Prologue

Mitch

August 1995

“Fancy meeting you here.”

She didn’t come right into the barn at my greeting, so I set the grooming brush on the ledge near the stall door and strode across the worn wood floors.

“Hey.”

Her soft voice never got old. I gathered her in my arms, pausing just before I kissed her.

“Hey, Jules.” Lightning shot down my spine the second my lips met hers. Her delicate hands trembled as she clutched my shirt. I broke the kiss and rested my forehead against hers. “Thought you were going to be here an hour ago.”

“I—I got held up.” She released my shirt and tried to step away. I wasn’t quite ready to let her go, but did anyway. Something wasn’t right.

“Everything okay?” I studied her face, noting the slight downturn of her pouty lips.

She slipped her hand into mine. “How’s Blue?”

Was she avoiding my question?

Juliana led me over to my pregnant mare.

“Still seems to be doing good so far.”

“Hi, mama.” She touched the side of the horse’s neck. Bluebonnet blew out a breath in greeting, and Juliana stroked her coat. “I bet you’re ready to meet your baby.”

Something softened in me at the sight of her gentleness. Jules and me had been together since high school, but we’d known each other our whole lives. I was going to spend the rest of mine with her. This very tenderness she showed toward the horse was a preview of how she’d be with our children.

“Got a long way to go. At least five months.”

Blue seemed to understand what I said. She nudged me in the shoulder like she didn’t appreciate the reminder her pregnancy was far from over.

Juliana kissed her nose. “You’re a good mama.”

We fell into our usual routine sweeping the barn, laying out fresh hay, grooming the horses. What person in their right mind would spend one of the last weekends of summer break cleaning up somebody else’s barn? Yet my girlfriend had done this since we were kids, always helping out like this ranch was her home.

She was quiet today. Wasn’t giving me the out-of-tune concert I was used to hearing on days like this; just stilted movements as we worked through my chores.

“What did the three-legged dog say when he walked into the bar?” This joke never failed to make her smile, even though she thought it was lame. She hardly looked up, so I went for the punch line. “I’m looking for the man who shot my paw.”

I grinned, but her mouth barely hinted at a smile. A warning bell went off in my head. I propped the shovel against the wall and moved into the empty stall she was sweeping.

“You sure nothing’s wrong?” I cupped her face, looking for any sign of what had her so down.

Big green eyes gazed up at me.

“I’m going to Paris.”

“You are?” Didn’t see that coming. Guess her parents surprised her. Would’ve been nice if they’d let me in on it.

“Mmm hmm.”

For somebody who was finally going to take the trip of a lifetime she’d been talking about since she was ten, she was acting awfully down.

“That’s great, honey.” A knot formed at the base of my throat. I swallowed around it and forced a smile. I’d always imagined she’d see Paris for the first time with me. “When’s the big vacation?”

Juliana shifted from foot to foot and looked down. “Two days.”

The words were a punch in the chest. “Whoa. Soon.”

“Yeah.” She wiped her hands down her jeans.

“You excited?” I asked hesitantly. She sure as hell didn’t seem like it.

One corner of her mouth lifted. “I’ve always wanted to go.”

Like I didn’t know that. I’d planned to take her as soon as we graduated from college and got married. Except now the experience wouldn’t be new for her.

“I’m happy for you, Jules.” The words fell flat, betraying my disappointment.

“Mitch…” She reached out to me. I took her fingers in mine and pulled her against me. She wrinkled her nose. “You’re all sweaty.”

“This is nothing compared to how I am after football practice.”

“Thank goodness.” She shoved half-heartedly at me.

“This is my last season. Then football will be over forever.”

“Unless you go pro.”

I slid an arm around her back. “Nah, I’m not good enough. It’s vet school and then back to the ranch. Texas all the way.”

“This is where you want to be anyway.”

I nodded once. “Can your grandmother make the trip? Or is it just your parents and your brother?”

Just like that, the awkwardness returned. She tensed. “My family isn’t going.”

Then who the hell was? “They aren’t?”

She shook her head, and that warning bell in my head got louder.

“How long you gonna be gone? We’re supposed to move in the apartment this weekend. School starts week after next.”

She stared at my chest. I tipped her chin up, forcing her to look at me. “All semester.”

