Prologue (Smith’s Corner)
The clanging of the jail gates brought with it a huge dose of reality that I’d never quite accepted until this moment. For the first time, I acknowledged the fear of what Ash was going to face, alone. How could one night change everything?
As the guard’s gaze swept down over my curves, revulsion and fear followed. How would Ash survive in this place? How was I going to survive without him?
He’d become my everything since the day I’d met him. As the guard indicated for me to sit with all the other visitors on hard plastic chairs that were bolted to the ground, memories of the night floated through my mind.
“Hey, darlin’, what can I get you to drink?” the barman rasped in a sexy voice that sent shivers down my body.
Up until now, the only sexy Smith brother I’d met was Dallas. The youngest of them all, I had been a year ahead of him at school. I hadn’t mixed in the brothers’ circle of friends. Their exploits had been gossiped about for years. Then they’d bought the one bar in town, and the word was they were clearing out the deadbeats that were only looking to fight.
Dallas had not prepared me for the man-mountain in front of me. He was huge, at the best guess six-foot and five or six inches of pure man. His large barrel chest was covered in a black T-shirt that clung to every muscle. His arms bulged when he leaned on the bar. Tattoos covered his arms and parts of his hands. I’d never considered that sexy before, but on the man in front of me, hell, they were something else. My gaze moved up to meet eyes that reminded me of dark molten chocolate, and for a second, I forgot what I was doing there, and I was pretty sure even my own name.
His thick, dark brows rose, and a sexy smirk formed on his lips. “Cat got your tongue, little lady?”
“Erm, can I have four draft beers, please?” The breathy way I sounded caused a wave of heat to ride up my chest and mix with my embarrassment.
The sounds around me disappeared as he slowly stood back up, winked, then swaggered like a cowboy from an old western down the bar to gather up the glasses.
There was a nudge to my ribs. I glanced to my left, finding Caroline, my best friend. “He’s so gorgeous. In fact, they all are.” I followed Caroline’s gaze to the three other men behind the bar, that, if I was honest, I hadn’t noticed.
“Who’s the one in the black T-shirt?” I whispered out the side of my mouth.
Caroline giggled. “That’s Ash. I think he’s the second oldest of the brothers. He’s hot and single, from what I hear. Heck, I think they’re all single right now.”
Ash walked back toward us with two filled glasses and placed them on the bar in front of me. “Caroline. How’s your brother doin’ after the fall off his horse?”
There was a sigh and a sniff before she answered. “No, great. Mal is about as happy as his horse is right now, unable to get about and ride. He broke his leg in two places, and that means restin’ up until it’s healed.”
Ash rubbed at his bearded jaw. “Sorry to hear that. Tell him I was askin’ after him. You could mention if he’s lookin’ for someone to ride his stallion, I’ll help out. His horse is a bit of a handful.”
“It is, and it’s why he broke his damn leg giving the thing too much rein.”
I gently touched Caroline’s arm, understanding her worry for her brother. He’d been lucky he hadn’t broken his neck. “It’s six to eight weeks because he didn’t displace the bones. He’s lucky he didn’t need surgery. After a few weeks of PT and being careful, he’ll be soon back on his feet and getting under yours again.”
Ash’s eyes narrowed on me. “How do you know so much about that stuff? You hurt yourself in the past?”
Was that concern I heard in his voice? The flirtatious look in his eyes remained as he waited for me to answer. My heart fluttered under my ribcage. “I’m a nurse, newly qualified, and right now, I’m working in orthopedics.”
“Sexy, clever, and all those curves. What more could a man want?”
“Stop flirtin’ with the customers,” a gruff, grumpy-looking guy, who, if I wasn’t mistaken, had to be Ash’s brother, said as he walked past.
Ash didn’t even so much as acknowledge the other guy as he retrieved the other two beers. Once they were sitting in front of me, I reached for my purse, and he shook his head. “On the house…if you’ll agree to go on a date with me.”
The fluttering turned to a full-on stampede as my heart tried to work to escape my chest. “You wanna take me on a date?”
Caroline sighed loudly.
I’d never been good at the flirting game. I’d only ever had one boyfriend before, and he’d dumped me for someone who was half my size.
“That I do, darlin’. So how about it, you wanna take a risk on a bad boy?”
