Kendall Kelly was the queen of her stage. No one could accuse her of not knowing how to play a role. Whether the part was that of audacious punk princess, the fallen-from-grace overindulgent rock star, or the small-town girl from the other side of the tracks, Kendall went all in and owned it because the second she showed a twinge of doubt was the moment they’d all swoop in and take her out at the knees.
Walking into her grandmother’s memorial service had started out the same way, with her playing the role that was expected of her. This time she was the shamed, but grieving granddaughter to the last remaining member of her family. Her grandmother, well-known curmudgeon and all-around town witch, was Kendall’s last tenuous link to this dusty backwater town. Unless she counted her soon-to-be ex-husband, which she didn’t, everyone else had either moved on and forgotten their Blackberry Cove roots…or they’d simply died. So much dust in the wind. That was her family.
And up until last week when she’d received the somber email from her grandmother’s lawyer, she’d been a small speck of that dust out there trying to salvage what was left of her sad shooting star of a career—a career that she’d never really pursued or wanted. But now she found herself walking into the dark town church that had seen just about every wedding—shotgun or otherwise—baptism, and funeral of this forgotten hellhole for the last one hundred years. Well, every wedding except hers. Her nuptials had taken place in a nauseatingly pink chapel in Las Vegas on her eighteenth birthday.
But this was definitely not the time to think about her marriage. Or the lack thereof of her relationship with her quote-unquote husband. Kendall ran her hand over her head, checking to make sure every pale pink hair was in place; which of course it was since the gallon of hairspray she’d lacquered on every strand pretty much guaranteed it wouldn’t budge even if a hurricane hit the church. No, this morning she would focus on getting through a memorial for a woman who never once told Kendall she loved her, never once read her a bedtime story, and had only reminded her on a daily basis what a drain of money and energy Kendall was on her.
And yet, Kendall thought ruefully, you ran back to her every time she asked you to despite her constant berating and belittling.
Kendall hated funerals, and this was her second in under a year. Her half-sister, Sabre, had died tragically in a freak motorcycle accident up in Portland. Kendall had flown out for the service, still in shock and mourning the idea of their lost relationship more than anything since Sabre’s father had raised her older sister—a relation the two sisters didn’t share. The sharp ache in her chest throbbed thinking of her beautiful, talented sibling gone. Just like everyone else.
In the airport restroom Kendall had donned a tight, but modest black wrap dress because she was playing a role after all, but she drew the line at her boots when it came to her newfound modesty. She refused to give up her rhinestone cowboy boots even for a funeral. Her boots may be her signature to the rest of the world, but to Kendall they were armor, armor she’d need to protect her from whispered insults and not-so-hidden looks of disgust because although there wasn’t one person in attendance who claimed Mary Ellen Kelly as a friend or even a decent neighbor since her grandmother had never had a kind word for anyone in town, damned if the good folks of Humboldt County, California, didn’t love themselves a spectacle. And the reappearance of their bad girl gone worse would definitely prove to be a drama. Even better would be the reunion of said bad girl with the town’s golden boy she’d left behind barely two years after she married him and then ripped out his heart.
Ignoring the acid bubbling in her gut she threw back her shoulders and stomped into the full church. She didn’t bother glancing at the filled pews, nevertheless she could feel their eyes on her, trying to cut her down to size and tear her off the high horse they all claimed she rode around on. A murmured spiteful word here and there hit her like stabby little pinpricks: too good, trash, whore, arrogant, cheater. It hurt now just like it always had. But she couldn’t control what people said about her; she’d never been able to even with the town’s favorite son by her side, so she certainly wasn’t going to now.
No matter. She wasn’t here for anyone but herself. She wouldn’t have even bothered to show in the first place if Nana’s lawyer hadn’t insisted she meet him after the service for the reading of her grandmother’s will. And it’s not like her one remaining friend in this godforsaken town would make an appearance at her grandmother’s funeral since she’d been meaner to Delilah than just about anyone else. And that was quite an achievement as Nana was equally horrid to everyone in town.
She snorted to herself as she found a seat in the empty front bench. Will. Like her grandmother had anything other than that dying sinkhole of dirt to will to anyone. And Kendall was the last of their family, unless anyone had been able to locate her Uncle Jim who’d taken off before she’d been born. Kendall planned to have the dilapidated farmhouse and surrounding forty acres on the market before sundown tomorrow, right before she left Blackberry Cove in her dust for the last time.
