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Big Sky Mountain Linda Lael Miller The "First Lady of the West," #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller, brings you to Parable, Montana—where love awaits. With his rugged good looks, vast wealth and family name, hell-raiser Hutch Carmody is still the golden boy of Parable, Montana. But he’s done some growing up—making peace with his illegitimate half-brother and inheriting half of Whisper Creek Ranch, which should have been all his.These days, Hutch knows there are some things money can’t buy: like the heart of loving, ladylike divorcee Kendra Shepherd. Kendra’s quiet mansion reminds her of what she wants most—a devoted husband and the pitter-patter of little feet.She can’t get Hutch Carmody out of her mind, but a rough-and-tumble cowboy like Hutch, coming home for family dinner? Seems crazy! Then again, crazier dreams have become reality under the vast Montana sky.“Miller excels at creating extended-family dynamics in an authentic western small-town setting."–Booklist review on A Creed in Stone Creek The “First Lady of the West,” #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller, brings you to Parable, Montana—where love awaits. With his rugged good looks, vast wealth and family name, hell-raiser Hutch Carmody is still the golden boy of Parable, Montana. But he’s done some growing up—making peace with his illegitimate half brother and inheriting half of Whisper Creek Ranch, which should have been all his. These days, Hutch knows there are some things money can’t buy: like the heart of loving, ladylike divorcée Kendra Shepherd. Kendra’s quiet mansion reminds her of what she wants most—a devoted husband and the pitter-patter of little feet. She can’t get Hutch Carmody out of her mind. But a rough-and-tumble cowboy like Hutch, coming home for family dinner? Seems crazy! Then again, crazier dreams have become reality under the vast Montana sky. Dear Reader, Welcome to Big Sky Mountain, near the town of Parable, Montana. Hutch Carmody is as much a part of the land as his favorite hideout, the mountain overlooking Whisper Creek Ranch, his home since birth. With both parents gone, he’s the sole owner, and he’s determined to keep it that way. After ditching one bride at the altar, he’s not in the market for another, but his feelings for former flame Kendra Shepherd aren’t so easy to shake off. She’s beautiful, she’s sexy and she’s smart—everything Hutch wants and admires in a woman—but she’s already burned him once, running off to England to marry a title and a lot of money. Now that she’s back in Parable, with a small daughter in tow, he’s as jumpy as cold water on a hot griddle. Kendra, determined to raise her little girl with all the emotional security she didn’t have as a child, sees Parable, with its down-home values and salt-of-the-earth folks, as the perfect place to do that. She’s not about to complicate matters with a husband, having learned the hard way that she’s better off on her own than married. Even if she wanted a man in her life, though, she certainly wouldn’t be stupid enough to choose a renegade rancher-cowboy like Hutch. So what if he makes her heart race like a runaway Thoroughbred? My very best, Linda Lael Miller Praise for the novels of #1 New York Times bestselling author Linda Lael Miller “Miller tugs at the heartstrings as few authors can.” —Publishers Weekly “After reading this book your heart will be so full of Christmas cheer you’ll want to stuff a copy in the stocking of every romance fan you know!” —USATODAY.com on A Lawman’s Christmas “A fine conclusion to Miller’s latest trilogy. It is peopled with likeable...quite human characters. Animal lovers will enjoy the creatures that make up a delightfully integral part of the story.” —RT Book Reviews on The Creed Legacy “Miller’s attention to small details makes her stories a delight to read. With engaging characters and loveable animals, this second story in the Creed Cowboys trilogy is a sure hit for the legions of cowboy fans out there.” —RT Book Reviews on Creed’s Honor “You’ll love reading about Linda Lael Miller’s bestselling and sexy series featuring the cowboys that make up the Creed family. Great reading for anyone who loves a family saga full of romance, adventure and handsome cowboys.” —BN.com on The Creed Cowboys series “A passionate love too long denied drives the action in this multifaceted, emotionally rich reunion story that overflows with breathtaking sexual chemistry.” —Library Journal on McKettricks of Texas: Tate “Miller’s prose is smart, and her tough Eastwoodian cowboy cuts a sharp, unexpectedly funny figure in a classroom full of rambunctious frontier kids.” —Publishers Weekly on The Man from Stone Creek “Strong characterization and a vivid western setting make for a fine historical romance.” —Publishers Weekly on McKettrick’s Choice Big Sky Mountain Linda Lael Miller www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) In loving memory of my cherished beagle-dog, Sadie. I’m grateful for every second of our eleven years together. Contents CHAPTER ONE (#u68b39a21-c686-5888-a71e-8b44aa038d99) CHAPTER TWO (#u85f4f5bc-0454-571d-97fb-aa571efe7f04) CHAPTER THREE (#uba6bbf74-204c-51a7-917d-972996651425) CHAPTER FOUR (#u4da0d31a-c8df-5ced-bcdc-2329da19d3a6) CHAPTER FIVE (#u40ad18aa-d98d-5de0-9306-d8f4d290a206) 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) CHAPTER FOURTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER FIFTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SIXTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER SEVENTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER EIGHTEEN (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER NINETEEN (#litres_trial_promo) EXCERPT (#litres_trial_promo) CHAPTER ONE A FINE SWEAT broke out between Hutch Carmody’s shoulders and his gut warned that he was fixing to stumble straight into the teeth of a screeching buzz saw. The rented tux itched against his hide and his collar seemed to be getting tighter with every flower-scented breath he drew. The air was dense, weighted, cloying. The small church was overheated, especially for a sunny day in mid-June, and the pews were crammed with eager guests, a few weeping women and a fair number of skeptics. Hutch’s best man, Boone Taylor, fidgeted beside him. The organist sounded a jarring chord and then launched into a perky tune Hutch didn’t recognize. The first of three bridesmaids, all clad in silly-looking pink dresses more suited to little girls than grown women—in his opinion anyhow—drag-stepped her way up the aisle to stand beside the altar, across from him and Boone. Hutch’s head reeled, but he quickly reminded himself, silently of course, that he had to live in this town—his ranch was just a few miles outside of it. If he passed out cold at his own wedding, he’d still be getting ribbed about it when he was ninety. While the next bridesmaid started forward, he did his distracted best to avoid so much as glancing toward Brylee Parrish, his wife to be, who was standing at the back of the church beside her brother, Walker. He knew all too well how good she looked in that heirloom wedding gown of hers, with its billowing veil and dazzling sprinkle of rhinestones. Brylee was beautiful, with cascades of red-brown hair that tumbled to her waist when she let it down. Her wide-set hazel eyes revealed passion, as well as formidable intelligence, humor and a country girl’s in-born practicality. He was a lucky man. Brylee, on the other hand, was not so fortunate, having hooked up with the likes of him. She deserved a husband who loved her. Suddenly, Hutch’s gaze connected with that of his half brother, Slade Barlow. Seated near the front, next to his very pregnant wife, Joslyn, Slade slowly shook his head from side to side, his expression so solemn that a person would have thought somebody was about to be buried instead of hitched to one of the choicest women Parable County had ever produced. Hutch’s insides churned, then coalesced into a quivering gob and did a slow, backward roll. The last bridesmaid had arrived. The minister was in place. The smell of the flowers intensified, nearly overwhelming Hutch. And then the first notes of “Here Comes the Bride” rang out. Hutch felt the room—hell, the whole planet—sway again. Brylee, beaming behind the thin fabric of her veil, nodded in response to something her brother whispered to her and they stepped forward. “Hold it,” Hutch heard himself say loudly enough to be heard over the thundering joy of the organ. He held up both hands, like a referee about to call a foul in some fast-paced game. “Stop.” Everything halted—with a sickening lurch. The music died. The bride and her brother seemed frozen in mid-stride. Hutch would have sworn the universe itself had stopped expanding. “This is all wrong,” he went on miserably, but with his back straight and his head up. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t broached the subject with Brylee before—he’d been trying to get out of this fix for weeks. Just the night before, in fact, he’d sat Brylee down in a vinyl upholstered booth at the Silver Lanes snack bar and told her straight out that he had serious misgivings about getting married and needed some breathing space. Brylee had cried, her mascara smudging, her nose reddening at the tip. “You don’t mean it,” she’d said, which was her standard response to any attempt he made to put on the brakes before they both plummeted over a matrimonial cliff. “You’re just nervous, that’s all. It’s entirely normal. But once the wedding is over and we’re on our honeymoon—” Hutch couldn’t stand it when a woman cried, especially when he was the cause of her tears. Like every other time, he’d backed down, tried to convince himself that Brylee was right—he just had cold feet, that was all. Now, though, “push” had run smack up against “shove.” It was now or never. He faced Brylee squarely. The universe unfroze itself, like some big machine with rusted gears, and all hell broke loose. Brylee threw down her bouquet, stomped on it once, whirled on one heel and rushed out of the church. Walker flung a beleaguered and not entirely friendly look in Hutch’s direction, then turned to go after his sister. The guests, already on their feet in honor of the bride, all started talking at once, abuzz with shock and speculation. Things like this might happen in books or movies, but they didn’t happen in Parable, Montana. Until now, Hutch reflected dismally. He started to follow Brylee out of the church, not an easy proposition with folks crowding the aisle. He didn’t have the first clue what he could say to her, but he figured he had to say something. Before he’d taken two strides, though, Slade and Boone closed in on him from either side, each taking a firm grip on one of his arms. “Let her go,” Boone said quietly. “There’s nothing you can do,” Slade confirmed. With that, they hustled him quickly out of the main chapel and into the small side room where the choir robes, hymnals and Communion gear were stored. Hutch wondered if a lynch mob was forming back there in the sanctuary. “You picked a fine time to change your mind about getting married,” Boone remarked, but his tone was light and his eyes twinkled with something that looked a lot like relief. Hutch unfastened his fancy tie and shoved it into one coat pocket. Then he opened his collar halfway to his breastbone and sucked in a breath. “I tried to tell her,” he muttered. He knew it sounded lame, but the truth was the truth. Although he and Slade shared a father, they had been at bloody-knuckled odds most of their lives. They’d made some progress toward getting along since the old man’s death and the upheaval that followed, but neither of them related to the other as a buddy, let alone a brother. “Come on out to our place,” Slade said, surprising him. “You’d best lay low for a few hours. Give Brylee—and Walker—a little time to cool off.” Hutch stiffened slightly, though he found the invitation oddly welcome. Home, being Whisper Creek Ranch, was a lonely outpost these days—which was probably why he’d talked himself into proposing to Brylee in the first place. “I have to talk to Brylee,” he repeated. “There’ll be time for that later on,” Slade reasoned. “Slade’s right,” Boone agreed. Boone, being violently allergic to marriage himself, probably thought Hutch had just dodged a figurative bullet. Or maybe he was remembering that Brylee was a crack shot with a pistol, a rifle, or a Civil War cannon. Given what had just happened, she was probably leaning toward the cannon right about now. Hutch sighed. “All right,” he said to Slade. “I’ll kick back at your place for a while—but I’ve got to stop off at home first, so I can change out of this monkey suit.” “Fine,” Slade agreed. “I’ll round up the women and meet you at the Windfall in an hour or two.” By “the women,” Slade meant his lovely wife, Joslyn, his teenage stepdaughter, Shea, and Opal Dennison, the force-of-nature who kept house for the Barlow outfit. Slade’s mother, Callie, had had the good grace to skip the ceremony—old scandals die hard in a town the size of Parable and recollections of her long-ago affair with Carmody Senior, from which Slade had famously resulted, were as sharp as ever. Today’s escapade would put all that in the shade, of course. Tongues were wagging and jaws were flapping for sure—by now, various up-to-the-minute accounts were probably popping up on all the major social media sites. Before Slade and Boone had dragged Hutch out of the sanctuary, he’d seen several people whip out their cell phones and start texting. A few pictures had been taken, too, with those same ubiquitous devices. The thought of all that amateur reporting made Hutch close his eyes for a moment. “Shit,” he murmured. “Knee-deep and rising,” Slade confirmed, sounding resigned. * * * KENDRA SAT AT the antique table in her best friend Joslyn’s kitchen, with Callie Barlow in the chair directly across from hers. The ranch house was unusually quiet, with its usual occupants gone to town. A glance over one shoulder assured Kendra that her recently adopted four-year-old daughter, Madison, was still napping on a padded window seat, her stuffed purple kangaroo, Rupert, clenched in her arms. The little girl’s gleaming hair, the color of a newly minted penny, lay in tousled curls around her cherubic face and Kendra felt the usual pang of hopeless devotion just looking at her. This long-sought, hard-won, much-wanted child. This miracle. Not that every woman would have seen the situation from the same perspective as Kendra did—Madison was, after all, living proof that Jeffrey had been unfaithful, a constant reminder that it was dangerous to love, treacherous to trust, foolish to believe in another person too much. But none of that had mattered to Kendra in the end—she’d essentially been abandoned herself as a small child, left to grow up with a disinterested grandmother, and that gave her a special affinity for Madison. Besides, Jeffrey, having returned to his native England after summarily ending their marriage, had been dying. Some men might have turned to family for help in such a situation—Jeffrey Chamberlain came from a very wealthy and influential one—but in this case, that wasn’t possible. Jeffrey’s aging parents were landed gentry with a string of titles, several sprawling estates and a fortune that dated back to the heyday of the East India Company, and were no more inclined toward child-rearing than they had been when their own two sons were small. They’d left Jeffrey and his brother in the care of nannies and housekeepers from infancy, and shipped them off to boarding school as soon as they turned six. Understandably, Jeffrey hadn’t wanted that kind of cold and isolated childhood for his daughter. So he’d sent word to Kendra that he had to see her, in person. He had something important to tell her. She’d made that first of several trips to the U.K., keeping protracted vigils at her ex-husband’s hospital bedside while he drifted in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he’d managed to get his message across: he told her about Madison, living somewhere in the U.S., and begged Kendra to find his daughter, adopt her and bring her up in love and safety. She was, he told her, the only person on earth he could or would trust with the child. Kendra wanted nothing so much as a child and, during their brief marriage, Jeffrey had denied her repeated requests to start a family. It was a bitter pill to swallow, learning that he’d refused her a baby and then fathered one with someone else, someone he’d met on a business trip. She’d done what Jeffrey asked, not so much for his sake—though she’d loved him once, or believed she did—as for Madison’s. And her own. The search hadn’t been an easy one, even with the