Brindle? Grace blinked awake at the sound of whispers in the dark room. It took her a moment to remember she was in her childhood bedroom at her parents’ home in Oak Falls, Virginia, and not in her Manhattan loft. She narrowed her eyes, trying to decipher which of her five sisters were intent on waking her up at…She glanced at the clock. Four thirty in the morning?
“Shh. You’re such a klutz.”
Sable. Of course. Who else would think it was okay to wake her up at this hour besides Brindle, her youngest and most rebellious sister, and Sable, the night owl?
“I tripped over a suitcase,” Brindle whispered. Something thunked. “Oh shit!” She tumbled onto the bed in a fit of laughter, bringing Sable down with her—right on top of Grace, who let out an “Oomph!” as her parents’ cat, Clayton, leapt off the bed and tore out of the room.
“Shh! You’ll wake Mom and Dad, or the dogs,” Sable whispered between giggles.
“What are you doing?” Grace tried to sound stern, but her sisters’ laughter was contagious. The last thing she needed was to be awake at this hour after a grueling week and a painfully long drive, but her sisters were excited about Grace coming home, and if Grace were honest with herself, despite the mounds of scripts she had to get through during her visit, she was excited to see them, too. Other than a quick trip for her friend Sophie’s wedding, she hadn’t been home since Christmas, and it was already May.
“Get up.” Brindle tugged her off the bed and felt around on the floor. “We’re going out, just like old times.” She threw the slacks and blouse Grace had worn home the night before in Grace’s face. “Get dressed.”
“I’m not going—”
“Shut up and take this off.” Sable pulled Grace’s silk nighty over her head despite Grace’s struggles to stop her. She knew it was a futile effort. What Sable wanted, Sable got. Even though she and her twin sister, Pepper, were a year younger than Grace, Sable had always been the pushiest of them all.
Grace reluctantly stepped into her slacks. “Where are we going?” She reached for her hairbrush as Brindle grabbed her hand and dragged her out the bedroom door. “Wait! My shoes!”’
“We’ll grab Mom’s boots from by the door,” Sable said, flanking her other side as they hurried down the hall tripping over each other.
“I’m not wearing cowgirl boots.” Grace had worked hard to shake the country-bumpkin habits that were as deeply ingrained as her love for her six siblings. Habits like hair twirling, saying y’all, and wearing cutoffs and cowgirl boots, the hallmarks of her youth. She stood on the sprawling front porch with her hands on her hips, staring at her sisters, who were waiting for her to put on her mother’s boots.
“Step into them or I swear I’ll make you climb that hill barefoot, and you know that’s not fun,” Sable said.
“God! You two are royal pains in the ass.” Grace shoved her feet into the boots. They’re only boots. They don’t erase all of my hard work. Oak Falls might be where her roots had sprouted, but they’d since spread far and wide, and she was never—ever—going to be that small-town girl again.
The moon illuminated the path before them. The pungent scent of horses and hay lingered in the air as they crossed the grass toward the familiar hill. Great. They were taking her to Hottie Hill. Grace groaned, wondering why she hadn’t tossed them out of her bedroom and locked the door instead of going along with their crazy like-old-times plan. Three weeks at home would be both a blessing and a curse. Grace loved her sisters, but she imagined three weeks of Sable playing her guitar until all hours of the night and her other younger sisters popping in and out with their dogs and their drama, all while their mother carefully threw out queries about their dating lives and their father tried not to growl at their responses.
Brindle strutted up the steep hill in her boots and barely there sundress, expertly avoiding the dips and ruts in the grass, while Grace hurried behind her, stumbling over each one as she tried to keep up.
Sable reached the peak of the hill first. She turned on her booted heels, placed her hands on her hips, and grinned like a fool. “Hurry up! You’ll miss it!”
It was one thing to deal with family drama from afar, when all it took was a quick excuse to get off the phone, but three weeks? Grace couldn’t even blame her decision on being drunk, since she had been stone-cold sober when her sister Amber had asked her to help bolster her bookstore’s presence by hosting a playwriting course. You made it, Gracie! You’re such an inspiration to everyone here, Amber had pleaded. Besides, Brindle is leaving soon for Paris, and it’s the last time we’ll all be together for months. It’ll be like old times. Grace was living her dream, writing and producing off-Broadway plays, although lately, that’s all the living she was doing, and the diva attitudes of the industry were grating on her last nerve. Besides, how could she say no to Amber, the sweetest sister of them all?
Grace slipped on the hill and caught herself seconds before face-planting in the grass. “Damn it! This is the last thing I want to be doing right now.”
“Shh,” Brindle chided as she reached for Grace’s hand.
