also writing as
Mr. Not Right for Her
The real reason Jade Arletta broke up with Asher Cassidy...
COWBOY CONFESSIONS #1
The day before the fire
Sometimes Asher made her so mad she wanted to strangle him! Jade gripped the steering wheel of her Jaguar as she turned on her left blinker to exit Cassidy Farm. Since there were no cars coming or going from either direction on the two-lane highway running in front of it, she mashed her gas pedal a little harder than necessary. She was rewarded with the satisfying skid of her back tires on the gravel road leading back to Asher’s office. She hoped he was watching the cloud of dust it kicked up.
But she knew he wasn’t, which stung all the more. He was on another one of his stupid conference calls, one he claimed he’d forgotten to put on the calendar.
Whatever. She was sick to death of his excuses. It was only a lunch date, but lately he’d missed way too many of them. Yeah, she understood he was busy running a ranch — she totally got the fact that it was a crazy huge responsibility — but that didn’t explain why he almost never made time for her anymore. For them. It was as if their relationship ranked dead last in his priorities these days. That was the part that hurt the most. He was building a future that had no room in it for her.
They’d dated off and on through high school, college, and afterward. In a town as small as theirs, it meant their names had been paired off for years. Everyone expected them to marry someday. It was only a matter of time before Asher popped the question.
Unfortunately, time was no longer on Jade’s side. With her twenty-eighth birthday approaching, her biological clock was ticking on with alarming speed.
I’m losing him. The thought shuddered through her, making her grip the steering wheel harder. Guess I fell for the wrong guy.
That was it. Good golly! That was totally it — the only thing that made a bit of sense the more she thought about it. Maybe she and Asher simply weren’t right for each other and never had been. As the truth swirled sickeningly through her belly, the road in front of her car seemed to shimmer and waver. If her latest theory about their struggling relationship was true, it was a problem of galactic proportions. How could she have missed the fact that she and Asher weren’t in love? Sure, they adored each other, but it wasn’t enough — not nearly enough to bind two people together in holy matrimony, much less for all eternity.
It wasn’t enough that they’d known each other all their lives and had celebrated every birthday and major milestone together. It didn’t matter that they’d been voted Cutest Couple in high school or that they’d reigned over their classmates for one chest-swelling evening as Homecoming king and queen. Or that more than a decade’s worth of school yearbooks would forever be crammed to overflowing with all the memories they’d made together — clubs, sporting events, field trips, and prom.
It was over between them, and not a single one of those memories could start it up again. It had been over for a while. Jade wasn’t sure if Asher even realized it yet.
But I do. Oh, but I do! Every woman knew when she was no longer the main attraction in her man’s life. Maybe she never had been. Maybe the only reason Jade had ever felt beautiful, special, and desirable when she and Asher were together was because of all the hoopla that had surrounded it — their popularity in high school, the fun of being two of the brightest shining stars of the “in” crowd, and all the expectations and side perks that went with it.
It was almost as if…
We dated each other because it was expected of us. The proverbial high school quarterback hooking up with the captain of the cheerleading squad. They’d been nothing more than a cliché. She could see that now. And ever since then, their relationship had been on the slippery slide downward. It had been a slow and gradual decline, one that had crept up on her without her even noticing it.
Until now. Gosh, but she was noticing it now!
A choking sob wrenched its way up Jade’s throat, making it harder to breathe. It was followed by another one and another one until she was weeping so frenziedly that she could barely see the road in front of her.
No, everyone around them wasn’t simply waiting for Asher to pop the question. Well, maybe they had been at one point, but not anymore. More than likely, they were biding their time to hear which of them would be the first to admit it was over. To witness which one would wield the sword to cut their dying relationship off at the knees. To see which one would take the blame for disappointing both of their families.
A blinding glint of light through Jade’s windshield pierced her misery, making her realize there was another vehicle on the road.