funds Jeffrey had set aside for the purpose, involving a great deal of web-surfing, phone calls and emails, travel and so many highs and lows that she nearly gave up several times. Then it happened. She found Madison. Kendra hadn’t known what she’d feel upon actually meeting her former husband’s child, but any doubts she might have had had been dispelled the moment—the moment—she’d met this cautious, winsome little girl. The first encounter had taken place in a social worker’s dingy office, in a dusty desert town in California, and for Kendra, it was love at first sight. The forever kind of love. Months of legal hassles had followed, but now, at long last, Kendra and Madison were officially mother and daughter, in the eyes of God and government, and Kendra knew she couldn’t have loved her baby girl any more if she’d carried her in her own body for nine months. Callie brought Kendra back to the present moment by reaching for the teapot in the center of the table and refilling Kendra’s cup, then her own. “Do you think it’s over yet?” Kendra asked, instantly regretting the question but unable to hold back still another. “The wedding, I mean?” Callie’s smile was gentle as she glanced at the clock on the stove top and met Kendra’s gaze again. “Probably,” she said quietly. Then, without another word, she reached out to give Kendra’s hand a light squeeze. Madison, meanwhile, stirred on the window seat. “Mommy?” Kendra turned again. “I’m here, honey,” she said. Although Madison was adjusting rapidly, in the resilient way of young children, she still had bad dreams sometimes and she tended to panic if she lost sight of Kendra for more than a moment. “Are you hungry, sweetie?” Callie asked the little girl. Slade’s mom would make a wonderful grandmother; she had a way with children, easy and forthright. Madison shook her head as she moved toward Kendra and then scrambled up onto her lap. “It’s been a while since lunch,” Kendra suggested, kissing the top of Madison’s head and holding her close. “Maybe you’d like a glass of milk and one of Opal’s oatmeal raisin cookies?” Again, Madison shook her head, snuggling closer still. “No, thank you,” she said clearly, sounding, as she often did, more like a small adult than a four-year-old. They’d arrived by car the night before and spent the night in the Barlows’ guest room, at Joslyn’s insistence. The old house, the very heart of Windfall Ranch, was undergoing considerable renovation, which only added to the exuberant chaos of the place—and Madison was wary of everyone but Opal, the family housekeeper. Just then, Slade and Joslyn’s dog, Jasper, heretofore snoozing on his bed in front of the newly installed kitchen fireplace, sat bolt upright and gave a questioning little whine. His floppy ears were pitched slightly forward, though he seemed to be listening with his entire body. Joslyn’s cat, Lucy-Maude, remained singularly unconcerned. Madison looked at the animal with shy interest, still unsure whether to make friends with him or keep her distance. “Well,” Callie remarked, getting to her feet and heading for the nearest window, the one over the steel sink, and peering out as the sound of a car’s engine reached them, “they’re back early. They must have decided to skip the reception.” Jasper barked happily and hurried to the door. Joslyn had long since dubbed him the one-dog welcoming committee and at the moment he was spilling over with a wild desire to greet whoever happened to show up. With a little chuckle, Callie opened the back door so Jasper could shoot through it like a fur-covered bullet, positively beside himself with joy. There was a little frown nestled between the older woman’s eyebrows, though, as she looked toward Kendra again. “This is odd,” she reiterated. “I hope Joslyn is feeling all right.” Shea, Slade’s lovely dark-haired stepdaughter, just turned seventeen, burst into the house first, her violet eyes huge with excitement. “You’re not going to believe this, Grands,” she told Callie breathlessly. “The music was playing. The bridesmaids were all lined up and the preacher had his book open, ready to start. And what do you suppose happened?” Kendra’s heart fluttered in her chest, but she didn’t speak. A number of drastic scenarios flashed through her mind—a wedding guest toppling over from a heart attack, then a cattle truck crashing through a wall, followed by lightning boring its way right through the roof of the church and striking the bridegroom dead where he stood. She shook the images off. Waited with her breath snagged painfully in the back of her throat. “What?” Callie prodded good-naturedly, studying her step-granddaughter. She and Shea were close—the girl worked part-time at Callie’s Curly Burly Hair Salon in town, and during the school year, Shea went to Callie’s place after the last bell rang, spending hours tweaking the website she’d built for the shop. “Hutch called the whole thing off,” Shea blurted. “He stopped the wedding!” “Oh, my,” Callie said. The door was still open, and Kendra heard Joslyn’s voice, then Opal’s, as they came toward the house. Slade must have been with them, but he was keeping quiet, as usual. Kendra realized she was squeezing Madison too tightly and relaxed her arms a little. Her mouth had dropped open at some point and she closed it, hoping no one had noticed. Just then, she couldn’t have uttered a word if the place caught fire. Opal, tall and dressed to the nines in one of her home-sewn and brightly patterned jersey dresses, crossed the threshold next, shaking her head as she unpinned her old-fashioned hat, with its tiny stuffed bird and inch-wide veiling. Slade and Joslyn came in behind her, Joslyn’s huge belly preceding her “by half an hour,” as her adoring husband liked to say. By then, the bomb dropped, Shea had shifted her focus to Madison. She’d been trying to win the little girl over from the beginning, and her smile dazzled, like sunlight on still waters. “Hey, kiddo,” she said. “Since we missed out on the wedding cake, I’m up for a major cookie binge. Want to join me?” Somewhat to Kendra’s surprise, Madison slid down off her lap, Rupert the kangaroo dangling from one small hand, and approached the older girl, albeit slowly. “Okay,” she said, her voice tentative. Joslyn, meanwhile, lumbered over to the table, pulled back a chair and sank into it. She looked incandescent in her summery maternity dress, a blue confection with white polka dots, and she fanned her flushed face with her thin white clutch for a few moments before plunking it down on the tabletop. “Do you need to lie down?” Callie asked her daughter- in-law worriedly, one hand resting on Joslyn’s shoulder. Madison and Shea, meanwhile, were plundering the cookie jar. “No,” Joslyn told her. “I’m fine. Really.” Opal tied on an apron and instructed firmly, “Now don’t you girls stuff yourselves on those cookies with me fixing to put a meal on the table in a little while.” A swift tenderness came over Kendra as she took it all in—including Opal’s bluster. As Kendra was growing up, the woman had been like a mother to her, if not a patron saint. Slade, his blue gaze resting softly on Joslyn, hung up his hat and bent to ruffle the dog’s ears. “Poor Brylee,” Opal said as she opened the refrigerator door and began rummaging about inside it for the makings of one of her legendary meals. “Sounded to me like it was her own fault,” Slade observed, leaving the dog in order to wash his hands at the sink. He was clad in a suit, but Kendra knew he’d be back in his customary jeans, beat-up boots and lightweight shirt at the first opportunity. “Hutch said he told Brylee he didn’t want to get married, more than once, and she wouldn’t listen.” For Slade, this was a virtual torrent of words. He was a quiet, deliberate man, and he normally liked to mull things over before he offered an opinion—in contrast to his half brother, Hutch, who tended to go barreling in where angels feared to tread and consider the wisdom of his words and actions later. Or not at all. Joslyn, meanwhile, tuned in on Kendra’s face and read her expression, however guarded it was, with perfect accuracy. They’d been friends since they were barely older than Madison was now, and for the past year, they’d been business partners, too—Joslyn taking over the reins at Shepherd Real Estate, in nearby Parable, while Kendra scoured the countryside for Jeffrey’s daughter. “Thank heaven he came to his senses,” Joslyn said, with her usual certainty. “Brylee is a wonderful person, but she’s all wrong for Hutch and he’s all wrong for her. They wouldn’t have lasted a year.” The crowd in the kitchen began to thin out a little then—Shea, the dog and Madison headed into the family room with their cookies, and Callie followed, Shea regaling her “Grands” with an account of who did what and who wore what and who said what. Slade ascended the back stairway, chuckling, no doubt on his way to the master bedroom to change clothes. Except for bankers and lawyers, few men in rural Montana wore suits on a regular basis—such get-ups were reserved for Sunday services, funerals and...weddings, ill-fated or otherwise. Opal, for her part, kept murmuring to herself and shaking her head as she began measuring out flour and lard for a batch of her world-class biscuits. “Land sakes,” she muttered repeatedly, along with, “Well, I never, in all my live-long days—” Joslyn laid her hands on her bulging stomach and sighed. “I swear this baby is practicing to be a rodeo star. It feels as though he’s riding a bull in there.” Kendra laughed softly, partly at the image her friend had painted and partly as a way to relieve the dizzying tension brought on by Shea’s breathless announcement. Hutch called the whole thing off. He stopped the wedding. “The least you could do,” she teased Joslyn, trying to get a grip on her crazy emotions, “is go into labor already and let the little guy get a start on his cowboy career.” As serene as a Botticelli Madonna, Joslyn grinned. “He’s taking his time, all right,” she agreed. The briefest frown flickered in her shining eyes as she regarded Kendra more closely than before. “It’s only fair to warn you,” she went on, quietly resolute, “that Slade invited Hutch to come to supper with us tonight—” Joslyn continued to talk, saying she expected both Slade and Hutch would saddle up and ride the range for a while, but Kendra barely heard her. She flat-out wasn’t ready to encounter Hutch Carmody, even at her closest friend’s table. Why, the last time she’d seen him, after that stupid, macho horse race of his and Slade’s, she’d kicked him, hard, in the shins. Because he’d just kissed her. Because he’d risked his life for no good reason. Because hers was just one of the many hearts he’d broken along his merry way. Plus she was a mess. She’d been on the road for three days, and even after a good night’s sleep in Joslyn’s guest room and two showers, she felt rumpled and grungy. She stood up. She’d get Madison and head for town, she decided, hurry to her own place, where she should have gone in the beginning. Not that she planned to live there very long. The mega-mansion was too big for her and Madison, too full of memories. “Kendra,” Joslyn ordered kindly, “sit down.” Opal could be heard poking around in the pantry, still talking to herself. Slade came down the back stairway, looking like himself in worn jeans, a faded flannel shirt and boots. Passing Joslyn, he paused and leaned down to plant a kiss on top of her head. Kendra sank slowly back into her own chair. “Don’t start without me,” Slade said, spreading one big hand on Joslyn’s baby-bulge and grinning down into her upturned face. It was almost enough to make a person believe in love again, Kendra thought glumly, watching these two. “Not a chance, cowboy,” Joslyn replied, almost purring the words. “We made this baby together and we’re having it together.” Kendra was really starting to feel like some kind of voyeuristic intruder when Opal came out of the pantry, looked Slade over from behind the thick lenses of her glasses, and demanded, “Just where do you think you’re going, Slade Barlow? Didn’t I just say I’m starting supper?” Slade straightened, smiled at Opal. “Now don’t get all riled up,” he cajoled. “I’m just going out to check on the horses, not driving a herd to Texas.” “Do I look like I was born yesterday?” Opal challenged, with gruff good humor. “You mean to saddle up and ride. I can tell by looking at you.” Slade laughed, shook his head, shoved a hand through his dark hair before crossing the room to take his everyday hat from a peg beside the back door and plop it on his head. “I promise you,” he told Opal, “that the minute that dinner bell rings, I’ll be here.” Opal huffed, cheerfully unappeased, then waved Slade off with one hand and went back to making supper. “You might as well stay here and face Hutch,” Joslyn told Kendra, as though there had been no interruption in their conversation. “After all, Parable is a small town, and you’re bound to run into him sooner rather than later. Why not get it over with?” The twinkle in Joslyn’s eyes might have annoyed Kendra if she hadn’t been so fond of her. Like many happily married people, Joslyn wanted all her friends to see the light and get hitched, pronto. An image of Brylee Parrish bloomed in Kendra’s mind and she felt a stab of sorrow for the woman. Loving Hutch Carmody was asking for trouble—she could have told Brylee that. Not that Brylee would have listened, any more than she had long ago, when various friends had warned her that she was marrying Jeffrey on the rebound, had urged her to take time to think before leaping feetfirst into a whole different world. “I need to get Madison settled,” Kendra fretted. “There are groceries to buy and I’ve been away from the business way too long as it is—” “The business is just fine,” Joslyn said reasonably. “And so is Madison.” As if on cue, the little girl gave a delighted laugh in the next room. It was a sweet sound, all too rare, and it made the backs of Kendra’s eyes scald. “I don’t know if I can handle it,” she confessed, very softly. “Seeing Hutch again right away, I mean. I was counting on having some time to adjust to being back—” Joslyn reached out, took her hand. Squeezed. “You can handle it,” she said with quiet certainty. “Trust yourself, Kendra. Nothing is going to happen between you and Hutch unless you want it to.” “That’s just the trouble,” Kendra reflected miserably, careful to keep her voice down so Madison wouldn’t overhear. “Wanting a man—wanting Hutch—and knowing better the whole time—well, you know—” “I do know,” Joslyn said, smiling. “I have a daughter now,” Kendra reminded her friend. “I want Madison to grow up in Parable, go to the same schools from kindergarten through high school. I want to give her security, a real sense of community, the whole works. And getting sucked into Hutch’s orbit would be the stupidest thing I could possibly do.” “Would it?” Joslyn asked, raising one delicate eyebrow as she waited for a reply. “Of course it would,” Kendra whispered fiercely. “The man broke my heart into a gazillion pieces, remember? And now he’s dumped some poor woman virtually at the altar, which only goes to prove he hasn’t changed!” “Did it ever occur to you,” Joslyn inquired, unruffled, “that Hutch might have ‘dumped’ Brylee for the simple reason that she’s not you?” “No,” Kendra said firmly, shaken by the mere possibility, “that did not occur to me. He did it because he can’t commit to anything or anyone long-term, because Whisper Creek Ranch is all he really cares about in this world—because he’s a heartless, womanizing bastard.” Before Joslyn could offer a response to that, Madison, Shea, Callie and the dog trailed back in the kitchen, making further discussion of Hutch Carmody impossible. Kendra was still flustered, though. Her heart pounded and her throat and sinuses felt strangely thick—was she coming down with something? Every instinct urged her to get the heck out of there, now, but the idea seemed cowardly and, besides, Madison was just starting to let herself be part of the group. If they rushed off to town, the little girl would be understandably confused. So Kendra decided to stay, at least until after supper. She was a grown woman, a mother. Joslyn had been right—it was time she started trusting herself. Hutch had always held an infuriating attraction for her, but she was older now, and wiser, and she had more self-control. The next hour was taken up with getting ready, coming and going, table-setting and a lot of companionable, lighthearted chatter. Slade returned from the barn as he’d promised and, after washing up in a downstairs bathroom, made the whole crew promise not to pester Hutch with questions about the interrupted wedding. As if, Kendra thought. She probably wouldn’t say more than a few polite words to the man. If she