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Reclaiming Emma by Isabella Laase – Sample

Chapter One

Faced with the overwhelming emotional reality that her world would never be the same, thirty-five-year-old Emma Lanyon struggled to breathe. Driving away from their beautiful waterfront condo without Javier was almost more than she could bear, the action igniting a physical pain that pressed on her chest with a relentless weight of misery and anxiety. The normally short taxi ride to Chicago’s O’Hare Airport had taken twice as long as expected, the gray, foreboding skies exploding into a dark snow squall shortly after she’d called the cab. Staring out the window at the nondescript cars in half a dozen bland, predictable colors, she vowed to never return.

A pair of dark glasses kept her swollen, red eyes hidden from the world; her long ginger-brown curls were pulled away from her face with a simple ponytail. With no job and no ties to Chicago other than the handsome and talented architect she was leaving behind, she’d planned on flying back to upstate New York to hide in the room where she’d grown up, an unchanging security since she’d graduated from the local high school as the valedictorian of her class. Her childhood books, games, trophies, and the crisp white bedspread with tiny blueberries on the trim waited in a mini-time capsule for her return.

But halfway to the airport, she’d realized that the inevitable questions from her overly caring parents were too exhausting to even think about. She just wanted to sleep and be left alone with her tears, dealing with her failed marriage under a pile of blankets and maybe a few shots of Jack Daniel’s. Her grandmother’s condo in Poughkeepsie was empty until at least April. She could hide there until Grandma returned from her new Florida wintertime residence, but Emma’s dad came by the house once a week or so to check on things, and there was no way that she could time his arrival and remain miserably isolated.

Her best bet was the family home on Cape Cod where all she’d have to do was figure out how to turn on the furnace and flush the antifreeze from the pipes. She’d figure it out with a google search, and it would be weeks before anybody arrived to destroy her solitary confinement. Surrounded by nothing except winterized cottages and storm-driven beaches, she could hide from everything and everyone.

In the back seat of the cab, she used her cell to try to locate a flight to Boston, but faced ten minutes of failures that fed her tears and her anxiety. The driver quickly glanced over his shoulder. “What airlines are you leaving from?” he asked in a distinct African accent. “I am betting that you’re not going east with this storm working up the coast. They started canceling flights yesterday, and it will take days to catch everybody up.”

Her brow furrowed in confusion. It had been months since she’d turned on the news or the weather, her days blindly focused on creating a perfect life for the two of them. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d sat in front of the big windows in their high-rise condo to watch the angry, swirling storm clouds twist across the lake. For the last year, all of her time and efforts had been devoted to the dramatic renovations on their already expensive home, adding sleek, contemporary lines and minimalistic furniture that fully countered her childhood world. Even the European linens were specially created to match her vision.

But when had she lost track of the view? She’d always been a storm watcher. She and her sister, Lilly, loved Cape Cod during the off-season when the entire family had hunkered down with a roaring fire, brand new jigsaw puzzles, and a pot of something spicy on the gas stove while winter’s fury expressed its anger across the misty, gray ocean.

Lilly. She could go to Lilly’s, her big sister who lived with her boyfriend a few hours from Jackson, Wyoming. Lilly would understand her need to just curl up and ignore the world. Lilly would keep her secrets and not tell anybody where she was. Lilly would let her stay. A quick check of her phone, and she found a convoluted series of flights with open seats and long layovers, but she could get to Wyoming that day.

Winding his way in and out of the heavy traffic, the cabby acknowledged her terminal request with a small wave of his hand, but she was shocked by the rush of adrenaline that wakened her from her angst. It was really happening. She was leaving Javier for good, the end of her perfect marriage, her perfect home, and her perfect life, the loss too difficult to even put into words.

Not willing to trust her voice or her resolve, she bought her ticket and turned her cell off without calling her sister. The damn credit card bill that had ignited the life-changing battle with Javi sat on the top of her expensive bag as the solitary token of her past life, resting ironically with one of the many poor financial choices that had destroyed their relationship. The dual effect churned the acid in her empty stomach.

