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  • Alexis Winter

**SNEAK PEEK** A Second Chance at Forever





PROLOGUE — WILLOW

15 Years Earlier . . .


“You know you’re the love of my life, right?”

Landon places his forehead against mine as our bodies leisurely sway back and forth to Jason Mraz and Colbie Caillat’s “Lucky.” He closes his eyes for a brief moment as if he’s trying to hold on to this moment forever.

“I told you I’m not having sex with you tonight,” I giggle.

“It’s not about that, Willow.” He lets his hand slip from my waist and tips my chin up to meet his eyes. “I’m serious. You’re my best friend and the most amazing girl I’ve ever met. I just feel like I won the lottery when I met you.”

“I know. I feel the same way,” I say as I turn my head to rest my cheek against his chest. I inhale his Axe body spray and try to burn this memory into my brain forever. I know that when you’re 17, you think you’re going to love your boyfriend or girlfriend for the rest of your life and nothing can break you apart, but I truly believe that’s the case with Landon and me.

“Thanks again for coming tonight. I know it’s probably weird to come back to high school for prom when you’re almost 21.” I lift my chin to look in his eyes as I loop my arms around his neck. Given that Landon graduated three years before me, I knew there was a chance he wouldn’t want to come back to high school for my senior prom.

He quickly glances around before leaning down to plant a soft kiss on my lips. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

“Okay you two, enough of the sappy bullshit.” Memphis Styles pops up next to us. “How about we go hit up the parking lot? I’ve got a little somethin’ somethin’ if you know what I mean.” He slaps Landon on the back as his girlfriend, Jade, approaches.

“Sorry, Willow, I tried to tell him to let you guys finish your dance.” She rolls her eyes as Memphis wags his eyebrows at us both.

“Sure, but all four of us walking out together will look suspicious and Miss Teeter has been eyeing me all night as it is. You guys go first and Willow and I will be out in a few minutes.” Landon glances around and sure enough, Miss Teeter is giving him serious side-eye.

Landon’s always been a bit of a troublemaker—nothing too serious, just some pranks and two minor charges. He almost got kicked out of school his senior year for throwing a string of lit firecrackers into an empty bus on the last day of school. No one was injured, but it gave the driver, Mr. Ditmore, quite the scare.

“I parked to the left of the buses, by the back entrance,” Memphis says as he and Jade give us a nod before heading out of the gymnasium.

Memphis graduated two years ago and is already old enough to drink, so my guess is he’s got a few bottles in his trunk. He and Jade have been dating for a while now and more than likely, they’ll get married within a year or two of Jade graduating.

“So you still planning on coming over to my new apartment this weekend?” Landon asks as we finish our dance.

“Yeah, I’m super excited to see it. You’re so lucky to have your own place.”

“Things still rough at home?”

“Hmm? Yeah. The only reason my mom let me go with you to the prom tonight was because I swore on my own grave that I’d be home before 11.” I roll my eyes and choke back the frustration that’s building in my throat.

“She still hates me, huh?” I see the sadness in Landon’s eyes.

“She doesn’t hate you. It’s my stupid brothers; they’ve poisoned her against you.”

“They’re your big brothers, so they’re just doing big brother shit. I’m sure they feel a heightened sense of responsibility for you since your dad left. They’ll get over it soon enough when they see that I’m not the same stupid teenager I was a few years ago.”

I rest my forehead against his chest as the song winds down. “I hope so. I can’t take much more of the lectures at home.”

“Hey, I’m always going to be here no matter what, okay? They’re not going to scare me off.” He plants a kiss on my forehead before grabbing my hand and leading me to the gym exit.

We spend the next hour in the parking lot shootin’ the shit with Jade and Memphis and sipping on a bottle of peppermint schnapps before Landon drops me off at home.

“I’ll call you tomorrow, baby. I love you.”

“I love you too. Thanks again for tonight.” I lean across the console of his Chevy S-10 pickup truck and plant my lips on his. I kiss him gently, as the lingering mint from the schnapps mixes with the nicotine from the cigarette he and Memphis shared. I pull away from him for a moment to look in his eyes and “I want to . . . soon” is all I can manage to say.

