- READ AN EXCERPT
- a hard day's night
Book 2 in the Green Mountain Series
“Now this is how contemporary romance is done. Marie Force has gifted us with an incredibly beautiful story of love, loss and finding the courage to love again…This book is one of the best books I’ve ever read and I invite all readers to experience this incredible story of courage, family and most of all, love.”—Reviewed by Elizabeth for Cocktails and Books
“I can’t say how much this story touched me and how much I thoroughly and completely enjoyed it. I’ve always enjoyed reading Marie Force but some how missed this series. This is the second book in it and I immediately went looking for the first. Yes, it’s that good.”—5 stars. Reviewer Top Pick from Night Owl Reviews.
“Contemporary powerhouse Force sensitively introduces love to a war widow in the second Green Mountain contemporary (after All You Need Is Love)…. When Nolan finally sees that Hannah is opening up to the idea of new relationships, he fights for her, despite not believing he is good enough for her. Hannah and Nolan’s story starts with serious, sad issues, and their chemistry and relationship are genuine and passionate enough to pull them through.”—Publisher’s Weekly review of I Want To Hold Your Hand
“This is a wonderful story of loss and renewal and I would recommend to anyone who likes contemporary romance.”4 star review by Ramblings from a Chaotic Mind “I Want To Hold Your Hand is an emotional contemporary romance that fans will definitely want to read time and time again! Force has created something special with her Green Mountain series and the Abbott family are three-dimensional characters that walk right off the pages and into your heart!”—Review from Tracy Marsac at ReadertoReader.com.
For the Abbott siblings, the Green Mountain state has always been an idyllic place to call home. But it isn’t until they open themselves up to love that they’ll truly discover how fulfilling life can be.
Almost seven years after losing her husband in Iraq, Hannah Abbott Guthrie isn’t sure she’s ready—or able—to move on, but the attentions of a lifelong friend are making her think about it for the first time. The memory of the sweet kiss she shared with Nolan Roberts hasn’t strayed far from her thoughts, but she also fears that pursuing something with him would mean betraying her husband’s memory. Nolan has loved Hannah for years, but he’d been giving her the space she needed to heal from her devastating loss. Now, when an opportunity arises to show her how he feels, Nolan can’t resist, but he knows earning her love will take more than a kiss. Somehow he has to prove to Hannah that finding love twice in a lifetime is possible—and well worth risking her heart.
A new boy moved to town over the summer. His name is Caleb Guthrie. Hunter and Will like him, but I haven’t decided yet. —From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve
Hannah Abbott Guthrie looked forward to the second Thursday of every month, when she met her high school friends in St. Johnsbury for lunch and an afternoon at their favorite spa. The tradition began after Hannah lost her husband, Caleb, in Iraq almost seven years ago. She’d continued to meet the girls every week long after the first awful wave of grief passed into the new reality of life without Caleb.
Like her family, her friends had been there for her one thousand percent, and Hannah loved her “escape from it all” days passionately. This time, she was even considering the possibility of taking her friend Becky up on the standing invite to spend the night in St. Johnsbury so she wouldn’t have to drive home after the relaxing afternoon.
Her brother Hunter had volunteered to come by when he got back to town to check on Caleb’s old dog, Homer, so he wouldn’t have to spend the whole day and night alone. Even with Homer covered, she was playing the invitation by ear. Since Caleb died, she had a lot of trouble sleeping, and if she was going to be up at all hours, she preferred to rattle around in the privacy of her own home.
Hannah picked up the overnight bag she’d packed just in case she decided to stay, gave Homer a snuggle and let him know Uncle Hunter would be by to see him later. She locked the door to the huge Victorian she’d inherited from Caleb. The house was far too big for one person, but Caleb had loved the house that had come from his grandmother, and Hannah would never sell it.
She unlocked her aging SUV and put her bag into the back before sliding into the driver’s seat. The day was chilly but sunny, an early spring day in northern Vermont, where winter hung around far longer than it did just a few hours south. In deference to the lingering winter, Hannah had chosen to wear a heavy coat rather than the new spring jacket she was ready to break out any day now.
With the key in the ignition, she turned it and got a clicking sound that didn’t bode well for going anywhere. “Come on,” she whispered. “Not today. Do this tomorrow when I’ve got nowhere to be.” She turned the key again and got the same click, click, click noise that she recognized as a dead battery. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”
She leaned her head on the steering wheel as she tried to remember where everyone was today. Her dad and Hunter had gone to a business conference in Montpelier. Will was in New York helping his girlfriend, Cameron, pack up her apartment for her move to Vermont. Colton was up on the mountain at the family sugaring facility, Wade knew as much about cars as she did, Lucas and Landon were working a twenty-four-hour shift at the volunteer fire department and Max was at school in Burlington.
Her sisters, Ella and Charley, were as useful in this situation as Hannah and Wade. Her mom had taken Hannah’s grandfather for his annual physical this morning. That left one person she could call and, as luck would have it, he was the last person she wanted to call.
“If I call Nolan he’s going to get all hopeful, and I can’t do that to him,” she said, reasoning with herself and the cold air. It had been enough that recently she’d danced with him at the Grange and then let him drive her home. That was more than she’d done with any man in all the years since Caleb died.
But Nolan wasn’t just any man. He’d been less than circumspect about his feelings for her, never missing a chance to inquire about her to one of her family members—all of whom loved relaying Nolan’s thoughtful sentiments to her at every possible opportunity.
“You’re being foolish. You can either call Nolan and continue with your plans or miss the day with the girls. Those are your choices.” The one thing she didn’t feel foolish about, after living alone for close to seven years, was talking to herself. If anyone knew how often she had full conversations with herself, they’d probably have her committed.
She reached for the cell phone she kept in the car for emergencies and made the call, holding her breath while she waited for him to answer the phone at the station he ran in town.
At the sound of his deep voice a flutter of nerves filled her belly.
“Oh sorry. Hey, Nolan, it’s Hannah.”
“Hannah.” With the single word came hope, surprise and hesitation. That he managed to convey so much by only saying her name was one of the many reasons she’d kept her distance from him. His feelings for her were a badly kept secret, and being around him made her nervous. She’d known him all her life, so the nerves were stupid, really, but she had them every time she laid eyes on the man. “What’s going on?”
“Well, my car won’t start, and I’ve got somewhere to be for once.”
“What’s it doing?”
“Sounds like the battery. I’ll be right there.”
“Oh um, do you have time?”
“Of course I do,” he said as if that was the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “That’s my job. I’ll be there in a few.”
“Thanks, Nolan.” She put the phone in her purse and waited, feeling anxious and unsettled. He had that effect on her, and he wasn’t even here yet. In the last six weeks, she’d tried not to think about the night she’d danced with him and then let him drive her home. She’d tried not to think about how she’d let him kiss her good night, or how much she’d really, really liked kissing him.
Her fingers found their way to her lips as she relived the moment on her front porch. He’d insisted on walking her to the door. “I had a good time tonight,” he’d said. “Thanks for dancing with me.”
“It was a terrible chore.” She hoped her wittiness hid the nerves that were rampaging through her.
“I’m sure it was,” he said with a good-natured laugh. “I’m known for my two left feet.”
“You’re a smooth dancer.”
“Am I?” he asked, sounding surprised.
“Huh. I always thought I kind of sucked at it.”
The words had hung in the air between them, which had gone heavy with expectation.
“Hannah . . .” His fingers on her face were soft despite the hard work he did with his hands every day.
She’d been rendered breathless and speechless by the yearning she’d seen on his handsome face, which had been illuminated by the porch light. And then his lips were on hers, gentle and undemanding but no less earth-shattering than a much more passionate kiss would’ve been. Hannah had ruined it by pulling back from him when she didn’t even want to. Why she’d done that was a question she still couldn’t answer six weeks later.
He’d called her the next day, but coward that she was, she’d let the call go to voicemail and hadn’t seen or spoken to him again—until today. Although, she’d listened to his sweet message over and over again until she knew the words by heart.
Oh hey, Hannah, it’s me, Nolan. Um, I, ah, wanted to say I had a nice time last night. There’s a new Mexican place in Stowe that I’ve been wanting to check out. I remember you love Mexican food, so if you’d like to go sometime, you have my number. Call me, okay?
