I am so, so sorry that I've taken so long with this chapter. So many things got in the way and I'm trying to sort through some personal conundrums. I've gone back to this story many times in the last few months and I've struggled with writing this chapter. I hate to post it when I'm not completely satisfied, but this is as good as it'll get for now. I also want to thank all of you for sticking with me and leaving me your thoughts - your reviews have always and continue to sustain me.

BREAKING NEWS: Jake finally makes an appearance. Well, indirectly. But he's there, so hopefully that'll tide you over for now. I can't believe no one likes Connor. He's so sweet! Anywho.

Special thanks to Blue-Winter-Angel and my younger cousin, Eric, for beta-reading. Guys, I think I've sucked them both into this fandom. Eric wants my books.






"So, what are you going to do tomorrow?" Connor asks, trailing behind Sam in the baking aisle. "Church, horseback ride, hard-hitting exposé?"

Sam chuckles, tossing a box of cake flour into her grocery basket. "Church, yes, and I probably will go for a ride. I don't know about a hard-hitting exposé, though."

"Two outta three's not bad," Connor remarks. When Sam fails to reach the bottle of vegetable oil on the top shelf, he grabs it for her.

It had taken the two of them only an hour to work through all Sam's questions, leaving plenty of time for Sam to get the items on Gram's list and not be late getting home. Connor had been very forthcoming with his personal information and honest in his answers. So far he's been extremely helpful, pulling things from the shelves and locating items Sam can't find. As they make their way through the aisles of the Kroger store, they exchange light conversation.

"Where do you go for church? Connor asks.

"United Methodist on Cranberry Drive," Sam replies, scanning the shelves in front of her for a specific brand of evaporated milk. "What about you?"

"First Baptist in Downtown. You know, the one that takes up almost the entire block with all its sub-buildings?"

Sam nods. "I do know that building. My grade-school choir did a Christmas show there once. Do you see Carnation brand anywhere?"

With ease, Connor immediately reaches out and plucks a can from the center of the third shelf. Sam rolls her eyes, knowing she'd looked in that spot four times. "Thanks. I don't know why I couldn't find it."

"No trouble. How much have you got left?"

Sam checks the list. "Just strawberries, whipping cream, and dark brown sugar."

"What is your gram making, and can I have some?" Connor jokes, reading the list over Sam's shoulder. "Seriously, it sounds like she's making something that would get me in trouble with Coach Harris."

Sam smiles. "Probably. I'm hoping for a strawberry pie, it's my favorite."

They take their filled basket to the check-out line, where Connor further demonstrates his good manners by loading his arms with all the grocery bags and carrying them out to Sam's car. She pops the trunk open and starts sliding the bags off his arms. Sam then gives Connor a ride back up the street to the mall, where his pickup truck sits waiting. After he climbs out of the Lacrosse and closes the door, Connor leans down to look at Sam through the open window.

"This was a lot of fun for a school interview," he says, flashing a white grin. Sam tries not to be charmed. "When would you like to do the photography part?"

"Whenever's convenient."

"I've got a community game next Saturday at the rec center. Five o'clock. You can take a few shots there, and you're always welcome to swing by my place in town."

Sam nods. "Sounds good. Text me the addresses and we can work out a schedule."

"It's a date," Connor jokes, and unbeknownst to him his words make Sam's stomach drop. "See you Monday. Or maybe tomorrow – Mom's been talking about visiting the Methodist church with Aunt Rita."

Sam smiles. "See you."

Connor leaves and Sam checks her Blackberry for messages, finding two: one from Toby about the track meet and a voicemail from Gram, wondering when Sam will be home. She calls the house to let Gram know she's on her way and leaves Toby's text for later. She hums along to Van Morrison on the radio as she drives down the road, the stores and residential areas of Darton giving way to open, rolling desert. The Calico Mountains loom in the distance, illuminated by the late afternoon sunlight. Sam imagines the Phantom's herd galloping across the dry landscape.

Before she knows it, Sam is pulling into the yard at River Bend, where Dad and Dallas are leaned against the fence of the ten acre pasture, watching Cody play in the grass with toy cars. Blaze sits nearby, keeping careful watch on the two-year-old. The men nod a greeting to her as she gets out of the car; Cody's face lights up.