The past disappeared at the shout of my name and brought me back to reality with a crushing blow to my chest. I stood on rubbery legs and walked after the prison guard. There was the scent of sweat and something I didn’t want to think too hard about as I walked down long hallways. The starkness of the white walls and gray concrete floors left no hiding from where I was. Where Ash was going to be living for…
The room the guy led me into had a glass partition between me and the empty room on the other side. I sat in the lone chair and sucked in a deep breath. My hands cupped my belly, and I tried not to think about what the future would hold for me, Ash, or our unborn child.
A sound drew my gaze to the other side of the glass, and my heart tripped over in my chest. The love I felt for this man swelled so fast it left me breathless. He’d been my everything from the very first date four years earlier. We’d been inseparable, and the little house we’d bought together held all the memories of what we could have had if…
“I told you, Alora, you should not be coming here.” They were words he’d repeated at the court through his lawyer when they’d passed judgment.
I pressed forward in my seat, desperate to feel his arms around me. They’d always made me feel safe and loved. The man staring at me now was a stranger. He was not the Ash I knew. The tears I’d thought had all but dried up, started to slide down my cheeks. “I love you.”
His expression became closed, and my heart ached for what I understood he was doing. “It’s over. I could be here for more than a decade. You need to be livin’ your life, not waitin’ on the likes of me.”
“If you behave, your lawyer said you can be out in half that time. You are worth waitin’ for, Ash. I love you.”
“Where was I when you got attacked? Workin’? To busy worryin’ about shit that ain’t important? How can you love me? How?” His whole body shook in the chair, his face the same mask of devastation it was when he’d found me at the back of the hospital and realized I’d been attacked. “Listen and listen good. Go and don’t come back. I’ve told them not to let you in again. I need you to live your life and be happy. I need that.” His jaw flexed, his eyes full of determination.
The little butterfly movement in the pit of my stomach left me cupping my belly. The child we’d conceived—that he had no idea about—pushed me to fight for the one man who was worth everything. “I’m—”
“Leave, now.” He stood and swung around, offering me the view of his back, not giving me a chance to continue.
I whispered, “Pregnant,” to the now empty room.
Two Months Later
“What do you mean you’re leavin’ town today?” Caroline questioned, her hands on her waist as I continued to pack my things.
“It’s for the best with Ash still refusing to see me.” The thickness in my throat made it hard to sound normal, but I hoped Caroline was too angry to notice.
“The best for who? You’ll be alone with a baby to raise. If you stay here, you’ve got friends, me and Ash’s brothers. You know they’ll help out.”
It was understandable that she didn’t mention my folks because they’d washed their hands of me when I’d refused to get rid of Ash’s baby. They were god-fearing people, or that’s what they’d have folks believe. Ash was the one in prison, so in their eyes, he was the one in the wrong. He’d made a bad judgment call. Yes, there was no denying that. But it was all about me. He’d defended me. They didn’t seem to want to acknowledge that. Wrong was wrong when the guy Ash had beaten to a bloody pulp had been lucky enough to survive.
If I’d known that the second I’d identified my attacker, I’d sealed everyone’s fate, including my own and my unborn baby, I’d have acted differently.
I shoved the last of the clothes I’d laid out into the bag before looking at Caroline. “Ash doesn’t want anything to do with me.” It was painful to say it, to acknowledge what was happening between the man I’d given my heart to and me. “If I go to his brothers, they’ll tell him about the baby for sure. Can you imagine how awful that would be for Ash on top of whatever he’s enduring in that place? We’ve all heard the stories about what happens in jail.” I ran my hands over my face, working to keep those images out of my head.
Caroline came and wrapped her arms around me. “Okay, you do what’s best for you and the baby. Remember though, I’ll be here for you anytime you need me.” Her glistening eyes swept the room that had been mine and Ash’s. His things had been put in storage with the new folks coming to rent the house while I decided what to do with it. Ash had signed it over to me and paid off the remaining mortgage. I was debt-free but without the one thing I wanted or needed: Ash.
“I know, and I’ll keep in touch. You can come and visit once I get settled.”
She gave me a watery smile. “I’ll be visitin’ so often that you’ll get fed up with me.”
We’d been friends since preschool, and she’d always had my back just as I’d had hers. I’d chosen not to tell her what I was doing until everything had been signed and sealed, understanding she’d have tried to persuade me to stay. I couldn’t, not now that it was obvious I was carrying a child. I couldn’t risk Ash’s brothers finding out.
I hugged her hard. “I’ll be countin’ on it.” Where I was going, I’d have no one, something I was going to have to get used to. How did anyone replace their heart when it’s been given to someone else?