Cowboy in the Making Julie Benson Литагент HarperCollins EUR A Little Bit Country…Emma Donovan ran off to Nashville when she was young and full of dreams. Now she’s back home in Colorado and common sense is telling her not to count on Jamie Westland. He won’t be around long – not with his big-time career in New York City.Jamie’s never felt at home, especially not with his adopted family. Now, on his grandfather’s ranch, the pieces of his life are coming together and Emma is a reason why. But, when an opportunity arises in New York, Jamie isn’t sure if he should stay or go… Emma decided she was done fighting what she felt for Jamie. She was tired of being strong, focused and directed all the time. More important, she was tired of being alone. Not that she thought she’d found her soul mate or anything crazy like that. She believed the soul mate thing was as real as Big Foot—but Jamie made her laugh, something she hadn’t done enough of since her mother got sick, and for right now, that was enough. No harm, no foul. And he’d been such a rock for her when she found out about Andrew. It would have been so easy to fall apart, and she probably would have if it hadn’t been for Jamie. He got out of Mick’s battered Chevy truck, looking way too good for this early in the morning, wearing one of the shirts he’d bought when they’d gone shopping. As it happened, it was her favorite, the tan-and-brown plaid, which matched his coffee-colored eyes. Before when he was dressed in khakis and a polo shirt he looked … She searched for the right word. Restrained. Reserved. Almost as if he were apart from everyone and everything around him here. Now a relaxed air surrounded him. He appeared at ease. Almost as if she was seeing the inner man for the first time. He looked as though he’d been here his entire life. As though he belonged. She nodded toward his feet. “Good-looking boots.” “Do I pass muster?” Talk about a stupid question. “You’ll do.” Cowboy in the Making Julie Benson www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) An avid daydreamer since childhood, JULIE BENSON always loved creating stories. After graduating from the University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in sociology, she worked as case manager before having her children: three boys. Many years later she started pursuing a writing career to challenge her mind and save her sanity. Now she writes full-time in Dallas, where she lives with her husband, their sons, two lovable black dogs, two guinea pigs, a turtle and a fish. When she finds a little quiet time, which isn’t often, she enjoys making jewelry and reading a good book. For Jennifer Jacobson Without your support, encouragement and musical expertise this book never would have been written. You are such a shining example of God’s love here on earth, and I’m so blessed to have you in my life. And thanks to the Starbucks crew at Custer and Renner in Richardson, especially Jason, Angel, Susan, Christine, Ashley (both of them!), Derek and Nate for keeping me caffeinated while I wrote this one. You’re the best! Contents Cover (#u3070626d-9ac0-5d37-bc25-1a78ee945fbd) Introduction (#u0fde709b-04ee-5602-99d1-a49da0f59138) Title Page (#u3be3d589-140e-56a2-a2ed-5bf49a5fe36a) About the Author (#u9eb1e703-ac32-5ef3-aa74-5b1e7c1c3c8e) Dedication (#uacaa2694-f24f-5f84-9920-c8ab08860f88) Chapter One (#ulink_6738262e-b8ba-5aff-95a5-727ccf687753) Chapter Two (#ulink_592dc4a6-6511-5815-9a60-a62139045162) Chapter Three (#ulink_4b2f6923-4a88-5f61-971f-3f9cba66734d) Chapter Four (#ulink_9dd5b1c8-500d-5a23-a0e6-7c6481d27712) Chapter Five (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Six (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Seven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eight (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Nine (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Ten (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Eleven (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Twelve (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter Thirteen (#litres_trial_promo) Extract (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter One (#ulink_e0ff0dcc-3ea6-581d-9907-3859ec42d4f8) “I heard the bad news about the Philharmonic letting you go. How’re you doing?” James Westland’s hand tightened around his cell phone as he tried to shove aside his growing irritation at his friend Connor’s comment. What he wouldn’t give for a call from a charity asking for a donation or a wrong number. He’d even be thrilled with an obscene call. Anything but a call from another friend or relative asking how he was holding up. How the hell did everyone expect him to be when his career was becoming a distant spec in his rearview mirror? Of course he was pissed. At first he’d tried drowning his anger in a bottle of Jameson, but all that did was leave him with a bad hangover. Now he’d reached the not-sure-what-the-hell-to-do stage. “I’m fine. I’m assessing my options.” He almost laughed. Right. You’ve got so many of those to choose from. Unlike his siblings, Jamie had never excelled in school. He’d studied twice as hard to earn low B’s and C’s. For their paltry efforts, his sisters had scored straight A’s. One now possessed an MBA and the other a degree in engineering. Education that offered them more options, while he’d put all his career eggs into the music basket, leaving him little to fall back on now. “My sister teaches at a private school in Manhattan,” Connor said. “I could see if she knows of anyone who’s looking for a music teacher.” “Sure,” he said mainly out of ingrained politeness and because he couldn’t afford to rule out any ideas at this point. How could a simple Sunday morning bike ride have ended up turning his life upside down? He still had trouble letting go of the what-ifs. What if I’d slept in? What if the guy in the parked car had been as concerned about the world around him as his coffee? Would he have opened the door and knocked me to the ground? What if I hadn’t tried to break my fall? Would I have hurt my hand so bad? “I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play the cello anymore,” Connor said, breaking through Jamie’s thoughts. There it was. The barely veiled invitation to spill his guts and say how angry he was or how he was falling apart. If anyone else hinted he was concerned he’d do something stupid like jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, he might throw his phone off said bridge. His left hand cramped and he switched his phone to his right, staring at the offending appendage as if it should look different. How many people would be thrilled to have the mobility he possessed, and yet for him, it wasn’t enough. “It’s taking some adjusting to, but I’m managing.” “Maybe you should get away. Take some time to clear your head.” Or at least get away before the well-intentioned people in his life drove him insane. He considered visiting his parents in Philadelphia, but tossed the idea aside. While he loved them, they were planners. They analyzed a situation, determined the risks and probability of success for each option and then acted. That’s what they’d want to do with this situation—provide him with a feasibility study. He couldn’t take the in-person seminar right now. The phone version had been bad enough. A picture of his grandfather’s small ranch in the Rocky Mountains flashed in Jamie’s mind. A simple two-story house straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting with a big old-fashioned porch with rocking chairs perfect for thinking. Going to Colorado was what he needed. There he could clear his head and sort things out. Mick would understand what he was going through because he’d experienced the same uncertainty when he’d returned from Vietnam after shrapnel from a land mine had torn up his right leg, arm and hand, ending his own musical career. While he’d understand, Mick wouldn’t pry. Nor would anyone else in Estes Park, because very few of the town’s eight thousand residents knew more about him than that he was Mick’s grandson. Except Emma, but then, last he’d heard she was living in Nashville. “Jamie, you still there?” Connor asked. “I wish there was something I could do.” Out of patience now that he had a plan, Jamie thanked his friend for checking about the teaching possibilities, ended the conversation and called Mick. When the old man answered, Jamie said, “Mind if I come for a visit?” “The door’s always open to you.” “Great. I’ll be on a plane tomorrow.” “You know I’m not one to ask a lot of nosy questions, and tell me if I’m outta line doing it now. It won’t hurt my feelings none, but I hear something in your voice so I gotta ask. Is something wrong?” Unlike when others asked, Mick’s question didn’t irritate Jamie. “When you got hurt and couldn’t perform, did everyone keep asking what you were going to do with your life?” “Your hand didn’t heal right,” Mick said in a matter-of-fact voice. “The doctor says everything looks fine, but when I play my hand doesn’t work like it used to. My fingers get knotted up. The dexterity and flexibility just isn’t there.” Jamie explained how music he’d once played without conscious effort now proved difficult. To the untrained ear he might not sound too bad, but unless things changed, he wouldn’t be returning to the Philharmonic anytime soon. “The doctor says there’s a chance my hand will get better. He says strengthening may be all it needs.” Keep telling yourself that so you can hang on to the hope that your career isn’t over. “Nothing will do that better than good old-fashioned hard work around the ranch and the restaurant, and I’ve got plenty to do at both places. In fact, I could use a bartender.” “Making mixed drinks is an art form nowadays. That’s out of my league.” Mick laughed. “Maybe in New York City, but most folks that come into my place aren’t big on fancy mixed drinks. They order a beer on tap or in a bottle. Other than that it’s pouring whiskey or making margaritas for the ladies. I can show you how to do that.” “I think I can handle that.” “Good. I’ll see you tomorrow. Let me know when your flight gets in. I’ll pick you up at the airport.” Jamie thought about telling Mick he’d rent a car, but right now he’d rather avoid the expense. He had some money in savings, but only enough to last a couple of months. Considering his uncertain future, best to be frugal. “For what it’s worth, I know what you’re going through, and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Mick said. “It really knocked my feet out from under