What he had done to her was unforgivable.
Rebecca Banks shoved the last of her few belongings into her duffel bag while trying to make sense of the previous night’s events once more. Her head still hurt but she wasn’t going to take anything for it. It would strengthen her resolve to leave, to just disappear from her home town, something she hadn’t had the courage to do for too long.
Sawyer had no right; she had never allowed him that sort of power over her. It wasn’t part of the deal.
She zipped up the duffel bag and stormed through the small house, pausing to grab a can of Diet Coke out of the fridge. She set the overfull bag down and picked up her keys, working the car keys free from the ones to the front door, unable not to glance at the sofa where it had all happened.
Her emotions were all mixed up, tears of shame fighting against those of pride, of wanting to fight back and tell him he had been wrong, that he’d had no right! But he was gone and by the time he came back to check on her, she’d be gone too. For good.
She slapped the keys to the house down on the counter and slung her bag over her shoulder, but before leaving, she took one more detour to the back bedroom. There, she paused, looking at the bed that hadn’t been slept in for too long. It was Amelia’s room, the stranger who had taken her in two years ago and had been more of a mother to her than her birth mother ever had. She picked up the frame that held a photo of them together the summer before Amelia had gotten sick. Unshed tears threatened and she shoved it quickly into her duffel bag before opening the drawer and, from the small jewelry box there, taking the wedding band Amelia had never taken off when she had been alive. She slipped it onto her finger, wiped the back of her hand across her wet eyes and, without more than another glance, walked out the door.
Ten years later
Rebecca set her wallet down on the desk and began to search through her purse. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen her driver’s license, but it had always been in its appointed slot in her wallet. She only noticed it was missing because she needed to copy her license number onto a form today.
There was a knock on her open door and Claire, the older woman who scheduled appointments, walked in with a file. “Last minute schedule change. Joanne had to leave early to pick up her daughter at school. Poor kid is sick. Hope you don’t mind, but the patient is already here so it’s too late to cancel.”
Rebecca took the file. “No, it’s fine, Claire. I’ll see the patient.”
“Thanks,” Claire said and left.
Rebecca zipped up her wallet and set it back inside her purse. She would have to look around at home for it. It wasn’t as though it could get up and walk away, after all.
She got up and only opened the file as she walked to her office door, scanning the injury of the first-time patient. He was a firefighter recovering from both tibia and fibula fractures. Poor guy probably hurt himself fighting a fire and saving a life. She smiled, already making a hero of the man she had yet to meet. She glanced at her watch. She would be going home a little later than planned, but that was fine. It wasn’t like Jeff was waiting for her anyway.
She walked down the corridor toward the waiting room. She closed the file and only read the name of the patient out loud once she turned the corner: “Sawyer Hayes?”
Time seemed to come to a sudden halt as recognition paralyzed her the moment the steely grey eyes connected with hers. Her breath stopped altogether and heat flushed through her.
He had changed a little. God, was it possible he had grown even more handsome? Her body reacted to him in exactly the way it had learned to ten years ago.
Over the top of her sweater, she quickly touched the ring she wore on a chain around her neck, Amelia’s ring, and heard her own ragged breath.
At least Sawyer seemed as shocked as she was, but he recovered himself more quickly and rose to his feet. She watched him take up his crutches. She blinked quickly and cleared her throat, opening the file again, pretending to read, very aware of the cold sweat collecting under her arms. When she looked up again, she felt her face flush with color as he made his way to her, his eyes never once leaving hers.
“Rebecca,” he said, coming to stand just inches from her. His gaze took in every detail of her face. “It’s been a long time.”
Rebecca swallowed and followed his gaze to her hands, which now held the file so tightly that she was white-knuckled. She cleared her throat again and transferred it to one hand. She glanced at the women at reception, who stared open-mouthed at this unexpected and unwelcome reunion as memories of her last meeting with Sawyer Hayes colored her face a dark red.
With effort, she turned her gaze back to his. “A little over ten years,” she said, as if his last statement were a question.
“How have you been?” he asked.
God, his voice. She had never forgotten it, had she? She dreamt it more often than she cared to admit in fact. She stared up at him, unable to speak, taking in the sight of him after too many years without. The last time she had seen Sawyer Hayes, he had been twenty-eight years old. She had been all of eighteen then.
His dark hair was cut differently, shorter than he used to wear it, but his eyes were exactly the same: a steely, cool grey so piercing that her body shivered to be the subject of their attention. Some wrinkles lined his eyes now as he attempted to smile and he had the same scruffy stubble across his square jaw as he used to, only now the dark hair was accented by patches of grey. Her attention went to his lips, to the tense line there.
Rebecca cleared her very dry throat and returned her gaze to his.
“I’ve been good,” she said, it was a standard answer.
The phone rang at the reception desk, snapping her out of her stupor. She took a step back, putting some distance between them. He stood too close, his presence too much, as it always had been.
“What did you manage to do?” she asked, turning to walk back toward her office while pretending to read his file, giving her heart time to regulate itself, trying to act as though she didn’t remember a thing about their time together, about that last night.
“An accident on the job,” he said. “How long have you been living in town?”
They reached her office and she opened the door. He took it from her and waited for her to enter ahead of him. A momentary power play charged the air between them. He stared at her, challenging her, then gestured for her to go ahead with a simple nod of his head. She exhaled and turned her gaze to the file, then stepped inside.
“Just about a year,” she said, before adding, “Moved here with my boyfriend for his job.”
His eyes searched hers, but if he felt anything at all about her mentioning a boyfriend, he kept it well hidden. He nodded with a quick “Hm.”
