Countless hours and minutes plagued by a heaviness of the heart that was unsuccessfully contained, shoved aside.
Fallon shook his head and hurled another bale of hay into the flatbed of his truck, relishing the strain it put on his muscles. Because it was a diversion, something to distract him from the dismal loop his thoughts seemed to have become stuck in the past few weeks.
It didn't surprise him that he felt her absence as an almost palpable thing. If anyone had told him when she first arrived that she would leave in twelve months, he might have responded with a fervent good riddance! But dammit all if the woman hadn't crawled her way under his skin, burrowed straight through bone and lodged herself quite firmly in his heart.
The first two weeks, he had been sullen and withdrawn. Had gone through the days mechanically, slow to respond when approached by the other employees at the ranch. Maybe he had still been in shock, maybe a little part of him was hoping she had just gone on vacation. And forgot to tell…everyone.
But that fucking letter ruined the illusion his mind so desperately tried to create, viciously clawed to ribbons the tentative hope that he'd wake up one day and walk into the kitchen, the living room, one of the barns, look up and see her standing there with that warm smile on her face and laughter sparkling from her dusty blue eyes.
In the weeks that passed, spring took Brier Wood fully in its balmy hands before gently giving way to early summer. The grass turned a lush green, jonquils bowed their heads in playful breezes. And the chicory flowers sprang into existence around fence posts, dotted the pastures and the edge of the woods that bordered the ranch. Fallon felt as though their light blue color mocked him. Well into the fifth week of her absence, Fallon ground one to a pulpy death under his boot heel, making a note to have someone go through and kill the offensive flowers.
By the time June arrived, people who didn't know him well might have thought Fallon was the same as he'd been the past ten years. The fiery tempest of his anger, which had reared its snarling head just last week, had banked itself into glowing embers amid the ashes. And if he was a bit less quick with a smile or less inclined to laugh than he had been four months ago, no one seemed to notice. Or weren't brave enough to mention. Everyone was very careful to skirt the issue of a certain woman who had come into their lives just over a year ago.
"You're miserable without her."
"You should try to find her."
And Fallon just nodded quietly in the face of her obvious wisdom and motherly advice. He should. But he wouldn't.
"She cares about you."
Did she? Because all sources pointed to no as far as he was concerned. She had left, probably without even a backward glance. After…after everything, she had just packed up and disappeared. It had, he admitted, taken him completely by surprise, the callous way she had gone about leaving. Because she just didn't seem like the sort of person to shove another's feelings back in their face like that.
But she had. So how, exactly, could he believe she…cared…for him?
"I don't really know what to tell you, man," Jaycen sighed, handing Fallon a beer. They sat at the kitchen table, a new evening ritual that had sprung up within the past eight weeks. They talked about work, sometimes gossiped about things going on in town and, eventually, worked their way around to a certain woman whose absence was keenly felt by both men. "I mean, I thought for sure when you told her how you felt about her, she'd at least consider staying."
Fallon went very still in his seat and a slight line creased his brow as he concentrated unusually hard on his beer bottle. Jaycen eyed his friend.
"You did tell her, didn't you?" Jaycen paused, but when Fallon didn't say anything, he sat back and frowned. "Fallon, c'mon, you told her how you felt, right? You didn't just sleep with her and not tell her she's the most important thing in the world to you."
He hadn't. He hadn't said a word about how he felt. Because…because why? Because he hadn't known until she was gone? No. That was a lie if he'd ever told himself one. Maybe he had just figured…
And he could have killed himself for being such a fucking idiot. Of course she wouldn't just know – she wasn't a goddamn mind reader, for cryin' out loud.
I thought I'd have more time…I thought I would wake up, roll over, smile into those beautiful dusty blue eyes and tell her…
Jaycen groaned when Fallon remained silent. He pushed away from the table and stood up. "You, my friend, are a fucking idiot," he said, echoing the rancher's thoughts as he strolled out the back door. Except there was a touch of compassion in his words that the voice in Fallon's head lacked.
So, what am I supposed to do now? Fallon wondered. And, Nothing, was the answer. Because there wasn't anything he could do except sit here and brood. He picked at the silver label on his beer bottle as frustration began to boil up within him.
As if reading his friend's mind, Jaycen reappeared in the kitchen and dropped a red folder on the table in front of him. "Follow your heart, man," he said, giving the rancher a friendly clap on the shoulder.
