The early summer sun sank low on the horizon as Ellie Rogers passed the sign that said 'Bakersfield, population 1094. We welcome you!' Her car made a grumbling noise, and smoke had been coming from under the hood for a good few miles.
"Come on, you piece of crap. Just a little farther."
No such luck. The engine sputtered and the lights went out on the dashboard. She managed to steer the car off the side of the road before it came to a complete stop.
"How ironic. I love the way I can make an entrance!" She stepped from the car and slammed the door with more force than was necessary.
Pulling her suitcases from the back, she tossed them on the ground and sat on the biggest one. Her mind began replaying the past five years, and she grimaced. There wasn't much to be proud of.
Eighteen, carefree, and ready for life, Ellie had hooked up with the bad boy in town. A bit of a prude, she delighted in Cole Lucas corrupting her and taking away her innocence. Honestly though, she figured Cole wouldn't do much by way of making a life for himself. And she wasn't sure he would ever grow up.
So when Matthew Warren breezed into town on his wealthy father's coattails, Ellie found herself charmed and delighted. A real gentleman, Matthew took her to fancy dinners and the country club and showered her with gifts. He blinded her. Ellie broke it off with Cole and decided to go with Matthew to his hometown in California. To a small town Ohio girl, it sounded divine.
Ellie felt tears well up when she thought about the day she broke it off with Cole. They had only been seeing each other for a few weeks, but it was long enough she knew she liked him, and was probably on her way to loving him. But she cut the relationship short, so she would never know what might have been.
Cole stood at her door, asking her to stay. His electric blue eyes bore into hers, and they were so bright with frustration and anger and pain...and love, that she had to look away. Ellie tucked her hair behind her ears in a nervous gesture and informed him that she had made her choice. He didn't want to be tied down anyway.
She could still remember the tightening of his chiseled face, the way his jaw muscle twitched up to his temple. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed, and Cole spun abruptly, jogging down the stairs of her grandma's porch. She watched him squeal away and watched as his tail lights faded. Then she sat on the step and cried.
Five years later, she was sitting on her suitcase on the outskirts of town at sunset, crying again. Matthew had ended up being a nightmare. He never worked, he spent her money almost before she made it, and the worst part was, he spent the majority of the time high or drunk or a combination of the two. Their wedding never happened, and his parents cut him off after a particularly unpleasant visit.
Ellie hoarded every dime she could, and it took several months, but she finally had enough for gas money to get home. Now, with fifty-seven bucks in her billfold and a broken down car, she hoped against hope that her parents would let her stay. If not, she wasn't sure what would happen.
Wiping her eyes, she sighed and stood, lifting her suitcases. Turning towards town, she started walking.
"Terrible idea. Oh my God, it is so hot. I hate summer."
A half hour had passed, and with each step she wondered why she didn't just call her parents and have them come get her. But deep in her heart she knew it was because she was scared they wouldn't. At this point though, she was almost into town. So at the traffic light, she stopped and set down her bags and fluffed her hair.
"Ugh." She was drenched in sweat. Grabbing a ponytail holder from her purse, she pulled her auburn tresses high off her neck. Swiping under her eyes, she figured that was as good as it could get. She knew she had raccoon eyes.
"Forget it. I don't care what they think."
She waited for the light to change so she could cross the street, and a tow truck came barreling down the road, making it through the light on yellow. Her car dangled off the back of the truck.
"Hey! Hey! That's my car!" Ellie switched directions and headed off after her vehicle.
The tow truck beat her by a rather large margin, and when she stormed through the door of Byron and Co., she knew she looked like a hot mess. With the aforementioned hair and make-up problem, to add to that, her shirt was now wet with sweat, and her feet were filthy.
She let go of her suitcases in the reception area and stomped to the desk. She was angry, but the air conditioning felt so nice it actually reeled in her temper somewhat.
"Excuse me. My car was just towed here, and I didn't ask for it to be."
"Ellie? Ellie Rogers?"
"Yes, it's me. Hi Carl."
"Well I'll be... I hadn't heard you were back in town."
"That's because it just happened. My piece of crap broke down on me so I just walked in. But Carl, I don't know that I want this car fixed." Ellie's mind whirled. What would they charge her for storing it if they didn't fix it? She didn't have much money.
