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Read a Mills & Boon extract: The Dark Woods by Debra Webb

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Read a Mills & Boon extract: The Dark Woods by Debra Webb

 

THE DARK WOODS by Debra Webb

Will uncovering the truth about her past…destroy her future?

Driven to discover what really happened to her parents twenty-seven years ago, Sasha Lenoir seeks US Marshal Branch Holloway’s help. It’s a big risk. What if her former lover learns her long-held secret? But as their reignited desire draws them back into each other’s arms, Sasha knows that Branch deserves to hear the truth. But will telling him about her past cost her a second chance with the man she never forgot?

 

 

Taut, edge-of-the-seat contemporary romantic suspense tales of intrigue and desire.

Chapter One

Sunday, March 24

Sasha Lenoir struggled to keep her smile in place as her lifelong friend Audrey Anderson showed the last of the guests to the door. The gathering after her grandmother’s funeral was a tradition as old as time, and Sasha had managed to muddle through the event without embarrassing herself by bursting into tears. As the social requirements of the day drew to an end, however, her nerves had grown ragged and her wherewithal dwindled.
She needed to close herself away in a quiet room for a few hours to recharge, to collect her emotions and tuck them neatly away once more. She had spent many years sharpening her skills at controlling her reactions and feelings. Despite the pressure or the insurmountable odds, any crisis manager worth her salt would never allow the slightest crack in her carefully constructed veneer for the rest of the world to see.
But today had been different. Today was personal. The only remaining family member, besides her daughter, she had left in this world was now gone. Dead and buried. There was no one left to ask about her history. No one to remind her of all she had overcome, become and could do in the future despite that history.
Life would never be the same.
Viola Simmons had been more than a mere grandmother. She had been mother, father, sibling, best friend, confidante, cheerleader and, most important, the keeper of the faith. Not once had she ever lost faith in Sasha or let her down in any way. The sweet, brave lady had believed in Sasha when she barely believed in herself. She had picked up the shattered pieces of their lives and soldiered on when she had every right to want to give up.
There was a gaping hole in Sasha’s life and in her heart now.
“I should stay tonight,” Audrey offered as she entered the drawing room once more. “You shouldn’t be alone.”
Sasha dredged up a weary smile for her old friend. “I appreciate everything you’ve done, Rey. I’m not sure I would have been able to pull this off to my grandmother’s standards without you, but right now alone is exactly what I need to be.”
Everyone close to Audrey had always called her Rey. Nicknames were a mainstay of Southern culture. When Sasha was a small child, her parents—even her grandmother—had called her Sassy. By age twelve, no one dared to do so—not without the fear of a black eye or a bloody nose. Only once in her career as a top crisis manager in New York City had Sasha’s childhood nickname surfaced. She had quashed that errant leak in a heartbeat.
“Are you sure?” Rey’s face lined with worry. “I really hate to go and leave you in this big old house all by yourself.”
Sasha hugged her arm around her old friend’s and guided her to the door. “You’ve done more than enough.” They faced each other in the entry hall. “You handled the outreach to her friends. You went over my grandmother’s wishes and arranged the entire service at DuPont’s with hardly a nod from me. You organized the lovely gathering here afterward. You’ve gone above and beyond already. Go home, kick your shoes off and have a glass of wine—or two…or three. Snuggle with Colt.”
They laughed together. But instead of sounding happy, it seemed sad. It was the end of an era and Sasha suspected Rey was thinking of her own mother, who wasn’t getting any younger and whose health had been plagued by dementia. Time stopped for no one and it felt as if it was slipping away far too fast.
Rey sighed. “The service was beautiful. I know your g’ma would have been proud.” Rey shook her head. “It’s such a shame about Mr. DuPont. I can’t believe a close colleague of his daughter’s murdered him. I’m certain she must be completely devastated.”
The news of the DuPont murder had rocked the small town of Winchester, Tennessee. DuPont Funeral Home had served the community for more than a hundred and fifty years. Edward had been the fourth generation DuPont undertaker. His daughter Dr. Rowan DuPont was now the fifth. Strange, Sasha realized, the DuPont family’s history was littered with as much tragedy as her own. Rowan’s identical twin sister drowned when she was twelve and a few months later their mother committed suicide. Worse, her mother hanged herself in the funeral home and Rowan was the one to find her.
“I was surprised to hear she’d decided to return to Winchester and take over the funeral home.” Like Sasha, Rowan DuPont had carved out a good life and a successful career elsewhere. With her father’s murder she had apparently made the decision to give up everything to come home and take over the family business. There was likely more to Rowan’s decision than what the media had covered. Whatever her reasons, Sasha applauded her courage. It took guts to come home after a tragedy and to start over.
Particularly with the guilt of her father’s murder hanging over her like a dark cloud.
“Life has a way of sending us down a different path sometimes,” Rey said almost to herself.
Sasha inwardly cringed. Her friend was right; no one understood that stark fact better than Rey. A hitch in her career had brought her home to some immensely dark history of her own that just last month had surfaced for the whole world to see.
“I guess we never know what the future holds.” Sasha chafed her bare arms with her hands, chasing away the sudden chill that came from deep within her bones. “Don’t you find it odd that the three of us have suffered such similar tragic pasts?” Sasha shook her head. “Winchester is a small town and that’s a lot of skeletons rattling around.”
