Returning for Love
Cowboys of Long Valley Romance – Book 4
If he could turn back time, Declan would do things differently. For one, he would've never let go of Iris Blue McLain, the only woman he’s ever loved. Fifteen long and lonely years, and the ache in his heart is as painful as ever.
When he sees her for the first time since they parted, she’s every bit as pretty as she was years ago. No, she’s even prettier. From across the crowded room, she steals his breath. Same silken, flame-colored hair. Same summer-blue eyes and almost the same smile, only now, there’s a hint of sadness.
But when he asks her to dance, she wastes no time giving him the brush off.
She’ll protect her heart, no matter the cost…
The years haven’t been kind to Iris. It all started when Declan broke up with her, leaving her heart shattered. After her car wreck, things went from bad to worse. Now, to top it all off, Declan strolls back into her life, acting like he’s got a right to be there. She can’t risk a second heartbreak. But some things never change, like the way his eyes remind her of his slow seduction, or his work-roughened hands that promise a gentle caress.
For a moment, the years melt away and Iris wonders if she and Declan might have a second chance. But time can’t heal all wounds, and for two broken people, the secrets of the past threaten to break them once again.
Returning for Love is the fourth novel in the Long Valley world, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!
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~* Late September, 2017 *~
Declan looked around the barn, surprised by how changed it looked. When a flock of women all descended on a place and put some real elbow grease into it…well, it could even make the Miller Family Farm barn look respectable.
To think that Stetson was hosting Wyatt’s wedding at his place. I don’t know if Mom and Dad would believe this is happening and cry from happiness…or from shock.
“Hey, Declan, can you help me?”
He turned to locate the sound of his sister-in-law’s voice. Where is she? Finally, he spotted her lugging in a box. In her matron-of-honor dress. He hurried over. “Jennifer, Abby will kill you if you get your dress dirty!” he scolded her, taking the box from her. She just shrugged.
“I’m the mother of the grandbaby,” she said matter of factly. “I think Carmelita will defend me to the death.”
Declan threw back his head and laughed. “True enough. Where are we going with the box?”
“Up to the front table. It’s the last of the centerpieces that we’re putting out. The guests will be here any minute now.”
Music started twanging through speakers set up throughout the barn just for the occasion, and Declan got an itch to start line dancing to Boot Scootin’ Boogie. But the clinking emanating from inside of the box reminded him that he was carrying a bunch of Mason jars around. Dropping and breaking them seemed like a sure-fire recipe for the wrath of his newest sister-in-law to come down on his head.
Newest sister-in-law. To think he had two of them now. He was the only single Miller brother left, something his brothers razzed him about endlessly, and his sisters-in-law spent their time trying to rectify. That blind date they’d set him up on last week…
His hands set out the jars, pre-filled with rocks from the creek, as his mind worked things over. As much as he liked seeing Jennifer and Abby happy, he had to put his foot down at some point. He’d only ever loved one woman and, well, she wasn’t coming back to Sawyer any time soon. Maybe never. Which just meant that he’d better be happy as a bachelor, ‘cause coupledom just wasn’t for—
And then Jennifer was shoving a watering can with a long spout into his hands. “Guests are showing up; I need to go greet them. Finish filling these jars up to here,” she pointed to the side of a jar, “with the water, and then put a candle in each one. I’ll make sure someone comes along and lights the tea candles.”
She was off before he could offer to light them himself. Oh well. He carefully filled each jar to the specified height with the watering can, then dropped the tea candles in.
They were real pretty, floating in the jars. When Abby had asked him if he thought she should do wildflowers or rocks with water and candles in the jars, he’d thought she was plumb crazy. Mason jars plus rocks plus tea candles plus water sounded like a disaster to him.
She hadn’t been able to get the wildflowers in time, so rocks it was. And he had to admit, they looked real nice, shockingly enough.
The barn quickly filled up with people, a fresh layer of sawdust on the dirt floor and hay bales stacked in the corner adding to the effect. Jennifer had made Stetson drive every last tractor out of the barn to make room for the wedding, even the family relic – the first tractor ever owned by the Millers – and park them all out back, hidden out of sight. Stetson had argued for keeping the family relic around as an antique that everyone would love to look at but he’d been outvoted.
