Home :: Short Stories/Novellas :: Cowboy Fever Series, Book 3: For Always by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)

Cowboy Fever Series, Book 3: For Always by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)

Cowboy Fever Series, Book 3: For Always by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)
 
(1 reviews)  

Long ago Jared Chapman, ranch foreman and co-owner of Triple Aces Ranch, silently gave his heart to Alana Hamilton, the orphan his grandmother brought to the ranch, and he's never regretted it. But, as a young man, he'd had no idea how to share the intensity of feelings he had for sweet and vulnerable, seventeen-year-old Alana. Instead, he'd awkwardly promised her he'd always be there for her.

Alana had loved Jared from the start for the kindness he showed her, but she didn't possess beauty, smarts or riches. Unwanted for most of her life, she'd learned to make the best of her lot in life. Not sure what a close-mouthed cowboy like Jared meant with his promise, she accepted the proposal of the one man who'd expressed interest in marrying her. Marriage to Holt Bowman meant leaving the only place she'd ever called home and giving up on true, fairytale love with Jared.

Jared had been silently devastated by Alana's marriage. But, true to his promise, when her husband begins to take the pressures of being up-and-coming politician out on her, Jared runs to her rescue. Alana isn't looking for a bodyguard. Can Jared open up and become the prince who will love her for always?

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Cowboy Fever Series, Book 3: For Always by Karen Wiesner (Contemporary Romance Novella)
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1 Most useful customer reviews (see all reviews):
Karen Wiesner
Nov 5, 2015
5 Stars! “For Always is filled with characters who will tug at your heart strings and have you cheering them on to finding happiness in their lives! Alana is a well-developed character and I really enjoyed getting to know her in this story. Alana's past hurts and life situations have contributed to her self-esteem and the choices she has made all throughout her life. Alana spends time confronting these issues and Karla is a great support and friend to her during this time as she has also had to deal with issues of her own. These girls could be anyone's neighbor and/or friend and this really makes it so easy to get pulled into their lives and this book! Wiesner's style of writing is so easy to read and time flies as you become immersed in the story and the characters' lives!” ~Readers Favorite
5 Stars! “The author tackles a situation of which most authors would not dare – physical and emotional abuse. Alana has a friend in town (who also used to live in Fever, Texas), Karla. Though only a secondary character in this story, she is vital to the plot. She will also have her own story told later in this series.” ~Huntress Reviews
4 ½ Stars! “When things got devastatingly bad for Alana, let me tell you, this night and shining armor came to her rescue. The cast of characters were well rounded and likeable, which will make you want to belt him! Ms. Wiesner does a great job with her prose and descriptions, and she made it all believable for me. The characters showed growth. There were tough, life lessons to overcome, friendship, betrayal, and loyalty all wrapped up into a neat package. I give For Always 4.5 Lost, Lonely, Deceptive, Life Changing, Romantically Longing Stars!” ~A Bookish Escape
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Sample Chapter

Chapter One

To keep her nervous hands busy, Alana Bowman had napkin-scrubbed and tidied the café booth she was sitting in waiting for her closest friend. Only a few other tables were occupied at this time of the morning, and she was glad about that. Though she wore dark gray designer sunglasses that covered a third of her face, she felt uncomfortable meeting anyone's eyes. Maybe I should have canceled our weekly breakfast, but Karla gets so few days off and today she doesn't have to sleep so she'll be ready to work her evening shift.

Sighing nervously, Alana took another napkin from the dispenser and used the pen in her pocketbook to doodle. The activity allowed her to zone outside of herself, and she heard, as if from a distance, dishes clinking, spoons tinging against the edges of coffee cups, soft chatter from waitresses behind the counter. Only when the bell on the door jingled did she look up again. Karla Sanford-Abrams came through the door dressed in comfortable jeans, her sweater falling off her shoulder and revealing a portion of the lacy camisole beneath. Alana admired her friend's casual, sexy elegance--a look she could never pull off herself.

For a moment, she felt grateful that Karla also wore sunglasses, but then she approached Alana and pulled hers off. Alana tensed, crumpling the napkin in her hand to hide the name she'd been doodling across it. Her friend's initial smile faded into growing trepidation. She'll guess... Why, oh why didn't I cancel?

Karla slid onto the bench across from her in the booth, her mouth abruptly forming a tight little line. "Okay. You said the first time you would leave if it happened again. Is that what you're planning to do now?"

