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    Prologue

    Her daddy had told her to stay away from him. That he was bad news. That those Falladay twins were boys good girls didn’t mess with.

    She was a good girl, but she didn’t think Cam Falladay was a bad boy. He was hurting, and she couldn’t stand to see him hurt.

    She was thirteen, and boys were just starting to flirt with her. She liked the flirting, but she didn’t like how dumb they acted. Cam was eighteen, a man, but sometimes she just wanted to hug him, because she swore she could feel him hurting.

    Not that he ever showed it or spoke of it. Unlike other boys, Cam didn’t tell anyone when he hurt. And he didn’t flirt with her either. When he saw her he talked to her, and when the older boys bothered her, he always seemed to be there. Those light green eyes of his would pin the other boys in a way that always made her shiver with dread. And evidently, it made them shiver, too, because they ran, and they rarely bothered her anymore.

    She sought Cam Falladay out every chance she got, despite her daddy’s warning. But now, it seemed he had sought her out.

    She tipped her head to the side, brushing back her long auburn hair as she stared at the rusty old pickup he drove. It was parked on the back road to her daddy’s farm, far away from the house and in an area where the cattle hadn’t yet been moved to.

    He was sitting there silently, just staring out the windshield as she drew her horse to a stop and slowly dismounted.

    “Stay, Critter.” She patted the horse’s mane as she wrapped the lead to the bridle around a branch of a nearby tree and moved toward the truck.

    He couldn’t have known she would be here. Her father rarely allowed her to ride far from the house.

    She watched as he moved, his arm lifting to bring a bottle to his lips, and she winced. It was whisky. And it was really early in the day to be drinking.

    She moved to the passenger side of the truck and knew the moment he realized she was there. No, he hadn’t come looking for her, because his entire body seemed to tense.

    “Go away, little girl.” His voice had a rough, growling tone as she opened the door slowly and lifted herself into the vehicle.

    He was so sad. He looked so alone right now. With his shaggy black hair framing his wild face, and those light green eyes swirling with emotions that made her chest ache, even though she didn’t know what they were.

    He sat stiffly, his left arm down by his side, against the door of the truck, his opposite hand holding that bottle of whisky.

    “Not a good place for you to be right now.” He lifted the bottle again.

    Her daddy had warned her to always be careful of a man while he was drinking. But Cam broke her heart. His expression was ravaged, as it had been at his parents’ funeral three years ago.

    She reached out and gripped his wrist, feeling the heat of his skin as he stiffened.

    “Don’t, Cam,” she whispered. “You’re going to hurt yourself like this.”

    “So?” His gaze pinned her now, and she had to force herself not to be frightened of him.

    She stared back at him desperately, hurting for him, hurting with him.

    “Wait on me, Cam. I’ll grow up and I’ll take all the bad things away.” She didn’t know where the words came from, or the tears that filled her eyes. She just knew she was going to lose him. Right here, right now, she would lose him forever, and it was terrifying her.

    His gaze flickered with agony then. “Damn you, Jaci. You’re just a kid. You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

    “And you’re just my friend,” she whispered. “Who’s going to run those bigger boys off when they bother me, if you don’t wait for me? If you leave, I won’t have my dark knight anymore.”

    She tried to smile, but she wanted to cry.

    He shook his head and stared out the windshield again.

    “Dark knights are bad news,” he finally muttered. “Dumb little fairy tales. You’d do better to look for a white knight.”

    “They’re boring.” She tried to smile, but his face was so still, so grief-stricken, she couldn’t find it in her to make her lips curve.

    “They’re safe.” His voice echoed with an aloneness that suddenly frightened her. Frightened her, not of him, but for him.

    “You’re going to leave, aren’t you?” A tear fell from her eyes. “And I’ll never see you again.”

    She didn’t know why it was so important that Cam not leave. Shoot, he could do better anywhere than he could in this dusty little county they lived in. But she didn’t want to lose him. Not yet.

    “Maybe.” He finally cleared his throat. “Maybe I’ll just leave for a little while.”

    His voice was faint, aching with pain. She wanted so bad to ease that pain, and she didn’t know how.

    “I’m your friend, Cam,” she told him fiercely. “I’ll always wait for you to come back. I’m not like Laida Jones, always wanting to hang on you and run your friends off. I want you to have lots of friends. And I’ll always be here when you come back.”

    He turned and looked at her again, those eyes piercing inside her.

    “What do you want from me, little Jaci Wright?” His voice was hard, like her daddy’s got when she said something he didn’t approve of.

    Her hand tightened on his wrist then pulled away as she stared back at him in confusion.

    “I don’t want anything from you, Cam. I just want to see you smile. And I don’t want you to go away.”

    “Why?” his voice was ragged. “Why does it matter?”

    “Because you’re my friend, and because I love you. I love you better than anything, Cameron Falladay. I love you enough to know that if you left, one of these days I would find you. And when I do, I’ll show you what being a friend really means.”

    And he was her friend. A friend she never wanted to lose.

    He blinked back at her and she realized how fierce she sounded. Like her mom sounded when she was telling her daddy how much she loved him. Sometimes, Jaci heard them talking at night when she shouldn’t. And her mom’s voice sounded just like that.

    Cam shook his head then. “You’re dangerous.” He sighed.

    Her eyes widened. “Shoot, Cam, then we’re best friends. ’Cause that’s what Daddy says about you.”

    Cam watched as Jaci Wright rode her horse back toward home, and he breathed out roughly. The fingers of his left hand were still clenched around the pistol, the single bullet lodged inside just waiting to be released.

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