spoke to him at all. She felt strong, confident, ready for anything. Until he actually walked into the ranch house kitchen, that is. Seeing her, he tightened his jaw and shot an accusatory glance in his half brother’s direction. “Didn’t I mention that Kendra’s here?” Slade asked, breaking the brief, pulsing silence. There was a smile in his voice, though his blue eyes conveyed nothing but innocent concern. Hutch, his dark blond hair sun-kissed with gold, recovered his normal affable manner within the space of a heartbeat. He even smiled, flashing those perfect white teeth and setting Kendra back on her figurative heels. “Hello, Kendra,” he said with a nod, after taking off his hat. Like Slade, he was dressed “cowboy” and the look suited him. Kendra replied with a nod of her own. “Hutch,” she said, turning from the chopping board, where she’d been preparing a salad, and wished she’d cleared her throat first, because the name came out like a croak. His gaze moved straight to Madison, and Kendra read the questions in his eyes even before he hid them behind a smile. Madison, meanwhile, raised Rupert, as if presenting him to this stranger for inspection. “Howdy, there,” he said, all charm. “Do my eyes deceive me or is that critter a kangaroo?” CHAPTER TWO THE WAY HUTCH figured it, a solid week should have been plenty long enough for the fuss over the wedding- that-never-was to die down, but when Saturday afternoon rolled around again and he sat down at his computer to get a quick read on the gossip situation, tired from rounding up strays with the ranch hands since just after dawn, he was promptly disabused of the notion. This jabber-fest was getting worse by the moment. Apparently he’d made every “jerk” list in cyberspace, not just locally, but worldwide. Indignant females from as far away as the Philippines thought he ought to be tarred and feathered, and a couple of Brylee’s girlfriends, bless their vengeful little hearts, had set up a page on one of the major networking sites solely for the purpose of warning every woman with a pulse to steer clear of Hutch Carmody. The reverse version, he supposed, grimly amused, of an old West “Wanted” poster. Of course, this being the digital age, there were pictures up the wazoo—Bride-Doll Brylee, flushed and furious in her over-the-top dress, stomping on her bouquet in the church aisle. Brylee, outside in the bright June sunshine, probably only moments after the first shot was taken, wrenching the taped-on “Just Married” sign from the back of the limo that would have carried the two of them over to the Community Center for the reception, ripping the cardboard in two and flinging the pieces into the gutter. Brylee, later still, hair pulled back and caught up in a long, messy ponytail, face puffy and scrubbed clean of makeup, her gown swapped out for jeans and a T-shirt bearing the motto Men Suck. She was surrounded by a dozen or so of her friends, at a table in the center of the Boot Scoot Tavern, the jukebox lit up behind her. No doubt, it was playing a somebody-done-me-wrong song. Hutch sighed. He hadn’t escaped the amateur paparazzi himself—these days, every yahoo and his Aunt Bessie had a smart phone, and they were mighty quick on the draw with them. One memorable image showed him standing in the center of the sanctuary, clearly uncomfortable in the penguin get-up he’d rented from Wally’s Wedding World, over in Three Trees, the neighboring town, looking pale and bleakly determined not to get married no matter what he had to do to avoid it. And those were just the stills—there were videos, too. In one thirty-second wonder, he could be seen climbing into his rusted-out pickup truck, right there in the Presbyterians’ gravel parking lot, and in the next, he was heading for the horizon, a dust plume spiraling behind his rig. Yep, that was him all right, beating a hasty retreat, like a yellow-bellied coward on the run. That impression rested sour on the back of his tongue. Someday, he suspected, when Brylee met up with her own personal Mr. Right, got hitched for real, and had herself a houseful of kids, she’d thank him for stopping the wedding and thereby preventing certain catastrophe. At present, though, that particular “someday” seemed a long way off. Weary to the aching marrow of his bones, Hutch logged off the internet, pushed back from the rolltop desk that had been in his family since the Lincoln administration, and stood up, stretching luxuriously before retrieving his coffee mug and ambling out of the little office behind the ranch house kitchen. Taking Slade’s advice, he’d kept a low profile since the day that, like the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 attacks, would forever live in infamy. Against his own better judgment, he hadn’t gone to see Brylee in person, called her on the phone, or even sent her an email. He hadn’t done much guilt-wallowing, either, which might be proof that he really was a “selfish, heartless, narcissistic bastard,” as members of Team Brylee universally agreed, at least online. By now, the group probably had its own secret handshake. Hutch regretted hurting Brylee, of course, and he certainly wished he could have spared her the humiliation of that very public breakup, but his overriding emotion was a sense of relief so profound that it still made his head reel even after a week. Train wreck, averted. Apocalypse, canceled. Check and check. Running into Kendra Shepherd at Slade and Joslyn’s place after the debacle had definitely thrown him, however—slammed the wind out of him as surely as if he’d been hurled off the back of a bad bull or a sun-fishing bronco and landed on hard ground. He’d loved Kendra once and he’d believed she loved him. He’d expected to spend the rest of his life with the woman, happy to make babies, run Whisper Creek Ranch with Kendra at his side, a full partner in every way. Instead, enter Jeffrey Chamberlain, he of the nominal titles and English estates, practically a prince to a woman like Kendra, brought up in a small Montana town by a grandmother who resented the responsibility of raising her errant daughter’s child. Chamberlain had been visiting friends at the time—Hollywood types with delusions of living the ranching life in grand style—and damned if Sir Jeffrey hadn’t struck up a conversation with Kendra at the post office one fine day and parlayed that, over the coming weeks, into a romance so epic that it could only have ended badly. Not that Kendra had fallen for Chamberlain right away—at the get-go, she’d insisted he was just a friend, interesting and funny. Hutch, though nettled, had reluctantly—okay, grudgingly—accepted the explanation. Down deep, he’d been out-of-his-gourd jealous, though, and soon enough the bickering commenced. Chamberlain, knowing full well what he’d set in motion, had found excuses to stay on in Parable and he just bided his time while things got worse and worse between Hutch and Kendra. Inevitably, the bickering escalated to fiery yelling matches and, worse, single words, terse and biting, punctuated by long, achy silences. Eventually, Kendra had given Hutch an ultimatum—trust her or leave her. He’d chosen the latter option, being a stubborn, hard-headed cowboy from a long line of stubborn, hard-headed cowboys, never really thinking she’d go at all, let alone stay gone; everybody knew they belonged together, he and Kendra. After a semidecent interval, though, she’d hauled off and eloped with Jeffrey. There were still days—moments, really—when Hutch couldn’t believe it had come to that, and this was one of them. Now, standing in his kitchen, he closed his eyes, remembering. Kendra had called him three days after tying the knot down in Vegas. Even then he’d wanted to say, “This isn’t right. Come home.” But he’d been too cussed proud to take the high road. He’d wished “Lady Chamberlain” well and hung up in her ear. Hard. They’d seen each other numerous times afterward, the way things shook out, especially after Chamberlain bought his way out of the marriage and crossed the pond to resume his Lord-of-the-manor lifestyle while Kendra remained in Parable, rattling around in that hotel-sized mansion on Rodeo Road. Small as Parable was, he and Kendra had come close to patching things up a few times, making another start, but something always went wrong, probably because neither one of them trusted the other any further than they could have thrown them. They’d been civil last Saturday night at Slade and Joslyn’s noisy supper table, but Kendra had looked ready to jump out of her skin at any moment, and as soon as the meal was over and the dishes were in the machine, she’d grabbed up her little girl and boogied for town in her boxy mom-car. What had happened to that little BMW convertible she used to drive? “She wasn’t expecting to see you tonight,” Joslyn had explained, touching his hand once Kendra and the child were out of the house. Hutch had slanted an evil look at his half brother. “I know the feeling,” he’d said. Slade had merely looked smug. Now with another long, dirty workday behind him and lunch a distant memory, Hutch stood there in his stupidly big kitchen and tried to shift his focus to rustling up some kind of a supper, but the few budding science experiments hunkered down in the fridge held no appeal. Neither did the resoundingly empty house—by rights, the place should have been bursting with noisy ranch kids and rescued dogs by now. Instead it was neat, cold and stone silent. Hutch sighed, shoved a hand through his hair. Stepped back from the refrigerator and shut the door. Upstairs he took a quick shower and donned fresh jeans, a white shirt and go-to-town boots. He’d hidden out long enough, damn it. By God, he was through keeping a low profile—he meant to fire up one of the ranch trucks, drive into Parable to the Butter Biscuit Café, claim one of the stools at the counter and order up his usual cheeseburger, shake and fries. As for the joshing and the questions and the speculative glances he was bound to run into? Bring it, he thought. * * * KENDRA HAD HAD a week to put that off-the-wall encounter with Hutch the previous Saturday night behind her and she was mostly over it. Mostly. She’d been busy, after all, overseeing the move of her real estate company from the mansion on Rodeo Road to the little storefront, catty-corner from the Butter Biscuit Café, enrolling Madison at the year-round preschool/day-care center and scanning the multiple-listings for cozy two-bedroom houses within a reasonable radius of Parable. In a town like that one, smaller properties were always hard to find—people didn’t necessarily sell their houses when they retired to Florida or Arizona or entered a nursing home. They often passed them down to the next generation. At present, Kendra’s choices were a double-wide trailer in the very court where she’d grown up so unhappily with her grandmother—no possible way—what resembled a converted chicken coop on the far side of Three Trees, which was thirty miles away, or the cramped apartment over old Mrs. Lund’s garage on Cinch Buckle Street, which rented for a tidy sum and didn’t even have its own entrance. With her fifteen-thousand-square-foot mega-mansion on the market, already swarming with cleaning people and painters these days in preparation for showing—she and Madison had taken up temporary residence in the estate’s small guesthouse. Given that two different potential buyers, both highly qualified, had already expressed interest in the main residence, Kendra had no intention of getting too settled in the cottage, cheery and convenient though the place was. Upscale homes were much easier to sell than regular houses, at least in that part of Montana, because so many jet-setters liked to buy them up and visit them once in a blue moon. For now, though, the guesthouse was sufficient for their needs. Madison loved the big yard, the thriving flower gardens and the swing on the mansion’s screened-in sun porch. The four-year-old was content to share the cottage’s one bedroom with Kendra, take meals in the tiny, sun-splashed kitchen, and ease, an hour or two at a time, into the preschool program, where there were plenty of playmates around her own age. Already Madison’s fair skin was golden, having absorbed so much country sunshine, and she didn’t cry at the prospect of even the shortest separation from Kendra. Tara Kendall stopped by the real estate office just as Kendra was about to close up for the day. She and Madison planned on picking up a takeout meal over at the Butter Biscuit, then eating at the small white wrought-iron table at the edge of the rose garden on Rodeo Road. “Can we get a dog now?” Madison was asking for the umpteenth time, when Tara breezed in, pretty with her shoulder-length brown hair expertly layered and her perfect makeup that looked like no makeup at all. “Do I have an offer for you,” Tara said, with a broad grin. She wore a sleek yellow sundress that flattered her slight but womanly figure, and her legs were so tanned she didn’t need panty hose. “My golden retriever, Lucy, just happens to have a sister who still needs a home.” “Gee,” Kendra drawled, feeling self-conscious in her jeans and T-shirt. “Thanks so much for that suggestion, Tara.” Madison was already jumping up and down in anticipation. “My very own dog!” she crowed. Tara chuckled and reached out a manicured hand to ruffle Madison’s bright copper curls. “Oops,” she said, addressing Kendra in a singsong voice that sounded warmly insincere. “Did I just put my foot in my mouth?” “More like your entire leg,” Kendra replied sweetly. Tara, a relative newcomer to Parable, had fit right in with her and Joslyn, turning a duet into a trio—the three of them had been fast friends from the beginning. “We’re not ready for a dog yet, since we don’t really have a place to—” She paused, looked down at Madison, who was glowing like a firefly on a moonless night, and reconsidered the word she’d intended to use, which was “live,” diverting to “permanently reside.” “We have the cottage,” Madison pointed out. “There’s a yard and Lucy’s sister could sleep with us.” “Says you,” Kendra said, but with affection. She remembered how badly she’d wanted a pet as a little girl, but her grandmother had always refused, saying she had enough on her hands looking after a kid. She wasn’t about to clean up after a dog or a cat, too. “You promised,” Madison reminded her sagely. She was so like Jeffrey—she had his eyes, his red hair, his insouciant certainty that everything good would come to him as a matter of course—including golden retriever puppies with sisters named Lucy. “I said we could get a pet when we were settled,” Kendra clarified patiently after shooting a see-what-you’ve-done glance at a singularly unrepentant Tara. “We’ll be moving soon.” “So will the dog,” Tara put in lightly. “Martie Wren can only keep her at the shelter for so long, then it’s off to—well—wherever.” “Thanks again, Tara,” Kendra said. She knew her friend meant well, but the woman wasn’t known for her good judgment. Hadn’t she given up a great job in New York, heading up a world-class cosmetics company, to buy, of all things, a dilapidated chicken ranch on the outskirts of Parable, Montana? Huge tears welled in Madison’s eyes. “Nobody wants Lucy’s sister?” At last, Tara looked shamefaced. “She’s a beautiful dog,” she told the little girl gently. “Somebody will adopt her for sure.” “You, for instance?” Kendra said. “I guess she could live with Lucy and me for a while,” Tara decided, shifting her expensive hobo bag from her right shoulder to her left. Madison grabbed Kendra’s hand, squeezed. “We could just look at Emma, couldn’t we?” “Emma?” Kendra echoed, dancing on ice now, Bambi with all four limbs scrabbling for traction. “That’s what we’d call Lucy’s sister,” Madison said matter-of-factly, her little face shining more brightly than the sunset gathering in shades of pink and orange at the rims of the mountains to the east. “Emma.” Emma. It was Madison’s birth mother’s name. Did she know that? How could she? She’d been only a year old when Emma gave her up. “Why ‘Emma’?” Kendra asked carefully, hoping to hide her dismayed surprise from the child. Tara, she instantly noted, had already read her face, though she couldn’t have known the significance of the name, and she looked way beyond apologetic. “It’s a pretty name,” Madison said. “Don’t you think so, Mommy?” “It’s lovely,” Kendra conceded. “Now, shouldn’t we pick up our supper and head for home?” She glanced at Tara. “Join us? Nothing fancy—we’re getting takeout—but we’d love to share.” Tara blinked, clearly uncertain what response she ought to give. “Well—” “And it would be fun to meet Lucy,” Madison went on. “Is she with you?” “As a matter of fact,” Tara said, “yes. She’s in the car. We just came from the vet’s office and—” “You’re both