It Was Always You
Kendrick Brothers, 1
Copyright © 2018 by Aliyah Burke
Zane Kendrick has finally returned home after being in the Army for twenty-two years. Empty he isn’t sure what his future holds for him until he runs into ZoëDuncan working in her father’s shop. When he sees her again, out, he realizes she’s no longer the little girl who followed her brothers and his around. This Zoëwas all woman. And his feelings for her have changed.
ZoëDuncan has loved Zane forever. He’s been the object of all her fantasies and when the opportunity arrives for her to experience him for real, she can’t refuse. However, a one-night stand doesn’t change anything in her mind. He’s still off limits, she’s not about to risk the relationship between their families for her own desires.
Zane, isn’t a man who lets go of what he wants and he wants Zoë. He’ll have to work to get past her defenses. When trouble arrives at her door, he’s there but will it be enough for him to convince her to give them a shot? Can he make her see it’s always been her?
Zane Kendrick stopped his full-size truck at the crest of the final hill leading into his hometown. Eight years was a long time to be away without a single time back yet during his last stint of being gone the place hadn’t changed much. Springwood was a ranching community and he could hear the lowing cattle and smell their pungent scent on the air.
He’d missed it. The picturesque setting, friendly neighbors. More important than that even, he missed his family. The last time he’d been home was for a brief time when he and his brothers buried their father. A car accident took him way too soon. They’d lost their mother when they were just boys.
The eldest Kendrick brother, Nate, had taken over the ranch with the help of their youngest brother, Cade. Zane’d been the only one not able to return full-time. Now he had. Cool autumn air flowed through the open windows of his three-quarter ton dually.
He needed to drop it off at the shop since it was running with some hesitations. Hopefully, Duncan’s Garage is still in business.He didn’t know of a better place to leave his vehicle. Having been sitting for the past two years while he’d been fighting over in The Sandbox, he could accept its necessity for a tune-up. But, it had gotten him home.
He was looking forward to nights in a real bed without worrying about poisonous creatures climbing in on him, the enemy, and all the other crap that came with returning home from being over there. Bad enough to be there for a short time but he’d pulled many duties and had seen more than he cared to recall as well as too much for him to ever forget.
Shifting into gear, he worked the pedals and rolled down the road. The afternoon sun bathed the town in a golden glow. Maybe, just maybe, he could get over the nightmares.
As he progressed through town he noticed the differences—a few new stores—and the familiar—brick storefronts in the shadows of the tree-lined sidewalks. Outside on the other side of town, fences replaced stores, restraining large herds of cattle. A grin lifted one corner of his mouth as he spied the old sign across the driveway of his destination, wooden and scarred with age. The Rocking K Ranch. Their brand had rocking chair skids on the feet of the capital letter K, and was ensconced by a circle. His truck rattled over the cattle guard and on up the long, winding drive.
He passed the barns and the cattle staging area. The large house filled his vision as he steered around the final corner. He parked before the garage and killed the engine.
Zane climbed out and snagged the olive-green duffel carrying his worldly possessions. Slinging it over one shoulder, he strode to the front door, paused, then depressed the handle and entered his home.
“Nate? Cade? Anyone here?”
“Holy fucking hell, is that you, Zane?”
His brother Cade strode into view. Zane dropped the bag and hugged him. He smiled, grateful, once more, to be home.
“Thought you weren’t arriving until tomorrow.” Cade pounded him on the back. “Damn, it’s good to see you.”
He returned the gesture before stepping away from the embrace. “Good to be seen. Where’s Nate?”
“Town, picking up some things. Although if you ask me he’s just wanting to catch some time with Angela Cricton.”
The name was familiar. “Didn’t her family used to run the drugstore?”
“They still do. Angela is no longer redheaded and freckle-faced, however.” Cade waggled his eyebrows.
He snapped his fingers. “Ah, shit, I remember her now. We called her Pippi.”
Cade laughed. “She is allgrown now and Nate is all over that.”
He didn’t begrudge his brother any happiness and smiled. “Good for him. Are the Duncan’s still the best garage in town?”
“Absolutely. Something wrong with your truck?”
Shoulders rising with a simple shrug, he replied, “Been parked for a few years. I need to take it in for a tune-up.”
“Well, let’s go drop it off now. We had planned for a big dinner with you tomorrow and just hitting the diner tonight. I’ll follow you then you can ride with me.” He paused, his expression turning thoughtful. “Unless you want to stay here and scrounge something up.” Cade flashed a smile. “I’m good with either.”
“I’ll be fine. Let’s go.” He fished his keys from his pocket and twirled them.
“All right. I can’t wait to see Nate’s face when you walk in.”
Back in his truck, Zane started the engine, frowning once more over the hesitations. He followed his brother to Duncan’s Garage. Hopping down, he strode through the open bay door.
