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Copyright © 2017 by Erin Wright
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
To the Declans of the world:
Finally, a story about you, and your very real struggles
I hope I did you justice
Christmas of Love
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A FREE Story For You…
Stampede of Love Blurb
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The story doesn’t end…
Also by Erin Wright
About Erin Wright
Quick Note: If you enjoy Returning for Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.
With that, enjoy!
~ Late September 2017 ~
Declan looked around the barn, surprised by how changed it looked. When a flock of women all descended on a place and put some real elbow grease into it…well, it could even make the Miller Family Farm barn look respectable.
To think that Stetson was hosting Wyatt’s wedding at his place. I don’t know if Mom and Dad would believe this is happening and cry from happiness…or from shock.
“Hey, Declan, can you help me?”
He turned to locate the sound of his sister-in-law’s voice. Where is she? Finally, he spotted her lugging in a box. In her matron-of-honor dress. He hurried over. “Jennifer, Abby will kill you if you get your dress dirty!” he scolded her, taking the box from her. She just shrugged.
“I’m the mother of the grandbaby. I think Carmelita will defend me to the death.”
Declan threw back his head and laughed. “True enough. Where are we going with the box?”
“Up to the front table. It’s the last of the centerpieces that we’re putting out. The guests will be here any minute now.”
Music started twanging through speakers set up throughout the barn just for the occasion, and Declan got an itch to start line dancing to Boot Scootin’ Boogie. But the clinking emanating from inside of the box reminded him that he was carrying a bunch of Mason jars around. Dropping and breaking them seemed like a sure-fire recipe for the wrath of his newest sister-in-law to come down on his head.
Newest sister-in-law. To think he had two of them now. He was the only single Miller brother left, something his brothers razzed him about endlessly, and his sisters-in-law spent their time trying to rectify. That blind date they’d set him up on last week…
His hands set out the jars, pre-filled with rocks from the creek, as his mind worked things over. As much as he liked seeing Jennifer and Abby happy, he had to put his foot down at some point. He’d only ever loved one woman and, well, she wasn’t coming back to Sawyer any time soon. Maybe never. Which just meant that he’d better be happy with Patches, ‘cause coupledom just wasn’t for–
And then Jennifer was shoving a watering can with a long spout into his hands. “Guests are showing up; I need to go greet them. Finish filling these jars up to here,” she pointed to the side of a jar, “with the water, and then put a candle in each one. I’ll make sure someone comes along and lights the tea candles.”
She was off before he could offer to light them himself. Oh well. He carefully filled each jar to the specified height with the watering can, then dropped the tea candles in.
They were real pretty, floating in the jars. When Abby had asked him if he thought she should do wildflowers or rocks with water and candles in the jars, he’d thought she was plumb crazy. Mason jars plus rocks plus tea candles plus water sounded like a disaster to him.
She hadn’t been able to get the wildflowers in time, so rocks it was. And he had to admit, they looked real nice, shockingly enough.
The barn quickly filled up with people, a fresh layer of sawdust on the dirt floor and hay bales stacked in the corner adding to the effect. Jennifer had made Stetson drive every last tractor out of the barn to make room for the wedding, even the family relic – the first tractor ever owned by the Millers – and park them all out back, hidden out of sight. Stetson had argued for keeping the family relic around as an antique that everyone would love to look at but he’d been outvoted.
Declan rather wished the tractor was there. At least it was something he knew something about. He could stand around and talk to all the older farmers in the valley about it. That seemed a heck of a lot better than talking about Mason jars and rocks from creeks.
The music only got louder as more people filed in, or maybe it just seemed like they were turning it up louder. It was sure getting noisy though, either way. Carmelita saw him and came hurrying over, saying something he couldn’t hear above the dull roar. He cupped his hand around his ear and bent down. She came up on her tippy-toes and shouted, “Wyatt is looking for you!“
Okay, maybe she didn’t have to shout quite that loud right in his ear. He rubbed at it and nodded, looking around for the groom. Carmelita tugged on his arm again and he leaned down, warily this time. “He is outside!” she shouted.