Instead of relief at solving her problem, she returned to sobbing silently behind her sunglasses, her broken heart destined to never repair.

Two airports, hundreds of air miles, and a long car ride went by in an almost drugged haze before she reached the little town of Marion, Wyoming. Well past midnight local time, there were no signs of life with the exception of a single stoplight that served no purpose on a traffic-less road. Given the address of Lilly’s new house, she must be close to Cloudcroft Ranch, but her GPS insisted that she had another forty-five minutes to go.

The streetlights disappeared long before the pavement ended, leaving gravel roads and an eerie darkness that refused to cede fully to the high beams on her rental car. She had to fight to keep her exhausted eyes open and was relieved to get to the ranch gates without ending up in a ditch. Surrounded only by night skies and deadly quiet, she drove down a driveway longer than some roads in the cookie cutter neighborhoods back home before pulling around a bend lined by a small grove of trees to discover the bright lights of a large stone house.

But the crowded parking areas ignited a new panic. Cloudcroft was a working ranch, but also a resort owned by Lilly’s boyfriend’s family. The possibility that the crowds represented a wedding or other happy event was more than her raw emotional state could take, but the possibility that this was one of those parties she didn’t totally understand was even worse.

The whole family had recognized that Lilly’s new life included some kinky sexual stuff that had freaked out her conservative parents before everyone had implicitly agreed to not discuss it. The few times she’d met Lilly’s boyfriend, Linc, he’d seemed particularly stern, and a little uncomfortable at meeting masses of relatives at her wedding and a few months later during a long weekend at her parents’ house. Only her grandmother had been surprisingly supportive, insisting everybody give the guy a chance, but then, Lilly always had been her favorite.

After a few days of family togetherness, however, nothing weird had happened and the couple appeared to be content. Linc and Javi had spent some quality time playing touch football with her younger cousins, acting more like two overgrown boys than a pair of handsome, well-educated career men, and by the end of the weekend, her extended family had agreed that he was a nice guy who worshiped Lilly. Even her father had said with a sigh, “If he makes her happy, I guess that’s all I can ask for.”

But talking to the cowboy in the comfort of her close-knit family was a long way from walking into the warm, sparkly lights of the big stone house where people were doing who knows what to god knows who. The black walls surrounding an isolated Wyoming ranch after midnight didn’t help her stress. The front door remained dangerously far away from her parking spot, and her imagination turned each dark shadow into some wild animal. Lilly had seen a bear around here someplace, trapping her and a friend in a tree for hours. That story had been hysterical in Poughkeepsie, but in Nowhere, Wyoming, it was the wrong side of terrifying. To further push her toward rock bottom, the gas gauge warning chimed in the rental, and she had no choice but to turn the car, and the heater, off.

Opening her phone to evaluate her options, she couldn’t help but look through photos of happier times. A trip to Savannah where Javi had proposed at the beautiful bed and breakfast. Their quintessential black-tie wedding, lasting until the twinkling of outdoor party lights reflected against the majestic Hudson River for a picture-perfect moment. The honeymoon was planned with equal care; two weeks spent exploring the continent from Paris to Rome. Warm breezes tickling her skin became so engrained with Javi’s dedication to her happiness that she couldn’t separate the myriad emotions.

But that life was gone, thanks to her own stupidity. She had the credit card bill and twenty-two angry messages from Javi to prove it, each demanding that she call him immediately, but she couldn’t risk talking to him. After arriving home unexpectedly the day before, he’d innocently picked up their mail and found her latest bill before she could hide the evidence with the rest, his temper igniting to an angry roar. Faced with so much disappointment, she’d had no option but to deflect her deep unhappiness with a bitter, shrewish response, both of them shouting hurtful things that could never be taken back.

