Annie Turner has lived in small-town Thompkin all of her life. Her family is poor, but she and her siblings have loving parents and a roof over their heads. As far as she’s concerned, she’s a lucky girl.
Travis Quincy’s ancestors founded Thompkin, deep in the Shenandoah Valley. He’s known immense wealth from birth, and for him that wealth is a part of his life that he’s never had to question.
While still in grade school, Annie and Travis meet and fall in love. Neither understands why they’re drawn to each other, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Like two halves of a whole, they’re only complete when they’re together. And nothing is more important than the vow they make to someday marry.
Growing up together, the rich, privileged boy and the girl from the wrong side of town find that when it comes to keeping their pledge, it’s easier said than done. Travis’s mother, Ruth, has plans for her son and they don’t include his marrying a Turner. Her painful and secret past gives her an unwanted connection to the Turner family and a reason to hate them all. With cold determination she sets out to destroy the bond between her son and Annie.
Love is magical at any age…and a promise is forever.
As Travis rounded the far edge of Bogg Pond, he saw Annie in her old, faded jeans and muddy sneakers, her green tee shirt already damp with sweat. A big smile wreathed her face when she spotted him, and she started running. The bait bucket she carried swung in her hand and her thick braid bounced on her shoulder. Without conscious thought, Travis picked up his pace. Beneath the hot summer sun, they sprinted toward each other.
They met in the high grass along center Bogg Pond, both breathing fast in the humidity. Travis looked at her as if he’d never seen her before, this girl-buddy of his, three years younger than him, but in many ways so much smarter, so much more alive. Rich in all the things he didn’t have. Things he never knew he missed until he’d discovered them through her eyes, her life.
She dropped her bucket on the grass and the load of night crawlers and leaves threatened to spill out. He loosened his grip on the two fishing rods he carried, and they slipped to the ground. He couldn’t stop staring at her.
She really was . . . cute. Big brown eyes, pretty hair, a smile that didn’t quit. Half tomboy, adventurous, nothing grossed her out or made her squeal in disgust, not even the slimiest worm or the ugliest fish. She wasn’t afraid of snakes or spiders, liked frogs, read tons of books, just like he did. They shot hoops together, and she could beat him at one-on-one if she put her mind to it. She told him some of the dopiest jokes he’d ever heard.
His very best friend, Annie. Someday she’d grow up into the kind of girl who’d be perfect for him to love, to share a life with. It hit him with sudden certainty.
Less than a foot away from her, he gazed right into her wide eyes. One of his hands reached for hers. Grimy from worms and leaves, clammy with dampness, it fit into his palm like it belonged there.
He said the first thing that popped into his head.
“I’m going to marry you someday. When we’re out of school and I’m home for good. When we’re old enough that nobody can tell us what to do. I don’t ever want anyone else. Just you.” His defiant and passionate words might not make sense coming from a kid his age and aimed toward a girl who was still in grade school, but it seemed the right thing to say to her.
“I think that’s a great idea.” She sounded dazed. “I don’t want any other boy, either. It was always you. The first time I saw you, it was you.”
For Kendall Martin, a remote village in Southwest Alaska seems like a good, safe place to start over. On the run from a dangerously abusive relationship, she leaves everything familiar behind and begins a new life as owner of a small souvenir and sportsman trading post in picturesque Staamat. The locals are friendly, the town welcoming, and she quickly acclimates to the slower, easier pace.
When she meets Denn Nulo, Staamat’s Chief of Police, Kendall begins to believe there truly are good men in the world. Denn is everything she wants: strong, loving, dedicated to family, protective . . . and patient. Instant attraction blooms between them, but Kendall is leery of men, and Denn craves a serious relationship that includes marriage and children. Their courtship is a conflicting mix of hesitancy and passion.
As Kendall learns how to trust again and her romance with Denn grows more intense, a local woman who has had her eye on Denn for years releases a torrent of damaging jealousy . . . and the nightmare from Kendall’s past discovers where she’s hidden herself.
“Let’s talk about something else.” Denn cuddled her closer.
“Like what?” But Kendall already knew.
“Like the way you shiver when I do this.” He brushed his tongue over her ear. “The way you tremble when I do this.” He traced the curve of her spine and gripped her low, pressed her against his heat and hardness. His voice dropped to a thick purr. “The way you melt . . .” His lips covered hers in a deep, penetrating kiss.