She hadn’t returned the call or told anyone about the kiss. Not her mother, her sisters or especially her nosy brothers and father, who would’ve made way too much out of what had been a rather simple kiss. Except it hadn’t been simple at all. It was the first kiss she’d received since being widowed, and she couldn’t escape the feeling that she’d somehow betrayed Caleb’s memory.
Of course she knew that was ridiculous. Caleb would be furious at her for moldering away in the home they had loved, still alone after all these years. Her husband was a get-things-done kind of guy who hadn’t stood around waiting for life to find him. He’d gone after his dreams with gusto and passion, including his desire to serve his country.
If he came back to life for one day and found her stuck in the same place she’d been for almost seven years, he’d kick her ass from one end of Vermont to the other. Hannah knew she had to own the guilt she felt over kissing Nolan and not pass it off as a betrayal of Caleb’s memory. She knew without any shadow of a doubt that her husband had loved her as much as it was possible for a man to love a woman, and he’d want nothing but the very best for her.
No, the guilt belonged to her alone, and the least she could do was own it. Kissing Nolan had absolutely nothing to do with Caleb. Heck, he would wholeheartedly approve of her seeing Nolan, a man he had respected and considered a close friend. At least she hoped he would. She had no way to know for sure.
So what was the hang-up? Hannah wished she knew, but she kept coming back to the same excuse time and time again. She wasn’t ready to move on with another man, and she didn’t see any point to leading Nolan on when she wasn’t ready for the things he wanted from her.
A knock on the window startled Hannah so badly she jumped. With trembling hands, she opened the door.
“Sorry to scare you. Thought you heard the truck.”
Hannah couldn’t believe she’d been so lost in thought about all the reasons why she couldn’t have a relationship with this perfectly nice—and totally sexy—man that she hadn’t heard a thing. How had she failed to miss the arrival of the huge tow truck that was now parked at her curb? She got out of the car. “I was . . . um . . .”
“A million miles away?” he asked with an adorable grin that showcased the deep dimple on the left side of his face. His dark hair was infused with streaks of silver that made him look a bit older than his thirty-five years. But it was his intense brown eyes and the way they seemed to take a full inventory of her features every time she was in close proximity to him that undid her like they always did.
She felt stripped naked of all her defenses when he looked at her the way he was right now. Hannah cleared her throat. “I guess I was.”
“A lot on your mind?”
Desperate for something to do with her hands, she jammed them into her coat pockets. “No more than usual.”
He stared at her for a long moment, and just as she was about to remind him that he was here to work on her car and not set her on fire with the raw and needy desire she saw in his eyes, he said, “I tried to call you.”
“I’m sorry if I was out of line that night. I’ve gone over it and over it, and I can’t believe I took such advantage of the first opportunity you’ve given me—”
“Nolan! Stop. Don’t say that. You didn’t take advantage of me. I can’t stand that you think you did.” Even though the last thing she wanted was to have this awkward conversation, she couldn’t let him think he’d done something wrong when he hadn’t. “You didn’t.”
He shook his head, dismissing her words. “I did take advantage. I’ve waited so long for you, Hannah. You have no idea how long. And the first chance I get, I couldn’t leave well enough alone.”
Shocked and further unsettled by how disgusted with himself he sounded, she had no idea what to say. How long had he waited? More than seven years? If so, that was news to her. Drawn to him despite her huge desire not to be, she laid a hand on his arm.
He looked down at her hand and then up at her eyes.
“You didn’t do anything wrong. It was me. I shouldn’t have pulled away from you the way I did because I didn’t want to stop kissing you. I don’t know why I pulled away when that was the last thing I wanted to do.”
Nolan stood up a little straighter. “Hannah . . .”
“I’m very confused.”
“How I can want to kiss you one minute but still feel like I’m not ready for any of this in the next minute? I’m not sure what that means.”
He took a deep breath, as if he was trying to maintain control. “Maybe we could figure that out together.”
She ventured a look up at him, and her heart did a funny tap dance in her chest that left her breathless. This was not good. This was not at all what she had planned for today. “How do you mean?”
“Spend some time with me. We can do anything you want. No pressure, no kissing, no nothing unless you want it. I’d be completely happy if I got to hold your hand, Hannah.”
Unnerved by his urgently spoken words and the kindness behind them, she licked her lips and tried not to notice the way he zeroed in on the movement of her tongue. “Why me?”
“Hell if I know,” he said with a gruff laugh, “but I can’t remember a time when it wasn’t you.”
“Wait, so you’re saying—”
“Forget I said that. The past doesn’t matter. All we have is right now, and I want to be with you, even if we do nothing more than have a meal together every now and then. Would that be possible?”
“I . . . Um, my car. I have somewhere to be.”
His lips flattened with displeasure that she regretted causing, but she wasn’t able to answer his question. Not without some time to think about how she felt. She didn’t have a spontaneous bone in her body. Not anymore. Not since Caleb died and took her youth and vitality and hopes and dreams with him.
“Pop the hood.”
The brusque, businesslike tone was in sharp contrast to the pleading edge his voice had taken on when he asked her to spend time with him.
Hannah got back in the car and did as he asked, her fingers slipping off the hood latch before she was able to get it open. She left the driver’s side door propped open so she could hear him if he needed her to do anything else.
Nolan lifted the hood, which gave her a moment’s reprieve from his intense gaze to collect her thoughts. He wanted to spend time with her. He had no intention of pressuring her for things she wasn’t ready for. He was sweet and handsome and kind and hardworking and all the things she liked and admired in a man—not to mention sexy as all hell. That last thought shocked her to the core. When was the last time she’d thought about anything having to do with sex?
“The battery is definitely dead, which is weird. It’s relatively new. We just replaced it a year or so ago. Did you leave your headlights on last night?”
“Can you fix it or should I cancel my plans?”
He popped out from under the raised hood. “How far are you going?”
“Just to St. Johnsbury.”
“I can fix it, but I need to push the car to the end of the driveway so I can use my truck to jump it. Can you shift it into neutral?”
“Sure. Do you want me to help you?”
“Nope. Sit tight and hold the wheel steady and then hit the brakes when I tell you to, okay?”
He dropped the hood but didn’t latch it, took off his coat and tossed it on the lawn, which was finally devoid of snow. He wore a gray work shirt with a red name patch sewn above the chest pocket. His biceps bulged from the effort to move the car, but it started to creep toward the street, picking up speed as it went.
Hannah pressed down on the brake to slow the momentum.
In a matter of minutes he had her car attached to his truck with jumper cables. She watched him as he worked, noting the way his hair fell over his forehead and how the shirt stretched across his broad chest. Had she ever noticed how muscular he was until she danced with him at the Grange?
Truthfully, she’d never given herself permission to look too closely for fear of seeing something she couldn’t handle. But she looked now, and she had to admit she liked what she saw—and she was sick and tired of her own company. That was something she’d confessed to herself during the long, cold, lonely winter she’d just endured.
With her parents, grandfather, nine siblings and a litany of aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby there was always something going on around her. But at the end of the day, Hannah was alone in the big house where she’d once been happily married. She was thirty-five years old and had been a widow for one-fifth of her life, longer than she’d been married as of this upcoming seventh anniversary of Caleb’s death.
It was probably time to start living again.
“Try it now,” he said.
Hannah turned the key and heard the welcome sound of her engine turning over. “Thank you so much.”
“No problem.” He removed the jumper cables and let her hood drop before bending down to grab his coat off the ground.
Hannah watched his every move, noting the way his navy blue work pants stretched across his taut backside as he bent over. The visual made her skin tingle with awareness—the kind of awareness she hadn’t experienced in a very long time, the kind of awareness that still had the power to frighten her. She opened the window.
He paused outside her door on his way to the truck. “Drive safely and call me if you have any more trouble.”
“I will. Send me the bill.”
“Don’t be silly. There’s no bill, Hannah.”
“Thank you for helping me.”
He paused as if there was something else he wanted to say besides, “No problem.”
He’d started to walk away when Hannah called out to him. “Nolan.”
Turning back, he raised a brow. “Yeah?”
She forced herself to say the words. “I’d like to spend some time together. Like you said. If that’s okay.”
Judging by the flabbergasted look on his face, that was the last thing he’d expected her to say. “You would? Really?”
Hannah nodded. “I’ll call you.”