Javi was too dependable, too kind to end the misery, so she’d ended it for both of them. After spending the night locked in their pretty little guest room all by herself, she’d simply feigned sleep that morning, ignoring his gentle attempts to waken her before he left for work. She was packed and out the door within the hour.

There was no going back. Even the two-hour trip back to Jackson was physically impossible, and she couldn’t find a hotel within a hundred-mile radius of the frozen ranch. If she didn’t get out of the car, she’d be stuck forever in the Wyoming darkness. The relentless tears started again, but the cold was beginning to chill her to the core, leaving prickly goosebumps across her body.

She dialed her sister, but the call immediately went to voicemail. She left a tentative message, working hard to keep her voice from cracking. “Uh, Lilly… call me. I’m… I need to talk to you. It’s important.”

The big barn was surrounded by a corral with dark shadows of what she really hoped were horses dozing on the far side. “Get a grip,” she mumbled to herself. “Horses are afraid of bears. If they aren’t upset, why should I be scared?” Grabbing her designer carryon, she left the rest of her bags in the car, feeling less certain with each step until she reached the wide front porch filled with homey rocking chairs, overstuffed furniture, and a small gas heater giving off enough warmth to stop her teeth from chattering.

Ringing the doorbell, she wrapped her black wool coat a little tighter around her thin frame while a barefoot woman in her early twenties opened the massive oak door. Her jet black hair held a hint of pink that almost matched her toenails, but the pigtails and blue jean overalls with a white fluffy necked t-shirt were downright confusing. When she stuck her thumb in her mouth and added a nasty glare, Emma’s mouth fell open, effectively defeating normal speech.

They stared at each other for a few uncomfortably long seconds, until the dark-haired girl removed her thumb. “You’re not supposed to be here. Only invited people get to come tonight, and you’re a stranger. I’m gonna tell.”

“I… uh… is this Cloudcroft Ranch?” she asked stupidly.

“Yeah,” said the half-child in front of her, her voice dripping with arrogant sarcasm. “The big gate at the end of the driveway was a giveaway. Do you have an invitation? You aren’t allowed to come here without one. If you aren’t nice, all I have to do is scream and a thousand security guards will come and throw you out.” She looked Emma up and down with distrust. “Are you nice?”

“Yeah, well, I’m here to see my sister. Her name is Lilly Adams, and she’s Linc Sullivan’s girlfriend. Do you know if she’s here?”

Two dark eyes lit up with excitement. “You’re Emma?” she asked with delight. “I should have recognized you. I’ve seen pictures of you in your pretty wedding dress with all those sparkly lights, and Lilly and Linc are going to take me to Cape Cod next year if I can be a good girl and not cause any trouble for a whole month. I’d do anything to go to Cape Cod, even be nice to Linc and that’s hard ‘cause he’s the meanest man who ever lived.”

At that moment, a roar of laughter rumbled down the hall to remind her of the ongoing party. Physically and emotionally spent, Emma stepped backward, glancing over her shoulder at her rental car just as the girl moved to the side with a giggle, adding earnestly, “I’m sorry. I’m being mean, too. My name is Olivia, and Lilly’s my friend. She’s…” The grin grew even bigger. “She’s kind of busy right now. She and Linc are in the d—basement playing…” There was a second hesitation before Olivia added, “Pool. We have a pool table in the basement, and they love to play pool. They play pool every chance they can get. Do you like to play pool, too?” she asked innocently.

“I… I don’t want to disturb them,” said Emma miserably. “Do you think that you can just tell them I’m here? I’ve come a long way tonight, but she wasn’t expecting me. I probably should have called before I left Chicago.”

“Oh, no,” said Olivia cheerfully, taking her by the arm to pull her into the expansive entryway. A massive antique crystal chandelier complemented the hardwood floors and dark trim, and a few open doors hinted at more elegant spaces in the big house. Closing the door quietly, the younger girl took her hand to lead her toward a large staircase opening to a lower floor. “Linc loves surprises, and you’re going to be a fun surprise. Just go downstairs and when you get to the bottom of the steps, go to the last room on the left. You don’t need to knock though. Everybody in there is playing pool too, and they probably won’t hear you. It’s a big party tonight. I’d show you, but it will be so much better for the surprise if you go by yourself.”

