August 1880

"Rachel! Get back here! Your ribbons!"

Ignoring her mother's call, the twelve-year old raced on towards the forest, her wavy brown hair blowing in the breeze. Who needed ribbons anyway? It wasn't like she was planning on impressing anyone today. Today was simply another day to spend in the company of her best friend, who probably was about to leave if she didn't get to the lake soon.

Hurdling over fallen limbs, skirting patches of questionable looking greenery, and braving clusters of brambles that tore at her skirt and the skin beneath, she emerged out of breath into openness of the lake's shore. Her eyes focused in on the brown overalls of her friend. Her friend turned around, blue eyes gleaming with a hint of humor. Her friend waited for her to catch up, and then the two strolled off step for step to explore around the lake. Today, the small clearing along the left side of the lake held promise.

Once there, the two collapsed onto the soft grass, side by side, shoulders barely touching. Conversation went on for hours about school, family, the town, the future. As the sun set, both felt utterly content. There could be no others in the world who knew each other so well. They would be together always as the best of friends.

"No ribbons today, Rach?" her friend asked her.

"Not today, and preferably not ever."

"Well, that's alright," her friend chuckled, "I won't fault you for it."

"As if you have any right to. Lucas, you and all the boys who have to worry about wearing your hair just so, so that it's functional and looks presentable…you really understand what us girls go through."

4 years later…

"No pins today, Rach?"

"Oh, stop. You have no idea what it's like wearing those things. Especially around here when it's just you, me, and my family most of the time. Who really cares?"

"Most likely your mother, considering that I'm now an 'extremely eligible young man,' her words exactly."

Rachel reached out and playfully shoved him as he laughed.

"So, that's why all the young ladies have been fawning over you recently."

"Maybe they will be in my new town."

Rachel's face sobered immediately at the mention of his impending absence.

"New town," she muttered.

"I'll be back before you know it. Once I'm allowed, I'm booking it straight back to good 'ole River Bend."

She sighed. "And while you're gone, I'll have nobody to support my lack of propriety." She smiled as he broke out into a chuckle.

"Don't you replace me while I'm gone, you understand?" he asked jokingly.

"How could I? I'm certain I could never have a best friend as great as you."

Chapter 1

Rachel Malone stood on her porch, shielding her eyes from the bright sun that marked another beautiful day. She focused on the bend in the road that brought it into view from the forest. She took a deep breath, trying to contain her excitement. After six years, she was finally going to see Lucas Dawson again, who had been her best friend for as long as she could remember. Sure, they had kept in touch through letters, but those paled in comparison to actually getting to see each other. She wondered if he looked any different from the lanky, gangly boy who had left to help out on his father's new farm six years ago.

She knew she looked different. It had taken her a bit by surprise, but somehow she had grown out of the baby fat that had plagued her in her childhood. The frizzy wildness of her dark brown hair had tamed into soft waves, so that it was at least manageable now. She never would have guessed that these things would lead to the teasing coming to a halt, from almost everyone at least, and especially the boys. But she was hard-pressed to give them a chance, they being the same ones who had teased her years before. It also didn't help that she had been more of a fishing companion for the large part of their childhood than a proper, polite girl worth the teasing attention of young boys during those growing-up years. Lucas had been there too, through most of it. One of them too tall and skinny, the other obscured under too much frizz and plump. And then he moved.

"Rachel, come here and help me a minute," her mother called out. Her thoughts interrupted, Rachel sighed heavily, cast a longing glance toward the still-empty road, and ran inside to aide her mother.

"Can you set the table and then run out to the barn to grab your father's coat? He left it somewhere in there."

"Sure." She hurried, wanting to be the first person that greeted Lucas when he returned to their safe haven in the woods. She looked towards the road as she trotted to the barn. Heaving the door open, she scanned the place. Her father had been busy lately, and the neglect of the barn visibly portrayed that. She started tidying up, knowing she would never find it at a quick glance. After a few minutes of cleaning, her eyes caught on the jacket, stuck halfway up the ladder to the loft. Placing her foot on the second rung to the bottom, she lifted herself up, stretching to grab the sleeve. Almost…there…

"Do you need help?" a voice rang out from behind her.