Omigosh! The driver was flashing his high beams at her. What the—? Blinking rapidly to clear her vision, she gave a yelp of horror at the realization she was in the wrong lane. Her car was careening straight toward the hood of a massive silver truck.
The driver slammed on his brakes and laid on his horn, while she yanked her steering wheel with all the strength she had left in her. Not sure if she’d reacted in time to avoid a collision, she closed her eyes, not having the willpower to watch the final seconds of her life slip away.
But there was no ensuing jolt of impact. No crunch of metal. No violent pitching forward of her body against the seatbelt. Not even the release of an airbag. She could feel nothing but the gentle roll of her tires as her car continued to move down the road.
Jade’s eyelids sprang open. Uncertain if she was dead or alive, she hastily steered her green Jaguar to the right shoulder of the highway and coasted to a jerky stop. Setting her emergency brake, she collapsed against her steering wheel, shaking uncontrollably.
Her life was in such shambles that she’d kind of hoped, for a second there, that it really was over. However, the pain in her heart was still there, indicating she was very much still alive.
Hands pounded on the window of her door, making her wince. Then it was yanked open. The blast of an April breeze swirled through her car, surrounding her and lifting her hair from her shoulders. She shivered all the harder.
“Jade!” A large hand settled on her left shoulder. “Are you alright?”
The tension in her neck and back eased at the familiar sound of his voice. “Beldon,” she whimpered, weakly raising her head to meet his concerned gaze. There was something so calming about his presence that she sat there for a moment, just soaking it in.
Beldon Cassidy was Asher’s next younger brother, the second oldest in a family of six devilish brothers. His dark head tilted dizzily closer as he crouched down between her and the open door of her car. He was all Stetson, broad shoulders, and dusty cowboy. For a moment, her overwrought brain thought it was Asher coming to apologize to her for standing her up on their lunch date. The two brothers looked so much alike that some people swore they could pass as twins.
But not to her. She’d always been able to tell them apart. Beldon was quieter and more serious, the voice of reason amongst his prankster siblings. He’d inherited his father’s brown eyes instead of the blue ones Asher had gotten from their mother. He also smelled like grass, sweat, and horses, telling her that he was on his way back from one of his range rides. He was the brother who drove and tended the cattle herds at Cassidy Farm.
“What’s going on, Jade?” he demanded in a voice she’d never heard before. It was tight with fear and gruff with emotion. “You were all over the road back there. I almost hit you!”
“I-I…” She shook her head helplessly at him, not immediately able to put anything from her raw tangle of emotions into words.
“Did you hit your head?” His voice grew rougher as he cupped both callused hands around her face.
For such a big, wind-tousled cowboy, his touch was unexpectedly gentle. With a soft sigh, she allowed her lashes to flutter closed while his long fingers roved her temples and scalp.
He was about a year and a half younger than her, something that had mattered a lot more when he was a sophomore and she was a senior. Though their age difference was something she no longer even thought about, she smiled at the memory of his audacity in asking her to attend prom with him that year. She and Asher had been arguing again and had just finished breaking up for the umpteenth time, which nobody took seriously. They were forever breaking up, making up, and getting back together. It was a vicious cycle that had continued through college but had come to a stop during the past couple of years — probably because, on some level, they both realized that the next time they broke up would be their last time.
The thought made another sob work its way up from the deepest, darkest pit of Jade’s despair.
“Okay, you’re starting to worry me.” Beldon’s arms came around her, easing her out of the driver’s seat. “Can you stand?”
“I’ll try,” she whispered. Her legs felt shaky. With his help, however, she managed to step outside her vehicle.
Thankfully, he had the good sense to hang on tight to her, because she was nowhere near ready to stand on her own. Somehow, he ended up lounged back against her car with her draped against the warmth and solidness of his chest.
“I’m sorry,” she rasped, pressing her damp cheek against the cotton fabric of his blue and white plaid shirt. He was wearing a denim jacket, but it was flapping open.