me for a while.” That’s right where Jamie was. Flat on his back trying to figure out what to do once he found the energy to stand again. “People didn’t realize playing and singing were a part of me,” Mick continued. “When I lost that, it was like a part of me died, and I had to grieve. Until I did, I couldn’t move on. Most people didn’t get that. They wanted to help, but their concern most times made it worse.” “Concern I can take. It’s the pity that’s pissing me off.” “Don’t let this get you down, son. I know it seems bad now, but an unexpected blessing can find its way into situations like this.” Jamie shook his head. If there was something good in the midst of this mess, fate was doing a damned good job hiding the fact. * * * EMMA DONOVAN STARED at Molly, the fiddle player in her band, Maroon Peak Pass, standing in the doorway of her office at the Estes Park animal shelter. There’s a woman with bad news to deliver. “I can’t do this anymore, Em.” Emma tried not to cringe. This couldn’t be happening again. Every time she thought her musical career would take off and she’d land a record deal, something happened to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. “I’m in the middle of preparing for a volunteer orientation today. Can we do this later, Molly?” As in possibly never, since I don’t think I’m going to like what you have to say. I definitely don’t have the energy to deal with it today. “This can’t wait,” Molly said. The look in her gaze only confirmed Emma’s suspicions of impending doom. As she tried to quell the unease churning in her stomach, Emma motioned for Molly to have a seat in the wooden chair on the opposite side of her less-than-impressive desk. Ah, the joys of working for a nonprofit agency. Rickety, cheap furniture. “It’s Dave, isn’t it?” Emma said. Since Molly’s marriage six months ago, she’d changed, showing up late for rehearsals and wanting to leave early. When she was there, she was distracted and unprepared. “He’s pressuring you to leave the band, isn’t he?” She knew what that was like. Emma, you need to grow up. Playing in a band is fine for a hobby, but it’s not a real job. “It’s not him. He’s supportive of my musical career.” Molly picked at the strap of the purse sitting in her lap. “It’s me. I’m tired of putting my life on hold hoping for a career that’s a one-in-a-million shot.” “What’re you trying to say?” “I’m leaving the band.” There was the blow Emma had been expecting, but even though she’d braced herself, it still left her reeling. All she could think was thank goodness she’d been sitting. Otherwise the news would have leveled her. Her mind scrambled to process the chaos Molly’s decision created. No, she couldn’t go there, refused to accept bad news until she knew she couldn’t change it. “You can’t quit. We’re so close. I feel it. Hold off a little longer. At least until the state fair contest.” This year the Colorado state fair was having a music competition with the winner receiving a consultation with Phillip Brandise, one of the top movers and shakers in country music. “I want to have kids. My biological clock’s ticking so loud I’m going deaf. I’m afraid if I don’t make some changes now I’ll wake up one day and it’ll be too late. I’ll have given up everything that really matters, and for what? Nights spent on the stage in two-bit restaurants and bars. I’ve taken a job as an orchestra director at a private school in Denver, and Dave’s requested a transfer. We should be able to buy a house in a few months, and hopefully soon we’ll be pregnant. The movers arrive this weekend to pack everything up.” Emma stared at the other woman, someone she thought she knew fairly well, as if she’d said she was going to take up brain surgery. “How can you give up now?” “I’ve found something I want more. I’ll still have music in my life. It just won’t be the center of my universe.” Now that Emma’s shock had subsided, her anger kicked in. How dare Molly bail on the rest of the band? People who had counted on her, who thought they’d shared the same goal. “We’ve got appearances scheduled and the state fair is less than a month away. What’re we supposed to do? Do you know how long it will take to find a replacement?” “I meant to talk to you when I applied for the teaching position, but the time never seemed right.” “Really? I seem to remember a lot of opportunities that would’ve been perfect. How about when we talked about signing up for the state fair contest, or when we were planning career strategies for next year to increase our visibility and presence on social media? Those would’ve been pretty good times to mention you were thinking about quitting.” Molly nodded and clasped her hands in her lap. “You’re right. The truth is I didn’t want to face you. I didn’t think you’d understand.” She was right about that. Emma didn’t understand how someone could let go of a dream she’d spent years working toward, especially when they were so close. How could they find another fiddle player, integrate that person into the band and be ready for a performance at a major contest in less than a month? She’d manage that because she had to. Sure, she enjoyed her job at the shelter, but she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life as a volunteer coordinator. Music was her life. Playing the guitar, singing and writing songs wasn’t what she did. It was a part of who she was, but playing in local bars and at weddings wasn’t enough. She wanted more, and no way would she let this opportunity pass her by. She’d do whatever was necessary to keep her dream alive. Nothing else mattered. “I won’t lie. I don’t understand how you can say teaching music to children will be enough for you, but if you think that’ll make you happy, then that’s what you have to do.” I just wish your decision wasn’t throwing my dream into a tailspin, but if you don’t want this as much as I do, then it’s a good thing you’re leaving. As she watched Molly leave, Emma thought, six months. That’s all it would take before Molly called to say she’d made a mistake leaving the band. Life could sidetrack people with dreams. Parents got sick. Keeping a roof over their heads or wanting to eat food other than ramen noodles got in the way, but ambitions like theirs never died. She glanced at her notes for her volunteer orientation and training but couldn’t focus. As day jobs went, hers as volunteer coordinator for the Estes Park animal shelter was a pretty good one. It had its perks, the biggest of which being on tough days like today she could hide in the kennels and play with puppies until she could face the world. Yup. A little puppy therapy was the only thing that kept her going today. * * * TWENTY MINUTES LATER Emma looked up from her spot on the kennel floor when her best friend and boss, Avery Montgomery, walked in. “You’re playing with puppies. What’s wrong?” “Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed unless you cuddle puppies.” Emma pulled the wiggling black bundle closer to her chest as she gave Avery a quick rundown of her conversation with Molly. “Unless we find a new fiddle player, last weekend’s performance may have been Maroon Peak Pass’s swan song.” “What’re the chances you can find a replacement relatively quickly?” Avery asked as she settled onto the floor beside Emma. One fluffy, roly-poly pup crawled off Emma’s lap and waddled over to her friend. “It’s harder than you think. Talented musicians who are serious about their craft are already in bands and most aren’t looking to change.” “Can you go on without a fiddle if you can’t find someone else in time for the state fair contest?” “It’s hard enough to stand out among all the country acts. Adding Molly helped define our sound. Now all of our arrangements and the new music I’ve written are for a band with a fiddle. I don’t want to think about how long it would take to rework everything. We’d definitely have to cancel our upcoming engagements.” “I’m sorry, Em. I know how much the band means to you.” Avery scooped up a pup and scratched him behind the ears. Avery was one of the few people in her life who truly understood how her need for a career in country music drove her. Emma wished her family understood better. They couldn’t grasp why she wasn’t content with her job at the shelter. It was stable and provided her with a paycheck every two weeks. She could play musician on the weekends. Why did she want more? She couldn’t put her need into words. She only knew she couldn’t settle for less than giving a music career her best shot. Not now, when she was older and wiser than when she’d dashed off to Nashville at eighteen all full of hopes and dreams but not much common sense. “I wish Molly had waited a little longer to quit. Even a day. I could’ve handled it better. Why did she have to tell me today?” Emma bit her lip and tried to ignore the ache spreading through her. “He turns seven today. Between that and Molly’s bombshell, it’s too much to take.” Seven years ago she gave birth to a son and watched the nurse walk out of the room to hand him to someone else to raise. Chapter Two (#ulink_2e6fbd6e-fff9-59a9-ae06-58b918175c56) Emma didn’t even know her son’s name. The pain that enveloped her after she’d given him up for adoption had been overwhelming. Looking back she had no idea how she’d gotten through those first few months, but somehow she had. While the sting had lessened over the years, her emotions still flared up at times. Certain days were worse than others—Christmas, Mother’s Day and her son’s birthday. Each year they became easier to get through, but something was different with his birthday this year. “I’m sorry, Em. I forgot what today was. I can’t imagine how tough this is for you every year.” “I think of him a lot, but I’ve been doing that more than usual lately. Sometimes I wonder what he looks like and what he’s doing. Does he like sports? Is he taking piano lessons?” The list of questions was endless. Did he have her dark coloring and green eyes, or Tucker’s golden hair and brown eyes? Had he inherited their musical ability? The puppy she held snuggled closer to her chest all warm and fuzzy, full of endless energy and unconditional love. While puppy kisses couldn’t fix all the world’s problems, they definitely helped. “The questions I understand, but it shouldn’t hurt this much. It didn’t last year. I don’t get what’s going on.” “Have you contacted—” Avery paused for a minute, lines of concern evident on her beautiful face. Emma recognized the awkwardness. It showed up whenever anyone considered saying a certain phrase to her. “It’s okay. You can say the word. Parents. Have I contacted his parents?” “Have you? Maybe they’ve changed their minds about the closed adoption. Could be they’d agree to send you photos or updates on how he’s doing. Then you wouldn’t have to wonder.” “You know me. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl. When I quit dating a guy I can’t be friends. How could I be happy with emails and a few pictures?” “I wish I had an answer for you.” Emma did, too. It would be so much easier if life came with an instruction manual. Then, during the rough spots, she could flip the book open and read the directions. For this type of life problem, do A, then B and everything will turn out great. “I bet Tucker never thinks about me or our son.” He’d barely thought about her when they were living together. The familiar anger welled up inside her—at him for his wandering eye, and other body parts for that matter, as well as at herself for her schoolgirl foolishness. “His band with that trailer-trash Miranda Lambert imitation has a top-ten album. They’re on a world tour, performing in front of thousands of people while I’m playing weddings and anniversary parties.” And working a day job to pay the bills. She and Tucker had been high school sweethearts and the star vocalists in the choir. The fall after graduation they’d packed up their belongings and headed for Nashville. Soon after arriving, Emma had discovered there were hundreds of other young hopefuls who’d done the same thing, and breaking into the industry was tougher than they imagined. Her relationship with Tucker hadn’t gone according to plan, either. Things grew rocky between them within a week and got steadily worse. Then, two days after she’d told him she was pregnant, he’d waltzed into their dumpy studio apartment and announced he didn’t love her anymore. Just like that. No buildup. No preparation. No warning. Since by that point she wasn’t all that crazy about him either, it was a horrible relief when he moved out. “Hearing about how well his career is going has to be tough,” Avery said. “I don’t begrudge him his success—” “You may not, but I sure do. He didn’t earn it. Not when the song that got him noticed and led to his recording contract was yours, too.” “I’ve changed my mind. You’re right. He doesn’t deserve it.” When Emma had stumbled across a video of him on YouTube, she’d discovered the ass had taken one of the songs they’d written, though he swore he wrote it alone, changed the lyrics slightly—emphasis on slightly—and performed it with his new band. The song’s video had received over a million hits and landed him a recording contract. That blow had broken Emma’s spirit. Skinny because her morning sickness lasted all day, broke and depressed, she’d hit rock bottom, packed up her meager belongings and headed home to patch up her wounds. “How could I have fallen in love with such an ass?” “Cut yourself some slack. You were young, and he was your first love.” Avery released her squirming pup, who bounded off and tackled one of his siblings. Age and lack of experience explained her mistake with Tucker, but what about Clint? She couldn’t say the same for him, since she’d made that blunder two years ago. How could she have missed the fact that he was nothing more than Tucker version two-point-oh? “We need to make a Tucker voodoo doll,” Avery said. “Now, why didn’t I think of that? The idea has definite possibilities.” “I wonder if he’d lose his voice if we stuck pins where his vocal chords are.” “Better yet, let’s harpoon him in another more private area and hope he loses use of that little piece of equipment.” That would serve him right for hooking up with every blonde who could carry a tune—even if she needed a bucket to do it—when they were together. “That’s the spirit. All guys aren’t like him, you know.” Avery had always believed in love and happily ever after. Even after her high school sweetheart had left for Stanford and broken up with her via email. Then, a year ago, Reed’s brother was deployed to Afghanistan and he returned to Estes Park to stay with his teenage niece. After a bumpy ride, the pair had cleared the air, fallen in love all over again and married soon after that. “If you want to take the day off, I can handle things around here.” Emma shook her head. “Thanks, but no, thanks. I’d rather be here and stay busy. If I go home all I’ll do is throw on sweatpants and crawl on the couch to eat Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Chocolate Chip ice cream while I watched Thelma and Louise. That’s just a pathetic pity party, and I refuse to do that.” Not now. Not when she’d come so far. “But you can help me make that voodoo doll.” * * * MICK HALLIGAN STOPPED when he walked into his restaurant. For a minute he stood and surveyed what he’d built. With the Formica tables, industrial-style chairs with the plastic padded seats and the country memorabilia, some people would call his place a hick bar, but looks were deceiving. His restaurant was so much more. People came to Halligan’s to connect, to celebrate special times with family and friends. Everyone, staff and customers, knew each other and their lives were interconnected. They meant something to each other. “I’ve got a plan, but I need your help,” Mick said to his friend of almost fifty years and fellow Vietnam War vet, Gene Donovan, when he walked into the kitchen. “Is it something for the business?” Gene asked as he stood chopping onions for the marinara sauce for the meatball sub sandwiches. “This has to do with family. Mine and yours.” “You know whatever it is, I’m in.” “I knew you would be, but I thought I’d ask anyway.” Mick sometimes wondered how he would’ve made it through the hell of Vietnam if Gene hadn’t been there in the trenches with him. They’d kept each other sane through the madness. Then, when shrapnel had torn Mick apart and he’d lain in a heap bleeding like a stuck pig, Gene had literally saved his life. Risking his own neck under heavy gunfire, Gene had made his way to Mick and dragged him to safety. “I’ve been thinking about what matters in my life. It’s family, friends, my ranch and this place. What good is having land and a business if I don’t have anyone to leave them to?” “You’ve got your daughter.” A daughter who’d written him off along with the rest of her past. Having a cowboy, Vietnam vet father who ran a country-western bar didn’t sit well with Kimberly or her hotshot corporate executive husband. “Fat lot of good that does me.” When he’d realized Kimberly wouldn’t visit him for fear of her husband learning about her wild-child past and the son she’d given up for adoption, Mick had offered to come to California, but she always had an excuse why that wouldn’t work. They were moving or remodeling the house. Her husband was in the middle of a big deal at work. While he wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, Mick had finally got the message and stopped asking. “If I leave everything to Kimberly, all she’ll do is sell what I’ve built and pocket the money. I’m not about to spend eternity rolling over in my grave because a developer built condos or a resort on my land, and I don’t even want to think about what she’d do to this place.” Gene nodded in agreement. “That would make for an unhappy afterlife. What do you have in mind to do about it?” “I’ve been thinking about Jamie. He understands the way I feel about the land and this place.” Mick smiled at the memories and the wonder in his grandson’s eyes when they’d ridden around the ranch for the first time. The kid had taken to being on a horse like he’d been on one all his life. Some things were just in a man’s blood, and Mick knew the land was in Jamie’s. “I want to leave everything to him.” “Then do it.” “I intend to, but I miss having family around. I miss Jamie. He’s my only grandchild. Hell, my only real family other than you.” Since his wife, Carol, had died five years ago, the loneliness had settled into Mick’s bones and his soul. Mick glanced at the clock on the wall. The other staff wouldn’t arrive for at least a half hour. Good. He didn’t want anyone overhearing what he was about to say to his old friend. “I’m going to tell you something, but you’ve got to promise not to tell anyone.” “Haven’t I kept more than one of your secrets over the years?” “You sure have, but this one’s different. It’s not my secret.” Gene glared at him. “Like that makes a difference to me.” “Jamie’s hand didn’t heal right.” Mick explained about his grandson’s troubles. “I keep thinking about when I had to give up music. It damn near killed me. This place, your friendship and the love of a good woman saved me.” “Are you getting to the point about the plan and needing my help anytime soon?” “Hold your horses. I had to tell you all this before I could get to my idea,” Mick said, taking his time despite his friend’s good-natured ribbing. “Jamie and your Emma would be perfect for each other. Who knows what would’ve happened between them if he hadn’t gone back to Juilliard at the end of that summer. Hell, they might even be married by now.” “That’s a mighty big leap you just took. Sure, they dated, but as I remember, it wasn’t anything serious.” “If you ask me, it would’ve gotten serious if Jamie had been planning on sticking around. You can’t tell me there wasn’t a spark between our grandkids. I saw it. Could be all they need now is a little nudge to get things restarted. What harm can some matchmaking do? Mothers and grandmothers have been doing it for years.” “And men have been telling them to knock it off.” “Since we can lead the horses to water but can’t make them drink, what do we have to lose?” “They could get so mad they won’t speak to us,” Gene said as he stirred the simmering barbeque sauce for the pulled pork sandwiches. “That’s a real possibility considering how Emma feels about musicians. She rates them between politicians and lawyers.” “This is my grandson we’re talking about. Emma won’t find a better man than Jamie anywhere.” “That’s true, but considering the way Kimberly acted when Jamie contacted her, do you think he can get past the fact that Emma gave up a child for adoption?” Mick still couldn’t believe a child of his and Carol’s had acted the way their daughter had when Jamie had contacted her ten years ago. Instead of welcoming the eighteen-year-old, his daughter had told Jamie she wanted nothing to do with him and slammed the door in his face. Then she’d called Mick, who’d told her to be honest with her husband, insisting a man who’d leave her over getting pregnant at sixteen and giving the child up wasn’t worth holding on to. What he’d got for his advice was a lecture about what a wonderful man his son-in-law was and a request that Mick not have any contact with Jamie, either. He’d told his daughter straight-out that she could do what she wanted with her life, but she couldn’t tell him what to do with his, and he’d set out to locate his grandson. When he’d found Jamie a few months later, he’d invited him for a visit, and Jamie had flown to Colorado for spring break. “I can’t tell you why, but I know your granddaughter and my grandson are meant to be together. You’re just gonna have to trust me.” Gene shook his head. “I would like to see Emma happy with a man who’ll treat her right. What do you have in mind?” “First, I think I’ll be too sick tomorrow to pick Jamie up at the airport, and you’ll be too busy handling everything here at the restaurant to go.” “And I’ll ask my granddaughter to help out by picking up Jamie.” “That’s the first step.” * * * THE ENTICING SMELL of tomatoes sautéing with garlic wafted through the air as Emma rushed in the kitchen door to Halligan’s. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled, making her wish she hadn’t punched the snooze button so many times she had to skip breakfast. Now all she could think of was how her grandfather’s meatball sub would hit the spot. After giving Grandpa G a quick kiss on his weathered cheek, she asked, “What’s so important that I have to drop everything and come over here?” While she loved her family, sometimes she wished there weren’t so many of them, or that a few of them lived farther away. Both sets of grandparents, her father and three older brothers all living in one town of eight thousand people could be overwhelming. Worse yet, she couldn’t catch a cold without her entire family knowing about it within an hour, and half of them calling with advice, and yet, how often had she been at family gatherings and felt completely alone? “Mick called. He’s sick, so I have to handle things around here.” “It’s not anything serious, is it?” Her grandfather shook his head. “It’s just a stomach bug, but there’s no way he can make the drive to Denver to pick up his grandson at the airport. He wanted me to ask if you’d help him out by picking Jamie up.” She hadn’t thought about Jamie Westland in a long time. For two summers when she was in high school they’d worked together at Halligan’s. They’d even dated a few times after she’d broken up with Tucker when she’d discovered he’d been two-timing her with Monica Ritz. Had that been a big red flag waving in her face, warning her of what life would be like with Tucker, or what? But Jamie had been different. When they’d been together he’d made her feel as though she mattered, because he’d focused solely on her. They’d gone out for pizza and caught a couple of movies that summer. Nothing major, because they’d both known he’d be returning to Juilliard in the fall. Well, except for some heavy necking. What would’ve happened between them if he hadn’t been returning to New York? If their plans hadn’t been so different? Would she still have gotten back together with Tucker? She shook her head. What good did wondering do? It wasn’t as if she could change the past. “You could have asked me that on the phone, Grandpa. If you had, it would’ve saved me a trip over here, and I could’ve had breakfast.” “Why didn’t you tell me you hadn’t eaten?” Her grandfather strode to the refrigerator and grabbed what she recognized as the ingredients for her favorite breakfast—an omelet with spinach, mushrooms and Roma tomatoes. “Feeding me won’t get you what you want. I can’t pick Jamie up at the airport. I’ve got a volunteer orientation and training all day.” “That’s not a problem. His flight doesn’t get in until eight tonight,” Grandpa G said as he threw together her omelet and poured the egg mixture into a hot pan. So much for the convenient excuse. “Can’t Jamie rent a car?” “He’s from New York City. Who knows if he can drive?” There were people in the U.S. who couldn’t drive? Really? She found that hard to believe. She thought about the summer she and Jamie had dated. “Wait a minute. I remember him driving Mick’s truck on a couple of our dates.” “Oh, well. Hmm. I forgot about that.” Her grandfather shuffled back and forth, his brows furrowed together in thought as he concentrated on the pan in front of him. Then he plated her omelet and handed the mouthwatering goodness to her along with a fork. “Of course, that was before he spent all those years in the Big Apple. Who knows if he still has a valid driver’s license?” “You can’t be serious.” She scooped up a bite of her omelet. The fluffy concoction melted in her mouth. No matter how many times she tried, hers never turned out like Grandpa G’s, but she wouldn’t let his wonderful cooking sway her. “All I know is that Mick asked me to ask you to pick up Jamie at the airport, and that’s what I’m doing. I don’t know why you’re being so difficult.” She was being difficult? She didn’t know what alien had taken over her grandfather’s body, but there was no reasoning with him today. “With as much family as we have in town there has to be someone else who can pick him up.” Grandpa G placed the knife on the cutting board, turned and stared at her. He waved his hand around the kitchen. “Does it look like I have time to call around to find someone else to do this for me?” Line cooks, dishwashers and everyone else in the kitchen froze, turned and stared with their mouths hanging open in disbelief at her grandfather’s sharp tone. Now she knew something was wrong. Either that or he’d taken cranky pills along with his vitamins this morning. In her entire life she never remembered him raising his voice to anyone. She stepped around the counter and placed her hand on his arm. “What’s really going on?” He rubbed the back of his neck, and when he met her gaze, weariness filled his usually bright eyes. “I’m nervous about handling everything around here with Mick out today.” Things were growing stranger by the minute. Her grandfather routinely managed the restaurant when Mick was gone without breaking a sweat. He’d once told her that after a tour in Vietnam, he’d handled the worst life had to throw at him and nothing else could ever come close. “Are you sure that’s all that’s bothering you?” “Emma Jean, with a J, unlike my name, Gene with a G, Donovan. Do this little favor for me. Pick Jamie up at the airport. Then I won’t have to worry about it.” How could she say no to that, especially after he’d pulled out the big guns by making her favorite breakfast and using her full name, emphasizing the fact that she’d been named after him? The question was why was this so important? Instinct told her she wasn’t getting the whole story. “I’ll make a deal,” she conceded. “I’ll call around. If I can’t find someone else to pick Jamie up, I will.” Her grandfather yanked the towel off his apron and swiped the cloth almost frantically across the counter, clearing away the remnants of mushrooms and spinach he’d chopped for her omelet. “You promise you’ll pick Jamie up if no one else can?” She nodded, and his rigid stance relaxed. “I heard about Molly quitting the band. Are you having any luck finding a replacement?” The abrupt change in conversation left her a little dizzy. While he supported her musical career more than most of her family, she could count the number of times on one hand her grandfather had asked about the business side of things. “I’ve got some possibilities, but I’ve been so busy with my day job I haven’t had time to contact anyone.” Luke, her bass player, had offered to make the calls, but Emma had gently nixed the suggestion. She’d put Maroon Peak Pass together. She managed their engagements, wrote their music and created their arrangements of other artists’ songs. No way was anyone being scheduled to audition without her screening him first. “You know Jamie’s a fiddle player,” her grandfather said. “What about asking him to play with you?” “There’s a big difference between playing in a country band and performing with a symphony. Asking Jamie to join Maroon Peak Pass would be like asking a soccer player to all of a sudden play football.” As if Jamie would be interested anyway. Had her grandfather lost his mind? “Soccer players often become kickers in football.” Vitamins. Check. Cranky pills. Check. Add taking crazy pills to the list. “I was just throwing the idea out there.” “That’s something to consider.” But only if it was between canceling the band’s upcoming engagements, asking Jamie or recruiting someone from the high school orchestra. * * * LATER THAT NIGHT Emma arrived at the Denver airport only to discover Jamie’s flight had been delayed by bad weather. She’d tried to find someone else to pick him up, but she should’ve known how that plan would turn out and saved the time she’d wasted. Why was it whenever she needed help everyone in her family had a ready excuse? Brandon had to work at the fire station, but he was the only one with a valid reason. Everyone else either had plans like getting together with friends, or worse, they hadn’t bothered to return her call. At least she’d brought her tablet so she could work while she waited. As she sat in the unyielding chairs in the baggage claim area, she put out word on social media about the band’s situation. That done, she contacted the electric fiddle players she’d thought of, managing to coerce two to audition. She called the people Luke and Grayson, their drummer, had recommended, screened them and set up auditions for a couple, despite the fact that none of the candidates seemed overly promising. The kids in the high school orchestra were looking better all the time. Lord, desperation was ugly. The grind of the baggage claim broke into her thoughts, and she gazed at the monitor above the carousel, noting Jamie’s flight had arrived. She scanned the rush of passengers streaming into the baggage claim area. Picking Jamie out of the crowd would have been easy even if he hadn’t been carrying the violin case. In the years since she’d seen him, his resemblance to Mick had become more pronounced. Same whiskey-colored straight hair, strong jaw, stark cheekbones and five-o’clock shadow. Normally she didn’t like the scruffy look on men, but on Jamie, it worked. Very well. His long, lean build had filled out and his shoulders were broader now. He’d changed from a teenager to a man. When he moved toward her, her pulse jumped and the tiniest warm glow spread through her. For a city boy, he sure had Mick’s