Fallon scowled at the folder, opened it and frowned. "What is this?" he asked. He pulled brightly colored pieces of paper out, scattered them across the table. The smiling faces in the pictures just made him glare harder. "Pamphlets? You're bringing me fucking pamphlets?"
A dark eyebrow hitched up as Jaycen regarded him. "Yep," he said in an annoyingly cheerful voice. "To the colleges she applied and got accepted to."
There were three or four different schools in there, scattered randomly across the Midwest and South.
"And just what do you suggest I fucking do, Jaycen?" Fallon snarled. "Drive to every single one and lurk around and hope that I catch sight of her?"
"It'd be a start."
Fallon's teeth clamped down around the frustrated roar climbing up his throat. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath.
"Just go," Jaycen sighed, slumping into the chair across from him. "You're a mess and have been practically useless around here since she left."
Fallon stared at the glossy papers. She was there, somewhere, walking one of those paths, climbing the stairs to one of those buildings, laughing with those people…
…And maybe falling in love with one of them?
His heart faltered and he gasped. God. How was it that he couldn't breathe without her?
He slammed the folder shut and shoved it away from him. She had left. So why the hell should he be the one running after her? She wasn't worth it, wasn't worth all this agony and grief. All this pain.
At least, that's what he kept trying to tell himself.
He wondered if he'd ever believe it.
Davi stared at the large manila envelope dropped on the table in front of her. She recognized the handwriting on the front as her own, instantly knew what was inside. She had left it at the farm for Fallon, so what was it doing in the William Woods' library a little over two months later? Surely, Fallon wouldn't have given it to someone. Which could only mean…
Her brain relayed the message to her heart and the organ gasped. It couldn't be. She didn't want to look up. She had been fighting to keep him out of her thoughts, out of her dreams. Maybe…maybe if she just ignored it, him, just closed her eyes and counted slowly to ten, she would wake up and he would disappear. This couldn't be real. She was exhausted, hadn't been sleeping very well for…two months, she ruefully realized. So she must have passed out from sheer exhaustion and now her face was pressed uncomfortably against the open book in front of her and she was dreaming. Because if this was real…if he was here…oh, God…
But she couldn't stop herself from glancing to the side at the tall form standing next to her. Her chin tilted up and she saw the edges of a softly worn, rust colored t-shirt absently half tucked into the front of loosely fitted jeans. Farther up and her eyes lingered on a sculpted mouth pulled into a slight frown. The expression didn't frighten her as it once might have – she knew the words capable of passing through those lips, knew the sensations they could create against bare skin.
Davi shook herself and looked up into burning amber eyes. Just meeting his gaze made her realize this wasn't a dream. Whenever she thought about him, his eyes were always a warm gold, like the sun on a clear day. Now they were a deep yellow, darkened with some weighty emotion just barely contained under the surface.
"I don't know why you thought I would take this."
God, his voice was just as she remembered, warm and velvety smooth. Davi blinked and her lips parted, but she couldn't think of anything to say. Fallon rested his hands on the table and leaned over her, piercing her with that searing gaze.
"I don't want it," Fallon continued, nodding toward the envelope.
"What…what are you doing here?" she asked, her voice whispery and harsh with the emotions cramming themselves into her throat.
Fallon lifted a hand and tapped the envelope sitting between them. "I came to give you back the deed," he said. "I haven't signed it and I'm not going to."
"But…" She swallowed. A full minute passed as they stared at each other silently. "I don't understand," she finally managed.
Fallon sighed. He stood up straight and ran his hand through his hair. He had cut it, Davi absently noted, but it was still long enough that she would be able to sink her fingers into it.
"I'm not sure how much clearer I can be," Fallon said. There were shadows under his eyes and she wondered if she wasn't the only one who had been having a hard time sleeping. "I'm not taking the ranch. It's still in your name."
Davi furrowed her brow and looked down at the envelope. "It's…" She grabbed the envelope and yanked the papers out of it. The line where Fallon's signature should have been was blank. Her fingers curled around the edges, making the paper crumple. "Why haven't you signed this?" she asked, looking up at him.
"I don't want it, Davi," he repeated patiently, as though he was talking to a child.
"But it's your farm," she said, trying to keep her voice level. Why was he doing this?
