Going home never felt so good.
“Here’s the three-fifty I owe you.” Sullavan “Sully” Tanner handed his former band mate, Slater McGee, the seven crinkled fifty dollar bills. “Rent’s taken care of.”
“Gonna miss you, man.” The bald man took the cash and slid it into the front pocket of his leather vest without counting it. “You could’ve been big.”
“Fame wasn’t what I expected.”
Slater nodded and leaned back in his seat. “You lead with your heart, and I respect that.” He folded his tattoo-emblazoned arms. “What’cha want me to do with your mail?”
“Forward it here.” Sully pulled a folded piece of paper from his wallet. “I’m staying at the family farm with my sister until I find an apartment in Jarvis.”
“I’ll keep this in the safest place I know.” Slater tucked the address in with the cash and patted the pocket. “Don’t be a stranger.”
With a nod, Sully strolled out of the apartment and down the three flights of stairs to his car. He smiled as he gazed at the ’82 Mustang. His baby. Before getting into the banana yellow muscle car, he glanced back at the slate-colored building. Some great times had been had within the crumbling walls—jam sessions, writing sessions, laughs with friends. Then there were the black times—the drugs, the women, the booze.
Can a man sink lower than zero?
In his thirty-five years, he’d seen more than his share of hard living. The rock and roll scene he had built in his mind failed to meet his expectations. Or was it the other way around? More guys than he could count had burnt out trying to be somebody. When they hit rock bottom, they either got help or got out for good.
He tossed his bag into the backseat, and the tattoo on his inner right wrist caught his eye, reminding him of his childhood sweetheart. Marley. Despite the words in Kellie’s letter, he disregarded the ache in his chest. Marley couldn’t need him anymore.
He slid into the driver’s seat and the cotton T-shirt rubbed his pierced nipples when he shifted. Drawing a weary sigh, he adjusted the garment. The body art might have looked cool when he rocked on stage topless, but at thirty-five, he wasn’t so sure. At least he could take the little barbells out, unlike the tattoo on his forearm of the name of his last band. Dammit, tattoos lasted forever.
Putting the car into gear, he pulled into traffic and drove away from the life he’d thought he wanted.
Two hours passed as the radio stations across the state of New York kept him occupied on his drive down Route 80 towards Pennsylvania. He checked the clock. Nine-twenty. A yawn worked its way up his throat, and his vision blurred for a split second. Time to find a motel for the night.
The gold and pink light of the sunset cascaded through the window and over the cracked dashboard. Sully glanced at the tattoo on his wrist and spun the ring on his middle finger. Marley. He smiled as he thought about his best girl friend and sister-in-law. Memories flooded his system. Marley Lockwood always made him smile. He couldn’t wait to see her.
In the morning, he’d get down on his knees and beg for Marley’s forgiveness.
* * * *
“Ten in the morning and my last farm hand says he wants more money or he’ll quit.” Marley Lockwood raked both hands through her humidity-frizzed hair. “It can’t get worse. Strike that. It can…I just hope it doesn’t.”
A headache grew behind her eyes. All the things her father had worked for were slowly going up in smoke and all because she couldn’t keep help to save her life. She kicked at a larger chunk of gravel, sending the rock skittering towards the shed. Never in her thirty years had the thought of giving up crossed her mind. She hadn’t given up when the doctor diagnosed her mother with cancer. Hadn’t thrown in the towel when the same doctor diagnosed her cramps as a uterine tumor. She’d fought through the pain, the chemo, and the loss of her reproductive organs, but damn. One person could only shoulder so much, and one person certainly couldn’t run the farm. Even with Richard and Kellie next door, there was just too much work.
She took a deep breath, and a healthy dose of manure from the field filled her nostrils. The wildflowers lining the walkway danced in the breeze, and in the distance, the corn stalks swayed in a calming rhythm. At least she had her oldest brother and best friend, Kellie, next door. When Richard married Kellie Tanner, he took over the Tanner farm. Marley enjoyed having Sully’s baby sister so close. Being alone at the farmhouse wasn’t so bad when she could walk over to visit and gossip. Right now, Marley needed a healthy dose of gossip to get her mind off her troubles.
Footsteps crunched on the gravel behind her. Marley sighed. If the farm hand wanted more money for doing nothing, he could choke on a sock. “I can’t pay you another dime over four hundred a week, Thomas.”
Jarred by the familiar voice, she turned. No freaking way. The object of her every sexy fantasy stood a mere three feet away. Sullavan Tanner. She stifled a shiver and pressed her thighs together. The guy knew how to get under her skin with just a look.