“Fine,” said Emma. “The last room on the left?”

“Yep,” said Olivia with a gentle push. “It’ll be a really fun surprise.”

The wide, ornate staircase was made from the same dark oak to match the rustic elements of the house, but the high-quality carpet in chocolate brown and deep maroon indicated a more modern designer touch that she could easily appreciate. Running her hand along the smooth railing slowed her racing heartbeat, her core body temperature warming slowly, and she followed the curves toward the lower floor, glancing upward only to find that the strange girl had disappeared.

Emma was halfway down the steps when a couple started up from the bottom. The huge man was dark and exotic with a solid set of chiseled shoulders snuggled into a navy blue t-shirt, but it took a full second to register that the beautiful, dark-haired woman was naked with the exception of a single, pearl-studded, black leather collar. The edgy, erotic arousal to her nipples was framed by the velvety smooth skin of her full white breasts, and her fully shaved pussy was on complete display.

Emma’s slowly warming skin exploded into a cauldron of red mortification to envelop her in a blushing heat. Failing to maintain a focal point on the ceiling, she pushed hard against the wall at the landing, and the overly handsome man flashed her a killer smile with a knowing wink. She stopped breathing for a long two seconds. “Can I help you?” he asked politely.

“No,” she responded, her raspy voice barely above a whisper. “I’m fine.”

The woman whimpered softly, and the giant man turned his entire focus on her with an indulgent smile. “Let’s go, Sophia,” he said, running his hand across her bottom. “You outdid yourself tonight, and a little quiet time in our room will be a nice reward.”

The woman pulled closer to her man, but not before Emma got a glimpse of bright pink shadows decorating her bottom. Pushing her against the wall next to Emma, he nibbled softly on her nipples. His hand nestled between the woman’s legs, gently nudging them open to begin, long, gliding strokes across her channel until his finger disappeared completely.

Emma desperately tried to make herself smaller, but the woman’s soft groans were too much to bear, her own ache growing in twisting taunts until her entire body tingled with erotic excitement. The whole scene was so innocent and primal at the same time that she had no choice except to slide her back along the wall until she could flee down the final few stairs to a wide hallway. She risked a single glance back at the couple, but they remained where they were, enjoying their private moment in a public stairway.

The door to the left was firmly shut, but the double doors to the right were slightly opened and murmured sounds hinted at a roomful of people. Chewing on her bottom lip in a desperate attempt to remember her instructions, she went for the comfort and security that would come from a crowd. As she pushed the door open, the mass of people magically parted to reveal a small, naked blonde standing in the middle of the room, her bound wrists pulled over her head and legs widened by a metal bar at her ankles.

A lean, muscled man, who from the back looked suspiciously like her sister’s boyfriend, was fucking her with a purple vibrator, digging it deep into her vagina with a twisting taunt before settling it on her wet clit. His worn leather cowboy boots fit his rustic image and faded jeans framed his ass nicely. He sucked on her nipple before licking the sharp nub, leaving a wet dew across her breast, his free hand palming her other soft mound.

Linc’s hand settled firmly on his captive’s ass when Emma gasped with what she thought was relative silence, but every eye in the room turned to her with a scowl, including the cowboy who wasn’t Linc at all, but a slightly smaller, darker-haired version of the stern man who’d spent last Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s dining room table eating mashed potatoes and commenting innocently on the chances the Seahawks had to go to the Super Bowl.

Backing away slowly, Emma couldn’t blink as her attention reluctantly drifted to the rest of the room, gaining the full effects of skin and sex. Costumes that left nothing to the imagination, collars, soft breasts, leashes; every person modeled their own version of kink. Only one couple in an oversized chair in the corner was oblivious to the attention on Emma, the man’s cock buried deep into his partner’s pussy, sliding in and out with aggressive force while he held her in place with a tight grip on her hair.

