Running Wild: A Second Shot Novella, p.1
For the men and women currently serving, the veterans who have served, and those heading into the service. Every one has his or her own reason for joining our military. I just want to say thank you for your service.
JOSIE FAIRMORE WALKED into my imagination four year ago and never left. I owe Amanda Bergeron a huge thank you for helping me craft Josie’s story. And to everyone at Avon—thank you for supporting a FREE prequel novella for my wonderful readers!
A huge, heartfelt thank you to Jill Marsal. Thank you for reading dozens of early drafts of Josie’s story. And for finding a home for this series!
I also must thank my husband for supporting my desire to write and handling the question—did you inspire the mechanical bull scene?—with a sense of humor. If asked again, well, I’ll leave the answer up to you, Mr. Stone.
Thank you to my family for your endless support. (And if you could please refrain from asking Mr. Stone about the mechanical bull scene at family events, I would appreciate it.)
Running Wild marks my tenth publication. Many of my stories feature military heroes or heroines. But this time, I wanted to try something different. I wished to share a look at a soldier’s life before he leaves and when he returns. I hope you all enjoy the journey as Noah’s story continues in Serving Trouble.
An Excerpt from Serving Trouble
About the Author
Also by Sara Jane Stone
About the Publisher
NOAH TAGER SWERVED and avoided burying his pickup in the big blue mailbox on the sidewalk. Thank you, Jesus. He threw his truck into park and cut the engine. The street sign on the far side of the mailbox read “No Standing.” But leaving his dad with a parking ticket beat a totaled truck. And he had a feeling Forever’s Finest, the police force that patrolled the Oregon college town, would forget all about the ticket when he called for their help.
Chief Fairmore? I saw Travis Taylor lead your daughter into the alley beside The Three Sisters Café where he tried to introduce his palm to Josie’s face. Not his fist. No, the asshole went for the open-handed slap.
Through the windshield, he’d seen Josie Fairmore pull her hand free from her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend and block the slap. Noah had been too busy trying not to hit the mailbox to see if Travis had tried again.
But Chief Fairmore wouldn’t give a damn if his little girl’s boyfriend failed to connect with his target. And her brother? Dominic would jump at the chance to have a physical “conversation” with the asshole who had helped Josie earn her reputation as the town bad girl. Although he knew she wasn’t as “bad” as certain gossips led everyone to believe. Just a little wild.
Noah slammed the door to his truck and ran down the sidewalk toward the alley. Oh hell yeah, he was ready and willing to fight alongside the Fairmore men. Starting right now in the alley.
But a cloud of gloom and doom followed, hovering over his head. It rained questions as he reached the gap between the two-story historic buildings.
Was this the first time? Had Travis tried this before? Why the hell had Josie stayed with Travis’s sorry ass after the incident during the homecoming parade? After Travis had allowed the blame to fall on her shoulders?
Noah ground his teeth together. He’d talked Dominic out of throwing a punch—or ten—after Forever’s gossip-prone triplets, the owners of The Three Sisters Café, had stumbled upon Travis and Josie in the back of the hay wagon. It was bad enough everyone would be talking about the fact that Travis, the quarterback and hero of the hour, had been caught with Josie’s black silk panties in one hand. Beating the younger kid up would only add fuel to the gossip mill, Noah had told his friend.
Plus it wasn’t a fair fight. Travis was just a kid. Eighteen. And without his offensive line, Travis didn’t stand a chance.
But now Noah wished he’d kept his mouth shut and thrown a punch or two back then himself. He wouldn’t hesitate to use his fists today.
He rounded the corner and spotted Josie.
But Travis was gone.
Noah froze on the edge of the pavement, one step short of entering the narrow, gravel-covered space between the two buildings. Josie stood with her back pressed against the cement wall, her head held high and her eyes open. He had banished the words “Dominic’s sister is freaking hot” from his vocabulary not long after Josie started high school. But he wasn’t blind. She possessed the kind of beauty that dared men to look away. Her long legs and curved hips could have walked her straight into a modeling career.
Except small-town Oregon wasn’t exactly bustling with scouts looking for the next cover girl. And even if someone saw her and offered her a contract, it would probably be a one-way ticket to the cover of Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue.
He’d witnessed Josie in a barely there bikini once. Yeah, he’d silently thanked the genius that had invented the two-piece swimsuit. Then he’d spent the rest of the pool party staring at his feet or talking to his friends—anything but looking at Josie Fairmore long enough to want what he could never have.
Right now, in the alley, it wasn’t her curves, barely hidden by her fitted spaghetti-strap tank top and jean cutoff shorts that stunned him. He’d left his truck planning to pull Travis off her. He’d expected to find her radiating fear. Travis had failed to lead his team to the state championship, but as quarterback that guy was still big. The threat of a slap from a man that size would inspire some serious terror.