Rey made an agreeable sound. “I suppose every small town has its secrets.”
“My grandmother probably knew them all.” Sasha laughed, the sound strained despite her effort to lighten the moment. “No one was privy to more rumors and gossip than Viola Simmons.”
Rey smiled. “There was something about her—an aura maybe—that made you want to spill your guts.” Rey grabbed her handbag from beneath the table next to the door. “Don’t forget I want to do a reflection piece on her. Everyone loved Vi. It’ll be a great way to pay tribute to such an admired lady.”
“She would be so honored, Rey.” Sasha’s grandmother would love the notoriety. “We’ll get together next week and talk.”
Rey paused, her hand on the door. “Does that mean you’re hanging around for a few days longer than you first anticipated?”
Sasha didn’t hesitate. She took the plunge. “I told my partners I would be gone for at least two weeks. If there’s an emergency they know how to reach me.”
“I am so glad to hear that.” Rey nodded. “You should take your time and do what you need to do before you jump back into work.” A frown tugged at her lips. “Will Brianne be okay with you staying so long?”
“She’s having a blast with her nanny. The woman spoils her rotten.”
“And,” Rey pointed out, “you get some me time. I have a feeling that doesn’t happen often.”
“No kidding. I can definitely use it.” Though, in truth, it was work that stole most of Sasha’s time, not her precious daughter.
The two hugged for a moment and then Rey hurried to the street and the car she’d left there that morning. She’d arrived early to help Sasha get ready for the funeral. She was a good friend and Sasha genuinely appreciated her help. Three times each year Sasha had visited her grandmother—on her birthday in September, Mother’s Day and at Christmas. She and Rey, on the other hand, had lunch at least every other month since Rey lived in DC—or at least she had until she suddenly rushed back to Winchester to take over the family newspaper late last year. Sasha would never in a million years have considered that Rey would move back to Winchester. Not after the way Sheriff Colt Tanner, her first love, had broken her heart when they were in high school. Not only was Rey back in her hometown, she and Colt were giving their relationship a second go. Sasha definitely had not seen that one coming, though she was immensely happy for her dear friend.
Maybe happy endings weren’t a total myth after all. Certainly there was a theme going on with the whole homecoming thing.
Sasha had made her own happy ending far away from Winchester and without any help from the man she had fallen head over heels for when she was too young to understand what heartbreak was. She and Brianne were a strong, complete family. They would both miss G’ma but they still had each other.
Sasha closed the door and, out of habit, locked it. She’d lived in Manhattan for the past thirteen years. One didn’t leave the door unlocked in the city. No matter that almost two decades had passed since she’d lived in Winchester, folks in her small hometown hadn’t changed very much. Doors were still left unlocked more often than not and neighbors still checked on each other on a regular basis, which was the reason her grandmother had been found so quickly after her unexpected death. She hadn’t come out for her newspaper. Viola Louise Simmons would never have left her newspaper lying on the porch until noon. A neighbor had noticed and knocked on the door to check on Vi, as her friends had called her.
A heart attack had taken her as she sat down for her morning tea. At eighty-three, no one could complain that Viola hadn’t lived a long and productive life. Yet Sasha still grieved the loss, felt shocked at the idea that her grandmother was no longer here. She leaned against the closed door and surveyed the familiar surroundings. She had lived in this big old house from age nine until she went off to college and after that she’d spent holidays and summers here.
Growing up, this house had been more her home than any other place. Even when her parents were still alive, she was with her grandmother far more often than with them. Sasha pushed away from the door and moved along the hall, studying the family portraits and photos that had captured a place in time, curating the moment for all eternity. She stopped and stared at one portrait in particular, the last one of her with her parents before they died. Memories of the photographer urging Sasha’s mother, Alexandra, to smile whispered through her mind. Her parents had both looked uncomfortable that day. But Sasha had been a kid, so she hadn’t really noticed at the time. Two weeks later they were dead.
The remembered sound of gunshots blasted in her brain, making her jerk.
Sasha banished the haunting memories and walked to the kitchen. Maybe a cup of tea would settle her nerves.
She put the kettle on, lit the flame beneath it then reached instinctively to the pocket of her suit jacket and found nothing. She sighed. Upstairs. Her cell phone was upstairs. The device was as much a part of her as her two hands. It was never beyond reach…except for today. Out of respect for her grandmother she had left it in her room. Viola had hated cell phones. Rather than money, she had been convinced the invention of the cell phone was the root of all evil.
Sasha smiled as she took the rear staircase up to the second floor. The house was an early nineteenth-century American Foursquare. Sasha loved this place, but she wasn’t sure what she would do with it. Her life was in New York and she couldn’t possibly move back here. Never in a million years.
She found her cell on the bedside table in her old room. A text flashed on the screen. Sasha smiled as she responded, typing the words I miss you, too, followed by three kiss emoji. Her heart swelled. She was really glad Brianne wasn’t angry with her anymore. Her daughter had been furious when Sasha told her she couldn’t come to G’ma’s funeral. She had school and Sasha wasn’t sure how long she would need to remain in order to settle her grandmother’s affairs. At least Brianne was speaking to her now. Five minutes after Sasha was out the door, her daughter was planning all the things she and her beloved nanny could do together. Twelve was a tough age. Sasha remembered it well.
Love you.