welcome,” Kendra insisted. Firstly because Tara was a dear friend and secondly, because she was enjoying the other woman’s obvious discomfort. “You and Lucy.” “Well,” Tara murmured, with a weak little smile, “okay.” Kendra smiled. “Let’s go, then,” she said, jingling the ring of keys she’d just plucked from her purse. She shut off the inside lights, stepped out onto the sidewalk and locked up behind them. Leaving Kendra’s Volvo in the parking lot out back, they crossed the street to the Butter Biscuit Café. Tara’s flashy red sports car was parked on the street in front of the restaurant, the yellow dandelion-fluff dog, Lucy, pressing her muzzle against the driver’s-side window, steaming up the glass. Kendra’s heart softened at the very sight of that dog, while Madison rushed over to stand on tiptoe and press the palms of both hands against the window. “Hello, Lucy!” Madison cried gleefully. Lucy barked joyously, her brown eyes luminous with impromptu adoration. She tongued the window where Madison’s right palm rested. Tara laughed. “See?” she said, giving Kendra a light elbow to the ribs. “It’s fate.” “I’ll get you for this,” Kendra told her friend with an undertone. “No, you’ll thank me.” Tara beamed, all confidence again. “I’m counting on Emma to win you over.” She whispered that last part. They practically had to drag Madison away from the car, and the dog, each adult gripping one of her small hands as they approached the entrance to the Butter Biscuit Café. The place was rocking, as always, with dishes clinking and waitresses rushing back and forth and the jukebox blaring an old Randy Travis song. All the noise and busyness subsided though, at least for Kendra, when her gaze found and landed unerringly on Hutch Carmody. He sat alone at the counter, ridiculously handsome in ordinary jeans, a white shirt and black boots. A plate sat in front of him, containing half a cheeseburger, a few French fries and some pickles. It wouldn’t have been so awkward if he hadn’t noticed Kendra—or at least, if he’d pretended not to notice her—but he turned toward her immediately, as though equipped with Kendra-detecting radar. A slow smile lifted his mouth at one corner and his greenish-blue eyes sparked with amused interest. Madison rushed straight toward him, as if they were old friends. “We’re getting a dog!” she piped. “Well, maybe.” Hutch grinned down at the child, his expression softening a little, full of a kindness Kendra had never seen in him before, not even in their most private and tender moments. The man definitely had a way with kids. “Is that so?” he asked companionably. “Is this dog purple, like your kangaroo?” Madison giggled at this question. “No, silly,” she said. “Dogs are never purple!” Hutch chuckled. “Neither are kangaroos, in my experience. Not that we have a whole lot of them hopping around the great state of Montana.” “They mostly live in Australia,” Madison told him solemnly. “Rupert is only purple because he’s a toy.” “I guess that explains it,” Hutch replied, his gaze rising slowly to reconnect with Kendra’s. Electricity arced, potent, between them. “I’m glad to have the purple kangaroo question settled. It’s been troubling me a lot.” And that wasn’t the only thing he’d been wondering about, Kendra suddenly realized. He wanted to know how she’d managed to produce a child without ever being pregnant. As if that were any of his business. “Hello, Hutch,” Kendra said, her voice strangely wooden. He merely nodded. Tara spoke up. “How have you been?” she asked him nervously. Something flickered in Hutch’s eyes; it was obvious that he’d figured out what Tara really wanted to know. “I’ve been just fine, Tara,” he replied evenly and without rancor. “Except, of course, for that whole non-wedding thing.” Tara blushed. So did Kendra. “G-good,” Tara said. “We’d better place our order,” Kendra added, and immediately felt like a complete fool. A well-spoken person otherwise, she never seemed to know what to say around Hutch. “B-before the café gets any busier, I mean—” “Plus Lucy’s locked up in the red car outside,” Madison put in. “Plus that,” Kendra said lamely. “Lucy?” Hutch asked, raising one eyebrow. “My dog,” Tara explained. “Right,” Hutch answered. His gaze remained on Kendra, stirring up all sorts of totally unwanted memories, like the way his hands felt on her bare thighs or the touch of his lips gliding softly over the tops of her breasts. “Nice to see you again,” he added casually. When he looked at her that way, Kendra always felt as though her clothes were made of cellophane, and that got her hackles up. Not to mention her nipples, which, thankfully, were well hidden under the loose fabric of her T-shirt. Even though she turned away quickly and began studying the big menu board on the wall behind the cash register, Kendra was still acutely aware of Hutch, of little Madison, who so clearly adored him, and of Tara, who was trying to pick up the dangling conversational thread. “Rodeo Days are almost upon us,” Tara said brightly. Every Independence Day weekend since the beginning of time, Parable had hosted the county rodeo, fireworks and carnival. People came from miles around to eat barbecued pork and beef in the park, root for their favorite cowboys and barrel-racing cowgirls, and ride the Ferris wheel and the Whirly-Gig. “The cleanup committee is looking for volunteers. Shall I put your name down to help out, Hutch?” The woman was wasted as a chicken rancher, Kendra thought, pretending to puzzle between the café’s famous corn-bread casserole and deep-fried catfish. Tara should have been selling ice to penguins. “Sure,” she heard Hutch say. Kendra settled on the corn-bread casserole, preferring to avoid deep-fried anything, slanted a glance at Tara and raised her voice a little to place the order with a waitress. “To go, please,” she added, perhaps a touch pointedly. She heard Hutch chuckle, low and gruff. What was funny? Tara edged over to Kendra’s side, digging in her purse for money. “My treat,” Kendra said, watching out of the corner of her eye as Madison tore herself out of Hutch’s orbit and joined the women in front of the cash register. The food was packed for transport, handed over and paid for, all in due course. As they were leaving, Madison turned back to wave at Hutch. “I like that cowboy man,” she announced, to all and sundry, her little voice ringing like a silver bell at Christmas. An affectionate group chuckle rippled through the café and Kendra hid a sigh behind the smile she turned on her daughter. “Let’s go,” she said, taking Madison’s small and somewhat grubby hand in hers before they crossed the street to get to Kendra’s Volvo. “Meet you at your place,” Tara called, unlocking her car door and then laughing as she wrestled the eager puppy back so she could slide into the driver’s seat and take the wheel. Kendra nodded and, when the Walk sign flashed, she and Madison started across the street. “Don’t you like the cowboy man, Mommy?” Madison asked, wrinkling her face against the bright dazzle of afternoon sunshine. The question surprised Kendra so much that she nearly stopped right there in the middle of the road. “Now why on earth would you ask such a thing, Madison Rose Shepherd?” she asked, keeping her tone light, almost teasing. “If he looks at you,” Madison observed, as they stepped up onto the sidewalk and started toward the Volvo, “you look away.” Thinking it was uncanny, the things children not only noticed but could verbalize, Kendra turned up her inner-smile dial a notch and squeezed Madison’s hand gently. “Do I?” she countered, knowing full well that she did. Madison nodded. “He looks at you a lot, too,” she added. Mercifully they’d reached the car, and the next few minutes were taken up with settling Madison in her booster seat and placing the take-out bag carefully on the floor, so the food inside wouldn’t spill. A four-year-old’s attention span being what it was, Kendra had reason to hope the subject would have changed by the time she’d buckled herself in behind the wheel and started the car with an unintended roar of the motor. “Do you know if the cowboy man likes dogs?” Madison ventured, from her perch in the backseat. Kendra calmly took her foot off the gas pedal, shifted into Drive and steered carefully into the nonexistent traffic. “Yes, I think so,” she replied, as matter-of-factly as she could. “That’s good,” Madison said happily. Kendra wasn’t about to pursue that observation. “Have you ever been to a rodeo?” she asked, a way of deflecting the topic away from dogs and Hutch Carmody. “What’s a rodeo?” Madison asked. Kendra took the short drive home to describe the phenomenon in words her small daughter might be expected to understand. “Oh,” Madison said when Kendra was finished. “Will the cowboy man be there?” * * * LUCY THE GOLDEN retriever turned out to be a real charmer, with her butter-colored fur and those saintly brown eyes dancing with intermittent mischief. After supper, served as planned at the metal table beside the rose garden, Madison and the pup ran madly around the yard, celebrating green grass and vivid colors and the cool breeze of a summer evening. Watching them, Tara smiled. “I’m sorry if I put you on the spot before,” she said to Kendra, after taking a sip from her glass of iced tea. “About Lucy’s sister, I mean.” “That was her birth mother’s name,” Kendra reflected, watching the child and the dog as they played in the gathering twilight. Tara set the glass down. “What? Lucy?” Kendra shook her head. “No,” she said, very softly. “Emma. Do you suppose Madison remembers her mother?” “You are Madison’s mother,” Tara replied. “Tara,” Kendra said wearily. “From what you’ve told Joslyn and me, Madison’s been in foster care since she was a year old. How could she remember?” Kendra lifted one shoulder slightly, then let it fall. “It seems like a pretty big coincidence that Madison would choose that particular name. She must have overheard it somewhere.” “Probably,” Tara allowed. Then she added, “Kendra, look at me.” Kendra shifted her gaze from drinking in the sight of Madison and Lucy, frolicking against a backdrop of blooming flowers of every hue, to Tara’s concerned face. “You’re not afraid she’ll come back, are you?” Tara prompted, almost in a whisper. “This Emma person, I mean, and try to take Madison away?” Kendra shook her head. She was at once comforted and saddened by the knowledge that Madison’s biological mother hadn’t wanted her baby enough to fight for her. The woman had demanded money, naturally, but she’d signed off readily enough once Jeffrey’s American lawyers got the point across that the buying and selling of babies was illegal. “She’s relinquished all rights to Madison,” she finally answered. Tara sighed. “It’s hard to understand some people,” she said. “Impossible,” Kendra agreed. Oddly, though, she wasn’t thinking of Madison’s birth mom anymore, but of Hutch. The man was a mystery, an enigma. He fractured women’s hearts with apparent impunity—there always seemed to be another hopeful waiting in the wings, certain she’d be the exception to the rule—and yet kids, dogs and horses saw nothing in him to fear and everything to love. Was he actually a good man, underneath all that bad-boy mojo and easy charm? “Still planning to sell this place, then?” Tara asked with a gesture of one hand that took in the mansion as well as the grounds. Kendra nodded. “I’ll be putting the proceeds in trust for Madison,” she said. She hadn’t told Joslyn and Tara everything, but they both knew Jeffrey had fathered the little girl. “It’s rightfully hers.” Tara absorbed that quietly and took another sip from her iced tea. “You won’t miss it? The money, I mean? Living in the biggest and fanciest house in town?” Kendra’s smile was rueful. “I’m not broke, Tara,” she said. “I’ve racked up a lot of commissions since I started Shepherd Real Estate.” She looked back over one shoulder at the looming structure behind them. “As for missing this house, no, I won’t, not for a moment. It’s a showplace, not a home.” Tara didn’t answer. She seemed to be musing, mulling something over. “So,” Kendra said, “how’s the chicken ranch coming along?” At that, Tara rolled her beautiful eyes. “It’s a disaster,” she answered with honest good humor. “The nesting-house roof is sagging, the hens aren’t laying—I suspect that’s because the roosters are secretly gay—and Boone Taylor still refuses to plant shrubbery to hide that eyesore of a trailer he lives in so it won’t be the first thing I see when I look out my kitchen window every morning.” “Regrets?” Kendra asked gently. Madison and Lucy seemed to be winding down; moving in slow motion as the shadows thickened. After a bath and a story, Madison would sleep soundly. Tara immediately shook her head. “No,” she said. “It’s hard, but I’m a long way from giving up.” “Good,” Kendra said with a smile. “Because I’d feel guilty if you were having second thoughts, considering I was the one who sold you the place.” “You might have warned me about the neighbors,” Tara joked. “Boone isn’t so bad,” Kendra felt honor-bound to say. She’d known him since childhood, known his late wife, Corrie, too. He’d lost interest in life for a long time after Corrie’s death from breast cancer a few years back, but last November he’d up and run for sheriff and gotten himself elected by a country mile. “He’s just stubborn, like most of the men around here. That’s what gets them through the hard times.” Tara’s eyes widened a little. “Does that apply to Hutch, too?” Kendra stood up, beckoned to her tired daughter. “Time to get ready for bed,” she called to Madison, who meandered slowly toward her—proof in itself that she was exhausted. Like most small children, she normally resisted sleep with all her might, lest she miss something. The puppy trotted over to Tara, nuzzling her knee, and she laughed as she bent to ruffle her ears. “If you think Lucy’s perfect,” she said, instead of goodbye, “just wait till you meet her sister.” CHAPTER THREE THE NEXT MORNING after church, Kendra gave in to the pressures of fate—and her very persistent daughter—and drove across town to Paws for Reflection, the private animal shelter run by a woman named Martie Wren. Martie, an institution in Parable, oversaw the operation out of an office in her small living room, surviving entirely on donations and the help of numerous volunteers. She’d converted the two large greenhouses in back to dog-and-cat housing, though she also took in birds and rabbits and even the occasional pygmy goat. The place was never officially closed, even on Sundays and holidays. A sturdy woman with kindly eyes and a shock of unruly gray hair, Martie was watering the flower beds in her front yard when Kendra and Madison arrived, parking on the street. “Tara said you might be stopping by,” Martie sang out happily, waving and then hurrying over to shut off the faucet and wind the garden hose around its plastic spool. Kendra, busy helping Madison out of her safety rigging in the backseat, smiled wryly back at the other woman. “Of course she did,” she replied cheerfully. “We’re here to see Lucy’s sister,” Madison remarked. Martie, at the front gate by then, pushing it wide open in welcome, chuckled. “Well, come on inside then, and have a look at her. She’s been waiting for you. Got her all dolled up just in case the two of you happened to take a shine to each other.” Kendra stifled a sigh. She wanted a dog as much as Madison did—there had been a canine-shaped hole in her heart for as long as she could remember—but she’d hoped to find a permanent place to live before acquiring a pet. Get settled in. Alas, the universe did not seem concerned with her personal plans. She and Madison passed through the gate, closing it behind them, and Martie led the way onto the neatly painted front porch and up to the door. The retriever puppy did indeed seem to be waiting—she was sitting primly on the hooked rug in the tiny entryway, with a bright red ribbon tied to her collar and her chocolate-brown eyes practically liquid with hope. Kendra immediately melted. Madison, meanwhile, placed her hands on her hips and tilted her head to one side, studying the yellow fluff-ball intently. The puppy rose from its haunches and approached the little girl, looking for all the world as though it were smiling at her. Where have you been? the animal’s expression seemed to say. We’re supposed to be having fun together. Madison turned her eyes to Kendra. “She’s so pretty,” she said, sounding awed, as though there had never been and never would be another dog like this one. “Very pretty,” Kendra agreed, choking up a little. She saw so much of her childhood self in Madison and that realization made her cautious. Madison was Madison, and trying to soothe her own childhood hurts through her daughter would be wrong on so many levels. Martie, an old hand