She folded her clammy hands neatly in her lap, wanting desperately to rub them on her dress. But she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. They didn’t need to know how uncomfortable she was in her own hometown, that she was far more afraid of them than they had ever been of her. Breathing deeply, she counted to ten and pretended the heavy, unseasonably hot spring air that filled her lungs was fresh and cool. She would get through this, get rid of that damn house, and get the hell of town before she had a chance to stir up the ghostly husks of her past.
Seconds before the service was scheduled to begin, the rumble of whispered voices halted, words left hanging in the air like more of that damn dust that seemed to cling to everything in Blackberry Cove. She wanted to turn, but she couldn’t. Wouldn’t. She knew exactly who was creating the clamor at the back of the church. And she wasn’t giving him any more power over her than he’d already gathered. Yes, she was the town Jezebel, but no one really knew their story except for them. And maybe she was a lot less golden and a helluva lot more tarnished than he was, but they didn’t know the truth. Hell, even he didn’t know the truth.
She kept her head lowered and focused on her hands clenched on her lap. Two worn, but clean black leather boots appeared in her field of vision. Her heart sped up and beat so loud in her ears it nearly drowned out the hushed murmurs of the gossipy town. A familiar low drawl blanketed her as she stared at his boots. “Hello, Kendall.”
Damian. Her heart stopped for a moment as his familiar deep growl rolled over her and rattled around in her chest.
Kendall slowly drew her gaze up his long legs and trim waist, over the dress shirt she knew covered tight muscles honed from years of brutal physical ranch work and a regular regimen of weights and running, and up to that gorgeous, sun-kissed face. Damian Sloane had been an attractive if gangly young man when she’d last seen him four years before. But now he was a man, a man with his black hair just a little too long…almost like he couldn’t be bothered with a haircut and at least a week’s growth of dark beard that did nothing to hide those angular cheekbones and intense hazel eyes that sometimes glowed green at the edges.
She took a deep centering breath like those meditation videos on the Internet instructed.
“Hello, Damian.” Probably best to keep it simple and not start off with why she’d snuck out on him all those years ago and where she’d been since. Even if he did know, he probably wouldn’t care at this point. Too much water under that bridge.
He held his hat his in hands and gestured to the empty spot next to her. “Mind if I sit?” She did. Of course she did, because the truth was that Damian Sloane drove her mad. Mad with rage, mad with hurt, but mostly mad with longing. She was already strung tighter than a taut guitar string and having him next to her throughout the entire service would surely send her over the edge. Instead of protesting, though, she nodded. She was determined to not have the fight that had been brewing between them for years blow up in front of the town. She’d had enough public humiliation to last a lifetime and wasn’t eager for anymore, thankyouverymuch.
Damian bent his tall, muscled frame and sat beside her, setting his hat on the other side of him. Instead of putting space between them like she desperately needed, he pressed his leg up against hers. Fire seemed to burn from the spot their legs touched and spread through her body like lava. Her breath hitched and then completely stopped for a moment when he angled slightly toward her body and placed his hand on her knee, the one still wearing the thick gold band she’d put on his finger years ago. A cruel smile formed on his lips before he reached over with his other hand and gripped her chin with his long, tanned fingers. Pulling her face to his he rubbed his lips across hers roughly and pulled back slightly so he could peer down at her.
“Welcome home, wife.” In that moment, all the hurt, all the anger, and all the betrayal of young love came rushing back like a bullet train, every flashing window a single memory ripped from the past she tried so hard to keep down. Of all the things she’d imagined happening on this day, him kissing and laying claim to her once again in front of the whole town was not part of it.
As he smirked and leaned back against the pew with his huge hand still resting on her knee, Kendall realized what she had forgotten so long ago. Damian Sloane was more dangerous than any con artist musician she’d met on the road and could be meaner than any rattlesnake. But, more importantly, he’d never actually given her heart back.
“And the other fifty percent of said property is hereby willed to Damian Sloane,” Joe McGreevy repeated for the third time before closing the brown folder he read from. He, Kendall, and Damian sat in Joe’s stately office with its gray walls and dark wood desk and built-in shelving lined with impressive legal tomes, looking more like a city firm and not so much a small-town lawyer and partner. It was designed to intimidate.
