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Southern Born Books
Stand Alone Titles
Release Date:

Apr 7, 2016

More From Tina Ann →

The Real Thing

by

Tina Ann Forkner

Sometimes you have to don a pair of cowgirl boots…

Manda Marshall is ready to leave heartache behind when she marries Keith Black, a champion saddle bronc cowboy and man of her dreams. But going from the serenity of small town Tennessee to the exhilaration of the rodeo, nothing can prepare her for being a cowboy’s wife. Becoming the new stepmom to Keith’s little boy and teenaged daughter has Manda relying on her deep sense of longing for a family and budding love for her stepchildren to strengthen their bond.

Manda’s desire of being a rodeo cowboy’s wife begins to take second place as she works to reinvent a life for herself and new family, but when mysterious phone calls from Keith’s missing ex-wife dredge up the past, Manda finds her marriage and family in an unusual and heart wrenching dilemma. The life she had worked so hard to build is suddenly redefined and her commitment to her husband and family is tested.

What Manda discovers has the power to heal or break her family in this emotional tale of cowboys, rodeo queens, and what it really means to ride beside a cowboy and his family, no matter the risk.

Enjoy an Excerpt →

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I stopped right in the middle of the wedding march, just as the rich tones of a string quartet arched into the magnolia trees. The cellist, whose black western hat sat lopsided on her head, stretched a note so long and low it beckoned me forward through the sea of expectant faces, but I didn’t budge. A smarter bride might have ignored a problem with a drooping slip peeking below her hem and simply thrown herself into the waiting arms of her cowboy groom and considered herself lucky, but not me. Nope, I was as frozen as Alaska despite the warm Tennessee breeze playing with the wedding veil attached to my white cowgirl hat with the pearl band.

Around me, a sea of cowboy hats swiveled in my direction. I hoped nobody would get a good look at my face beneath the sepia lace and tulle, or at the bit of ratty lace hanging from my slip. They would’ve seen regret, which I’m sure would’ve been taken the wrong way. Marrying Keith Black, I assure you, was not a regret, but he might regret a bride who wore an intimate garment from a previous marriage at her wedding, if he knew.

Of course, he didn’t know about the slip, but I did, and the weight of the slippery silk was beginning to feel like heavy, scratchy wool beneath my lightweight dress. As the music played, I tried to think what to do. My dress was thin and I didn’t have a replacement slip handy, of course. Why would I? Plus, I couldn’t very well take it off right then and there – could I?

Maybe I could. The cellist drew her bow across the strings, but I stood still, watching the treetops swirl and wave, goodbye it seemed, near the roof of Daddy’s big old plantation-style farmhouse. Even the trees thought the slip should go. A sense of nostalgia for my childhood home filled me and for a moment I wondered how I could ever leave this place that had healed me more than once. And to live on a horse ranch where the ne’er-do-well ex-wife’s memory is still papered on the walls in an array of lavender and purple patterns.

My groom cleared his throat, jostling me back into the moment. I took a baby step. Maybe the slip didn’t matter. Keith had been part of my healing, too, and all I ever wanted since I’d laid eyes on him was to know him, to love him, and, yes, to marry him. I’d known right away, and he had, too, even though I still had doubts about his children accepting me. I know it’s natural for them to push me away, but every time I’d tried to remove something of their runaway mother’s from the ranch house that was now mine, too, they’d complained. Especially Peyton, my beautiful, brooding, about-to-be stepdaughter.

That’s the problem with second marriages. Just like with the reclaimed objects and furniture my sister and I sell down at The Southern Pair, there are always memories attached that don’t let go, even when the objects shift to a new person. I’ve seen it time and time again when a person thinks they’re done with a certain bad memory, only to have it creep back up when they look at an object they once thought they had no attachment to – or realize they’re getting married for the second time and wearing the slip from their first wedding day. Thank goodness I was at least wearing a dress made from my mother’s, and she’d been my daddy’s only love.

