To Have And To Hold
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To Have and To Hold
Infinite thanks and love to Sandra K. Moore,
Ann Peake and Sandy Thomas for teaching me the true meaning of conflict.
To my guys, Doug, Jacob and Jeremy. Thanks for
the underwear dance. I am so proud of you.
A soft purple glow drew Lindy Lewis Monroe from the solitude of the barn’s dark interior. She slipped outside the wide double doors and stopped suddenly, awestruck. Before her, dawn painted the East Tennessee sky with hope and renewal, a visible reminder that life goes on.
Beautiful day for a funeral, huh, Pops?
She had a ton of things to do before burying her grandfather this afternoon, yet she stood in the barnyard for several minutes, watching the sun break over the horizon, sharing a final sunrise with the one person who’d always been there for her.
“Goodbye, Pops. I love you.” Her raspy voice gave testament to the buckets of tears she’d cried during the past few days.
A chilly spring breeze drifted across the barnyard. Goose bumps spread over Lindy’s skin beneath her dew-dampened clothes. Her teeth chattered, disturbing the barnyard’s unusual tomblike silence.
Quit standing around like a bump on a log, Lindy girl.
Pops’s gentle reminder whispered through her brain, part memory, part wishful thinking.
Heeding her grandfather’s advice, Lindy turned her back on the glorious sunrise and hotfooted it to the house. Thanks to mid-April’s near-freezing overnight temperatures, her damp jeans grew colder and stiffer with every step.
The screen door squeaked as she entered the mudroom and toed off her boots, then quickly freed the button on her jeans, shimmying her lower half until the clingy, wet denim peeled from her hips.
The damp tails of her oversize shirt slapped against her bare thighs, causing more gooseflesh. She removed Pops’s old red-and-black checkered work shirt and lifted it to her nose. His Old Spice scent still clung to the soft flannel. She hated the idea of laundering away that familiar smell.
Burying her face in the fabric, she wiped away a tear and let the shirt fall to the floor. Cold air enveloped her arms. She shuddered. Her T-shirt, which she’d pulled on without a bra, offered little coverage. Or warmth.
Leaving her wet clothes heaped on the floor, she stepped into the kitchen and paused for a heartbeat, letting the familiar warmth surround her, that blanket of welcome that engulfed her every time she stepped foot inside her childhood home.All her life, she’d dreamed of sharing that warmth with a family of her very own.
Not all dreams come true. She’d taken her shot at happily-ever-after and lost everything: her husband, her baby, her heart. Never again would she trust her dreams to someone else.
Don’t rehash the past. Focus on today. She inhaled deeply, a cleansing breath to wash away her maudlin thoughts. The welcome aroma of her favorite Colombian brew filled her senses.
Should’ve known Alice would show up this morning.
Alice Robertson had been friend, neighbor and part-time housekeeper to the Lewis family for more years than anyone cared to remember. Having her here, today of all days, felt right, Lindy thought, heading for the coffeepot. A mug prefilled with half-and-half waited on the countertop.
Such a sweet woman. For the first time since leaving the hospital three nights ago, Lindy’s lips curled into a halfhearted smile. Wondering why Alice hadn’t stuck around for coffee, she turned away from the cabinet and came face-to-face with the past she’d just been trying to forget.
Her breath backed up in her throat. She clamped her eyes shut, waited a long second, then slowly reopened them. He hadn’t moved a muscle.
The man she hadn’t seen in almost a year leaned against the doorjamb, steaming cup in hand. His thick black hair was ruffled, no doubt from his own agitated fingers. Dark stubble covered his angled jaw. His Brooks Brothers suit was wrinkled. He looked haggard. And fantastic.
His eyes, a sexy starburst of green and gold, were riveted to the thin cotton clinging to her breasts.
Oh, great. Travis shows up unexpectedly, and I’m parading around the kitchen in my undies.
Despite her near nakedness, Lindy refused to cross her arms in some virginal attempt to cover what he already had intimate knowledge of. “What are you doing here?”
Her abruptness seemed to snap him out of his stunned stupor. His eyes lifted to her face. The desire and anger she saw there made her take a step backward.
“What happened to your legendary Southern charm?”
Her chin tilted up a notch. “Manners are for friends and invited guests. You are neither.”
“No, I’m just your husband.” Travis pushed away from the doorway that separated the kitchen from the family room. His firm lips fell into a frown. She knew how warm and soft they’d feel pressed against her own.
Don’t go there.
“How’d you get in here?” Surely Alice hadn’t let Lindy’s estranged husband in and then left without warning her.
“Your front door was unlocked.”