Her tone was hard and unyielding. Alana wanted to say something, but a sob filled her throat and she could only stare down at her pocketbook.

Standing slightly, Karla reached over and snatched her sunglasses from her face. Gasping, Alana grabbed them back and covered her eyes again. "Someone will see," she croaked in a watery tone.

"Oh yes," Karla hissed through all but clenched teeth, "we wouldn't want to embarrass the precious local politician by letting his public see what a cowardly bastard he is to his own wife."

Alana had hoped everyone who saw her inside the restaurant would assume she had a hangover--it wasn't as if anyone could know she'd never touched a drop of alcohol in her life. "You make everything sound so easy, Karla," she murmured, shaking her head.

"Easy to leave him, you mean? My God, how much easier could it be? He beat you!"

"Shh!!!"

Her friend shook her head, her gaze steely. "I won't hush this up, Alana. Your stuff should already be packed and in your car. Please tell me it is."

Alana didn't speak. She kept her eyes focused on the scarred tabletop.

Karla sighed loudly but conceded to keeping her voice down. "You forgave him once. You're protecting him even now--if that isn't completely insane! You can't do it again. You can't swallow your pride, honey. Not this time."

Thirty-three years old and I'm still making excuses like a naughty little kid. Karla's right. It's ridiculous... And I promised myself I wouldn't make excuses for Holt ever again. Yet she heard herself choking out the words, "He loves me."

"Was this a demonstration of his love then? You always say that. Why do you think his abuse somehow proves that he loves you? It does the opposite. I cannot believe you're going to forgive him a second time."

Alana's shame burned inside her. She knew she was weak and foolish. But Karla couldn't understand--understand where she'd come from, what she'd escaped. "What if Ken had done this to you? Would you have found it so easy to leave him?"

"I did leave him. Not because he beat me--he would never do that. But when things went wrong between us, I did leave. I had to. I couldn't stay there."

Only vaguely did Alana wonder why her friend had left her husband more than four years ago. Ken and Karla had been so in love, so looking forward to their first child together. They'd lost the baby when she was close to giving birth. Karla didn't like to talk about it, and Alana had long ago assumed that the old story had come into play--grief had pushed the two of them apart instead of together.

"The election is next month," Alana reminded her friend. "Holt is under incredible stress." The election in Texas would take place in early November. Being a mayor for many years had done little to prepare him for the stress of seeking a chair in the Senate. She'd never seen him as wound up as he'd been lately. Her usually charming, attentive, affable husband had become impatient and cruel.

"What does the election have to do with treating you right? He's taking his stress out on you. You can't let him..."

Their waitress finally approached them, and Karla knew enough to clam up until they both ordered their usuals. When the woman walked away, Karla reached across the table to touch her hand. "You know, whenever you defend him, you say he loves you, Alana. Not the other way around. Not that you're both in love." She shook her head quizzically. "What in the world do you see in him?"

Alana swallowed, glancing away. "He's...magnetic. And smart. Good looking. He can be incredibly sweet, Karla. Really. You haven't seen that side of him, but it's true."

"Those are good reasons to date a man. But why did you marry him?"

Because he asked me. He's the only one who ever even looked at me. I'm not the kind of woman men look at. But Holt looked at me. He was the only one. My one option. Alana's face burned, and she was grateful for the sunglasses that hid the expression in her eyes she couldn't hide. Holt was everything a woman could want in a man and more. That someone like him would even glance her way was a miracle. She should have been wildly in love with him, especially after their whirlwind courtship and two years of marriage. Yet... This, above all, was her greatest humiliation and guilt.

Her face lowered, she crushed the napkin tighter in her fist, well aware of the name she'd doodled on it earlier. If Karla saw it, guessed her secret... How can I love any man, even my husband, when I gave my heart to someone else long ago, and he still has it? Whether he realizes it or not.

"Alana?" Karla urged her.

Her head shot up, and she remembered that her friend had asked her why she'd married Holt. "Because...I... Of course because I love him."

Karla shook her head, her face showing a conflict between dread and disbelief. "He'll do it again, honey. Again and again, if you forgive him. You do understand that, don't you? It'll be as if you've given him a license to smack you around whenever he's under stress. All he needs to do is act sorry to get you back next time."

"He is sorry. You didn't see him this morning."

"He's not sorry enough to stop."

"But...if I leave him..." Fear filled her throat--the same one that had been with her all her life.