He jerked away and nodded, heading for the door lickety-split. Anything to get out and breathe some fresh air.
He stood and tapped his knife against the side of his glass to get everyone’s attention. He couldn’t believe that he was in charge of starting off the rounds of toasts for Wyatt and Abby, but apparently, those were the duties of a best man. This was the second time he’d been a best man, but Stetson’s wedding had been low-key compared to this one. Wyatt’s idea of jetting off to Vegas had been quickly voted down by all of the women, and ever since, this wedding had taken on a life of its own.
Speaking of, he had about two hundred people all staring at him, waiting in hushed silence. He should probably talk or somethin’.
He was about to razz his older brother big time, but he figured if anyone in the world deserved it, it was Wyatt. He shot Wyatt a nervous grin before starting.
“Thank you so much for coming tonight to celebrate with Wyatt and Abby. I know most of you are here for the free food because you think Wyatt owes you something.” The words were rushing out of his mouth while his nervous brain was praying that people would find the first joke funny. A comforting round of giggles and laughs answered his words.
He felt the tension begin to melt away and he looked around the barn, at all of the people smiling up at him. Home. No matter how much living in Sawyer sometimes drove him crazy, he also loved it.
“Many of you are well aware Wyatt is a bit difficult to deal with sometimes. What you may not know is that he used to be much worse.” Declan waited, letting the people chuckle at his second joke. “I remember the time that Dad sent us out to get one of the wheat fields ready for planting. At the time, we had two tractors. One was older without a cab on it, and the other one was newer, with a cab, a radio, and air conditioning. All of the modern conveniences. Of course, Wyatt pulled rank, playing the older-brother card and claimed the new tractor for himself.”
Declan looked over at Wyatt and winked. Wyatt’s face was reddening; he knew which story was being told…and how it ended.
“The tractor had been sitting in the barn all winter and for most of the spring,” Declan continued. “The new tractor was parked in front of the old one here in this barn, so I had to wait for Wyatt to get out of the way. I remember watching Wyatt climbing into the new tractor with the comfortable seat and the AC. I was so jealous.
“Wyatt made a big show of getting comfortable just to rub it in, settling back into the driver’s seat with a happy sigh and stretch. He started the tractor, and then the sound of the rumbling engine was drowned out by Wyatt’s screams as he flew out of the tractor. Apparently, a family of wasps had taken up residence in the AC vents over the winter, and when Wyatt started the machine, they got blown out of their home…and right into Wyatt’s face.”
The room erupted into gales of laughter and Declan joined in, looking at his brother, who was not laughing as hard as some of the guests, but he was laughing. Which just went to show how much Abby had changed him.
“I thought he was going to beat the tractor to death with his hat as he tried to swat each and every wasp,” Declan recounted as he turned to look directly at his brother. “If it makes you feel any better, I got stung a couple times too because I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t run away.”
Wyatt did let out a genuine laugh at that and Declan joined him. Declan allowed the room to enjoy the story before he continued.
“Abby has a Maid of Honor who I believe has some devilish stories to tell too, so I’ll leave the embarrassing of the bride to Chloe, other than to say to Abby that I think your law enforcement training is about to come in very handy.”
Declan let the chuckles die down, waiting until the audience took the cue that he was about to get serious. He’d razzed Wyatt enough for one day; it was time to be nice.
“Many of you also know that my brother has weathered some pretty serious storms of tragedy in his life. For many years, Wyatt held himself inside a very thick shell as a way to protect himself.
“Abby, somehow, you managed to break through that shell. Somehow, you’re blessed with the right kind of love to speak to Wyatt in the way he needed most. Thank you for bringing our brother back.” Declan raised his glass to the beautiful bride and the crowd joined him.
“Wyatt, Shelly and Sierra will never be replaced, but it is truly good to have you back. I just have one question for you: How does a guy like you get so lucky twice?” He inclined his glass toward his chuckling brother who was beaming at his new wife.
“To Abby and Wyatt: Best of luck, best of happiness, and best of love,” Declan said, and took a sip of his champagne. His words were answered with a chorus of “Here, here,” and with a grin, he sat down. His job was done, and he could relax.