Unlocked? She wrinkled her brow, momentarily puzzled until her brain connected all the dots. Pops had always taken care of locking up at night. Another sad twinge plucked her heart, but she determinedly tucked her grief deep inside. Later, when she was alone, she’d let it out and allow her tears to flow.
Right now, she propped her hands on her hips, pretending she wore her favorite denim overalls rather than see-through cotton. “For the most part, the only doors we lock in Land’s Cross are on the henhouse. That’s generally the place we have problems with unwanted varmints.”
Travis’s knuckles whitened against his coffee mug. “Sounds like a great slogan for the chamber of commerce.”
A shameful heat warmed her cheeks. Why was it so easy to shuck her normal kindness and stoop to rudeness with Travis?
She knew the answer to that one. Because no one else had ever hurt her like he had.
“I’ll be sure to pass your suggestion along. Coming from such a career-driven person, I’m sure the chamber will give it all the attention it deserves.”
“I see your tongue’s as razor sharp as ever.” Still standing in the doorway, he lifted his coffee and took a slow sip. Over the mug, his eyes captivated hers. “Although, I remember times when your only response was a purr. Or a moan.”
Heaven help her, she also remembered those times. Remembered them too well. Too often. But that was her own dark secret. Travis didn’t need to know how often he played the starring role in her memories, both during daylight hours and dark.
“I hate to disappoint you, Travis, seeing as how you’ve come all this way to stroll down memory lane, but my schedule’s pretty tight today. And we both know what a busy man you are. Why don’t I give your secretary a call later? Perhaps Marge can squeeze me in between your more important commitments.”
He stepped toward her, all desire gone from his eyes. “You think I want to be here?” The muscle in his clenched jaw jumped.
“Then why are you? I didn’t ask you to come.”
“No, you sure didn’t,” he said bitterly. “You’ve made it clear where your loyalties lie.”
A rusty sound erupted from her throat. “My loyalties!” Her hands began to shake, making her wish for pockets to hide them in. Why hadn’t she waited to take off Pops’s huge shirt? She felt as vulnerable on the outside as she did on the inside.
“You’re one to talk about loyalties.” How many times had Travis rushed off to rescue his “real” family, often not bothering to tell her where he’d gone or when he’d return?
“You’re the one who ran off.” Travis’s voice was colder and tighter than the jeans she’d left crumpled on the mudroom floor. “Until I read that damned note you left, I never pegged you for a coward. You always bragged about being ‘strong Lewis stock.’”
Strong Lewis stock. That had been Pops’s motto, his answer to all life’s problems.
“How dare you throw my grandfather’s words in my face!” She kneaded her fist against the ache in the pit of her stomach. “You must be spending too much time with your brother. That’s the kind of cruel remark I’d expect from Grant.”
Hurt flickered across his features. Lindy hardened her heart. She wouldn’t let her softer emotions distract her. “You obviously came here to upset me. You’ve succeeded. Now you can leave.”
“Leave?” Travis spit the word out. “Is that your only answer? When things get sticky, pack up and crawl home.”
“What choice did I have? Did you ever give me a reason to stay?” Lindy’s voice rose, but she didn’t care. She couldn’t keep her feelings bottled up any longer. “You worked twenty hours a day, seven days a week. On the rare occasions you came home, it was just for a quick nap—in the guest room for God’s sake. Do you have any idea how demoralizing that was for me? Being tied to a man who’d rather fold himself onto a bed too short and too narrow to be the slightest bit comfortable than share a king-size bed with me?”
She paused, sucking air deep into her burning lungs. Even a year later, the idea of being no more than an obligation to Travis caused her heart to spasm.
He straightened from the door frame. “I never meant to hurt you. I didn’t know what you wanted. What you needed.”
“You could’ve asked.” She’d desperately needed words of comfort from him. All she’d gotten was his silence. His absence.
“I figured I had time. I wanted to wait until you’d fully recovered before—” His shoulder shrugged. “Before I broached such a sensitive subject. Our relationship was rocky enough.”
“What little relationship we had died that night.” Her voice hitched, as it always did when she remembered the car crash that had wrecked their lives. Her hands again covered her stomach. If their son hadn’t died, would their marriage have survived?
This time, Travis’s hurt was more than a flicker. It was a beacon. She’d never doubted the sincerity of Travis’s grief. Unfortunately it was their only common emotion.
“I’d give anything to change what happened,” Travis whispered, the warm timbre of his voice washing over her raw nerves, once more weakening her resolve.
In self-defense, she resorted to rudeness. “Well, not even you can fix the past. And I have a funeral to attend today.”
She turned to leave, desperate to escape before the tears burning her eyelids broke free.
Travis’s warm touch halted her getaway, his thumb gently stroking the tender flesh just south of her underarm. “I was sorry to hear about Lionel. I know how much he meant to you.”