Helpless, overwhelmed, she kissed him back. Her hands fisted in his hair, using it as an anchor in a dark, whirling world where nothing mattered except the heavy press of his body on hers. Their lips met and clung, broke apart, clung again. He scattered nipping kisses over her cheeks, her chin, and down the sensitive cord of her neck. She caught his ear and bit it, hard. His heart pounded against hers.
Too fast, too fast.
He slipped urgent fingers along her ribs, under her breasts, and gently cupped them. Her body shook, one long, quivering shudder.
Not fast enough.
Tim O’Malley returns to his home town of Skitter Lake, Ohio, to clear his name and get the girl: Dorothy Whitaker, the love of his life since eighth grade. Blamed for a destructive fire he didn’t set, only Tim and Dorothy know the truth; that Jesse Prescott, Tim’s best friend and Dorothy’s boyfriend, did the deed that changed an entire town. But Jesse died in that tragedy and seven years later, Skitter Lake still honors him as a hero, rather than Tim, the boy from the seedy side of town whose father was a drunk . . . and whose quick actions saved six people from perishing in that horrendous fire.
In trying to set the record straight and finally claim Dorothy as his own, Tim—and Dorothy, too—will discover that in some small towns the legend often outweighs the truth . . . and their family and friends will forever see Dorothy as “Jesse’s girl.”
Now the need to lock Dorothy in a tight embrace, and never let go, overwhelmed him. He would have picked her up and carried her to his car, then driven her all the way back to Los Angeles just to get her away from a life he instinctively knew made her miserable. Tim remembered her folks. Wilma Whitaker had been a difficult woman when she was healthy and relatively happy. He couldn’t imagine how losing Dorothy’s dad would have twisted Wilma up inside.
He must have squeezed too tightly, because Dorothy let out a breathy gasp and wriggled until he loosened his arms. She stepped backward with a blush and downcast eyes. “I really do have to go, Tim.” She raised her head and all the longing he’d already been experiencing, all the need, was plain to see on her lovely face, for about half a second.
Then, her expression shuttered, she picked up her purse from the battered nightstand next to the bed where she’d laid it, and moved toward the door. Tim followed, unsure what to say even though a hundred different lines crowded his head. Stay with me. Get to know me, again. Love me, the way I never stopped loving you.
They remained locked behind his compressed lips as he escorted her to the door and wished the last seven years had never happened.
In the open doorway she formed a smile that fell short of her eyes. “I’m glad we got to spend a little time together, Tim.” She slipped her arms around his waist for a quicksilver hug, then stepped back before he could reciprocate. “Please give your folks my best when you get back home.”
Tim flicked his eyes up to hers, then over her face, prettier than ever and without a speck of makeup. Her silky, red-blonde hair, combed back in its usual ponytail, was so unlike the current style he’d seen not only in California but here in Skitter Lake. Her dress wouldn’t have been out of place at the sock hops he remembered from twelfth grade. It was almost as if Dorothy Whitaker had frozen herself in time.
And he suddenly knew he wouldn’t be leaving at the end of the week. He’d stick around and see what was what. For Dorothy, and maybe even for Jesse.
Slowly, Tim reached out and clasped her fingers, then her wrist. Before he could talk himself out of it, he yanked her into his arms, up against his body, catching the back of her head, right below her ponytail. As her lips parted to speak, protest, whatever, he covered them with a kiss that spun out of control the instant it began. He wound an arm around her waist to anchor her tightly, but she’d already thrust her hands into his hair as she kissed him back. Tim groaned into her mouth and felt it echo back to him in the whimper she uttered that throbbed in the scant space between them.
For what seemed like an eternity, he kissed her, deep, then slow, then fast, greedy, pouring years of want and desire into a single, perfect moment. If he’d ever kissed another woman like this, he couldn’t remember. He deepened the kiss even more, and felt her fingers fist reflexively in his hair. He didn’t care if she ripped it out by the handfuls, as long as she never let go.
And as if she’d somehow heard his thoughts, she stiffened, opened her fists, slapped her hands on his chest, and pushed until he released her lips. Rosy red and swollen, they quivered as she stared up at him with shock in her eyes. She pushed again, a silent demand for him to let her go. It about killed him, but he loosened his arms and stepped back.
Silently, Tim bent to pick up the purse she’d dropped, and gave it to her. As her fingers closed over the pale yellow leather, she whispered, “Why?”
He managed—barely—to keep his hands to himself as he replied, “Because I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying. And when I do leave, Dorothy, you’ll be coming with me.”