at finding good homes for otherwise unwanted critters, simply waited, benignly silent. She believed in letting things unfold at their own pace—not a bad philosophy in Kendra’s opinion, though she’d yet to master it herself. As a little girl she’d had to fight for every scrap of her grandmother’s attention. In her career she’d been virtually driven to succeed, believing with all her heart that nothing good would happen unless she made it happen. Now that Madison had entered her life, though, it was time to make some changes. Shifting her type-A personality down a few gears, so she could appreciate what she had, rather than always striving for something more, was at the top of the list. Madison was still gazing at Kendra’s face. “Can we take her home with us, Mommy?” she asked, clearly living for a “yes.” “Please? Can we name her Daisy?” Kendra’s eyes burned as she crouched beside her daughter, putting herself at eye level with the child. “I thought you wanted to call her Emma,” she said. Madison shook her head. “Daisy’s not an Emma. She’s a Daisy.” Kendra put an arm around Madison, but loosely. “Okay,” she said, very gently. “Daisy it is.” “She can come home with us, then?” Madison asked, wide-eyed, a small, pulsing bundle of barely contained energy. “Well, there’s a procedure that has to be followed,” Kendra replied, looking over at Martie as she stood up straight again, leaving one hand resting on the top of Madison’s head. “Daisy’s had her shots,” Martie said, “and I’ve known you since you were the size of a bean sprout, Kendra Shepherd. You’ll give this dog a good home and lots of love, and that’s all that matters.” Something unspoken passed between the two women. Martie was probably remembering other visits to the shelter, when Kendra was small. She’d been the youngest volunteer at the shelter, cleaning kennels, filling water bowls and making sure every critter in the place got a gentle pat and a few kind words. “You get a free vet visit, too,” Martie said, as though further persuasion might be required. Madison’s face shone with delight. “Let’s take Daisy home right now,” she said. Kendra and Martie both laughed. “There are a few papers to be signed,” Martie said to the child. “Why don’t you and Daisy come on into the office with your mom and me, and keep each other company while we grown-ups take care of a few things?” Madison, though obviously eager to take Daisy and run before one of the adults changed their mind, nodded dutifully. “All right,” she said, her hand nestled into the golden fur at Daisy’s nape. “But we’re in a hurry.” Martie chuckled again. Kendra hid a smile and said, “Madison Rose.” “We’ll be very quick,” Martie promised over one shoulder. They all trailed into Martie’s office, Daisy sticking close to Madison’s side. “It isn’t polite to rush people, Madison,” Kendra told her daughter. “You said,” Madison reminded her, “that the church man took too long to stop talking, and everybody wanted to get out of there and have lunch. You wanted him to hurry up and finish.” Kendra blushed slightly. She had said something along those lines as they were driving away from the church, but that was different from standing up when the sermon seemed never-ending and saying something like, “Wrap it up, will you? We’re in a hurry.” Explaining that to a four-year-old, obviously, would take some doing. Martie chuckled again. “Lloyd’s a dear, but he does tend to run on when he’s got a captive audience on a Sunday morning,” she remarked with kindly tolerance. “Bless his heart.” The Reverend Lloyd Atherton, like Martie, was a fixture in Parable. Long-winded though he was, everybody loved him. Kendra made a donation, in lieu of a fee, listened to a brief and heartrending explanation of Daisy’s background—she’d literally been left on Martie’s doorstep in a cardboard box along with six of her brothers and sisters—and signed a simple document promising to return Daisy to Paws for Reflection if things didn’t work out. “Is Daisy hungry?” Madison wanted to know. It was a subtle nudge. We’re in a hurry. Martie smiled. “Puppies always seem to think they are, but Daisy had a bowl of kibble less than half an hour ago. She’ll be just fine until supper time.” Madison nodded, apparently satisfied. She was staring raptly at the little dog, stroking its soft coat as she waited for the adoption to be finalized. Soon enough, the details had been handled and Madison was in the back of the Volvo again, buckled into her booster seat, with Daisy sitting alertly beside her, panting in happy anticipation of whatever. They made a quick stop at the big discount store out on the highway, leaving Daisy waiting patiently in the car with a window partly rolled down for air while they rushed inside to buy assorted gear—a collar and leash, a package of poop bags, a fleecy bed large enough for a golden retriever puppy to grow into, grooming supplies, a few toys and the brand of kibble Martie had recommended. Daisy was thrilled at their return and when Kendra tossed the bed into the backseat, the animal frolicked back and forth across the expanse of it, unable to contain her delight, causing Madison to laugh in a way Kendra had never heard her laugh before—rambunctiously and without self-consciousness or restraint. It was a beautiful thing to hear and Kendra was glad there were so many small tasks to be performed before she could put the car in motion, because her vision was a little blurred. Back at the guesthouse, Kendra put away the dog’s belongings while Madison and Daisy ran frenetically around the backyard, both of them bursting with pent-up energy and pure celebration of each other. “We need a poop bag, please,” Madison announced presently, appearing in the cottage doorway, a vision in her little blue Sunday-school dress. Smiling, Kendra opened the pertinent package, followed Madison outside to the evidence and proceeded to demonstrate the proper collection and disposal of dog doo-doo. Afterward, she insisted they both wash their hands at the bathroom sink. Daisy looked on from the doorway, wagging her tail and looking pleased to be in the midst of so much interesting activity. Lunch, long overdue by then, was next on the agenda. Madison and Kendra made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the impossibly small kitchen, and Kendra poured a glass of milk for both of them. Daisy settled herself near Madison’s chair, ears perked forward, nose raised to sniff the air, probably hoping that manna, in the form of scraps of a PB and J, might fall from heaven. Martie had been adamant on that point, though. No people food and very few treats. The treat a dog needed most, she’d said, was plenty of love and affection. When the meal was over and the table had been cleared, Madison announced, yawning, that Daisy had had a big morning and therefore needed a nap. Amused—Madison normally napped only under protest—Kendra suggested that they ought to change out of their church clothes first. Madison put on pink cotton shorts and a blue short-sleeved shirt, and Kendra opted for jeans and a lightweight green pullover. When she came out of the bedroom, Madison and Daisy were already curled up together on the new fleece dog bed, and Kendra didn’t have the heart to raise an objection. Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas, she heard her grandmother say. Shut up, Gramma, was her silent response. “Sleep tight,” she said aloud, taking a book from the shelf and stepping outside, planning to sit in the shade of the maple trees and read for a while. The scene was idyllic—bees buzzing, flowers nodding their many-colored heads in the light breeze, the big Montana sky sweeping blue and cloudless and eternal overhead. Kendra relaxed as she read, and at some point, she must have dozed off, because she opened her eyes suddenly and found Hutch Carmody standing a few feet away, big as life. She blinked a couple of times, but he didn’t disappear. Not a dream, then. Crap. “Sorry,” he said without a smidgeon of regret. “Didn’t mean to wake you.” Kendra straightened and glanced toward the open doorway of the cottage, looking for Madison. There was no sign of either the child or the dog, but Kendra went inside to check on them anyway. They were both sleeping, curled up together on Daisy’s cloud-soft bed. Quietly, Kendra went back outside to face Hutch. How could she not have heard him arrive? His truck was parked right there in the driveway, a stone’s throw from where she’d been sitting. At the very least, she should have heard the tires in the gravel or the closing of the driver’s door. “What are you doing here?” she whispered, too rattled to be polite. Hutch spread his hands wide, grinning. “I’m unarmed,” he said, sidestepping the question. He was, she recalled, a master at sidestepping any topic he didn’t want to discuss. “Don’t shoot.” Kendra huffed out a sigh, picked up her book, which she’d dropped in the grass when she’d woken up to an eyeful of Hutch, and held it tightly against her side. “What. Are. You. Doing. Here?” she repeated. He gestured for her to sit down, and since her knees were weak, she dropped back into her lawn chair. He drew another one up alongside hers and sat. They were both gazing straight ahead, like two strangers in the same row on an airplane, intent on the seat belt/oxygen mask lecture from an invisible flight attendant. “Tell me about your little girl,” Hutch finally said. “Why should I?” Kendra asked reasonably, proud of her calm tone. “I guess because she could have been ours,” he replied. For a moment, Kendra felt as if he’d elbowed her, hard, or even punched her in the stomach. Once the adrenaline rush subsided, though, she knew there was no point in withholding the information. A person could practically throw a rock from one end of Parable to the other and juicy stories got around fast. “You’ll hear about it soon enough,” she conceded, though ungraciously, keeping her voice down in case Madison woke up and somehow homed in on the conversation, “so I might as well tell you.” Hutch gave a long-suffering sigh and she felt him looking in her direction now, though she was careful not to meet his gaze. “Might as well,” he agreed quietly. “Not that it’s any of your business,” Kendra pointed out. He simply waited. Distractedly, Kendra wondered if the man thought she’d given birth to Madison herself and kept her existence hidden from everyone in Parable all this time. “Madison is adopted,” she said. It was a simple statement, but it left her feeling as though she’d spilled her guts on some ludicrous tell-all TV show. “Why do I think there’s more to the story?” Hutch asked after a pause. His very patience galled Kendra—what right did he have to be patient? This was a courtesy explanation—she didn’t owe it to him. She didn’t owe him anything except maybe a broken heart. “Madison’s father was my ex-husband,” Kendra said. Suddenly, she wanted to cry and it had nothing to do with her previous hesitation to talk about something so bruising and private. Why couldn’t Madison have been born to her, as she should have been? “And her mother?” Once again, Kendra looked to make sure Madison hadn’t turned up in the cottage doorway, all ears. “She was one of Jeffrey’s girlfriends.” Hutch swore under his breath. “That rat bastard,” he added a moment later. Kendra stiffened her spine, squared her shoulders, jutted out her chin a little way. “I beg your pardon?” she said in a tone meant to point out the sheer irony, not to mention the audacity, of the pot calling the kettle black. “Could we not argue, just this once?” Hutch asked hoarsely. “Just this once,” Kendra said, and one corner of her mouth twitched with a strange urge to smile. Probably some form of hysteria, she decided. “I’m sorry I called your ex-husband a rat bastard,” Hutch offered. “You are not,” Kendra challenged, still without looking at him. Except out of the corner of one eye, that is. “All right,” Hutch ground out, “fine.” He sighed and shoved a hand through his hair. “Let me rephrase that. I’m sorry I didn’t keep my opinion to myself.” A brief, sputtering laugh escaped Kendra then. “Since when have you ever been known to keep your opinion to yourself?” “You’re determined to turn this into a shouting match, aren’t you?” “No,” Kendra said pointedly, bristling. “I am not planning on arguing with you, Hutch Carmody. Not ever again.” “Kendra,” Hutch said, “you can hedge and stall all you want, but eventually we’re going to have this conversation, so we might as well just go ahead and get it done.” She made a swatting motion in his general direction, as though trying to chase away a fly. Now she was digging in her heels again and she couldn’t seem to help it. “Madison is my daughter now, and that’s all that matters.” “You’re an amazing woman, Kendra,” Hutch told her, and he sounded so serious that she swiveled on the seat of her lawn chair to look at him with narrowed, suspicious eyes. “I mean it,” he said with a gruff chuckle, the sound gentle and yet innately masculine. “Some people couldn’t handle raising another woman’s child—under those circumstances, anyhow.” “It isn’t Madison’s fault that Jeffrey Chamberlain was a—” Hutch’s mouth crooked up at one corner and sad mischief danced in his eyes. “Rat bastard?” he finished for her. “Yes,” she said. “That’s about the size of it.” He grinned full-out, which put him at an unfair advantage because when he did that, her bones turned to jelly and her IQ plummeted at least twenty points. “Well now,” he said. “We finally agree on something.” “Go figure,” Kendra remarked, going for a snippy tone but not quite getting there. “We’re on a roll.” “Or not.” He laughed, shook his head. “I’m about to say something you’ll have to agree with, whether you want to or not,” he warned. She felt a weird little thrill and could have shaken herself for it. “Is that so?” Hutch nodded toward the cottage doorway, where Madison finally stood, rubbing her eyes and yawning, Daisy at her side. “You’re lucky to have that little girl in your life, however it came about, and the reverse is true, too. You were born to be a mother, Kendra—and a good one.” “Damn it,” Kendra muttered, at a loss for a comeback. Hutch grinned as Madison’s eyes widened—she was slowly waking up—and a glorious smile lit her face. She scrambled toward them. “Hello, cowboy man!” she whooped, feet still bare, curls rumpled, cheeks flushed. Hutch laughed again. “I guess you might as well call me that as anything else,” he said. He exuded the kind of quiet, wholesome approval little girls crave from daddy-types. Not that Hutch was any such thing. “Do you like dogs?” Madison asked earnestly. As if she’d already made her own decision on that score, Daisy suddenly leaped into Hutch’s lap in a single bound, bracing her forepaws on his shoulders and licking his face. “Yep,” he said from behind all that squirming dog. “And, as you can see, they’re inclined to like me, too.” “Good,” Madison said. Kendra felt unaccountably nervous, though she couldn’t have said why. “Madison—” she began, but her voice fell away. “Do you like kids, too?” Madison pressed. Kendra groaned inwardly. Hutch set Daisy carefully on the ground, patting her still-bouncing head. “I like kids just fine,” he said. “Do you have any?” Hutch shook his head. “Nope.” “Madison,” Kendra repeated, with no more effect than before. “Do you like my Mommy, too?” Kendra squeezed her eyes shut. “As a matter of fact,” Hutch replied easily, “I do. Your mother and I are old friends.” Kendra squirmed again and forced herself to open her eyes. Even rummaged up a smile that wouldn’t quite stick. Before she could think of anything to say, however, Hutch unfolded himself from his lawn chair with Madison standing nearby, still basking in his presence. “I guess I’d better head on home before I wear out my welcome,” he drawled, and there was a twinkle in his eyes when he snagged Kendra’s gaze. “See you around,” he added. Madison caught hold of his hand. “Wait,” she said, in a near whisper. He leaned down, resting his hands on his knees. “What?” he asked, with a smile in his voice. “Will you be at the rodeo thing?” Madison continued. “Sure enough,” Hutch said, his tone and manner so void of condescension that he might have been addressing another adult. Maybe that was his gift, that he treated children like people, not some lesser species. “Never miss it. After all, I’m a cowboy man.” Madison beamed, evidently satisfied, and when Daisy bounded off in pursuit of a passing butterfly, her small mistress gamboled after her, arms wheeling as if she might take flight. “Cowboy man,” Kendra reflected thoughtfully. “I’ve been called worse,” Hutch joked. “That’s a fact,” Kendra said brightly. She could have listed half a dozen names she’d called him over the years, to his face and in the privacy of her own head. Whistling some ditty under his