“Sorry.” Brent raised his voice to be heard above the noise of the red-heeler he’d brought from Australia. “Another barn cat has lost the game of hide and seek with Rosie.”
Before turning toward the dilapidated barn, Brent took a last read of Kendall’s face. Old habits died hard, and he couldn’t stop himself from wanting to defend her. While her smile was uncertain, the light in her eyes reassured him things between her and her father had improved. She didn’t need his support.
He turned, lifted his fingers to his mouth and whistled. The high-pitched barking stopped before a red and white dog raced out of the barn, jumped through the wooden jackleg fence and raced to his side. The dog sat beside his boots and tongue lolling, gazed at him with liquid brown eyes.
He ruffled Rosie’s ears. For the past years, she’d been his constant companion and his safeguard against loneliness. “Anyone would think Australia didn’t have cats the way you obsess over the ones here.”
“Remind me never to bring Miss Milly around,” Rhett said, grinning. “She once sat underneath a tree for two hours thinking there was a cat in there.”
Kendall stepped forward and bent to rub Rosie’s neck. “Hey, gorgeous, you’re a long way from home, aren’t you?”
The dog licked her hand and Kendall smiled.
Rhett turned to consider the pile of pegs Brent hadn’t yet hammered into the ground. “How about we get the last of those pegs in so we can see where the new garden will go and what needs to be done?”
Rhett and Stewart headed toward the pegs while Rosie batted Kendall with her paw, asking for another pat.
Kendall rubbed Rosie’s neck and laughed when she sank to the ground to allow Kendall access to her white belly.
Brent slid his hands deep into his jeans pockets. The sight of Kendall making friends with Rosie shouldn’t affect him so much.
“If you’re not careful,” he said, fighting to keep his words relaxed, “you’ll be there all day. Rosie loves having her stomach rubbed almost as much as she does finding cats.”
“Well, as soon as I get this garden plan done there will be plenty of time for tummy rubs.” With a last pat to Rosie, Kendall straightened. Her head dipped to look at her sketch book and he lost sight of her face. “Now I’d better get busy, otherwise there will be no plan to follow.”
Then, back straight, she turned and headed for the peg furthest away from him. Her honey-blonde hair fell over her smooth shoulders left bare by her black tank top. The snug fit of denim emphasized every feminine sway of her hips. He slid his hands out of his pockets but the action didn’t ease the tension locking his muscles. Kendall in the flesh was far more breathtaking than the Kendall in his dreams.
He’d known it would be tough coming home and maintaining the distance between them. But he hadn’t realized just how gut-wrenching the reality of Kendall treating him as though he were nothing more than a brief acquaintance would be.
Rosie pressed against his leg and whined.
“I’ll be okay.” He made sure his words were casual. The perceptive red-heeler always sensed his thoughts. “Let’s get those pegs in. Today’s about Mom’s garden, not about wishing things could be different.”
Brent worked with Rhett and Stewart. Soon all the pegs were in place and a string line marked the garden boundaries. While Stewart rested on the porch step, Rosie and a tin of Kendall’s cookies beside him, Brent made his way to the edge of the plot. Once a neat wooden fence had encased the front yard but now broken palings lay in the grass and the gate hung by a single hinge. He reached for the closest plank, maneuvered it free from the weeds and carried it beyond the garden perimeter. Rhett joined him and soon they’d amassed a pile of weathered wooden boards.
Brent stopped to pry a splinter from his palm, and he stole a quick look to where Kendall now sat in the porch chair he’d brought from town yesterday. His gaze lingered as he watched her fingers fly across the sketch book open on her lap.
“Just give her time,” Rhett’s deep voice sounded beside him.
Brent didn’t bother to hide the loss that would etch his features. Rhett was his oldest friend and had always known how he’d felt about his twin sister.
“Time won’t help … or change the fact she’s better off without me.” The words rasped in his throat.
Rhett stilled before tossing the wooden plank he was holding onto the pile. He dusted off his hands and walked closer. “Since when has Kendall ever been better off without you?”
“Since she has dreams that can’t come true in Marietta, or Montana, for that matter.”
“Kendall has many dreams, and I can guarantee most of them can come true without her stepping a foot outside Marietta.”
“But not her landscape architect one. I know her bedroom wall at Bluebell Falls would still be covered in the pictures of the French gardens she’d been a week away from visiting when your mom fell sick. She also would still have a shelf stacked high with all the sketch books filled with her garden designs.”
“She does. But that doesn’t mean she’s not happy. She’s never said anything about feeling trapped in her hometown or needing to leave.”
Brent rubbed at the back of his neck. “You know what she’s like, she wouldn’t. She’s so caring and self-sacrificing, the last thing she’d ever do is ever complain.”
A smile tugged at Rhett’s mouth as he glanced toward his sister as she left the porch chair and went to talk to Stewart. “That might have been true four years ago but not now. It turns out our sweet and shy Kendall has a bit of Dad in her after all. You try getting her to do something she doesn’t want to do. She’s more stubborn than Peta and Dad combined. No, if she wasn’t happy here in Marietta, she’d let us know.”