Sasha sent the text and tucked the phone into her pocket. Downstairs the kettle screamed for her attention. She could taste the bitter tang of the tea already. Her grandmother was a die-hard Earl Grey fan. Sasha compensated with an abundance of sugar and milk.
With a quick twist of the knob she doused the fluttering flame under the kettle. She grabbed a cup and the ceramic box where her grandmother stored her tea. She dropped a bag into the cup and grabbed a mitt to pour the hot water. While the tea steeped she went to the refrigerator for the milk and rounded up the sugar.
The doorbell rang, echoing its Westminster chime through the house. Hoping it wasn’t another plant since the front parlor was full already, Sasha made her way to the entry hall. Rey had suggested the plants be donated to one or more of the nursing or assisted living homes in the area. First thing tomorrow a local floral shop was sending a van to collect the plants and divide them up among the three homes in the Winchester area. It was a good solution, one her g’ma would approve of. Sasha peeked beyond the drapes, didn’t see anyone on the porch or in the drive. Frowning, she unlocked the door and opened it. Definitely no one on the porch or in the driveway.
When she would have turned away, she spotted the corner of a pink envelope sticking up from the mailbox hanging on the wall next to the door. Had someone dropped off a sympathy card? Maybe a neighbor who hadn’t been able to make it to the service or to the gathering.
Sasha tugged the envelope from the mailbox, then went back inside and closed the door. Her name was scrawled across the front. She turned the envelope over, noted the bold H stamped on the flap. Her heart stumbled as she opened it. The single page inside was folded twice. Frowning, Sasha unfurled the page and read the brief note that went straight to the point and then the name signed across the bottom of the page.
There are things your grandmother should have told you…about your parents. We should talk. Arlene Holloway.
For twenty-seven years the world had believed Sasha’s father had killed her mother and then himself.
Deep down she’d had questions, had doubts. But each time Sasha had broached the subject, her grandmother hugged her and said that sometimes bad things happened to good people. Her grandmother was like the policemen who came to her parents’ house that night. They didn’t want to listen to what a traumatized nine-year-old had to say. Two people were dead and nothing on earth was going to bring them back.
But Sasha remembered vividly what no one had wanted to believe.
She had heard at least one stranger’s voice that night…maybe two. Voices that didn’t belong to her mother or to her father or to anyone else she recognized.
Someone else had been in the house the night her parents died.