Declan rather wished the tractor was there. At least it was something he knew something about. He could stand around and talk to all the older farmers in the valley about it. That seemed a hell of a lot better than talking about Mason jars and rocks from creeks.
The music only got louder as more people filed in, or maybe it just seemed like they were turning it up louder. It was sure getting noisy though, either way. Carmelita saw him and came hurrying over, saying something he couldn’t hear above the dull roar. He cupped his hand around his ear and bent down. She came up on her tippy-toes and shouted, “Wyatt is looking for you!”
Okay, maybe she didn’t have to shout quite that loud right in his ear. He rubbed at it and nodded, looking around for the groom. Carmelita tugged on his arm again and he leaned down, warily this time. “He is outside!” she shouted.
He jerked away and nodded, heading for the door lickety-split. Anything to get out and breathe some fresh air.
* * *
Declan stood and tapped his knife against the side of his glass to get everyone’s attention. He couldn’t believe that he was in charge of starting off the rounds of toasts for Wyatt and Abby, but apparently, those were the duties of a best man. This was the second time he’d been a best man, but Stetson’s wedding had been low-key compared to this one. Wyatt’s idea of jetting off to Vegas had been quickly voted down by all of the women, and ever since, this wedding had taken on a life of its own.
Speaking of, he had about two hundred people all staring at him, waiting in hushed silence. He should probably talk or somethin’.
He was about to razz his older brother big time, but he figured if anyone in the world deserved it, it was Wyatt. He shot Wyatt a nervous grin before starting.
“Thank you so much for coming tonight to celebrate with Wyatt and Abby. I know most of you are here for the free food because you think Wyatt owes you something.” The words were rushing out of his mouth while his nervous brain was praying that people would find the first joke funny. A comforting round of giggles and laughs answered his words.
He felt the tension begin to melt away and he looked around the barn, at all of the people smiling up at him. Home. No matter how much living in Sawyer sometimes drove him crazy, he also loved it.
“Many of you are well aware Wyatt is a bit difficult to deal with sometimes. What you may not know is that he used to be much worse.” Declan waited, letting the people chuckle at his second joke. “I remember the time that Dad sent us out to get one of the wheat fields ready for planting. At the time, we had two tractors. One was older without a cab on it, and the other one was newer, with a cab, a radio, and air conditioning. All of the modern conveniences. Of course, Wyatt pulled rank, playing the older-brother card and claimed the new tractor for himself.”
Declan looked over at Wyatt and winked. Wyatt’s face was reddening; he knew which story was being told…and how it ended.
“The tractor had been sitting in the barn all winter and for most of the spring,” Declan continued. “The new tractor was parked in front of the old one here in this barn, so I had to wait for Wyatt to get out of the way. I remember watching Wyatt climbing into the new tractor with the comfortable seat and the AC. I was so jealous.
“Wyatt made a big show of getting comfortable just to rub it in, settling back into the driver’s seat with a happy sigh and stretch. He started the tractor, and then the sound of the rumbling engine was drowned out by Wyatt’s screams as he flew out of the tractor. Apparently, a family of wasps had taken up residence in the AC vents over the winter, and when Wyatt started the machine, they got blown out of their home…and right into Wyatt’s face.”
The room erupted into gales of laughter and Declan joined in, looking at his brother, who was not laughing as hard as some of the guests, but he was laughing. Which just went to show how much Abby had changed him.
“I thought he was going to beat the tractor to death with his hat as he tried to swat each and every wasp,” Declan recounted as he turned to look directly at his brother. “If it makes you feel any better, I got stung a couple times too because I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t run away.”
Wyatt did let out a genuine laugh at that and Declan joined him. Declan allowed the room to enjoy the story before he continued.
“Abby has a maid of honor who I believe has some devilish stories to tell too, so I’ll leave the embarrassing of the bride to Chloe, other than to say to Abby: I think your law enforcement training is about to come in very handy.”
Declan let the chuckles die down, waiting until the audience took the cue that he was about to get serious. He’d razzed Wyatt enough for one day; it was time to be nice.