“How’ve you been, beautiful?” He held his arms open. “Give me love.”
“And fall for your old line?” Marley folded her arms and chuckled to hide the old feelings welling to the surface. “I’ve known you all my life. You only act slick when you want to bed a girl.” She backed up a foot, needing the room to breathe. “Keep me out of it.”
Sully inched towards Marley, closing the gap. His eyes softened, and he tilted his head. The very corner of his mouth crooked up. “You’re passing up a chance with me?”
With her index finger, Marley poked him in the chest. “Yes. I’m done with men for a while.” She snorted. Poking him wasn’t exactly payback for his walking out of her life, but in a small way, it felt liberating to keep things simple. “They’re all bad news, including you.”
Withdrawing a bit more, Sully put distance between them. The muscle in his jaw twitched. “Ok, you got me. Truce? At least to make things a little smoother for working?” His gaze darted back and forth. “Speaking of working…um, where is everyone? Kel said she’d be over after a bit, and Richard’s out in the front field checking corn. Is John helping out or is he now full time on the police force?”
“John’s full time, but he does what he can around here. Richard’s got his hands full. Your dad insisted he take over all the day-to-day stuff. ” Marley held her hands up. “So as far as everyone goes…you’re looking at her.”
“Her?” Sully paused. He stared at her for a long moment. “One person cannot run this farm. There’s just too much to do.”
“Funny, you’re the second person to come to that conclusion this morning.” She clucked her tongue and shoved her hands through her hair.
Sully sighed. “You’re really all alone.”
“No shit.” She wasn’t going to cry. Couldn’t let the stress get to her. Too many animals depended on her. Too much needed to be done. But one person couldn’t handle the load. She squared her shoulders. Might as well face the truth as well. Chin up and don’t let anyone see you crumble. “They jumped ship this morning.”
“Then let me help.” Sully wrapped his arms around her, giving her little chance to protest. “I know you don’t want a thing from me, and I guarantee you’ll never accept my help, so I’m insisting. I’ll beg if I have to.”
“Sully.” If she stayed in is embrace much longer, she’d cave and admit she needed him—but not for romance. She needed the extra hands on the farm.
“I don’t have anywhere else to be, and I don’t back down.”
“No kidding. Look, it won’t work a second time around.” She wriggled from him and closed her eyes. “You’ll hate it here.” If he’d just take the out…just walk away. She fortified the barricades around her heart and insulated her soul from letting him get too close. Close meant she’d get hurt again when he took off.
“Aren’t you a sparkling ray of sunshine?” He tugged her ponytail, not causing harm. Just playful, like a sibling. Always like a sibling.
“We can’t get along when something other than friendship is involved. When we added sex, things imploded. But I guess that doesn’t matter because you don’t have anywhere to stay.” She groaned and opened her eyes. “Kellie won’t take you. Not with three kids already under foot and another one on the way.”
“And here I thought you’d say you’d take me in because then you’d have 24-7 access to my slave labor and hot body.” He tipped his head and winked. “Please?”
Marley weighed her options. She needed the help. Desperately. Having Sully nearby meant a stable set of hands. It also meant she’d have to keep an eye on him. Sure, Kellie claimed he’d quit the drugs and the booze, but people relapsed all the time. If he hadn’t changed his ways, he’d be just as much of a liability as an asset. Worry flowed through her mind as she palmed her phone in her pocket. The most recent text message from her ex-husband, Taylor, outright demanded she sell him the farm and cut her losses. If it took her last breath, her last dollar, she wasn’t about to sell anything to Taylor. Having Sully around would provide safety. God knew she needed all the help she could get to keep her good-for-nothing ex away from the farm. Could she trust herself to keep her hands off Sully a second time?
When she’d needed him in the past—her mother’s death, the endless hours in the hospital—Sully had run. Why did she have to need him? Need led to heartbreak.
“What do you say?” Sully shoved his hands into his pockets. His brows rose, as if to accentuate his question.
Marley took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Forget the uncertainty. Forget the anger. She needed the extra body too much. “You’d get the guest room and would do your own laundry.”
“Perfect,” he murmured, nodding.
“Why?” The word came out in a purr. The smile broadened, and his eyes twinkled. “I’m at your mercy.”
Keeping her hands off him would be harder than saving the farm.
“This is a working relationship between two friends.” She sighed. “I’ll save your butt, if you save mine, but that’s as far as it goes.”
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