of fallen branches sat huddled inside nests of overgrown weeds—a perfect hiding place for snakes. Poison ivy curled around the base of thick tree trunks that had once welcomed visitors with a shady path. Now the rough landscape was a blatant dare to anyone who might be stupid enough travel on foot.
As she crept up the hill and around the bend, the house came into view. Once a pristine farmhouse, it was now a sad combination of peeling paint and rotting wood. Tarps covered the roof in an ugly, blue patchwork. The porch sagged in several spots, and even from this distance she could see a hole in the boards near the front door—one big enough to swallow her in one gulp. There were doubtlessly more snakes lurking below.
Revulsion crawled along her spine at the mere thought.
Mark’s battered pickup sat next to the porch, its tailgate open, its bed filled with chunks of field stone. Seeing proof that he was here, so close, made a rioting jumble of emotions scramble together in her gut. She feared that the warnings she’d heard were right, and that he was no longer the kind, easygoing man she’d grown up with. While she was hopeful that he’d listen to her and agree to show up for his sister’s big day, mostly she ached to see him again and know he was okay—that he was healing from his loss.
She was twenty-six now and had been falling in love with him since before she’d started high school. The idea that he was hurting kept her up more nights than she was willing to admit.
Daisy parked behind his truck, doing her best to block him in so he couldn’t leave. He’d managed to escape every one of his family’s attempts to bring him home. Hopefully he wouldn’t slam her van aside to get away from her, too.
With one last deep breath to steady her nerves, she got out of her work van and waded through a sea of weeds and hidden stones barring the path to the porch. The ancient steps creaked beneath her feet. The boards near the hole groaned as she eased around it, and she swore she felt the entire wooden structure sway slightly to the left as she knocked on the door.
There was no answer. She knocked again and waited a good three minutes before she heard a muffled thump and a low curse come from inside the house.
“I know you’re in there,” she called. “I can hear you.”
Another deep, furious curse echoed from inside. His voice was raspy, as if he hadn’t spoken in a long time. “Go away.”
“I drove three hours to find you. I’m not leaving until I’ve said what I’ve come to say.”
“Not interested.” Even through the rotting front door, his rough voice still sounded too sexy for her peace of mind. It had taken her several long years to learn not to see him as a man, but as the fiancé of one of her best friends. Unavailable. Off limits. A eunuch.
Janey was gone now, but eventually he’d find someone else to love. Daisy wasn’t about to let her guard down, fall for him, and go through the torture of seeing him fall in love with another woman again, no matter how sexy his voice was.
She braced herself, called on her anger caused by his decision to skip his own sister’s wedding, and raised her voice. “You will listen, Mark Cooper. Even if I have to break a window and crawl inside to make you listen.”
He was silent again, so she hopped off the porch, avoiding the gaping hole into snake territory, and started to look for a fist-sized rock.
A few seconds later, the front door swung open so hard she could feel the gust of air the motion sent rushing past her.
“Make it quick, Daisy,” he practically growled.
A delightful shiver trailed along her skin at the sound of her name. It didn’t matter that his tone wasn’t one of welcome. All that mattered was the intimate combination of her name on his lips.
She turned around to see him standing in the doorway. Shadows clung to his body, but even they couldn’t hide how much he’d changed. He was leaner now. Harder. His hair was a shaggy mess of tangled black strands. A thick growth of beard covered his once clean-shaven jaw. And his eyes—once a bright, sparkling blue—were now dull and empty, as if he’d been scraped clean of all joy. A desperate hollowness echoed out of him, so loud she felt herself tense against the force of that lonely thump.
He hadn’t gotten better since the funeral. He was much, much worse.
“Oh, Mark,” she whispered before she could stop herself. The sound of concern in her voice made him freeze up and go still.
“If you’re here to dump a load of pity on me, then leave now and save us both the trouble. I’ve had all of that I can stand.”
“No pity. Your…new look just surprised me. That’s all.”
He frowned as if he didn’t understand what she meant. “Spit out whatever you’ve come here to say, Daisy. I’m a busy man.”
“Busy with what? You quit your job. Your phone number now belongs to some guy named Bubba. You’re clearly not fixing this place up like everyone thinks. Your mom says all you do is split wood and haul rocks around. You don’t even own a TV.”
