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From Author Charlene Sands – REDEEMING THE CEO COWBOY
As soon as Susanna Hart spotted the chrome-rimmed Cadillac SUV turning the corner and barreling down the street, her heart fisted deep in her chest. She knew this day would come. Casey Thomas was back in town.
She held her cousin Ally’s small hand and watched as the fairy tale princess ball rolled to a stop on the front lawn of Casey’s childhood home. Why wasn’t she graced with good luck and timing the way some women were? She darted a glance at her front door thirty feet away. It was too late to make a mad dash. The roar of the engine mellowed. He wasn’t far now. Thorny blades of grass pinched her bare toes where she stood like an immovable statue under the afternoon sun. Her palms began to sweat. She wiped her free hand on her denim jeans. “Oh, no,” she muttered.
Ally’s eyes immediately lifted to hers. Susanna fixed her lips into a pretend smile, scooped up the ball and handed it to the three-year-old. “Here you go, Muffin.”
The worry on Ally’s face crumbled and she giggled. “I’m not a muffin.” She hugged the ball to her chest and announced, “I bakeded muffins, Auntie.”
Susanna tapped a finger to the side of her mouth. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I forgot. You’re my best helper.”
Ally’s smile widened. Poor kid. Ever since Ally had come to live with her one month ago, she’d tried to find ways to put the child at ease and let her know she was wanted and loved. Little Ally had enough on her plate without worrying about her Aunt Susie’s sudden panic right now.
Even if Susanna hadn’t recognized the blond-haired breaker of her heart Casey Thomas commandeering the wheel of the custom-painted glossy black SUV, she would’ve guessed it was him. Flashy cars like his didn’t belong on Meadow Drive in the Reno suburbs. Neither did he anymore.
But as he drove his SUV into the driveway of his childhood home and cut the engine, there was no mistaking the man who’d taken her virginity nearly ten years ago.
Susanna stood rooted to the spot spinning thoughts of nonchalance in her head. She’d seen Casey a few times in the last ten years. This shouldn’t be so darn hard. They could simply pretend the whole taking-her-virginity incident never happened, like they did when he’d come to pay his respects at her father’s funeral. Like they did when Casey broke his back riding rodeo and Susanna, being Audrey’s best friend, went with his sister to pay him a visit in the hospital. Like they did when they’d bumped into each other at Sunset Ranch after Audrey had her beautiful baby girl, Ava Kasey Slade.
The driver’s door opened and a beagle-sized mutt scurried over Casey’s lap and leapt onto the driveway. Ally’s arms fluttered excitedly. “Doggy!”
The pup raced over to her, his peachy blond tail wagging like crazy.
“Charger!” Casey’s voice boomed.
Susanna swept Ally off the ground and into her arms. It wasn’t the puppy’s enthusiasm so much as Casey’s tone that lodged a threat in her mind.
“Sorry,” Casey said, lowering his voice. “He’s actually pretty harmless. Just too darn rambunctious.” He hinged his body out of the SUV, his movements fractionally slower than when he was younger, before he’d broken his back in the rodeo ring. As he straightened to his full six foot two height, he gritted his teeth and his jaw tightened. Back in the day, he saved that look for his sister Audrey when she’d done something wrong. Susanna wondered what put that look on his face today. Was he annoyed at the dog? Or was it residual pain from his injury causing him to frown? “I didn’t want him to frighten the child. Come here, dog.”
The puppy’s tail nosedived between his legs and he trotted toward Casey.
The pup and Casey had two things in common: lush shaggy blond hair and mischievous eyes. Casey strode to where the grass met the driveway, treating it like a barrier between them. “Hello, Susanna.”
Her toes curled deeper into the prickly grass. From what she could tell, Casey’s former life as the rodeo champion was gone now. Dressed in a russet brown shirt tucked into tan trousers, he was still ruggedly handsome if not a little more refined. Sunlight poured over his tanned face and charming white smile. “Hello.”
He cocked his head to one side. “Guess we’re going to be neighbors again.”
Temporarily. When she’d spoken to Audrey, she hadn’t been sure when Casey would arrive, but that he’d be staying a month, maybe two. On business. Secretly, Susanna died inside hearing the news, but couldn’t let on to her best friend how much being neighbors again to her super successful, gorgeous brother distressed her.
“I guess so.”