She let out a small shriek, and, in her surprise lost her grip on the ladder. Falling backwards, she felt her back slam into somebody broad and muscular. His arms encircled her as they both crashed to the ground. She laid there for a second in shock, until she heard a low moan coming from under her. She rolled off him onto her stomach, and glanced over, only to look into the most familiar eyes she knew, blue as the sky and sparkly as the sun, especially when he was amused. Her apology died on her lips, and all she could do was stare.

"Hey Rach!" He used her childhood nickname, breaking into a wide grin. Dimples…how had she never noticed those before? She'd seen him smile a million times.

"Lucas? Lucas! You're here!" She decided to avoid mentioning how different he looked. "Are you okay by the way? You look a bit…disheveled."

"You as well. Not much has changed, I guess. Still no pins." Do I really not look any different to him? She inwardly sighed and decided to play along. They were, after all, the closest of friends. Although, she did wish she had arranged her hair before heading to the barn. As hard as she tried to be a proper lady nowadays, she couldn't quite escape the more comfortable existence as a tomboy.

"Nope, still the same old girl. As for you, sir, you look messier than the last time I saw you." She broke into a laugh as she ruffled her fingers in his hair, brushing out the errant pieces of hay that had collected there. She refocused her gaze on his face after finishing, and found him studying her. They remained motionless for a few beats, and then Lucas broke the trance.

"We should get you back to your house. I'm dying to see your mother. And to eat her food," he chuckled. He jumped up and then offered his hand to help her up. "C'mon pal. Let's go see what trouble we can get into in the kitchen."

"Watch it!" she laughed, as more soapsuds flew her way. He let out a throaty chuckle in response.

"Sorry. It's been a while since I washed dishes with someone who cared about keeping their dress clean. Since when did you become such a priss, anyway?" he said with a smirk.

"I'm not a priss, just slightly more grown up than when you were last here. Kinda like how you still look like you're twelve, only with a bit of scruff."

This comment brought on a barrage of soap bubbles headed her way. She felt her full-on smile coming now, impossible to wipe off her face. Between fits of laughter, she struggled to speak.

"Okay, okay you're right. You look, maybe, fourteen. At the most." At this, he just shook his head, amusement all over his face.

"Thank goodness I still don't look that way."

"Aw, you were cute." He shot her a look as she spoke.

"And now what do you think of me?" Hearing the more serious inquisitive tone in his voice, she glanced into his eyes. She giggled, shrugged, and went back to her work before he could catch the red tinting her face. He could never know that the direction of her thoughts about him had changed so completely since he had shown up, strangely expected and unexpected at the same time. Any sign that she felt so much attraction for him and their friendship would be dead in the water. She was sure of it, for there was no possible way he could feel it back.

Rachel watched Lucas lean back and rest a hand on his stomach. His flat, obviously toned stomach. That crisp, white, well-fitting shirt he was wearing left absolutely nothing to the imagination. She blinked hard and forced herself to look up to his face.

"That, Mrs. M, was delicious. The best thing I've had since…well, since the last meal you fed me."

Her eyes shifted to her mother, who broke into a smile at Lucas's comment.

"Always such the flatterer."

"That was really good, Mama."

"Well, it's nice to get some appreciation around here. And I love cooking for more people. You just keep coming anytime, Lucas, you hear? Tonight has been wonderful. Rachel, dear, why don't you show Lucas around the lake while your father and I clean up? I'm sure it'll look different to him."

Rachel looked back at him, finding his piercing blue eyes already settled on her face.

"Would you like to…"

"I'd love to."

They walked out the door and she looked up to find him breaking into a mischievous grin while staring straight ahead into the forest.

"Remember when we used to race to the lake?"

"…Ye-e-e-s," she answered slowly, suspicious of what would happen next.

"Let's do it. Right now."

Rachel felt a smile tugging at her lips. She paused and looked off, acting like she was debating. She swung her gaze back to him and spoke hurriedly.

"Alright, GO!" she yelled.