“Is that why you’re here? To interrogate me about how I spend my time?”
“I’m here for Ellen.”
Worry creased his face, hiding pale rays in the tan skin around his eyes. He took a hurried step forward and gripped the frame of the door like he was trying to hold himself back. “Is she okay? Did she get hurt?”
Sunlight crept up his jeans, revealing a thick layer of dust and several tears and worn spots. Along his left thigh were dark smears that looked suspiciously like dried blood.
Daisy’s heart clenched hard at the thought of him bleeding. He’d already been hurt so much. He didn’t deserve any more pain in his life. If only he’d come home, his family and friends would be there for him. They’d help him heal and hold him close while he did.
“Ellen’s fine,” she said before he could conjure any disturbing thoughts. “But she misses you. We all do. And her wedding is coming up soon. She’d like you to be there.” She moved onto the porch, drawn to him in a way she was ashamed to even acknowledge. She tried to tell herself that she only meant to comfort him, but it was more than that.
With Mark it always had been. At least for her.
He stepped back, and she could feel his complete and total retreat, as if she’d repelled him. “It’s not going to happen. I already told Ellen that. She knows my reasons. I can’t believe she’d send you here to beg.”
“Hardly. She begged me not to come. I simply couldn’t believe that you’d care so little about her that you’d ruin her big day.”
His body vibrated with restrained fury, and he looked like he’d suddenly grown larger. He stepped forward again, and this time, Daisy instinctively backed away from his palpable anger. The man she’d known would never have laid a hand on her, but Ellen was right. Mark was no longer the man she remembered.
The heel of her tennis shoe hit an uneven patch in the porch’s floorboards. Her toes slipped on the splintered wood. She felt herself start to fall back, and a squeak of panic lunged up her throat.
Hot, rough hands grabbed her bare arms and hauled her forward into a warm, hard wall. She hit his chest, but didn’t bounce off. His hold was too tight.
Dust puffed up off of Mark’s clothes, choking her for a second. Or maybe that was his iron grip around her body that cut off her air. She could hear his heart hammering against his ribs, and the sucking sound his lungs made as his breathing sped.
“You’re okay,” he said, over and over, as if trying to convince himself. “You’re okay.”
“Of course I am.”
“You almost fell, like—”
Like Janey had fallen. The unsaid words hung between them, heavy with grief and loss. In that moment, Daisy cursed herself for her carelessness. The last thing she wanted was to shove reminders of Janey’s death at him.
Daisy tried to pull away, but his grip was too tight, almost frantic. The scent of sun-warmed man filled her nose and wrapped around her in a hold as solid as his arms. It seeped into her, whispering of forbidden fantasies she’d buried long ago. Her body warmed in response, softening and leaving room for the rush of adrenaline to trickle out and a languid softness to take its place.
“I’m okay, Mark. Really. You can let go now. I promise to be more careful.”
He didn’t let her go. Instead he lifted her feet from the rotting boards, hauled her back inside the dark house, and then kicked the door shut.
Sweat dotted his forehead, even though the mild spring breeze was cool. He splayed one hand on the door behind her while the other kept a firm grip around her waist. His whole body shook. He wouldn’t look at her, and there was a panicked wildness in his eyes.
Daisy cupped his shaggy face and lifted his head until he had no choice but to look at her. His eyes were too wide, too frantic. His pupils were constricted with fear, and his jaw was clenched so hard his lips were pale and bloodless.
She kept her voice gentle, knowing he was still reeling from her near fall. “We’re okay now. I promise.”
He gave her a rigid nod and ripped his arm away as he stepped back fast—like pulling off a bandage. “You shouldn’t have come. It’s too dangerous.”
Maybe he was right—though whether the danger was from the rundown house or from him, she couldn’t be sure. Either way it was too late to leave now, so she ignored his statement and looked around the inside of the house. It was dark except for the light streaming in through the ancient windows. There were no sounds louder than their breathing. No fans, no TV, not even the quiet hum of a refrigerator. Outside birds chirped and sang, but inside was a dark, dusty silence.
Several of the walls had been demolished, with only the studs left standing. Plaster and lath lay in crumbled piles, like rubble at the base of a rocky cliff. Old knob and tube style electrical wiring had been stripped out and left lying in curling, twisted knots. There was no sign of pale, new wood or any other repairs. Only demolition.
