Sugar stormed across the parking lot, searing tears streaming down her face. If that wasn’t enough, Mr. Tough Cop was hot on her heels.
“Sugar! What the hell did he mean by his daughter?”
She spun to face him, all fury and flame. “How many ways do I need to spell it out? Leave. Me. Alone! I’m not interested in dating you.” With a sigh, she added in a softer tone, “I’ve got enough damn trouble as it is.” She whirled, walked back through the door, and headed straight for the storeroom. She was a wreck of emotions. A ball of guilt filled her for not telling him he had a daughter. Then anger boiled just under the surface like the sun about to erupt. After all, he had left her and then made it perfectly clear he didn’t love her. Then there was her heart. How many lives did it have left? Broken to pieces when he’d deployed, fractured when he cut off communication, and today? Today it had shattered into a million fragments when she’d seen him again.
Damn it all to hell and back.
She still loved him. Heart, body, and soul.
“Sugar!” Her sister entered the room as pissed as a cat in a back alley fight.
“I know.” She pulled a tissue from her apron and blew, pushed her curls out of her face, and straightened her shoulders. “Sorry, I’ll be out in a sec.”
“Listen. I know your heart’s breaking, but you need to do what’s best for Sophie. That man has a right to know his daughter and she, her father.” Her eyes softened. “Give him a chance, Sugar. War is hell, and something tells me deep down he still loves you. Always has.”
Before she could reply, her sibling vanished back into the sea of customers. Her sister was right. Sugar owed her daughter. Her heart said to give him a chance. Her body begged her to slip into his arms and forget the last three years had ever happened. Her mind however, said to pack up and run. She closed her eyes and inhaled. After the rush was over, she’d head to their favorite spot. Something told her she’d find him walking the lake. As she exited out the door and into the breakfast crowd, she knew it was the right decision. She only hoped her heart didn’t stop beating completely.
As she slid by Beau, he gave her a wink. “Things will work out. They always do.”
She smiled. “Thanks, cuz.”
Her sister looked up from her note pad and gave a nod of approval. “You cut outa here in thirty. I’ll handle the rest.”
Then it was settled. In less than an hour, she’d likely make a fool of herself, but she’d sleep with a rattlesnake to ensure her daughter’s happiness.
By Lena Hart
It took Sugar longer then she anticipated to leave the busy diner. As the breakfast rush began to die down, she jumped into her mother’s old station wagon, zipped through their small, beloved town of Hartsville, and headed straight toward Kissmee Lake. She hadn’t been down to their old spot in three years. Not since their last night together, when they had shared the most explosive moment of her life—and had created their daughter.
Sugar made it to the lake in time to see Jax sitting in his truck. The back lights glowed as he began to pull out of his parking spot.
Was he leaving?
The thought of not setting things right between them, of never seeing him again, sent her into a panic. Sugar whipped her station wagon alongside his. She barely had the key out of the ignition before she jumped out of the car and ran to his truck.
Jax hit the breaks, a sort of stunned confusion on his handsome face. Sugar ran to the passenger side and climbed into the tall truck. He put the truck back into park and cut the engine.
“Sugar, what the hell? I could’ve hit you.”
She smiled at him, not at all bothered by his ferocious frown. She knew him and knew he only got that look when he was scared. “No, you wouldn’t have. You would never hurt me.”
His expression softened. “No, I wouldn’t.”
“Then why did you stop writing me?” Sugar hadn’t meant to blurt out those words, but his sudden cut of communication had torn her heart apart. She knew this moment wasn’t about her. It was for Sophie and having her daughter know her father, but Sugar was still hurt by his callous abandonment and needed to get the words off her chest. She glanced down at her hands and exhaled. “I know why you had to leave, Jax. I hated it, but I know you, and I know you could never turn your back on your responsibilities. But me? I never imagined you would turn your back on me.”
Her voice caught and Sugar kept her gaze averted as silence stretched between them. Suddenly, he opened the glove compartment and pulled out a small bundle of letters in varying degrees of wear. Without a word, he handed her the stack. Sugar stared down at them curiously before gingerly pulling them from his grasp.
“What are these?”
“My final letters to you.”
Sugar’s eyes snapped up to his. She knew what he meant by that. In that moment, the possibility that he would not be sitting next to her in his old pick-up truck, where they had share so many fiery moments, became a stark reality.
He reached out and brushed the single tear that escaped from her lids. “Don’t cry, sweetheart. The last thing I ever wanted to do was cut you out of my life. But I couldn’t stand the thought of what my death might do to you. I didn’t want to put you through that kind of pain so I thought I could help you forget me. But I was a fool and caused us both unnecessary pain.” He nodded toward the letters in her hands. “I wrote you every chance I got after your last email. It was the only thing that kept me sane out there.” He paused then said gutturally, “No matter how much I tried, Sugar, I could never let you go.”