Rhett’s curious gaze raked his face. “I know you promised your father to see the world to make sure the ranch and Kendall was what you wanted, but you were away a long time. Does thinking that Kendall would be better off without you have anything to do with why you stayed away?”
Brent spoke without hesitation. There’d only ever been honesty between them. “Yes. Kendall needs the space to be who she wants and to live the life she deserves.”
Rhett shook his head and clasped Brent’s shoulder. “I know talking isn’t exactly your thing, but you and Kendall really do need to go have a beer at Grey’s Saloon and … talk.”
Rhett’s hand left his shoulder as Kendall stepped off the porch, carrying the cookie tin plus her sketch book. Rosie trotted behind her.
“And,” Rhett said, tone low, “don’t leave it too late.”
“Are you two slacking off already?” Kendall asked with a half-smile as she approached. In the clear blue of her eyes he glimpsed wariness and defensiveness. She knew that he and Rhett had been discussing her.
Rhett slid his arm around his twin’s shoulders to give her a quick hug. “Not at all. We were just taking a well-earned break.” He took a cookie from the tin. “So you arriving with food is perfect timing.”
“When it comes to your sweet tooth, it’s always perfect timing.” She offered the tin to Brent. “Sorry, there’s only three cookies left because someone keeps eating them.”
“Thanks.” He stepped closer to select a cookie and caught the scent of apples. His stomach clenched. Kendall still used the same hair shampoo.
Rhett went to take another cookie and Kendall held the tin out of his reach.
“Between the two cookies you stole from the tray, and the other two you snuck when I was making sandwiches, and the one now, you’ve had your sugar quota for today.”
Rhett tried to grab another cookie. Kendall laughed before holding the tin close to her chest and covering it with her sketch book. “No more. You’ve a wedding suit to fit into soon. I also know you’ll go home to Rose Crown and Ivy would have cooked you your favorite caramel brownies.”
Rhett lowered his arm and gave a mock-frown. “And I thought I only had one bossy sister.”
Kendall smiled and a small dimple flicked in her cheek. “Sorry to break the news, but you have two and I haven’t even started to be bossy yet. We’ve got three garden beds to prepare before lunch.”
Brent chewed slowly. He may as well have been eating ashes instead of chocolate. Kendall’s cookie tasted as lifeless as his thoughts. He fed the rest of the cookie to Rosie. Once he would have been part of Rhett and Kendall’s banter. Once Kendall’s laughter would have broken through the darkness of his life like sunshine through thick winter fog. But now it only reminded him of what he’d lost and couldn’t risk yearning for again.
Kendall glanced at him, and he fought to keep his feelings from showing on his face.
“If you’ve got a minute,” she said, “I’d like to go through the plan to check everything is okay?”
Rhett made a grab for the cookie tin. “If you’re talking garden plans you won’t need this. Rosie and I will give it to Dad for safekeeping.”
Even before he’d taken a step away, the red-heeler close on his heels, he’d stolen another cookie.
Kendall sighed but her eyes smiled. “Some things never change. Just as well Ivy loves baking.”
Brent nodded and focused on the sketchbook and not on the way Kendall’s loose and long curls brushed her curves that filled out her black tank top. She held the book up for him to view the plan but he didn’t move closer.
Her hand drawn plan was a work of art. Neat garden beds, filled with various shapes to signify plants, all radiated off a central round bed. Down the side, ran a list of plants that corresponded to tiny numbers. If he needed any more proof Kendall’s tender and beautiful heart still beat within her chest, the plan was it. She’d remembered the pain his family had suffered.
Her quiet voice sounded. “The main round bed will be for Samuel’s tree.”
“I thought so.” Despite his best intentions, grief cracked in his words. To their right had once stood a weeping cherry tree in memory of his brother. “Mom will like that.”
“I hope so.” Kendall paused. He braced himself. He knew what the softening of her lips meant. If she touched him now to comfort him, he wasn’t strong enough to keep up the pretense he’d forgotten her.
But instead of moving toward him, she bit her bottom lip. “I could go with you to Big Z’s to help you choose the plants. Maybe your mom might also like to come?”
He should say no and that he would use the plant list on the plan, but this wasn’t about him. It would mean a lot to his mom to choose a special tree to honor Samuel’s memory. She’d also enjoy having Kendall there for both company and advice.
“Thanks. That’s a good idea.”
“Great. Just let Rhett know when you’re going to Big Z’s and I’ll meet you there.”
She carefully removed the page containing the plan from the sketchbook and handed it to him.
“You keep this and I’ll find a garden hose so I can make a circle and mark out the round bed. Rhett needs to start digging to work off some of that sugar.”
She walked away.
Brent stayed still. He looked at the intricate plan. It was as though he held Kendall’s future in his hand. Loss warred with resolve. He couldn’t stand in her way. He couldn’t have the talk Rhett suggested that he have with Kendall. Her kind and generous heart would always govern her decisions, even if they led her in a direction opposite to where she needed to go. He briefly closed his eyes. He had to keep burying his feelings so deep they could never resurface. He also had to hope Kendall would continue to treat him with polite casualness, because if she didn’t, he simply didn’t trust that his self-control would hold.
End of Excerpt