Damian hid the vengeful smile threatening to break free and left the taunting words he wanted to spit at Kendall sitting on his tongue. The look on her beautiful face was satisfying enough without showing his hand by out-and-out gloating. How did she still look so stunning after the wringer the press had put her through and, even now, learning that what she considered hers was in actual fact only half hers? She flipped her long pink and blonde braid back over her shoulder and flashed him a look brimming with controlled rage before turning back to her grandmother’s attorney and Damian’s dad’s partner.
“I understood the first time you read it, Mr. McGreevy. What I don’t understand is how she could do this. And, more importantly, how do I get it reversed?” Kendall’s voice didn’t betray her anger or frustration, which Damian found more than a little interesting. And slightly frustrating. His Kendall couldn’t keep a secret or hide an emotion to save her life. But she wasn’t his Kendall, was she? No, she’d given up that title four years ago when she’d left him in the middle of the night. And he wanted her to suffer…like he had. But how to do that when he was tied to her through the Kelly Family Farms?
“There is no realistic recourse, Ms. Kelly. The will is on solid legal ground,” Joe said standing and signaling the end of the meeting.
“But…but what about contesting the will?” Kendall sputtered and kept her seat, not ready to give up the fight, always prepared to go toe-to-toe and do battle. Damian stood, because he was ready for this part of the dog and pony show to be over. Time to move to the next stage.
“That’s within your legal rights, certainly. However, you’ll have to prove duress or undue influence or whatever your protest is. And, frankly, Ms. Kelly, you’ve been gone a long time and it could work against you especially since Mr. Sloane has not only resided on the property in your absence, he’s maintained it and grown a business there as well.” Joe’s pinched face was more rat-like than usual, and almost gleeful. Clearly, he was enjoying Kendall’s misery. And that should please Damian, because he was, too. However, Damian had every reason to want Kendall to be unhappy and Joe had no justification for taking pleasure in her losing half of what she considered her birthright. And being the selfish dick he was, Damian wanted to own all her misery.
“The courts could find you remiss and void the entire will. It could go into probate, or be tied up in the court system for years.” Joe maneuvered around the desk and held out his hand for Damian to shake.
“Congratulations on your new property, Damian,” Joe said smugly and turned to Kendall who had reluctantly realized the meeting was over and stood. “I’m sure you’ll work it out with Ms. Kelly. And if you both decide to sell the property, I could find the time in my schedule to represent you as larger parcels of land can be tricky and might require legal input.”
Kendall didn’t hide her surprise and interest at the seemingly bizarre, out-of-nowhere comment, but this wasn’t the first time Damian had heard it. In fact, his dad had emailed him occasionally over the last few years with that same suggestion—talk Mary Ellen into selling the farm, make a mint, go back to school. Which, of course, meant he and Joe had an agenda when it came to the Kelly—well, now the Kelly and Sloane—property. An agenda that probably included a developer with a large checkbook.
Thanks, but no thanks.
Damian ignored Joe and held the door open for Kendall who stomped out in that slinky dress that stuck to her hips like plastic wrap and those silly rhinestone boots that he longed to feel wrapped around his ass just one more time. Hot as fuck, that woman. Too bad she was an untrustworthy two-timing runaway wife. And despite all the rage making his skin feel swollen and tight, it was still almost a reflex to reach out and run his finger down her arm. He didn’t. But he wanted to goddammit.
As Damian suspected, his dad was leaning against a paralegal’s desk outside the office wearing a custom-tailored suit and subtle gray silk tie—the very same uniform Jonathan Sloane had worn nearly his entire life.
“Damian,” his father greeted. “You’re looking well. I’m sure your mother would appreciate a visit or call from you.” No pretense, just straight into his dearest dad act.
“What about you, Dad? Would you enjoy a call or visit too? Or just Mom?” There was no use being civil with his father. He never responded well to civility; only hostility seemed to breach that cold layer of ice around the elder Sloane.
“Your attitude is beneath you, son. I was merely suggesting a family dinner or even a call.” His father, who was still a handsome man with a full head of gray hair he kept short and styled, tugged his cuffs and straightened to his full height. Unfortunately for Jon Sloane he came up a couple inches shorter than his son.
“And my wife? Is she invited to this little reunion, too?” Damian asked, suddenly protective of the woman who had shredded his heart to ribbons years ago. Reaching for her hand against his better judgment and the very loud red-flag warnings sounding in his head, he pulled her down the hall without bothering to wait for a response. It was always the same with his father—control the message, manage his family, and be the richest guy in town. None of those goals appealed to Damian on any level.