She knew the tingles coursing through her were wrong. For goodness’ sake, in a few hours she would bury the only real family she’d ever had. So why did Travis’s touch feel so right?
She looked pointedly to where his tanned flesh intersected with her pale skin. Knowing he couldn’t miss the skip in her pulse, she played her reaction as anger, lifting her gaze to his and arching her brow.
The left side of his mouth twitched slightly. He wasn’t fooled. Whatever problems she and Travis may have had, chemistry was never one of them. Every time they came within five feet of each other, they spontaneously combusted.
Lindy sighed sadly and tugged her arm free. More than anything, that explosive attraction explained how they had ended up in this mess.
“Do us both a favor, Travis. Go back to Atlanta where you belong.”
Travis stood under the shade of the oak tree centered in the rural cemetery and studied Lindy from behind the protection of his sunglasses. She stood as rigid as a soldier, looking strong and composed. But her hands, wrapped in a death grip around a handkerchief, trembled.
If she doesn’t bend soon, she’s gonna break.
Even with an iron rod down her back and that damned chin of hers aimed to the heavens, she looked stunning. She’d tamed her blond curls into a sophisticated little knot resting on her nape. A classy black suit hugged her body, showcasing the fullness of her breasts, the curve of her hips.
She wore no sunglasses, facing the sun’s glare and the crowd’s speculation directly. Purple smudges tinted the skin under her blue eyes and lines formed around her tightly clenched lips. Even her nostrils flared at regulated intervals.
Against his chest, Travis’s cell phone vibrated for the third time in half an hour. He slipped his hand into his suit jacket and turned it off. Monroe Enterprises, more specifically, his brother and father, would have to get along without him for a couple of days.
He wasn’t going anywhere until he figured out what was going on here, why he’d been summoned to Lionel Lewis’s funeral. Not that he wasn’t sad to hear about Lionel’s passing. They may not have seen eye to eye where Lindy was concerned, but Travis had respected the old man. In fact, he admired the way Pops had always put his family’s happiness—Lindy’s happiness—first.
“Let us not focus solely on our loss,” the minister said. “Rather, let us remember the joy Lionel brought into our lives.”
The words buzzed into Travis’s consciousness, but his gaze remained focused across the crowd of mourners, where Lindy stood beside her grandfather’s flower-draped casket.
His eyes flicked to the hulking Jethro reject hovering at her elbow. He recognized the bastard. He’d never forget the image of his wife’s arms wrapped around this overgrown hick.
After reading Lindy’s Dear John note last year, he’d raced to Tennessee to lay it all on the line, and what did he find? Lindy dancing the night away in the town square with some farm boy. Travis had stormed out of town without learning the man’s name. Once back in Atlanta, he spent the evening spilling his guts to Jack Daniel’s.
He knew the man’s name now. The old lady who ran the boardinghouse that passed for a hotel in this one-horse town happily supplied the man’s identity over lunch.
“Thank goodness for Danny Robertson,” she’d cooed. “Lindy needs a strong man to lean on during these hard times. And Danny’s such a great boy.”
His hostess, diligently thorough in her gossip, spared no detail about Lindy’s longtime “friendship” with the CEO of the local Feed and Seed.
How can these people stand to live in this fishbowl?
Around him, the funeral crowd began reciting a hushed version of the Lord’s Prayer. “Lead us not into temptation—”
Temptation. Yeah, right.
Shifting under the heat of the sun—and his rising anger—Travis watched Lindy mutilate her handkerchief. Was it possible she didn’t know her attorney had called him yesterday, giving him all the details of Lionel’s funeral as well as the meeting scheduled for tomorrow afternoon?
She’d seemed genuinely surprised by his presence this morning. And not just because he’d caught her practically naked. Coming face-to-face with a barely dressed, smiling Lindy had thrown him for quite a loop. But even through his own surprise, he’d noted the shock on her face.
The seductive vision of his wife wearing nothing but two strips of white cotton filled his brain. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen so much of her creamy-white skin.
It had been even longer since he’d seen her smile.
His focus had been so riveted on Lindy, he didn’t notice Robertson move closer to her side until the grizzly-size man lifted a paw and rested it on her shoulder.
Travis waited for Lindy’s shoulder to shrug, knock the paw off, refuse the man’s affection. Instead her hand lifted, touched the fingers resting on her shoulder. She craned her head, relaxed her lips, favoring him with a small smile.
The big man seemed to swell under Lindy’s attention. Travis’s stomach twisted, along with every other muscle in his body.
Fists clenched, he stepped forward.
