Forty-Two Minutes

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Chapter Thirty-Two

LEXY

While my parents unpack and get settled, I quietly slip out the front door, and head over to the stables, my eyes scanning the glowing horizon for Nick's return, as I follow the worn path in the grass.

Twilight creates shimmering streaks of pink and lavender across the sky as the sun sets lower behind the trees, making the warm September air, the insects, even the pastures, seem to sing and hum and ripple. I remember this time of day here and have deeply missed the peaceful hush as evening falls.

The land is how I left it, and it's reassuring how constant and green and fragrant it still is. The scattered outbuildings, old rickety windmill, and barn are uneven, familiar shadows against the darkening sky, and I experience a bittersweet sense of coming home.

A part of me feels guilty for loving a place that causes my mom such deep pain. Our experience on this ranch is drastically different, and I can only empathize with the stress and struggle she is wrestling with.

My heart aches for how trapped she feels in this house. Painful reminders of her childhood wait around every corner and down the hallways. And the violence that happened here isn't something she will ever forget.

I hope our time here will be healing for her, and not cause more pain. Or a relapse. She's sober now, but that doesn't mean she won't still want a drink. Triggers are everywhere; on the stairs, out every window, even collected in the dust under my bed where she hid with Becca when they were young.

The traumatic memories are still very much alive and present and have been waiting for her, and she must face each one without a bottle in her hand.

We've only been back a little over an hour, and it's already difficult for her. She seems a bit shell-shocked and fragile, and I know better than anyone that the nightmares and flashbacks are always worse the later and quieter it gets.

There is a heavy, unspoken understanding between all of us how necessary and crucial this trip is. I'm grateful her sponsor is only a quick call away, and the AA meetings are still required daily. She can do them online, but Andie will monitor her, and she has to make sure she checks in at each one.

Recovering alcoholics don't get a break, even on a horse ranch out in the middle of nowhere in Tennessee.

Nick knows I'm back. I texted him the second we arrived. My skin, heart, even my nerve endings are tingling with excitement to finally see him. I think he's looking forward to seeing me too because he sent a message saying he'd head in as soon as he could.

We haven't seen each other in two months, since that terrible morning I found out about my mom's overdose, and had to leave him behind with so much misunderstood and unsaid between us.

We've talked every day since that night he called me; texting back and forth, he's sent pictures of Glory, and rustic, simple snapshots of where he is on the land during his workday, sunrises over the pastures, the wide, open view from the porch of his cottage.

He knows how much I've missed this land, how connected I feel to it, and long to be a part of the day-to-day things.

We've shared sleepy late night conversations while the rest of the world dreamt. Whispering, confiding, confessing feelings, staying up until dawn, just to hear the other one breathe and sigh and say our name.

He's kept the loneliness away and helped get me through the uncertain days of my mom's rehab and recovery. I can't wait to see him, be close to him, hold him, kiss him.

I remember the feel and taste and heat of his mouth, his breath on my skin, his arms wrapped so tightly around me I could feel his heart thundering against mine. My body flushes with anticipation and need.

Sliding open the heavy wooden door of the stable, I step inside. The overhead fans slowly spin, lazily stirring the earthy smell of grains and sweet hay, leather, and saddle oil hanging in the air.

I wonder if Glory remembers me, has missed me, will let me back into the bond we had before I had to abruptly leave. I didn't even get to say goodbye.

She's in the third stall down. The other horses stick their heads out, curious, and shamelessly hoping for treats, silently watching, as I pass.

Reaching her, I stand back, waiting to see if she recognizes me. Even though I want to touch her, I'm careful not to move too fast. I don't want to startle her by invading her space if she's not ready.

She is as beautiful as before, her mahogany coat deep and rich and sleek, her body full and strong. She was still healing and finding her footing when I left, but now she's powerful and majestic and somehow much larger than I remember. She looks like the champion racehorse she's born to be.

Her soulful brown eyes are no longer sad and suspicious as she looks out from her stall at me. She's calm, confident, at ease; the threat and defense against pain now gone as she's learned to trust the hands that feed and care for her.

Saying nothing, I stand very still, letting her get used to me again. She sniffs the air, snorts, seeming to recognize my scent. Bobbing her head, she lets out an excited neigh, pushing against the stall door as if trying to force it open, or break it down, to reach me, granting me permission to approach. Smiling, I walk up to her.

"Hi, sweet girl," I murmur, reaching my hand out for her to smell, and she presses her nose eagerly into my palm. "I'm so happy to see you." She bows her head and I kiss her forehead, wrap my arms around her, trying to get as close as I can over the barrier of the door.

Her wounds have healed, only the white jagged scars a reminder of past pain. She trusts my touch, and we both lean in, reacquainting ourselves with the feel of each other. She sighs and nuzzles my hair and I laugh as she butts the top of her head into my shoulder as if scolding me for leaving her so long.

"I'm here," I soothe, inhaling her musky scent. "I'm sorry I went away."

"I figured this is where you'd be."