“I’ll be waiting.”
Okay, I’ve decided . . . Caleb Guthrie is a bully. He pulls my braids on the playground every day and then runs away. All the boys laugh when he does it. I just want to punch him. —From the diary of Hannah Abbott, age twelve
Nolan went on with his day as if the most momentous thing in the known universe—or at least his known universe—hadn’t just transpired in Hannah Guthrie’s driveway.Thank God for dead batteries, he thought as he returned to the garage and got busy dealing with the cars customers had dropped off for repairs that morning.
He went through the rote motions of changing oil, replacing a timing belt and fielding calls from customers while trying not to think about Hannah and the hope she’d given him earlier. Since the night they’d danced and kissed, he’d berated himself at least a thousand times for moving too quickly, and then to hear that she’d liked kissing him and hadn’t wanted to stop . . .
Holy hell, how was he supposed to function knowing that? And how was he supposed to cope with the overwhelming guilt that came with his feelings for Hannah? He carried that guilt with him all the time.
Caleb Guthrie had been one of the best friends Nolan had ever had, and the pain of his loss was something Caleb’s unruly tribe of friends still carried with them all these years later. Caleb had been the sun around which the planets orbited. He’d been their fearless leader, and they were lost without him in so many ways.
After living the life of an army brat with his officer father, Caleb arrived in Vermont at the start of seventh grade when his father finally buckled to pressure from his family and retired as a full colonel. The kids from tiny Butler, Vermont, hadn’t known what to make of Caleb, who had friends all over the world. They were his “Sultans,” as Caleb called them. He’d named his group of friends after the Dire Straits song “Sultans of Swing,” his dad’s favorite song, and he collected Sultans everywhere he lived.
Becoming one of Caleb’s Sultans was a high honor, one none of them took lightly. It involved a foolish initiation ritual made up entirely by Caleb, who picked and chose his Sultans carefully. Upon entering the inner circle, Nolan had found a friend unlike any he’d ever had—funny and brazen and playful and serious and daring, brilliant yet twisted in his humor and approach to life.
He’d lightened Nolan up, taught him there was more to life than work and had exposed him to people and ideas and adventures that ranged from skiing the Rocky Mountains to spring break in Mexico to years of Mardi Gras in New Orleans where the Sultans worshiped their Creole patron.
Life with Caleb was all about fun. Life without him was a huge, gaping void that no one else could ever fill. Nolan couldn’t begin to speculate on the hole that Caleb’s death had left in Hannah’s life. The two of them had been amazing together, truly, deeply in love, and devoted to their friends and family as much as they were to each other. The Sultan parties every Labor Day weekend at their house were legendary, and despite the agony of Caleb’s loss, Hannah and the Sultans continued the tradition without him, knowing he’d expect nothing less.
But goddamn it was tough. Young, vital men with their whole lives in front of them weren’t supposed to die at twenty-eight. They weren’t supposed to die without giving the people they left behind some idea of how they were supposed to carry on without them.
Nolan liked to think that Caleb would approve of his affection for Hannah. He chose to believe that because the possibility Caleb wouldn’t approve was simply unbearable. Nolan had always loved Hannah as a friend and hadn’t entertained anything other than friendly feelings toward her until about two years after Caleb died.
That’s when everything changed for him. It’d been over a Labor Day weekend with the Sultans, watching her carry on like everything was fine as she kept the unruly guys in food and beer, when Nolan had realized he felt something more than friendship for her. Why did it have to be her of all people? He’d asked himself that question almost every day for five years. He couldn’t say exactly, other than she touched him deeply, far more deeply than any other woman ever had.
He fixed things. That’s what he did. He wanted to fix things for her. He wanted to make her smile again the way she used to when Caleb was alive, the way she used to before life pulled the rug out from under her and left her reeling. He wanted to put the pieces back together again for her, to make right that which could never be made right.
The Abbott family had tuned in to the fact that Nolan’s feelings for Hannah went beyond that of a lifelong friend, but the other Sultans didn’t know. Well, except for Hannah’s brothers, Hunter and Will, who were fully initiated into Caleb’s tribe. But Nolan didn’t think they’d told the others. Why would they? It wasn’t like anything had ever come of Nolan’s feelings for her.
Until a recent Saturday night at the Grange. Until today when she said she wanted to spend some time with him. How long would he have to wait to hear from her? Would she panic on the drive to St. Johnsbury and decide she’d been impetuous?
Leaning into the hood of a Chevy sedan, Nolan released a deep breath and tried to figure out how long he’d been staring at the V-8 while thinking of nothing but Hannah Guthrie and how she’d looked that morning—lovely and flushed and embarrassed and undone by their conversation.
Waiting to hear from her might actually kill him. It was certainly killing his concentration, he thought, as he got busy changing the spark plugs and filters on the older-model car.
Every time the garage phone rang, his heart stopped for a moment, which was flat-out ridiculous. She said she’d call him. She hadn’t said she’d calltoday. But why hadn’t he asked her to call to let him know she’d arrived safely after the trouble with her battery?
He wiped the grease off his hands with a red oil rag and threw it aside in frustration. Was it possible for a person to drive himself nuts? If it was, he was well on his way. Since his productivity was positively shot, he decided to break early for lunch.
He was on his way out the door to grab something to eat at the diner when the phone rang. Under normal circumstances, he would’ve let voicemail pick up the call, but there was nothing normal about circumstances under which Hannah Guthrie might be calling. So he ran back in and grabbed the phone.
“Hey, it’s me. Hannah.”
Come on. No way. Had he gone straight around the bend into the land of the delusional? Had he wished so hard for her call that he’d made it happen out of sheer will?
“Nolan? Are you there?”
It was really her. “Oh yeah, sorry. I’m here. Is everything okay with the car?”
“That’s why I called. I figured you’d be worried about whether or not I got here, and I did, so I wanted to tell you.”
Was it his imagination or was she rambling? And did she sound nervous? The calm, cool Hannah he knew and loved never sounded nervous. She was always in perfect control of her emotions, something he admired greatly about her in light of what she’d been through. “That’s good to know. I was hoping it wouldn’t give you any more trouble.”
Nolan wasn’t sure what he was supposed to say next. His brain spun with possibilities, each of them rejected.
“I also wanted to tell you . . .”
His heart pounded as anticipation beat through him in time with his heart. “What, Hannah? What did you want to tell me?”
“Ever since I saw you this morning, I can’t stop thinking about enchiladas.”
Since that had been about the last thing he’d expected her to say, he laughed. “Is that right?”
“I’m drooling, in fact. So I was thinking, maybe we could check out that place in Stowe later? If you’re not busy. I know it’s last minute—”
“I’m not busy.” He was but he’d get out of it. The racing team could meet without him. “What time will you be back?”
“Around six thirty.”
“How does seven sound?”
“Sounds good. I’ll see you then?”
“I’ll be there. I can’t have you drooling all over the place. What will people say?”
Her laughter made him smile. “See you soon.”
Nolan put down the phone and let out a very loud, “Yes!”
“See?” Becky said as Hannah hung up the phone. “Was that so hard?”
“It was excruciating. I sounded like a complete idiot.”
“You did not! He’s probably dancing for joy around the garage after hearing from you.”
“Be quiet. He is not. I never should’ve told you any of this.”
“Yes, you should have, and you told me because you wanted me to force you to do something about it.”
“That isn’t why I told you!”
“Yes, Hannah,” Becky said gently, “it is. You needed permission to act on what you feel for Nolan. I’m glad I was the one you confided in and that I was the one who gave you the push you needed to make that call. It’s high time, isn’t it?”
“I suppose. It’s just that I still feel . . . I don’t know. It’s ridiculous, but it feels disloyal to Caleb.”
“Aw, honey, Caleb loved you so much. He’d want you be happy. You know that.”
“Of course I do, but it’s hard to think about moving on with someone else. I never wanted to move on without him.”
“You don’t have any choice. You’re a young, beautiful, vibrant woman with so much life left to live and so much love left to give. I can’t even begin to understand what you’ve been through, and you’ve handled it all so gracefully and with such dignity.”
“Not always,” Hannah said with a laugh, looking to lighten things up a bit. She didn’t allow herself many trips to the maudlin side of town where nothing good ever happened, but once in a while . . .
