Appears in the print edition of I Want To Hold Your Hand.
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 Hard Day’s Night
A Green Mountain Series Novella
By Marie Force
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.
Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
~ Calvin Coolidge