She backed into the door frame when the cowboy snapped, “Who the hell are you, and who do you belong to?” He took a step toward her, but she bolted across the hall in her last desperate attempt to find her sister. Clutching her Louis Vuitton bag to her racing heart, she pushed open the door to find a naked Lilly with her tummy over a bench and Linc Sullivan driving his cock into her from behind, his hardened, firm ass staring back at her and a bright pink anal plug pushing against his crotch.

Linc looked up angrily. “Didn’t you see the sign on the door? This is a private sc—” He didn’t finish before he turned slightly pale. “Emma?”

She closed her eyes tightly, wishing with all of her desperate, remaining sanity that she’d never left Chicago.

Chapter Two

Lilly’s shriek forced Emma to reluctantly open her eyes, but her sister only managed to twist her head, making it clear that she’d been bound wrist and ankle to the contraption. “Emma who?” she asked in a panic. “Oh, my fucking fuck. Linc, let me loose.”

Emma turned to run, but the hallway was crowded with the now displaced group from the other room, the frowning blonde front and center. Linc slipped into a pair of jeans retrieved from the floor while the smaller version of Linc spoke softly to Lilly until she stopped struggling, then he gently released her from the restraints. Lilly started to move closer, but at the last minute, Linc grabbed her sister’s wrist. “Stop, right there,” he grumbled.

“Not now, Linc,” Lilly snapped. “I’m calling this one. Red. Fucking red.”

“Fine,” he mumbled dryly. “But I just thought you might want to put some clothes on.” Pulling her to his side, he whispered in Lilly’s ear while helping her into a silky powder blue robe. Lilly returned his attentions with a rueful, blushing smile, resting her head briefly on his shoulder. He gently kissed her forehead while tying the sash around her waist.

With no place to run, Emma slid to the floor and buried her face in her hands in a futile attempt to erase all of the overwhelming images, but Lilly finally sat next to her to pull her into her arms. The familiar comfort mixed with years of sisterly competition, giggling play times, and long, innocent teenaged conversations about their futures. Instead of calming her, the overall effect opened a flood of new tears.

“Hush, honey,” said Lilly soothingly. “Why didn’t you call? How did you even find me?”

“I did call,” she sobbed, risking a peek at her sister’s familiar face. “And… it was… the girl said you… were playing.”

Lilly and Linc exchanged an unreadable glance before Linc shook his head. “Come on, Lil. Let’s get her up to the kitchen and see if we can sort this out.”

The scantily clad crowd parted to make a path for them, Lilly’s firm arm guiding her, but she couldn’t keep her eyes averted no matter how hard she tried. The tiny blonde, now dressed in an oversized t-shirt that barely covered her still naked ass, quipped as she passed, “I’d say you should break out the hard stuff, Linc. She’s as pale as a ghost.”

Linc stopped suddenly. “Which girl, Emma?” he asked sharply.

“Not now, Linc,” said Lilly, leading her up the steps where an entirely different crowd of total strangers waited to witness her tears. So many people, ranging in race, sex, and age. So many eyes staring at her with a mixture of pity, curiosity, and a few shots of anger, their evening clearly interrupted. Lilly pulled her even closer, snapping at Linc, “The interrogation can wait.”

“No, it can’t,” he drawled. “Which girl told you to come downstairs?”

Wiping the tears with the back of her hand, Emma saw the pink hair and pigtails quickly walk away from the crowd. She pointed with a trembling hand. “Her. She told me that you were downstairs.”

“Tattletale,” hissed the now very unfriendly adult-toddler as a linebacker-sized man with blond hair grabbed her overall straps just before she disappeared.

“Freeze, little girl,” he said sternly. “What the hell did you do now?” When she reached the end of his arm length, the tiny spitfire immediately melted into a very impressive tantrum, kicking and screaming in a futile attempt to fight her captor.