Chloe stood up to give the Maid of Honor toast but as soon as she started talking, Declan’s attention was caught by someone in the crowd. Someone who was looking straight at him.
It couldn’t be.
She couldn’t be.
Last he’d heard, she was in Pocatello. Which was not here. But that color of red…he’d recognize it anywhere.
He turned towards Kathryn, one of Abby’s bridesmaids and also the only one in the line-up who was currently unattached. Which was, by his reckoning, surely the reason he’d been paired up with her in the wedding lineup. This was Abby and Jennifer hard at work at playing matchmaker. He could’ve told them that Kathryn wasn’t for him. She was too blonde. Too short. Too prone to bursts of staccato laughter. Too…not Iris.
“Hey Kathryn,” he said in a low voice. She turned from Chloe’s speech and sent him a giant smile. He knew he was being inexcusably rude, talking during Chloe’s turn in the spotlight, but he had to know.
“Yes?” she whispered back, leaning close. Her perfume, an overwhelming vanilla stench, made him want to gag. He leaned away a little. He couldn’t breathe in too deeply or he’d end up in a coughing fit.
“Is that Iris McClain back there in the back?” he asked, jerking his head towards the flame of red in the back of the room. How was it that he’d missed seeing it while he was giving his speech? It made him wonder if it was all an apparition. He had to know.
He had to know now.
“Yeah.” The light in Kathryn’s eyes dimmed. “Yup, she’s back.” Kathryn turned and pointedly started paying attention to Chloe’s speech again, which as best as Declan could tell, was wrapping up. He turned and politely stared in Chloe’s general direction as his knee bounced underneath the table impatiently. He couldn’t focus on anything or anyone. Talk faster, Chloe!
Finally, the crowd began cheering and taking sips of their champagne, signaling the end of Chloe’s speech, and so Declan obediently took a sip of his, feeling the alcohol go straight to his head. Or maybe something else was going straight to it.
Iris is here. In this barn. Right now.
He realized, belatedly, that his turn was up again. Right about the time that Jennifer elbowed him in the ribs. He sent her a weak smile.
He stood up and said, “Dinner’s done and the embarrassment of the happy couple is over, so if y’all can help us stack the tables against that wall,” he pointed at the far wall, “and your dirty dishes over there,” he pointed to a string of tables against another wall, “the dancing can begin!”
The DJ started up the music from the speakers and Declan took off like a shot as the shuffle of people around him began readying the barn for the dancing. Declan knew that Wyatt would want to string him up from the nearest tree for not helping out like he should be with the preparations…until he heard about Iris.
He’d understand then.
He came to a skittering stop in front of her, his heart in his throat. Or maybe it was just his bolo tie, cutting off all circulation.
“Iris?” he said softly, the world around him melting away. It was her. Brilliant red hair, longer than it was in high school, and the deepest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen. Just like he remembered.
Her color was high in her cheeks as she looked up at him. “Hi, Declan,” she said softly. Her eyes were drinking him in, and he knew she was just as happy to see him as he was to see her.
The day he’d dreamed of, but never thought would come.
He held out his hands to her. “Let’s hit the dance floor,” he said. He wanted nothing more than to feel her in his arms again. Dancing was one of their favorite activities during high school, other than necking, of course.
She shook her head, biting on her lower lip, looking up at him with pain in her eyes.
“Don’t you know?” she whispered softly.
Why, why, why?
In a small town like Sawyer, gossip could travel faster than lightning, and cause a lot more damage. How was it that the one time – one time! – she wanted that gossip to happen, it hadn’t? How was it that no one had bothered to tell Declan the truth about his ex-girlfriend?
She didn’t want to come tonight, of course. Who would want to attend the reception for their ex-boyfriend’s brother and his new wife? Especially since she hadn’t seen anyone in Sawyer for years, and certainly hadn’t kept in touch with said ex-boyfriend or his brother?