My arms fell to my sides. I took a step back. “What do you mean all semester?”

The back of my neck prickled as the dots connected.

“Remember that study abroad program I mentioned a while back?”

Of course I remembered. I didn’t forget her joys and disappointments. She’d smiled the whole time she filled out the application. “You didn’t get picked in the lottery.”

“Someone backed out at the last minute. I got the spot.” She looked down at the floor. “I’ll never have another chance like this.” She reached for me again, but I shrugged her off.

“This didn’t just come about today.” Disbelief clawed its way to the surface. Jules had kept something important from me, something I never saw coming.

“No. I found out a couple of days ago.” She just kept landing blows. I figured I’d have been the first person she told about an opportunity like this.

“You didn’t think this was something we ought to talk about? Especially since we’re moving in together?” I clamped my lips shut to keep from spewing my disappointment.

“I—I wanted to have this. Before we come back to Burdett for good. I’d appreciate your support.”

I staggered back a step. “What do you expect me to say when you tell me you’re going to Paris for a whole semester in two days? Excuse the hell out of me for feeling like I’ve been caught with my ass hanging out.”

“You’d rather I stay here and miss this chance?” She folded her arms over her chest.

“I’d rather you’d at least talked to me about it.” I plowed a hand through my hair.

“I don’t need your permission.”

I recoiled. “Why would you think you did?” She just looked at me, and I fought the urge to punch the wall. “What am I supposed to do now about the apartment?”

“I’m sorry.” But she wasn’t, at least not for going to Paris. “I’ll talk to the manager, try to explain what happened.”

“Where am I going to live? I can’t afford that place on my own, and I got nowhere else to go.”

“What about your brother and sister?”

Jules and I had talked about living together since last year. Guess it meant more to me than it did to her. “I thought you were excited about our future, or am I the only one feeling that way?”

“Mitch…”

“Are you coming back, or is that gonna be a last minute decision too?” I spat.

Her face darkened. “Of course I am.”

“We’ll see.” I acted like I didn’t care, when it really felt like my entire world was crumbling around me.

“You can’t be happy for me,” she said, and she actually had the nerve to sound disappointed.

“I am, Juliana. But I’m not happy about the way you dropped this bombshell.” I balled my fists at my sides. “And since when is coming back to Burdett a prison sentence? This is where our family is, where we were gonna start our life together.”

“I know that.” Her tone softened. “But once we’re tied to the ranch, we’ll never be able to get away. Look at your parents. When’s the last time they went anywhere?”

“They went to Houston a while back.”

“That’s not the same thing as Paris.”

“What if I wanted to be the one to take you?”

“You never would.” Bitterness tinged her words.

“It sounds like being with me is pretty damn awful. Once we’re out of school, you’ll be ‘tied’ to me on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. I’m sorry I can’t be Paris.” I dug my fingernails into my palm but barely registered the bite of pain.

“I’m not asking you to be.” She bunched the fabric of her shirt in her hand.

“Then what are you asking?”

“Not a damn thing. I’m telling you I’m going to Paris in two days.”

“Well, have a nice trip.” I glared at her. She glared right back.

“I will.”

“And since I’m such a thorn in your ass, don’t worry yourself with me. You just go on over there and have yourself a time.”

A line creased her forehead. “What are you saying?”

“I’m never going to be a worldly kind of guy. I thought you liked that about me. Hell, I thought you were actually excited about our plans.”

“Just because I’m studying abroad for a semester doesn’t mean I don’t want the life we planned.” Her voice rose to a fevered pitch.

I sniffed bitterly. “The fact you didn’t tell me until you practically have one foot on that plane says otherwise.”

Her hand flew to her chest. “I wouldn’t be angry with you if things were the other way around.”

“Maybe I want somebody who would be. At least I’d know she gave a shit.”

A sharp gasp escaped her. She straightened. “For the record, I do give a shit. But seeing how you’re acting now, maybe I’ll be better off in Paris.”

“Stay as long as you want. How about forever?” Anger pulsed through my veins, unstoppable.

“Maybe I will.”

“Do that.”

“Go to hell.”

“I’m already there.”

She stormed out of the barn, and everything I thought I knew about the future went out right along with her.