Clara Carter is the brains behind Three Chicks Brewery. The oldest and most responsible of the Carter sisters, she doesn’t have time for anything but taking care of her son and making sure her family’s top beer, Foxy Diva, gets into bars across North America. Which means getting the brew in front of Colorado’s biggest beer distributor. Unfortunately, that becomes tricky when the man in charge of distribution is none other than Sullivan Kenne, the cowboy who ran out on her seven years ago.
Sullivan’s life has been filled with one wrong move after another. First, he tried to prove himself to his bastard father by joining a professional baseball team, a choice Sullivan still regrets. Then he bailed on Clara, the only woman he’s ever loved. Seeing her again makes Sullivan determined to right his wrongs. Unfortunately, he wasn’t counting on one of those wrongs being a six-year-old son he never knew about…
Reuniting with Clara and meeting his son is a shocking—and amazing—experience. But as much as Sullivan tries to return to his roots and be the stand-up cowboy of Clara’s dreams, the reality is that she’s having trouble trusting him. Luckily, Sullivan knows the way to Clara’s heart, and he’ll prove to her that a second chance with a cowboy is worth the risk.
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“How long has it been since you’ve done something like this?” she asked.
“Seriously? Seven years?”
The light from the fire was impressively bright, revealing the chiseled lines of his cheekbones. “Life is different in Boston,” he explained, gaze on the sky. “Not so quiet. And when we travel for games, we always play in big cities. I don’t get the chance to get out to places where the city lights don’t hide the stars.”
She looked to the sky herself, spotting the milky way. Over the years, many of her old high school friends had moved away with big city dreams. She’d never had those dreams herself, loving small-town life. The old Sullivan she knew would have hated the big city too. She figured she better get to know this Sullivan. “Do you like the big city?” she asked.
“Parts of it,” he said. “Some parts, I don’t.”
She smiled, dropping her head to the side to watch his expression. “Like the bars?”
The side of his mouth curved before he glanced her way, lifting an eyebrow. “You saw the tabloid article, then?”
She nodded. Everyone saw all the articles about him. Every week, on a new issue in the grocery store line. “What’s going on with all of that? The bar fights and stuff?” And, of course, by “stuff,” she totally meant women.
Obviously picking up on that, Sullivan’s mouth quirked up at the corner again. “Does the stuff wear dresses and high heels?”
She sent her gaze to the fire. “It’s none of my business. You don’t have to talk about it. It’s just…”
She felt his stare. “You were always a one-woman type of guy. What changed?”
“Nothing,” he said in a quiet voice. She dared to look at him then, and his jaw was clenched, tension creasing the lines around his eyes while he watched the fire burn. “The women, they’re a distraction.”
“From?” she pressed, not even sure why she wanted to know the answer so bad.
The heat from the fire became all-encompassing as he drew in the longest, deepest breath then blew it out through his nose. “From the shit that gets heavy in my head.”
She froze, shocked by his answer. Of all the things she had expected him to say, that certainly wasn’t it. For fun. Because I don’t want anything serious. Something like that, not anything deep.
At the silence, he turned his head to the side, watching her closely. “Distractions help me take a break from that.”
“I suppose they would,” she agreed gently. She had seen the guy she loved fade when his mom passed away, but he was lost forever when his father’s abuse started. But right here, right now, she could almost see the guy he’d been when his mother was alive. The good guy, the guy who wouldn’t simply vanish from someone’s life so cruelly. “What about this bar fight that got you suspended?”
“It never should have happened,” he said, looking back to the sky with a heavy sigh. “I’m careful not to drink too much, to always stay in control, but that night, my control slipped.”
She took a guess. “Because of your dad dying?”
“I suspect my dad’s death had something to do with it, yeah.” The shame on his face was more punishment than anyone should endure, and the orange hue from the fire detailed every bit of it. “We were leaving the bar, me and a bunch of teammates, and we came across an asshole fighting with his girlfriend. He was screaming at her, and then he pushed her, and she fell.” He stopped to take a deep breath before continuing. “I didn’t know them. I had no business interfering. But something in my head snapped, and I acted before I even knew what was happening.”
“Wait,” Clara said, trying to understand. “Why didn’t you say that the guy was hurting his girlfriend? I’d say that’s forgivable. You were protecting her.”
“Because I’m no better, Clara,” Sullivan said, dryly. He turned his head then, revealing many years of pain in his eyes. “I put my hands on someone in violence, in rage. That is unforgivable.”
She tried to see it his way, but failed. “No, you were giving the guy a taste of his own medicine. Seriously, Sullivan, people would have sided with you.” She watched him for a moment, looking for a single flicker of agreement with her on his expression. Trying to understand, she asked, “So, instead of explaining that, you took the suspension?”
She processed, scenting the piney aroma from the trees hugging the firepit. Nothing felt…right. Something was missing. She sat up straight, scooting to the end of her chair to face him fully. “Why are you home, Sullivan?” she asked.
His brows drew together. “You already know why. To get my head right.”
She considered all this again, but something seemed off. “I know what you told me. A bar fight led to a suspension, and you came home to deal with your past because of the fight. But to avoid all of that, all you had to do was tell the truth about what happened. So, again, why are you here?”
Their gazes held before he looked back at the fire. It seemed like he wasn’t going to answer her, but then she almost wished he hadn’t. “When I sobered up that next day at the police station, I knew I was on my way to becoming him.”
“Yes,” he said slowly.
Clara’s heart squeezed painfully, her breath all but gone.
Before she could even think up a reply, he added, “Of course, not completely. I still think the guy I hit deserved it. But I realized I became the very thing I hate. I pushed all the bad shit down deep enough that I felt nothing. Just rage. Until it all exploded.” He turned his head again, torment swirling in the depths of his eyes, and said oh-so softly, “My dad did that until there was nothing left of him, until only rage lived in the spots that were once good. So, that’s why I’m here, Clara. To face the shit that makes me feel uncomfortable so that doesn’t happen to me.”
The world seemed to slow as coldness swept across her. Not knowing what to say, she looked to the fire because, just like that, the years vanished. This was the Sullivan she did know, and she, behind all the hurt and worry for Mason’s well-being, loved this man. But he was drowning in the dark misery and desperately wanted a way out, but unable to find it.
His soft voice pulled her focus to his warm, gentle eyes.
“I’m sorry for leaving you the way I did.” His voice blistered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to be what you needed.”
Tears welled in her eyes, and nothing could stop them from rolling down her cheeks. For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted an explanation, an apology. Now she had those things, but only one truth remained: they’d both done their best in a terrible situation that no one deserved. As much as she wanted to blame Sullivan for leaving and breaking her heart, she couldn’t. Her aching heart reached for him. “I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough to help you.”
About Stacey Kennedy
Stacey Kennedy is a USA Today bestselling author who writes contemporary romances full of heat, heart, and happily ever afters. With over 50 titles published, her books have hit Amazon, B&N, and Apple Books bestseller lists.
Stacey lives with her husband and two children in southwestern Ontario—in a city that’s just as charming as any of the small towns she creates. Most days, you’ll find her enjoying the outdoors with her family or venturing into the forest with her horse, Priya. Stacey’s just as happy curled up indoors, where she writes surrounded by her lazy dogs. She believes that sexy books about hot cowboys or alpha heroes can fix any bad day. But wine and chocolate help too.
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