“You should be,” he growled, tightening his arms around her. “You almost gave me a heart attack.” For a moment, he rested his chin on the top of her head. The weight of it was one of the most soothing sensations she’d ever experienced. “What happened? Was there an animal on the road or something?”
“No. Not that.” The reminder of why she’d been driving so distracted shuddered through her all over again. “It’s over, Beldon.” Her voice shook, making the words come out so discombobulated that she wasn’t sure if he could understand what she was saying.
“What’s over?" When she didn't immediately answer, he added, "You know you can talk to me about anything. We’re practically family.” One large hard rubbed a wide, gentle circle against the small of her back.
He didn’t mean anything by the gesture. He was just being Beldon — kind, comforting, and level-headed as usual.
However, the thought suddenly struck her that this was what she’d been missing in her relationship with Asher. This solidness, this steadiness, and some other emotion she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Beldon had never dated much, but he was going to make some lucky gal one heck of a husband someday. He was pure gold.
“Asher and me,” she explained, tipping her face up to meet his worried gaze. Another tear slid down her cheek. “It’s over.” A horrific brand of relief accompanied the fact that she’d finally admitted it aloud. The dark, festering truth was no longer a secret she had to bear alone.
“Ah. That again.” Beldon’s expression grew resigned. “You’ll patch things up.” He reached up to drag the back of his hand across her cheeks, carefully avoiding touching her with his dusty fingers. “You always do.” He shot a rueful look down at her red pants suit, probably wondering why she was so dressed up. It was a designer outfit from Paris, not exactly farm gear. The only reason she’d worn it was because she was supposed to be on a date.
“Sorry if I’m getting you dirty,” he continued wryly. “Just came out of the field.”
“My clothes are fine, Beldon. My heart is not.” She shook her head, knowing she needed to quit being a coward and break up with Asher once and for all. “And, no. I don’t think we’re going to patch things up this time. Asher is too buried in his work. There’s no place for me in his world anymore.”
“That’s not true.” Beldon’s look of concern deepened, leaving a pair of lines etched into his brow. “He just has a lot on his shoulders right now. You guys will figure it out.”
“Really?” Without warning, her anger from earlier returned, unfurling and spreading throughout her gut. “Then explain this to me. I can’t remember the last time he made me feel special. Or the last time we did anything fun or spontaneous. It’s like I don’t even matter to him anymore.”
“Are you kidding?” Beldon exploded, looking aghast. “Of course, you matter, Jade. You matter to all of us.”
“Do I?” she cried.
He pretended to cock his head sideways and consider the situation. Then his expression cleared. “Yep! I think it’s safe to say you will always matter to us.”
“That’s easy for you to say.” Her lips trembled as she spoke. “If Asher and I can’t fix what’s broken between us, you’ll still have each other. Your brothers. Your big, amazing family. I’m the one who’ll be left alone.” She shook her head as the ache spread inside her. Being an only child was a lonely role to play. “Without even realizing it, y’all will kick me straight to the curb. I’ll be an outsider.” It was an unbearable thought after being an insider for so long. Being in the Cassidy brothers’ inner circle had seriously been the brightest spot in her childhood, the best part about growing up in such a small country town.
“What are you talking about?” He bent his head to take a closer look at her. “Are you sure you didn’t hit your head during our almost accident?”
“Your blasted rule,” she spat, wondering how he could be so dense. “I know you Cassidys think it’s a well-kept secret, but I know all about The Rule.” Bitterness dripped from her last two words.
“What rule?” He waggled his eyebrows comically at her, feigning misunderstanding.
“The one where you and your brothers came to some iron-clad agreement not to date each other’s leftovers.” She wasn’t sure when it had happened, only that it was sometime before they’d graduated from high school.
His face reddened. “Good gravy, Jade! Who told you that?”
Asher had, of course. Who else? “I’m not hearing a denial.”