When they’d made it to the parking lot, Kendall yanked her hand from his. “What was that, Damian?” She fumed while rifling through her purse, most likely for the keys to her rental car. She yanked them out and threw the car door open and turned to him. Her face was the gut punch he was never prepared for. Yes, she was beautiful, but it was more, something else entirely, that made him hurt when he looked at her. Something wrapped in their shared history, the plans they’d made and the love they’d had. She had belonged to him once—he’d known that deep in his bones—and then she’d defied all logic and walked out on him for a music career that she claimed she never wanted. He’d never even known how badly she craved the spotlight having only ever shown a hobbyist’s interest in singing at home and sometimes in town.
“Are you listening to me?” Her voice was stretched tight, thinning and ready to snap. “I want my farm back and I’m not your wife anymore.” Her voice shook with fury and her pale skin was turning red. Tough shit. He was pissed, too. At her. At this life she’d left him in alone years ago.
“It’s only half your farm now, Kendall. And you’re still my wife and unless you plan on staying married to me I suggest you cut the attitude and stop acting like a petulant, wounded child. Obviously we have a lot to discuss.”
“Funny, you sound just like your father,” she said and threw herself into her car and drove off without a glance back.
Kendall Kelly had finally come home.
Damian Sloane watched the trail of billowing dust behind her rental car as it flew up the long gravel and dirt driveway toward the farmhouse. The darkening shadows and the setting sun made it too difficult to see the driver’s face, but he knew who it was. He pulled the tractor into the barn for the night and turned off the motor. The familiar smells of wood, mud, and hay surrounded him. Jumping from the seat he cursed to himself.
He hadn’t known if she would come back here after their altercation in the parking lot. In fact, after a couple of hours of looking out for her car he figured she’d found a place to stay in town.
Kendall. Wearer of rhinestones, singer of songs, and breaker of hearts. His being just the first of many a very long time ago.
He pulled the heavy steel doors shut on the newly constructed barn and punched in the security code to lock it up. Gravel crunched under his work boots and acid churned in his gut as he slowly walked up the path to the dark house. Frogs croaked and bugs sang as night settled over the farm. Pops of light broke through the windows of the weary old farmhouse as she worked her way from room to room. Stepping up the creaky steps and over the porch he suddenly felt almost as old as the house itself, which had stood for nearly one hundred years on that same spot, supposedly built as a labor of love for Kendall’s great-grandmother by her great-grandfather when they’d bought the property years after emigrating from Ireland.
He waited in the entry until she stomped downstairs again and stopped abruptly.
“Damian.” Her voice was soft, with that smoky undertone that had made her a star. It was that same voice that kept him away during her previous visits because it chipped away at his resolve to forget their complicated past, to stay firm in his anger. The same voice that sucked the air from his lungs and made it impossible to breathe. Or speak, for that matter.
“Kendall.” He pulled the hat off his head and held it in his hands as he willed the air back into his lungs. “I should have called you about your grandmother and the will,” Damian said.
And he really should have. He’d meant to…even picked up his phone and punched in the number Sabre had texted him before she’d died. But then the numbness, the cold who-gives-a-fuck lack of emotion he’d attached to Kendall the Star would melt away and all his goddamn feelings would flood back. The ache and the longing would boil up to the top again and then the anger. The inferno in his belly would spread everywhere and take over every calm, rational thought.
Kendall had turned her back on him and what was left of her family the night she’d snuck out of town and hitchhiked to Los Angeles. Sure, he knew she’d come back a handful of times to visit her grandmother, but she usually slipped in late at night when she knew he’d be tucked into the little cottage he’d called home since graduating from high school, and she was gone by morning. She came whenever the old woman had called, probably still holding out hope that her grandmother would show her some semblance of affection or familial love. She never stayed long enough to give him an explanation or even the middle finger. She just didn’t care enough about her old life to give up any part of her new one.
For the first year, he’d written to her and called until she’d changed her number and his letters started coming back unopened. He’d even gone down to Los Angeles to try and find out what happened, bring her home if he could. But she’d been so bright and comfortable on the stage already that he knew it wasn’t his place to interfere with fate. Problem was he thought they had been destined to be together.
