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For the last seven years, Erin Donahue stared out her window at the empty dirt road, searching for something she never quite understood. A ghost road that blew only dust and rock to her hideaway home in Destiny, Illinois. Some name—Destiny. So far, she hadn’t seen any evidence of fate showing up in her life, which was just fine. Her destiny was documenting life one click at a time.

The windmill in the southeast rotated at a zero-chance tornado speed. Chimes tinkled from the lip of the cabin—a gift from her sister to ward off the silence. Country silence? No. Cabin silence? Nope. Silence of the lonely…the ones who denied a part of themselves to the world. At least that’s what her married sister had said.

But she wasn’t lonely. And she embraced the world through her camera, so she had shrugged it off. So what if she gave herself permission twice a day to cry. Nothing wrong with that. Regret was part of life, and everyone had it. And at thirty-seven, she’d earned it.

Some might even say she was punishing herself, but that was their business.

The autumn foliage called out to her, begging her to capture it for eternity into digital protection. She finished her coffee and sprinted to her room to change and grab her camera.

Her Nikon waited for her like a loyal friend, hot for the next photo. She tied her ash blond hair into a loose knot. Wiggling into a pair of torn jeans, a red T-shirt and old sneakers, she pulled the thick strap around her neck as her last accessory.

She trotted down the three steps of her porch and into the natural photo set. The camera was set in burst mode, enabling her to take quick shots of the dancing leaves. Ten successive clicks promised her at least one. The September heat disguised as summer during the day would turn into a frosty night, preparing for the Midwest winter.

The leaves were the perfect model, cooperating for her as she bent and angled the camera just so. A Monarch fluttered past her, insisting she focus and shoot. Click. Got it.

She didn’t know what she’d do if she couldn’t take pictures. It saved her from a black hole so far and wide, and for that she was grateful. She even had a name for her camera—Sally­­­—her love.

As Erin looked through the viewfinder, a black Silverado passed through it. She jerked her face away from the camera to get a better look. “What the…” The pickup truck rumbled up her country lane, kicking back gravel, thinking someone here was looking for a visit.

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

She dropped her camera to her chest and strode up the lane, waving her arms with a determined look to cast them away. Strangers didn’t just drive up her road. Maybe he was lost.

The monster truck rolled to a halt one foot in front of her, causing her heart to pound. Never having seen this truck around town, she looked up at the high cab looming down at her. Her shotgun came to mind, but the driver’s door opened too fast, a denim leg and brown boot dangling past the door before a tree of a man stepped out, claiming her land with one step.

“Erin Donahue?” the stranger asked. He regarded her over his door, eyes hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. His dark chestnut hair rustled in the dusty wind.

“And you are?” She held her hand over a squinted glare, blinded by the sun. There was something about him—the way he held his body, the deep tone in his voice, and the way he said her name. How did she know him?

“I’m insulted you don’t remember. It’s Slade…Slade Callahan?” A hint of anger brewed beneath his reminder.

“Slade?” Sweat trickled down her back.

“Todd’s younger brother. Why did you go into hiding after breaking his heart? Seems like something the guilty might do. And you are one hard woman to track down, you know that?” He took his sunglasses off, revealing dark blue eyes—narrowed eyes above a hardened set jaw.

She nodded. “Slade—yes. And that was a long time ago. I don’t need to explain anything to you or anyone else. Now please leave my property before I call the sheriff.” She remembered Slade being home on leave, now a fully grown man with a certain ruggedness about him. This man was not the clean-shaven, crewcut hair, flirty young man she had known back then. No. This was a harder copy version. A man she didn’t know anymore.

“There’s some unfinished family business since your cowardly act.”

Heat burned her chest, flaming her face. “Can’t someone end a relationship without being stoned to death?”

“Not if that someone didn’t have a good enough reason. In my eyes, you didn’t, and it’s haunted my brother ever since.”

Hit by another stone, she flinched. “And now you’re his spokesman?”

“That’s right.” His features softened for a moment, as if in pain, but then returned.

She scoffed, looking at the ground before back at him. This guy was unbelievable. He had to be, what—thirty-three now? He was four years younger, but carried the hard edge of a Marine, if he still served. “I don’t owe you a damn thing, Slade.” She grabbed her camera and pointed it at him. “Smile—it’ll be the last one you ever have if you don’t leave.” She clicked away, forcing him to put his sunglasses back on and slip inside, slamming the door shut.

Erin lowered it after a few more shots, watching him back out, his gaze locked with hers. Did he think he was intimating her? A silent threat that this wasn’t over? The thought infuriated her. No one ever bothered her out here. This was her home, her sacred grounds from the hustle of the city and cliquey small town.

As she strutted past overly grown weeds, she bent and snatched the grass blades out already dying, and threw them back into the earth. What was the point? Clouds drifted across the purple horizon, engulfing the sun, and a low rumble in the grim sky. She picked up her pace and darted for the door before the rain made its appearance.