His jaw tightened stubbornly. “Well, it’s not ever going to be an issue, because you and Ash are going to kiss and make up and get right back to your usual bickering.”
“But what if we don’t?” she inquired in a strained voice.
“You will.” He glanced away as he spoke, though, making her doubt the firmness in his tone.
The fact that he didn’t immediately drop the arms he still had wrapped around her made her wonder if he was questioning the merits of his brothers’ infamous rule about their exes.
“You asked me out on a date once before,” she reminded.
His hard lips twitched at the memory. “That was eons ago. Doesn’t count.”
To her, it did. “Have you ever wondered how things might’ve turned out if I’d said yes?” she pressed.
“But you didn’t.” When his gaze returned to hers, it was tinged with an underlying coldness that wasn’t there previously. “If I correctly recall, you took great pride in putting me in my place as a lowly sophomore, Miss I'm-So-Much-Smarter-Because-I-Skipped-A-Grade.”
He did remember. The realization both shook her and thrilled her, soothing some of the ache festering beneath her rib cage. “That’s not what I asked, and you know it. I was asking if you’ve thought about it since.” She bit her lower lip the moment the words escaped her, knowing she was being unfair. She had no right to ask such a thing. Beldon’s rigid loyalty to his brothers would never allow him to answer it, at any rate.
To her amazement, his gaze dropped briefly to her mouth. If she hadn’t been watching him so closely, she might’ve missed the flash of hunger there. And the pain. Then it was gone.
“You have,” she whispered in wonder.
“We’re not having this conversation, Jade.”
The bleakness in his tone verified her worst fear that things were truly over — with her and Asher, with her and the rest of his brothers, with her and their entire beautiful family.
The pain inside her chest escalated to a nearly unbearable level. “I wish you’d hit me with your truck.” Her voice shook. “Then it would really be over.”
“Well, I don’t!” His expression grew both pale and thunderous as he pushed away from her car. The movement caught her off guard, making her lose her balance and cling to him.
For one glorious moment, they were wrapped in each other’s arms, heads tilted toward each other, eyes blazing and hearts on fire.
Afterward, she couldn’t remember with any clarity who made the first move. It was possible they both moved at the same time. All she knew was that his mouth found hers, gentle yet firm, angry yet cherishing, both taking and giving.
Jade had been kissed before — many times, but never like this. Never by a man who wanted her this much or cared for her so deeply. Or by anyone less interested in acting on those feelings.
The thought made her tears flow all over again. Their kiss was a thousand shades of wrong and ten thousand shades of right. It was both hello and goodbye. It was something that should have never happened, something they would both regret.
Beldon managed to spin with her in his arms while he was kissing her so that she was the one pressed against her car instead of him. But it wasn’t for leverage to deepen their kiss or take things a step further. It was so she would have something to hold on to when he raised his head and stepped back.
“You know this can’t happen again.” His Stetson had been knocked askew. His breathing was rough and his voice harsh. Without waiting for her to respond, he pivoted in his boots and stalked across the street to his truck.
She tipped her head back against her car, allowing the coolness of the breeze to work off some of the fever he’d stirred inside her. But it was mostly because she couldn’t bear the sight of Beldon Cassidy walking away from her.
The slam of his door made her flinch. The rumble of his truck motor as he drove off reverberated with breathtaking finality through her. Only after he was gone did the truth hit her.
I have feelings for Beldon Cassidy.
For someone who’d always prided herself on her planning and organizational skills, the revelation came as a complete shock. This was something she hadn’t seen coming. Not that it mattered. Beldon had already made it brutally clear there was never going to be anything between them.
Except there was.
Something enormous and earth-shattering had just taken place. It didn’t require her pre-law degree to come to that conclusion. She was one hundred percent sure she’d never felt this way before. And whether the man who’d awakened those feelings in her chose to acknowledge them or not, they would always be there, smoldering quietly beneath the surface.
Hoping, longing, waiting...