Even his voice is the same. Low, deep, drawling. Jolting, my heart catches as I look over and see Nick standing a few feet down.

I'm surprisingly nervous and unconsciously bite my bottom lip. We've talked every day, but it's different in person, more intimate and exposing, with no walls or distance between us.

His gaze is direct, intense, staring at me, into me, absorbing me. His eyes have changed, I notice. They are lighter somehow, not as sad or tragic or bruised. His hair is a little longer, falling over the scar on his brow, his ears, the nape of his neck, the frayed collar of his shirt.

"Hi," I manage, smiling shyly.

"Hey." He continues to stare, saying so many things with barely saying a word, and I blush in the way I always did around him.

I'm not sure what to do and awkwardly glance back to Glory. "She looks beautiful."

He comes closer, and I can smell the land and sweat and soil on him. The back of my throat is dry. The air between us feels electric, surging, charged.

"Yeah, she's come a long way," he answers, reaching out to scratch behind her ears and she tilts her head towards him. It's distracting watching his fingers, the way his mouth moves. I vividly remember them on me. "She kept looking for you."

"Really?" I ask, stroking her neck as if trying to apologize. "I felt so guilty that I had to leave her the way I did."

"Couldn't be helped," he says, resting his arm on the stall door, his body facing mine. "You had to go."

"I know. But, I'm happy to be back for a bit. At least for the week anyway. I loved all the pictures you sent me of her."

"Good." He nods his head towards Glory. "I knew you were missing her."

And you, I think, the words suspended like a red string in the space between us, tying us together, but I am hesitant to say them. He still hasn't touched me or reached for me. His body is mere inches from mine. It's the closest we've been in months. Feeling too needy and flustered, I keep my hands to myself and try to focus. "Did you get to ride her yet?"

He shook his head. "I was going to but then you said you were coming back. I wanted to wait for you. Thought you might like to be the first one to take her out."

Thrilled by the idea, my whole being lights up as I smile brilliantly at him. His eyes flicker with need, desire, fascination, the flecks of gold shining through. His guard is completely down and he lets himself smile back, in that tender, sweet way I remember from the photograph in the paper. But, this time, it's for me. I'm very aware there are only a few people he looks at like this or allows to see him. I don't take the gift lightly.

"Do you think she's ready?"

He nods. "Yeah, I do. She's strong enough now, and she trusts you."

"I hope so," I answer, looking back to Glory who continues to stay near me, as if making sure I don't disappear on her again. I keep my hand on her, giving us both the reassurance of constant contact. When I turn to Nick, I notice he's still watching me with that focused, searching stare that always made me tongue-tied and my thoughts spin out and scatter. "Will you help me ride her? I want you to be there."

"I wouldn't miss it," he answers, and I realize he's moved to where there is barely any space between us, close enough that if I shift, I'll brush his arm, his chest, my hair will skim his jawline. He does the same thing with the horses, I remember; biding his time, inching in, letting them get used to the feel of him in their space until they are within his grasp. I smell the faint scent of his shampoo, his aftershave, feel the heat coming off him, mixing dizzyingly with mine. I'm completely surrounded by him.

"Thank you for waiting for me," I say, meaning more than just this moment.

He doesn't respond, his gaze lowering to my mouth like he did that morning I left as if searching for something, a sign, an opening, a chance, a yes.

My lips instinctively part in expectation and an invitation. The air crackles, thickens, making it harder to catch my breath.

I had wondered if he might change his mind, or decide he didn't want to let me in or be with me. That he might not want to try and let go of his past and come towards me.

But then he's reaching for me, his arms moving around my waist, pulling me to him, and any insecurity or doubt I am feeling instantly falls away and vanishes.

"Come here," he says, his drawl husky and low just how I like, as if he's reading my thoughts, closing the last of the distance between us.

My breath shudders out as I look up at him, his face a sweet, hazy blur. All I can see are his eyes, dark and hot before he leans in to kiss me. I sway towards him and this time he's there to catch me, hold me up, his arms tightening around me, his lips covering mine, greedy and starving as if he can't bear for us to be apart anymore.

I remember how he will tilt his head, how his hands, a bit calloused, will hold my face to angle and fit perfectly for his. The stubble of his skin, the slick tangle of his tongue and parting of teeth, warmth and pressure, going in deeper, pulling me in and under.

I lift my hands to finally touch him, over the soft, faded cotton of his shirt, up his shoulders, into the ends of his hair. His jeans rub against my legs, denim pressing against denim, and I shiver as he runs his hand up my spine, his touch leaving a trail of sparks even through my clothes.

The kiss is like before on that devastating morning when the sun was too bright and harsh and my tears stained and burned his skin. Wounded finding wounded, a raw, soothing remedy for our scars and bruises and pain, gently running our fingertips over the cracks and cuts left behind by years of loss and grief and heartache. I can taste his relief that I'm finally here, and he's not alone in all the things still unknown to us.

An understanding passes between us that things are different now, we are letting them change, breaking them open, barriers crumbling, and leading each other somewhere we've never been.