“Let her go, Gage,” said Lilly in a worried tone. “I’m sure she didn’t mean to cause any problems. Emma doesn’t understand what we do here. It isn’t Olivia’s fault.”

“Stay out of it,” scolded Linc. “Gage and Dan can take care of Olivia without your help. But if they need mine, I’ll be more than happy to take the little brat downstairs and deal with her.”

“No fucking way, Daddy,” screamed Olivia, exercising her entire lung capacity. “I’m not going with him. It’s not my fault that the stupid new girl didn’t know what they were playing. Lilly said so.”

Emma’s temper rankled, pushing the tears to the side. “I’m not stupid. You were the stupid bitch who told me they were downstairs playing pool. You tricked me.”

There was a subtle silence before Lilly spoke. “Beat her ass, Gage,” she said dryly. “If you don’t, I will. But I wouldn’t mind if you waited until I can watch.”

Linc clearly fought back a smile as he pointed toward an open door. “That’s all we need is subs spanking subs around here. And as much as I have to admit that I might enjoy a front row seat with popcorn, let’s let Gage deal with his problem, and I’ll deal with mine. Come on. The kitchen is quieter, and health codes pretty much require everybody to be dressed back there when we’re cooking for a crowd, so Emma should be a little happier.”

A large dining room held an oversized antique table with an impressive display of hot and cold appetizers. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten, but her stomach rebelled dramatically at the thought of food and she allowed herself to be led to the far end of the room. With the click of an electronic doorknob, Linc stood aside to allow Emma and Lilly access to an industrial-sized kitchen. The lights were comfortably dim, but Linc flipped a switch to start a gas fireplace, bringing a soft, warm glow to the space.

Lilly settled her on an overstuffed leather couch in the adjoining sitting area, pulling a cotton afghan across her lap before joining her. Internalizing the relative quiet, she tried to take deep breaths while her sister calmly patted her hand. “Start from the beginning,” said Lilly. “What are you doing here? Why didn’t you call?”

“I…” The simple questions were inevitable, but the answers were still too painful, and she returned to the endless tears. Lilly held her in what was becoming an unbreakable loop of misery feeding misery until Linc joined them with two glasses of wine and a tray of sandwiches.

“Okay,” he said sternly. “Lilly, let her go for a minute. Emma, whatever is bothering you is clearly hard to talk about, but we aren’t making any progress, and we can’t help until we know where to start. So, sit up and eat, then let’s start with the obvious. Where is Javier?”

Emma didn’t move right away, and he took a sandwich off the plate and held it out to her. “Eat. And trust me when I tell you that I’m not taking no for an answer. And you aren’t a vegetarian anymore either, so roast beef on wheat is perfectly fine. Then I want some answers.”

She wanted to refuse, but with her world still spinning like a tornado, the idea of somebody else making a choice for her was surprisingly welcome. She tentatively took it while the big cowboy settled himself in a large wooden rocking chair to wait. The first bite tasted more like sawdust than food, but she washed it down with a small sip of a smooth cabernet with a hint of oaky vanilla. The calories helped slow her heart, and she’d finished the sandwich before she knew it.

But he was still there. “Javier?” Linc repeated, arms crossed in closure. “I’m waiting. And I should warn you that in Wyoming, I’m not always a patient man.”

Lilly snorted in a weak attempt to hold back a laugh. He added dryly, “Would you like to offer a commentary, little girl?” Her sister froze, shaking her head rapidly, and Linc turned back to Emma, obviously prepared to wait.

“We’ve separated, Linc,” she whispered. “It just wasn’t working out, and last night… we’ve split up.”

“Oh, honey,” gushed Lilly, pulling her back into her arms. “I’m so sorry. He’s a jerk and deserves to have his ass kicked. I never thought he’d leave you. I told you that you shouldn’t have gone to Chicago with him.”

“This wasn’t his fault,” she insisted with a small whine. “And it had nothing to do with Chicago. I was ready for a change, and it was a great career move for him and I… I wanted to move.”