Chapter Two

Arlene Holloway was born and raised in Winchester. Sasha stood at the woman’s front door as the sun dipped behind the trees and mountains that surrounded her hometown. Mrs. Holloway was—had been—Vi’s best friend. Didn’t matter that Vi was black and Arlene was white and that their childhood era had not been amenable to multicultural relationships of any sort. The two had weathered that storm and become stronger because of it. Through marriage and childbearing and widowhood Vi and Arlene had grown even closer over the years. Both had warned Sasha’s mother nearly forty years ago how difficult life could potentially be if she chose to marry a white man. Alexandra had ignored the warning and married Sasha’s father. Sasha had the dark curly hair of her mother and the pale skin and green eyes of her father.
More important, she had the determination and relentlessness of her grandmother. Both had served her well in the high-stakes world of celebrities and politicians where ruthless tactics and colliding egos were par for the course. Handling the high-profile issues of the rich and famous as well as the influential and powerful required a certain skill set, including fearlessness. The fearlessness as well she had inherited from her grandmother.
But for her parents, as predicted, life had been difficult and far too short.
Sasha knocked on the door a second time, and when the knob turned, her heart took another of those troubling tumbles. Was it possible that after all these years she might be on the verge of learning something new about what happened that night? If her grandmother had possessed some knowledge as to the events that unfolded that fateful night, why would she not have told Sasha years ago? The answer was easy—Viola Simmons would have done anything, gone to any lengths to protect her only grandchild. She firmly believed the past should stay in the past. Viola had wanted desperately for Sasha to move forward with no dwelling in a history that could not be changed.
But what if some aspects of it could change?
Why would Vi ignore that possibility?
The door swung inward and Sasha prepared to launch into her planned spiel about how she and Mrs. Holloway hadn’t had the opportunity to properly catch up during the funeral or later at the graveside service or even at the gathering. She decided she wouldn’t bring up the mysterious letter until the older woman did.
Except it wasn’t eighty-five-year-old Arlene Holloway staring at Sasha when the door opened fully. It was Branch… Mrs. Holloway’s grandson.
US Marshal Branch Holloway.
The boy Sasha had loved from afar since she was thirteen years old. The man she’d finally—after a decade of fostering a secret crush—made love with in his truck on the heels of having had far too much champagne at her five-year high school reunion.
The man who was the father of her twelve-year-old blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter.
A fact the man in question did not know.
That trademark grin spread across his handsome face—the same face she saw in her daughter every day. “Sasha Lenoir…aren’t you a sight for sore eyes.”
And just like that her heart melted and she wanted to lean into him the way she had that one night almost thirteen years ago. It would be so easy to cry on his wide shoulders after losing the only real parent she’d had. To lose herself in the warmth and promise of his arms and forget that she, like her grandmother had been, was on her own now, raising a child.
Except Sasha had far too much to lose to even think of going down that path. Her decision not to tell Branch about her pregnancy and the daughter she’d had nine months later had been based on fear and self-doubt during an intensely stressful time. She’d just graduated with her master’s and had dozens of job interviews in front of her. Two months later she’d barely settled into her new career when she realized she was pregnant. Her life had already been far too complicated; she couldn’t drag Branch into it. He was kicking butt and taking names in Chicago. There simply was no common ground for them to find for raising a child together. She’d made the decision not to tell him and her grandmother and Rey had kept her secret.
Now the decision seemed like the mistake it no doubt was. Brianne was missing out on the wonderful man who was her father and the still unmarried Branch had no idea what an amazing daughter he had helped create.