He nodded, his stark gaze piercing through barriers with unspoken words. Words she didn’t want to hear. Words that were better off unsaid. “Uh, this is Ally. She lives with me now.” She hugged Ally close and brushed her lips to the top of her head. Soft blond wisps tickled her mouth. “Say hello to Casey, Ally.”
Ally’s eyes shifted from the pup to the pup’s owner. “Hello.”
Casey came closer, stepping over the grass barrier, and smiled wide. “Hi, Ally.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle shake. “Nice to meet you.”
Ally turned back to Charger. “I like your doggy.”
Charger rose up on hind legs and pawed at Casey’s expensive dress pants, a mewling sound grounding from his little throat. “I think he likes you too.”
“Can I petted him?”
“That’s up to…” Casey turned to Susanna with a question on his lips.
“Aunt Susie,” she confirmed with a nod. She wasn’t really Ally’s aunt, but now wasn’t the time for explanations. “I think it’d be all right.”
Casey bent to pick up the puppy and Ally put her hand out ever so gently to stroke the puppy’s head. “He’s soft.”
“He is,” Casey said.
Lime and musk filled her nostrils. His scent reminded her of the last time they’d been this close. In the Thomas house, on the sofa, his arms strong and sure around her as she cried her eyes out. The images came through clearly as if they’d happened yesterday. Ten years later, and Casey still made her heart race.
If only he wasn’t going to live directly next door to her. If only he wasn’t Audrey’s brother. If only pressing business didn’t bring him back to Reno. Susanna gave herself a mental slap. The if onlys had to go. Casey Thomas was here for a short time and she’d have to deal with it, just like she’d dealt with everything else in her life. On her own terms.
“The street looks the same,” he said, glancing around.
“It is, for the most part.” She lived in a middle, middle class neighborhood, the homes groomed and tidy, but missing the fancy renovations upper middle income could provide. “Mrs. Martinez moved out. She’s living in a retirement home now. Peter Albertson got married right out of high school, but his mom and dad are still living here.”
“That so? I’ll have to stop over and say hello to Randy and Linda.”
Susanna smiled. “They’d like that. I think they miss Peter a lot.”
Casey glanced at his own house. No one had lived in it since Audrey moved out a year ago. Susanna watched over the property and made sure the gardener came twice a month to keep the lawn groomed.
“You still have a spare key?” Casey asked.
Susanna blinked. The question came out of left field. “Yes, do you want it back?”
Casey took in her sharp reaction and smiled slightly “No ma’am. I need to borrow it.” He set the pup down on the grass. “I left my place in Tahoe this morning without my key. Didn’t realize it until about twenty minutes ago. “
Whoops. Her shrewish answer had come out of left field also. She’d barked at him as if she was the canine on the property. “Oh, of course. I’ll go get it for you. Come on, Ally.”
Ally pushed against Susanna’s chest and threw her body weight toward the dog, pointing her index finger. “Charger. Charger.”
“We’ll come right back, sweetie.”
“I’ll watch her,” Casey said. He squatted down and ruffled the pup’s ears, then gazed at her, his blue eyes full of reassurance. “If that’s okay with you?”
No it wasn’t okay with her. It wasn’t that she couldn’t trust Casey with Ally. He’d raised Audrey from a young age and knew the ropes. If anything, he’d been overprotective of his little sister. It wasn’t that. She didn’t want to get too chummy with her new, old next door neighbor. And she certainly didn’t want Ally getting close to him either.
Ally reached up and put her palms on Susie’s cheeks, looking into her eyes. “Pleeeeeze.”
The kid knew how to get to her; her plea zigzagged to her heart. She shouldn’t deny Ally a small measure of happiness because of pride. Ally had suffered enough sadness for someone so young.
With a shake of her head aimed at Casey, she lowered Ally to the ground. “Okay. You mind what Casey says, sweetie and stay close.”
The puppy immediately raced to Ally’s feet, his tail circling like a windmill on a breezy day.
They were becoming fast friends.
That wasn’t good.
Sighing, Susanna walked to her door, climbed up the steps and swiveled her head. She spotted Ally laughing as the bushy-haired pup did impressive belly rolls on the grass. Casey glanced over and their eyes met. A second ticked by, and then another. Having him here was impossible. She didn’t want him watching her. The corners of her lips pulled down and she snapped out of his momentary hold on her. Reaching for the screen door, she turned the handle and stepped inside her home.