Before she'd met Nelly Chapman, she'd been an unwanted, unloved orphan without a home. Then Nelly had taken her to live with her son and daughter-in-law and their child, Jared, who'd been five years older than Alana. There at the Triple Aces Ranch, Alana had found everything she'd ever dreamed of. For the first time, she'd had a family and a place to belong. But she'd gotten married and now she had her own home. No matter how much she scolded herself for it, Holt didn't feel like family nor did being at his side qualify as a place she could truly belong. The life she'd always dreamed of was gone. "How can I just leave everything Holt and I have built together?"

"What exactly have you built together?"

Alana was jolted by the question, finding that she couldn't come up with an answer to it. Is that an answer in itself? "I don't have anywhere to go. I don't have any money."

"Don't let money--or the lack--be your reason for staying, honey. You know you can stay with me. And my boss is always looking for sexy girls to waitress at the club."

"I can't work at a strip club," Alana spluttered. "And I'm not a sexy girl."

Karla laughed. "Waitressing--not stripping. And you are sexy, Alana. You just can't see yourself the way you really are."

"I couldn't. I mean, I don't know how to waitress. When I worked at that restaurant in Fever, I was a dishwasher and that was hard enough. Waitresses have to remember all these different things--what goes where, what goes in and with what. I don't have any marketable skills. And if I can't get a job, I can't place that kind of burden on you."

Until Nelly had come, she'd been a burden on everyone--taxpayers, the system, the nuns at the orphanage. Sometimes she'd felt like a burden on God. But with Nelly and her family...I was special. Then Alana had married Holt and she'd once again become a burden to someone. Every day of her life, she worked endlessly to make sure his house was tidy and spotless, that she cooked meals Holt enjoyed even more than what he would pay for at an expensive restaurant. As she had in the orphanage, she'd tried without success to earn her keep and be worthwhile.

"I thought we were friends."

"Of course we are. You're my best friend, Karla." Two years ago, after she and Holt had married and she'd moved to Lubbock with him, Karla had looked her up. They'd grown up together on neighboring ranches in Fever, but they hadn't been really close until two years ago.

"Then there's no such thing as burden between friends."

Torn, Alana couldn't speak. She knew she would never feel Karla was a burden to her in the same situation, but it would bother her too much to take her friend up on her offer.

Karla must have realized what she was thinking. She let out a snort of frustration. "Look, how about this? You know I cannot stand cooking and cleaning. Growing up with a full-time housekeeper at the ranch instead of a mother, being the only female on an all-male ranch...well, I know I should be better at cooking and cleaning, but I'm not. You'd really be helping me out if you moved in and took over both of those."

Alana couldn't help giggling. She'd been to Karla's apartment once. She wasn't exaggerating her dislike of both tasks. The place had been a mess, with take-out containers littering nearly every surface. She claimed that, about once a month, she "mowed" through the place with an industrial-size garbage can and a power washer.

"Please?"

"I don't know, Karla... The election is coming up soon. Holt needs me."

Her friend sighed at the frequent excuse. "If you can't leave him for good, you should at the very least leave him temporarily." Karla's coffee order finally arrived, and she insisted she'd pour her own. But she didn't pick up the carafe even after the woman left them. "Give him some conditions. Like he has to agree to counseling for his anger and violent tendencies. Whatever. Tell him you won't come home until he's agreed to a dozen sessions--at minimum."

Her friend was absolutely right. Still, Alana felt resistance inside her at such a notion...especially when her cell phone rang. Holt had bought her the device right after they were married and he'd asked her not to give anyone else the number. Only he could call her--and he did, often. Sometimes she felt as if he was checking up on her, making sure she was where she'd told him she'd be. He insisted he did it because he worried about her when she was out alone in the great big city of Lubbock. Compared to sheltered ranch life in tiny little Fever, there was some precedence for his worry. Yet, whenever she took too long to answer his call, he grilled her about her whereabouts. She'd learned to carry the phone on her person at all times, even when she was at home. I wish I didn't have to talk to him. And Karla expects me to tell him I'm leaving him?

Standing wordlessly, she picked up the phone and walked with it toward the back alcove near the restrooms. Even as she managed the privacy she needed, she knew her friend must believe she was an utter fool, one without the spine God had given most other human beings. She couldn't even deny the assessment.