“I’m sure you’ve had a lot of rough moments, and you may continue to have them for the rest of your life. But that doesn’t mean you can’t also have other things, too, such as a wonderful, sexy guy who looks at you like you’re the cat’s meow.”
“He does not.”
“Um, yes, he does. Ask anyone.”
Every time someone said that to her, Hannah felt twitchy and off balance. She’d known Nolan forever—even longer than she’d known Caleb. He had been one of her husband’s closest friends and had served as a groomsman at their wedding. “Do you ever think that maybe Nolan is too close?”
“How do you mean?”
“He and Caleb were the best of friends. I’ve known him my whole life. He’s always been there, you know? How does that suddenly turn romantic?”
“The same way it did for you and Caleb, remember?”
As if she’d ever forget the night Caleb kissed her at the quarry and changed everything between them forever. She had to admit Becky made a good point.
“I want you to do something for me,” Becky said.
“I want you to have dinner with Nolan and not blow it up into a big freaking deal in your mind before it actually is. It’s dinner. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“If I’m to believe what you and everyone else says, it’s already way more than that to him.”
“So what? That’s his deal, not yours. Don’t take it on. Go to dinner. Eat a meal. Enjoy his company and relax. Can you do that?”
“I guess so. I can probably relax easier with him than I would with someone I just met.”
“I know you can do it. Go have a wonderful time. You’ve so earned the right to some fun and happiness, Hannah.”
Hannah hugged her longtime friend. “Thanks for the pep talk and for letting me off the hook on the sleepover.”
“Once you told me about Nolan asking you out, I was prepared to kick you out of here if I had to.”
Hannah smiled at Becky’s emphatic words. Sometimes she felt like the people in her life needed her to move on more than she needed it for herself. Up until the last couple of months, she’d been perfectly fine to rattle around in her big old house alone and to spend more time living in the past than she did in the present.
At some point over the recent winter though, she’d begun to feel anxious and lonely and perhaps ready to step foot out of her self-imposed cocoon to take a peek at what had been going on in the world while she was holed up with her grief.
After two hours of laughter and pedicures she was on the road home, her mind spinning with thoughts about the evening she’d agreed to spend with Nolan. Would it be awkward or easy? Would he try to kiss her again or would he keep his distance? Which did she prefer? She couldn’t say for certain.
By the time she pulled into the driveway twenty minutes before Nolan was due to arrive, her nerves were stretched thin. An accident on the main road into town had added half an hour to the ride. Inside the house, she used the phone in the hallway to leave a message for Hunter on his office voicemail to let him know she’d decided to come home and he was off Homer duty.
“Hey, Home Boy,” she said, using the nickname Caleb had given his dog as a puppy after the multicolored mutt had decided he belonged with Caleb. No one was really certain of his breed, but speculation ran the gamut from German shepherd to Lab to beagle. “Where are you, buddy?” Hannah checked the sitting room, where she and Homer spent most of their time, as well as the studio, where she worked and he kept a bed on the floor, but saw no sign of Homer.
At sixteen, he didn’t do the stairs on his own anymore, so he had to be somewhere on the first floor. She went into the kitchen and stopped short when she found him sprawled on the floor, his eyes open and trained on her, his distress apparent.
Hannah dropped to the floor next to him. “Hey, buddy. What’re you doing in here?” She stroked his face and back and noted the choppy cadence of his breathing and his seeming inability to raise his head off the floor. He tried to stretch his paw out to her the way he always did, but couldn’t muster the strength. Tears filled her eyes. “No, Homie. Not yet. Please not yet.” She lay down on the floor next to him, petting him as she wept.
Hannah knew she should get up and call Myles Johansen, the local vet. He’d been making house calls to check on Homer for quite some time now and had told her to call any time she needed him. Somehow she knew if she got up, if she made the call, that this time would be different.
“Oh, Homie, I’m sorry I left you today. I know you haven’t been feeling good for a long time, but you’ve stuck around because you don’t want to leave me alone. I promise I’ll be okay. Before I call anyone though . . . While it’s just you and me . . . When you see Dad, make sure you tell him I love him, and I miss him, okay? You’ll take good care of him, won’t you? He’ll be so happy to see you.”
One more minute, she told herself, sobbing as she clung to Homer. One more minute and then she’d get up to call Myles.
“Hannah?” Nolan’s voice echoed through the first floor. “Are you home?”
How long had she been lying there with Homer? She wiped her eyes with her sleeve, trying to fix the unfixable. “Back here.”
“You didn’t answer the door, so I hope it’s okay I came in—” Nolan halted in the doorway to the kitchen when he saw her on the floor with Homer. “Oh God, Hannah, what is it? What’s wrong?”
She shifted slightly to the right so he could see Homer stretched out on the floor, his breathing shallow and labored.
“Oh no. What can I do?”
“Would you mind calling Myles for me?”
“Of course. Anyone else?”
“Hunter. He’ll tell my parents. And the Guthries. They should be here.”
“Yes, yes, I’ll call them. You stay with Homer.”
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief at knowing she didn’t have to be the one to make the calls, to say the words . . . “It’s okay, buddy,” she whispered to Homer. “Everything is okay. You can go if you’re ready. I understand that you’re tired and you’ve had to live a long time without your best friend. That’s been so hard on you, but you took good care of me. Dad would’ve been so proud of you for taking such good care of me.”
She tried to quiet her sobs so as not to upset Homer. This wasn’t about her. It was about him, and she wanted to give him everything he needed.
Nolan returned to the kitchen and squatted next to Hannah. “Myles is on his way, and I left a message for Hunter. I also called your mom when I couldn’t reach Hunter. Hope that’s okay.”
Hannah nodded, grateful to him for taking charge.
“What can I do for you?” he asked, resting a hand on her shoulder. His voice, she noticed, was thick with emotion. He’d loved Caleb, too, and that mattered right now.
“This helps. Thank you.” Hannah leaned into him, resting her head on his chest as she continued to stroke Homer’s silky ears and coat. The dog’s eyes were closed now, his breathing even more shallow, if that was possible.
Nolan sat next to her, keeping his arm around her as she leaned against him, grateful for his presence and his strength.
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A Hard Day’s Night
A Green Mountain Series Novella
By: Marie Force
Copyright 2014. HTJB, Inc.
Sitting at her desk in the sunroom she used as a studio, Hannah Abbott Guthrie studied a growing pile of papers and determined her lists were giving birth to baby lists. She’d gone from being somewhat bored and out of sorts a few short weeks ago to knee-deep in wedding plans while also trying to get an ambitious new project off the ground.
It was all too much, and she was beginning to feel a bit ragged around the edges. She reached for the cup of tea that had cooled while she attempted to make order out of the chaos on her desk. Grimacing at the bitter taste of the cold tea, she sighed as she placed the cup back on the saucer.
“I know that sigh,” her fiancé, Nolan Roberts, said as he came into the room, bursting with energy that Hannah wished she could bottle. “That’s the sigh of someone who needs a break.” He plucked the pen out of her hand and gave the same hand a tug. “Come with me.”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Nolan, you know I don’t like surprises.”
“I know you don’t like too much time to think about a future surprise. This one is immediate, so there’s no chance it’ll get me into trouble.”
Though she so didn’t have time for surprises or anything that didn’t involve the lists that were multiplying daily, she let him lead her from the sunroom. Realizing something was happening, her puppy, Homer Junior, popped up from his bed next to her desk and followed behind them, yipping with excitement.
Nolan walked through the kitchen to the door that led to the backyard. “Close your eyes.”
“I don’t want to close my eyes.”
“Hannah . . . You’d try the patience of a saint.”
“But you love me anyway.”
He smiled, put his arms around her and kissed her. “It seems I do. Now close your eyes.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Fine, you give me no choice.”
“About what—” The air whooshed out of her lungs as Nolan hoisted her over his shoulder and headed outside. “You can’t just pick me up and haul me around like a sack of potatoes!”
“Apparently, I can.”
“This is not funny, Nolan! I’m seriously mad with you right now, and it would be just what you deserve if I puke tea and toast all over your back.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
The ground rushed by so quickly Hannah closed her eyes so she wouldn’t actually get sick. She was forming an all-new protest when he finally came to a stop down by the trickling stream that served as the property line and put her down abruptly.