"Well, sheriff put a call in about an abandoned vehicle, and he makes us get 'em off the road. Sorry Ellie. But we won't touch it 'til you tell us to, deal?"
"Thanks Carl. I really appreciate it."
"Carl, where's the.... Ellie?"
That voice. The last words she heard from that voice had been, "Please, just stay with me. Give us a chance." The voice now was surprised, but already she could hear the edge of irritation creeping in.
Ellie turned. Her stomach jerked as she met those blue eyes again after the handful of years. Cole was still sexy as sin. Her mouth practically watered as she took in the changes time had made. He was bigger, more muscular, and his face had changed. There were harder edges, but it only added to his appeal.
"Hi Cole." She didn't know what else to add.
"Where's your husband?"
Ellie cringed. "I don't have one."
Carl's head whipped back and forth, watching the exchange. It was common knowledge around town that Ellie had picked Matthew over Cole. And Carl wasn't going to miss a second of this.
The snide edge to his voice stoked the flames of her anger.
"No, we never married."
"Living in sin, then?"
Ellie's anger crumpled as quickly as it came. "You have no idea." She glanced at Carl and added, "Please, just don't do anything to the car. I can't afford it. I'll let you know what to do with it when I decide."
Ellie gathered what few shreds of self-respect that remained, picked up her suitcases and headed out the door.
"Just what in the hell was that about?" Cole glared at Carl. He felt his frustration mount.
"She just got back into town. That old Plymouth was hers. She doesn't want it fixed, because she can't afford it. That's all I know."
Cole cursed under his breath. Why was she back and why was she husbandless? Apparently her fairytale hadn't worked out quite as she planned. But the victory he always knew he would feel was nowhere to be found. In fact, Cole felt a little sick. She'd had such high hopes and expectations...and apparently, Matthew hadn't delivered.
He gave himself a shake. He'd had hopes too. Hopes that she had crushed beneath her stylish sandals that hot summer evening. It was none of his business, but for some reason he was drawn to her and her situation. Did he want to see her down and out; did he want to watch her suffer?
Cole strode through the garage, angry with his thoughts. Ellie was still beautiful. Once he'd recovered from the shock of seeing her, he noticed that she'd grown into herself a little. She was curvier, her breasts were fuller, and her face had lost some of the youth, only adding to her appeal. She still had those same smoky gray eyes, and her auburn hair was still as thick as he remembered.
Those summer nights they'd spent together, tangled in each other's arms and legs, lying on a blanket under the stars learning each other... Cole abruptly shook his head. That was not the path his mind needed to take.
"Aw, hell." He stomped out the side door and hopped into his Camaro, squealing tires out of the parking lot.
Ellie was only a couple blocks away, and he pulled up alongside her.
"Get in!" He hollered over the grumble of the engine.
"No thank you." Ellie looked away, trying not to remember the way the taillights had looked the night he drove away. He still had the same car.
"Ellie, dammit, get in the car. I'll drive you to your folks." Cole stopped the car.
After a few more steps, she turned back and tossed her suitcases into the backseat. A flash of a memory of them trying to make love back there caused her to blush. They gave up because there wasn't enough room, and ended up on the ground to finish the job. Shaking her head, Ellie climbed in.
Cole took off almost before her door was shut, and she hurriedly fastened her seatbelt.
"Look. I'm sorry I was a jerk back there at the shop. You just threw me for a loop."
"It's all right. I didn't figure you'd be the second person I saw when I came back into town, tail between my legs. I was planning on staying out of your hair."
"I'm sorry things didn't work out for you. I always figured I would be happy about it, but for some reason, it just makes me sick. What happened?"
"Matthew...didn't like to work. But he did like to party. Drugs, drinking, women... I honestly haven't seen much of him the last five years, even if we did live under the same roof."
Ellie nervously spun her thumb ring, wishing she didn't have to have this conversation with anyone, let alone Cole. She was scared to death of what her parents were going to say when they got there. She hadn't talked to them in three years. Since...
In a flash, Cole was pulling into the driveway. Ellie rubbed her palms on her capris. She was a nervous wreck.
"I'll grab your stuff."
"No, I can-"
"Ellie, just let me."