So he tried to not give a shit. Tried to be callous and move on like she apparently had, but it had been nearly impossible. How did one move on from their first—their only—love? Lord knows he’d tried with other women. None of them stuck. None of them dug under his skin and stayed there. None of them even made it past the first, chaste date. Only one. Kendall. He’d learned to live with the bitter, grizzled version of himself he’d become. Soon enough it had stopped feeling achy and uncomfortable. Soon enough it began to wear on him, not in a bad way, but more like an old torn-up pair of boots. Worn in and expected. Almost easy.
After he’d impulsively kissed her yesterday and put his hand on her knee for the entire service, he’d wondered if maybe one more time in his bed would finally work her out of his system, turn his bitterness to acceptance. Maybe he could prove she was the devious schemer he knew she was and he could finally move the hell on.
He hung his hat on the dusty rack near the door and crossed his arms against his chest, holding his ground.
She tapped her chipped glittery nail on her bracelet, a habit she’d always had even when she was just a cute little girl begging for a ride on his horse. “Now what?”
“Well, sweetheart, you heard the lawyer. You move in or, if you want out, you buy me out. Should be a fairly simple transaction for a big star like yourself.”
Her pale skin turned pink. Her short temper was a thing of beauty and his dark side yearned to set fire it to it again. “First off, you’re my husband in name only. You don’t deserve even one mud cake of this dirt pile. Second, this is not my home. It never was. You and everyone else have made that perfectly clear.” She kept her hands at her sides, but her fists were balls of creeping rage, white at the knuckles and rolled tight into her palms. But if he looked closely, and he always did look closely when it came to Kendall, he could see the hard points of her nipples through the material of her thin dress and what he knew must be a sheer lacy bra. “But…” she said slowly “…if you’d just agree to sell then we could both move on.”
He took a step toward her. “Damian,” she warned and took a step backward toward the wall. “Please.” Her voice lowered; her expression was almost one of panic. From anger to fear to lust—that was Kendall. One big ball of passion.
“I’m not selling.” He took another step bringing him to within inches of her body. The air around them vibrated with energy, something dark and volatile, yet familiar. Unused lightning in the storm they always seemed to create together. Her moist lips parted and he could hear her slight intake of breath. Good. She should suffer this ache as he had for the last four years.
Hooded sparkling brown eyes looked up into his. “Why, Damian, why won’t you let us move on?” Her voice was hoarse, barely a whisper in the quiet evening of the darkening house, and barely recognizable from the husky drawl that had made her famous.
“I’m trying.” And for a second, for some ridiculous reason he couldn’t fathom and really didn’t care to examine, he wanted to reach out and smooth his hand down her now pink-and-blonde-streaked hair, and it wasn’t because of the way she used to smile up at him when he’d do that. It wasn’t because of the weary stare behind her eyes that he hadn’t noticed earlier. It wasn’t even because he wanted to gather her full mop in his fist and tug it under his kiss. It wasn’t for any of those reasons. It was because no matter how selfish and heartless she was, he knew she was grieving—for her sister, for her grandma, for her career, and now for her family home. He knew this unfinished thing that sparked between them terrified her. And he knew she’d lost the only two remaining members in her family in under a year. He was a dick for messing with her. But he couldn’t help himself. It had been years since he’d had her this close and the opportunity was just too good.
Kendall shook her head in answer to all the unaddressed questions between them. Her eyes glistened with unshed tears and she took a visibly deep breath, gulping air down like she was starving for it. “You’re not. Just let me go. We both know you don’t want me. And I don’t want you.”
But suddenly he knew that was a lie. The hitch in her breath, the pink tongue darting out to slide across her bottom lip, and the slight tremble of her body were her tells. Finally, he reached up and smoothed his hand over her hair, gathering the length of the braid in his hand and tugging her head back. “Liar,” he whispered and lowered his lips to hers. He’d intended to play with her. Kiss her dismissively like he had in the church. Instead, a plan began to form in his head. She would stay for a while and eventually he’d buy her out. Divorce her. Let her go like she said she wanted.
But now, he’d take his fill. He devoured her, parting her lips with his tongue, reminding her that this time she’d leave knowing who she belonged to. This time she would leave with the image of his tongue in her mouth and his sex in hers. This time, he would screw her out of his system and he wouldn’t be left with his bleeding heart in his hands. When she left this time, it would truly be over between them.
End of Excerpt