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It had been three years. Three long, lonely, heart-broken years since he’d disappeared one snowy afternoon in Sweden.
Three years, two of which had been spent running, terrified, certain that death lurked around every corner. Now, relocated to another state, another town, another name, and the past was staring at her as though she had never existed before this moment.
“Jacob, I’d like you to meet the new manager for Dillerman’s Feed and Supply, Sallie Hamblen. Sallie, one of our most eligible ranchers, Jacob Donovan…”
Who made the introduction, she had no clue. All she knew was the man who stood in front of her, hand extended, one of those distant little curves to his lips that people gave someone they didn’t know and weren’t certain they wanted to know.
She fought to swallow, to speak. What came out of her mouth was polite enough.
“Nice to meet you.” The sound was strangled to her ears. Too rough.
She barely allowed her hand to touch his before pulling back from him. If he saw it as rude, then so be it. She couldn’t make herself do more, give more. Not now. Not with this man.
He didn’t know who she was.
The three years had been hard ones, but the stress and worry hadn’t yet marked her features. She was the same woman he’d spent three days in a bed with, three days marking her soul in ways she still hadn’t recovered from, in ways her heart couldn’t forget.
But his name was different as well.
“Where you from, Miss Hamblen?” His tone didn’t show disinterest, but there was zero familiarity.
He didn’t remember her.
The pain, the humiliation was almost overwhelming. It burned through her mind, into her chest, and struck at her heart. She’d found him after three years of searching, only to learn his name hadn’t actually been Jake Rossiter as he’d claimed, but Jacob Donovan. He was a rancher rather than attached to an embassy. But she recognized him. She’d seen him the moment he entered the room, just as he’d seen her. Their eyes had met, and then he’d turned away as though he hadn’t spent three days making her scream with pleasure. That he hadn’t disappeared from her life as though he had never truly existed.
“Miss Hamblen, are you okay?” her new assistant Tara queried in concern.
Was she okay? She was dying inside. Okay was not an option.
“I think I’m just tired.” Sallie turned to the other woman, fighting to hide her desperation to escape. “And it’s rather warm in here. I believe I’ll return to my hotel if you don’t mind, Tara.”
She ignored Jacob. She had no choice. Pain was ripping at her chest, tears threatened to fill her eyes. Oh now, wasn’t this just wonderful? She’d spent three years agonizing over him, two years of that time she’d spent running for her life. And now, he was here, staring at her, watching her curiously, but he didn’t know her. She’d mattered so little that he didn’t even remember her.
“I can take you back. Let me get my bag.” The other woman rushed off before Sallie could tell her that was okay, she’d make her own way back.
“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Donovan.” She barely forced the words past her lips. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“Of course.” A polite smile, a narrowing of his eyes, but he didn’t say anything more and allowed her to turn and walk away from him.
She pressed a hand to her stomach, wondering if it were possible to hold back the emotions tearing through her now.
This wasn’t what she’d expected to find in the small town of Deer Haven. A place to hide. Time to give her stepfather to figure out who was stalking her and why. That was all she’d hoped for when he’d deposited her in her hotel two weeks ago. Stanley Dillerman had arrived the next day and given her the manager’s position at his feed and ranching supply store, and Sallie had fought to just get through each day until she found her balance here.
Found her balance.
Yeah, that wasn’t happening now. There wasn’t a chance.
Because Jacob Donovan was here. And the weekend she’d spent with him was still a brutal, pain-filled reminder of everything she’d lost since. Everything. Especially the man and the dreams she’d once allowed herself to believe in.
Three Years Later
Some men should be outlawed for the sake of all women worldwide. Especially tall, dark-haired, dark-eyed cowboys like Jacob Donovan.
And some women should know better than to allow themselves around them.
Most especially a woman who knew he couldn’t be trusted. One who knew exactly how dangerous he could be to her heart and to the defenses she’d built around it.
She was insane to be here, knowing he would be as well. He’d hurt her once already, and she was tempting fate, giving him a second chance to do what he’d done to her the first time around.
And she couldn’t help herself.
For three years she’d managed to stay away from him, no matter the temptation or her need. She hadn’t even meant enough to him to remember her. But she’d never been able to forget him.
His face drew the eye, commanded attention, and warned a woman she was dealing with a true alpha male.
Sun-bronzed and savagely hewn, that face didn’t betray any emotion that he didn’t willingly allow it to show, nor did the whisky brown of his gaze. Thick brown hair framed his face carelessly, falling just a little long and tempting a woman to run her fingers through it. It was warm, slightly coarse, and she’d once loved the feel and weight of it against her fingers, her breasts, between her thighs …
Broad shoulders and obviously tight abs were covered with a black cotton shirt that did nothing to hide the fact that he was truly built. Long, powerful legs were encased in denim, a wide belt cinching hips a woman would love to wrap her legs around. She’d definitely loved wrapping her legs around them.
And he wore cowboy boots.
What was it about cowboy boots that made a man look so damned sexy?
And he was sexy as hell.
The fact that he was the most desirable male in the bar wasn’t debatable.
Why didn’t he recognize her?
It had been more than a few years, and her looks had changed. In ways, everything about her, who and what she had been and was now, was completely different. She wasn’t the eighteen-year-old he’d charmed on a cold winter’s night in a foreign land. But he wasn’t the twenty-five-year-old man she’d so been fascinated with anymore either. He’d known her as Kyra, not Sallie. The man who had bound a part of her with his kiss, his touch, and three days and nights of the most incredible passion a woman could ever know, and he’d forgotten all about her when he’d left her.
Sallie drew in a long, slow breath and forced her attention from the man leaning relaxed against the bar as he talked to another rancher.
His friend was an irritant. Pride Culpepper had done everything but offer her his brothers’ ranch if she’d just go to dinner with him. The oldest brother, Justice, had actually offered the ranch, then grinned and took it back.
Lifting her beer, she took another sip of the warming drink and barely held back a grimace.
She wasn’t particularly fond of beer, or of bars. So why the hell had she allowed herself to be convinced to come to this one again? She could have just hung around the house, washed clothes, painted her nails. Or something. Instead, she was hiding in the corner of a rowdy, country music bar filled with men on the make and women pretending they weren’t there for the same thing.
Even her friends, as much as she liked them and enjoyed their company, were consumed with the search for that perfect man. And what made them think this was the place to find him, she wasn’t certain.
She had known Jacob would be there, though. He was often there with his friends. He rarely danced, never brought in a lover or chose a lover from the bar. He drank a few beers, chatted with friends, sometimes flirted with the women who came up to him, then left alone. Just as Sallie did.
She should have left when she realized he lived in the area. She should have definitely left when it was apparent he didn’t recognize her. Sallie Hamblen was nothing to the rancher who lived in Deer Haven, California, all his life. But for a moment in time, long, long ago, she’d believed she could mean something him.
She’d been introduced to him as Kyra Bannon, he’d been introduced to her as Jake Rossiter. And for one incredible weekend, she’d lived a young woman’s most passionate dream.
Her lips quirked at that thought. And like most dreams, it had been over far too quickly. He’d disappeared with a promise to return in a few hours. A promise he’d broken. He’d never returned. No one had known who he was when she asked, and her life had gone on.
Or had it?
Her gaze moved over the dance floor from where she sat in the shadowed corner, wondering if she could possibly escape while her friends were occupied. She should have never agreed to meet them. Not again. Not knowing that he’d be there, and the sight of him would torment her with memories better left forgotten.
Copyright © 2021 by Lora Leigh and Veronica Chadwick