Nine years ago, Chandler Sloan was devastated by the betrayal of the only woman he’s ever loved. The night she turned her back on him was the night he became a man unwilling to forgive. Now Jayne’s back for her inheritance from his father’s estate, but all Chandler can see is red.
Jayne Keller is prepared for the painful memories that surface when she comes home. What she isn’t prepared for are the intense feelings that flare whenever she and Chandler are together. The more Chandler lashes out against her silence, the more Jayne is forced to confront the powerful passions that brew just beneath the surface.
DJ pulled her custom-painted, vanity-plated, Ford F-150 behind a black pick-up truck, threw her gear shift into park, and got out, slamming the truck door behind her. She’d been driving around the thick pine forest for over an hour now looking for some crappy, two-bit cabin, in the middle of Somewhere that apparently no one else could find. Well, no one else, but her and Chandler Sloan. She reached into the bed of her truck and pulled out the bull whip she put back there just for a little incentive. Some men seemed to respond better to threats than others.
She maneuvered her way through the dense forest, making her way around the tall, anorexic trees, with their needle-like fingers scratching at the blue sky as if grappling for the last bit of sunlight. The one thing that Somewhere had plenty of was pine, and since one damn tree looked like another, it had taken her way to long to find the right turn off. It wasn’t as if she was one of the VonBrandts—whose abundance of wealth only seemed surpassed by their unlimited amount of time—and knew every acre of this forest like it was tattooed on the black side of their eyelids.
Of course, none of them had the Double D horse ranch to run. But she did, which was why she didn’t have time to be playing these hide and seek games with the oldest son of one of the town’s most well-to do families—freaking Chandler Sloan.
The memory came grating back of a soft voice on the other end of her phone, and how even the smooth, southern accent couldn’t cover the worry floating over the air waves. “I can’t find him, DJ,” Ellie Sloan said, in her Gone With The Wind dialect that only women of a certain stature and age could get away with. “The funeral is tomorrow, and he’s been gone for close to three days. You’re the only one I know who can find him and make him come home.”
Make Chandler Sloan do anything her ass. If DJ knew Chandler at all it was that the only reason he’d ever give up the comforts of his multi-million dollar ranch and hole up in the two-bit hunting shed was so he could hide out and drink himself sick. She just hoped he’d gone through most of the liquor by now and was swinging the pendulum back to somewhat sober.
DJ hiked her way up and stood in front of the rotted out cabin that seemed to lean heavily with its own variety of weather-beaten intoxication. And if its halfway, hanging door, and sad-smiling roof wasn’t enough, the one and only window looked as if a raccoon had done something obscene against the glass pane. She settled her hat down further, and then dusted off her hands on her work jeans. She hadn’t bothered to wash up, pretty sure after a weekend of binge drinking, Chandler wouldn’t be sporting his Sunday best.
Best to get this over with. Not going to be pleasant no matter how long she procrastinated, and with her new filly being delivered later today, there’d be no way she’d miss that just because Chandler Sloan was angry at the world—again.
Seemed like the man had spent half his life pissed off over one thing or another. Hell, she couldn’t have been the only one to fantasize about tripping him on a long walk over a short pier or playing a very intense game of hangman with a noose and a tree.
But “pretty” covered a multitude of sins and the mayor liked the Sloans’ tax bracket, so Chandler was tolerated. And that’s why his momma had called her. Not her brother and once-upon-a-time Chandler’s best-friend, Derrek Diaz , not her fiancé and long ago Chandler’s childhood friend, Brent, but her, because the damn prick had alienated most of his friends and turned the rest into enemies.
How they were still on speaking terms, she had no idea. Guess she had a soft spot for lost causes and hot-headed cowboys. She stomped over to the cabin door and pushed it open—no need to knock when there was no way he’d be in a position to answer.
The stench punched her in the face—the waves of tequila and sweat so strong her eyes watered. The sunlight shot in like a bullet, tearing through any hope she had of finding Chandler sober.
But find him she did. There he was, flat out on a rickety, iron-framed bed in the corner, groaning and batting at the sunlight like a washed up boxer inside a nightmare.
“What the fu—” His curse got lost along with his balance as he toppled over and fell face first onto the dirty wooden floor.
