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Lost Rider

By:Harper Sloan

ppy, it’s something that used to annoy the hell out of me, but in the same breath, it was something that calmed me in the oddest ways.

When I decided I was leaving Pine Oak—leaving her—I knew that I would mourn that part of her. I didn’t understand it at first, but it’s also a big part of why I know I have to break away clean. The feelings that I’ve come to realize are a lot bigger than she’s ready for—I’m ready for—aren’t something I can deal with. Not when escaping this town—my father—is right within my grasp.

“Hey, you!” Leighton says with a smile, lifting up on her elbows and turning her head in the direction that I’m trudging through the flowers, careful not to harm any of them on my path to her.

I’m silent as I drop to my ass on the blanket next to her. I can feel her eyes on me, but I focus my attention on the fields around us. There’s a slight breeze, the flowers blowing and flowing in the gentle flow of air.

“What’s on your mind, Mav?”

“Nothin’, Leigh,” I mumble, my mind back at the ranch and the hateful words that my father threw at me when I told him I wouldn’t be changing my mind and sticking around. That was before he threw his full bottle of beer at the back of my head. Thank God I had just taken off my Stetson. If he had ruined this hat—the one that meant a whole hell of a lot—I probably would have killed him.

“That’s a whole lot of nothin’ to be frowning about, cowboy,” she jokes, reaching out one dainty hand to grip my wrist in a stronger hold than she should be capable of. “Talk to me, Maverick. You wouldn’t have come out here if you wanted silence.”

“Just got in a fight with my dad, it’s nothin’ new, Leigh.”

She makes a noise in the back of her throat and I look over to her, her gaze hard and angry. “About you leaving?”

I nod. Her anger isn’t something I’m used to, but on the rare occasion that she knows I got into it with my dad, it’s something she has no trouble showing me.

“You know, he isn’t the only one that doesn’t want you to leave, but he’s the only one that wants it for the wrong reasons. I know Clay and Quinn want you here, but like me, they know you’re meant for greatness. Don’t let his options on the matter sway you, Maverick. One day, years from now, you’re going to look back at the moment and know that, regardless of what he said, you did the right thing. Even if I wish you weren’t leaving.”

She adds the last almost as an afterthought, her eyes rounding the second the words slip through her mouth and I know she didn’t mean to say them out loud. I’m not stupid, I know she’s had a crush on me for years, but I always knew this moment would come—me leaving—just as certain as I was that Pine Oak was the place Leighton never wanted to leave. She’s always wanted to stay here. To grow old and raise her own family on the land her family has owned for decades.

And it doesn’t matter one lick that if I close my eyes and think about that future, I could see myself right next to her if I stick around here—the same town that my father’s nasty words can reach me—I know it will kill me quick.

“I leave in a week, Leigh,” I mumble, twisting the arm that she’s still holding and shifting slightly so that our hands are linked tight. “I leave in a week and I honestly don’t think I’ll ever come back. You know that right?”

She blinks a few times, clearing the moisture that had started to gather, not letting the tears fall. “I know,” she whispers, looking down at our hands and giving a squeeze. “I’m going to miss you, Maverick.”

“I’m gonna miss you too,” I tell her, honesty dripping from each word.

Then, as if my mind had given my consciousness a giant middle finger, I let go of her hand, lace my fingers through her hair, and pull her lips to mine. I feel her braces press against my closed lips at the same second her squeak of shock fills the air around us. I ignore it all and open my mouth, using my tongue to coax her own. She follows without delay and before I know it, I’m panting with my forehead against hers and her swollen lips just a breath away from mine.

Those tears that she had done so well at keeping at bay fall in slow succession now and I know that kiss managed only to fill her with a little hope when I had done so well to make sure that never took root.

Fuck.

Without a word, I get up and stomp back to the woods, taking me from my heaven and back to my hell.

One more week.

One more week and I’m free.

I’m just not sure now if I’m really going to be escaping or running into another prison—one that keeps me from the peace that only Leighton can give me.

Fuck.

2

LEIGHTON

“Cowgirls Don’t Cry” by Brooks & Dunn

“He’ll be here, Q. He will.” I hope, I add silently. God, he better be here.

I shift on the unforgiving wooden pew and wrap my arm around her shaking body. She drops her head onto my shoulder and I look over her head to see Clay’s jaw clench and his nostrils flare. I meet his eyes and hope he can read my silent question about his brother’s whereabouts. He just gives his head a hard shake in my direction before returning his focus to the front of the church. I have no idea what that means, but I have a feeling it isn’t good.

There’s no way he would let his family down today . . . right? I mean, sure things have been strained—and that’s putting it nicely—but there is no way he would leave his siblings to mourn alone when they needed him.

I lean my head against Quinn’s affectionately and rub her shoulder. Quinn Davis, the youngest of the Davis siblings, has been my best friend since we were babies. We were both born in the same week, and since our dads had been friends their whole lives, it was just natural for us to grow up together. I don’t have a single memory from my childhood where Quinn isn’t in the forefront. Twenty-six years later, that hasn’t changed one bit. Whether it be knee-high, snot-nosed, and full of mischief or buck-toothed, muddy as hell, chasing goa

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