She raised her hand to give him a thorough thump to the chest and caught sight of a red-plaid blanket spread out on the grass and what looked like a picnic basket. “What’s all this?”
“This, my adorable-but-impossible-to-surprise love, is an afternoon off.”
“I don’t have time for an afternoon off and neither do you.”
With his hands on her shoulders, he compelled her to look at him. “Hannah, you’re going a hundred miles an hour, and I don’t like those dark circles I’m seeing under your eyes. You’re tossing and turning all night. If I had it to do over, I never would’ve pushed for a wedding this summer.”
“So you don’t want to marry me after all?” she asked, knowing the question would set him off. She wasn’t disappointed.
His eyes flashed with anger and passion and the desire that was ever-present between them. “That is not what I said, and you know how much I want to be married to you. Rather than purposely trying to start a fight, why don’t you sit your butt down, and eat the lunch I brought you. After that, we’re going to nap in the sun.”
“You might have time for napping in the sun, but I—” Again with the whoosh of air leaving her lungs as he picked her up again and spun her around this time.
“Nolan! Oh my God! I’m seriously going to puke!”
Homer Junior went crazy, barking and yipping and snapping at Nolan’s legs. Sadly for Nolan, he was wearing shorts in deference to the first truly warm spring day.
“Ugh,” he grunted as he swayed precariously, “the little bastard actually bit me.”
“Good boy, Homer! Bite Daddy again! He’s being mean to Mommy!”
“Ow! Shit!” Since he was under attack, Nolan had no choice but to put Hannah down.
Once her head stopped spinning, she reached for her baby Homer and gave him a big hug. “You’re such a good boy, defending Mommy from the evil Daddy.” Homer licked her face in response. “Honestly, Nolan, his heart is beating so hard it’s going to burst.”
“Can we talk about the fact that I’m bleeding over here?”
“You brought that on yourself.” Since it seemed she’d be taking some time off, despite her other plans for the day, Hannah sat on the blanket and snuggled Homer.
“Blood,” Nolan said, dabbing at his leg with a bandanna he pulled from his back pocket. “Actual blood.”
Hannah buried her face in Homer’s soft fur, laughing silently at Nolan’s indignant tone.
“I know you’re laughing at me, Hannah, but don’t forget who got you that rotten ball of fur.”
“Oh my poor baby. Don’t listen to what Daddy says. He doesn’t mean it, Homie. You know he secretly loves you even if he’s jealous because I love you more than him.”
“Ah-ha! I knew it!”
“Mind your own business. I’m talking to Homer, not you. We’re mad at you.”
“This is what I get for trying to give my best girl a relaxing afternoon off,” Nolan grumbled.
“It was very nice of you,” Hannah said sincerely, realizing the time for joking was over. “And I’m sorry if Homer bit you. Sort of.”
“Had to add that last bit, huh?” he said with a laugh as he hooked an arm around her and brought her closer to him.
Homer let out a low growl, which was anything but sinister, and made them both laugh.
“Call off your beast,” Nolan said.
“Is there anything in that basket for him?”
“Not that he deserves it, but there might be a rawhide with his name on it.”
“Oh Homie, did you hear that? Daddy got you a treat! Now kiss and make up with him.” She foisted the puppy into Nolan’s lap and dove into the picnic basket, suddenly curious about what else she might find.
The delicious aromas coming from the basket made her mouth water. “What did you get? It smells amazing.” Her stomach let out a loud growl that made Homer bark.
“I think Mama is hungry,” Nolan said to the puppy, who was kissing his face and apparently trying to repent for his bad behavior. Because Nolan secretly loved Homer as much as she did, he was allowing the puppy to kiss and make up with him.
“Mama is starving.” Hannah began unpacking the basket and discovered containers filled with gourmet treats. Reading the labels on each one, she found roasted chicken, marinated artichoke hearts, tomato pasta salad, a wheel of Brie and a French bread baguette. The basket itself was a work of art with linen napkins, silverware and stoneware plates. “This is amazing! Where did you get it?”
“At a place I heard about in St. J.”
“You drove all the way to St. Johnsbury to get lunch?”
“Nothing but the best for my girl. There’s more. Look under the plates.”
Hannah lifted the plates from the basket and found a cold bottle of chardonnay and a box of chocolate-covered strawberries. “Oh I love them!”
“The rawhide is in the side pocket.”
Hannah retrieved it, unwrapped it and handed it to Nolan. “It’s your gift. You should get the credit for it.”
With a grin for her, Nolan took the rawhide, which was shaped like a large pretzel, and held it up for Homer’s inspection.
The puppy grabbed hold of it and settled in the grass next to the blanket with his treasure.
“That ought to buy me a few minutes of peace,” Nolan said.
“And what will you do with those minutes?”
A sexy smile lit up his handsome face as he held out his arm to her. “Come here, and I’ll show you.”
Hannah scooted across the blanket and into his loving embrace.
“Much better,” he said when he had both arms around her.
“Thanks for this. I wouldn’t have said I needed it, but now that I’ve been cajoled into it, I can see it’s exactly what I needed.”
“I know, baby.” He lay back on the blanket, bringing her with him. “I hate to see you stressed out and overloaded. If you want to push the wedding back a bit—”
“No. Definitely not. I don’t want to do that.”
“I don’t want that either.” He turned on his side to face her and propped himself on his upturned hand. “I can’t wait until you’re my wife.”
“I can’t wait either.” She reached for him and brought him down to her for a kiss that she planned to keep short and sweet. However, he had other ideas.
He coaxed her mouth open and teased her with his tongue, which was all it took to make her wish they were inside, in her bed, where they’d spent every night since their engagement.
“Let’s go in,” Hannah whispered against his lips. “We can have our picnic in the house.”
“We’re having it right here.” His fingers moved down the front of her, and that’s when she realized he was unbuttoning her shirt.
Hannah covered his hand with hers, halting his progress. “Not here.”
“Nolan, we can’t! I have neighbors.”
“Who can’t see anything down here, which is why I chose this spot. We’re hidden by the trees.”
“And I have a family that’s forever breezing in and out of here.”
“They’ve been told to stay away today.”
She looked up to find a determined expression on his face. “You told my family to stay away.”
“I did.” His lips were busy on her neck, making her squirm and wriggle under him. “Is that a deal breaker?”
“Not at all. That might actually entitle you to some special favors.”
He raised his head and met her gaze, his eyes heavy with desire. “I love your special favors.”
Hannah looped her arms around his neck and lost herself in his kiss, letting the worries and stress fade away. Determined to enjoy the stolen interlude he’d arranged for them, she got busy tugging his T-shirt free of his shorts. When her hand made contact with his flat, muscular belly, he gasped against her lips.
She loved that her touch had such a powerful effect on him, that he always made her feel she was the most important thing in his life. And she had no doubt she always would be, which was one of many reasons she couldn’t wait to marry him later in the summer.
He broke the kiss and laid a heated trail from her neck to her chest, releasing the front clasp on her bra. The heat of his mouth and the warmth of the sun on her breasts were a heady combination as he continued to her belly, which growled loudly, making him laugh and Homer bark.
Leaning his forehead against her belly, Nolan said, “Sounds like I need to feed you before I ravish you.”
“That might be a good idea.” Hannah sat up and began to set her clothes to rights.
“Don’t cover yourself. I want to see you.”
“I can’t sit here half naked.” She glanced around to find the trees truly did hide them from the neighbors on either side of her. The next closest neighbor in the back was more than a mile away, on the other side of the stream.
“Yes, you can.” He held up a forkful of chicken for her.
She leaned in to take the bite. “Only if you do, too.” As the savory flavor exploded on her tongue, she watched him reach for the hem of his T-shirt to pull it up and over his head.
“Much. Let me have some more of that chicken.”
She sent him a saucy smile. “I’m doing what I was told and enjoying my picnic. Now hurry up and feed me so we can get back to the ravishing.”
Hearing her provocative words, Nolan’s eyes darkened with lust as he broke open the Brie and fed her crackers and soft cheese.
Hannah returned the favor, feeding him the same way he’d fed her. With each bite she held out to him, he managed to nibble on her fingers, too. She wouldn’t have thought that could be sexy until Nolan did it. For seven long years, she’d lived without sensuality in her life, and she’d been making up for lost time since she fell in love with him. He’d reminded her that despite the crushing loss of her husband, Caleb, she was still very much alive and very much a woman.
