Lauren, Riding Off Trail Excerpt:

Lauren reluctantly left the warm shower. The micro-fleece robe was thick and hung to her calves. Slicking her hair behind her ears, she was grateful for the steamed mirror, grateful she didn't have to meet her own guilty, haunted gaze. After so long, after coming so far, she'd listened to Sorrel's Facebook pleas and come out to her Montana ranch, ready to face the sordid memories. Sorrel and Tommy, wrapped in each others' arms, topless, passionate. Best friend and fiance, locked in a carnal kiss. Lauren had been so sure she was ready to put it behind her and finally face her former roommate. But when she'd arrived, Sorrel hadn't met her, had vanished like a missed subway stop, leaving a stinking vacuum behind.

So here was Lauren, stranded in the middle of nowhere, captive to Sorrel's melodrama. Well she'd be damned if she'd allow Sorrel to stage her dramatic entrance. She paced in her tiny, private cabin, refusing to attend the hoe-down she'd been summoned to. Too restless for the small one-room building, she moved out onto the porch.

The warm summer day had vanished, and the cold raced down her bare, damp skin. The sky was twilight magic of teals and lavender. The band playing up at the barn was clearer now, and it wasn't to her taste, a rock-edged guitar-heavy kind of country. She sat in the rocker, draping the stiff wool blanket across her lap and curling her feet beneath her. What would Sorrel do when she didn't show up? Would she even notice?

"It's a beautiful night."

She jumped when the male voice came out of the darkness on her left. The cabins weren't very close together, but the air was completely still. "Yeah," she said to be polite.

"Aren't you going to the dance?"

"Nope." Abruptly, she was angry and wondering why the hell not. Was she hiding? "Maybe."

He chuckled. "Shy?"

Not really, but Sorrel's beauty could make her feel that way. Dejectedly, she muttered, "No."

"I'm really nervous."

He sounded more excited to her. "About dancing with cowboys?"

He laughed and something turned in her belly. She went very still. She knew that laugh.

"No. I think my moves will hold up. I'm here to meet an old friend, but she doesn't know I'm coming. It's complicated. I know the owner of this ranch and she set it all up but she wants me to wait till later to go up."

Slowly, Lauren turned her head and peered hard into the darkness. From the light coming out her cabin window, she made out a dark shape sitting on the other cabin's steps.

"I guess she wants to talk to her first. It's her idea so I'm following her lead, but it feels wrong. I feel like she could screw it all up."

Her heart beat against her ribs with the force of a battering ram. Slowly, Lauren stood. "So this person was more than a friend."

He was quiet. "Yeah. She was The One, you know?"

Damn, it was weirdly dark out. Aside from the glowing barn in the distance, there was no light at all. She wanted to see him, even though she was sure. Sorrel, up to her old dramatic tricks. Moving to the stairs, she asked, "But you haven't told her?"

"Oh, she knew she was the one for me. But I screwed up. She shut me out. There was nothing I could do."

"You could have gone to her." The bare dirt was actually still a bit warm from the day. Ever so slowly she walked toward him.

"I tried. Like crazy. For a couple years. She moved, she told her friends and family what I did and they froze me out, too. She would change her emails every time I found a new one, change her phone number, return my mail. I came to her work and she had security escort me out." Maybe it was the night that let her hear how incredibly confused he still was about that.

"So maybe you weren't her One." She hit a patch of grass between their cabins. It prickled her damp feet.

"Obviously. Doesn't mean I can't try with her again. I know she's still not with anyone. Maybe this won't start anything, but I would still really like to see her. Talk to her." He finally noticed she'd come over toward him and stood abruptly. "Oh, hey. Hi."

"Sounds like you miss her." She stuffed her hands into the robe pockets.

He was just a dark shape, his face a pale blot. The lights in his cabin were out.

"I've gotten to the point where I don't think about her every day. But yeah, I really do." He moved restlessly, gave a small chuckle. "I'm Tom. I'm completely hyped right now. Sorry to dump that all into the night. Are you a counselor by any chance?"

She could almost hear his sweet smile in his words. Tom, he said. Not Tommy. It had been so long. Suddenly, she wasn't angry anymore. Sex made people do stupid things. He made a mistake and she'd crucified them both. It may have been the moral and righteous thing to do, but it had hurt down to her soul and she was very tired of hurting. She missed him, too, even though she wasn't at all sure he was her One.

"Tom, it's Lauren."

Again, quiet. He shifted with a soft rustle of clothes. The band's guitars wailed. "Lauren?" he whispered.

She nodded. Realized he couldn't see her. "She put us in adjacent cabins. That's so Sorrel."

"I--" He shifted again. "I just told you all that stuff. But I didn't know."

"I know."

"I'm an idiot." He shifted closer. "I didn't recognize your voice."

"I didn't recognize yours either. But I knew you when you laughed."

He came up to her then. They were so close she felt the warmth of him in the ever-cooling night air. But she still couldn't see him like she wanted.