“Many of you also know that my brother has weathered some pretty serious storms of tragedy in his life. For many years, Wyatt held himself inside a very thick shell as a way to protect himself.
“Abby, somehow, you managed to break through that shell. Somehow, you’re blessed with the right kind of love to speak to Wyatt in the way he needed most. Thank you for bringing our brother back.” Declan raised his glass to the beautiful bride and the crowd joined him.
“Wyatt, Shelly and Sierra will never be replaced, but it is truly good to have you back. I just have one question for you: How does a guy like you get so lucky twice?” He inclined his glass toward his chuckling brother who was beaming at his new wife.
“To Abby and Wyatt: Best of luck, best of happiness, and best of love,” Declan said, and took a sip of his champagne. His words were answered with a chorus of “Here, here,” and with a grin, he sat down. His job was done, and he could relax.
Chloe stood up to give the maid of honor toast but as soon as she started talking, Declan’s attention was caught by someone in the crowd. Someone who was looking straight at him.
It couldn’t be.
She couldn’t be.
Last he’d heard, she was in Pocatello. Which was not here. But that color of red…he’d recognize it anywhere.
He turned towards Kathryn, one of Abby’s bridesmaids and also the only one in the line-up who was currently unattached. Which was, by his reckoning, surely the reason he’d been paired up with her in the wedding lineup. This was Abby and Jennifer hard at work at playing matchmaker. He could’ve told them that Kathryn wasn’t for him. She was too blonde. Too short. Too prone to bursts of staccato laughter. Too…not Iris.
“Hey, Kathryn,” he said in a low voice. She turned from Chloe’s speech and sent him a giant smile. He knew he was being inexcusably rude, talking during Chloe’s turn in the spotlight, but he had to know.
“Yes?” she whispered back, leaning close. Her perfume, an overwhelming vanilla stench, made him want to gag. He leaned away a little. He couldn’t breathe in too deeply or he’d end up in a coughing fit.
“Is that Iris McClain there in the back?” he asked, jerking his head towards the flame of red in the back of the room. How was it that he’d missed seeing it while he was giving his speech? It made him wonder if it was all an apparition. He had to know.
He had to know now.
“Yeah.” The light in Kathryn’s eyes dimmed. “Yup, she’s back.” Kathryn turned and pointedly started paying attention to Chloe’s speech again, which as best as Declan could tell, was wrapping up. He turned and politely stared in Chloe’s general direction as his knee bounced underneath the table impatiently. He couldn’t focus on anything or anyone. Talk faster, Chloe!
Finally, the crowd began cheering and taking sips of their champagne, signaling the end of Chloe’s speech, and so Declan obediently took a sip of his, feeling the alcohol go straight to his head. Or maybe something else was going straight to it.
Iris is here. In this barn. Right now.
He realized, belatedly, that his turn was up again…right about the time that Jennifer elbowed him in the ribs. He sent her a weak smile.
He stood up and said, “Dinner’s done and the embarrassment of the happy couple is over, so if y’all can help us stack the tables against that wall,” he pointed at the far wall, “and your dirty dishes over there,” he pointed to a string of tables against another wall, “the dancing can begin!”
The DJ started up the music from the speakers and Declan took off like a shot as the shuffle of people around him began readying the barn for the dancing. Declan knew that Wyatt would want to string him up from the nearest tree for not helping out like he should be with the preparations…until he heard about Iris.
He’d understand then.
He came to a skittering stop in front of her, his heart in his throat. Or maybe it was just his bolo tie, cutting off all circulation.
“Iris?” he said softly, the world around him melting away. It was her. Brilliant red hair, longer than it was in high school, and the deepest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen.
Just like he remembered.
Her color was high in her cheeks as she looked up at him. “Hi, Declan,” she said softly. Her eyes were drinking him in, and he was just sure she was as happy to see him as he was her.
The day he’d dreamed of, but never thought would come.
He held out his hands to her. “Let’s hit the dance floor,” he said. He wanted nothing more than to feel her in his arms again. Dancing was one of their favorite activities during high school, other than necking, of course.
She shook her head, biting on her lower lip, looking up at him with pain in her eyes.
“Don’t you know?” she whispered softly.