But eighteen-year-old Josie Fairmore wasn’t cowering and calling for help. She stood with her feet planted hip-width apart, arms at her side, and stared straight ahead. Her body language screamed don’t mess with me.
He studied the red mark on her left cheek. Travis Taylor hadn’t received the message.
When I get my hands on him. . .
Even though she appeared calm and in control, her palms pressed against her outer thighs, the rise and fall of her chest betrayed her. His best friend’s little sister was five seconds away from hyperventilating in the alley.
“Josie,” he said. The gravel crunched beneath his cowboy boots as he stepped toward her.
She turned to him, her dark eyes widening. And there it was—the fear—piercing, sharp, and directed at him.
Oh no, Josie, no. Discovery is not your enemy here.
“Hey, Noah.” She forced a smile. Her voice was low and rough, bordering on sultry. Or maybe that was his imagination. “Any chance we could pretend you didn’t see me today?”
“No.” His tone a helluva lot sharper than he intended. “I have to be honest, Josie. I’m seconds away from speed-dialing your dad at the station, followed by your brother.”
Her smile vanished, leaving behind a mask of worry. “Calling the cops because I snuck out on a Saturday afternoon? I don’t think they can arrest me for not listening to my dad. I’ve been grounded for the past three weekends. I had to get out.”
And what the hell was up with her raspy voice? Was she trying to charm him into pretending he hadn’t nearly crashed his truck when he spotted her?
“I saw Travis.” He struggled to keep his tone level and kind. The last thing she needed was another big guy offering hostility. Sure, it had been four years since Noah ha
I’m going to fucking kill Travis Taylor.
It was one thing to suspect, to nearly hit a mailbox hoping he was seeing things or that he’d get there in time to stop the asshole from raising his arm a second time. But to see the proof on Josie’s face? Noah would hunt the town’s hero of the hour down and make him hurt. Shit, he’d probably land his ass in jail for his trouble. And earn a dishonorable discharge before he even set foot in basic training.
Was that even possible? Could the marines kick him out before he arrived? Would going after Travis wipe away his chance to earn the steady paycheck his family needed to stay afloat?
“He’s kind of the reason I slipped out of the house,” she said, raising her right hand to her neck. “I needed to talk to him. We’re going to different schools in the fall. I thought it would be better if we ended things now. He’ll be here and I’ll be in Portland.”
“You’re breaking up with Travis because of the distance?” This time he couldn’t keep the heavy dose of what the fuck out of his voice. Portland was only an hour, maybe two with traffic, from the Willamette Valley.
“That was my plan,” she murmured.
“Just because he didn’t want to break up, that doesn’t give him the right to—”
“I know,” she said sharply, her hand still rubbing her neck.
His gaze narrowed, studying the way her long black hair fell over her shoulders. Her pale skin offered a stark contrast to her dark locks. Except around her neck. The area beneath her fingers appeared red. He had to look hard to see it. But a series of scratch marks stood out against the creamy white skin. As if she’d been trying to tear something away from her neck—or someone. Like the person who’d left behind those angry red marks.
“Ah hell, Josie.” He moved closer and drew her into his arms. At first it was like hugging a two-by-four length of wood. But gradually, she relaxed and wrapped her arms around him. And he just held her, not trusting himself to speak. If he opened his mouth now words like “I’m going to make sure no one ever hurts you again” would tumble out. But he couldn’t make that promise. He couldn’t stay by her side, ready and willing to save the day. His dad and grandmother were depending on him to show up at basic training and go wherever the hell the marines needed him.
“Please don’t tell anyone,” she whispered, her cheek against his shoulder. “Not my dad. And please promise me you won’t breathe a word about this to Dominic.”
“Josephine.” He drew back and looked down at her. “Travis hurt you. He deserves to rot in a cell for what he did.”
“It’s his word against mine,” she said softly.
“I saw him,” he ground out. “His hand raised above you—I saw him.”
“You’re leaving in two weeks. And then it will be just the same as it was after the homecoming dance when we were caught in the hay wagon.”
“What?” His brow furrowed. He couldn’t draw the parallel between two teenagers discovered in a somewhat compromising position—and they’d both had most of their clothes on—to a two-hundred-pound man slapping his girlfriend and wrapping his hands around her neck.
“Everyone saw Travis holding my underwear and thought, ‘Boys will be boys,’ ” she said. “But then they looked at me and thought, ‘Slut.’ I swear there are still some people in this town who think I hypnotized him with my breasts and made him follow me to that wagon. He couldn’t help himself. And it will be the same thing this time. They’ll take one look at me and think, ‘No! Not our football star!’ ” She delivered those words in a familiar high-pitched, condescending tone.
“Face it, Noah. As soon as you leave, Travis will take your place as the town Golden Boy. He’ll be the hero everyone pats on the back. They’ll tell the story of his winning touchdown at that game leading up to the state championship over and over just like they told yours.”