breath, and still grinning, Hutch turned and headed for his truck, lifting a hand in farewell as he went. He got behind the wheel and drove away, and Kendra didn’t watch him go. * * * “YOU’RE WAY TOO pregnant to be at work,” Kendra told Joslyn the next day, stepping into the storefront office after dropping Madison off for the morning preschool session and leaving Daisy at Tara’s for a doggy playdate with Lucy, only to find her business partner already there, tapping away at the keyboard of her computer. Joslyn flashed her a smile as she looked up from the monitor. “So I hear,” she said. She sighed good-naturedly. “From Slade. From Opal. From Callie.” “And now, from me,” Kendra replied, setting her handbag on the edge of the desk since she’d be going out again as soon as she’d checked her messages. She was due at her lawyer’s office at ten-thirty, which was why she hadn’t brought Daisy to work with her. Madison had been beside herself at the thought of Daisy being left at home alone because, as she’d explained it, “Daisy is a puppy and a puppy is the same as a baby and a baby needs somebody with it at all times.” Kendra had given in, at least temporarily. “You’re supposed to be on maternity leave, remember?” she prompted, happy to see her friend for whatever reason, all protests aside. “Ouch,” Joslyn said out of nowhere, spreading a hand over her zeppelin of a belly and making a wincey face. “Is the little guy practicing his rodeo moves again?” Kendra asked, smiling. If only every baby could be born into a union as loving and warm as Joslyn and Slade’s—it would be a different world. “It would seem he’s switched to pole vaulting,” Joslyn said in a tone of cheerful acceptance. After a few slow, deep breaths, she focused on the computer monitor again. “Come over here and check out this listing, Kendra. It’s a rental, but I think it might be exactly what you’ve been looking for.” Immediately interested, Kendra rounded her friend’s desk to stand behind her and peer at the small white house on the screen. She recognized it, of course; she had at least a passing knowledge of every piece of property in Parable County, be it residential or commercial. This charming little one-story colonial, with its white clapboard walls and green shutters and wraparound porch, was situated across the street from the town park, just two blocks from the public library. Both Madison’s preschool and the new real estate office were within easy walking distance. “Why didn’t I know about this?” Kendra mused, studying the enticing image on the monitor. Joslyn raised and lowered one shoulder, very slightly. “You’ve been out of town,” she replied. “Plus we only sell real estate, we don’t manage rentals.” Kendra’s brain sifted through the facts she already knew: the colonial had belonged to attorney Maggie Landers’s late aunt, Billie. Upon Billie’s death, at least a decade before, Maggie had inherited the property. She’d had some much-needed renovations done, Kendra recalled, but never actually lived in the house herself. She’d rented it out to a schoolteacher, long-term. Now, apparently, it was empty—or about to be. She practically dived for the telephone. Sure she already had an appointment with Maggie about Madison’s trust fund, but she didn’t want someone else snapping up the house. Maggie’s front office assistant put Kendra through to the boss right away. “Tell me you’re not canceling our appointment,” Maggie said without preamble. “If you do, you’ll be the third one today.” Kendra’s heart had begun to pound. “No,” she said quickly, smiling. Hoping. “No, it isn’t that—I’ll be there at ten-thirty, like we agreed—” “Kendra,” Maggie broke in, sounding concerned now. “What on earth is the matter? You sound as though you’ve just completed a triathlon.” “Your house—the rental—Joslyn just showed me the listing on the internet—” Maggie gave a nervous little laugh and Kendra could see her in her mind’s eye, fiddling with that strand of priceless pearls she always wore. “Yes? What about it?” “Is it still available?” Maggie sounded relieved when she answered, “Of course. The ad just went up today.” “I’ll take it,” Kendra burst out. Her own recklessness left her gasping for breath—she never did reckless things. Well, not reckless things that didn’t involve Hutch Carmody, anyway. “Sight unseen?” Maggie echoed. “It’s perfect for Madison and me,” Kendra said, relaxing a little. “Don’t you even want to know how much the rent will be?” Kendra strained to see Joslyn’s monitor again and scanned quickly for the price. “That won’t be a problem,” she nearly chimed. Maggie was quiet for a few moments, taking it all in. “All right,” she said finally. “Come early and we’ll go over the details of the trust fund, then run over to the house so you can have a look inside before you commit yourself to a year’s lease—” Kendra bit back a very un-Kendra-like response, which would have gone something like this: I’m committing right now. Do you hear me? Right now! “Fine,” she said moderately. “But please don’t show it to anyone else in the meantime.” “In the meantime?” Maggie echoed, with a friendly little laugh. “As in, say, the next half hour? Relax, Kendra—if you want the house, it’s yours.” Joslyn was grinning throughout the whole conversation. “Thank you,” Kendra said, near tears, she was so excited. She said goodbye, hung up and grabbed her purse from the corner of her desk. “Kendra,” Joslyn said, “take a breath. It’s meant to be.” “That,” Kendra retorted lightly, already on her way to the door, car keys in hand, “is what you said about Hutch and me. Remember?” “Oh,” Joslyn answered breezily, “I haven’t changed my mind on that score. Sooner or later, I’m sure you’ll both come around.” Kendra shook her head, gave a rueful chuckle. “Don’t work too hard,” she said, opening the office door. “If you’re still here when I get back, I’ll buy you lunch at the Butter Biscuit.” “One more lunch at the Butter Biscuit,” Joslyn said, “and I’ll be a butterball. Anyway, I promised to meet Shea at the Curly Burly at one—we’re going shopping.” Kendra nodded and rushed out. Five minutes later, she was seated in Maggie’s office, on the very edge of her chair. Maggie had already warned her that building a legal structure that would protect Madison’s considerable financial interests would require a series of meetings, if only because of the complexity of the task. Kendra listened to Maggie’s explanations and suggestions as patiently as she could, but her mind was on the one-story colonial with the fenced backyard. This, too, was unlike her—she usually focused keenly on whatever she was doing at the time, but today, it was impossible. Maggie, a pretty woman with short hair, gamine eyes and very nice clothes, finally chuckled and laid down her expensive fountain pen. “You’re not getting a word of this, are you, Kendra?” she asked. Kendra smiled and shook her head. “I’m sorry. From the moment I realized the house might be available, I’ve been fidgety.” Maggie collected her handbag from a drawer of her desk. “Then let’s go and do the walk-through,” she said. “Then we’ll come back here and take another shot at running the numbers for Madison’s fund.” “I’d like that,” Kendra said, feeling almost giddy. “Follow me, then,” Maggie said, jangling her car keys. The cottage had been freshly painted, Kendra noticed with a pang of sweet avarice, and so had the picket fence out front. The flower beds were in full bloom and the lawn, newly mown, smelled sweetly of cut grass. It was so easy to imagine herself and Madison living here. “I knew you were selling the mansion, of course,” Maggie said when they got out of their cars and met on the sidewalk in front of the colonial. “But I guess I thought you’d be in the market to buy a place, rather than rent.” “I did plan on buying,” Kendra answered, letting her gaze wander over the sleeping-in-the-sunshine face of that perfect little house, “but I’m learning that it’s wise to be open to surprises.” Maggie smiled and opened the creaky gate. “Isn’t that the truth?” she responded. CHAPTER FOUR WHEN HUTCH FINALLY caught up with Brylee, she was in her small but well-organized warehouse on the outskirts of Three Trees, helping to stack boxes as they were unloaded from the back of a delivery truck. Clad in jeans, sneakers and a blue U of M pullover, she looked more like a teenager than a thirty-year-old woman with a successful business and a bad-luck wedding day to her credit. Her russet-brown hair hung down her back in a long, fairly tidy braid, and she hadn’t bothered with makeup. She didn’t notice Hutch right away and he used those moments to gather his resolve, all the while wishing he felt something for Brylee—God knew, she was beautiful and she was sweet and she was smart. She was definitely wife and mother material—but she didn’t stir him down deep where it counted and that was a deal-breaker. At last Brylee stilled, like a doe catching the scent of some threat on the wind, she turned her head his way and saw him standing just a few feet inside the roll-up doorway of the warehouse, Her large eyes, bluish today because of the color of the shirt she was wearing, looked hollow as she took him in and he knew she was weighing her options—seriously considering walking away without deigning to speak, if not shooting him down where he stood or running him over with the first handy forklift. Brylee had a temper and she could be as hardheaded as any statue, but she was no coward. She spoke sotto voce to the other workers, all female, all of whom were staring now, as though Hannibal Lector had just appeared in their midst, wearing the leather mask and holding a plate of fava beans, and then came slowly toward him. Brylee ran a small but thriving party-planning company that sold home decor items and various gifts. She had a network of sales people that covered a five-state area, holding lucrative little gatherings in people’s homes, and operated a thriving online store, as well. “Hello, Hutch,” she said, indicating her nearby office with a nod and leading the way. He fell into step with her after muttering a gruff “hello” of his own. The office was small and furnished in early army surplus. Brylee evidently reserved her creative capacities for choosing and photographing products, training her “independent home decor consultants” and coming up with innovative marketing strategies. Here, in this little room off the warehouse, she handled the practical end of things. “I wondered when you’d show up,” she said once they were inside her enclave with the door closed against listening ears. “I wanted to come and see you right after the—well, after—but I was persuaded that it wouldn’t be a good idea,” Hutch replied. He stood with his back to the door, while Brylee perched on the edge of her beat-up steel desk, with her arms folded and her head tipped to one side in skeptical anticipation. “I could have spared you the trouble of paying a visit,” Brylee replied quietly. She looked strained, exhausted, a little pale, but pride flashed in her changeable hazel eyes and stiffened her generous mouth. “I don’t have anything to say to you, Hutch. Nothing I’d want written in the Book of Life, anyway.” “Well,” he drawled, after stifling a wry chuckle, “it just so happens that I have something to say to you.” Brylee arched one eyebrow and waited. She looked bored now, but wary, too. What, she might have been wondering, was this yahoo going to spring on her now? Hutch shoved a hand through his hair. He’d left his hat in the truck, but otherwise he was dressed as usual in work clothes and boots. Whisper Creek Ranch practically ran itself these days, well-staffed and well-organized as it was, but he still felt the need to get up every morning before the sun rose and tend to the business of herding cattle, mending fences and all the rest. Today he hadn’t been able to keep his mind on the routine, though, and it was a damn confusing situation, too. He thought about Kendra 24/7, but he’d been drawn to Brylee ever since that broken-road wedding that didn’t quite come off. “I can’t say I’m sorry for what I did,” he said straightforwardly. “Going through with that ceremony would have been the mistake of a lifetime—for both of us.” “Yes, you made that pretty clear,” Brylee answered, her tone terse. “Is that what you drove all the way from Whisper Creek to tell me?” “No,” Hutch said, standing his ground. “I came to say that you’ll find the right man, no matter what you think now, and when you do, you’ll be damn glad you didn’t marry me and wreck your chances to be happy.” “Maybe I’m already ‘damn glad I didn’t marry you,’” Brylee reasoned tartly. “Did you ever consider that possibility?” He grinned. “That one did occur to me, believe it or not,” he said. “I should have made you listen to me, Brylee, before things went as far as they did.” “That was my grandmother’s dress I was wearing,” she said, after a short pause. “It had to be restored and altered and specially cleaned. I spent a fortune on the cake and the invitations and the flowers and all the rest. It’s going to take weeks, even with help from my friends, to send back all those wedding gifts.” Her shoulders moved in the ghost of a shrug. “But, hey, what the heck? You win some, you lose some. And besides, who needs six toaster ovens anyhow?” Tears brimmed in her eyes and she looked away, fiercely dignified. “Brylee,” Hutch said, not daring to touch her or even take a step in her direction. “I know you’re hurt. I’m sorry about that—sorrier than I’ve ever been about anything in my life. And I’m more than ready to reimburse you for any of the costs—” “I don’t want your money!” she flared suddenly, looking straight at him now, with fire flashing behind the pride and sorrow in her eyes. “This was never about money—I have plenty of my own, in case you haven’t noticed.” “I know that, Brylee,” he said gently. “Then what did you expect to accomplish by coming here?” She held up an index finger. “Wait, let me answer for you,” she added. “Your conscience is bothering you—what passes for a conscience with you—and you want me to say all is forgiven and we can be friends and go on as if nothing happened.” With that, Brylee slipped past him and jerked the office door open wide. “Well, you can just go to hell, Hutch Carmody, and take your lame apologies with you.” A sharp, indrawn breath. “Get out.” “You might want to try listening to what’s really being said to you, Brylee, instead of just the parts you want to hear,” he told her calmly, not moving. “It would save a lot of wear and tear on you and everybody else.” “Get. Out.” Brylee parsed the words out. “Now.” He spread his hands in an “I give up” gesture and ambled past her, across the warehouse, which was as still as a mausoleum, and out through the doorway into the sunshine. Walker Parrish, Brylee’s brother, had just driven up in a big, extended-cab pickup with his stock company logo painted on the doors. He raised rodeo stock on his ranch outside of Three Trees, where he and Brylee had grown up. Hutch stopped. He frankly wasn’t in the mood for any more yammer and recrimination, but he wouldn’t have it said that he’d tucked his tail and run from Walker or anybody else. “We-e-e-l-ll,” Walker said, dragging out the word. “If it isn’t the runaway bridegroom.” Hutch wasn’t about to give an inch. “No autographs, please,” he retorted dryly. He wasn’t looking for a fight, but if Walker wanted one, he’d come to the right man. Walker chuckled and shook his head. Hutch knew women found Brylee’s big brother attractive, with his lean but wide-shouldered build and his rugged features, but so far he’d managed to steer clear of marriage, which should have made him at least a little sympathetic to Hutch’s side of the story, and clearly hadn’t. “I can’t imagine what you’re doing on my sister’s property right now,” Walker observed, his water-gray eyes narrowed as he studied Hutch. Hutch took his time shaping a reply. “I felt a need to offer an apology,” he finally said, his tone level, even affable. “She wasn’t in the frame of mind to accept it.” “I don’t reckon she would be,” Walker said. “Far as I’m concerned, Brylee always was half again too good for you, and in the long run you probably did her a favor by calling off the wedding. None of which means I wouldn’t like to smash your face in for putting her through all that.” While Hutch privately agreed with much of what Walker had just said, he wasn’t inclined to explain his repeated attempts to put the brakes on before he and Brylee and half the town ended up in the church on that fateful Saturday afternoon. And he’d come to Three Trees to apologize to Brylee, not her brother. “If you want a fight, Walker,” he said, “I’ll give you one.” Walker appeared to consider the pros and cons of getting it on right there in the warehouse parking lot. In the end, though, he