Remorse heaped onto Sasha’s shoulders. What had she done?
She’d also caused her grandmother to keep that secret from her lifelong best friend. Her poor grandmother had taken that weight with her to her grave.
More guilt accumulated to the point Sasha almost sagged. But didn’t.
All at once regret claimed Branch’s expression. “I’m as sorry as I can be about your grandmother. I would have been at the funeral today but there was an emergency with a prisoner transfer.”
Arlene had explained Branch’s absence. Not that Sasha had really expected him to come to the funeral. They hadn’t exactly been close friends back in school. He was two years older and had been too popular to have time for a mere human like Sasha and her friends. But he’d always been kind. Besides being incredibly handsome and spectacularly charming, one thing Branch Holloway had always been was kind. Fear abruptly clutched Sasha’s heart. How kind would he be if he ever learned her secret? She had stolen a dozen years of his daughter’s life from him.
She pushed the negative thoughts away. No one was better at keeping shocking secrets or neutralizing the rumors around those secrets than Sasha. They didn’t call her the queen of spin doctors for nothing. As for her personal dilemma, she had made her bed; she would lie in it.
Steadying herself, Sasha produced a smile. “Thank you. I apologize for the unannounced visit. I was hoping for a few minutes with Mrs. Holloway.” Sasha leaned to the left and peered past him into the cavernous foyer beyond. “Is she home?”
“She sure is. Come on in.” The long fingers of one hand wrapped around her arm and ushered her across the threshold. “Gran and I have dinner together every Sunday. We were just about to sit down at the table. We’d be thrilled to have you join us. There’s always plenty to eat.”
Sasha dug in her heels, stopping their forward momentum. “I couldn’t possibly impose.” Good grief, she had forgotten how early people had dinner around here. It wasn’t even six o’clock.
“Nonsense. It’s no imposition.”
Before she could react to the statement, he’d taken her by the arm again and was guiding her through the house. Mrs. Holloway was beaming when they entered the dining room.
“Sassy, how sweet of you to come to dinner.”
Branch pulled out a chair at the table and ushered Sasha into it. She managed a “Thank you.” Then she propped a smile into place for the elderly woman across the table while Branch laid a setting for her. “It wasn’t my intent to intrude. I came by to speak with you about—”
“Say grace, Branch,” his grandmother ordered. “This girl needs to eat. She’s as thin as a rail.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Branch shot Sasha a wink before sitting then bowing his head.
After the shortest dinner blessing she’d ever heard, he announced “Amen” and picked up the bowl of potatoes and passed it her way. “If you need anything at all while you’re in town, you let me know. I’m sure you have your hands full.”
“The hard part’s over,” Arlene insisted before Sasha could respond to Branch’s offer. “The rest is as easy or as difficult as you choose to make it.”
Funny, the older woman was far more right than she likely knew. “I appreciate the offer, Branch,” Sasha said, her voice steadier than she’d hoped for. “My grandmother was very organized. She left specific instructions for everything.”
Sasha nibbled at the food on her plate in an effort to appease her host and hostess. She listened avidly to their chatter about who had done what and the excitement of last month’s organized crime case. Branch was still fielding offers for top assignments across the country but Arlene was hoping he would stay in Winchester.
Coffee had been poured and dessert served before Sasha had the opportunity to speak openly to Mrs. Holloway. Branch had excused himself to take a work call. Sasha wasn’t sure how much time she had, so she went straight to the point.
“Mrs. Holloway, did my grandmother ever mention any second thoughts as to what happened to my parents? Did she feel satisfied with the police reports?”
Arlene stared at her for a long moment…long enough for Sasha to fear she’d shocked the poor woman.
“You received the note I had delivered.”
Sasha nodded. “I did. I was quite surprised. You’ve never mentioned anything before.”
