Wallflowers: One Heart Remains
HOWL AT THE MOON
Three days earlier . . .
IN THE DEEP RECESSES OF A BARN LOCATED on Bullwinkle Ranch, Nate Jacobs took a long draw from a bottle of beer. He watched with intrigue as what looked like the entire town of Krieg, Georgia, celebrated not only Boris and Natasha’s good fortune, but also the return of the Wallflowers from yet another narrow escape. Just the day before, the Wallflowers had stumbled upon a plot to defraud Boris and Natasha of an unknown gold mine located on their property. In what appeared to be typical Wallflower bad luck, they were locked at gunpoint deep in the mine, resulting in an all-out manhunt overnight. Once again, the Wallflowers managed to free themselves from certain death—thanks to their caterwauling—like stray cats with nine lives.
The light from the bonfire danced across the shadows, flickering in the fading light, illuminating the gloom as Nate caught sight of Poppy Gentry throwing her head back, laughing at something Calla Armstrong said. The third of their Wallflower trio, Sienna Miller, had ridden off with Bo Strawn an hour before to celebrate in their own way that the women had dodged another bullet.
The husky sound of Poppy’s voice slammed into Nate’s chest like a sledgehammer—like it always did when she was near—so he took a deep pull of air until his body adjusted. From the moment she’d stuck her finger in his face and mumbled, “Dilligaf,” Nate had been fighting his attraction for the smart-mouthed beauty. Just like her counterparts, Poppy seemed to be made up of equal parts strength and beauty. Evidenced by the fact it had only been a handful of hours since they’d found the wayward women, deep in the bowels of the earth, yet here they were crowding around a bonfire with music playing loudly, celebrating with Natasha as if nothing had happened. Wallflowers it seemed, both the women and the flowers, were as resilient as they were beautiful.
Tipping his beer back, Nate swallowed the contents until it was empty, then tossed the bottle into a rusty barrel used for trash. He continued to watch the two remaining Wallflowers while nursing a bad mood, one made worse by the attention Poppy was receiving from the ranch hands Boris and Natasha employed. His mood also wasn’t helped by the fact he hadn’t slept for more than twenty-four hours, after being up all night looking for the missing women.
How they’d managed, once again, to find themselves in danger didn’t surprise him. He’d observed from a distance the past week as Devin and Bo had tried to wrangle their women with little success. The Wallflowers were as high-spirited as one of the colts on the ranch. They sucked the air out of a room with their very presence, living each second as if it were their last, which meant catastrophe would always be waiting around the corner to tempt them. To steal their light. He grinned at the thought. Devin and Bo wouldn’t have a peaceful moment for the rest of their lives.
Nate pitied and envied them at the same time. He refused to acknowledge the envy, but he pitied them all the same. They were men who needed control of their lives, and the only ones holding the reins were their women. Even so, he figured they were drowning men who didn’t give a fuck when they got to come home to the women who’d stolen their hearts.
“Beware of Wallflowers! They tangle their limbs around your heart and don’t let go,” he mumbled to himself.
The rustle of hay drew his attention from Poppy, and he turned to find Devin Hawthorne, his best friend, emerging from the shadows at the back of the barn.
“You hidin’ out?” Devin asked.
“Just thinkin’ about the past day. It could have gone a lot differently.”
Devin’s eyes landed on his woman. “How many lives do you think they have left before they run out of luck?”
Nate chuckled. “You heard them promise not to go off half-cocked anymore.”
Devin guffawed. “It won’t last. They’re wired for trouble, and you know it.”
“Least you know what lies ahead of you. A lot of men would kill to be in your position.”
Devin stayed silent a moment then looked back at the bonfire and the Wallflowers. “You one of them?”
Nate didn’t answer him, so Devin turned and looked him square in the eye. “How long are you gonna deny what you’re feelin’ for Poppy?”
Nate stood taller and crossed his arms. “Stay out of it,” he answered, his voice low and threatening. “You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about.”
Devin raised an astonished brow. “You seem to forget; I was there when you tore that outbuildin’ apart with your bare hands when we couldn’t find them. You want her,” his head jerked toward Poppy, “so why are you fightin’ it?”
“I said, leave it be,” Nate growled.
Devin watched his friend for a moment then shook his head. “You’re not your father.”
Nate closed his eyes for a brief second and clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth at the mention of his old man. A man who used his fists as potently as a lover’s caress.
A quick flash of a memory dulled Nate’s expression: images of fists flying and blood coating the floor when he’d finally stopped his father’s reign of terror. On that day, Jake Jacobs came up against a force more formidable than himself. His sixteen-year-old son.
“You’re a hundred times the man he was,” Devin bit out. “One who could heal Poppy, if he had a mind to.”
Nate jerked his attention from Devin to Poppy and narrowed his eyes. “Why does she need healin’?”
“Not my story to tell. You’ll have to ask her yourself.”
He watched with gritted teeth as Brantley, Natasha’s head wrangler, handed Poppy a beer. “What’s she gonna tell me, Devin?”
“You gonna ask her?”
His eyes shot to his friend, a warning grew like thunder and flashed in their depths. “Answer me. What the fuck is she gonna tell me?”
