Date Published: Apr 2022
Be careful what you wish for.
Adeline Raquel Kingman hadn’t followed this golden rule, and subsequently, she was destined to live her life regretting it. Wishes held power. More power than she had ever imagined. Once she’d realized that, it was too late. Her wishes had already been granted . . . in the worst possible ways. Now she was careful not to wish for anything. She didn’t blow out birthday candles, break wishbones, care if the clock read 11:11, carefully pick up fallen eyelashes, notice rainbows . . . or toss coins into fountains.
She looked down at the coins that littered the bottom of the fountain her grandfather, “King” Kingman, had shipped across the Atlantic for his garden. Beneath the moonlit water, the pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters glittered like sunken treasure. Like sunken treasure, some coins were cursed. Or at least, Adeline’s were. If she knew which coins were hers, she’d jump into the fountain and reclaim her wishes.
But it wouldn’t turn back time.
It wouldn’t bring back her mother and father.
Or Danny, the boy she had loved for most of her life.
A wave of tiredness washed over her. She was used to the feeling. She hadn’t slept well in months and usually felt exhausted and drained. It took a real effort to get through each day. But she did. Not for herself, but for her three brothers and sister. If it were up to Adeline, she would continue to hide away in her tower room. But she couldn’t do that to Stetson, Wolfe, Delaney, and Buck. They had been through enough without having to worry about her.
Still, it was exhausting to pretend everything was all right when everything felt all wrong. It had taken all her energy to smile and greet guests at Stetson’s wedding reception. Which was why she had escaped and was hiding in the hedge labyrinth. She’d thought if she just had a few minutes alone to collect herself, she would be able to continue the farce. But now she felt even more drained. Like a flower deprived of water and sunlight.
She lay back on the cold stone ledge that ran along the fountain, resting her arm in the cast across her stomach. If she could just take a short catnap, maybe she would have enough energy to make it through the rest of the reception. Just five minutes of sleep was all she needed. Just five short minutes of oblivion with no memories or guilt.
Was that too much to ask?
She closed her eyes. But just as the fog of oblivion descended, she was pulled back to harsh reality.
She opened her eyes and turned her head. She could just make out the shape of a cowboy in the shadows. His broad shoulders filled the opening between the hedges, and the crown of his hat almost reached the top of the high, neatly trimmed shrubs.
There was only one ranch hand that big.
She quickly got up and tried to act like sleeping on a fountain ledge during a wedding reception was a completely normal thing to do. “Yes, Mr. Reardon? What did you need?”
Gage Reardon’s large, shadowy form didn’t move. Or speak. He rarely spoke to her. He always directed his comments or replies to her brother, Stetson. Stetson found it amusing that Adeline’s beauty left Gage flustered. She didn’t agree. Gage wasn’t the type of man who got flustered. He just didn’t think she was worthy of his attention.
Which annoyed her.
“Did you hear me, Mr. Reardon?” she asked. “Or do you need my brother here to translate?”
She could feel his hard gaze, and it was a struggle not to fidget beneath it. Finally, after what felt like forever, he spoke. “You shouldn’t be out here all by yourself, Miss Kingman. You need to get back to the party.”
She knew he was just following orders. Stetson’s orders. Ever since the accident, Adeline had not been allowed to do anything alone. If her three brothers weren’t keeping watch over her, this man was. And she was sick of it. She wasn’t a sheep who needed a shepherd.
She stood and shook the wrinkles out of her lavender maid of honor gown. “I realize you’re Stetson’s right hand man. But you don’t give me orders, Mr. Reardon. I’ll go back to the reception when I want to go back to the reception.” She waited for him to leave.
Unfortunately, he didn’t. He just continued to stand there as still as the bronze horse statues placed throughout the garden.
She crossed her arms to show her annoyance—which was difficult with her cast. “Is there something else you needed?”
“Then why are you still here?”
There was another long pause. “Because you are.”
She dropped her arms. “So you aren’t going to leave until I do?”
Now thoroughly ticked, she took a few steps closer. “I’m ordering you to leave.”
“I don’t take my orders from you, Miss Kingman. I take them from your brother. And he’s asked me to keep an eye on his family. You included. I won’t have something happening to you on my watch.” His cowboy hat dipped, and she knew he looked at her cast. “You should understand that after what happened to you and Stetson.”
She huffed out her breath. “Believe me, I do understand, but I seriously doubt that whoever tampered with the brakes on Stetson’s truck and caused our accident is stupid enough to try something in the middle of a wedding reception attended by the entire town.”
“What makes you think that would be stupid?”
“Because he’d be caught. All I have to do is scream and my brothers—”
For a large man, Gage moved quickly. Before Adeline realized what was happening, he had a hand over her mouth and she was pinned against his rock-solid body.
Adeline suddenly felt like she had been plugged into a power source. A sizzling current raced through her, obliterating her exhaustion. After months of feeling absolutely nothing, she felt. She felt her heart thumping madly beneath her rib cage. Blood racing through her veins. Her lungs expanding with every breath. And her nerves tingling on every square inch of her skin.