To one side of the foyer was a living area filled with rubble and dust. To the other side was a kitchen with only a giant cooler sitting on top of a cracked tile counter. An ancient wood burning stove hunkered in one corner of the living room, and on it was a heavy cast iron pot with steam curling up from its contents.
“You’re certainly living the good life out here,” she muttered.
“The mice love it.”
Daisy stifled a shiver of revulsion. If he was trying to scare her away, she wasn’t going to give him any ammunition. “Do the mice make warm sleeping companions?”
“No, but they made a nest in the last mattress I had, so I got an air mattress.”
She looked through the crumbled walls and saw nothing.
“It’s upstairs,” he said to her silent question. “Where the only working bathroom is.”
“Posh. I can see why you stay. I mean, I know you’ve got an open invitation to cozy mice-free beds in the houses of any number of people back home, but this is the life.”
“Daisy, don’t,” was all he said.
She turned and looked at him. “Don’t what? Don’t insult your hovel? Don’t question why you don’t come home to a family who loves you and misses you? Or don’t say anything at all?”
“That last one works for me. I’ll help you out to your car.” His fingers circled her arm and he gave her a gentle tug toward the door.
Daisy pulled free, backed farther into the house, and crossed her arms over her chest to hide the way her nipples had tightened at even his most innocent of touches. Her mind may have been able to tuck him into a nice, eunuchy box, but her body knew better. It craved him.
“I’m not leaving—not until you agree to come to Ellen’s wedding. As maid of honor, it’s my job to get you there.”
“It’s not happening, Daisy. You might as well give up and go home before you get hurt. This place isn’t safe.”
“It’s safe enough for you to stay.”
His lips pressed together as if caging words he refused to let free. “Just go. We’ll both be happier if you do.”
She shook her head. “Nope. Ellen wants you at her wedding. She deserves to have her special day be perfect. If that means I have to camp out with some mice, then so be it.” She was proud that she didn’t shudder even a little as she said it.
He turned away from her and went to the cooler in the kitchen. “Suit yourself. Hope you like cold showers. That’s the only kind you’re going to get here.”
“No hot water?”
“No electricity either, except for a persnickety generator I use to make ice to keep food from spoiling.” He grabbed a bottle of water from the cooler. “I’ll come back when you’ve had time to rethink your strategy to dig in until I give up.” He opened the door and paused. “Oh, and don’t go in the basement.”
“Why? More mice?”
He was out the door before she’d finished quelling her instant panic at the thought of standing over a pit of snakes, held up only by rotting, warped floorboards. There were few things she hated more than snakes—and Mark knew it—but even that fear wasn’t going to drive her away.
He was going to that wedding, even if she had to knock him out and drag his heavy ass back home herself.
Daisy had no business being here. Shoving her nose in his life. Looking at him with pity in her big green eyes.
Nearly breaking her pretty little neck.
He looked down at his hand as he hiked toward a deer stand. He still hadn’t stopped shaking from her near miss with the hole in the porch. Cold sweat clung to his skin from the scare she’d given him. He knew it was only a couple feet down to the ground from that porch, but even a little fall could kill a woman.
There wasn’t a day that went by that he didn’t question what he could have done to save Janey’s life, and now Daisy was here, scaring the shit out of him, adding to his misery.
She wouldn’t stay long. He knew how much she hated snakes. After a few minutes alone in the house, she’d slip away and go back where she belonged. All he had to do was wait her out.
Mark climbed the ladder into the deer stand and pulled a pair of binoculars out of the storage box he kept up there. Through the newly leafed trees, he could just see the edge of her van’s bumper. The red logo on the side stood out among the surrounding green. As soon as her work van was gone, he’d go back to the house and smash out another wall or three.
If he pushed hard enough, maybe tonight he’d finally be too exhausted to dream.
The sun was down, and Daisy’s van was still parked outside the house.
Mark knew she was stubborn—always had been—but this was taking things too far. That house was treacherous to navigate after dark, and with no lighting, he worried she’d hurt herself.
Maybe she already had. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t yet left, and he’d been sitting in the deer stand for two hours, fuming.