"It's cold. Will you come in?" He offered.


It was surreal to follow him up onto his porch. His front door featured a rope stapled to it. A lasso, she realized. He flicked the lights on and her breath caught. Tommy--Tom--was older. He'd been lanky and cute. Now he was solid and handsome. His face had matured and his brown hair was shorter, more professional. Her hand flew to the lapel of her robe. She was abruptly aware she stood before him nude and barefoot, without any jewelry or makeup. Her hair hadn't even been combed.

"You're so beautiful," he said softly. He held out his hand to her. "Come in."

She put her hand in his and stepped into the room. It was a replica of hers, only the bedspread and curtains were a dark plaid. His fingers were strong and steady.

"You're cold." He went to the heating unit and turned it on, even though the cabin wasn't that cold.

"I sat out on the porch all wet."

He stood there looking at her, awkward. They cleared their throats at the same time, then burst out laughing at the coincidence.

"Tommy, I can't believe you're here." Eight years ago, he'd been everything that had made her happy. Being with him had defined her. Eight years ago, it had all ripped apart and she'd rebuilt herself. It had hurt.

"I can't believe you are, either." He shoved his hands into his back pockets, a habit she remembered well. "You cut your hair."

Hers had always been very long to Sorrel's elfin cap. "I change it pretty often now. The bangs are new." She self-consciously raised her hand and tried to finger comb them.

He stepped forward and took her hand. "It looks great. It frames your face and makes your blue eyes look really vivid."

"So you're Tom now." Looking at him made her dizzy. The changes in his face fascinated her, but his eyes were still warm brown.

"Yeah. All grown up."

His thumb stroked over her palm and the air disappeared from the cabin. Tom was holding her hand. The man whose memory of kissing in the summer grass was the bar that every date had had to vault.

"How are you?" he asked.

"I've been doing well." She swallowed. "It was hard to come out here."

"And she didn't tell you I was coming."


"Would you have come if you knew?"

Her toes curled in the berber rug. "I don't know."

"No, really. Would you have come?"

She shook her head. "It could have gone either way." Sucking in a huge breath she said in a rush, "I missed you, too."

He nodded, looking down at her hand. She thought he'd say something about that horrible scene of him in Sorrel's nearly-nude arms. But instead he stepped into her, grabbed her head, and kissed her.

He was a different Tommy, and the chemistry they'd always shared roared into place. His mouth soared over hers, flying from one side to the other, then diving deep. His tongue claimed her mouth with a demand Tommy had rarely shown her. She was shocked, and touched. Softening, she leaned into him and slid her tongue along his.

He gave a small groan and the kiss softened. He stroked her tongue, her teeth, kissing her lips with gliding presses. His hands threaded into her hair, his fingers curling against her nape. She shivered.

Stepping back, he tore his blue henley over his head and threw it aside. She blinked at a more firmly muscled Tom. Then he was against her again, kissing so sweetly. "Lauren," he said between breaths. "Just let me touch you for a minute."

He seemed taller than she remembered. Stop comparing him to the past. It's been so long. Her inner sex kitten purred. He's grown.

What are you doing in his arms? Screamed her common sense and pride. He's a cheater!

But he was Tommy, and Tom, and sweet and magical. How odd she'd discovered Sorrel's secret revelation through sheer chance. Her fingers stroked up his ribs. She kissed off his mouth and down his throat. The smell of him hit her hard. He wore the scent of a nice cologne, very mild, and man, and his skin had a trace of salt.

He wrapped his arms around her shoulders and held her to him. She tucked her head against his chest and closed her eyes. They stood together, and she could feel how hard his heart hammered against her cheek. The years melted away, and then came rushing back. Her mind whirled. She wasn't that same shocked, broken girl. She didn't need Tommy anymore. But, oh... Tom.

"Are you here at the ranch for the whole week?" she whispered.

"Yes," he answered just as softly. Like he was aware of the weird spell around them. "Will you talk with me?"

"Yes," she sighed snuggling closer.

They stood there, holding each other. Peaceful.

"This is the best vacation ever," he said with a smile in his voice. He laid his chin down on the crown of her head. His hands moved over her, stroking, soothing.

"I want to just stay like this. All night. And find out all about you."

He squeezed her. "I can do that. Sounds perfect to me."

And that's what they did. Holding, petting, talking, laughing. They lie on his bed, drinking coffee he brewed in the room's little pot, sharing what had come since. They stayed away from what had gone wrong, but she knew they'd get to it. And maybe even get over it.

Near dawn, they moved out onto his porch and sat wrapped up in his bed's comforter. The morning mist on the meadow was amazing. Spruce scented the freezing air. Steam rose from their mugs of coffee. Sorrel was out there somewhere, and Lauren didn't know what she'd say to her, what the woman wanted to say to her about kissing Tommy. But right now, that didn't matter.

Smiling at Tom over a scalding sip, she looked back at the mountains as they shaded peach with the rising sun. It was going to be a great day.