She turned her head and her eyes clashed with his. She expected to see anger and hatred, but she could feel that he felt for her situation. If only he knew the whole story.
"All right. Thank you." She unfastened her seatbelt and climbed out of the car.
Cole took his time getting out, giving her a few moments to reunite with her parents. He glanced up and saw her back, watched her straighten her shoulders as her mother opened the front door. He leaned the seat forward and pulled her bags out, setting them down to put the seat back and shut the door. He was stalling.
Her parents weren't too fond of him then, and they weren't fond of him now. They took their cars elsewhere for service. The thought quirked his mouth into a smile. Small town people, with small town minds. And a little too far on the religious side for his liking...they were almost zealots. He had no quarrel with the Lord, but they just had always freaked him out a little.
His boots clomped on the sidewalk as he made his way to the porch. Then their words traveled to his ears.
"You aren't back in town for five minutes and you're already on a slippery slope. Just look at the company you've decided to keep."
Ellie cast a tortured look over her shoulder to see Cole only a couple of feet away.
"Mom. He gave me a ride out here. My car broke down and it got towed to his shop. It's hot, I've been walking for what feels like forever, and he was being a nice guy. I just need a place to stay for a few weeks until I get back on my feet."
"You made your choice. You chose the path of sin. Running off with that Matthew who didn't even have the decency to marry you like he said he would. And a baby out of wedlock, why, we know exactly why you lost it."
Cole froze with one foot on the bottom porch step. Ellie had miscarried? And her mom was standing there, basically saying it was punishment from God. He spun and went back to his car, throwing her suitcases in the backseat. Ellie was so trapped by her mother's words she hadn't even noticed.
"That's a terrible thing to say." Ellie's voice was a shattered whisper.
"But it's the truth. So you best be on your way. Maybe once you learn some respect for yourself and the Lord, you can move back here. But until then, I'm afraid I can't have a sinner under my roof."
"Lady, you might want to pick up a different Bible. Isn't there some stuff in there about not judging, and about love being the greatest of all? Come on Ellie." Cole grabbed her hand in a crushing grip and all but dragged her down off her mother's porch.
Ellie was frozen. Her mom had dredged up old pain, and new pain from her mother's words layered on top of it. Cole helped her into the car and went around the front, sliding into his seat. Ellie hadn't moved, so he reached across her and fastened her seatbelt.
A few miles later, she finally spoke.
"She said my baby deserved to die. It was a baby, not a demon. An innocent baby that never had a chance to take its first breath. It broke my heart Cole, and she knew that. That was the last time I had talked to her, to tell her I had a miscarriage. But I had no idea that's how she felt, or I never would have come here." Tears welled in her eyes, but they didn't fall.
"You couldn't have known, Ellie. And this was home. You were supposed to be welcomed back with loving arms." Cole reached and laid his hand on top of hers. Ellie flipped her hand so that her palm was up, and entwined their fingers, drawing strength from his touch.
"Home is where they catch you when you fall. But I learned a valuable lesson today." She stared out the windshield.
"One, that I'll probably never speak to my parents again. And two, I will never, ever make any child I have feel the way my mother made me feel today."
Cole was silent for several minutes. As he pulled into his driveway, he finally spoke.
"Ellie, you will be the greatest mom on the planet. And don't ever let anyone tell you otherwise."
The next morning, Ellie woke to a rumbling stomach, the smell of coffee and the scent of bacon cooking. For a moment she was confused, but once she shook the sleep from her brain she remembered where she was.
She and Cole had stayed up talking a little the night before, and they agreed that she would stay there. Until she got on her feet, she would cook and clean for her room and board. Apparently, she was already shirking her duties. With a jaw-cracking yawn, Ellie climbed from under the covers and staggered to the door.
Her stomach growled again, and she followed her nose to the kitchen.
"Good morning, Sleeping Beauty. I was beginning to think I was going to have to wake you with a kiss." Cole grabbed the spatula and flipped the bacon.
"Nothing as drastic as that, I'm afraid." A glance at the clock showed her it was only 6:30.
"Oh, wow, it's still early. What time do you go to work?"
"I usually leave between seven and seven thirty. Depends on what I've got lined up for the day. If there's a job leftover from the day before, I go in even earlier."