"I know you don't wanna talk to me now, darlin'," Holt greeted her softly in that predictable tone filled with humility, "but I need to talk to you. I wanna tell you how sorry I am. I can't get any work done today. All I'm thinkin' 'bout is you and what an ass I am. Are you okay, Alana?"

Alana swallowed, hating how his loving, concerned voice always made her feel so guilty. "I'm...I'm not sure I'm ready to talk yet, Holt."

"Okay. I know. I understand. But don't shut me out, sweetheart. I don't think I could stand it. You know what a crazy time this is for me, with the election comin' up. This is the worst possible time for you to be gone, Alana."

Sobs filled her throat. She closed her eyes when she leaned against the wall in the relatively quiet alcove. The memory of his anger was immediate. Whenever she closed her eyes, she remembered it and she panicked all over again. Even before he'd gotten home last night, he'd been drinking. He'd been doing that a lot lately, and she knew the approach of the election was making him crazy. Unfortunately, she didn't understand the first thing about politics or processes. She wished she could be smarter about the whole thing, but it whooshed right over her head before she could begin to comprehend the slightest concept.

Holt had been talking about his campaign last night, and he must have seen the lost, bored and confused expression on her face--one that he didn't like at all. She'd tried so hard not to let him know she couldn't grasp what he was talking about, but he'd seen her blank expression. He'd been disgusted and called her stupid. Then he'd started in on grilling her about the "basics" of politics. When she failed instantly, he'd sneered and turned away. She hadn't gotten her apology formed before he pivoted in her direction once more and backhanded her in the eye so hard, fireworks had gone off inside her head. She'd fallen from the stool and only just stayed conscious while he shouted at her, "I'm married to a moron. You wonder why I ask you to stay home during social gatherings. Am I supposed to parade a moron around on my arm? 'What do you think of your husband's campaign, Mrs. Bowman?' 'Um, huh, what? Duh.'"

It'd all happened so fast, and she burned with humiliation whenever she remembered how he'd mocked her. She hadn't wanted to go with him anywhere--ever. She hated all those ridiculous engagements, designed to show off political clout and charm. She never wondered why he didn't take her each time. She'd known. And she'd been relieved. Why did he have to embarrass her about her ignorance?

"Alana?" he demanded now in her ear.

"I can't talk." More than anything, she wanted to hang up on him, but she couldn't get herself to.

"Okay. I'll check in with you later. I'm so sorry, darlin'. You gotta believe me."

This time, she did hang up because a sob was bursting from her throat. She rushed inside the ladies' bathroom and inside a stall, relieved to be alone with her shame and grief. But not for long. She knew she wouldn't be alone for long. She heard the restroom door open a few minutes later, and then Karla called outside her stall, "You're coming home with me, Alana. That's all there is to it. Don't say no."

Alana couldn't say anything. She already knew that if she had more self-respect, more strength, she wouldn't just leave Holt temporarily. She'd do it permanently and make a life for herself on her own. But she'd been alone before and she'd promised herself she would never find herself in that black, desolate situation again. Even still, how much hell could she take before she had to accept there was no wisdom in her childhood fears?

* * * *

The next several hours were a whirlwind of frenzy tainted with trepidation. Alana did as her friend instructed: Went home, packed a bag, gently urged her Scottish Fold kitten into her soft-sided cat carrier. Then she'd gotten in Karla's car and let her friend take her to her apartment.

Alana only kept herself from flying apart in a million different directions because she had her baby kitty to sooth. Nells, a rescue animal, almost never left the small space she'd designated as her home and she was a creature of habit who hated the slightest change. Like I was in the orphanage, before Jared's grandmother adopted me and brought me home to her family. Like I became all over again after I married Holt.

"You can use my bed..." Karla started when they entered the cluttered space. Alana glanced at her and she immediately rectified, "Or the foldout couch here in the living room."

Alana nodded, setting the carrier on the sofa and opening it. As she expected, Nells didn't emerge and probably wouldn't for hours. Unable to help herself, Alana began cleaning the clothes and towels and mail from the couch.

"Is it really that bad?" Karla asked. After a wordless moment, she laughed. "Okay, but let's not worry about it now. You know, I never asked you the first time or this time what you 'did' that prompted the SOB's abuse. I was too stunned and anxious to get you away from him both times."