She was terrified.
Not of Gage. She knew he was just trying to prove a point. She was terrified of all the feelings that seemed to be gushing up from the vault she’d locked them in. She hadn’t felt like this since before Danny died—or possibly even before that. And she didn’t want to feel. It was much better not to. But when Gage spoke close to her ear, his deep voice caused every cell in her body to awaken and feel alive.
“Right now, Miss Kingman, I could do whatever I wanted to you and there’s nothing you could do to stop me.” He tightened his arm around her waist. Not painfully, just enough to demonstrate his strength.
She didn’t need the lesson. She was already extremely aware of the muscles that surrounded her. And everything else about Gage Reardon. The warmth of his breath against her ear. The rise and fall of his chest against her back. The bulge of his bicep against her breast. The warm skin of his hand against her mouth.
He shifted that hand and his calloused palm brushed her lips. A flash of heat spiked through her. Heat that she’d never felt before. Not even with Danny. Terror turned to panic. She needed to get away from this man. She needed to get away now.
When his grip on her mouth loosened, she bit down hard on his finger. He released her with a muffled oath just as her brother called out her name.
“Addie! Addie!” Wolfe came running through the opening in the hedge. He stopped short when he saw them and heaved a relieved breath. “There you are. I thought you’d left the reception alone. I didn’t know you were with Gage.”
All Adeline had to do was tell her brother what Gage had done, and he’d be fired on the spot. And probably beaten to a pulp as well. Her brothers respected Gage and valued his dedication and loyalty to the family, but they were extremely protective of her and her sister, Delaney. If Adeline told them that Gage had gotten out of line, he’d be gone from the Kingman Ranch by morning. Adeline couldn’t say she would be sorry to see him go. She didn’t know what had just happened, but she didn’t want it to happen again.
And yet, she couldn’t bring herself to say anything.
At least, not yet.
Not when someone was out to get her family and had mutilated and killed one of their bulls; set their barn on fire; assaulted a stable hand and her new sister-in-law, Lily; and tampered with the brakes on Stetson’s truck, almost killing him and Adeline. Whoever it was had gotten more and more daring, and next time someone could actually die.
The thought frightened Adeline. She couldn’t lose anyone else. While she might not like the way Gage had manhandled her tonight, she knew he’d only done it to make her understand the danger she’d put herself in. Stetson trusted Gage to watch out for the family. That’s exactly what Gage had been doing. His methods might’ve been extreme, but he hadn’t actually hurt her. Now that he wasn’t touching her, the feelings he’d evoked had receded back into their vault.
“As you can see, I’m fine, Wolfe,” she said. “You don’t have to be worried about me.”
Gage ratted her out. “Yes, you do. Your sister came out here alone. Something you would’ve known if you’d been doing your job of watching out for her—instead of chasing after all the single women at the reception.”
She waited for Wolfe to set him straight. Her little brother was a charmer with women, but he could have a bad temper with men. Especially if they challenged him. But instead of bristling at Gage’s reprimand, Wolfe laughed.
“Do you ever take a break, Gage? Okay, so I fell down on my job. You should try it some time. I heard that Wally Rondo’s daughter is interested in you. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t like to spend some time alone with that cute little farmer’s daughter.”
“I’m working tonight.”
“You’re always working. You and my brother are two peas in a pod.” Wolfe grinned. “But even Stetson stopped working long enough to find himself a woman. Go ask Miley Rondo to dance, Gage. You’ve certainly earned some time off. I won’t tell Stetson and I’ll take over keeping an eye on Adeline.”
“I don’t dance,” Gage said.
Wolfe shrugged. “Suit yourself. But if you don’t want to have fun, you shouldn’t mind if I have some.”
“It’s not my job to have—” Before Gage could finish, Wolfe disappeared through the opening in the hedge.
Since Adeline wanted to be stuck with Gage as much as he wanted to be stuck with her, she quickly followed her brother. As a kid, she had played often in the labyrinth so she had no trouble finding her way out. Gage didn’t make a sound, but she knew he followed close behind her. As she started to climb the stone steps that led to the garden where the reception was being held, he stopped her.
“Please don’t leave the reception alone again.”
It was still an order, but at least this time he’d said please. She turned and found him standing at the bottom of the steps. He looked up at her, and the lights strung throughout the garden fell across his face. He wasn’t what she would call a handsome man. His features were all harsh angles: Square chin with a cleft. Pronounced jaw that was always covered in golden stubble. Wide mouth that rarely smiled—at least not at her. A nose that sat at an odd angle as if it had been broken and not properly set. Sharp cheekbones. Deep-set eyes. Broad forehead.
His only soft features were his eyes. They were hazel—more gold than green—and surrounded by long, lush lashes that any woman would envy. They stared back at her, waiting for some kind of confirmation.
“I won’t leave the reception,” she said.
He studied her for a long moment before he nodded. “Then goodnight, Miss Kingman.”
He turned and disappeared into the darkness.
Leaving her alone once again. (Excerpt by Katie Lane)