The Patriot A Small Town Romance - Jennifer Millikin



Five years ago

The second he walks into the lake house, I notice him. Not because he is a sight to behold, with his short hair the color of mesquite and angular jaw that could’ve been carved from marble, although I admit those traits are enjoyable. No, my attention has been captured by my response to him: the lurch of my stomach, the erratic beating of my heart, the goose bumps covering every inch of my flesh. Is this what magic feels like?

He doesn’t see me. I’m standing off to the side in the living room, hidden from easy view by Emily and Paige’s backs. We’ve formed a little circle, drinking from our red plastic cups and surveying the scene before diving in. We don’t know anybody here, aside from Jason, the homeowner, and even then we’ve only known him for about five hours. We’d gone on a walk around the lake after lunch and he was outside cleaning up his yard. One well-muscled attractive guy and three females walking past? Didn’t seem like too much of a stretch when he asked us to come to the party he was throwing tonight. I think he likes Emily. He only had eyes for her when he opened his front door and saw the three of us standing there. He was polite, getting us drinks and chatting, but he needed to be a good host and greet some others who’d shown up. We shuffled away, but he kept looking over, checking to make certain Emily was still around.

Right now, her lips are moving, but I don’t hear what she says. Paige must hear her, because she laughs, and I smile automatically, my brain understanding this is an appropriate response even though I am paying zero mind to her. How can I when every cell inside me has been called to attention?

My eyes, my entire body, remains locked on the newcomer. He strides through the house, his presence commanding. He walks up to Jason, and they greet each other with a half-hug accompanied by a solid back slap, but it’s the look they share that makes me curious. The look is bloated with meaning, heavy under an unseen weight.

Jason leads the new guy out of the house and into the backyard. The adrenaline doesn’t leave my body just because he has left the room.

When our cups are empty, we make our way outside, too. Music blares from a speaker set up on a cheap plastic chair. The backyard gently slopes down until the bright green grass turns into dark blue water. A small aluminum boat drifts at the end of a long dock, but it’s tied up so it can’t float away. It’s a stunning view, but wasted on me. I might appear to be absorbing my surroundings, but really I’m looking for him.

Panic ricochets through me. I don’t see him.

I search in what I hope is a covert manner, but he isn’t to be found in any of the groups of people standing around or in the line for the keg. How does someone whose presence filled a room so completely, disappear?

“Let’s dance!” Emily shakes her shoulders, her fingers wrapping around my wrist and pulling me closer. It’s a country-rock song, something very danceable, and we make the most of it. There isn’t a whole lot I like to do more than dance.

The song switches and we keep going. After two more, I pause and stick out my tongue and fan my face. “I need a drink,” I shout above the music, shimmying out of her grasp.

I’m on my way to the keg when it happens. The shuffling of bodies, just enough to create a chasm in the crowd, and our eyes meet. He’s sitting on a picnic table, his feet propped on the bench below him. His gaze is sharp and swift like an arrow, piercing my chest, anchoring me to this moment.

He doesn’t smile. His eyes don’t light up. Nothing about his posture invites me over, but I can see the words he’s thinking as if his thoughts are available for public consumption. And then, floating out from between those perfect lips, are the words I knew he’d been thinking.

Come here.

I’m not one to follow orders, but this feels less like a command and more like a plea. I put one foot in front of the other, and then it hits me.

I never had a choice. Not from the moment he walked into the house. This was always going to happen.

His intense