Luckily common sense prevailed. He couldn’t very well strike the man at Lionel’s funeral. Forcing his muscles to relax, he fell back in line and tried to pay attention to the service.
Lindy smiled and greeted well-wishers until her cheeks ached. Unshed tears burned the backs of her eyes. Seemed like the entire population of Land’s Cross had shown up to pay their respects.
Guilt washed over her. So many people, most she’d known her entire life. Yet all afternoon, one guest had monopolized her thoughts. Travis.
Why was he here? She’d give anything to find out he’d come to support her, to finally be there in her time of need. Her pride and her memory squashed that thought.
Would the frivolous hope lurking inside her ever accept the truth? During their brief marriage, Travis had shown over and over again that she was not his number one priority. Heck, as his wife and the future mother of his child, she hadn’t even rated second best. She’d come a distant third. Far, far behind his family and his precious Monroe Enterprises.
Whatever his reasons for being here, they certainly had nothing to do with comforting her.
Since most of the mourners had already headed to the farm, she dropped her forced smile. Gritting her teeth, she watched Travis stride confidently across the grassy cemetery. He’d removed his sunglasses. His incredible eyes locked on to her, keeping her in his sights, never sparing a glance for the people or grave markers littering his path. He maneuvered through the obstacles without faltering, with the accuracy of a heat-seeking missile, she his target.
A shudder quaked through her, from the inside out.
Beside her, Danny touched her shoulder and bent close to her ear.
“You hanging in there?” he whispered.
They’d been friends since their diaper years, and she knew what he really meant. Let me know if you need to cry and I’ll carry you out of here so quick no one will see a single tear. Danny had always been good as gold.
She managed a silent nod in answer to his question, but her gaze remained glued to Travis. He continued his approach, seemingly in slow motion. She pressed her right hand against her breastbone and forced a ragged breath into her lungs. A good twenty feet separated them. Still, Lindy felt blanketed by the pure physical force of his presence.
It was a new sensation. More than chemistry. Almost like—
Her thoughts broke when Travis cocked his head to the left, releasing her from his visual grip. Noticing movement in her periphery, her eyes rotated, blinked several times. She’d been so wrapped up in Travis, she’d forgotten where she was.
Her focus now shifted to the man who stood before her. Chester Warfield studied her, his pale blue eyes narrowed against the afternoon sun. Chester had been Pops’s best friend for more than sixty years, his attorney for almost fifty. Tears filled her eyes and her tense lips quivered into a weak smile.
The stout man answered with a solemn nod and spread his arms wide. She didn’t hesitate, just buried herself in his hug. His familiar scent of lemon drops and arthritis rub engulfed her. For a split second, Lindy allowed herself to pretend everything would be okay.
Then Travis cleared his throat.
Who was she kidding? Her life would never be okay again.
After a few more pats on her back, Chester released her and turned to face Travis, extending his right hand. “You must be Mr. Monroe. I’m Chester Warfield. We spoke yesterday?”
Travis dipped his head slightly in acknowledgment and accepted the older man’s hand.
“Good to finally meet you in person, Mr. Monroe, even under such sad circumstances.”
Lindy studied both men, Travis with his veiled expression, Chester with his odd smile. “You two know each other?”
“Not exactly.” Chester’s gaze settled somewhere near her earring. The tiny hairs on the back of Lindy’s neck snapped to attention.
Chester cleared his throat before continuing. “As your attorney, it was my legal obligation to contact him.”
Lindy shook her head, trying to make sense of Chester’s words. Danny’s body brushed against hers as his large hand cupped her elbow. She’d forgotten he was there.
“You ready to go?” he asked softly.
“No,” she answered, stepping away from Danny’s grasp. “Back up, Chester. What do you mean, ‘legal obligation’?”
Lindy felt a moment’s panic when Chester’s face flushed and his finger dug into the neckband of his shirt. Pops’s face had turned that same shade of purple moments before his heart attack.
But upon closer inspection, she realized Chester wasn’t having a heart attack. Rather, he suffered from an acute case of “you’re not going to like what I have to say.”
Lindy’s internal warning siren began to hum. Her gaze snapped back to Travis. His face gave no hint of his thoughts.
She returned her attention to her perspiring lawyer. Her finger poked the center of his chest hard enough to force him back a step. “Spill it.”
Chester’s eyes flicked to Danny. “This is a family matter.”
What a crock.
Lindy recognized the old man’s stall tactic. Still, even though Danny was practically family, a little privacy sounded like a very good idea. Fewer witnesses.
“Danny, would you mind excusing us?”
“Sure. I’ll just wait by the truck and take you home when you’re done.”
“That won’t be necessary.” Travis spoke for the first time. “After the family details are dealt with, I’ll see my wife home.”
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