“Hello! Anyone here?” Old school R&B, The Isley Brothers, played in the shop.
“What do you need?”
He blinked and stared down by the older Chevy Caprice, a pair of legs were sticking out. The voice sounded familiar but he couldn’t place it. Softer than the male tone he’d expected to hear. Perhaps there was a young man working there.
“I looking to get a tune-up on my truck. If you have time. Are any of the Duncan boys around?”
“Sorry, not this afternoon. Just me.” Rolling out on the creeper, the speaker showed themselves.
It was a woman. Could it be?
She had an expression of surprise. “Zane? You’re back?” Her shock vanished as swift as it had arrived, as did another emotion he couldn’t decipher.
Recognition slammed him. “Zoë? I don’t believe it.”
She grinned, making him recall the imp she’d been at one time. “That’s me. You wanna leave your keys? I’ll have one of them working on your truck in the morning.”
Zoë Duncan was the youngest in her family. She’d not been home when he’d returned for the funeral so he’d not seen her since aside from once after he’d left to join the Army. Eighteen years ago. When he’d been home, she’d been elsewhere. Her coveralls swallowed her, and her backward cap exposed a grease-smudged face. He was reminded of the little afro-haired girl who always wanted to be included in their shenanigans. Only briefly for something else hit him, an emotion he wasn’t sure what to do with.
“What are you doing down there?” He reached out a hand.
She waved him away and rose easily on her own. “Working.” A brilliant smile filled her face as she stepped by him. “Hey, Cade.” She gave his brother an easy hug.
“Hey, darlin’.” Cade leaned back against the car she’d been working on.
Zoë cleaned her hands off on a rag she’d withdrawn from the pocket of her coveralls. “Anything specific you want them to check?”
“Them?” Cade spoke up glancing between the two. “Why aren’t you doing it, Zoë?”
She gave an apathetic shrug and waved it off like she didn’t give a damn one way or another. “He mentioned my brothers, figured he’d want one of them or Dad on it.”
Zane didn’t like them talking about him as if he wasn’t even there. How did Cade rate a hug when Zane’d been the one gone for years and barely got a smile? Cade shot him a glare and he lifted his shoulders in confusion. “You want to work on it, Zoë, go ahead. I have no problem with that. You work in your daddy’s garage. So if he hired you, I know you’ve got the skills. I know your daddy wouldn’t let anyone in here who couldn’t hold their own.”
Something foreign flashed in her eyes before she gave another offhand shrug. “Either way, makes no never mind to me. I can check it tonight and leave you a message if it needs more than what I can do tonight.”
“It’s Friday,” he said. “Shouldn’t you be getting ready for a date?” He crossed his arms. “Or did the combination of both our brothers scare them all off?”
A brief, nearly nonexistent smile. “Something like that.” She held out her hand. “Keys?”
“Sure thing.” He dropped them into her open palm, realizing there was no way to touch her without looking as if he was seeking out the contact. She walked toward the back of the shop and he shoved his hands in his pockets.
“She looks so young.” And innocent, and yet at the same time, there was something different about her. Something that intrigued him more than he wished to admit. Or that I should be thinking.
Cade nodded. “Yep. Come on.”
He shadowed his brother to Cade’s SUV. The green Tahoe had dirt and mud covering the outside. He slid over the seat and saw Zoë heading for his truck. Another bay door rose as she climbed in his vehicle after placing a plastic covering on the seat and floorboard.
She never once glanced at them. Cade drove away as she nosed his truck into the garage. Zane wondered why her distance bothered him so much, then wondered why he was even concerning himself with it.
* * * *
Zoë sagged against the table and stared at the dark blue truck she’d just driven in the garage.
He was home. Zane Kendrick. Sergeant Major Zane Kendrick. She’d kept up with his career by listening to her brothers and his speak about it.
She swallowed some water, gathered her bearings, then retreated back below the Caprice. Zane. She closed her eyes and released the shuddering breath she’d kept from escaping while he was there. Eighteen years. During that time he’d been gone, the boy he had been—full of joy and humor, as well as his fair share of trouble—got replaced by a war-hardened man. No humor in those incredible stormy gray-blue eyes; they were flat and unemotional.
She nearly jumped up to hug him but somehow restrained herself. If she were honest with herself, it was because she was scared to death of being rejected by him. Even if it was just a hug. Better to play aloof and respect his look of stay away.
“Hey, Zoë, whose truck?”
“Zane Kendrick, Papa. I’m giving it a tune-up, or will be. Just about finished with Mrs. Forester’s car. What are you doing back? I thought you and Mama had date night.”
She angled her head and peered out. He wore a suit and tie. “They why are you here?” She tightened the last nut holding in the tray and inched her way out.
“Stopped to check on you.”
“Papa, go on. I’m fine. The boys have gone on their dates, you go on yours.” Pathetic. Everyone in this family has a date except me.