But his high-paying job opportunity wasn’t the only reason Emma had agreed to follow him. In Chicago, she could start over, leaving behind the nagging anxiety that had defeated her on more than one occasion, but she’d never shared the details of those miserable days with anybody except her parents. Javi had given her such strength, such devotion, that she was confident that a fresh start would allow her to move forward, but that plan had failed along with their marriage.

Linc remained suspicious. “She never said he left her. Emma, what aren’t you telling us? We can’t help if you don’t tell us the whole truth.”

“It is the whole truth,” she insisted. “He said he didn’t like coming home to me, and that he hated being with me. He said that I’ve changed and I… It’s over.”

“Just like that?” persisted Linc. “After years together, he threw you out the door and said this was over? I’ve only met him a few times, but that doesn’t sound like Javier.”

“He… It was the right thing to do, Linc,” she replied, her voice raising a decibel. “I didn’t have any other option.”

Even Lilly grew suspicious. “You didn’t have any other option? You left him, then?”

“Well, yeah. He has a job in Chicago, and I don’t. What was I going to do, fight with him for hours about how this was going to end? Of course I was the one who needed to leave.”

“Actually, Emma,” said Linc with a frown, “that’s exactly what I thought you would do. Building a relationship takes a lot of work, and a few hours of fighting would be the logical option before you packed your bags and walked out.”

“Sit down, Linc,” said Lilly with a touch of an attitude. “I don’t care what she says. This isn’t Emma’s fault. He let her walk out the door after taking her away from everything she knew back in New York. She was the human resources manager at a Fortune 500 company, for god’s sake. Since she followed him out there, she’s just jumped from one temp job to the next.”

“The tone, Lillian,” said Linc with a warning edge to his voice. “That’s one.”

Emma was a little pleased when her bossy sister leaned back in her chair with a sigh. It was about time somebody shut her down, and she didn’t want to respond anyway. She’d actually enjoyed the anonymity and free time between the short job stints. She enjoyed it, that is, until her debts piled up with no place to turn.

“You’re right,” said Lilly with a sigh. “I’m sorry, Linc, and I’m sorry too, Emma. It’s just that I can’t bear the fact that he’d let you walk out. He’s had everything he wanted in this relationship.”

Linc remained skeptical, tapping Emma’s chin to force her gaze from the pretty gray tile floor. He spoke sternly. “I’m going to ask this once, little girl, so make sure you give me an honest answer. Did Javier try to stop you, or did he just let you go?”

Lilly started to speak, but he turned his icy glare on her and held up two fingers before she shrank back into the couch. Turning back to Emma, he said, “I’m growing impatient. What happened?”

The combination of his stern tone and Lilly’s submissive response sent a nervous tingle across her backside until her clit throbbed under the weight of the slightly veiled innuendo, but lying or offering misleading information in the face of his grim persona was clearly impossible. “I… I left before he could say anything,” she whispered, turning her head toward the darkened windows.

Linc tapped her chin a second time until she stared into his steely blue eyes, and she shivered slightly. “Does Javier even know where you are?” he asked without a hint of inflection.

“No,” she whispered. “But I left him a note and asked him to not bother me. You can’t tell him that I’m here.”

“Emma,” gasped Lilly. “How could you? You left without even saying goodbye? Without giving him a chance to fix things? I talk to you almost every week, and you never even hinted that there was a problem. When did you get to this point?”

There was no answer to that. Even in retrospect, she struggled to pinpoint exactly when they’d transitioned from perfection to drama. The small fights had started over nothing important, but they’d never lasted long. A missed appointment with the architect that he’d promised to attend. Her angry retort to the towels hanging sloppily over the rack of their pristine master bath, and on one notable Saturday morning, a small battle over the proper care of clean, folded laundry.

