By: Brenda Jackson

  He could remember the last time she’d sat at his kitchen table. It had been one morning after she’d spent the night and had awakened early to prepare breakfast for the both of them. They had eaten together, and it had been enjoyable, as usual. But it had been that same morning when Channing had come out and asked where their relationship was headed.

  The question had annoyed him because he’d known she was about to bring up something he didn’t want to discuss. He had told her he didn’t love her and that nothing had changed. Afterward, he had quickly left for work, not wanting to stick around to see how she handled his response. A few weeks later, she had dropped the bomb that she was leaving town. Her decision to leave Denver had made him bitter. He hadn’t even bothered to attend the going-away party Megan had thrown for her.

  Taking another huge swig of his beer, he pushed away from the counter and walked over to the window to look out in brooding silence. Most people were in bed asleep, but here he was, right where he had been for the past three days, enduring sleepless nights due to a woman he should have gotten over two years ago. She was the only woman who could make emotions tug at him…like they were doing now. In fact, they weren’t just tugging; they were eating away at him big-time.

  He was still on Megan’s and Bailey’s bad sides. That much had been evident at tonight’s chow-down. His sisters-in-law and his cousins’ wives were sending him seething looks, as well. Even Gemma had called him from Australia to give him a blistering earful, saying, “How could you hurt Channing again, Zane? She is way too good for you. She is liked and well respected by all who know her, and she has a heart of gold. But that isn’t enough for you, is it? Any other man would have appreciated the beautiful and heartwarming person that she is. One day you’re going to realize just what you lost!”

  Zane released a sigh of pure disgust with himself. While shaving this morning, he had looked himself in the mirror and hadn’t liked the person staring back at him. Everyone who had been on him for the past few days was right. Channing deserved a better man than him. She deserved the right to find a man who could love her, make her happy and give her the marriage and family she wanted. She deserved a man who would cherish her, who would show her every day how much she was adored and how proud he would be to have her at his side. Somewhere, that man was out there. The thought made Zane’s gut clench. He would rather cut off his arm than lose Channing to another man.

  He froze, stunned by what he was thinking. What man would willingly lose a limb for a woman he didn’t love? Zane’s throat suddenly went dry, and he tilted the beer bottle up to his mouth, quickly chugging down what was left.

  It was then that Rico’s words came back to haunt him… I knew I loved your sister when I realized I couldn’t live a single day without her.

  Zane drew in a deep breath. He could finally admit that he felt things for Channing that he’d never felt for another woman. He didn’t want to let her out of his life. In other words…he couldn’t imagine living a single day without her. His heart began pounding in his chest when he knew immediately what that meant.

  “Ah, hell,” he muttered to himself, glancing down at his empty beer bottle. “That means you’ve fallen for her, man. And you’ve fallen hard.”

  Everything suddenly made sense. Why he’d felt so down in the dumps after she left Denver for Atlanta and why every woman he’d dated after her seemed lacking. It also answered the question of why the thought of her being with another man constantly ate at him. More importantly, it explained why he’d kept that locked box under his bed for two years, unable to let go.

  For the first time in his life, Zane Westmoreland loved a woman.

  * * *

  “Hello, Gramma, this is Channing.”

  “Hi, sweetie. I hope you got to the beach house all right and you’re getting settled.”

  “Yes, I’ve been here for three days now, and I’m starting to unwind. I needed a break,” Channing said, pushing hair back from her face.

  “Yes, a break from work is always nice,” Adele Hastings said.

  Channing glanced out the kitchen window. She had gotten up early to go jogging on the beach. Then she’d returned, showered and prepared breakfast, which she’d enjoyed while catching up on the news on television. The meteorologist had reported a heat wave that was spreading all the way up to New England. This prompted her to check on her grandparents since they liked spending time outdoors. Her parents, who lived within five miles of her grandparents, would usually check on them but they had left last week for a two-week cruise to Hawaii, leaving out of San Diego after visiting with her brother.

  “You and Gramps okay? I heard about the heat wave.”

  “We’re fine, but what about you?”

  She knew her grandmother was someone she could always talk to, and she felt blessed to have two confidantes, her mother and grandmother. “I’m through with men, Gramma,” she said honestly.

  There was a pause at the other end of the line, and then Adele asked, “Are you?”

  “Yes. You love them, and they don’t love you back. And then there are those who claim they do but don’t know the meaning of the word—like Emmitt.”

  Why she had brought up Emmitt Sawyer she would never know. Emmitt had been part of her college days. The first guy she’d ever slept with and the first guy she’d given her heart to. She’d thought he loved her; he’d even told her so a number of times. She’d believed him and had taken him home on spring break to meet the family. Then, at the start of their junior year, when they’d been dating for almost a year, she’d discovered he’d been messing around with a girl who worked as a waitress at some café in town…the entire time he’d been spewing words of love to Channing.

  She had returned home brokenhearted. It had been her mother and grandmother who’d convinced her that not all men abused a woman’s love. There were men out there who would cherish it. It had taken her five years before she’d put her heart on the line again for Zane.

  She had moved from a man who told her he loved her all the time to a man who didn’t hesitate to let her know he didn’t love her at all. Both had been heartbreakers.

  “So you think men are the problem, Channing?”

  Her grandmother’s question sliced into her thoughts. “No, I’m the problem. I expect too much and trust too soon. So I’m quitting men.”

  “Um, that sounds interesting,” Adele said calmly.

  Channing scowled. “Men aren’t good for anything but sex.” She suddenly sucked in a quick breath when she remembered who she was talking to.

  She could hear her grandmother’s chuckle on the other end of the phone. “I’ll remember to tell your grandfather that.”

  Channing dropped down into a kitchen chair. “Oh, Gramma. Gramps is like Dad. They are the greatest. They just don’t make men like that anymore.”

  “Don’t they?”

  “I thought they did, but now I’m not sure. I’m tired of getting my heart broken. I’m locking up my heart and throwing away the key.”

  “Are you sure you want to do that, sweetie?”

  No, but she felt she didn’t have a choice. Like she’d told her grandmother, the problem wasn’t with the men but with her. She was the one who had to make changes in the way she thought about love. She could see now that her problem was that she took relationships too seriously because she’d always had an agenda. Maybe it was time to loosen the shackles and be set free. Live a little and have fun.


  She blinked upon realizing she hadn’t answered her grandmother’s question. “Yes, Gramma, that’s what I want to do. That’s what I’m going to do.”

  Knowing she needed to get off the phone before her grandmother tried to talk her into giving men another chance, Channing stood up. “I need to get dressed. I’m going to spend the day on the beach.”

  “Oh, all right. If you want to talk again, I’m here.”

  Channing tightened the belt on her robe. She had the best grandmother in the whole wide world. “Thanks, and I love you.”

  “I love you back.”

  * * *

  Zane felt tired and drained. He didn’t have to be told he wasn’t pulling his share of the work today. It disgusted him even more when Derringer and Jason gave him pathetic gazes.

  When they took a break for lunch, Jason left to meet his wife, Bella. They were adding more rooms to her grandfather’s home, which they’d turned into a bed-and-breakfast, and they were meeting with the contractors.

  Zane glanced over at Derringer as they sat across from each other outside at a picnic table eating the sandwiches and drinking the tea Derringer’s wife, Lucia, had made for them. “You’re quiet,” Zane said.

  Derringer met Zane’s gaze. “I was just thinking. I couldn’t sleep last night and woke up around two. After checking on the baby, I went downstairs to get something to drink.”

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