Right after she stepped inside, it released, a hard thud slapping the ground like gunshots. She slammed the door and leaned against it, bringing her hands to her face. As she raked her fingers through her hair, scratching her head to free the headache forming at the base of her neck, she closed her eyes.

And Never Let Her Go Pinterest Board

His face softened as his gaze roamed over to the desk. “Please, Erin? Please…”

For a long moment, she stared at him and briefly closed her eyes. “Fine, but will you do me a favor before I do?”

He narrowed his eyes. “What is this—you’ll scratch my back type of thing?”

She stood and peered out the window, her back to him. “I gave you a week and you’re changing the game, so I think I have a right.” She turned and faced him. “I can always stick to the week plan.” She stared back with equal intensity, studying his poker face. Not one blink.

The pause was excruciating. Would he take her up on it? Guilt eroded her for putting him in such a position and wanted to extract her emotional extortion.

When she decided to do just that, he gave a resigned sigh. “Fine. What is it? Want me to speak to your plants? Are they mad at you?” A small smile cracked his dimple open. She never noticed that before.

“Ha-ha, very funny. No, nothing like that, although that’s very tempting. I think they would like you. But, no.” She placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head. “I need a model.”

He spat out the coffee. “You’re joking, right?”

“If you knew me well, you’d know I don’t joke. Like ever.” A small grin worked her lips.

“What about the plant joke?”

“I wasn’t joking.”

“And I’m the insane one here?”

She waited, cocking a brow.

Slade let out a disgruntled sigh. “A model? What exactly do I need to do?” He wiped his shirt of the splashed coffee.

“Good decision. Since it’s raining hard out there, I need a few pictures for my stock photo account. I’m contracted to send in at least ten a week. Do you happen to have a cowboy hat with you?”

He stared at her.

She laughed. “Never mind. I’ll make do. Okay, go into my bathroom and brush your…on second thought, leave it. It has that messy look that women swoon over. An author just might use it.”

“Wait—you’re saying my face could be on some romance novel?”

She sat back down next to him. “Yes. You could be famous.” She grinned.

He shook his head. “No way. That’s embarrassing. I’m a rancher, not Fabio.”

“So…the deal’s off? Okay, see you next week then.” She started to stand.

He stood and paced back and forth before stopping. “Fine, but I’m not taking my shirt off.”

“I would never ask such a thing. Keep it buttoned all the way up to your chin. The ladies love that look. Dull and conservative.”

“I can never tell when you’re serious.” He brushed his fingers through his hair, shaking the remaining droplets from it. “I feel so used,” he said, trying to hide a grin she could see wanted to come out. “I’m not the model type.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” She walked to her desk and picked up her camera, wrapping it around her neck. Then she went into her music folder on her phone, which was connected to her speakers, and chose a pop dance song. “That’s better.” She walked to the fireplace to stoke the flames. “Okay, I want you to stand over here with your hand kind of like this,” she said, instructing him.

He rolled his eyes and followed her to the hearth. “I can’t believe I’m doing this. I’m not even that good-looking.”

“Just get over there and look pretty.” She flashed a smile and batted her lashes.

Saluting her, he did as he was told and turned toward her. “Like this?” He imitated her pose.

“More like this,” she said, pulling his hand over the mantle, touching his long, calloused fingers. She snatched her hand back and stepped away. “There you go. Now stay put.”

“Anything to get you to open that letter.”

“Shhhh.” She backed up and looked through the viewfinder. “Perfect.”

“Do you want me to smile or what do I do? Erin?”

But she found herself staring at him before she started shooting. “No, you’re fine like that. I’ll tell you when I need more.” There was something natural about his easy movements. At times, he was a little clunky, but then he’d move his hip just so, his hands just right, and a look in his eyes that held hers. It was poetic without him even trying.

After a few shots in that position, she dropped her camera to her chest. “Okay, try sitting on the hearth but at the corner, next to the Clearview. Perfect. Give a little smile, nothing too big, just a hint like you’re up to no good.”

He gave her a dry look, raising his brow. “Really?”

“Really. Oh, hang on—I’ll be right back.” She dashed to her bedroom and came back with her novel. “See this guy? That’s Buck. And that’s what I want.”

“Seriously? He looks so cheesy. Buck, huh?”

“Just do it…please?” She kept herself from exploding with laughter at how serious he was. If he even thought she was laughing at him, he’d give up. She needed these.

“This is what women want?”

“Yes.”

“His shirt is open.”

“Yes.”

“I’m not doing that.”

“Okay, don’t. Just smile like him.”

“Is this your fantasy man?”

She snickered. “I don’t have a fantasy man. I have Sally and my plants. That’s all I need, but he does make for an exciting evening in bed.”

Grinning, he raised his brows.

Her eyes widened. “I mean reading.”

He laughed. “Who’s Sally?”

“My camera.”

“Now, I’ve heard it all.”