But other than a few hours of shouting, the tiny resentments had no real focus. Every couple fought, she’d told herself. Emma liked to get her own way, and Javi’s stubbornness could be epic. She’d grown to expect the conflict, then just avoid him when it became too difficult. A quick shopping trip to a high-end boutique in Chicago’s downtown or running to the yoga studio for an extra class were her classic coping mechanisms and by the time she’d returned, Javi would acknowledge her with a tight smile and the problem would be resolved, at least until the next blow-up.

Lilly interrupted her thoughts. “He must be worried sick. Unless… unless he did something really stupid?”

“It wasn’t his fault,” she repeated. “I ran up our credit card bill to the point of no return. I’d been making a little money at the temp jobs, but I couldn’t keep up, and I just kept buying, especially on the new house. When Javi found out, he flipped. He’s done with me.”

She couldn’t go on, the dratted tears taking over again, but Linc handed her a box of tissues. “Dry your eyes, little girl and give me your cell phone.”

Emma hesitated, but Lilly quickly added, “Give him the cell, Emma. He knows what he’s doing.”

Despite the tears, she managed to find her phone, unlocking it with her fingerprint before tentatively handing it over. Linc pushed a few buttons. “He’s left twenty-nine messages,” he said with a scowl, “and he isn’t going to stop until you answer him. There are another seven from your parents, which means he’s let them know you’re missing. I’m betting there are dozens of messages on your phone, too, Lilly, and probably the ranch phone, but none of us are monitoring it tonight since this is a private party. Shit, Emma, how could you upset so many people? I’ll call him.”

Emma jumped off the couch, but missed her phone by inches. “No!” she cried out. “Give me my damned phone! Nobody’s calling him. This is none of your business.”

He held it out of her reach. “It became my business the minute you drove onto Cloudcroft land. Now sit down before I paddle your ass.”

Lilly made a grab for Emma’s arm, but Emma pulled away and kicked Linc’s ankle, her Italian high-heeled leather boots landing hard enough to force the cowboy’s grimace. A tiny bit of guilt edged into her thoughts, but she grabbed the phone. “Don’t be a bully, for god’s sake,” screamed Emma. “It’s my business and my marriage.”

The louder she got, the quieter the other two became until she was screaming at a silent room. Lilly looked at her with a mixture of pity and regret while Linc’s face was frozen into a frightening combination of anger and authority. Rubbing his ankle, he slowly slid his belt out of his jeans, wrapping it around his hand before he mumbled, “Why the hell do women insist on kicking me?”

Lilly shrugged, adding a little eye roll, and he turned back to Emma with a growl. “Give me the phone. Now.”

The underlying fear did little to calm the erotic tingling until the dewy response settled between her legs. She looked at Lilly for support, but her sister’s continued disapproval ended her resolve. She handed the phone over with a trembling hand, her eyes struggling to leave the soft leather that wound so perfectly around his palm.

“Good girl,” he said sincerely, adding a welcome nod of approval. “I admit that this isn’t the first time that I’ve taken a phone away from an Adams daughter, but you learn faster than your sister.” Emma looked at Lilly in disbelief, but she just shrugged in return.

“Take her upstairs and get her settled in the study next to our room,” he said to Lilly. “I want her close until I get some answers around here.”

“You can’t make me—” Emma started to protest, but Linc’s icy cold glare forced her silent pout.

“I’m not going to make you stay married, Emma,” said Linc with a sigh. “But I am going to make you tell him in person what you intend to do. You owe it to each other to have that conversation. But I’ll also make sure that you’re safe, so he can come out here and get you. We’ll just deal with this at Cloudcroft.”

“Linc,” said Lilly. “You’re being ridiculous. You can’t possibly expect her—”

“That’s three, Lillian,” he interrupted dangerously. “Are you seriously going to continue this line of conversation because we can go downstairs right now. Or you can pay up tomorrow when my patience is a little more established. The choice is yours.”

Lilly stuck her chin out defiantly, but she grabbed Emma’s hand. “Come on, Emma. I’ll show you where you can sleep.”

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