Sable ran down the hill annoyingly fast. Holding her black cowgirl hat in place atop her long dark hair with one hand, she reached for Grace with the other and said, “Get up, you big baby.”
“I can’t believe you dragged my ass out of bed for this. What are we? Twelve?” Grace asked in her own harsh whisper.
“Twelve-year-olds don’t sneak out to watch the hottest men in Oak Falls break in horses,” Brindle said as they reached the top of the hill.
“Liar. We’ve been doing it since you were twelve,” Sable reminded her.
“I can’t believe they’re still doing this at this ungodly hour.” They were the Jericho brothers, and they’d been breaking in horses before dawn since they were teenagers. They claimed it was the only time they had before the heat of the day hit, but Grace thought it had more to do with it feeling more exciting doing it in the dark.
The Jericho brothers were the hottest guys around. Well, at least since Reed Cross left town after high school graduation. Grace tried to tamp down thoughts of the guy who had taken her—and given her his—virginity, and turned her heart inside out. The man she’d turned away in pursuit of her production career, and the person she’d compared every single man to ever since. She refused to let herself go down memory lane.
“I’m exhausted,” Grace complained as they reached the peak of the hill overlooking the Jericho ranch. The Jerichos owned several hundred acres and were very active in the community, opening one of their barns once a month to the community for jam sessions, where anyone that played an instrument could take part. People of all ages came to enjoy the music, dance, and take part in various games like potato sack races, ring toss, and touch football. It was just another of the small-town events that Grace hadn’t regretted leaving behind.
“It’s not like I haven’t seen these guys a million times,” she pleaded. “Besides, Brindle, you’ve slept with Trace more times than you can probably count. It’s not like you haven’t seen him shirtless. Why are we even—”
“Shh!” Brindle and Sable said in unison as they pulled Grace down to her knees.
She followed their gazes to the illuminated riding ring below, where the four Jericho brothers, Trace, Justus, aka “JJ,” Shane, and Jeb, and a handful of other shirtless, jeans-clad guys were milling about. They were always shirtless, because what men weren’t when they were proving they were the manliest of the group?
“Trace and I are over,” Brindle whispered. “For real this time.” She and Trace had been in an on-again-off-again relationship forever. They were a hopeless case of rebellious guy and rebellious girl, up for anything risky. Two people who didn’t have a chance in hell of ever settling down but seemed to fill a need in each other’s lives—or at least in their beds.
“That’s not what Morgyn said.” Sable smirked. Morgyn was a year older than Brindle and just as outgoing.
“Why didn’t you drag her out instead of me?” Grace complained.
“I would have, but she wasn’t home,” Brindle explained.
Grace and her sisters had spent many hours as teenagers lying on this same hill when they should have been sleeping, watching the Jericho brothers and other guys ride wild horses or rope cattle. Pepper and Amber had come with them only twice. Pepper had complained the whole time about it being a waste of brain power, and Amber had been more embarrassed than turned on by the shirtless cock-and-bull show. If only I’d been born shy.
She laughed to herself. Shy? Right. She’d blazed a path in a man’s world. There was no room for shy in her repertoire. And there was no room for this nonsense anymore, either. She pushed up onto her knees. “Brindle, maybe at twenty-four this is still fun, but I’m twenty-eight. I’ve got work to do in the morning, and I’m so far past this it’s not even funny.”
“God, Grace! You’ve turned into a workaholic ice queen,” Sable whispered as she yanked Grace back down to her stomach. “And I, your very loving sister who feels the need to keep you young, aim to fix that. Starting now.”
Grace rolled her eyes. “Ice queen? Just because I’ve grown up and don’t find this type of thing fun anymore?” As she said the words the men below walked out of the ring and stood on the outside of the fence, their muscular arms hanging over the top rail.
“Ice queen because you think you’re too good for—” Sable swallowed her words as Trace and JJ pushed open the enormous wooden barn doors and a wild horse blasted into the ring with a shirtless man on its back.
Their gazes snapped to the show below. It wasn’t a Jericho on the back of this horse for its first ride, and despite her protests, Grace squinted into the night to get a better look at the virility before her.
“Damn,” Brindle said in a husky voice.
“Holy shit, that’s hot,” Sable whispered. “See, Gracie? Totally worth it.”
Grace took in the arch of the rider’s shoulders as the horse bucked him forward and back, his thick arms holding tightly to the reins. His wavy brown hair and the square set of his chin sent a shudder of recognition through her.
“Ouch! Grace! You’re digging your nails into me.” Sable pried Grace’s fingers off her forearm.