He hurried down the tree and raced across the shadowy landscape. Fear spurred him on, lengthening his stride. His heart was galloping hard by the time he reached the porch and leapt up the trio of steps. He avoided the gaping hole he’d been stepping around for months, and barreled through the front door.
Dark silence greeted him. No candles were lit. He could just make out the glow of embers through the grate in the wood burning stove. The smell of something savory filled the space, covering the musty scent of old plaster, mice and decay.
He tried to still his fears and convince himself they were irrational, but he knew better. Bad things happened.
“Daisy?” His voice wavered like a frightened child’s, but he didn’t care. “Where are you?”
His eyes adjusted to the dark, and he fumbled for the flashlight he kept in one of the kitchen drawers. The beam of light surged through the gloom, seeming nearly solid as it bounced off millions of particles of dust. He called out again, louder this time, as he waved the light through the rooms, scanning for her.
She wasn’t in sight.
From upstairs he heard the hiss of water being turned on in the bathroom sink, followed by a predictable thunk of aging pipes.
Relief left him frozen in place for a second, then a fist of rage slammed into him. How dare she scare him like that? How dare she come here, invade his privacy and scare the shit out of him?
Mark rushed up the stairs, not even trying to control his anger. She had no business being here. He’d made his wishes clear, both to her and his sister. He wasn’t going to any damn wedding. Daisy was trespassing, and it was time for her to go.
He didn’t bother to knock on the bathroom door. His bathroom door. He simply barged in, his mouth open to let spew a string of venom.
As he saw her, every vile, angry word that had collected in his head simply drained out.
Candlelight filled the small room with a golden glow. Daisy stood over the sink, shirtless, with only a lacy bra to cover her breasts. The T-shirt she’d been wearing was in her hands, along with a bar of soap. Her big green eyes were wide with surprise, but that registered for only a second before his gaze went right back to her breasts.
Mark tried to pull his eyes away, but they wouldn’t budge. It had been a long time since he’d seen a half-naked woman, and the baser parts of him were starving, anxious for even a peek at a woman built like Daisy.
In the back of his mind, thoughts scrolled by in slow motion. He hadn’t realized how pretty she was before. He’d never really paid much attention. They’d been kids together, grown up together. She’d all but disappeared after college, their paths crossing only once or twice a year since then. She was his baby sister’s best friend, and he’d never before looked at her in any other way.
Until now. Now he couldn’t seem to look away.
Her skin was smooth, painted golden by the single flame. Deep shadows hugged her contours, accentuating the fluid lines of her body. Her shorts hung low on her hips, showing off the feminine curve of her stomach and the narrow span of her waist. He could see the faint shape of the muscles in her thighs and calves, and the steep arch of her feet inside those strappy sandals.
But it was her breasts that caught and held his attention. He was a dog for staring, but there was nothing he could do short of gouging out his own eyes to stop himself from soaking in the sight.
Little Daisy was stacked. Not in an overblown, plastic tits kind of way, but in a secret weapon kind of way. Mark never would have guessed what she was hiding. Her loose clothes and thick sweaters had masked her assets well. If he hadn’t been staring at her now, he never would have believed it.
Maybe that’s why she’d always refused to swim in his family’s pool whenever he or his friends were around. She knew just how hard he and his buddies would have leered at her. Almost as hard as he was leering right now.
Daisy stared back at him, frozen like a frightened bunny rabbit. Cold water sluiced over her hands and the fabric she’d been scrubbing.
He should have muttered some apology and backed out of the room, but it simply wasn’t possible. He was glued to the spot, his gaze transfixed on her as it moved in a predictable loop up and down and back again.
She lifted the dripping shirt to hide her breasts, and only then was he able to shake off the spell she’d woven. Soapy water leaked onto her shorts, darkening the denim hugging her thighs. A glistening trickle escaped the fabric and slid down over her bare knee. He followed the path it took until it slipped between her toes.
She cleared her throat, drawing his attention back to her face. “I made stew. Ended up wearing some of it.”
Was he supposed to thank her for the food or apologize for her mishap? He couldn’t seem to remember what social convention dictated. Too much of his brain was busy staggering under the revelation that little Daisy Grace was not so little anymore. At least not all of her. While he wasn’t looking, she’d become a woman—one who held his attention far too tightly for his peace of mind.