Devin looked back at the Wallflowers and remembered the private conversation he’d overheard between Calla and her friends. Poppy deserved a man she could trust. One who would put her first before anyone or anything else. She deserved a man like Nate.
Without a second thought, Devin decided to enlighten his friend. “She might tell you her father abandoned her before she was born, leavin’ behind an insecure and scared child. She might also tell you that because she was abandoned, she didn’t trust men. Didn’t trust them until two years ago. Out of fear of gettin’ hurt again or with her innocence.” Devin waited for that fact to sink in. When Nate’s expression flashed with anger at what he could sense coming, Devin continued, “The asshole played her into believin’ he was a good man. One who would go the distance. The kind of man she could trust. Right up to the moment he climbed into bed with another woman, reinforcin’, once again, all the reasons why she cannot trust men.”
Nate’s hands curled into fists, then he turned and upended the rusted barrel, scattering bottles and trash on the ground.
“Some men abuse women without raisin’ a finger,” Devin ground out, crowding Nate so he’d calm down. “And the only way to heal from it is at the hand of a man who’ll treat them with care. A man who knows what it feels like to lose faith in the one person he should have been able to trust. By a man who’ll prove to her that givin’ her body to him is a gift to be worshipped, not thrown away like fuckin’ trash.”
Nate’s chest rose and fell like a raging bull’s while he reined in his temper, but an image of an unknown male, bloody beneath his hands, reinforced why he couldn’t be trusted with Poppy. “I can’t be that man,” he ground out.
Nate shoved Devin back a foot, shaking with controlled fury. “Look at me,” he snarled. “Does she need a man who’s a hair-trigger away from bein’ his father?”
“You’re not your fuckin’ father,” Devin argued with conviction. “I’d trust you with my life. Hell, with Calla’s life.”
Devin trusting anyone with Calla’s safety was no small measure, one he wouldn’t take lightly, but it didn’t change anything. His father had loved his mother beyond reason, which had fueled his possessiveness and rage if another man looked at her. A possessiveness that lived inside Nate, one he could feel growing anytime he was around Poppy.
“I’m not willin’ to risk it. Not with her.”
Devin stared at his friend, his own fists clenching with the need to beat some sense into him. He knew Nate thought he’d been handed a genetic lottery for abuse. That if he cared for a woman, his old man’s genes would kick in, and he’d lose control. But Devin knew in his gut, Nate would no more lay a hand on a woman than he would. Nate was a man who felt deeply, who cared about those around him, yet held back from the world to protect it from himself. He was just as lost as Poppy was.
Reaching up, Devin clapped Nate on the shoulder squeezing once. “You ever stop to think, maybe you could both save each other?”
Nate’s jaw grew taut, his mouth a thin slash, then he looked back at Poppy.
“Think about it,” Devin murmured, then turned and headed for Calla so his friend could digest his advice.
Watching Devin pull Calla into his arms, a pain Nate hadn’t felt since he was a dirty-faced kid settled into his chest. He’d experienced the feeling every time he’d watched one of his friends with their fathers. He hadn’t known what name to give it then, but he did now.
He’d wanted a father he could be proud of. One who taught him how to be a man by guiding him, using patience and understanding instead of his fists to gain obedience. Now he wanted what Devin had with Calla. A woman he could cherish. Protect. One who would curl around him in bed until nothing else existed but them, not even the dark memories or the loneliness that had plagued his life. But no matter how much he wanted it, he couldn’t reach out and grab hold because of who he was.
Looking up, he watched Poppy talk with Natasha. He couldn’t think straight while she gave away her light to those around her, so he turned and headed for his Harley. He needed distance from temptation before he screwed up both their lives. He was his father’s son, and no amount of wishing would change that fact. He’d felt the hate and anger inside him from an early age. Could feel the blackness growing in his soul, and he would not tarnish a woman as innocent as Poppy with his darkness.
Switching his bike to ON, then firing up the engine, Nate glanced over his shoulder once more before leaving. Poppy had turned his direction at the sound of his bike starting up. Their eyes locked as he revved the engine to warm it up. She raised her hand and waved goodbye to him, a small smile pulling at her lips.
The pain in his chest grew hotter as the seconds ticked past, so he jerked his chin at her and let off the clutch. He needed miles between them so he could clear his head. Maybe then he could breathe again without wanting to howl at the moon.
One day later . . .
Nate raced through the deserted streets on his Harley. The salty smell of brine, mixed with azaleas and Spanish moss, perfumed the air with Savannah’s unique scent. Coasting to a stop a short distance from his destination, Nate shut down his engine and grew as silent as the Civil War cemetery that sat across from the three-story brownstone. Even at one in the morning, a light burned brightly on the top floor of the building. He saw movement from inside as a form drew closer to the window. Moments later, his breath stalled as a feminine figure peered out, her eyes seemingly staring back at his own in the darkness. When she retreated from the window, he waited a moment longer before starting his engine. Poppy was finally home from Bullwinkle Ranch, tucked safely behind her door where catastrophe couldn’t reach her.
Maybe now he could fucking sleep.