“Is that…?” Grace choked on the anger and arousal warring inside her. She’d recognize Reed Cross anywhere, even at a distance, after all these years of seeing him only in her dreams. She pushed to her feet, unable to make sense of seeing the forbidden lover she’d risked everything to have—and then cast aside—in Oak Falls, with the guys who’d once hated the sight of him. What the hell was he doing here? The last she’d heard, he’d moved to somewhere in the Midwest after high school.
“Reed…?” His name rolled off her tongue too easily, and she stumbled backward. Memories of being in his arms slammed into her, his gruff voice telling her he wanted her, he loved her. She didn’t want to remember what they’d had, and as her sisters reached for her, trying to pull her back down to the grass, she took off running the way they’d come.
“Gracie, wait!” Sable shouted in a harsh whisper as she and Brindle ran after her.
Grace ran fast and hard, trying to outrun the memories, and knew it was a futile effort, which only pissed her off even more. She spun on her heels, anger and hurt burning through her. “You didn’t think to warn me?”
“I knew you wouldn’t come,” Sable said.
“Damn right I wouldn’t.” She started down the hill again.
“Wait, Grace!” Brindle grabbed her hand and tried to slow her down, but Grace kept going, dragging her sister with her. “What is going on?” Brindle pleaded. “Why are you so mad?”
Grace slowed, realizing in that moment that Sable had kept her secret for the past decade. That was something she hadn’t expected. Then again, she hadn’t expected to have a visceral, titillating reaction to seeing Reed again, either. Hell, she hadn’t expected to ever see him again. Period. He had been the quarterback at their rival high school. Small-town rivalries weren’t taken lightly back then, and she and Reed had been careful never to be seen together for fear of Grace, a cheerleader, being ostracized by her friends. As graduation neared, they both knew Grace wanted to follow her dreams and write and produce plays in the Big Apple. They might have stayed together if Reed had told her that he would be willing to move away from the small town one day, but he’d been adamant about never leaving his family.
At least he had been until she’d ended their relationship to pursue her dreams.
Then he’d left town for good.
Or so she’d thought.
That still stung, even now, as his deep voice carried in the air, bringing with it memories of the secrets they’d shared and the stolen sensual nights they’d enjoyed.
“I thought you were over him,” Sable accused.
“I am!” Grace huffed. She absently touched her lips, remembering the taste of spearmint and teenage lust mixed into one delicious kiss after another. Kisses that had never failed to leave her body humming with desire. Great. Now she couldn’t stop thinking of him. This was bad. Very, very bad. She never should have allowed her sisters to drag her out and unearth memories she’d rather forget.
“Over who?” Brindle demanded as she traipsed through the grass beside Grace.
Grace ignored her question, unwilling to reveal her decade-old secret.
“Then what’s the problem?” Sable snapped, also ignoring Brindle’s question. She grabbed Grace’s arm, stopping her in her tracks.
Unlike Grace, Sable had no qualms about one-night stands or taking what she wanted from a man. Any man, it seemed to Grace, as long as he struck her fancy for the moment. Even though Sable hid nothing when it came to her sexuality, she and Grace had a deep bond, and she was the only one of Grace’s five sisters Grace had ever trusted with her sexual secrets. Sable knew how hard it had been for her to break up with Reed all those years ago. Grace’s heart slammed against her chest as they stared each other down. She’d thought she was over Reed Cross. She was over him. She’d put him out of her mind. Mostly.
Sure, it was Reed’s face she conjured up on lonely nights, and it was his lopsided grin and easy laugh she recalled to pull her through the toughest of productions. But that was her secret, not one she’d shared with Sable.
She should have stuck to weekend visits home, as she had for the past several years. Weekend visits were safe. Fast. Brindle never would have dragged her out if she’d be facing a long drive home in twenty-four hours. She couldn’t stay for three weeks, especially now that she knew Reed was back in town. Tomorrow she’d tell Amber she couldn’t teach the class after all, and she’d drive back to the city, where there was no chance of running into Reed Cross.
Brindle threw her arms up toward the sky. “Will someone please tell me what the problem is? Why are you storming off? And why are you mad at Sable? It was me who wanted to come out and see Trace tonight. Not her! I thought it would be fun, like old times. We’d laugh and joke and talk about how sexy he was.”
“Grace.” Sable’s tone softened, her eyes imploring her for forgiveness Grace couldn’t give.
“There’s no problem, Brin,” Grace managed, holding Sable’s gaze. “I just…” I’m confused and angry by my body’s stupid reaction to a man I don’t need in my life. “I’m just exhausted.” As unreasonable as it was, since she’d caused their breakup, she still felt the sting of his betrayal after they’d broken up, when he’d left his beloved family—and her—behind.
~ To continue reading, please buy Embracing Her Heart