“We will, baby, just when you’re sure and ready. No rush.” He leans forward again, closing the distance between us and kissing me a little more passionately this time. “Good night.”

*****

“You’re being naïve, Willow. I know you’re only 17, but that kid is bad news. He’s only going to ruin your life.” My oldest brother, Ritchie, slams his fist down on the kitchen table, causing my plate to bounce and clatter.

“Mom?” I look over at her, unsure of what I’m expecting her to say or what I’m even asking her. It’s been two weeks since prom and we’ve repeated this same song and dance almost every single night since. My three brothers tell me to stay away from Landon and my mom just shakes her head and doesn’t say much of anything.

I roll my eyes and stand up swiftly, causing my chair to fall backward onto the kitchen floor. “I am so sick of this shit! I’m not a little girl anymore!” I shout, not even bothering to pick up my chair before storming out of the room.

“She’s going to end up throwing her life away if we don’t do something, Mom,” I hear my middle brother, Beau, say on my way out.

“And so help me God, if she ends up knocked up with his baby . . .” Ritchie doesn’t finish the threat.

I slam my bedroom door and pace around my room. I don’t understand why my brothers hate Landon so much. I get that they’re protective, but this goes beyond that. This is some deep-seated hatred that nobody will explain to me. Whenever I try to ask them why—to explain to me what’s so wrong with Landon—they tell me I should just trust them, and that it’s more than his past. That there are things I don’t know. He’s had a few minor skirmishes with the law, like a misdemeanor pot charge when he was 19, and a few speeding tickets and warnings for breaking curfew. Maybe they think Landon hasn’t told me about the pot charge and the other minor stuff, but we don’t have secrets between us.

I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m a grown woman and it’s time they recognize that and let me start acting like one. I drop down to my hands and knees and fish under my bed until I feel my backpack. I pull it out and walk over to my dresser, grabbing a few clothing items, some makeup, and my hairbrush before snatching my keys off the bedside table and sneaking out my bedroom window. I don’t take my car; I know they’d hear it start and follow me. Instead, I pull out my phone and send a quick text to Landon: Hey, I need to see you. Can you pick me up at our spot?

I don’t wait for him to respond. I just zip up my hoodie and quicken my pace. Our spot is a local park that Landon and I always hang out at when we can’t be at my house. Before he rented the apartment he’s in now, he lived at his dad’s house about 45 minutes away. I’ve never actually gone inside his dad’s house—I sat in the car outside once, but that’s it. I don’t know the whole story, but I know that Landon wants nothing to do with his dad, and neither do the locals. My phone vibrates in my pocket and I pull it out to see a notification from Landon.

On my way. Be there in five.

“So . . . same argument as last time?”

I nod my head yes as we slowly swing back and forth. Tears threaten to fall but I wipe them away before they can.

Landon reaches out and grabs my hand, bringing it to his lips for a kiss.

“Can we go to your place?” I ask. Landon never makes the suggestion to hang out at his apartment. He doesn’t want me to feel pressured to sleep with him or even give me the impression that I’m under some sort of pressure.

He pulls me out of the swing, draping an arm around me as we walk toward his truck and climb inside to head to his apartment.

It’s bare—really bare. I’ve been here a few times, but I’m always surprised at the complete lack of anything in the place. He has a small couch and an end table with a lamp on it in the living area, and a bed with no headboard and a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling in his bedroom.

“I’m just going to—” I point to the bathroom.

“Yeah, sure. I’ll grab you some water.”

I splash some cool water on my face and take off my hoodie. I run my fingers through my hair, attempting to give it some body before I pinch my cheeks to make them look pink and warm.

When I emerge from the bathroom, he’s leaning against the door frame with a glass of water. I take a small sip before placing it on the countertop and grabbing his hand. Neither of us says a word as I slowly lead him back toward his bedroom.

“Are—are you sure, Willow?” Landon asks as he stops just inside the bedroom.