But her mother being Betty Rae McLain, Iris was of course dragged there. When her mom didn’t want to hear something, somehow, her hearing became strangely inconsistent, going in and out on a moment’s notice. Considering she’d had this “hearing problem” since Iris was a small child, she was pretty sure it wasn’t age related.
More like personality related.
Declan stared down at her, his deep brown eyes filled with concern. “What’s going on?” he asked, his forehead creased. “Are you mar—”
“There you are!” Stetson’s voice cut through their conversation as he clamped his hand down on Declan’s arm. “I’ve been looking all over for you. Carmelita wants you hauling tables to get them out of the way. I’ve already backed the truck up outside the barn door.” Stetson turned and spotted her. “Hey Iris,” he said, flashing a dimpled grin. “I didn’t know you were back in town.” He tipped his hat to her and then her mother. “Mrs. McLain. Mr. McLain.”
And then they were gone, disappearing into the crowd to go haul tables away.
Iris sunk further down into her seat, squeezing her eyes shut, wanting to die of mortification. She could hear her mother talking, but heck if she knew what she was saying. She could feel the heat of her blush set her face on fire, which no doubt meant her cheeks matched the color of her hair quite nicely.
Some days, I hate being a redhead…
She’d been doing so well. Forced as she was to attend, she’d strategically chosen a seat directly behind a rather…stout woman the next table over. As long as she kept Ms. Stout between her and the front of the barn, where Declan was doing his best man duties, she could eat the wedding feast, listen to Declan as he told funny stories, and then hightail it out of there as soon as the real festivities started.
Because heaven only knows, she wasn’t gonna be much fun during that portion of the night.
Except, she’d cheated. She’d sat up after the fifth time that her mother had poked her in the ribcage, whispering that a true lady does not slouch, and took the opportunity to begin drinking her fill of Declan. If she was going to give up her refuge behind Ms. Stout, she might as well get something out of it.
Like study Declan’s face, noting the changes and similarities from their years together in school. The way that the wrinkles crinkled around the corners of his eyes. How he’d become so much larger than the string-bean version she’d loved so many years ago. How she could detect just the barest glints of silver in his light brown hair under the lights of the barn.
He was even more handsome than she’d remembered. And that just wasn’t fair at all.
He’d just finished ribbing his brother about hornets, sitting back down to let Chloe give her speech, when he’d caught her. She’d been staring right at him when his gaze swung and caught hers, their eyes irresistibly drawn to each other.
The way they’d always been around each other.
She couldn’t pretend that she hadn’t seen him, or stars above, that she hadn’t been staring at him. They were way past such lies now, as much as she wished she could pretend otherwise.
Her plan, feeble as it might’ve been, had counted on him knowing the truth, so she wouldn’t have to tell him. Then he could stand on the other side of the room and pretend he didn’t see her, and she could pretend she didn’t see him.
Just like two 14-year-old teenagers would.
She rolled her eyes at herself. Even she could see the childishness of her plan. And anyway, obviously, Declan hadn’t gotten the memo.
She looked over at her mom, who’d finally, blessedly gone silent. Her dad just looked at her quietly, pity in his eyes.
She hated pity.
With a passion.
“Can we go home now?” she asked, trying to keep the warble out of her voice. Crying in the middle of Wyatt’s wedding is simply not allowed, Iris Blue McLain, so don’t even think about it.
So she swallowed hard and pinned an overly bright smile on her face and pushed the tears away. They stood up, and leaning on her dad’s arm, they made their way out of the barn and into the cool fall night.
She just had to wrap her head around the fact that she was happily heartbroken. Which was a strange state of affairs, sure, but true.
Someone else would do the dirty deed and tell him the truth, something someone should’ve done weeks ago, and so then she wouldn’t have to. She was free to go back to her spinster life and she’d never have to see Declan again. She was plenty sure he wouldn’t invite her to his wedding, and Stetson was already married, so she was free from Miller weddings from here forward.
Someday, when she could move out on her own again, she’d move far, far away from Sawyer so there wasn’t even a chance of running into him down at the grocery store or on a street corner.
She’d move far away from the temptation that was Declan Miller.