By the time the final chocolate-covered strawberry had been consumed, Hannah was ready to rip his clothes off so she could realize the promise of the sultry looks he’d been directing her way while they ate.
“Do you want—”
She cut off his words with a kiss designed to show him exactly what she wanted. Thankfully, he was more than capable of taking a not-so-subtle hint and wrapped his arms around her. The rough brush of his chest hair against her sensitive nipples sent a bolt of heat straight through her, causing an insistent throb between her legs that required immediate attention.
Hannah slid her hand from his chest to his belly, which quivered in response to her touch. Tugging on the button to his shorts, she unzipped and freed him from his clothes.
“Hannah,” he said gruffly. “God, that feels good.”
There was something so decadent about lying in the afternoon sunshine in her backyard as they drove each other into a heated frenzy with well-placed kisses and caresses designed to arouse. The sweet fragrance of spring—blooming flowers and freshly cut grass—filled her senses, along with Nolan’s now-familiar scent of soap and subtle cologne. Despite the dirty work he did at the garage, he always smelled amazing when he touched her.
She burrowed her nose into the curve of his neck, breathing him in while he unzipped her jeans. Rather than remove her pants, he slid a hand inside and cupped her sex as he took her mouth in another incendiary kiss. Between the strokes of his tongue and the press of his fingers, he brought her to the precipice of release, and he’d barely touched her.
Feeling desperate and needy, she pushed at his shorts, shoving them down over his hips, gasping when he slid two fingers inside her.
“Hannah,” he whispered against her ear. “You’re always so ready for me.” He curled his fingers, seeking the spot deep inside that set her off, stroking and coaxing until she cried out from the overwhelming pleasure that took her away from all her worries and reminded her of why they were moving heaven and earth to be married as soon as possible.
Nolan kept his fingers deep inside her until the last waves of her orgasm had passed, withdrawing only to remove the rest of their clothes. When they both were naked and he was settled on top of her, he gazed down at the face he’d dreamed about for years before he knew the joy of waking to her every day.
“I can’t believe we’re doing this in broad daylight in the backyard,” Hannah said, her face flushed with desire and embarrassment that he adored.
“Believe it.” As he brought his lips down on hers, he glanced over to ensure Homer was still happily occupied with the rawhide. Nolan wanted to give Hannah his complete, undivided attention.
“You’ve turned me into a regular trollop,” she said, arching into him as he paid homage to her neck before moving down to focus on her breasts.
Hearing the usually proper and reserved Hannah Abbott Guthrie use the word trollop to describe herself had Nolan laughing—hard. “You can be a trollop with me any time you want, babe. In fact, the more often the better.” He punctuated his words by drawing her nipple into his mouth and sucking on it as he ran his tongue back and forth over the hardened tip.
The press of her fingers into his back told him she liked what he was doing, so he kept it up until she was squirming beneath him and testing his intention to draw this out as long as possible. By the time this afternoon ended, he wanted her as relaxed as he could get her. With that in mind, he kissed his way down to her belly, taking his own sweet time to ensure that every sensitive area received equal treatment.
He’d never known desire like the kind she inspired in him. He’d never known it was possible to feel so deeply, to want so madly, to need so completely. She occupied about ninety-five percent of his thoughts, making it difficult to concentrate on anything that didn’t involve her.
Moving farther down, he used the width of his shoulders to push her legs apart and cupped her bottom. He was addicted to the taste of her, and as her unique flavor exploded on his tongue, he decided she was sweeter than any of the delicacies they’d enjoyed earlier. He’d take her over a chocolate-covered strawberry any day.
She was sensitive and wet from her earlier release, and he stroked her with his fingers before he added his tongue, focusing on her clit.
Hannah grabbed fistfuls of his hair and held on tight as he set out to drive her crazy. Judging from the whimpers and moans that came from deep inside her, he was succeeding. Nothing pleased him more than pleasing and pleasuring her. It hadn’t taken long for him to wonder how he’d managed to live for thirty-five years without this kind of desire in his life. And now that he’d known it with Hannah, no one else could ever do for him.
She was it. She was everything, and he wanted to make sure she knew that every day.
“Nolan.” The way she said his name, breathlessly and pleadingly, only made him harder, if that was possible, but it also made him more determined to take his time. “Nolan.”
He turned his face into her thigh, taking a nibble that made her lurch. “I’m busy.”
“Come up here.”
She flopped onto the blanket, her arms falling over her head in surrender. He wished she could see how incredibly beautiful she looked, spread out before him like the sweetest meal of his life. He took her by surprise when he reached up to cup her breast as he gave her his tongue once again. The combination tripped her orgasm, and her cries nearly took him with her. God, she was so effortlessly sexy, and he loved her with everything he had.
Kissing his way up the front of her, he reveled in her soft, silky skin and the scent he’d know anywhere as hers. “Still with me?” he asked when his lips hovered above hers.
“Is it nap time?”
“Not quite yet.” She wrapped her arms around his neck, and her inner thighs hugged his hips. “I’m still a little hungry.”
“Is that right?” he asked, endlessly amused by her. He never would’ve guessed that sweet, quiet Hannah had an inner vixen who loved to tease and torment him. And he adored every bit of it.
“Mmm.” This was said against his ear right before she bit own on his earlobe and sent his urgency level straight into the desperation zone.
“What can I get for you, babe? Some more strawberries, perhaps?” He felt her smile curve against his neck.
“I was thinking something more . . . filling.” She raised her hips to rub her slick heat against his cock.
Jesus. As much as he enjoyed her playful side, he was about to lose it all over her if she kept that up. So he took matters in hand—literally—and gave her what they both wanted so badly.
“Yes,” she whispered as her lips parted seductively and her eyes closed ever so slowly.
He took advantage of the opportunity to run his tongue over her lips while he pressed deeper into her. Even when he hadn’t worked her into an orgasmic frenzy beforehand, she was always ready for him. She’d once told him the sight of him made her ready, and what guy wouldn’t fall in love with a woman who said things like that? Her desire for him was one of the many, many reasons he was ass-over-teakettle in love with her.
She stroked a hand down his back to grip his backside, keeping him deep inside her and nearly making his head explode from the effort it took to hold back and wait for her. He freaking loved when she grabbed his ass and held on tight while he made love to her. Being with her this way was the closest thing to heaven he’d ever find on earth.
“Baby,” he said through gritted teeth. “Gotta move.”
“Okay,” she said breathlessly as she released him.
Like a horse that had broken free from its restraints, he let go of all thoughts of control or delaying gratification. He wanted everything, and he wanted it right now. It took all the willpower he had to hold off until Hannah got there right ahead of him. Nolan clung to her as he surged into her one last time, the pleasure overwhelming him. When he’d recovered his senses, he glanced at the puppy, who was still happily gnawing on the rawhide. Because he had no immediate plans to let her go or let her get dressed, he grasped a handful of the blanket and pulled it over them in case a member of her family hadn’t got the “leave us alone” memo.
Her hand caressing his chest had his immediate attention, as did the soft kisses she placed on his face and lips.
The sun beat warm upon them, but not so warm as to be uncomfortable. Nolan was more relaxed than he could remember being in, well . . . ever. All the burning questions had been answered to his extreme satisfaction. The woman he loved was in his arms, in his bed and in his life forever.
This right here, he thought, is what paradise must be like.
Hannah woke slowly, and for a moment, she couldn’t remember why she was in the backyard. Then she realized she was naked and wrapped up in Nolan’s tight embrace. The picnic came back to her in a flood of sweet memories that made her smile as she breathed in the masculine scent that had become so familiar to her.
Even Caleb, as crazy and adventurous as he’d been much of the time, had never convinced her to have totally naked sex in the backyard in the middle of the day. That thought nearly made her laugh out loud, but she contained herself so she wouldn’t disturb Nolan. He worked incredibly hard and rarely took time off during a workday. Seeing him so relaxed made her happy that he’d talked her into the picnic and the afternoon off. They’d both needed it.
She glanced at the sky to realize the sun had dropped considerably, making her wonder how long they’d been asleep.
Nolan stirred, his eyes opened slowly and his smile unfolded just as slowly. That sexy grin got to her every time.