I slowly nod my head yes as I step toward him. He leans forward, stopping briefly before dipping his head and placing his lips against mine. Our kiss grows quickly from soft and slow to heated and passionate. His tongue is needy, demanding entrance to my mouth. It feels like fire—a slow burn that escalates into billowing flames that consume me.

I rip at my shirt, pulling it over my head in one swift motion before moving on to his. I want to feel his naked skin against my own.

I can feel Landon’s fingertips trembling slightly against my bra as he undoes the clasp and slowly drags the straps down my arms. I let out a sigh as I watch his eyes drop from mine down to my bare breasts.

My breath catches in my throat as he leans forward and peppers my body with soft kisses. Goosebumps break out across my skin as a shiver runs through me.

We’ve fooled around several times, but we’ve never gone all the way. He’s never pressured me and I’ve never felt ready . . . until now. I’m tired of waiting—tired of wishing and wanting. Tonight I’m giving all of myself to him.

*****

It’s been four delicious days since that night, and I’ve had butterflies dancing in my stomach ever since. Not even the incessant nagging from my brothers can get me down. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear the sun is shining brighter, food tastes better, and everything just seems to be . . . perfect. And I don’t think I’ve ever thought that about anything in this town before.

“Why’d you need to see me so badly?” I ask as a small giggle escapes my lips. Landon doesn’t answer. He just pulls me to him as my hands rest on my windowsill and he kisses me urgently. “Everything okay?”

“Yeah . . . I just missed you is all.”

I study his face for a moment before I move to let him climb in my bedroom window. The butterflies in my stomach stop dancing for a moment as fear grips me. Something seems off with him.

“Shhh, if my mom or my brothers hear you, they’ll kill you!” I say as he stumbles and we both fall back onto my bed in a fit of whispered laughter. We quickly get under the covers and I snuggle against his warm chest, inhaling the body spray I bought him for Christmas last year that he always wears. All the fear and questions I had just a moment ago vanish as I get lost in the comfort of him.

We lie in the darkness for hours, talking about our hopes and dreams. We’ve always fantasized about getting out of this town—of seeing the world and experiencing new things. We both want more, for ourselves and each other. We talk about where we’d live, what countries we’d travel to . . . if we’d have kids. What is it about being so open and honest with each other about what we want when we’re 18, 19, 20 years old? Is it naivete? Or is that we haven’t been beaten down by the world yet?

I take in one last deep inhale as I feel the weight of my eyelids growing heavier with sleep—not realizing that when I wake the next morning, all those dreams and fantasies will be shattered . . . along with my heart.

*****

I blink a few times as the sun shines through my curtains, directly hitting my face. I panic and sit upright, realizing I fell asleep with Landon in my bed last night and my mom could come walking through my door at any second. I grab my phone and look at the time: 7:13 a.m. I turn around to look beside me, but the bed is empty except for a small piece of paper with my name written on it in Landon’s handwriting.

I smile as I grab it before leaning down and burying my face in the pillow he was sleeping on. It still smells like him. I roll on my back and open the note, giddy with excitement. It’s short-lived. I read the note, and then read it again and again—trying to make sense of the words, and trying to understand . . . but I can’t.


Willow,

I love you more than words can express. You’re my best friend, the only woman I’ve ever loved . . . the only woman I ever will love. But I have to get out of this town. I can’t explain—at least not right now. I promise that someday I will. Someday I’ll tell you everything, but right now I can’t risk it. Please don’t come looking for me, and please don’t try to contact me. I’ll always love you.

Landon


CHAPTER 1 — WILLOW

Present Day

“To Quinn and Sawyer!” I say in unison with everyone around me as we raise a glass to our friend’s engagement. I smile as I watch their baby girl, Lily, squeal with excitement as Sawyer pulls Quinn in for a long kiss.

My smile stays in place as I feel my heart clench and ache with longing. I’m beyond happy for both of them, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say that jealousy also mingles with those well-intended feelings.

I grab my glass of wine and step out onto the patio of the Loveland Maple to get some fresh air. I pull my sweater a little tighter around myself as I look up at the night sky. It’s a crystal clear night and stars dance and twinkle against the pitch black backdrop of the sky. I let out a sigh and blink back the tears I can already feel forming behind my eyes.