“You’re still fighting fires?” she asked, closing the door behind her and moving to take a seat at her desk, hoping once there, she could tip the balance of power to her side.
“Fire chief,” he answered.
She felt as though his gaze remained on her all along and now that they were alone in the enclosed space of her office, an old tension mounted.
By the time Rebecca was fifteen, she had been in the foster care system for six years, bouncing from home to home until Amelia Hayes had taken her in. Amelia was Sawyer’s aunt and the woman closest to a mom that Rebecca ever had. She had practically raised Sawyer, but by the time Rebecca had moved in, Sawyer had a job out in Seattle and no longer lived in the house. He had come home now and again for brief visits, but he had always had a girlfriend with him and back then, Rebecca was just a kid. Until Amelia had gotten sick that is. He had then quit his job and moved back home with his aunt and Rebecca.
At that age, Rebecca’s reaction to Amelia’s death had been one of pure rebellion. Sawyer had been there with her, grieving with her, and they had, as near strangers, found comfort when she rebelled against God and the cancer and anything else she could blame for taking her foster mother’s life. The relationship between herself and Sawyer developed into so much more than any friendship she had ever had, but he had always kept a clear boundary between them, forcing them both to ignore their growing attraction even though she had been eighteen by then and legally an adult.
But he had been her lifeline for nearly eight months. She had needed him to take control then even as she had rebelled even against him. Against that very control she so desperately needed.
But he had crossed a line that couldn’t be uncrossed that last night.
When she had been picked up for drunk driving, not to mention the fact that she was underage at least where alcohol was concerned, the arresting officer had brought her home to him rather than to the local jail for processing. He knew Sawyer and he had done it as a favor to him. She still remembered that night, how angry he had been with her, how he had said again and again she was lucky she hadn’t gotten hurt or worse. She hadn’t been able to listen though and they had fought. Sawyer had taken over then, lost his cool. He had upended her over his knee, stripped off her jeans and spanked her hard. If she tried, she could still remember the sting of first his hand and then his belt on her bare bottom, not to mention the humiliation of it all.
Their relationship had been irrevocably changed that night. She had left the following morning and had sworn never to go back again, never to give someone power over her again.
“How long have you been a physical therapist?” Sawyer asked, their polite conversation so opposite what was going on in her mind.
She wondered if he too was thinking about that night. God knew she had tried to forget it, but it was an impossibility.
“Three years,” she said.
“Where did you go?” he asked, his expression changing a little, the politeness replaced by something else, something more familiar.
But she wasn’t about to go there. She shrugged her shoulders and forced her expression to go blank. “Drove across the country. Ended up at school up in Arizona.”
“I tried to find you,” he volunteered, his tone a hair different.
A long, awkward moment passed during which his gaze seemed to penetrate to her core. She tried to block out any emotion and found herself once again turning her attention to the file on her desk. She turned a page in it. “We should get to work,” she said.
* * *
She couldn’t even hold his gaze.
Sawyer was the fire chief in the small town. He had held this position for two years now and had been a firefighter for the last eleven.
Some months ago, an older woman had been trapped inside her home when a fire had broken out in the middle of the night. It was an old home and by the time the fire crew had gotten there, they had known it would be too late to salvage the structure. But when Sawyer had glimpsed the woman at her bedroom window, he hadn’t hesitated for a moment. He had charged into the building to rescue her. He still didn’t know how he had even made it to her room between the smoke and the sheer heat of the fire, but he had. And he had almost made it out in one piece.
By the time he had reached her, she had been unconscious and he’d had to carry her out. The stairs had all but gone out from under him when he had gotten to the first floor though and he had taken a bad fall, breaking both his tibia and fibula in one leg. He still remembered the pain in those first moments before the reality of his and the old woman’s imminent death pushed him to act. Somehow, even through the pain, he carried her, limping all along, until he was out the door. He had collapsed then and when he had woken, he was at the hospital just coming out of surgery where the broken bones were now held together with metal rods and screws.
But if the pain of the last months meant Rebecca was back in his life, then he could accept that.
In the ten years he hadn’t seen her, not one day had gone by when Sawyer hadn’t had some thought of her. His aunt’s death had done a number on her and he could understand it. They were close. Hell, she was the only family Rebecca had. Her father had never been in the picture and what he knew of her mom was that she was a drunk, had been for so long that Rebecca had spent most of her childhood in foster homes.
He still remembered their last night together, how angry he’d been with her. Thank goodness the officer who had pulled her over recognized her, knew her relationship with him and he hadn’t arrested her. Instead, he had handed her over to Sawyer and walked away, telling him how lucky she had been.
He had tried to talk to her, but she had been hostile. Hostile and drunk. Although he did not regret the act of spanking her, he did regret having done it that night. He should have waited, he’d been too angry with her and he had scared her, and worse, he had left afterwards. He had been so caught up in his own reactions, so confused, that he had just left her alone after spanking her. The next day when he had come to talk to her, to apologize, she had been gone. No note, no nothing. She had simply disappeared.
“Rebecca,” he began, reaching his hand across the desk to touch hers.
She startled at the touch and almost pulled away, but he locked his gaze on hers and held her there.
“I came back looking for you the next morning.”
She seemed to be searching his eyes, the look in hers defensive but also confused and a little sad. She dropped her gaze and pulled her hand out from under his. “It was a long time ago,” she mumbled.
He waited a while for her to speak, but when it was still silent after a few moments, he leaned back in his chair. She wasn’t ready to have this conversation yet. That was fine. He had found her again. He had time.
“Ok, Rebecca,” he said, trying to smile a little. “Fix my leg.”
She turned her wide honey-colored eyes to his, her expression relaxing a little. “Let’s have a look at you.”