Western swagger down. Who’d have guessed that was genetic? As she approached, his gaze zeroed in on her with an intensity that left her almost weak. She didn’t know what had happened in the years since she’d seen him, but something had because it showed in his eyes. Good looks she could ignore because a pretty face could disguise a multitude of flaws, but eyes like Jamie’s? That was tougher to resist. She’d always been a sucker for soulful eyes. Too bad he had such a big strike against him—being a musician. Otherwise it might be fun getting reacquainted because he was one fine-looking man. But Emma knew better than to press her luck. For Jamie Westland, as far as she was concerned, one strike and he was out. Chapter Three (#ulink_c9bd0968-b457-5c77-bc39-4cfa941c8e86) “Emma? Right?” Jamie said, his deep brown eyes filled with curiosity when she reached him. “What’re you doing here? Are you meeting someone?” “Mick didn’t tell you I was picking you up? He wasn’t feeling well,” she said, trying to ignore her bruised feminine ego. While they hadn’t seen each other in years, how could he not remember her? They weren’t exactly strangers. Not that anyone would know from his reaction to seeing her today. No woman wanted to realize she’d been so forgettable a guy she’d dated couldn’t even remember her name. “He might have left me a message, but I forgot to turn my phone back on.” Jamie reached into his back pocket and pulled out his cell. “I guess you’re not one of those people who are constantly attached to the thing, then, huh?” “Sometimes it’s nice to unplug and really get away.” Heaviness tinged his voice and she wondered if something more than a simple vacation brought him to Estes Park. She shoved aside her curiosity. He was a nice guy, but considering what she had going on in her life she needed a man like she needed a two-string guitar that was out of tune. “Sure enough. I’ve got a missed call from Mick and have a voice mail,” he said once he turned on his phone and glanced at the screen. After he listened to the message he said, “He probably called while I was in the air.” The grumble of the baggage conveyor belt and the conversations of family and friends reuniting swirled around them, making her more aware of the awkwardness between them. “You didn’t have to drive all the way here to pick me up. I could’ve rented a car.” She laughed. “You should’ve heard the conversation I had with my grandfather about that. He wondered if you had a valid driver’s license. When I reminded him that you knew how to drive, he wondered if you’d forgotten since you live in New York City.” No reaction to her reference to their past relationship. Ouch. “He said that? Is this the same man who could recall every memory from the time he was three with uncanny clarity? That grandfather?” “That’s the one.” Not sure what else to say, they both turned their attention to the suitcases traveling past them. She wished his bags would hurry up and arrive. The next thing they’d be talking about was the weather. “I’m sorry my flight was late. Storms rolled in just before we were scheduled to leave. Lots of lightning and driving rain.” She wanted to groan at his comment. If things between them remained this strained, it was going to be a long ride to Estes Park. Maybe he was tired from the flight and would fall asleep in the car. That would be better than talking about the weather for an hour and a half. They both stared straight ahead as black bags of various sizes filed past their view, the only distinguishing feature being the luggage tags. Then, out of nowhere, a toddler in denim shorts, a Grandma Loves Me Because I’m Cute T-shirt and light-up tennis shoes zoomed past them, heading for the carousel. “Hey, little man, where are you going?” Jamie scooped up the boy, who immediately tried to wiggle free as he pointed to the parade of luggage. “I know that looks like fun, but I want you to keep all your fingers. Now, where’s your mom?” While she’d been thinking someone should make sure the child didn’t get into trouble, Jamie had acted. Emma couldn’t help but stare as the exhaustion that had lined his face and filled his voice disappeared. A huge smile lit up his features and his eyes sparkled with affection as he held the toddler. A memory of a night years ago in Nashville when Tucker had arrived to pick her up after her shift at the diner flashed in her mind. A vacationing family with two unruly young children had been seated in her section. When she’d told him she couldn’t leave until they left, Tucker said he’d wait outside and mumbled something about how parents shouldn’t take their kids in public if they couldn’t control them. Definitely a different attitude from the man filling her vision now. Jamie looked so comfortable and at ease. She thought about how he’d stepped in with this child. He’d always been the kind of man who did what needed to be done without a lot of fanfare, without having to be asked. He just took care of things and those around him. As she watched the pair, the boy grabbed Jamie’s nose. Eyes alight with mischief, Jamie said, “Beep.” The child’s eyes widened at the sound. He released Jamie’s nose, only to grab it again. “Beep.” Both males erupted into giggles, and Emma’s heart tightened. Her biological clock, the one she’d have sworn possessed a dead battery, kicked into gear, making her ache. First Jamie’s soulful eyes and now this. She’d have to watch her step with this guy. He could make a woman forget everything but him and the life they could have together. “Cayden? Where are you?” A woman’s panicked voice cut through Emma’s thoughts. “He’s over here,” she called out to the slender woman who was frantically scanning the area. “There’s your mom now,” Jamie said. “Momma?” Cayden responded as he squirmed in Jamie’s arms. “I’m hanging on to you. Who knows what trouble you’ll get into if I set you free. I’m not sure the world’s ready for that.” “He really could’ve gotten hurt if you hadn’t corralled him,” Emma said. “I was a lot like this guy when I was young. Sometimes I had more curiosity than common sense.” He peered down at the boy in his arms. “Pal, you’re gonna have to work on curbing that before it gets you into major trouble.” “You’re right about that,” Cayden’s mother said when she reached them. She tucked stray strands of hair that had come loose from her sloppy ponytail behind her ear before she took her son from Jamie and introduced herself. She then hugged the boy so tight he squealed in protest. “I can’t thank you enough for snagging him. My friend was supposed to meet us, but she must be running late. We’ve been in New York visiting my parents. I turned around to grab my suitcase and Cayden was gone. I’ve never been so scared in my life.” “Glad I could help, Dana,” Jamie said. “Do you need a ride? Are you sure your friend’s coming?” Emma asked. Before Dana could answer, her cell phone pinged. “I bet that’s her now.” She dug through the diaper bag, located her phone and checked her texts. After discovering her friend was waiting outside the airport, she thanked Jamie again, and then before she left, she leaned over to whisper in Emma’s ear. “He’s going to make a great father. Don’t let him get away. There aren’t a lot like him left these days.” Even if Emma was looking for someone to spend the rest of her life with, she wouldn’t chose a musician. They were too temperamental and the business was too demanding. Making it and staying anywhere close to the top took everything a person had to give and still the business wanted more. Two people with those kinds of pressures couldn’t maintain a relationship. Too bad because unless he’d changed a lot, Dana was right. Jamie still looked like one of the good guys. * * * EMMA DONOVAN. JAMIE had almost stopped cold when he saw her in the baggage claim at the airport. How he’d managed to act nonchalant, even going so far as to pretend he didn’t remember her name, he didn’t know. Especially when his heart had been banging against his ribs like cymbals during a John Philip Sousa march. Slender, yet curvy enough to fill a man’s hands, she’d filled out in all the right ways and looked even better than she had in high school. With her long black hair and shining green eyes, Emma sure could get his pulse going. He remembered her all too well...and the fact that he’d been more interested in her than she’d been in him when they’d dated. She’d been seventeen and he nineteen. When he’d heard she’d broken up with her boyfriend, he’d jumped at the chance to ask her out. They’d gone out a few times, and then she’d ended things with him. Emma had taught him a valuable lesson: never be the first guy a woman dates after breaking up with her boyfriend. In this case, being number one was not what a guy wanted. “When did you move back to town?” he asked in a lame attempt at conversation as they made their way to the parking lot and her car. “It’s been almost two years.” “Mick said you were in Nashville singing with a band, and that things were going well. What brought you back?” “This and that.” She unlocked the doors and got in her car. The door closed with a quiet thud behind her. “How about you? What brings you to Estes Park?” Her short comment, combined with how she gripped the steering wheel so tight her fingers whitened, sent a message even a guy with the social skills of a Neanderthal could read. He’d touched on a sore subject. “Doesn’t the Philharmonic have a tour coming up? Mick’s been telling anyone who would listen all about it. I’m surprised you could get away.” Now he cringed. Discussions about his career and its impending doom were exactly what he’d come to get away from, but what did he expect? When people hadn’t seen each other for years or just met, what did they ask about? A person’s career. What could he say that was the truth, yet wasn’t, and didn’t lead to any further discussion? “They didn’t have a problem with me leaving.” He tried not to wince at what he’d said, since technically it was true. He was just leaving out the more important details. He stared out the window as they left the airport parking lot and turned onto Interstate 270 West. As the Denver city lights faded into the distance, the sun turned the rugged Rocky Mountains all orange and yellow. The beauty of the land still amazed Jamie. The constant strength of the mountains tapped into a part of him that craved stability and certainty. The Rockies would always be here. He liked that. They gave him something to come back to again and again. “It’s been raining a lot in New York lately,” he said when