“What the heck is going on with Iris McLain?” Declan hissed as soon as they neared the stacked pile of tables by the back door of the barn.
Stetson shot him a blank look. “What? Heck if I know. Listen, we need to hurry with these tables, because we still have decorating to do.”
“Decorating?” Declan echoed, confused by the change in topics. Jennifer and Abby and Carmelita had done a bang-up job of decorating the barn; he didn’t figure they needed any more help. Especially since they were three-quarters of the way through the reception. It seemed a little late to add more candles and rocks and glass jars at this point.
“Yes!” Stetson took a furtive glance around him and then leaned closer. “Wyatt’s truck!” he whispered urgently.
As best man, it should’ve occurred to him. It hadn’t, of course. Despite this being the second time that he’d held this honorary position, he really wasn’t any better at it than he’d been the first time around. He needed about ten more brothers so he could get more practice in.
He groaned at the thought.
“What?” Stetson asked, as they slid a table into the back of Stet’s truck.
“Oh, nothing. Just…daydreaming,” Declan said, waving him off.
Ten more Wyatts? The world couldn’t hold ‘em. He loved his brother, especially since he’d recently removed his head from his hind quarters, but not ten of him.
They finished loading the folding tables into the back of Stetson’s truck and then grabbed decorating supplies out of the passenger seat. Stetson had come prepared.
The “decorating supplies” turned out to be empty soup cans tied together with orange yarn, Silly String in spray cans, and white sticks that looked like chalk but didn’t feel a darn thing like them. Stetson caught his confused look. “Soap. It’s used to write on vehicles but not cause damage.”
Declan grunted his approval. Wrecking Wyatt’s truck permanently…well, he wasn’t entirely sure that even the joy of his wedding day would keep Wyatt from killing them both.
They got to work, tying the cans to the bumper and writing well wishes all over the windows of the truck. Just as they were finishing up and ready to use the Silly String as the final touch, Jennifer came over. Twilight was deepening, but even in the shadows, she could tell what a grand job they’d done. He grinned at her, but she scowled back.
“You guys!” she huffed. “Wyatt isn’t going to like this.” She was cradling Flint against her chest, a blanket wrapped over his tiny form to protect him against the chilly late September air. Winter was on its way.
Stetson just laughed. “I’m pretty sure that’s the whole point,” he said dryly. “If he liked it, that wouldn’t make it nearly as fun of a prank.”
She rolled her eyes at him but he just grinned back and pressed a kiss to her forehead. “Want the honors?” he asked, shaking the can and then holding it out to her.
She hesitated for a moment, and then snatched it out of his hand. “You, sir, are a bad influence!” she said as she began spraying the truck wildly. They were laughing and more Silly String was going everywhere, until finally, all of the cans were emptied.
Jennifer and Stetson leaned into each other, laughing so hard they had to hold each other up, Flint cradled between them, and Declan just looked at them, keeping the smile pasted on his face, but feeling a twist low in his gut. Would he ever get what his two brothers seemed to have found so effortlessly? Sure, Stetson almost had to lose his farm, and okay, fine, Wyatt had had to spend months in jail, but the love between the couples was effortless.
It had only been that way once with Declan…and it couldn’t happen again. He couldn’t take that risk. He’d reacted instinctively when he saw Iris, running over to her like a puppy dog reuniting with its owner, thrilled and excited, but that couldn’t happen again.
He wouldn’t let it happen again.
His gut twisted harder.
“Who was that pretty redhead you were talking to earlier?” Jennifer asked, as if she could read his mind.
“Oh, that’s the Iris I’ve been hearing about. Poor girl.” Jennifer clucked her tongue and then began swaying, singing softly to Flint as she rocked.
“Poor girl? You know what happened?” Declan felt his stomach twist even tighter. He wasn’t sure if he was going to throw up or pass out. Finally, someone who could tell him what the heck was going on.
Jennifer looked up, coming back to the moment. She’d obviously gotten wrapped up in her cooing.
“Oh. Yeah. She got in some terrible car wreck a month ago. Didn’t anyone tell you?”