Tears brimmed her eyes as a series of emotions reeled through her, but she blinked them away. Glancing down at the letters, she flipped through each one, losing count after thirty. On the face of each letter was her name in his bold handwriting with exes and ohhs scribbled underneath. A quavering smile tugged at her lips. It was the same way she had signed off all her emails to him.
Her words were cut short when a police cruiser pulled up behind his truck, flashing its bright red and blue lights. From the outline of the figure inside, Sugar could make out Officer Milhouse’s stocky frame.
By Chanta Rand
Jax hopped out of his truck, ready for battle. He’d had enough of this dude’s shit. He’d met plenty of guys like Milhouse overseas—all bluster and no balls. The only reason he got away with his intimidating behavior was because he was a big bully in a small town.
Jax knew all about taking down bullies. He’d done plenty of that for the last three years. He’d even had nightmares about it. One more bad dream wouldn’t matter. In fact, it’d be worth it to put a hurtin’ on this fool that he’d never forget.
One scuff-toed boot foot followed the other as Milhouse exited the cruiser. He stood, legs bowed like a wishbone. Son-of-a-bitch acted like he owned the world. A grim line occupied the place where his mouth should have been. Steel eyes shaded by the crisp brim of his cowboy hat bored into Jax.
The two stood face to face. Millhouse puffed his chest out. “Listen, buddy. You can’t just skip into my town trying to lay claim to something that’s clearly not yours.”
“You heard me. Now, why don’t you slink back in your truck and get the hell out of here before I send you home with your tail between your legs?”
Jax tensed. “You think just because you’re wearing that tarnished badge I won’t kick your ass?”
Milhouse snatched the gold-tone metal from his lapel and flung it to the ground. “Badge is gone now, punk.” Then he unfastened his gun belt. It slid to the grass and landed with a soft thud on the grass. “It’s just you and me. Man to man. You sure you wanna tangle with—?”
Jax punched him square on the jaw. Milhouse’s head snapped back and then he fell forward, landing flat on his face on the carpet of grass. It was over before it began.
Jax’s warrior instinct kicked in. He stalked over to the cop’s unconscious body and used his foot to shove him onto his back. “Just like I thought. All talk.”
Sugar rushed forward. “Oh, my God! Is he dead?”
“No. But when he wakes up, he’ll wish he was.”
“Jax…” Sugar’s hand clasped his, her slender fingers lacing with his calloused ones. “Let’s just go, please,” she begged. “You can get in a lot of trouble for this.”
He shook his head, keeping his gaze pinned on Milhouse. “I defended my country. I can damn sure defend the woman I love.”
“You can’t just assault a—wait. You love me?”
He faced her, his heart wrenching at the flickers of hope dancing across her blue irises. Lord, she was beautiful. Beautiful and perfect and everything he wanted in a woman. In that moment, he knew he’d do anything to protect her, and the child he believed was his.
“Yes, I love you, Sugar Dennison. I think I loved you from the moment I laid eyes on you.” He brought her hand to his lips and pressed a tender kiss on her knuckles. “The whole time I was away, I prayed I’d get back to you. I went to bed thinking of you. I woke up wondering about you. Now that you’re standing before me in the flesh, I’m never gonna let anything separate us again.”
A single tear slid down her smooth cheek. “I thought you’d forgotten me.”
Her lips parted, begging to be kissed. He’d dreamed of those lips. Fantasized about her curvaceous body. Plotted what he would do if he ever saw her again. The memory of her had sustained him like water to a man in the desert. He leaned in, ready to show her just how much he’d missed her.
The sharp blast of a car horn waylaid his plans. Tires crunched gravel as a brown and white station wagon pulled into the parking lot. A face he recognized peered through the driver’s side window.
“Hey Mama,” Sugar called.
Mrs. Dennison’s shocked gaze flitted from Sugar to him. “Jax? Jax Brandon is that you?”
She stared at the lifeless figure on the ground. Jax knew he probably looked like Captain Morgan on steroids. Knee bent, sneaker firmly planted atop Milhouse’s sternum.
“Good Lord! What is your foot doing on that cop’s chest?”
Before he could answer, a beautiful, cherub-faced little girl with dark, bouncy curls caught his attention. She stared wide-eyed out of the back window. She took one look at him and then her little lips scrunched into a frown.
“Aw, shit,” he muttered.
“Hey,” Sugar elbowed him. “Watch your language in front of my mom—and my daughter.”