She took off, laughter threatening to escape from her lips. She heard him laugh, and then take off after her. She grabbed at her dress, pulling it up enough to keep it out of her way, a motion she had perfected in her younger years. She jumped over a branch into the clearing, and moments later felt strong arms hook her waist and lift her off the ground. She let out a little yelp and threw an arm around his neck to feel more stable. He kept moving until he got to the edge of the ground, a ledge about ten feet above the lake. He took a breath, fighting to keep his laughter at bay. He chanted, swinging her back and forth.


"If you throw me in, I will…"


Rachel shrieked as, instead of releasing her into the water, he tightened his grip on her and jumped in. They plunged into the water, and she kicked her way to the surface. Rounding on him, she gave him her best look of anger. He simply smiled, grabbed her hand, and towed her to the shallows of the pond. They sat there, breathing heavily in silence for a few moments. Then, she burst out into laughter. He looked at her quizzically.

"You're not mad?"

"No," she gasped between laughs, "but I think you are. And by mad, I mean insane."

"Well, if I were insane, I could be dangerous then. Aren't you afraid of me?" he joked with a playful smirk on his face.

"Maybe a little."

"Afraid of what?"

She paused and then answered quietly, "How different you are from what you were."

"You're pretty different too. In all good ways. But I hope you know, I always thought you were beautiful." This caused her eyes to shoot up to meet his. Questions hung in them, surrounded by sudden surprise.

"You didn't."

Without answering, he leaned in and hesitated millimeters away from her mouth before he pressed his lips to hers. The kiss began slowly, innocently. His hand rose to her face and his fingers plunged into her hair. His lips pressed into hers, parting them ever so slightly. Her hand fluttered to his chest as he continued. Their lips released, their breath intermingling, brushing against the other's face.

"Oh yes, I did…I still do."


A few days later, Rachel stared straight ahead, feeling the heat coming to her cheeks and trying her best not to smile. For here she sat, right next to the boy – the man – that everyone had been connecting her with for years. But not like this. No one would have ever guessed that the skinniest kid in town would come back with work experience and a set of muscles to match. And they certainly never would have thought that the misfit tomboy who had been nothing but an ugly duckling as a child would be able to land the town's new Mr. Eligible. Shaken out of her reverie, she spotted Rebecca Carlton from the wagon as they stopped near the livery. They were the same age to the day and had gotten along for the most part, except for Rebecca completely not understanding Jessica's tomboyishness. And Lucas had always been the one boy who hadn't fawned over Rebecca in school.

"Rachel…and Lucas! What a surprise to see you two together! Welcome back, Lucas."

Rachel glanced over at Lucas, curious at what his reaction would be to the slender, blue-eyed blonde that approached him. She had always been gorgeous, and her beauty had only enhanced as she matured into a young lady. She didn't detect any change in his expression, however.

"Hey, Rebeeca. It's good to see you," he said genially. The same greeting he had given many of his male friends when they had seem them the other day.

"Well, don't you two just look so happy? The two best friends reunited. So cute!" Personally, Rachel thought she detected a bit of falsity behind the words and in the smile plastered on Rebecca's flawless face, formed with straight, whiter than white teeth.

"We're out today on a bit of a town date, Rebecca. Having a good time," Lucas replied smoothly. Rebecca's perfectly arched eyebrows raised.

"A date? Oh my! Although, it has to be a downgrade from the girls in your old town, right, Lucas? I mean, Rachel darling, I adore you, but you've always been such a tomboy. Lucas, the way you look now, you need a lady!" she laughed artificially, but managed to elicit a smile from him. Rachel shot her a look. Rebecca did always manage to have a way with words when she wanted something, and in this case, Rachel had a sinking feeling it was Lucas.

As they strolled away, Lucas tightened his hold on her arm as they walked, subtly caressing her fingers.

"Just as charming as ever, that one," he chuckled. "It's still so weird you both haven't killed each other do you ever get along?"

Rachel shook the tension out of her body at the frustrating encounter with the girl she'd always been annoyingly jealous of and worked a smile onto her face. Raising her eyes to meet his amiable glance, she sighed.