"Cars, Samma!" he says, brandishing a Tonka truck.

Sam laughs. "I see! Are you having fun?"

Cody nods, then rises and toddles his way over to her. He peers into the trunk, eying the few grocery bags nestled there. "Help?"

"Sure, you can help." Sam picks out the lightest bag, which has only the Carnation milk and strawberries, and helps Cody get a good grip on it. She gathers the remaining bags and closes the trunk. "Come on, kiddo, let's get this stuff to Gram."

The inside of the ranch house smells like flour and foreign spices. Sam knows immediately that Gram has tapped into her repertoire of Mexican recipes and sincerely hopes they are having quesadillas. She and Cody take the bags straight to the kitchen counter and set them down, Sam helping Cody with his light load. Gram is standing at the stove, browning hamburger meat with cumin and chili powder. Sam pecks her on the cheek. "Got the stuff you wanted. What are you making with it?"

Gram smiles. "Strawberry pie."

"I knew it!" Sam crows, delighted. "Is there an occasion or anything? We don't normally have strawberry pie without cause for celebration."

Gram nods. "You know Luke and Maxine left yesterday for Arizona? Well, Jake is graduating tonight with his two-year degree. Since we couldn't attend the ceremony, I thought we could honor him with strawberry pie."

His ceremony. Sam is momentarily floored. With all the hustle and bustle of school and ranch life – and, she admits, the newfound enjoyment of Connor's company – she'd forgotten about Jake's two-year graduation. Feeling a touch guilty, Sam resolves to call and congratulate him. Stubborn and emotionally insufficient he may be, but Jake is still her best friend.

"Sounds great," Sam says, before Gram can question the lapse in response time. "You need any help in here?"

"No, I'm quite fine. I may be old, but I certainly am still able to cook."

Sam throws up her hands in mock-surrender, laughing. "Wasn't trying to question your culinary capabilities. Just being a responsible granddaughter. I'll be back down at dinner time."

Sam plucks Cody up off the linoleum tile and carries him up the stairs. "You wanna help Samma with something?"

Cody peers at her. "Help what?"

"I'm gonna call Jake. You wanna talk to him, too?"

Cody's lips split into a grin, revealing the gap in his baby teeth. "Jay!"

"I thought you'd be agreeable." Sam smiles and totes Cody into her room, where she sets him on the bed. Digging her phone out of her purse, Sam flops down beside him and dials Jake's number. She tries valiantly to tamp down on the fluttering in her belly, reminding herself that she's calling briefly to congratulate him, not sort out their tangled relationship. Still, the thought of speaking to him, even over mobile, is exciting.

Jake picks up on the third ring. "Hey, Brat."

His voice, deepened some from age, crackles over the open line and hits Sam straight in the chest. It's wonderful.

"Here I am, calling to say nice things to you, and the first thing out of your mouth is an insulting nickname. Typical."

"What did you expect? Trumpets?" The blatant sarcasm in his voice, tinged with mirth, makes Sam smile. "Still waiting on those nice things you have to say, too."

"I was calling to congratulate you. On finishing two years." Sam's voice warms some. "That's more than some people can say, and I'm really proud of you. I'm sorry I'll miss the ceremony."

"Don't worry about it," Jake mutters, too embarrassed to acknowledge her praise. "You'd be bored to tears anyway."

"I don't doubt it." Sam looks over at Cody, who is watching her expectantly. "But hey, I'm not the only one here who wants to talk to you."

"That so?"

"Yeah, hang on." Sam pulls the phone back and, pressing the speaker key, holds it up to Cody. "Say hi."

"Hi, Jay."

"Hey, Runt." Jake's tone thaws minutely, something he does only for Cody. Sam suspects it's because Jake is the youngest of all his brothers and secretly enjoys doting on hers. "What are you doing?"

"Play Samma," Cody replies, eying the phone curiously. He hasn't quite figured out how phones work, but they fascinate him nonetheless. "You play?"

Jake huffs a laugh. "No, no play for me. Too much work to do."

"Yuck," Cody says, making a face. Sam laughs.

"No kidding. You're lucky. You just have to nap and play with your toys all day."