Though Alana wanted to shrug and clam up, she knew how tenacious her friend was. How weak I am. "Before he realized I was out of my element in society...those social parties that make me feel like such an idiot...he would buy me all these fancy, expensive dresses and jewelry. As if that would make me into a socialite. I don't know how to walk in high heels. My body isn't meant for anything so elegant. I just made such a fool of myself. But I tried because I knew it was part of his career. I don't know why, but the first party after he announced his candidacy, one of the men there paid attention to me. A lot. Holt was just insane about it. He does that--inventing things that aren't there. No one looks at me--other men never do. For some reason, he thinks they do and he gets crazy, and this one was probably drunk. I never left Holt's side, barely said two words to that man, and there's certainly no reason he should have been interested in me. I'm too plain and shy."

Karla was shaking her head. "You're nothing like plain. And when you say shy, what you really mean is that you want a good home where you can dig roots so deep, you couldn't leave if you wanted to. You want safety and contentment. But you don't have that. Is it just because Holt was the first guy to pay attention to you, Alana? Is that why you married him? Because you were flattered by his attention?"

"I didn't have any other choices. And Holt is too good for me. How could I say no?"

"So...okay. What is it that sets off his jealousy, other than him spinning lurid fantasies about what other guys want with you that maybe they really don't? Anything specific?"

"My hair. He says I need to wear it up whenever I'm not alone with him. He doesn't like me to wear a lot of makeup--not that I ever have. I don't wear sexy clothes at all. Look at me." She indicated her fuzzy peach sweater with a mild v-neckline that barely went past...well, her neck. The slacks she wore were loose enough to hide much of her negligible figure without looking sloppy. She'd been painfully thin all her life, and she knew that wasn't sexy. In some ways, she was frail, lacking almost completely in curves, and her pale skin vividly showed anything like a bruise--even lack of sleep made her eyes seem black and blue. At five foot four, she had the breasts of a ten year old girl and certainly didn't possess the long, endless legs men talked about as ideal. That any man had looked twice at her was a miracle. Why couldn't she feel gratitude for that instead of only in a lecture she constantly gave herself?

"And then this last time? What set him off?"

Alana shrugged. "I don't understand politics."

"You don't understand or they bore you?"

She lifted an eyebrow but didn't speak.

"Anyone would fall asleep listening to someone drone on about politics!" Karla shrieked in rage.

"I didn't exactly fall asleep."

"Then you deserve credit for even pretending to be interested."

"But I'm not smart, Karla. I worked ten times as hard as everyone else just to pull C's in school."

"Grades aren't the only indication of true intelligence. Why do you think you're dumb? Because he told you you are? And another thing: You're not a child. He has no right to tell you what you can and can't wear. And it's not your fault if a guy sees you for the beauty you are, inside and out. He shouldn't have taken that out on you. You shouldn't have to feel lucky to land an SOB like Holt Bowman. He's shown his colors, and he's no prize. He's the lucky one--to have found someone as wonderful as you."

"You only say that because we're friends. Women throw themselves at him. They would kill to have what I have. But he really loves me. No one else has ever loved me the way he does."

No one except Jared Chapman...but did he ever love me? Or was he just being kind because his grandmother Nelly brought me home and basically forced the rest of them to accept me? But his family was so nice. They made me feel loved, special. And Jared promised he would always be there for me. But that's not true love. I know it's not.

"If you don't stand up for yourself and see yourself for who you really are, Alana, he never will. He'll never even try."

She sighed. "Why? Who am I? I'm nothing."

Karla gaped at her. "Do you really believe that? That you have no worth?"

Alana blushed at inadvertently divulging her feelings. "I'm just so ordinary. That's all I meant, Karla."

"How can you say that? Do you know how many kind people I've known in my lifetime? Hardly any. And I've never, ever met a person as kind as you. You're also incredibly sweet. You're loveable. Do you realize how hard that is to be? One in a million can accomplish what you do just by being who you really are. You're such a special person, honey. And you have a right to tell someone they can't treat you badly and expect you to stick around. You didn't do anything but maybe yawn because he was boring you out of your mind. You didn't deserve what he did to you either time."

Even knowing her friend was right, Alana couldn't get herself to think, Yes. I did the right thing leaving him. I can't go back to him until he changes...or else. All she could think about were her own shortcomings and fears of being alone and homeless.

Not wanting to continue talking about this--before long, she would have to face the consequences of her actions--she started to clean again, and this time Karla joined her. She needed to keep busy to keep her mind off leaving her husband; keep her mind off her nervousness. It took most of the afternoon but they finally had the whole place sparkling and neat. Nells had made her tentative way out of her familiar, portable home. Alana scooped her up and nuzzled the adorable kitten to her face, caressing her head between her cradled hands.