We're going back to that day, finding where we left off, picking back up, finishing what we started, and discovering together where it will take us, realizing it's even better than we imagined, and knowing this time when we fall, we have somewhere safe to land.

There's no rush. He slowly explores me, experiences me, experimenting with touch and taste and texture, as if wanting to commit every detail, the very chemistry of me, into his senses and mind and underneath his skin, and remind himself of what he'd found that first time we kissed.

When he finally pulls back, my eyes lazily drift open. His face is close, blissfully blocking out everything else around us. He's all I can see, and all I want to. "I've been waiting to do that for two months," he says, his breath deliciously warm over me.

I smile and hold on tighter, absorbing the wonder of the feel of him. He's been too far away for far too long. "Me, too."

Before he can say anything else, we both look over when we hear Ben whistling as he walks into the stable. "There you are," he says, as he puts supplies on the shelf. Turning back, he grins when he sees me. "No wonder you wanted to get back here so fast. Hey there, Lexy."

Pulling free from Nick, I move around him to hug my uncle. "Hi." I'm breathlessly laughing as he engulfs me in his arms. He smells comfortingly the same; worn flannel and hearty earth and warm sunshine, predictable as the land and sky itself.

"It's really good to see you. So glad you're here." Releasing me, he looks towards Nick, an amused smile on his face. His eyes crinkle up in the corners in that endearing way I remember. "This guy has been missing you like crazy. You're all he's talked about for months."

Nick scowls, sends him a dark look. "Thanks a lot."

Ben laughs. "Don't mention it." He winks at me. "I'll let you two get caught up. Don't be too long," he says as he starts to head back out. "You know how Becca is about family meals. Great to have you back for a bit, Lexy." When he's gone, Nick and I are left alone again.

Facing him, I notice he has his hands shoved down deep in his pockets, his eyes on the ground. "Is that true what he said?"

He self consciously shrugs. "Yeah," he mutters, not looking at me. Is he embarrassed? My heart softens even more towards him.

Needing to touch him, I move back into his arms. "I missed you too," I confess, looking up at him, and feel him gradually relax against me. The vulnerability in his eyes makes me melt. This is so new and doesn't happen every day for lost, lonely people like us. We've both been trying to figure out how to simply survive. "All the time. I couldn't wait to get back here to you."

His eyes hold mine in that way he knows how to do that makes everything stand beautifully still. "Good," he murmurs and kisses me light and soft and it's just as sweet and I wonder how my legs are holding me up. Lifting his head, he looks past me towards the door. "We better head to the house. Don't want your mama getting worried about you."

In another surprising gesture that startles and stuns me, he takes my hand. As he links our fingers, he seems to be absorbing the feel of me, the connection, the step we're taking, what it means for us. We've been on our own for so long.

His palm is rough against mine from the strain and scrape and splinters of ranch work, but the contrast is exhilarating, and I close my fingers around his. I don't want him going anywhere either.

"I told my parents where I'd be," I say, as he leads me out into the warm evening.

"How's your mom doing with being back?"

I look towards the house. It's the only one around for miles. All the lights are on, a beacon in the dark. I hope it helps her feel safer. "It's hard for her. There's so much pain she hasn't faced here. And now she has to do it all sober."

Nick shakes his head, blows out his breath. "Yeah, that is going to be tough."

"At least she has her sponsor to talk to, and the AA meetings are required every day so she has support."

"She also has you and your dad. I'll bet it helps that you're both here with her."

"I hope so," I murmur, looking dreamily up at the night sky, glittering with stars. I've never seen so many as if the entire galaxy has swirled and gathered here just for us. The sun had still been setting when I went into the stable. "The moon is already out. I can't believe how full and bright it is."

Nick glances up, nods. "Supposed to be a harvest moon tomorrow night. Only happens once a year. There's a place I like to go watch it out in your great-granddaddy Cade's field. It's so big and close it looks like it's sitting right on top of the land."

A bit awestruck, I smile at him. "I'd love to see that."

He smiles back at me, squeezing my hand tighter, and I wonder if he likes the security of belonging to someone. To me. "I'll be sure and find you. We can watch it together."

As he leads me down the worn path, it takes me a minute to recognize what it is I'm feeling. I've been so used to the worry and panic and fear of the addiction that it's surprising to realize this sensation rushing through my veins is pure happiness.

Trusting it has never been easy, and I don't know if I've ever really experienced it. It seems so easy for other people but it's been a foreign concept to me, unreal and out of reach, cruelly snatched away and stolen. I learned early never to get my hopes up, and the bottle and blackouts made sure I didn't.

And yet somehow, against all odds, and despite everything I've lost, I'm back on the ranch with Nick at my side, his hand linked in mine. Glory is safe and healthy. My mom is clean and sober. And my family is here together under the same roof for the first time in over twenty years.

My heart is full as I watch fireflies wink and dance, stars gleam as if guarding us, and the full moon smile as if it's listening and knows all our secrets.

And for this one moment, on this one summer night late in September, everything is how I always dreamed it would be.
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