It’s been 15 years this month since my heart was broken by Landon Nash, and sadly, it doesn’t seem to be healing quite like I thought it would. I know that your first heartbreak is the worst, but I really thought the sadness would have quickly turned into hatred and then indifference by now, but it hasn’t.

“Hey, what are you doing out here all alone?”

I turn around to see my friend Nina stepping around the corner.

“Oh, hey, just . . . getting some fresh air.”

She walks up next to me and places her elbows on the railing of the patio. “You okay?” She looks over her shoulder at me.

“Yeah,” I nod, but I’m not sure either of us is convinced by my answer.

“You sure?” she asks again, this time turning to face me. I let out a sigh and feel my shoulders drop from where they were up by my ears.

“No.” I smile and take a big gulp of my wine.

“Wanna talk about it?”

“Depends. You ready to listen to some pretty heavy self-pitying and wallowing?”

She nods her head and lets out a soft laugh. “Hit me with it.”

“Well, let me preface it all by saying that I am beyond happy for Quinn and Sawyer, but being here tonight just reinforces how alone I am. And before you say I have you and Jade and Pearl and everyone, I know that. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m just . . . tired of being alone, tired of the monotony.” I look at the wine in my glass and swirl it around a few times before I finish it off.

“None of those recent dates worked out?” she asks.

I hang my head forward and let out a groan. She gets the point.

“That bad, huh?”

“You have no idea. Either I’ve known them forever because we live in a small town or they live three hours away, or they’re just passing through. It’s just getting so old. Like last week, I matched with this guy on a dating app and it showed that he was within 20 miles. He was so handsome and we seemed to really click, but then he told me he’s actually from Seattle and just here on work trip. He clearly only wanted a booty call and I’m not looking for that. That’s not the first time that’s happened, either. I’ve had several guys select their location as local when they’re just here on business.”

“What about Ethan over at the Sheriff’s Office? I thought you guys went out a few times.”

“Yeah, we did, and honestly, he’s great . . .” I don’t finish the sentence. Ethan is fantastic. He’s respectful, handsome, has a great work ethic, and even though we only kissed, the chemistry was there.

“But?”

I inhale and hold it in for a second before exhaling audibly. “But I don’t know if I want to settle down here, Nina.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah. I haven’t said that out loud to anyone yet—hell, not even myself. I kind of feel like I’ve outgrown Grand Lake. I’ve felt that way since I was 17, actually. Don’t get me wrong, I love it here, but I think it’s served its purpose in my life and I just need a fresh start. I feel like I’ve been stuck for the last 15 years.”

“Is it Landon?”

The question takes me by surprise. Not because that isn’t the reason, but because that’s exactly the reason and I didn’t expect her to know that, after all these years, it’s still weighing on me so heavily.

“Yes and no. It’s everything. It’s weird how a year or so goes by and I feel perfectly okay—I don’t think about him and I don’t miss him—and then all of a sudden, I see something that reminds me of our time together and it all comes flooding back, knocks me on my ass, and leaves me scrambling to try to make sense of it all. I’m about to be 33, Nina. I need to figure out what it is I want in life, and I don’t feel like I can do that here.”

“So what are you saying? You’re leaving?”

“Honestly, I’m not sure yet. I haven’t looked too deeply into anywhere yet, but I’ve been thinking about moving to Denver. I haven’t actually made a decision or told anyone yet, so if you could just keep it between us . . . ?”

She nods, “Of course. Whatever you need, Willow. You know we’re all here for you. We’ll support you whatever you choose to do.” She reaches out and rubs my shoulder with a sympathetic squeeze.

*****

“Twenty-two hundred dollars for a one bed, one bath? Are you kidding me?” I mutter to myself as I click through some Denver apartment listings. Since my chat with Nina over the weekend, I’ve decided to really up my search game for an apartment, and even more importantly, a job in Denver. However, with these rental prices, I don’t know how I’m going to swing it unless I can get a big pay raise and promotion.

It’s been a slower than normal Monday at Main Bank & Trust, where I work in Grand Lake. Being a loan officer isn’t my dream job by any stretch of the imagination, but it pays the bills and I love my coworkers.