he couldn’t stand the silence any longer. “I’m glad to be getting away from that. Hopefully the weather will stay nice so I can do some hiking and horseback riding while I’m here.” “If the weather forecasters are right, you should be fine.” It was going to be a long hour and a half to Estes Park. They could only talk about the weather for so long. * * * WHEN EMMA TURNED onto the drive leading to Mick’s house, Jamie thanked her again for the ride. “I’m sure I’ll see you around.” “In a small town it’s hard not to.” Don’t sound so excited. More disappointment than he wanted to admit spun through him. Message received. He opened the car door, grabbed his suitcase and headed up the walkway to Mick’s house as Emma drove away. Too bad, though. They could have had some fun, and he could use a little of that right now. Mick sat waiting for him, perched in his rocking chair on the front porch. “So life’s been a little rough lately.” “It could be better, but then I guess it could be worse.” And would be if his hand failed to regain its strength and dexterity. His grandfather nodded toward the front door. “You know the way to your room. Drop your stuff off and meet me back here. I swear there’s no better place to think than this front porch.” As Jamie walked into the house, he smiled at the pictures of Mick when he’d played with his band, ones of his life with his wife and events at Halligan’s displayed everywhere. The progression of a life. One that meant something. Like his parents’ house, this place was a home filled with memories where love lingered in every corner. Once upstairs in the spare bedroom, he placed his suitcase in the corner. Nothing about this room had changed since the first night he’d slept here. The antique furniture so like Mick himself—Western in style, strong, sturdy and able to stand the test of time—had belonged to Mick’s parents, a tangible link to past ancestors. He ran his hand over the quilt his grandmother had made, wishing he’d had more time to get to know her. Once back on the porch, he sank into the weathered rocking chair Mick had given his wife when they’d moved into the house as newlyweds, and he stared at the mountains looming around him. “Emma really helped me out, but then, that’s what she does. She’s a good girl, that one. She’s held her family together over the past two years.” Was that what had stolen the sparkle he used to see in her eyes? She’d seemed different from what he remembered. Subdued. Distant almost. “She needs to have a life of her own, but every time she tries to, something happens,” Mick added, and glanced his way as if expecting him to ask for details. The words to ask what had happened with Emma sat perched on Jamie’s tongue, but he pushed aside the thought. He had enough on his mind without looking for more. “Now her fiddle player’s quit.” “That’s too bad,” Jamie said, refusing to rise to the bait Mick dangled in front of him. He was here to clear his head and sort out his future. Women had a way of short-circuiting a man’s brain. Best to keep from sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong. A lot safer, too. The moon cast a pale glow over the mountains. Gazing over land that had been in Mick’s family for generations, Jamie couldn’t help but feel a connection to his past. At times he felt like two people compressed into one body. The person created by his DNA that determined his height, the color of his eyes and his musical ability, and the person created by the parents who’d raised him. But what percentage came from which source? He suspected his need for stability, his craving an anchor in his life came from his parents. They’d provided that calm presence, that guiding force in his life, and the older he got the more he wanted that same connection they had with each other. The one he saw flicker in their eyes when they smiled at each other. He wasn’t sure how long he and Mick sat rocking on the porch. The rustling wind through the trees mixed with the creaking of the rockers and their voices as they talked about the restaurant, the ranch and what Jamie could do to keep busy. The conversation soothed his battered nerves. Nothing important or earth-shattering, but the chat was exactly what he needed. Ordinary and uncomplicated. “I haven’t told anyone about your hand, so no one should bother you about that here, but I am going to say one thing about what you’re going through. Then I won’t bring it up again,” Mick said. “Just because you can’t play the fiddle like you used to doesn’t mean you can’t play another instrument. Maybe you could play guitar in a country band. You ever thought about that?” Jamie shook his head. “I never considered doing anything else.” Probably because he hadn’t been exposed to other types of music growing up. When his musical ability became apparent, his parents had encouraged him to pursue classical music. That’s what they listened to. Math and music went hand in hand. Classical music appealed to them because it possessed a sense of order, precision and structure. Contemporary music seemed so chaotic to them. “I think you’d be a natural,” Mick continued. “After all, you’re my grandson, and it’s clear you got my musical talent.” As an adult, when he listened to music he chose country or rock. Listening to classical felt too much like work. Popular music let him escape. But playing it? He mulled the idea over. Maybe Mick’s suggestion wasn’t that crazy. Something new might be just what he needed. For as long as he could remember he’d sung around the house and made up tunes. He smiled recalling how that habit used to drive his sisters crazy. At five he’d started composing his own songs and performing for the family. “That’s something to consider.” Because if he couldn’t return to the symphony, he couldn’t see his life without performing. Not that teaching wasn’t a worthy profession, but there was something about being onstage that gave him a high as addictive as any drug, left him aching for a fix now, but it was more than that. He knew performing was where he was meant to be. “Which hand do you use on the neck of that fancy fiddle of yours?” “The left. The one I injured.” If he’d injured his bow hand he might have been able to stay with the symphony. “String instruments have a lot in common,” Mick said. “With a guitar you play the chords with your left hand. That doesn’t take as much dexterity. You do all the fast picking and strumming with your right hand. The hand that’s working just fine.” Mick stood, headed into the house and returned a minute later with a guitar, which he handed to Jamie. “This was my first guitar. When I was a teenager I took any job I could get to save up to buy this. After I got hurt I couldn’t bring myself to give it away. I guess part of me never quit hoping I’d be able to play again.” The instrument felt awkward in Jamie’s grasp, almost backward as he settled the guitar on his lap. He wrapped his left hand around the neck. He rested his other hand against the smooth wood. His fingers itched to strum across the strings. Jamie mulled over the idea, not sure how he felt about picking up another instrument. A little voice in his head urged him to think of the guitar as another way to work his hand. Movement was exercise, and that couldn’t hurt. Combine playing the guitar with some good old-fashioned hard work and practicing his violin...who knew what could happen? All he wanted was his life back, any way he could get there. “Can you show me how to play a couple of chords?” * * * THE NEXT AFTERNOON Jamie stood behind the bar at Halligan’s unloading the dishwasher and checking stock. The physical work around the restaurant felt good. He’d been in Colorado for less than twenty-four hours, but he already felt different, almost as though he’d left his problems behind in New York. ’Course it helped that no one here was asking him what he was going to do or looking at him as if his life was over and he’d disintegrate before their eyes. As he iced down bottles of beer for the dinner crowd, his gaze strayed to Emma, who’d shown up with her band a while ago to audition violinists. Her arrival had definitely improved the view and brightened his day. Tall enough that a man wouldn’t get a stiff neck having to bend down to look at her, Emma wasn’t so tall she looked him in the eye. Her jeans molded to her feminine curves. Her black hair spilled over her shoulders. While he hadn’t spent the past several years mooning over her, he admitted she’d crept into his thoughts more than a time or six, and not just because of her looks, though she could make any man stop and look twice in her direction. Something else pulled him to her. Her openness, the warmth in her shining green eyes and her smile grabbed his attention more than anything else. When she and the band launched into another song with their current candidate, her voice, belting out the haunting melody, echoed through the room. Angels would be tempted to trade their wings to sing like Emma. Plus she played guitar like a master. The sound she drew out of her instrument could fill a man with joy or make him weep depending on her whim. He stopped dead in his tracks to listen and enjoy. The music swirled around him, working its way inside, seducing him. While Emma’s skills impressed him, he couldn’t say the same about the violinists. Noting the slight frown on Emma’s face and how her brows knitted together, he suspected she agreed. When this latest candidate sang harmony on the chorus, he wasn’t bad, but something was off. The notes were all there, but their voices didn’t mesh. Like chocolate and steak. Both good things, but together? No, thanks. But more important, Emma overpowered the man’s voice even though Jamie sensed she was backing off. When the song ended a minute later, she thanked the man and told him they’d let him know when they made a decision. Even from across the room, Jamie could see the guy realized it was a no-go. A person either felt the connection and the music worked in a group or it didn’t. This combination clearly didn’t. Jamie couldn’t blame the guy for being disappointed, though. Who wouldn’t wake up raring to race into work if he found Emma waiting for him? As the musician packed up his instrument, Emma strolled toward the bar and almost collapsed on a stool. “I always thought auditions were bad from the auditioning point of view. Now I’m realizing they’re not so hot from the other side, either.” She reached into her jeans pocket and slapped a five onto the bar. “I desperately need a Diet Coke. The ibuprofen didn’t work, but