“Good God, Chandler, this place reeks.” DJ wandered in, carefully lifting a half empty beer bottle from off a wooden chair she now thought better of occupying.
“If you don’t like it then leave.” Chandler growled, but at least he was sober enough to push himself into a sitting-slouched position instead of staying face first on the floor. She’d take that as a good sign.
She’d take anything as a good sign at this point.
DJ assessed the damage. This was not the man Chandler showed to the world—neat, freshly starched button-up, creased jeans, highly polished, hundred dollar black boots. Nope, this Chandler was a mess. Thick black whiskers dusted his cheeks and neck. His hair was a greasy mess with one side matted to his skull and the other sticking in every direction but down. His shirt, with wrinkles the size of pleats and sweat-rings the size of doughnuts, hadn’t fared the binge drinking any better.
A person would never guess he was one of the town’s most eligible bachelors. He’d just as easily be mistaken for the homeless vet that wandered the downtown area eating out of trash cans and shaking his fist at God.
It really was hard to feel bad for Chandler. He had everything going for him: looks, money, an IQ in the genius range, and one of the state’s top ranches as a family business. He’d been lucky in everything except love. And if it hadn’t been because of that one thing, DJ would’ve screwed the guilt Ellie Sloan was a master at slinging her way, and left Chandler to his own devices.
Except DJ did know. She knew what had happened to Chandler when he’d been young and in love. She’d sat with him more than once in a dark corner at Everyday Joe’s, and had seen behind the sharp cutting barbs and sarcastic pompous attitude. The pain in his voice and the memory of how he used to be was enough for her to find some compassion in her heart and cut him some slack. That, and oh yeah, because his dad had just died.
One would think she’d have a little more sympathy seeing that both of her parents had died when she was fifteen, but then she knew the real reason Chandler was taking to the bottle like some ranch hand new to whoring.
“We can do this the hard way or the easy way,” DJ said, trying to calculate how much time it would take to get him up and moving. “But either way you’re getting up and gonna do it in a quick manner because you’re wasting my time.”
“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Chandler spat out, doing his best to hold her gaze through his blood shot eyes.
She so did not need this right now. She had guests coming in from all over the country, a wedding the size of a presidential inauguration to prepare for, and a ranch that she’d been forced to stop micromanaging. Her patience was wearing thin. “It means that I will gladly use whatever means necessary.” She tapped the leather whip against her leg, not feeling at all bad when Chandler’s eyes widened at the gesture. “Or you can get up on your own and go get a shower and a change of clothes, because you’ve got company and the funeral is tomorrow. Pity party is over.”
“If a man can’t have a few drinks in memory of his dead father then when can he?” Chandler tripped to his feet, but then landed flat back out on the bed. At least this time he was semi propped up against the wall.
Progress. At this rate she should be home in time to see her unborn children off to college. Apparently, a pity party couldn’t be called a party unless more than one person was involved. Resigned, she took her life into her own hands and tested her weight on the rickety hard backed chair. “We both know that’s not really why you’re here killing off brain cells at such a rapid rate that I’m in fear for your literacy level.”
“What?” Chandler rubbed at his eyes as if sand was in them. “I don’t even know what the hell you’re saying.”
“I’m too late then.” She sighed and shook her head. And this man had gone to Harvard, unbelievable. Some things never changed, like the fact that DJ and he acted more like brother and sister than friends, and that they’d had this conversation more than once. Good thing she had nothing better to do… like go to her last wedding dress fitting, review the seating arrangements, approve the freaking table settings for the umpteenth time. DJ eyed a half empty bottle of beer on the floor and wondered how many of those she’d have to drink to stay up here and hide out for the rest of the week.
“Look,” DJ said, trying the more sympathetic route. “I’m sorry about your father. I know that you had a…” She searched for the right word. Not finding one, did the best she could. “Complex relationship with him. So I’m confident his passing away was not what drove you up here trying your best to get placed on the liver transplant list.”
“I won’t hold my breath waiting for you to donate, will I?” Chandler whined, his chin already falling to his chest.