"That's quite the work ethic." Ellie poured herself a cup of coffee.
"Well, you can't make a living if you don't go to work, and you can't make a reputation if you don't work like ya mean it. My customers trust me. I give them reason to." He smiled and set the bacon on a paper towel lined plate.
"I can see that." Ellie's voice turned soft. "Congratulations, Cole, for being so successful. I'm glad life has been good to you."
He looked up at her face. There was no sarcasm, no nastiness hidden behind her words. She was genuinely happy for him. And other than losing her, life had been good to him. But, she was back... He frowned and shook his head at the path his thoughts had taken.
"Something wrong?" Ellie noticed the change in his face.
"Oh. No. Just thinking that life hasn't exactly been as good to you."
"Don't I know it. But, I'm still breathing, and I expect things to turn around. I'm going to be happy one day. I deserve it." Ellie took a swig of her coffee.
"Damn right you do." Cole was shocked at his vehemence. Really? This was the woman you picked some loser over him, and he wanted her to be happy? He must be touched in the head. The truth was, he was thinking he wanted to be the reason she was happy. Maybe...maybe there could be a future for them. Would she want that though? Hell, did he want that?
Something deep in his chest said yes. No matter how they had ended before, he wanted her now, and he wanted her for good. He thought about the dresser drawer upstairs. He had been madly in love with her five years ago, and nothing had changed. Well, he spent a good amount of that time angry, but looking at her now, broke and helpless...he didn't want her to hurt. He wanted her to love him back.
As they ate their breakfast and drank their coffee, they made small talk. Ellie discussed job hunting, and he discussed fixing her car. At a quarter after seven, Cole finally stood, reluctant to end their morning.
"What time will you be home?"
"Probably around six, if all goes as planned."
"Is there anything special you'd like for dinner?"
Cole's mind said, 'You. Then again for dessert.' But his mouth said, "Whatever you fix will be fine. I'm easy."
Ellie spent the majority of the day looking in the newspaper and online for jobs. Then she took to the streets, walking through town, looking to see if anyone had help wanted signs in the windows. Nothing. Oh, there were jobs available, just nothing she was qualified to do.
By mid-afternoon, she had returned to Cole's house. She was disappointed that her search hadn't magically produced a job. With a glance in the fridge, she realized that there was next to nothing. Apparently the man lived on canned corn and bread. The walk into town from Cole's house only took fifteen minutes or so, and that was at a leisurely pace. So with a brisk sense of purpose, Ellie headed for the market.
By the time Cole arrived home from work, Ellie had a salad made, corn on the cob cooling in the pan, and the steaks were about to come off the grill.
"Wow, this is great. I didn't expect all this." Cole headed to the sink to wash up.
"Well, a run to the store was in order...in fact, I think you better just hand over a credit card. Your cupboards are barer than old Mother Hubbard's were."
"It's not that bad." Cole scowled.
"Oh yes. I found a mouse in the cabinet that had hung himself. He left a note that said, 'I can't live like this.' Don't look at me like I'm lying."
"Now you're just being ridiculous." Cole barely resisted the urge to stick his tongue out.
"I hope you still like your steaks well done." Ellie sat the plate in the center of the table.
"I do. Mmm, this smells delicious. This is what I've been missing all these years?"
The comment was said innocently enough; the kind of banter you'd trade with anyone. But considering their past...the moment grew incredibly awkward.
"I'm sorry, Ellie. I didn't mean anything by that."
"I know you didn't. Cole, I'm sorry I did what I did. I'm sorry I didn't choose you."
"It's in the past. Let's eat." Cole grabbed his fork and knife and attacked the meat on his plate like it had come to life.
Ellie watched him in silence, unable to make a move for her silverware.
"Aren't you going to eat?" Cole gestured with his fork.
"I thought about you, you know. I'd lie there at night, staring at the ceiling...Matthew would be off God knows where, and I'd think about you. About how I doubted you'd let me sleep alone, for even one night. About how you'd touch me at random times, just to make sure I knew you were there. About how you loved me, and wanted to marry me."
"I wondered what it would have been like, to be Mrs. Cole Lucas. Life takes us down some funny roads, and there I was, stuck in a cul de sac, wanting to be on the wide open highway with a bad boy with an even badder Harley."