After college, I stumbled around for a while, completely directionless, which I realize is the experience of many 18-year-olds. I didn’t have the college path mapped out for me, so I bounced around from job to job: a few summers at the local custard cup stand, a couple years as a waitress, and four miserable months as a gas station attendant, which was probably as close to hell on earth as it gets. But then I got a job as a teller here at the bank and worked my way up to a supervisor position, and then into the loan department. It’s not terribly interesting work, but I enjoy the small talk with the locals. There’s always some hot gossip going around that makes its way to me.

“Morning, Nancy,” I say over the top of my computer to my coworker who just burst through the door. Speaking of gossip . . .

“Good morning, Willow,” she says in her sing-song fashion as she places her things behind the counter before scurrying back over to my desk. “Did you hear about Silas Nash?” she asks, wiggling her eyebrows. Her overly pungent perfume settles heavily in my nostrils as she leans in to whisper.

Nancy, God bless her, is your classic small-town gossip. She has good intentions and a husband who is more long-suffering than I thought possible. She’s the first to shush you if you’re too loud in public and the first to bring you chicken noodle soup if you’re sick.

“Uh, no, afraid not.” I try to act casual at the mention of Landon’s father’s name, but in truth, my interest is completely piqued. No one says that name around here all that often unless it’s to curse it or talk about something shady and most likely illegal.

“Well, apparently he died last week.”

“What?” I gasp and my hand instinctively covers my mouth.

“Yeah, the mailman found him. Hadn’t collected his mail for several days, which wasn’t like him. The mailman knocked but nobody came to the door, so he called the police, and when they came around, they found Silas dead as a doornail in his recliner.” She glances over her shoulder to make sure no one is listening even though she’s whispering and we’re completely alone.

“Oh my God. That’s . . . crazy.” I don’t know what else to say, because the moment she said he was dead, all I could think about was Landon. What does that mean for him? Is he coming back to town?

“Well, if you ask me, he’s had it coming for a long time, what with all the bad things that man has done over the years. But you didn’t hear it from me.” She taps the side of her nose and winks before turning to walk back to the counter.

“Wait, is—” She walks away before I can ask her if she’s heard anything about Landon coming back to town.

I close the rental website and type Silas Nash’s name into the internet search bar. There it is in black and white from a local newspaper a few towns over: Silas Nash, 63, was found dead in his home. There’s no formal obituary, just a casual announcement that he was survived by one son. It doesn’t give his name or say where he lives now. I click around some more and find that a few articles are police reports—not surprising given his penchant for illegal activities. I lean closer to my computer, completely lost looking at images—some of which have nothing to do with Silas Nash—when I hear the electronic buzzer go off, signaling a customer. I ignore it, too engrossed in searching for images in the hope that one of them will show an updated picture of Landon, when I hear Mr. Harker, the bank president, speak.

“Ah, Mr. Nash, a pleasure to see you, son.”

My back stiffens and I bolt upright, peering over the top of my computer, when I see him. Landon Freaking Nash in the flesh standing a mere 20 feet away from me. My jaw goes slack as I quickly duck back behind my computer screen.

What the hell am I doing?

I peek around the edge of my computer slowly just as he finishes shaking Mr. Harker’s hand and turns his gaze toward me.

Our eyes lock. My heart stops and it feels like I’ve just swallowed down a mouthful of cotton balls.

He still has the same piercing blue eyes that see right through me. The same floppy brown hair that falls partially to one side. The same crooked smile that melts through me like a hot knife through butter.

My eyes travel quickly down his arms, which are now covered in tattoos. I still remember when he got his first one. I went with him to the shop. I was so nervous for him, but he didn’t bat an eye. That was Landon—always fearless and completely unbothered by what people thought of him. He held my gaze the entire time the artist tattooed him, smiling and joking like it tickled rather than hurt.

But this time, his eyes show no recognition when they land on me. The smile quickly fades and is replaced by a blank expression as he follows Mr. Harker into his office.

And just like that, all those butterflies I thought had died 15 years ago come flying back.



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