DJ let her eyes close for half a beat. When the pity party was in full swing, there wasn’t much that could be done except crash the damn thing. “At this point I’m not even willing to give you the kick in the pants you so desperately need, but…” She stood, took a deep breath, and dove head first into the waves of stench. “I promised your mother, so…”
DJ grabbed him by the arm and pulled. He was heavier than he looked. All solid muscle underneath the homeless man exterior.
He growled at her, but made it to his feet. He held his head with both hands and stumbled toward the front door, kicking over empty beer bottles along the way. DJ, with Chandler propped up by her shoulder, stumbled down the small hill and made their way to her truck where she reached inside and pulled out a bottle of water. He opened it and downed the entire contents. When he came up for air, he wiped his mouth and muttered a thank you.
Chandler dug at his eyes with the palms of his hands and winced. “God, this truck makes my head hurt.”
DJ reached over and patted the hood of her Ford F-150, with its decked out chrome wheels and custom paint job. Her outrageously gorgeous pink truck was the envy of every cowgirl in Somewhere.
Yeah, it was that awesome.
“You’re just jealous because my truck is happy. My truck is fun. When people see us coming they smile. When they see you coming they cower. Your truck’s nothing to get excited about, just plain, boring, black—the same color as the lump of coal you carry in place of your heart.”
Chandler grunted or it may’ve been a laugh—hard to tell with him. “So you’re telling me I’m black hearted.”
“Or no hearted. Take your pick.”
He peeled back a lid and eyeballed her up and down as if finally noticing who the hell had shot through his cabin door to drag him back home. His expression shelter-puppy pathetic, his blue-gray eyes anything but. “Why didn’t I fall in love with you—a woman with a heart…a pink heart? Shoulda married you when I had the chance.”
DJ rolled her eyes skyward. Pretty color blue. Nice fat, white clouds reminding her of cupcakes, cream puffs, and a dead man under the heel of her boot ‘cuz really she’d rather hack off her leg and eat her own foot than have ever married Chandler.
“Guess by the size of the ring on your finger, I’m too late even for that.” Chandler grumbled, slouching against her truck as if she didn’t have her wedding to get ready for, and he didn’t have his father’s funeral to attend. Really? She had no time to travel down this particular rabbit hole.
DJ suppressed a growl of her own and opened the driver’s side door, hoping he’d take the hint. “Yeah, Brent proposed, dumb ass. I seemed to have missed your congratulations.”
Maybe she was still a little bitter that she hadn’t heard a word from Chandler once she’d gotten engaged. She thought she would’ve at least rated a text message, but Chandler was notorious for his dark brooding silences. She shouldn’t have expected anything more.
“More like condolences,” Chandler said, letting his head rest back against the truck and his hands fall down by his side. For a second DJ thought he might’ve fallen asleep. “Brent’s no good for you. You could’ve done so much better.”
“Better, meaning you?” DJ laughed. Only a condescending prick like Chandler would think marrying the love of her life and country singer who was up for a Grammy was below her. “Really? Because we both know there’s only ever been Jayne for you.”
There might’ve been a brief period of time after Brent had left Somewhere that she’d thought of Chandler as more than just a friend, but it hadn’t taken long to realize what was left of his heart, had and always would, belong to Jayne.
He was silent. Typical. But he was the one who’d started it and she wasn’t letting him out of it easily. “Are we going to talk about what this whole childish episode was about, or are we going to pretend there’s nothing wrong?”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
Pretending it is, then. “So, is she expected to be here for the funeral?”
Chandler crossed his arms and stared straight ahead. That was “yes” in Sloan speak.
“And this will be the first time Jayne will have been back since…?”
His eyes popped open and spine straightened—nothing like the mention of Jayne to get his blood pumping. “Since she left nine years ago. Yes, yes I’m well aware of who’s coming to stay in my damn house like she’s some kinda prodigal returning home.”
“She did grow up there. It’s her childhood home.” DJ couldn’t help but poke the bear. It was payback for cutting into her day.
“Not her home now.”
DJ voiced a loud humph and then pulled herself up into her truck. She almost felt sorry for Jayne. Almost. The raw deal she’d given him all those years ago had left Chandler broken and bitter, and he’d never recovered. If someone had cared about her opinion, DJ would’ve said that Jayne was directly responsible for the man Chandler had become.
And unfortunately that man was a full out prick.