shook his head. “What goes around, comes around,” he finally said. “You’ll get what’s coming to you.” Then, as an apparent afterthought, he added, “You planning on entering the rodeo this year?” “Don’t I always?” Hutch answered, mindful that Walker provided the bulls and broncos for such events all over the West, including the one in Parable. He was well-known for breeding almost unrideable critters. Walker grinned. “Here’s hoping you draw the bull I have in mind for you,” he said. “He’s a real rib-stomper.” “Bring him on,” Hutch replied, grinning back. With that, the two men, having said their pieces, went their separate ways—Hutch heading for his truck, Walker going on into the warehouse. Behind the wheel of his pickup, Hutch ground the key into the ignition. He didn’t know what he’d expected of this first post-disaster encounter with Brylee, but he’d hoped they could at least begin the process of burying the hatchet. After all, neither of them were going anywhere. Parable and Three Trees were only thirty miles apart, and the two communities were closely linked. In other words, they’d see each other all the time. He sighed and drove away. Maybe there was something to Brylee’s accusation that, in coming on this fool’s errand, he’d been more interested in soothing his own conscience than making any kind of amends, but at least he’d tried—again—to set things right, so they could at least be civil to each other. He figured it was probably too soon and wondered if the anti-Hutch internet campaign would ramp up a notch or two, since several of the key players—Brylee’s friends and employees—had basically witnessed the confrontation. These days everybody was an ace reporter. “Well, cowboy man,” he muttered to himself, “you’re batting a thousand. Might as well go for broke.” Reaching the highway, he rolled on toward Parable. And Kendra. * * * MADISON WAS THRILLED with the new house when Kendra sprang the surprise on the little girl after picking her up at preschool that afternoon, and Daisy was thrilled with the spacious backyard. The small colonial boasted two quite spacious bedrooms, plus a little cubicle Kendra planned to use as a home office, and two full baths. The kitchen was sunny, with plenty of cupboard space and a small pantry, and there was a large, old-fashioned brick fireplace in the living room. Closer inspection revealed small hooks in the wooden mantel for hanging Christmas stockings. All in all, the place was perfect—except, of course, for being a rental and therefore impermanent. Kendra had asked Maggie about buying the house, but Maggie was understandably reluctant to sell. She said it would be like putting a price on her childhood, and she couldn’t do that. “This is my room!” Madison exulted now, standing in the center of the space with window seats and built-in bookshelves and shiny plank floors worn to a warmly aged patina. The folding closet doors were louvered, and the overhead light fixture was small but ornate. Daisy gave a single joyous bark, as though seconding Madison’s motion and making a claim of her own. Kendra laughed. “Yes,” she said to both of them. “This is your room.” “Am I going to have a bed?” Madison inquired matter-of-factly. “Of course,” Kendra replied. “We’ll visit the furniture store over in Three Trees and you can pick it out yourself.” The town of Three Trees was actually smaller than Parable by a couple of thousand people, but it boasted a large outlet mall that drew customers from all over that part of the state, along with a movie house, a large bookstore and a Main Street lined with shops. “Can we go now?” Madison asked. “I don’t see why not,” Kendra replied. Her gaze fell on Daisy. Shopping for furniture with a puppy in tow didn’t mesh. The next question was inevitable, not to be forestalled. “Can Daisy come with us?” Madison wanted to know. Sadly, Kendra shook her head. “That won’t work, sweetie. But she’ll be fine at the guesthouse, I promise.” Madison mulled that over, then her face brightened again. “All right,” she said. “Daisy must be tired from playing with Lucy all day. She can take a nap while we’re gone.” “Good thinking,” Kendra said, holding out a hand to her daughter. “Let’s get going.” Daisy was remarkably cooperative when they got back to the guest cottage. She lapped up half the water in her bowl, munched on some kibble, went outside with Madison to take care of dog business and returned to settle on her soft bed in the kitchen, yawning big. Kendra’s heart swelled into her throat as Madison crouched next to the puppy, patting its head gently and whispering, “Don’t be scared, okay? Because Mommy and I will be back before it gets dark.” For the thousandth—if not millionth—time, Kendra wondered what life in that series of foster homes had been like for Madison. Had she felt safe, secure, loved? According to the social workers, Madison’s care had been exceptional—most foster parents were decent, dedicated people, generous enough to make room in their homes and their hearts for children in crisis. Still, Madison had been passed around a lot, shuffled from one stand-in family to another. How could she not have been affected by so many changes in her short life? Kendra was pondering all these things as she fastened the child into her booster seat in the backseat of the Volvo, and then as she slipped behind the wheel and started the engine. “I’m not going anywhere, you know,” she felt compelled to say, making an effort to keep her voice light as they pulled out onto Rodeo Road. She didn’t so much as glance at the mansion either as they passed it or in the rearview mirror; it might have been rendered invisible. Maybe, as some scientists claimed, things didn’t actually exist until someone looked at them. “Yes, you are too going somewhere,” Madison responded, after a few moments of thought. “You’re going to Three Trees so we can buy a bed!” Kendra laughed, blinked a couple of times and focused her attention on the road, where it belonged. “That isn’t what I meant, silly.” “My first mommy left,” Madison said, perhaps sensing that Kendra’s conversation was leading somewhere. “Yes,” Kendra said gently. “I know.” “But you won’t leave,” Madison said with reassuring conviction. “Because you like being a mommy.” Kendra sniffled. Blinked again, hard. “I love being your mommy,” she replied. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me, kiddo. Remember that, okay?” “Okay,” Madison said, her tone almost breezy. “Some of the kids at preschool have daddies, not just mommies.” The ache of emotion slipped from Kendra’s throat to settle into her heart. Part of the child’s remark echoed to the very center of her soul. Not just mommies. “My daddy died,” Madison went on. It was an exchange they’d had before, but repeating the facts seemed to comfort the little girl somehow, to anchor her in a new and better present. “He’s in heaven.” “Yes,” Kendra said, thick-voiced. She considered pulling over for a few moments, in order to pull herself together. “But he loved you very much. That’s why he sent me to find you.” Thank you for that, Jeffrey. In spite of everything else, thank you for bringing Madison into my life. The topic ricocheted with the speed of a bullet. “Is the cowboy man somebody’s daddy?” The question pierced Kendra’s heart like an arrow. They were near the park, and she pulled over in the shade of a row of hundred-year-old maples, all dressed up in leafy green for summer, to regain her composure. “I don’t think so,” she managed, after swallowing hard. “I like the cowboy man,” Madison said. A short pause followed and when she spoke again she sounded puzzled. “Why are we stopping, Mommy?” Kendra touched the back of her right hand to one cheek, then the other. “I just needed a moment,” she said. “Are you crying?” Madison sounded worried now. “Yes,” Kendra answered, because it was her policy never to lie to the child, if it could be avoided. “Why?” “Because I’m happy,” Kendra said. And that was the truth. She was happy and she was grateful. She had a great life. Still, there was the daddy thing. As a little girl, lonely and adrift, tolerated by her grandmother rather than loved, Kendra had longed for a father even more than she had for a dog or a kitten. She could still feel the ache of that singular yearning to be carried, laughing, on strong shoulders, to feel protected and cherished and totally safe. She was all grown up now, perfectly capable of protecting and cherishing her daughter as well as looking after herself and a certain golden retriever puppy in the bargain. But could she be both mother and father to her little girl? Was she, and the love she offered, enough? “I don’t cry when I’m happy,” Madison said as Kendra pulled the car back out onto the road. “I laugh when I’m happy.” “Makes sense,” Kendra conceded, laughing herself. They drove on to Three Trees, parked in front of the furniture store and hastened inside, hand in hand. And they found the perfect bed almost immediately— it was twin-size, made of gleaming brass, with four high posts and a canopy frame on top. A dresser, a bureau and two night tables, all French provincial in style, completed the ensemble. Kendra paid for their purchases—the pieces were to be delivered the next day, bright and early—and before they knew it, they were almost home again. Madison, seemingly deep in thought for most of the drive, piped up as they pulled into the driveway. “Mommy, we forgot to buy a bed for you.” “I already have one, honey,” Kendra responded, stopping the car alongside the guesthouse. She’d selected a few modest pieces from the mansion to take along to the new place. Most of the furniture in the main house was too big and too fancy for the simple colonial. There was a queen-size bed in one of the guest rooms that would work, a floral couch in the study, and they could use the table and chairs from Opal’s old apartment. Kendra wanted to leave room for some new things, too. She parked the car and turned Madison loose, and they raced each other to the guest cottage, where Daisy met them at the door, barking a happy greeting. Kendra set aside her purse, washed her hands, and searched the cottage fridge for the makings of an evening meal. She was chopping the vegetables for a salad, to which she would add leftover chicken breasts, also chopped, when she heard a vehicle coming up the driveway. Peering out the kitchen window, she saw Hutch Carmody getting out of his truck. Her stomach lurched and her heartbeat quickened as she hurriedly wiped her hands on a dish towel and went outside. Daisy and Madison, who had been playing in the kitchen moments before, rushed out to greet him. Soon they were all over him. He laughed at their antics and swung Madison off the ground and up onto his shoulders, where she clung, laughing, too. The last of the afternoon sunlight caught in their hair—Hutch’s a butternut color, Madison’s like copper flames—and the dog circled them, barking her excitement. Kendra couldn’t help being struck by the sight of the man and the little girl and the dog, looking so happy, so right. She went outside. “I was here earlier,” Hutch told her, easing Madison off his back and setting her on her feet, where she jumped, reaching up, wanting to be lifted up again. “You weren’t home.” Kendra couldn’t speak for a moment, knowing, as she somehow did, that she might never get the image of the three of them together out of her head. It had been unspeakably beautiful, like some otherworldly vision of what family life could be. “Hello?” Hutch teased, when she didn’t say anything, standing close to her now, his head tipped a little to one side, like his grin. All the while, Madison was trying to climb him like a bean pole and he finally swung her back onto his shoulders. “Come in,” Kendra heard herself say, her voice all croaky and strange. He nodded and followed her into the guest cottage, ducking so Madison wouldn’t bump her head on the door frame. This time when he put the child down, she seemed content just to hover nearby. He accepted the chair Kendra offered him at the small dining table and the coffee she brought him—black, the way he liked it. Funny, the things you didn’t forget about a person—mostly small and ordinary stuff, like coffee preferences and the way they always smelled of sun-dried cloth, even after a day spent hauling cattle out of mud holes or digging postholes. Kendra gave herself a mental shake, sent a protesting Madison off to wash her hands and face before supper. Daisy, of course, tagged along with her small mistress, though she cast a few glances back at Hutch as she went. “Join us for supper?” Kendra asked, hoping she sounded—well—neighborly. Hutch shook his head. “No, thanks,” he said, offering no further explanation, which was like him. Kendra could hear Madison in the bathroom, running water in the sink, splashing around, talking non-stop to Daisy about the new house and the new bed and whether or not they’d be allowed to watch a DVD that night before they had to go to bed. “Why are you here?” she finally asked very quietly. And this time, it wasn’t a challenge. She was too tired for challenges, too wrung-out emotionally from the things Madison had said in the car. Hutch sighed. The distant splashing continued, as did the child-to-dog chatter. “I’m not entirely sure,” he said at some length, taking Kendra aback a little. She couldn’t remember one single instance in all the time she’d known Hutch Carmody when he hadn’t been completely sure of everything and everybody, especially himself. “That’s helpful,” she said mildly. Any moment now Madison would be back in the room, thereby curtailing anything but the most mundane conversation. “Joslyn tells me there’s a cleanup day over at Pioneer Cemetery on Saturday,” he finally said, after casting about visibly for something to say. “There’ll be a town picnic afterward, like always, and, well, I was just wondering if you and Madison and Daisy might be interested in going along.” He paused, cleared his throat. “With me.” Kendra was astounded, not so much by the invitation as by Hutch’s apparent nervousness. Was he afraid she’d say no? Or was he afraid she’d say yes? “Okay,” she agreed, as a compromise between the two extremes. She wanted, she realized, to see how he’d react. Would he backpedal? Instead he favored her with a dazzling grin, rose from his chair and passed her to set his coffee cup, still mostly full, in the sink. Their arms brushed and his nearness, the hard heat of his very masculine body, sent a jolt of sweet fire through her. “Okay,” he said with affable finality. Madison was back by then, holding up her clean hands for Kendra to see but obviously more interested in Hutch than in her mother. “Very good,” Kendra said approvingly, and began moving briskly around the infinitesimal kitchen, setting out plates and silverware and glasses—which Madison promptly counted. “Aren’t you hungry, cowboy man?” she asked Hutch when the tally was two places at the table, rather than three. He looked down at Madison with such fondness that Kendra felt another pang of—something. “Can’t stay,” he said. “I have horses to look after and they like their supper served on time, just like people do.” Madison’s eyes widened. “You have horses?” From her tone she might have asked, “You can walk on water?” “Couldn’t very well call myself a cowboy if I didn’t have horses,” Hutch said reasonably. Madison pondered that, then nodded in agreement. Her eyes widened. “Can I ride one of your horses sometime? Please?” “That would definitely be your mother’s call,” Hutch told her. It was grown-up vernacular, but Madison understood and immediately turned an imploring face to Kendra. “Maybe sometime,” Kendra said, because she couldn’t quite get to a flat-out no. Not with all that ingenuous hope beaming up at her. Remarkably, that noncommittal answer seemed to satisfy Madison. She scrambled into her chair at the table and waited for supper to start. “See you on Saturday,” Hutch said lightly. And then he tousled Madison’s hair, nodded to Kendra and the dog, and left the house. “Are we going to see the cowboy man on Saturday?” Madison asked eagerly. Once again, it struck Kendra that, for a four-year-old, the child didn’t miss much. “Yes,” Kendra said, setting the salad bowl in the center of the table and then pouring milk for herself and Madison. Daisy curled up on her dog bed in the corner, rested her muzzle on her forepaws, and rolled her lively brown eyes from Madison to Kendra and back again. “The whole town gets together every year to spruce the place up for the rodeo and the carnival. Lots of people like to visit the Pioneer Cemetery while they’re here, and we like it to look presentable, so you and I and Hutch will be helping out there. After the work is done, there’s always a picnic, and games for the kids to play.” “Games?” Madison was intrigued. “What