But Fallon shook his head. "No," he corrected. "It's your farm." He paused and gazed intently at her. "So I guess you'll just have to come back."
Davi stood up and leaned toward him. "What didn't you get about me leaving?" she asked, feeling anger start to rise.
"That's right," he said. "You left. Again."
"I was trying to give you what you wanted!"
Davi glanced toward the librarian sitting at the front desk. The older woman pinned them with a narrow-eyed glower and raised her finger pointedly to her lips.
"And you've suddenly become an expert on what I want?" Fallon asked, gaining Davi's attention again. He tilted his head to the side and contemplated her carefully.
"You made it clear the first day I showed up that you wanted me gone and the farm to yourself," Davi said, trying not to shout at him.
Davi ground her teeth together to keep herself from screaming at the librarian. She waved the papers in Fallon's face and gave him the brunt of her glare. "This killed two birds with one stone," she hissed.
"What if I changed my mind?"
Davi stopped breathing for a moment and just stared at him. "What?" she asked, intelligently.
Fallon crossed his arms over his chest. "Maybe I've changed my mind," he said, nonchalantly. "Maybe I don't want the farm." He paused. Shrugged. "Maybe I want you there."
Davi closed her eyes, swallowed the thick lump of emotion that threatened to choke her. "Why are you doing this to me?" she asked, her voice suddenly a whisper.
His laugh broke harshly from his throat and she opened her eyes, stared at him. He leaned toward her, close enough that she could feel the heat of his skin, close enough that his nose nearly touched hers…close enough to kiss.
"Doing this to you? You treated me like I was a one-night stand," he snarled. "But you didn't just sneak out after you fucked me, you moved away. You left me, Davi."
Hot tears stung her eyes. "You weren't…" She licked her lips and averted her gaze from Fallon, knowing she couldn't admit anything to him while she was looking at him. Not knowing if she even had the courage to say it with him standing there.
"What? I wasn't what, Davi?" Fallon grabbed her chin and forced her to look at him. "I wasn't supposed to feel like you abandoned me all over again? Or maybe I wasn't supposed to find you. Is that it?"
"You weren't supposed to be a one-night stand," she whispered brokenly.
"No? Because that's sure the fuck what it – "
"You weren't supposed to be anything!" she shouted, slamming her hand onto the table. Fallon drew in a sharp breath, released his grip on her and took a step away. "None of this was supposed to happen, don't you get it? I was never supposed to go back there! And I certainly was never supposed to fall in lo – "
"If you can't keep your voices down, I'll be forced to kick you out."
Davi looked over Fallon's shoulder at the librarian. Fallon, however, continued to stare at her. She watched as a muscle in his jaw clenched and he shook his head.
"It's okay," he said, his voice harsh and grating. "I was just leaving."
And he did. Davi stared at his retreating back, watched until the door closed behind him.
"If you wait too long, it'll be too late," the librarian said, her voice now soft. Davi glanced at her and the older woman smiled kindly. Sympathy shone in her light gray eyes. "You should catch him before he gets away."
Davi's jaw clench around the thickness in her throat. She didn't even remember making the decision, just knew she was suddenly pushing her way through the glass doors, stumbling into the harsh afternoon light and thick, humid air, looking frantically around for his tall, lean figure. A sharp bark immediately drew her attention to the far end of the parking lot. She wove her way quickly between the closely parked cars, seeing the door to a large black truck open.
But the low rumble of the diesel engine muffled and then completely swallowed her words as it roared to life. She came to a halt, helplessly watching as the truck backed out of the parking space and pulled out of the lot.
Davi's arms wrapped around herself, trying to contain the fierce trembling that shook through her entire body despite the heat of the day. She had thought there was nothing left to cry about, but she couldn't stop the tears that blurred her vision and spilled down her cheeks.
It was over. For good this time, she knew. Because she had messed up, ruined it, and there would be no going back now…
She whirled around, her heart struggling to convince her eyes that, yes, he really stood there, a few cars away, leaning against his truck, Storm's head poking out the open window. His hands were shoved into his pockets, his amber eyes shining with concern and…something else…something fragile that made her heart ache. A soft gasp escaped her lips and she took a step forward. Stopped and could only stare at him. The silence between them was thick with her tears, which she desperately tried to choke back, and Fallon's uncertainty, which he made no effort to hide.