Her phone rang, and Alana sat up straight, making Nells protest with a screech and scurry back into her carrier. Alana's eyes met Karla's. She'd tried so hard not to look at the clock, knowing exactly when Holt would get home and find that, for the first time since he brought her home after their wedding, she wasn't there waiting to greet him and ask him how his day was. She hadn't wanted to face this because she knew when the moment of standing up for herself came she would be paralyzed with terror.

Karla handed her her cell phone and she stood, taking a deep breath that made her feel dizzier. She sank back on the sofa, desperate not to let the phone ring a third time. That would only make things worse. When she'd clicked the button to connect, she found she couldn't speak. She didn't need to. Holt's tone was soft and she recognized the danger in it. Whenever he spoke like that, she knew trouble was coming. "Where are you, darlin'?"

"Karla's," she gasped out.

For a moment, he didn't respond and when he did, she wondered if he'd expected her to say something else entirely--not that she could imagine what. "Your friend from the ranch you grew up on?"

"Yes. Well, kind of..." There was no point explaining that Karla had lived on a ranch near Triple Aces. As many times as she'd told him, he never remembered.

"Well, don't you think it's time you came home, Alana?"

She sucked in air. "No."

"What?" he demanded quietly.

"No..."

Karla sat in front of her on the coffee table, reaching for her other hand. For some reason, the gesture made Alana feel stronger than she knew she really was. "I'm...not coming home, Holt. Not until you agree to counseling."

"Counseling? For what?"

How could he even ask? "Your anger, of course."

"I... Hell. Okay. But you were... Ah, darlin', you just don't understand what I'm goin' through. I need a wife I can talk about these things with. You don't even try."

What is he saying he's sorry for if not for what he did--hitting me and calling me stupid, making fun of me? He obviously isn't sorry for any of those things. I'm so naive.

Her voice was trembly and disturbing to hear when she insisted, "I can't be that person, Holt. I don't understand politics. I don't even find them...interesting. I listen when you talk. I attend those functions that you know I don't want to go to. They make me uncomfortable. I go because you want me to. I've never shown any interest or comprehension of politics. All I can do is listen. If you can't accept that..."

"All right." His voice was angry in a way that made her tense defensively. "Okay. I get it. You're right. I knew when I met you you weren't into any of it. I can accept it. And, if it's the only way to get you back home, I'll see a counselor. Good enough?" He sounded like he was speaking through clenched teeth.

Her chin went up on the thought, Not even vaguely.

"I never wanna hurt you like that again, sweetheart."

This time, she responded without a negative sensation burning all through her. "What about...your drinking, Holt?"

"Drinking? Now I've got a drinking problem? You really don't get it, Alana, do you?"

"You have been drinking a lot more since you started this campaign. You can't deny it."

"Okay. Yeah. I'll cut down. As much as I can."

The dissatisfaction inside her was screaming for more than his grudging agreement to things he obviously didn't believe he needed to do. But he had conceded to her conditions. How could she now insist it wasn't enough? But no matter how much she tried to tell herself she'd made progress with him, it didn't feel like enough to salve even the surface pain he'd caused her.

Alana moved the phone from her ear and pressed it against her chest. "He says he will," she whispered. "Go to counseling and not drink so much."

Karla didn't look enthused with this news either. Her mouth pursed like it had earlier that day, upon seeing Alana in sunglasses in a dark café. His repentance isn't genuine. We both know it.

When Alana lifted the phone to her ear once more, Holt was saying, "...come home now, darlin'? I miss you. House doesn't feel the same without you here."

"I...I came here with Karla. I didn't bring the other car."

"I can come get you. No problem."

Now that I'm here, where I wasn't sure I wanted to be, I don't want to leave. "You don't have..."

"No, come on. We'll go out to dinner. You haven't eaten yet, have you?"

What would you say if I had? "No, but I'm not dressed for it. And wearing sunglasses at night out in public..."

"Forgot about that," he chuckled sheepishly, and her uncertainty metastasized. "We'll grab dinner. Bring it home. Better anyway. Then I can spend the rest of the night showin' you how sorry I am. You'd like that, wouldn't you, sweetheart?"