“Your grandmother wanted the past left in the past. I felt her decision was a mistake but I held my tongue until today. Now it’s time for the truth to come out, so long as you understand there will be consequences.”
Sasha studied the older woman’s face for some indication of exactly what she meant. “Certainly, I understand. I want the truth and I’ve always felt as if the truth was swept under a rug all those years ago.”
There, she’d said it. It was past time she stopped pretending the truth didn’t matter. It wouldn’t bring her parents back but perhaps it would right a terrible wrong.
Arlene continued to stare at her, her blue eyes faded to a pale gray beneath the thick lenses of her glasses. “Your grandmother never wanted you to pick at that ugliness. Are you sure you want to go against her wishes? She’s scarcely cold in her grave.”
Flustered and frustrated, Sasha held her ground. “Mrs. Holloway, with all due respect, you are the one who contacted me.”
“I only made the offer—this is your journey to take.”
Grappling for patience, Sasha asked, “Do you or don’t you know what really happened?”
Arlene reached for her iced tea glass, took a long swallow. “I’m not sure anyone knows for certain but with the proper guidance I’m certain you could uncover the whole story.”
“I’m thinking of hiring a private detective,” Sasha confessed.
“A private detective?”
Branch’s deep voice shook her. Sasha’s attention swung to him. She hadn’t realized he’d walked into the room. When she found her voice, she said, “Yes.”
He pulled out his chair and dropped back into it, automatically reaching for his coffee. “Why do you need a PI?”
“She wants to know what really happened to her parents,” Arlene explained. “She doesn’t believe the police reports any more than I do.”
Sasha cringed, as much at Branch’s look of surprise as at Mrs. Holloway’s words. “It’s not that I don’t believe the reports—I’m just not certain the investigation was as thorough as it could have been.”
Branch nodded slowly. “I’m confident the investigators attempted to be thorough. Sometimes it’s a matter of a failure on the part of the investigator and sometimes it’s just a lack of communication. You were really young when your parents died—I can see how you would have questions now.”
Sasha reminded herself to breathe. “I think you’ve nailed my feelings on the matter.” She considered pointing out that she hadn’t just shown up at his door with these questions. His grandmother had sent her a note. But she decided against that route for now. She had a feeling his grandmother had set them up for precisely this result. Sasha cleared her throat and pushed on. “With my grandmother’s passing it feels like I need to settle my own affairs as well as hers. I would like to put the past to rest, I suppose.”
“You can help with that, can’t you, Branch?” Arlene suggested. “You’re on vacation. What else have you got to do?”
He smiled patiently at his grandmother but the gesture didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“No.” Sasha shook her head. “I don’t want to bother anyone. This is really something I need to do on my own. It’s very personal.”
His gaze rested on hers. “Gran’s right. I’m on a long-overdue vacation and I don’t have a lot planned. I can help you look into the case—if you feel comfortable with me digging around in your personal business.”
If he’d said her hair was on fire she wouldn’t have been more startled. Anticipation seared through her. Branch was a lawman. He would know how to conduct an investigation—that much was true. He would be able to spot the holes in the decades-old investigation. She could trust him. He would be thorough. His assistance would be invaluable.
What on earth was she saying?
She couldn’t spend that kind of time with the man. There was too big a risk that he would discover her secret. Or that those old feelings that still stirred when she thought of him would be ignited all over again.
Either possibility was a chance she could not take.
“Perfect,” Arlene announced. “I’ve always wanted to know what really happened. Out of respect for Vi, I kept my questions to myself. She never wanted to talk about it. I’m certain she was afraid of the consequences.”