“You’re a young woman and should be out.”
“Papa,” she said climbing to her feet, ignoring the ache in her back. “With my brothers and the two Kendrick boys, I’ll be lucky to ever get a date in this town.” She walked over and, being cautious of his suit, kissed his cheek. “Love you. Go on.” Zoë went to Zane’s truck after she cleaned off her hands and popped its hood.
Leaning against the side panel she waved as her parents drove away. The hesitation she’d encountered at the start up would be the first thing she addressed. Nope, the second. First it needed an oil change.
The clock neared midnight when she finally finished. Slamming the hood, she breathed deep. She’d not believed Zane could get any better looking. Never had she been so wrong about anything in her life.
Battle-hardened had replaced youthfully muscular. Her palms burned to touch and explore his wide chest. Problem was, that wasn’t the only part of her that burned when she thought of him.
“Get over it, Zoë. He never noticed you before, he sure ain’t about to change that now.”
“Why did I know you would still be up?”
She didn’t even jump at the sound of her friend’s voice. “Hey, Cora. Shouldn’t you be out with your man?”
Cora Sunderland was a childhood friend who’d gone into nursing and had employment at the hospital in town.
Zoë unzipped her coveralls. “So it was a quickie then?”
Cora fluffed her hair and grinned wickedly. “I wish. I just got off shift.”
“Hungry?” She stepped free of them and tossed them in the hamper to be washed.
“Girl, you don’t know the half of it. I about scared some patients with the growling my stomach was doing. You up for it?”
“I’m game. Last time I ate was four this afternoon.”
“Excellent.” Cora spun on the heels of her sensible shoes.
“Yes?” She drew out the word and pivoted back.
“Care to trail me to the Rocking K so I can return the truck?”
Her eyes lit up. “Is it Cade’s?”
Zoë rolled her eyes. “Don’t know why you don’t just ask him out. No, before you try to get in there and snoop around or grind on his seats, it’s not his.”
“I’m only curious.”
“Right,” she drawled.
“It’s not Nate’s truck.”
“Correct. It’s Zane’s,” she said opening the door.
Cora grinned. “Ohh, awesome. A story for the meal.”
“Get moving,” she ordered with another eye roll.
Zoë tried to remain professional as she drove his truck. The big diesel handled like a dream. She attempted a good many things to keep from recalling her infatuation of Zane Kendrick. All of them were complete and utter failures.
She slowed as she pulled into the drive to the Rocking K. At the house, she parked by the garage and hopped out once she’d killed the engine. Leaving the keys in the ignition, she strode to Cora’s car. Together they headed back to town and the all-night diner, Bethany’s Burgers & More.
They strolled in and headed for their usual back corner. “Evening, ladies.”
“Hi Bethany,” they called out simultaneously.
After their burgers arrived, Zoë reached for the ketchup.
“Now, tell me what you did when you found out Zane had returned.” Cora curled her lips around her soda straw and drank.
“Do? Nothing. I was lying there on the floor staring up at him.” Wouldn’t have minded lying on the floor with him on top of me, though. Or me on him. Or against… I have got to stop this.
“How’d he look?”
She squeezed the bottle then reached for the salt. “Besides incredibly sexy and hot? Empty.”
Cora ate, mulling over her words. “What do you mean?”
Zoë licked the salt from her lower lip after she ate one the fries on her plate. “I don’t know how to describe it. Something about him looked different.”
Cora drank some of her milkshake. “It’s been nearly two decades and he was in war.”
“I’m just telling you what I saw, Cora.” She removed the onions from her burger. Charlie’s on the grill. He always puts onions on my food.Sucking ketchup from her thumb, she put the top of the bun back, patting it slightly.
Cora asked when she took her first bite, “So are you going after him?”
Zoë nearly choked. “Go after,” she sputtered once her mouth was empty. “No. Why would I?”
Her eyes twinkled. “Oh, I don’t know. All those pages of you writing Mrs. Zane Kendrick.”
“Stop,” she hissed. “That was years ago.”
“But he’s home now.”
“And I’m still a little sister.”
“Because you allow him to see you that way. Lose the coveralls or baggy clothing. Show some skin. Refuse to let him view you as that little sister to his friends. Back that fine ass of his into a corner and lay one on him. And I don’t really know how you can say he views you as a little sister. He’s not been around acting like one of your brothers. For all you know he may view you as you are. A hot woman he wants to fuck.”
She flushed, heat skidding up her face. “What do I know about that? The dressing sexy, not the other. I doubt he’d ever view me in a different light.”
“Absolutely nothing.” Cora’s response was instant.
“Thanks.” She uttered her word in a monotone and flipped Cora off.
“But,” she drew out, “luckily for you, you have me. And believe you me, we’ll knock his socks off and show him you’re not that little kid anymore.”