Alana closed her eyes in agony at his soft, seductive words. No. I can't. Can't be with you like that. Not after you humiliated me so cruelly. And now you want me to... God, no. But she knew for a fact that she'd never be able to say no to him. Even when she'd least wanted to be with him in that way, she hadn't been able to refuse him.

What am I doing? Am I doing what I should? It doesn't feel right. Shouldn't it?

Her hands were shaking when she disconnected. She couldn't get herself to look her friend in the eye. I've sold out. Caved in. Shown my true colors as a spineless weakling. Her self-disgust made her want to hide in the darkest corner.

She remembered feeling this anger before, when hope deflated in the aftermath of the ultimate disappointment. Her supervisor at the animal shelter not far from where they lived had asked her if she wanted to work there full-time instead of simply as the volunteer Holt had agreed to allow. Alana had realized when he refused to let her to take the job that he'd not only been the one to suggest the volunteer work but he'd made the decision for her--where she would work, when she worked, how much she could work. He'd decided what was best for her and she'd gone along with all of it without the slightest protest. Only when he'd put down his foot to her "job" going further had she realized that she'd had no choice in the matter at any point.

In their two years together, he'd been doing that non-stop. Because I let him. I never tell him, "No, I want this, not that." I never say, "You can't tell me what I can and can't do." I wouldn't dare. I gave him the power. And now I'm afraid to try to get it back. Because it would mean a fight--maybe the fight of my life. I'm not strong enough.

Holt controlled every part of their lives together, even down to the money. Like a little kid, she had to ask for her allowance to get groceries or put gas in the car he'd specified was only for running errands and shopping trips he'd given her permission to go on, along with her few hours of volunteer work a week. He'd forever gotten that grumpy look on his face whenever she reminded him it was Monday--she wasn't eating what she'd prepared with him because she was having breakfast with Karla later. He doesn't like me having a friend--one who encourages me to stand up for myself and see the good in myself. He controls my every move, and I didn't let myself see it that way because he always makes it seem like he's trying to protect me...sometimes even from myself. "I only want the best for you, darlin'. I don't want you to get hurt."

"He's on his way?" Karla asked softly.

Alana nodded.

"I have to ask, Alana: Has he ever cheated on you?"

Her reaction was instantaneous. "Never! Absolutely not! He wouldn't. He would never do that."

"What makes you so dead-sure?"

"Because someone did that to him."

Alana told Karla how, when she'd first moved into his house and was getting set up, she'd found a box with newspaper articles, pictures and letters he'd written to and gotten from a woman named Paula, hidden in his closet. "She was the love of his life, I think. She was just otherworldly beautiful. I think she must have been really clever. But she used him. He's never said any of this stuff to me out loud, but I know anyway. She used him for his wealth and prominent position in politics. The newsletter articles and his letters to her hinted that she cheated on him constantly. He was so furious in those letters, asking her if she'd been with so-and-so."

"He kept the letters he sent her?"

"That is strange, isn't it? I thought so, too. He must have taken them from her apartment when she wasn't looking, or just before they broke up. It's like he wanted to keep a shrine of their life together locked up in this box, or maybe a keepsake of why he won't ever again let himself be treated the way she treated him. She publically humiliated him with one of her affairs. The society papers in the box talked about that. I think he sees beauty as treachery now, as inevitable betrayal. And maybe he's mean to me about how dumb I am, but I think that was what he was looking for in a woman after he and Paula broke up. He chose me because I'm not beautiful or smart--not enough to be manipulative."

"Because you would love him completely and stay loyal to him, not for his money or social position," Karla added with understanding.

Alana nodded, tears filling her eyes. "But I can't fault him for his reasons for marrying me. I know I should love him as madly as he must have loved Paula. Because I really do believe he loves me. He wants to keep me all to himself. Outside of...hitting me those two times, he gives me everything I could ever want. Diamonds and nice clothing, and our beautiful house. I should feel like a princess."

Karla sneered. "And he thinks you should put up and shut up about the rest, because he's given you some evidences of luxury?"

Alana hated the defensiveness that immediately rose inside her chest. "No..." she started.

No, I won't defend him. Not again. Because I'm just as guilty as he is. I married him because Jared Chapman would never ask me. Jared would never tell me he loved me as much as I've loved him from the moment I saw him on the ranch his daddy worked on. I took what I could get because I couldn't get what I truly wanted. All Holt wanted was a wife who could be faithful to him. And I will never love him, can never truly be loyal to him when my heart belongs to someone else. So what right do I have to complain when he treats me badly?

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