This was one aspect of the past Sasha had not considered. She knew in her heart that someone else was involved in the deaths of her parents. The fact that no one else seemed to feel that way and that her grandmother had been so opposed had prevented Sasha from pushing the theory over the years. But Arlene was right. If someone else was involved there would be consequences. That person or persons would want to keep the truth hidden as desperately as Sasha wanted to reveal it. Just another reason to be grateful she hadn’t brought her daughter back to Winchester.
Finding the truth might be more dangerous than she had anticipated.
“When would you like to begin?”
Branch’s deep voice drew her attention from the disturbing thoughts. Breathe. “I was hoping to start immediately.” She blinked, realized it was Sunday evening only hours after her grandmother’s funeral. “Tomorrow, I suppose.”
He nodded. “I have a lunch meeting in Nashville tomorrow, but I can pick up the file and meet with you first.”
“I would genuinely appreciate it.” Anticipation lit inside her. This was really happening. “I can work with your schedule.”
“I’ll call Billy and let him know I’m picking up the file and we’ll go from there.”
Billy Brannigan was the Winchester chief of police. Sasha nodded. “Sounds good.”
She thanked Mrs. Holloway for dinner and made her excuses for heading home without finishing her dessert. She wanted to spend some time going through papers and mementos at her grandmother’s. Primarily, she wanted to put some distance between her and her teenage idol. Except just when she thought she was in the clear, Branch insisted on walking her out.
When they reached her car he opened the door for her and smiled; his expression looked a little sad. “I’m sure sorry about the circumstances,” he offered, “but it’s good to see you, Sasha. It’s been a long time.”
She wondered if he ever noticed that she carefully avoided him whenever she came home for a visit. Probably not. He was a busy man. She likely rarely crossed his mind, if at all. All these years, she had brought her daughter three times each year to see her g’ma and she had somehow avoided ever bumping into Branch. It was a miracle really in a town this small. And yet somehow she’d managed.
Doubt regarding the intelligence of this plan to investigate the past nudged her again. She at times second-guessed her decision about keeping Brianne a secret. But it was too late to undo that now.
All the more reason this was a really bad idea.
“It has been a while.” She moved around the door, using it as a shield between them. “I’m usually only here for a couple of days when I visit. Between G’ma and Rey, I hardly see anyone else.”
He nodded. “I hear you have a daughter.”
Uncertainty whooshed through her like the flames from a roaring fire catching on dry kindling. She managed a laugh. “We really are behind. The daughter came into the picture ages ago.”
He chuckled. “I didn’t know you’d gotten married.”
Her nerves jangled. “No wedding. The relationship was over before it began.”
Before he could ask anything else, she threw out a few questions of her own. “What about you? Wife? Kids?”
The answer to both was no, of course. The idea that she knew this was intensely sad.
“No and no.”
“Well, that’s a shame, Branch. You don’t know what you’re missing. My daughter is amazing and brilliant. Being a parent is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Had she really just said that? Her heart swelled into her throat. Obviously she needed to go home. Today had been overwhelming and she was clearly not thinking straight.
“It’s hard to be a parent without finding the right partner first.” He winked at her. “I’m beginning to think I let the only one for me get away a long time ago.”
The warmth that gushed through her was at once exhilarating and terrifying. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Sasha dropped behind the wheel and closed the door before Branch could say anything else.
He watched as she backed from the drive and drove away.
Branch Holloway had always been incredibly charming. He hadn’t meant what he said the way it sounded—the way her mind and body took it. Sasha was certain on that one. Being kind was one of his most well-known traits. It was as natural as breathing for him.
He hadn’t actually meant that she had stolen his heart and ruined him for anyone else. They’d had a one-night stand after years of her pining after him.
End of story.
At least, for Branch, it had ended there.
For Sasha, that night had only been the beginning.

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