"I didn't come here to fight with you, Davi," he said. He moved between the cars until he stood in front of her, reached out and brushed away a tear that had escaped the cage of her lashes. "Or make you cry."
"Then why are you here?" she asked, her voice raspy.
"I want you back," he told her simply. And there was no uncertainty in his voice. "I want you back, with me, at the farm."
She couldn't breathe. "I can't – "
"Then we'll go somewhere else," he said, quickly, earnestly, before she had the chance to tell him no. "I'll sell the farm and get a job somewhere else."
Davi stared at him. "You can't sell Brier Wood," she whispered.
"It's just a place, Davi," Fallon told her.
"It's your home."
"But not your home."
It sounded almost like a question and Davi found the answer too complicated. She wanted, desperately wanted Brier Wood to be her home again. But she had known, from the first day she had returned, that it would never be the same.
But maybe it wasn't supposed to be. The ranch was nothing like it once was, but neither was Davi. And maybe that was what was wrong. She expected everything to be like it was when she was a child – simple, easy, free of confusion and this terrible unknown. But she wasn't a little girl anymore and the years had changed her, so why should she expect anything less of her old home or the people there?
"Were you happy there?" Fallon asked her. "Even for a moment?"
Davi looked at him and saw that same tentative hope she had seen so many months ago in his eyes when he had last asked her that. Would this heavy feeling in her chest go away if she lied? If she buried the truth deep inside of her, would she be able to convince even herself?
Davi swallowed. "Why?" she asked. "Why would you be willing to give up everything? Why does it matter so much whether I'm happy?"
Fallon stared back at her for a long moment. "Because," he finally said. And then stopped. A muscle in his jaw clenched, his eyes flicked away from hers. "Because I…I'm…" He took a deep breath and this time, when his eyes met hers, they didn't flinch away. "Because I realized that this is all that matters. Because I'm still the selfish little boy I used to be and all I want is to have you back…it's all I've ever wanted. Because…" A pause. Another deep breath.
And then Fallon Hirschfeld took a risk, gambled everything.
"Because I love you, Davi."
Her entire body stilled except for the tremor in her stomach, the quiver just behind her heart. Her lips parted, but the only sound that passed between them was a hitched wheeze of breath. Fallon shifted uncomfortably when she remained quiet, looked away from her. Came to his own conclusions about what her silence meant.
"If you're – "
Fallon cut himself off and looked like he was struggling to find the words. He closed his eyes. Shook his head. His shoulders hunched slightly and he shoved his hands back into his pockets. And a sad, resigned expression settled over his handsome features.
"Just…if you're going to break my heart, Davi, please try to do it gently," he finally whispered. "I'm not sure it can take much more."
Pessimist Fallon was not, but he couldn't help bracing himself for what she might say. Couldn't bring himself to look into her eyes.
So he was more than little surprised to suddenly find her in his arms, pressed against him hard enough he thought they might never be able to separate, holding onto him as though afraid he would vanish. Tears salted her kiss, which tasted of her remorse, felt like an apology and a promise all in one.
"I'm sorry," was whispered in his ear. And, "I love you," breathed against his mouth.
And, "Please don't ever leave me again," shuddered from his lips as his arms wrapped tightly around her.
No, she whispered, she wouldn't. The residual wisps of her fears, the ghosts that had haunted her dreams, dispersed like early morning mist in the light of sparkling amber eyes and a boyish grin. Even though it was nerve-wracking and a little scary, even though she couldn't seem to catch her breath or stop smiling, she would come back – maybe this very instant, maybe not until the end of the summer term and, after that, only during holiday breaks. And that was okay. It was enough to know she had a place she belonged, a place she could finally call home again filled with people who loved her.
For the first time in ten years, the thought of returning to Brier Wood didn't fill Davi with a sense of dread.
It was definitely, she thought as she smiled up into Fallon's eyes, as he kissed her again, held her tightly to himself, one of the best things to ever happen to her – topped only by being loved by a man who had made a place for himself in her heart much like a certain boy she once knew.
Final Notes: I realize, as a final chapter, this may not be what everyone wants or was expecting. I've had several people ask about an epilogue, but I'm a little reluctant to write one. This story was originally just supposed to be a silly, unoriginal romance, was never supposed to go beyond this and certainly was never supposed to be so...big, I guess.