Declan staggered back, feeling all of the blood drain from his face.
An accident. Did she hit a deer on the road? Oh please don’t let her have hit a deer.
“No,” he whispered. Then, louder, “No. I didn’t hear. Is she okay?”
Except, obviously she wasn’t. She wouldn’t have answered his question about dancing the way she had if she was perfectly all right.
She’d sat the whole way through the conversation, which Declan had found a little odd at the time, but had chalked up to her being nervous around him. But, maybe she couldn’t stand up. Maybe, she was paralyzed from the waist down. Maybe, she was in a wheelchair and they’d just moved her to a folding chair so she wouldn’t stand out from the crowd.
He wasn’t sure he was breathing right. Iris McLain, paralyzed?!
Jennifer looked at him, concerned. “She’s all right. Kinda. I hear her equilibrium is all messed up, though.”
“Her equi…” His voice trailed off as he started to put the pieces together.
“Yeah, her balance. She falls over a lot now. Apparently, she has to walk with a cane everywhere she goes.”
No wonder she didn’t want to dance with me.
And there he was, running over to her, embarrassing her in front of her friends and family, asking her to dance when everyone else in the barn probably knew that she couldn’t.
She’d likely wanted to smack him for making her look like an idiot in front of all the guests.
Except, she hadn’t looked angry. She’d looked…heartbroken.
Stetson said, “Hey, we’re going to go back inside and check on the happy couple!” in a tone that was way too enthusiastic in an obvious bid to give Declan some space, and then he was guiding Jennifer back inside, his arm around her shoulders as she cradled their baby to her chest. They were so happy together, such a great match. He never would’ve guessed that Stetson would be happy with a city girl, but there they went, disproving that theory.
And then the thoughts came rushing back – the thoughts that Declan had been suppressing. Iris, beautiful, independent, talented, athletic Iris, falling over. No balance at all.
How was that even possible? She’d been captain of the basketball team her junior and senior year. She was a natural. She could’ve gone on to play college ball but had decided to focus on her studies to become an RN instead, because she’d felt like that was more important. She could outrun, outshoot, outpass every other point guard who even tried to touch her. Seeing her on the court…
She had more talent than the rest of the team put together, but she never gloated. She always cheered her teammates on, and made them look good. Her younger sister, Ivy, had a heck of a time in high school, but Iris never did. She was so genuinely nice and thoughtful and caring, no one could find it in them to hate her.
And now she couldn’t walk right?
He felt like the world had tilted off balance, like everyone had started walking sideways and he was left to try to navigate in this new world. How was it possible?
And what had he been thinking, running over to talk to her like that? He knew better. He didn’t get to date people. Not anyone, not ever. It’d just been the surprise of seeing her – it’d thrown him for a loop. Caused him to forget everything he knew.
He shook it off. He couldn’t just stand around and stare at the full moon, bathing the valley below in its flat, pale light. He’d go inside and find Abby and Wyatt and congratulate them and get them into their truck and swear no knowledge of how the truck got this way, and then send them off on their honeymoon. It was what a best man was supposed to do.
And Declan always did what he was supposed to do.
She stared down at the form in front of her, scrubbing wearily at her eyes with the palms of her hands. She was so exhausted. Why was it that paperwork drained her like this?
Well, at least in this case, she knew the answer to that. It was the legalese she had to read through – it was a killer. She wasn’t sure if the lawyers themselves knew what these contracts meant. They probably just threw together a bunch of big words and figured no one would call them on it.
Which, they were right. At least in her case. Iris scribbled her name down at the bottom and then folded the papers and shoved them into the postage-paid envelopes.
She was about to become a medical coder.
After enrolling and graduating from the CNA program in high school, and then getting her nursing degree from Idaho State University, she had more medical knowledge in her little pinky than most people did in their whole bodies.
Now, Post Accident or PA as she liked to call it in her head, she may not be able to hover over people’s bedsides and take their temperature, or recommend the best dosing schedule for a round of antibiotics, but she could code in medical records for insurance companies. It involved nothing but