“Good nap?” Hannah asked, pushing the hair back from his forehead.
“The best nap ever.”
“What time is it?”
He raised his arm to consult his watch. “Four thirty.”
“We slept for two hours?”
“I guess we needed it.”
Then she sat up abruptly to check on Homer and found that the rawhide had been abandoned. “Oh my God. Homer! Homer!” Hannah’s stomach dropped as she stood to grab her shirt. She jammed her legs into her shorts, forgoing underwear in her haste. “Homer! Come to Mama!” She scanned the yard, but saw no sign of the puppy.
Her gaze settled on the stream, and her legs nearly buckled from the wave of fear that assailed her. “Oh my God,” she whispered.
“He’s fine,” Nolan said, squeezing her shoulder. “He’s probably asleep under a bush, and we just have to find him.”
“Please, Nolan. Please. We have to find him.”
When he brushed the tears from her cheeks, she discovered she was crying. “I’ll find him. Keep calling him. Your voice is the one he wants to hear.” He looked her dead in the eye. “I will find him, okay?”
Thankful for his reassurances, she nodded, even as her heart pounded and her mind raced with all the possible awful places her darling Homer could be.
Nolan headed for the water as she continued to call Homer’s name. She looked under every bush, under the outdoor furniture that had recently been uncovered for the funeral of Caleb’s dog, Homer Senior. On her belly, she crawled under the latticework that surrounded the stairs to a dank space under the house. “Homer! Come here, buddy. Come see Mama.”
She blinked back new tears when her queries were met with silence. The only thing she needed to be happy right then was the sound of Homer’s little yips. But all she could hear was Nolan’s deep voice calling Homer’s name over and over again along with the splashing of water as he ran along the stream.
Nolan came back into the yard a few minutes later with his cell phone pressed against his ear. “Just come as soon as you can, and bring anyone who’s free.”
Hearing him call for help sent Hannah’s spirits plummeting.
“Hunter is coming, and he’s bringing Will and your dad.” Nolan never stopped moving as he spoke, heading for the gate, which was latched but high enough off the ground for an industrious puppy to squiggle underneath.
“How could we have let this happen?” Hannah said between sobs. “He’s only a baby. We should’ve been watching him.”
“We fell asleep, Hannah, and he was happily occupied. We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“There’re so many things that could’ve happened to him. He could’ve drowned or run into the street or—”
“Hannah.” He gripped her arms, forcing her to look at him. “Don’t go there. He probably caught a sniff of something and followed his nose and got lost. Happens all the time. I want to go look for him, but I can’t leave you when you’re so upset.”
She made an effort to pull herself together, because she wanted him looking for Homer and not comforting her. “I’m okay.”
“Stay back here. I’m going around front. Give me a shout if you find him.”
“I will, honey.” He kissed her forehead and took off through the gate, calling for Homer as he went.
Though she was all but certain Homer wasn’t anywhere in the backyard, she still looked again under every bush, making a wide circle of the big yard. She stopped at the site of Homer Senior’s grave and looked down at the wooden cross her brother Landon had carved with Homer’s name. “Please, Homie,” she whispered. “Help us find baby Homer.”
If there was anything Homer Senior or Caleb could do from their lofty post in heaven, Hannah had no doubt they’d come through for her. The thought of them watching over her—and Homer Junior—brought comfort as she went around to the front of the house where Nolan was consulting with her twin, Hunter, as well as her brother Will and her dad, who came over to hug her.
“We’re going to find that naughty little bugger,” her dad assured her, kissing her forehead. “Try not to worry.”
“It’s hard not to. He’s so little.” Her voice caught on a sob. “It’s all my fault. I fell asleep, and I wasn’t watching him.”
“Honey, don’t do that. You take beautiful care of that little guy, and everyone knows it. He’ll be back looking for you in no time at all. He couldn’t have gone far.”
“We were asleep for two hours.”
Hearing that, her dad took a deep breath and let it out. “We’ll find him, honey.”
Over the next three hours, every member of Hannah’s family came to aid in the search. Nolan’s friend Skeeter came as did his lady friend, Gertrude “Dude” Danforth, who’d given Homer Junior to Hannah.
“I’m so sorry, Dude.” Hannah’s eyes were red and raw from an endless stream of tears. “I love him so much. I’d never let anything happen to him.”
Dude, a massive woman who was known for being somewhat stoic and standoffish, surprised the heck out of Hannah by wrapping her in a tight hug. “I know you love him. And this stuff happens with pets. They wander off, and we search until we find them.”
“But what if—”
“No what-ifs,” Dude insisted. “We’re going to find him and bring him home to you.”
Hannah held on tight to Dude’s certainty. She didn’t want to think about the possibility that they might never find her baby Homer.
Nolan was like a man possessed by the devil as he searched for the little bundle of fur that Hannah loved more than she loved him. He couldn’t believe that Homer had actually wandered away from Hannah. He called the puppy the “Velcro baby” because he was always attached to Hannah, to the point that Nolan had actually been jealous of a twelve-pound fur-ball on more than one occasion.
Now he’d give everything he had, everything he’d ever have, to be able to put that little fur-ball back in Hannah’s arms, where he belonged. He couldn’t imagine how she’d ever survive losing Homer after giving her heart to him so completely right after Homer Senior died. After losing Caleb and then Homer Senior, she’d already been through enough, damn it.
After Nolan had put out the call for help, Skeeter had arrived with every high-powered flashlight they had at the garage. His friend had even thought to bring extra batteries, a detail for which Nolan was extremely grateful.
Nolan beat through the weeds and bushes in a vacant lot at the end of Hannah’s street, calling for Homer until his voice was hoarse and his throat was sore.
“Anything?” Hunter asked as he joined Nolan in the field.
“No.” Nolan’s anxiety level had hit the red zone about an hour ago and was venturing into dangerous territory as night fell over Butler. “We’ve got to find him, Hunter. She can’t go through this after everything else. It’ll break her. Especially because of what we were doing when he disappeared.”
Hunter rolled his eyes. “Spare me the details, please.”
“I’m not trying to be funny.” Nolan felt like his entire life and his every chance at happiness was on the line here. He knew Hannah, and if they didn’t find Homer, she’d never forgive herself for being so lax when she should’ve been watching the puppy. Nolan was far more concerned that she’d never forgive him for so thoroughly distracting her.
That last thought sent a laser of panic searing through him, leaving him breathless with fear.
“Nolan.” Hunter’s hand on his shoulder snapped him out of the panicked state he’d fallen into. “Are you okay?”
“I will be when we find him. Until then, not so good.”
“Let’s keep looking. He’s got to be around here somewhere. He’d never leave Hannah.”
“That’s what I keep thinking, too, so where the hell is he?” He rubbed at the end-of-the-day stubble on his jaw as he thought it through. “Let’s go back to the beginning and fan out from the yard again. That dog doesn’t leave her side. He wouldn’t just wander off if it meant leaving Hannah.”
“I’m with you, brother,” Hunter said. “Let’s go.”
As they tramped through the field and back to Hannah’s yard, Nolan could hear Hannah’s brothers, sisters, parents and grandfather calling for Homer as flashlight beams shone all over the street and nearby yards. After the Abbotts descended en masse, neighbors had come out to see what all the commotion was about and had joined in the search. Everyone loved Hannah. No one wanted to see her sad or upset again, least of all Nolan.
“This is all my fucking fault,” he muttered to Hunter.
“How is it your fucking fault?”
“She’s been so wound up about everything—the wedding, the inn for war widows, her work. It’s a lot, and I wanted to give her a break.”
“So you took her on a romantic picnic in her own yard, and the two of you fell asleep. And yes, I’m intentionally skipping over other obvious details in the interest of keeping my head from exploding. How is that your fucking fault when you tried to do something nice for her?”
“If we can’t find him, she’ll always remember how we managed to lose him and that’ll always be tied to me kidnapping her and convincing her to laze the afternoon away when she should’ve been working and watching him.”
“As much as I’d love to argue that point, knowing how Hannah thinks, I really can’t,” Hunter said with a sigh.
“She felt awful about leaving Homer Senior for the day when she came back to find him so bad off. She’ll never forgive herself—or me—if we don’t find Junior.”
Hunter pushed open the gate to Hannah’s backyard and held it for Nolan who went in ahead of him. “So you were on the blanket when you woke up and saw he was gone?” Hunter asked.