"Those were the days," Sam chimes, eyes flicking to the screen as it lights up. A text from Connor. Her heart stutters. Carefully, while Jake and Cody continue their conversation, she opens the message.

So, is it strawberry pie after all?

Sam can't help it; she snorts out a laugh before she can stop herself. Of course, the sound has Cody laughing and trying to imitate it, and she can practically feel Jake lift his eyebrow at her.

"What's wrong with you?"

"Sorry, sorry. I got a text from a friend that made me laugh." She taps out a brief yes and presses 'send'.

"You mean Jen's not your only friend anymore?"

"You're a jerk," Sam remarks, albeit fondly. "No, that was Connor Atkins."

"I think I remember him. Basketball?" Jake's tone is light, but something about it sets her on edge.

"Yeah, he's co-captain. He's student of the month for May; I had to interview him for the paper." The screen lights up again, but she doesn't open the message. "We did that over lunch today and I roped him into grocery shopping. I think it's safe to say we're friends now."

"I didn't realize grocery shopping was grounds for friendship," Jake says drily.

"It's circumstantial." Sam eyes the clock, noting that dinner will be ready soon. Something about this conversation leaves her with a hollow feeling and suddenly she wants to just hang up. "It's about dinnertime, so I'll let you go. Tell your mom to take some pictures for me, okay?"

Now Jake is the one to snort. "There will be plenty of those, trust me. See ya, Brat."

Sam fights not to roll her eyes, though the use of the nickname eases her nervous belly. "See ya, jerk. Say bye, Cody."

"Bye, Jay!"

"Bye, Runt."

Sam ends the call, hesitates before opening Connor's text. Holy smokes, you gotta bring me some!

She can't help but laugh at his excitement. I'll bring a slice to church for you. Better be there.

Oui, mon Capitan! I shall be present and accounted for.

As she and Cody make their way downstairs, Sam can't help but think that Connor is still very much a dork. Thoughts of Jake sneak back into the fray and Sam chews her lip. He hadn't said or done anything unusual for him, but something about Jake's tone makes her suspicious. She hadn't said much about Connor to him, just that she'd interviewed him over lunch for the school paper. Was Jake jealous? Sam has barely known Connor for a week, and they haven't spent much time together. What is there to be jealous of?

What right does he even have to be jealous? demands a voice in her head, one that sounds suspiciously like Jen. You're the one who's been hanging off his every word for the past two years.

This is true, Sam thinks. She has been waiting, and quite diligently. In the last two years, she hasn't so much as looked at another boy – none of them have been able to capture her interest. Connor, astoundingly, has broken the mold. Her thoughts and feelings are still muddled, and Sam isn't prepared to sort through them at the moment. She buckles Cody into his highchair and takes her own seat. Dinner rolls by quickly enough and Sam is careful to pay just enough attention to the conversation to avoid being asked questions she'd rather not answer. She cleans up the dishes by herself while Brynna and Dad take Cody upstairs for a bath.

By the time she showers and crawls into her bed, she's exhausted. She hates that she can't get these boys out of her mind, hates that Jen was right about them. Finally, she goes to the medicine cabinet in the bathroom and pulls out the bottle of Zzz-Quil. She knocks back a light dose and returns to bed, her mid already slowing down and preparing to shut off. Just as her eyes are drooping closed, she hears her phone chime. She briefly considers ignoring it, but ultimately picks it up from her nightstand. Forcing her eyes to process the brightness of the screen, she is surprised to find a text from Jake. Opening the message yields a picture of Jake in his navy cap and gown, his two-year diploma held aloft in front of his chest.

There are no words accompanying the photo, but Sam warms nonetheless. Jake knew how much she hated to miss his ceremony and was thoughtful enough to send her a photograph directly. For the first time all evening, Sam is able to put away her conflicted thoughts and enjoy her friendship with Jake, basking in his personal success. Of course, the medicine probably helps this train of thought along, but Sam is too far gone to complain. So much so that she nearly misses the next thought her brain dredges up: that Jake may have taken such personal action in retaliation to her time spent with Connor.

Sam immediately shuts down that runaway train. No way is she going into that territory right now, no sir. It nags at her, though, even as sleep overtakes her. Sam wonders fleetingly if, by mentioning her budding friendship with Connor, she's started some kind of war.

Jen is going to kill me.