“We won state my year,” he pointed out. But after four years, the thrill of the win had faded. He hadn’t been able to afford college. And while he’d been the best in a small town, he wasn’t good enough for a full scholarship. He stayed in Forever along with his two best friends, all lost in a town they’d lived in their whole lives.
Now they’d finally settled on something. Military service. A career with purpose, challenge, and a steady paycheck. They were going to do something good and become heroes for something other than throwing a piece of pigskin.
“Travis will be untouchable,” Josie continued. “And I’ll still be . . . me.”
“There is nothing wrong with you,” he said quickly, wishing like hell she hadn’t hit the nail on the damn head with her summary of Forever, Oregon.
Sure, not everyone tossed Travis up on a pedestal. But most did. Football had a tight grip on the town. He knew that better than anyone. He’d spent years on his podium in the clouds. And yeah, it might have gone to his head if he hadn’t faced the day-to-day struggles of life with a widowed father working to make ends meet for him and his grandmother.
“There’s plenty wrong with me,” she shot back. “I’m stubborn, headstrong, and my best friend’s mother owns a strip club outside of town. Oh, and I like sex.”
“Nothing on your list points to a character flaw,” he said, lumping every bullet point together, not wishing to point out that “I like sex” was definitely in the plus category as far as he was concerned. But if her brother heard those words, he’d probably have a different opinion. And Noah should be approaching this situation—and any other that involved Josie—as if she were his kid sister.
She pulled away, stepping out of his reach. “I need your word,” she said, wrapping her arms around herself. “That you won’t tell anyone.”
“Three conditions.” He folded his arms across his chest in a pose that mirrored hers. “First, you stop seeing him.”
“Done,” she said. “I’ll tell him again and again until he gets the message.”
He shook his head. “No. You can call him. But I’ll make sure he understands. That’s my second condition. I’m going to have a chat with your soon-to-be ex.”
“Third condition,” he said, knowing this one would be tricky. “If you ever land in a situation you can’t handle, call me.”
She let out a raspy laugh. “And you’ll what? Ride in on your white horse and save me? From Afghanistan? Or Iraq? Or wherever else they’re sending recently enlisted marines these days?”
“Call, email, or send a letter. Hell, send a carrier pigeon. I don’t care how you get in touch, or where I am. If you need me, I’ll find a way to help. It doesn’t matter where I am or what I’m doing. You’re like family to me, Josie. And I’m always here for you.”
“Like family?” She raised an eyebrow. “So you’re doing this for Dominic? Because my brother is your BFF?”
“No, I’m doing this because I care about you,” he growled.
She stepped back and he wished he’d kept those words locked away. Let her think this was all about his best friend, her brother. But no, he had to toss out the “c” word, which in teenage speak probably held almost as much weight as “like” and, God help him, “love.”
“Like family,” she repeated.
And he nodded even though he had a feeling she was running through every look he’d ever given her, searching for a sign that he cared about her for the same base, physical reasons most guys looked at her and wanted a piece.
“Yeah,” he said. Then he quickly added a few words that he knew would stop her before she returned to the moment he’d first seen her in a bikini and admired the hell out of her Sports Illustrated–worthy body. “I’m also doing this because in my book it is always wrong to hit a woman. And I hope
She shook her head. “You’re determined to be the hero, aren’t you?”
“When it comes to your safety? Yeah, I’ll play the part. You name the day, the time, the place—I’ll be there to help you, Josie.”
“Fine.” She placed her hands on her hips and held her head high despite the red marks on her cheek and neck that clearly labeled her a victim. “The day? Today. The time? Right now. The place? Forever, Oregon. And your mission, Mr. White Knight? Drive me home and help me sneak back into my house.”
Josie walked past him, her nose practically pointed to the clouds. The swing in her step drew his gaze to her perfect ass. He shouldn’t look. But dammit, one glance and he didn’t want to be the hero who snuck her back into her bedroom. He wanted to be the man who broke her out and showed her that relationships should never come with violence.
FOREVER HATED HER with a vengeance. From the people to the distant mountain range, everything about this town seemed to be working against her. She was smart, dammit. Heading to college on a full scholarship. And still, this place was determined to land her in one mess after another.
Josie stared out the window of Noah’s pickup. The main street faded into the distance as the truck sped toward the college. Beyond the sprawling campus with its odd mix of concrete structures and old brick buildings stood her family home, empty apart from the dogs.
Except her dad’s four-legged friends weren’t supposed to be alone. Her father had grounded her for breaking curfew last weekend. And she’d ignored him because at eighteen, she believed the time for “be home by midnight, young lady” was behind her.
They drove past the edge of the campus and the landscape changed. Houses and barns dotted the rolling green hills. In a few weeks, she’d trade the wide-open space for Portland’s downtown. She’d be free to set her own curfew. And free from boys who responded to a firm “it’s over” by wrapping their hands around her neck.