Home > The Road to Rose Bend(2)

The Road to Rose Bend(2)
Author: Naima Simone

   With one last glance in the mourner’s direction, she concentrated on the view before her once more.

   Peace settled over her, like an old friend eagerly welcoming her back. As she’d known it would. The people in Rose Bend might not be the most receptive to her being back. They might not ever accept her. But this place? It knew her heart. Closing her eyes, Sydney tipped her head back, allowing the fat sun sitting low in the sky to warm her skin with its last rays. This had been her special place after Carlin died. Here, she could be alone. Away from the censure and overwhelming grief she’d glimpsed in her parents’ eyes. Here, she could shed the I-don’t-give-a-fuck persona she’d adorned, because God...she gave so many fucks.

   Here, she could be Sydney and not sink in the shame of being alive.

   “Sydney?”

   Well, damn.

   Irritation flashed through her, but years of living in the South already had her lips curling into a polite smile. Until she turned her head and met a pair of stunning amber eyes. A very familiar pair of stunning amber eyes that she hadn’t forgotten in the eight years she’d been gone.

   Astonishment ricocheted through her, robbing her of coherent speech.

   “Cole?” The shallow rasp was all she could squeeze past her constricted lungs.

   A full, sensual mouth curved at the corners, that bottom lip heavy, and for a moment, his smile briefly banished the shadows lurking in his gaze. And it was that smile that confirmed the tall, wide-shouldered, powerfully built man standing before her was indeed Coltrane “Cole” Dennison. The man she’d hopelessly crushed on so many years ago stared down at her now, that jeweled gaze filled with confusion, surprise and delight.

   Delight.

   Coltrane Dennison was delighted to see her. Then again, her childhood friend’s older brother had always been nice to the foolish and reckless teenager she’d been. Even though she and his sister Leontyne had gotten into some scrapes that could squarely be placed at Sydney’s feet. Now...some might still call her reckless. But at twenty-six, she’d learned discipline and restraint. The hard way.

   “It is you,” he said in a voice that landed somewhere between the smooth glide of water over pebbles and thunder rolling across an inky sky.

   Damn. Not only had pregnancy turned her into an emotional Tilt-a-Whirl and caused hair to sprout in places it really had no business growing, but it’d apparently transformed her from grant writer to poet. Cole shifted closer, effectively cutting off her scolding of herself. Clearing her throat, she forced herself to adopt a carefree smile that was a flat-out lie.

   “It’s me,” she said, slipping her hands into the pockets of her billowy red-and-gold maxi dress. “Guilty,” she added with a chuckle that sounded way too self-deprecating for her comfort.

   Seemed she was always on the verge of apologizing for something.

   For not saving her older sister’s life.

   For not being the perfect daughter.

   For not giving her baby a two-parent home.

   Yep. That was her. The Queen of I’m Sorry.

   He moved forward again, and before she could brace herself, his arms encircled her, his wide, hard chest pressed against her cheek and his scent wrapped around her. Her lashes fluttered then lowered, her hands raising to flatten against the strong muscles of his back. She slowly released her pent-up breath, and for the shortest of moments, she caved. Yielded to the pleasure of his—of anyone’s—genuine joy in seeing her again. Capitulated to the thrill of being welcomed instead of scorned.

   Surrendered to the need for human contact, for being close to someone, held by them. Touched by them.

   She stiffened. Jesus, what was she doing?

   Being a damn glutton for punishment, that’s what. Hadn’t it been giving in to that last need that had led to her current state of impending single motherhood? Yes, a bottle of Moscato and a boatload of being-up-in-her-feelings had guided the way to unwise sex with her ex-husband, but still... It’d been that desire for intimacy, for emotional and physical connection, that had greased it. And that desire, the fear of being alone, had kept her in her marriage long past its expiration date.

   Hours and hours on a therapist’s couch had granted her insight into the whys. Distant parents. Lack of affirmation. Viewing her looks as her primary value. Validation. Yada, yada, yada.

   It all boiled down to one thing: she needed to keep dicks out of her pants because it led to nothing but trouble.

   Not that Cole, her best friend’s brother, wanted her... Good God. She was devolving.

   Easing out of his arms, she dropped hers to her sides.

   “It’s good to see you again. God, how many years has it been? Seven? Eight?” If her abrupt retreat confused him, his voice didn’t betray it. His smile didn’t slip, and he dipped his head in a nod. “I just saw your mom this morning at her store. She didn’t mention you were coming in for a visit.”

   Because she doesn’t know.

   A shiver of anxiety quivered through her at the thought of showing up on her parents’ doorstep, her life packed in her car. “Unhappy” would be a serious understatement for the confusion, disappointment and anger that would greet Sydney’s news.

   Shrugging a shoulder, she glanced away from him and refocused on the view so she didn’t have to lie to his face. “I’m sure she just had other things on her mind. And it’s been eight years since the Black Sheep of Rose Bend left.” What in the hell had possessed her to add that? Because she was a master of deflection, she switched the subject. “What are you doing out here anyway? The back of a church isn’t exactly a hot spot on a Friday night,” she teased.

   She waited for a husky chuckle or his playful response, but only silence replied to her. No, it screamed at her so loudly she jerked her head to the side and peered at Cole.

   The utter desolation in his gaze punched the air from her lungs. She lifted a hand to her chest and pressed her knuckles to the ache there. How could those eyes contain so much pain and yet he still stood? Still breathed? She was having a difficult time doing both just witnessing it.

   His lashes lowered, and he slid his hands into the pockets of his black, tailored pants. He turned toward the sun and the sky that bled lavender and gray. His white dress shirt clung to his taut shoulders and back. And for the first time, the shock of seeing him again ebbed enough for her to catalog the smaller details about Cole.

   As long as she’d known him—and in a town the size of Rose Bend, that was all her life—his dark hair had tumbled around his face in loose curls and waves. But no strands flirted with his cheekbones or jaw. They were gone, shorn into a closely cropped cut that framed his head and exposed his sharply hewn profile. Golden wheat skin that proudly proclaimed his Puerto Rican heritage stretched across cheekbones that could slice air, but his strong, patrician facial features were more pronounced, more severe than she remembered. As if he’d lost some weight recently and the whittling down had emphasized the bold bones of his cheeks, the slant of his nose, the sensuous curves of his mouth, the slash of his clean-shaven jaw.

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