kind of games?” “Sack races.” Kendra smiled, remembering happy times. “Things like that. There are even prizes.” “What’s a sack race?” Madison pursued, a little frown creasing the alabaster skin between her eyebrows. Kendra explained about stepping into a feed sack, holding it at waist level and hopping toward the finish line. She didn’t mention the three-legged race, not wanting to describe that, too, but she smiled at the memory of herself and Joslyn tied together at the ankles and laughing hysterically when they lost their balance and tumbled into the venerable cemetery grass. “And there are prizes?” Madison prompted. Kendra nodded. “I won a doll once. She had a real camera hanging around her neck by a plastic strap. I still have her, somewhere.” Madison’s eyes were huge. “Wow,” she said. “There were cameras when you were a little girl?” Kendra laughed. “Yes,” she replied, “there were cameras. There were cars, too, and airplanes and even TVs.” Madison pondered all this, the turning gears in her little brain practically visible behind her forehead. “Wow,” she repeated in awe. After supper, Madison had her bath and put on her pajamas, and Kendra popped a favorite DVD of an animated movie into the player attached to the living room TV. Madison snuggled on the floor with Daisy, one arm flung companionably across the small dog’s gleaming back, and the two of them were quickly absorbed in the on-screen story. Kendra, relieved that she wouldn’t have to sit through the movie for what must have been the seventy-second time, set up her laptop on the freshly cleared kitchen table and booted it up. She’d surf the web for a while, she decided, and see if there were any for-sale-by-owner listings posted for the Parable/Three Trees area. She was, after all, a working real estate broker, and sometimes a well-placed phone call to said owners would produce a new client. Most folks didn’t realize all that was entailed in selling a property themselves—title searches and tax liens were only some of the snags they might run into. Alas, despite her good intentions, Kendra ended up running a search on Hutch Carmody instead, using the key word wedding. The page that came up might as well have been called “We Hate Hutch.” Kendra found herself in the odd position of wanting to defend him—and furiously—as she looked at the pictures. Brylee, the discarded bride, heartbroken and furious in her grandmother’s wedding gown. Hutch, standing straight and tall and obviously miserable midway down the aisle, guests gawking on either side as he held up both hands in a gesture that plainly said, “Hold everything.” The condolence party over at the Boot Scoot Tavern, Brylee wearing a sad expression and a T-shirt that said Men Suck. Beware, murmured a voice in the back of Kendra’s mind. But even then she knew she wouldn’t heed her own warning. After all, what could happen in broad daylight, in a cemetery, with Madison and half the county right there? CHAPTER FIVE “DOES THIS SEEM a little weird to you?” Kendra asked Joslyn on Saturday morning as they helped Opal and a dozen other women set out tons of home-prepared food on the picnic tables at Pioneer Cemetery. “Holding what amounts to a party in a graveyard, I mean?” Joslyn, who looked as though she might be having trouble keeping her center of gravity balanced, smiled and plunked herself down on one of the benches while the cheerful work went on around her. “I think it’s one of the best things about small towns,” she replied. “The way life and death are integrated—after all, they’re part of the same cycle, aren’t they? You can’t have one without the other.” Thoughtful, Kendra scanned the surrounding area for Madison, something that came automatically to her now, and found her and Daisy industriously “helping” Hutch, Shea and several of the older girl’s friends from school pull weeds around a nearby scattering of very old graves. The water tower loomed in the distance, with its six-foot stenciled letters reading “Parable,” its rickety ladders and its silent challenge to every new generation of teenagers: Climb me. “I guess you’re right,” Kendra said very quietly, though by then the actual substance of her friend’s remark had essentially slipped her mind. An instant later, though, at some small sound—a gasp, maybe—she turned to look straight at Joslyn. Joslyn sat with one hand splayed against either side of her copiously distended stomach, her eyes huge with delighted alarm. “I think it’s time,” she said in a joyous whisper. “Oh, my God,” Kendra replied, instantly panicked, stopping herself just short of putting a hand to her mouth. Opal stepped up, exuding a take-charge attitude. “Now everybody, just stay calm,” she commanded. “Babies are born every second of every day in every part of the world, and this is going to turn out just fine.” “G-get Slade,” Joslyn managed, smiling and wincing at the same time. “Please.” No one had to go in search of Joslyn’s husband; he seemed to have sonar where his wife was concerned. Kendra watched with relief as he came toward them, his strides long and purposeful, but calm and measured, too. He was grinning from ear to ear when he reached Joslyn and crouched in front of her, taking both her hands in his. “Breathe,” he told her. Joslyn laughed, nodded and breathed. “It’s time, then?” he asked her, gruffly gentle. His strength was quiet and unshakable. “Definitely,” Joslyn replied. “Then let’s get this thing done,” Slade replied, straightening to his full height and easing Joslyn to her feet, supporting her in the curve of one steel-strong arm as they headed for the parking lot. Opal took off her apron, thrust it into the hands of a woman standing nearby and hurried after them, taking her big patent leather purse with her. Shea materialized at Kendra’s side with Madison and Daisy and leaned into her a little, her expression worried and faintly lost. Kendra wrapped an arm around the teenage girl’s slender shoulders and squeezed. “Everything’s going to be all right,” she said softly. “Just like Opal said.” “They forgot all about me,” Shea murmured, staring after her stepparents and Opal as they retreated. “No, sweetheart,” Kendra said quickly. “They’re just excited because the baby’s coming and maybe a little scared, that’s all.” Shea bit her lower lip, swallowed visibly, and rummaged up a small, tremulous smile. “A baby brother will be hard to compete with,” she reflected. “Especially since he really belongs to them and I don’t.” Kendra knew Shea adored Slade—her mother, his ex-wife, was remarried and living in L.A.—and she also knew that Slade loved this girl as much as if he’d fathered her himself. And Joslyn loved her, too. “You belong to them, too, Shea,” Kendra assured the girl. “Don’t forget that.” Madison, perhaps sobered by Shea’s mood—the two had been hanging out together since Madison and Kendra had arrived with Hutch—slipped her hand into Kendra’s and looked up at her with wide, solemn eyes. “Are babies better than big kids?” she asked very seriously. Kendra’s heart turned over. “Babies are very special,” she answered carefully, “and so are the big kids they turn into.” As she spoke, Hutch stepped into her line of sight, and something happened inside Kendra as she watched him watching Slade and Joslyn’s departing vehicle. Opal sat tall and stalwart in the backseat. What was that look in his eyes? Worry, perhaps? Envy? Back in high school, Kendra recalled, Joslyn had been Hutch’s first love and he hers. Most people had expected them to marry at some point, perhaps after college, but they’d grown apart instead, from a romantic standpoint at least. They had remained close friends. She, Kendra, had been his second love. Maybe that was why he hadn’t stepped in when she threw herself into an ill-fated relationship with Jeffrey Chamberlain, way back when. Possibly, letting her go had been easy because he hadn’t really been over Joslyn at that point. In fact it could well be that he still wasn’t over her, even though she was happily married to his half brother and about to give birth to their first child. Now you’re just being silly, Kendra scolded herself silently, straightening her spine and raising her chin. Besides, what did it matter who Hutch Carmody did or did not love? He’d hurt every woman he’d ever cared about—except Joslyn. “Do you want me to drive you to the hospital?” The question had come from Hutch and he was looking at Shea as he spoke. Although he and Slade were still working on being brothers, he was already an uncle to Shea and she was a niece to him. Shea shook her head, slipped away from Kendra’s side and held out a hand to Madison. “The three-legged race is starting soon,” she said to the little girl. “Want to be my partner?” Madison nodded eagerly and crowed, “Yes!” for good measure, in case there might be any ambiguity in the matter. “Let’s go check out the prize table then,” Shea said. And just like that, they were off, racing through the grass, Daisy and Jasper, the Barlows’ dog, bounding after them. “Slade and Joslyn do realize,” Kendra began, without really meaning to say anything at all, “that Shea is worried that they won’t love her as much once the baby is here?” Hutch, standing nearer than she’d thought, replied quietly, “Slade and I may have our differences,” he said, “but the man is rock-solid when it comes to loving his family.” A pause followed, then a wistful, “Not a trait he learned from our dad.” Picking up on the pain in his words, she looked at him directly. They were essentially alone together, under those leafy, breeze-rustled trees, because everyone else had gone back to what they were doing before Joslyn had gone into labor—setting out food, pulling weeds, mowing grass, generally getting ready for the festivities that would follow on the heels of the cleanup effort. Hutch, meanwhile, looked as though he regretted the remark about John Carmody, not because he hadn’t meant it, but because it revealed more than he wanted her or anyone else to know. “Tell me about your dad,” Kendra said, pushing the envelope a little. She remembered the elder Carmody clearly, of course, but she hadn’t really known him. He’d been a grown-up, after all, and a reserved one at that, handsome like Slade and almost religious about minding his own business. Hutch took her hand, and she let him, and they drifted away from the others to sit on rocks overlooking the town of Parable, nestled into the shallow valley below. “Not much to tell,” he said in belated reply to her earlier request. “The old man and I didn’t see eye to eye on most things, and he made it pretty plain that I didn’t measure up to his expectations.” “But you loved him?” “I loved him,” Hutch confirmed, staring out over the town, past the church steeples and the courthouse roof. “And I guess, in his own way, he probably loved me. Do you remember your dad, Kendra?” She shook her head. “He was long gone by the time I was born,” she said. Remarkably, as close as they’d been, she and Hutch hadn’t talked much about their childhoods. They’d been totally, passionately engrossed in the present. Now Kendra thought about her mother, Sherry, beautiful and flaky and too footloose to raise a little girl on her own. In a moment, Kendra was right back there, like a time traveler, standing in the overgrown yard in front of her grandmother’s trailer, clutching Sherry’s fingers with one hand and gripping the handle of a toy suitcase in the other. She’d been five years old at the time, only a few months older than Madison was now. “I’ll be back soon, I promise,” she heard Sherry say as clearly as if a quarter of a century hadn’t passed since that summer day. “You just sit there on the porch like a good girl and wait for your grandma to get home from work. She’ll take care of you until I can come and get you.” Maybe the suitcase, hastily purchased in a thrift store, should have been a clue about what was to come, but Kendra was, after all, a child and a trusting one at that. She hadn’t known she was being lied to, not consciously at least. Most likely Sherry hadn’t known she was lying, either. Never mean, Sherry had always meant well. She just had trouble following through on her better intentions. In the end, she’d leaned down, kissed Kendra on the top of her head, promised they’d be together again soon, this time for good. They’d get a house of their own and a dog and a nice car. With that, Sherry waggled her fingers in farewell, climbed into her ancient, smoke-belching station wagon and drove away. Kendra simply sat and waited—it wouldn’t have occurred to her to wander off or run after Sherry’s car. When her grandmother arrived home a couple hours later, she got out of her car, lit up a cigarette and drew deeply on the smoke. Then she crossed the overgrown yard to stand there frowning down at Kendra. With her bent and buckled plastic suitcase beside her, Kendra looked up into her grandmother’s lined and sorrow-hardened face, and saw no welcome there. “Just what I need,” the old woman had said bitterly. “A kid to take care of.” But Alva Shepherd had given Kendra a home, however reluctantly. She’d put food on the table and kept a roof over their heads and if love and laughter had been lacking from the relationship, well, nobody had everything. If Sherry hadn’t dropped her off that day, she probably would have been killed in the car accident that took her mom’s life six months later. After that, her grandma had been a little nicer to her, not out of compassion—she didn’t seem to grieve over losing a daughter or Kendra’s loss of her mother, apparently regarding it as a fitting end to a misspent life—but because Kendra became eligible for a small monthly check from the government. That made things easier all around. “Kendra?” Hutch tugged her back into the here and now, still holding her hand. “There are too many broken people in this world,” she said, thinking aloud. Hutch simply gazed at her for a long, unreadable moment. “True enough,” he agreed finally, almost hoarsely. “But there are plenty of good ones, too, built to stay the course.” Happy noises in the distance indicated that the games were about to start and picnic food was being served. Hutch was right, of course—these sturdy people all around them were the proof, teaming up to tend the grounds of a decrepit old cemetery, to serve potato salad and hot dogs and the like to old friends and new, to hold races for children who would remember sunny, communal days like this one well into their own old age. In that moment, Kendra felt a wistful sort of hope that places like Parable would always exist, so babies could be born and grow up and get married and live on into their golden years, always in touch with their own histories and those of the people around them, always a part of something, always belonging somewhere. It was what Kendra had wanted for Madison, that kind of stability, and what she wanted for herself, too—because her story hadn’t ended with her overwhelmed grandmother on the rickety porch of a double-wide that had, even then, seen better days. Because Opal had taken her into her heart and Joslyn had been the sister she’d never had, and the generous souls who called Parable home had taken her into their midst without hesitation, made her one of them. Tears brimmed in her eyes. Hutch, seeing them, stopped and cupped a hand under her chin. “What?” he asked with a tenderness that made Kendra’s breath catch. “I was just thinking how perfect life is,” Kendra admitted, “even when it’s imperfect.” He grinned. “It’s worth the trouble, all right,” he agreed. “Want to enter the three-legged race? I can’t think of anybody I’d rather be tied to at the ankle.” She laughed and said yes, and threw herself headfirst into the celebration. * * * PARABLE COUNTY HOSPITAL was small, with brightly painted white walls, and most of the staff had been born and raised within fifty miles of the place, so folks felt safe when they were sick or hurt, knowing they’d be cared for by friends, or friends of friends, or even kinfolk. Hutch hadn’t been there since his dad died, but now there was the baby boy, born a few hours before, ratcheting up the population by one. The numbers on the sign at the edge of town were magnetic, so they could be altered when somebody drew their first breath, sighed out their last one or simply moved to or from the community. Slade, standing beside him, rested a hand briefly on his shoulder. After the races and the picnic and the prizes, he’d dropped Kendra and Madison and that goofy dog of theirs off at their new digs before heading home to shower, shave, put on clean clothes and make the drive back to town. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/linda-miller-lael/big-sky-mountain/?lfrom=334617187) 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.
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