"I don't know if I'd call it getting along...more like just co-existing." And with a laugh from her beau, they continued on down the street, arm in arm.

It was two weeks later, and Rachel had finally agreed to come to town again with Lucas. She knew he had found her hesitation annoying, but she had no desire to meet up with Rebecca again. Rebecca's sometimes harsh comments and reminders of their childhood all meant nothing, especially now that she sat next to Lucas in a position she presumed Rebecca wouldn't mind holding. Sighing deeply, she straightened and filled Lucas in on her to-do list for town before he helped her off the wagon. They decided that they would meet in the general store in a half-hour or so and parted ways.

As she ran around town, she couldn't stop her thoughts from wandering to these past few weeks. Her and Lucas were as close as ever, but there seemed to be this new strain whenever talk turned to anything rooted in the past. She knew she tended to shut down when she started thinking about the past, but she would hope Lucas of all people would understand why. He'd been there through most of her awkward growing years.

Finishing up her other errands, Rachel stepped over the threshold to the general store and immediately noticed something odd. In the corner, Lucas stood too close for comfort, in her opinion, to the one woman she would have most hated to see – Rebecca. She watched as Rebecca played seductively with hair that was styled to casually frame her face and cringed as Lucas ate it all up.

She slipped behind the shelves and moved quietly closer to where the pair stood, hoping to get within earshot in the crowded store. Her stomach turned once she was able to hear Rebecca's laugh.

"Oh, Lucas, that's hilarious."

"What's more, she constantly has her hair falling all over the place. I could almost confuse her attempt at styled hair with a bird's nest sometimes. I mean, it was cute when we were kids, but really. I don't know if I've seen a lady our age with hair as unkempt as can be a little embarrassing..." Rachel felt her heart muscles tighten at his whispered words.

"Oh my. Well, some girls just don't know how be proper ladies, especially if it is not in their character."

"True enough. Has she ever been courted before me?"

"Oh no. Nobody's even shown interest in her, ever. I try to direct some of the men that I turn away towards her, but I guess she just hasn't been an…attractive…option."

"Hmm. Well, I for one am shocked that you don't have a man in your life currently."

"Well, it's not that I can't have one, but I just haven't found the right one…" Rebecca's voice lowered to a tempting whisper as she spoke.

Before Rachel could bear to hear anymore, she marched right in and interrupted.

"There you are, Lucas, I've looked around this entire store for you! Busy place! Rebecca, how are you?" Even as she addressed the other woman, her eyes never left Lucas's blue ones, filled with shock and some other emotion she had never seen in them before, at least not directed towards her. Annoyance? Frustration? Disdain?

"I'm all set if you are," Rachel continued, hoping the falsely cheery voice and smile plastered on her face were enough to disguise her humiliation from Rebecca.

"I'm ready to go. It was nice talking to you, Miss Carlton," Lucas said. As they walked away, Jessica glanced back and saw something she knew she wouldn't easily forget – Rebecca Carlton mouthing two words with those perfect lips of hers: He's mine.

As soon as their wagon departed town for the quieter country roads, Jessica turned on Lucas.

"What was that?"

"What was what? I was having a nice neighborly chat with her, that's all."

"Pfft, neighborly. Don't lie. I heard you," Rachel said, "And let me apologize for struggling to get my hair just so. It never seemed to bother you before you talked to her today. It's not like it's something new. And I know it's just hair, hurts hearing you say something like that." Staring at him, she felt even more hurt at his inability to respond, her eyes tracing his stoic profile. After a minute, he seemed to have collected himself enough to speak.

"I'm sorry. I just got caught up with her – she inspires the worst in people sometimes, you know that. She can be quite nice, but she also has a nasty side. You know that."

"I guess I just expected you of all people to never join in with her. It doesn't even matter that we're courting, it matters that you are and always have been my best friend, and you couldn't even stick up for me, play off her insults, say how happy we are together…anything." It was all she could do to choke out the last part of her sentence with a lump in her throat.

"All I can say is I'm sorry, Rach," he replied looking straight ahead, his jaw clenched tight. They rode the rest of the way to her house in silence.