Nolan zeroed in on the rawhide that had been abandoned and was filled with sadness at the thought of never seeing Homer’s cute little multicolored face again. He was a mutt in every sense of the word, but he was their mutt, and they loved him. “Yeah.”
Hunter moved the picnic basket and lifted the blanket to shake it out.
The two men froze when they heard a faint sound.
“What was that?” Nolan asked.
“I don’t know, but I heard it, too.”
They stood perfectly still, hoping to hear it again.
Another whimper was followed by a soft mewl.
“Where’s that coming from?” Nolan asked frantically.
“We’ve looked everywhere! Where could he be that we haven’t looked? Homer! Come here, boy. Come see Daddy.” He’d mocked Hannah’s insistence on calling him Daddy when she talked about him to Homer. Now he’d give anything for their little boy to come back to him.
A small, frightened squeak had both men zeroing in on the picnic basket.
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Nolan said as they dove on the basket, opened the heavy flaps and found Homer buried under heavy stone plates, cloth napkins and silverware. The strong scent of puppy pee hit Nolan square in the nose. Moving carefully, he extracted the tiny body from under the plates and was rewarded with weaker-than-usual licks and nips to his face.
“Thank God,” he whispered. Tears filled his eyes at the oh-so-welcome sight of the puppy. He ran a gentle hand over every inch of Homer’s body, flinching as Homer cried out in pain when Nolan touched a lump on his head.
“What’s wrong?” Hunter asked.
“He’s got a knot on his head. I bet he nosed his way into the basket, got conked on the head by one of the plates or the lid and was knocked out. That’s why he couldn’t hear us calling him.”
“Unbelievable,” Hunter said. “Let’s get him back to Hannah.”
Nolan was already walking toward the gate with Homer squiggling in his arms. “You scared the hell out of us, little buddy.”
Homer seemed as relieved to have been found as Nolan was to have found him. That relief compounded when he saw Hannah standing in the street with her sisters Ella and Charley, and Will’s girlfriend, Cameron. The other women were comforting Hannah, who was inconsolable.
“Anything?” Cam asked when she saw them approach.
Nolan would never forget the look on Hannah’s face when he held out the squirming bundle and placed him in Hannah’s arms.
“Oh thank God! Oh Homie!” Tears poured down her face as she hugged and kissed the poor little guy to within an inch of his life. The puppy let out a pained squeal when she connected with the knot on the back of his head. “What happened?”
Nolan explained his theory to the stunned group of women.
“So the lid or a plate fell on him and knocked him out?” Charley asked.
“We’d tossed everything back in there sort of willy-nilly after we ate,” Nolan said. “I don’t know how he managed to do it or how we managed to sleep through it, but I think he must’ve been knocked out. Otherwise, he would’ve heard us calling for him and barked.”
“If he was knocked out, we need to call Myles,” Hannah said, referring to the town veterinarian.
“I’ll call him,” Hunter said, “and I’ll let everyone else know we found him. Take him inside, Han.”
“Thank you all so much,” Hannah said tearfully to her siblings. “Thank you.”
“Nolan found him,” Hunter said.
Nolan sent a small, grateful smile to his longtime friend and future brother-in-law. “Doesn’t matter who found him. All that matters is that he’s safe and back where he belongs.”
Hannah surprised him when she went up on tiptoes—while still holding on tight to Homer—and kissed him in front of her brother, sisters and friend. “It matters who found him. Thank you so much.”
“Anything for you, babe,” he whispered gruffly, overwhelmed with love for her as well as relief and gratitude that their frantic search had resulted in a happy ending.
Hannah insisted on ordering pizza for all the people who’d helped them look for Homer, which is how she ended up with a crowd in her kitchen, living room and dining room.
Myles had come right over to give Homer a quick check and had determined that other than the lump on his head, he was perfectly fine. He’d refused payment, so Hannah insisted he stay for pizza and a beer.
Homer basked in attention from the entire Abbott family and most of Hannah’s neighbors as he was passed from hand to hand so everyone could give him a kiss and tell him how happy they were to have him home safe.
All the time, however, the puppy’s eyes were trained on Hannah, making sure she was close by. His devotion filled her with an unreasonable amount of love. She knew her affection for him was over the top, but she refused to apologize for loving with her whole heart.
Speaking of her whole heart . . . Nolan came into the room, looking pale and exhausted. He’d had very little to say after he found Homer, but she could see his relief was every bit as profound as hers. She knew he loved Homer almost as much as she did, not that he’d ever admit it. No, it was much more amusing to both of them when he poked fun at her crazy love for Homer.
Hannah held Nolan’s gaze as he crossed the room to her. He put an arm around her and kissed her temple. “Did you eat something, babe?”
“Not yet. My stomach is too wound up to eat.” She glanced up at him. “Did you?”
“Not yet. Same problem.”
She put her arm around his waist and leaned her head against his chest. No words were necessary in that moment. Rather, she chose to hold on to him, fortified by today’s reminder that things can change without warning, and it was important to hold on with all your might to what mattered most.
The house cleared out a short time later, and Nolan went around locking all the doors before they walked upstairs together. Homer was asleep in Hannah’s arms, done in by his big day. She laid him on the pillow he’d claimed as his own on the far left side of their bed.
Nolan had insisted he could have one side or the other, but not the middle. He didn’t want anything—especially an overly faithful bundle of fur—standing between him and Hannah when they were in bed. She’d acquiesced to her fiancé’s wishes and now she happily slept between her two best guys, most of the time wrapped up in Nolan’s arms while Homer slept pressed up against her back. She wouldn’t have it any other way.
As she changed into a nightgown and brushed her teeth, she realized how drained she was from the emotional ride she’d been on for hours. It had been a truly awful feeling to not know where Homer was, and she hoped she never felt anything remotely like that again.
She was already in bed when Nolan joined her. Rather than turn toward her the way he always did, he stared up at the ceiling seeming lost in thoughts he was keeping to himself.
Hannah rested her hand on his belly, and he covered her hand with his, but he kept his gaze fixed on the ceiling. “Are you okay?” she asked him.
“Nolan . . . talk to me. What’re you thinking?”
“I’m so damned sorry this happened. It’s all my fault.”
Touched by the genuine regret she heard in his voice and saw on his face, she propped herself up on her elbow. “No, it isn’t. Homer is my dog. I should’ve been watching him.”
“He’s our dog, babe. We both should’ve been watching him.”
Hearing him admit that Homer was his, too, brought new tears to her eyes.
“Oh God, please don’t cry. I seriously can’t bear to see you cry anymore today.”
“Okay, then don’t look.” She nuzzled into the space between his neck and shoulder and felt his arms come around her, holding her tight against him.
“I can feel those tears.”
She smiled and kissed his neck, adding a dab of tongue. “It’s not tears you feel.”
His low chuckle filled her with hope that by this time tomorrow, they’d be back to normal and over the shock and fear that had gripped them for hours today.
“Are we going to be awful parents if we can’t keep track of a puppy?” she asked, voicing one of the fears that had overtaken her during the hours in which Homer was missing.
“We’re going to be great parents—even more so after today when we got a huge wake-up call about what happens when you don’t pay close enough attention. Our kids will be extremely well supervised.”
“I suppose you’re right.”
“You’re going to be an awesome mother, Hannah. Every kid should be so lucky to have someone like you for a mom. I can’t wait to see that.”
“You’re going to make me cry again.”
“In that case, you’re going to be a horrible, awful, terrible mother, and I feel sorry for my poor, pathetic future children.”
She laughed through her tears and then turned his face into her kiss. “Before the big scare, this was a truly lovely day. Thanks for all you did to make it happen.”
“I’m sorry it went bad on us.”
“Can we do it again sometime, without the high drama?”
“Sure. Any time you want. Just let me know.”
“I think I’d rather let you surprise me.”
His eyes widened. “I thought you didn’t like surprises?”
“I’m starting to realize your surprises are the best ever, so I’ll take my chances.”
“I love you, Hannah. I’m so glad you got your baby back.”
“I love you, too. You’re my hero in every possible way.”
Hearing that, his dark eyes went soft with love as he kissed her.
Hannah fell asleep in his arms with Homer pressed against her back and everything once again right in her world.