When people first told me I should post this here, I never imagined it would get so much attention in such a short amount of time! It's hard for me, sometimes, to move outside of my comfort zones andn posting this story here was slightly harrowing for me. But all of you have made me feel very welcome, which I thank you for.
To everyone who has added me and this story to their alerts and favorites – thank you!
Emilea: Ah, you weren't the only one who noticed he never said anything about how he felt. Maybe if he had, she'd have stayed. But at least he finally spit it out! I would never leave you guys with such a terrible ending (I mean, them not getting their feelings for each other out in the open).
SoundofMind: Longer than I (and probably you :) ) would have liked. I had to sit and stare at this chapter for a few days before I was really satisfied with it. I hope you enjoy it!
ash42: It's something I want to explore in my next story, I think – the girl doing some things a guy would do in a relationship. I'm glad you've enjoyed the story. Thank you!
Anonymous: That was one thing I talked about with a few friends – should I be worried that people would hate the story if she left even though I had made it very clear she would? We came to the conclusion that despite knowing it would happen, there was still a part of us that didn't want it to be true. But I felt that keeping her there would be contrary to the original tone of the story. And thank you! That scene with the sheriff was one of my favorite to write.
openheadspace: I definitely do not want my readers to be injured! I hope it wasn't anything too serious (maybe I should add a bodily injury liability clause to my disclaimer...?). I'm obviously not glad you hurt yourself, but I am glad the story drew you in. Thank you for your reviews!
dawn's unforgiving darkness: I'm glad you're enjoying it :) And no matter what some say, sometimes even though people have aged in years, their maturity level leaves something to be desired – I've seen forty year-old men act like petulant children o.O
Wikipediot: Thank you! I'm glad you're enjoying it!
Wrissa: I'm not sure if Davi took the farm back or not – maybe it can be jointly owned by them :) But Fallon not signing the papers was a good excuse for him to go after her. Haha, I don't know about happily ever after, but at least they managed to clear the air. Thank you for all your reviews!
D-Mish: Had to tug the heart strings one last time before I got everything sorted. Thanks!
Mayuka: Sorry! They may not be very good, but I will definitely continue to write more stories. I'm glad you've enjoyed Brier Wood – thank you!
MistressBlack852: I'm glad you felt that way about the chapter (even though I really don't like making my reviewers sad). Even I felt a little heartbroken when writing it. And I'm as much in love with happy endings as the next person so I certainly couldn't leave these two apart. I don't know if this ending is exactly what everyone was expecting, but I hope it gives at least a sense of resolution and the chance of happily ever after :) Thanks for your reviews!
Lucy-the-bookworm: I almost had her stay – almost. But if I had, I think I may have written everything all sappy and disgustingly sweet with declarations of undying love, which didn't really fit the voice of the story as a whole. I hope this chapter satisfies you, though! Thank you!
GreysAutumn: Yes. But! At least they get it all sorted out, right?
LANNAZgonnaBfamous: I hope that's a good "woah"...?
xxmadamexjennxx: Thank you! I'm glad you've enjoyed the story so much! Updated as fast as I could (I can sit on a chapter for weeks, which is so ridiculous...) because I cannot have any reviewers combusting! Thanks again!!
Aynn: I, too, am a fan of spin-off stories. However, I'm not so sure about my ability to write them. We'll see if Jaycen's story (or more of it, I guess) comes to me. Ha, funny you should mention the dog – I didn't really forget about him, just was so focused on everything else. But I added him into this last chapter specifically because of your question :) Thank you for all the reviews!
mary-pi: Definitely this chapter :) I wanted to kind of give a sense of him realizing he was in love with her and how frustrated he was after figuring it out. Thanks for your reviews! I'm glad you've enjoyed it!
Georgie: Oh, that's okay, I'm used to it :) I give my roomie chapters before I post them and she gets so frustrated with the way I end some of them she won't talk to me for a good half an hour :) But I'm glad you enjoyed the chapter and all the emotions that came with it. And you probably weren't the only one screaming that at the computer during those times :) Jaycen was never really intended to a romantic interest, but he was definitely there to make Fallon realize his feelings for her. Is three days soon enough? Do I still get my cake?! Mmm cake...the chocolate kind with icing between the layers? :) Thanks for your review!
Bangle Meister: That's such a nice thing to say – thank you!