maybe the caffeine will keep my headache from going nuclear.” “I’m still in training, but I think I can handle that. Want me to put some rum in it? You look like you could use it.” Then he cringed. Slick move. Tell a girl she looks worn out. “That didn’t come out right.” “I should be offended at the comment and fire off a snappy comeback to put you in your place, but I’ll have to give you a rain check. The auditions have left me brain-dead.” She massaged her temples. “Add the rum. After all, it’s five o’clock somewhere, and we have two more auditions. I can use the liquid courage.” “Do you always practice here?” She shook her head. “Normally we use my dad’s garage, but the acoustics are better here, and for the auditions I wanted to get a better sense of how someone moves onstage. The garage is a little cramped for that.” “Your band’s good. Your voice and guitar skills are phenomenal. What’re you doing playing local joints like this?” When pain flashed in her eyes, he wanted to snatch the question back. Boy, he was on a roll. How could he have forgotten she’d made it clear yesterday that she didn’t want to discuss her career or what had brought her back to Estes Park? Now he’d done just that. So much for having better social skills than a Neanderthal. “I ask myself that daily. Every time I think I’ve got a shot at making it big, something happens.” “Like someone leaves the band.” At her raised eyebrows, he added, “Mick mentioned your violinist quit.” “If it’s not something like that, then it’s life getting in the way.” The defeat in her voice tugged at him, making him want to ease whatever weighed on her. Get over it. You’ve got enough piled on your plate without sneaking a bite off someone else’s. He reached for a glass on the shelf. When he moved to place it on the plastic mat behind the bar, his hand cramped. The glass slipped from his grasp, hit the cement floor and shattered. Applause erupted from the staff. After executing an exaggerated bow, he said, “Let me try that again with a little more skill.” He tried to ignore the twitches in his left hand as he reached for a glass with his right. After he fixed Emma’s drink without mishap and placed it in front of her, he grabbed the small hand broom and dustpan and cleaned up his mess. “Don’t tell Mick you broke a glass. He’ll take it out of your pay,” she teased. That was the least of his worries. “Since I’m working for room and board, I’ll have to go to bed without dinner and sleep in the barn.” Then, wanting to get the conversation on a safer topic, he said, “I hope the last two guys you’ve got lined up are better. The people you’ve auditioned so far don’t match the rest of the band’s ability. The first guy has possibilities. He had a tendency to drag at the beginning, but he resolved the problem quickly. Could be he’d get over that issue once he learned your style.” “Thanks for confirming my opinion, but even if he fixes the tempo issues, I’m not sure he’s right for us. Technically he’s fine, but he lacks something. He’s almost wooden. There’s no spark in his eyes or his voice when he sings.” “I noticed that, too. Could be he was nervous. Is he in a band now?” She nodded. “How’s he look when he’s onstage with them?” “Like he’s got a broom handle tied to his back.” “Chances are that won’t change.” “That’s what I’m afraid of.” She sipped her drink. “We haven’t performed without a fiddle in over a year. If we don’t find someone soon we’ll have to overhaul our repertoire or cancel appearances.” “That’s rough. If my mom were here, she’d say the most complicated problems can bring the most powerful opportunities.” “She sounds like a wise woman. I’ll try to remember that.” The front door to the restaurant opened, drawing their attention. A thirtysomething man held the door, his face beaming brighter than the sunshine spilling in behind him as he gazed at his wife and the swaddled baby she cradled in her arms. “Sorry, folks. We aren’t open yet.” “Nonsense. Come on in.” Emma turned to Jamie. “Mick won’t mind.” Jamie eyed her. “Is that true, or are you saying that because you enjoy contradicting me?” “There is that, but in this case it’s true. Matt and Naomi are regulars.” “You say that like there are people in town who aren’t.” “Good comeback.” She waved the couple forward. For the first time, the light he remembered twinkled in her eyes, making her face shine. “Don’t mind Jamie. Have a seat so I can see the baby. I was thrilled for you when I heard the news.” “We never thought this day would come,” Naomi said as she and her husband walked toward the bar. “We had to wait quite a while, but she was worth it.” Emma peered down at the baby. “She’s beautiful. What’s her name?” “Lillian Rose.” “We named her after our grandmothers,” Matt added. Emma asked about all the important statistics like when she was born, her weight and length. As Naomi answered the questions, she rubbed her daughter’s smooth cheek. “We were in the delivery room with the birth mother, and got to see Lily come into this world. That was such an incredible moment. Were the adoptive parents there with you when your baby was born?” Jamie froze. An iron fist clenched his stomach. Were the adoptive parents there with you when your baby was born? Emma had given birth to a child and given it up for adoption? When had that happened? He caught sight of her out of the corner of his vision. What did he expect? That he’d somehow be able to tell she’d given birth? Then he stole a look at her face. Was she a little pale? Her even teeth nibbled on her lower lip as if she struggled to keep her emotions under control. Could seeing this couple’s excitement be tough for her? Maybe not all women who gave up a child had a heart of stone like the woman who’d given birth to him. Chapter Four (#ulink_9edf2244-8142-5dc0-80b0-f22c5794a6ff) Emma saw Jamie’s eyes widen and his facial features tighten, revealing tiny lines around his eyes. He didn’t know. She was so accustomed to small-town life where everyone knew everything about her, it never occurred to her he might not know she’d given a child up for adoption. She could almost see the gears turning in his head as he struggled to process the information. He’s reevaluating everything he thought he knew about me. Shutting out his reaction, she turned to the couple beside her. “The adoptive parents were at the hospital, but not in the delivery room with me. We had a closed adoption.” Naomi nodded in understanding. “It was a wonderful bonding experience. Matt got to cut the umbilical cord. We feel so honored that our birth mother chose us.” Life could be so backward. Teenagers who lacked the good sense to keep a houseplant alive got pregnant when their boyfriends dropped their pants, but couples like the Sandbergs couldn’t conceive. “You two will be wonderful parents.” “We’re going to do our best.” Naomi reached out and placed her delicate hand on Emma’s arm. “I hope seeing us doesn’t bring up too many painful memories for you.” None that she couldn’t handle. “It’s great getting to see how excited you are. I did what was best for my child. He’s much better off being raised by two loving parents. Seeing you with Lily only reinforces that.” Emma twirled the straw in her drink, swirling the ice, which clinked against the glass. “It’s nice seeing the joyful side of adoption. Thanks for giving me that.” Naomi wiped her eyes. “We’re here to meet with Mick about the family get-together we’re having so everyone can meet Lily. We want him to cater the party.” “I’ll find him for you.” Jamie glanced at Emma, concern in his warm gaze, as if to ask permission. As if he were worried about her. How odd was that? She flashed him what she hoped passed for an I’m-fine smile and not one that revealed how off balance she felt. After he left for the kitchen, she congratulated Naomi and Matt again and said she needed to rejoin the band for the auditions. As she walked toward the stage on legs she worried would collapse under her, she glanced at her watch, noting she had twenty minutes until the next audition. When she reached her bandmates, she said, “How about we take a break? I need some fresh air to clear my head.” She needed time to fall apart, give in to her pity over what might have been and put herself back together. Both men nodded. She saw the questions in their eyes, but they said nothing. For a minute, as she walked toward Halligan’s back door, the fact that her bandmates failed to comment on how she wasn’t quite herself stung. But what did she expect? When she’d formed Maroon Peak Pass they’d discussed keeping their personal lives and their work separate. No getting chummy, going out to dinner or socializing at each other’s houses. No sticking their noses into each other’s affairs. She’d made the mistake of blurring the lines before with disastrous results. When she’d laid out her expectations she’d explained that, in her experience, all that led to were messy disagreements, hurt feelings and band breakups. Considering what she’d said, she had no right to be disappointed when the guys gave her exactly what she’d asked for, and yet she was. Once in the alley she collapsed on a wooden crate near the wall, and the tears spilled down her cheeks. She appreciated seeing the happier side of adoption, but the encounter with Naomi and Matt still dredged up memories she’d rather keep buried. More than it should. Her emotions regarding the adoption hadn’t been this raw in years. She shouldn’t be sitting here falling apart and feeling as if she’d been run over by a truck when she’d made the right decision. The back door creaked open, and Emma swiped a hand across her eyes. The lie that she’d come out to get fresh air and the wind blew something into her eye perched on her tongue—she turned expecting to see someone bringing out the garbage or sneaking out for a smoke. Instead there stood Jamie, concern radiating from his gaze. Those eyes could hypnotize a girl or make her spill every secret she held close. “You okay?” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “I was concerned when the guys were onstage, but you weren’t.” “I’m fine and dandy.” She flashed him her best I’m-pretending-I’m-on-top-of-the-world smile. “I’m gathering my courage for the next audition.” She stared him down, and suspected he was trying to decide whether or not to call her bluff. Come on, fold. “Your eyes give you away.” He stepped closer. When he stood in front of her, his hand cupped her face and his thumb brushed across her skin. “There’s a tear on your cheek.” She closed her eyes, savoring his touch. The simple comfort of it. It would be so easy to step into his arms, to find reassurance and strength there, and his concerned gaze told her he was more than willing to offer those things. Instead she leaned away from him and crossed her arms over her chest. She couldn’t do this; she refused to feel anything for him. She had her goals. Her plan mapped out. Nothing would get in her way. Least of all, a man. He nodded toward the door. “That had to be rough for you. I never knew you gave up a child for adoption.” She nodded. “He turned seven this week.” As Jamie sank onto the wooden crate beside her, she could tell he was doing the math in his head. “What were you? Eighteen or nineteen when you had him?” She nodded, and shoved the memories into the back of her mind before they bubbled over again. “Deciding to give him up for adoption was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I knew there was happiness and joy, the thrill of the new life ahead of them as a family on the other side, but I never saw it until today. It wasn’t real.” “Seeing you in there hit home for me how hard the decision could be for the birth mother.” So they’d both learned something. “Rumor around town said when you first contacted Kimberly, it didn’t go well.” He chuckled, she sensed more out of nervousness than humor. “That’s an understatement. The Titanic’s voyage went smoother.” “I’m sorry.” “It hurt at first, but finding out she doesn’t have much to do with Mick, either, helped. I realize now it’s not my problem. It’s hers.” He leaned toward her. “Despite knowing that, every once in a while something happens, and I get kicked in the teeth. Kind of like you did today.” He understood in a way no one else could. “It’s been weird the past couple of weeks. My son’s been on my mind more lately. I’ve got this funny feeling. I can’t put it into words, but it’s almost like I’m worried something’s wrong.” “Contact his parents.” For the first time since she’d given up her child, a person failed to stumble over the phrase. “Closed adoption, remember?” “Circumstances change. Deals get renegotiated all the time.” “I agreed to that condition for good reasons, and those haven’t changed. Coping with a birth mom as an adult has to be hard enough. You discovered that. But as a seven-year-old? I don’t want this being about me and what I need. It has to be about what’s best for my son.” “It takes a helluva person to realize that.” She clasped her hands in her lap to keep from picking at her nail polish. “I’m not sure being involved with him is what’s best for me, either. Would it be like trying to eat half a cookie? I’ve never been good at moderation.” “So you’d work on the issue, get better at it.” Life had a way of throwing enough hardships that could land a kid on a therapist’s couch without her tossing stuff at her son. That’s what worried her most. “How old were you when you found out you were adopted?” “I was in third grade. We were studying probability in school. I remember Mrs. Little talking about recessive genes and eye color. She said when two brown-eyed people have children there were three possible outcomes. She drew this table on the board to show us.” His forearms braced on his thighs, he leaned forward, staring straight ahead, his gaze hooded and distant. “I asked what the probability of two blue-eyed people having a brown-eyed child was. Mrs. Little told me that couldn’t happen.” “Your parents both have blue eyes?” He nodded. “That’s why I was so sure she was wrong. When I got home, I found out Mrs. Little had called my mom to tell her what happened. That’s when my parents told me I was adopted.” “How would you have felt if you were seven and someone showed up saying she gave birth to you?” “I don’t know what I would’ve thought. At that age, all I thought was that the person that had me couldn’t raise me so I got different parents.” “What about your parents? How would they have felt?” “That’s a tougher question. They were very supportive when I contacted Kimberly and Mick, but I was eighteen.” “And by then your relationship was established.” “Exactly, and I told them searching for my birth mother wouldn’t change that.” “What about your birth father?” “Kimberly isn’t even sure who that is.” Now she’d really stepped in it. She tried to think of what to say, but words failed her. “Don’t feel bad about asking. It is what it is.” “I wish I knew what to do. How to shake this odd feeling I’ve had lately.” “At least call the parents. Explain how you’ve been feeling. Tell them all you want to know is that your son’s okay.” She’d never considered that option. Once she knew her son was fine, that nothing was wrong, her life could return to normal. Reminders of her child would pop up some days to throw her off stride, but then the ache would recede again. “There’s one problem. Since it was a closed adoption I don’t think the agency will give me any information on the parents.” “If they won’t, I can help. I’ve gone through that kind of search.” “You’d do that?” “Why’s that so hard to believe?” She thought about his question. Why was it so hard to believe someone would offer to help her? Probably because she wasn’t the type of person everyone rushed to assist. Her family assumed she could take care of herself. After all, she’d held her own growing up with three older brothers. She came from strong stock, and that’s how everyone treated her. “I appreciate the offer.” She could at least contact the agency to tell them if the adoptive parents expressed interest, she was open to exploring a relationship, as well. A knock sounded on the door, followed by Luke poking his head outside. “Our next audition’s here.” She nodded. “I’ll be right there.” When the door closed again, she turned to Jamie, wanting to say something to thank him for his unexpected kindness, but she couldn’t find the words. What he’d done by listening and really hearing her had helped her process what she’d been feeling. When was the last time anyone other than Avery had really listened to her? The past two years it seemed as if when anyone called or stopped by to chat it was because they needed something. Her dad called when he ran out of meals in the freezer. Her grandparents, excluding her Grandpa G, called when they needed a prescription picked up or a ride to a doctor’s appointment. Her brothers called, well, never. But no one other than her best friend called to just talk or to see how she was doing. Until Jamie. Before she could change her mind, she jumped up and wrapped her arms around him for a quick hug. “Thanks for everything. For listening.” Then she darted for the door and the safety of the restaurant. * * * WHEN JAMIE WALKED back inside he watched Emma dash across the restaurant, his body still humming from having hers pressed up against him. His gaze locked on the sway of her hips and he smiled. Who’d have guessed cowboy boots could put the same special something into a woman’s walk that high heels did? He was accustomed to women in designer jeans and expensive stilettos, but he was gaining a new appreciation for a simple pair of Wranglers and boots. They made a woman look real, accessible and damn fine. “You ready?” Mick asked when Jamie joined him behind the bar. “As ready as I’ll ever be.” Jamie pulled his gaze away from Emma. “Is there anything else we need to go over before the dinner rush hits?” “It still gets pretty crazy in here on a weekend night, but don’t worry. Usually no one’s in a big hurry, especially when we’ve got a band. They come for dinner and to spend time with family and friends. Then they hang around to listen to music and dance.” Mick nodded toward the stage. “I sure hope Emma can find someone to take Molly’s place. All that girl’s ever wanted to do was sing country music.” “You two gonna stand here jawin’ all afternoon, or can one of you deal with the liquor delivery out back?” Gene said as he stormed out of the kitchen. “I never should have made you day manager. You always were the power-hungry type,” Mick joked. “Fine. It’s not my business that’ll suffer when we run out of whiskey.” Then Gene turned and headed back through the swinging double doors. “Come on, Jamie. I’ll check the order, and you can do the heavy lifting.” The rest of the afternoon went faster than Jamie expected, and then the dinner rush hit. After a couple of hours he felt as though he’d met or gotten reacquainted with all of Estes Park’s eight thousand residents while manning the bar. Jamie flexed his hand, stretching out the tight muscles. He’d been amazed how much the repeated motion of picking up glasses had worked his hand, and except for the one dropped glass, he’d done well. But his hand wasn’t the only thought plaguing him tonight. His mind kept wandering back to Emma. Instead of leaving after her auditions, she joined a couple of girlfriends at a table that always managed to stay within his sight no matter how many people crowded around the bar. As Jamie handed another patron his beer, Mick’s cell phone rang. When his grandfather ended the call a few seconds later, his face lined with concern, he turned to Jamie. “That was tonight’s band. Their truck broke down. They won’t be here for at least an hour.” Mick glanced around the crowded restaurant. “The natives are getting restless, which means they could start leaving. Which means their money walks out with them. How about you play something to settle ’em down until the band gets here?” Jamie stared at his grandfather and thought the man had lost his mind. Had he forgotten about his hand? He leaned closer so the customers clustered around the bar wouldn’t hear. “I’m not ready for that. I dropped a glass today because my hand cramped up.” “Hell, that happens to everyone.” “Even if I felt comfortable playing, my music isn’t the stuff this crowd wants to hear. There would be a stampede for the door.” “Then don’t play your fancy fiddle. Use the karaoke machine. You got a good voice.” When Jamie opened his mouth to object, his grandfather continued, “And before you start saying you don’t know how to sing any country-western songs, I heard you singing along to the Willie Nelson songs Gene played in the kitchen this afternoon. Sing one of those.” Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39876088&lfrom=390579938) на ЛитРес. Безопасно оплатить книгу можно банковской картой Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, со счета мобильного телефона, с платежного терминала, в салоне МТС или Связной, через PayPal, WebMoney, Яндекс.Деньги, QIWI Кошелек, бонусными картами или другим удобным Вам способом.