Memories can easily fool you into thinking things aren’t really over, and when the memories are good, like with my dress, it’s nice. Nostalgia is the best feeling because it brings to mind a memory of what we used to enjoy, perhaps making bread with our grandmother if it’s a pan, or hunting with a father if it’s a pair of trophy antlers, or the hug of a mother who left you too soon, like mine did. But, sometimes, I’ll spy someone walking among the shelves of The Southern Pair and they’ll spot something, maybe an old doll or coffee cup, pick it up, and their face crumples a little from the pain of finding it. Sometimes, I wonder about the tears that well in their eyes. I never ask about the memories dancing, or tramping, through their minds, although sometimes people tell me.

I didn’t have to ask Keith, my groom, why he always frowned when he walked along the papered walls of his ranch house and why he avoided looking inside the gilded frames that hung heavy on either side, or why, conversely, those same halls made Peyton, my soon-to-be stepdaughter, smile. Of course, Keith couldn’t take down the pictures even if he wanted to, since Peyton insisted they stay up. And, trust me, he tried. It turned out badly. With a frustrated apology, he had told me the pictures of his ex-wife had to stay. And just like that, the thought of those pictures made me step backward instead of toward Keith. He cast me a worried look and even the musicians held their bravado a few beats longer, probably giving me time to find my brain. Too bad it didn’t work.

Call me crazy, but I couldn’t do it, not yet. I had to get rid of that slip and the clinging memory of my first wedding and subsequent failed marriage. Keith deserved my whole heart. He might not have known it, but a piece of my broken heart was attached to that darn slip.

So, being the kind of woman who knows what happens when sad memories become attached to an object, I did what I had to do. I smiled an apology at my worried groom who stood handsome in his western tuxedo beside the preacher. He knew me already, so what I did next shocked everyone, except him. I blamed it on the past, and knew he would, too, but he would think it was because of his.

Don’t we all blame our pasts?

The past gets a bad rap, but if we can think more about the good times, they make us better. I blinked away an unfortunate memory of my ex-husband standing beside a different preacher at a different wedding several years earlier. Sadly, at the moment, the clingy slip was out of place on a day that should be all about good times. So you see, it wasn’t just Keith’s past slinking into our wedding day. It was mine, too.

One thing I’ve learned from years of buying and reselling items at The Southern Pair, or even finding a new happier nail color for a broken-hearted woman, no matter how much we want to get rid of our ex-lovers, ex-troubles, and ex-hurts, they find ways to creep back into our lives. How could I wear that cursed slip in our moment of joy? I looked up at the trees, wishing I could float up into their branches to hide like I had when I was a girl.

The black leather-vested violinists intoned a fiddler’s melody that once again forced me back into the moment. It teased the toes of my ivory stitched cowgirl boots, ruffling the lacy garter I’d slipped over one ankle, and I swayed forward a step and back again. Keith’s smile faltered.

Oh, Lordy, help me.

It was all up to the viola now. It had one more chance, but its sweet accompaniment failed. Unable to look at my groom, I let go of Daddy’s arm, gently extracting myself even as he drew me closer to his side.

“Mandy?”

“Daddy, I—” I couldn’t even whisper the words.

I tried avoiding his eyes, but their wrinkle-framed worry snagged on my conscience. Turning away, I locked eyes with my groom.

Oh, heavens to Betsy. How did I ever get lucky enough to have a man who looked like a rodeo cowboy who’d just strutted out of a rodeo arena? And he more than looked the part—that’s exactly what he was. Sounds like a good movie doesn’t it? But it’s true. I was about to marry a famous bronco rider, the only man I’d ever met who could handle me, and well, let’s just say a personality that some people call colorful. Not that I could help it one bit.

Keith wrinkled his brows as I turned in my wedding march, gave me a warning look. By then, he was already used to my flare for the dramatic, but I am who I am. When I sense a problem, I need to fix it right away, and I had to fix something before this wedding could go on. I think that’s why I opened The Southern Pair with my sister. Plenty of problems could be fixed immediately, even if only temporarily, with the selling or the purchasing of a discarded object.

“Manda,” Keith whispered, his voice inviting, but his eyes somewhat aggravated.

After that, I didn’t dare look at my twin sister, Marta, who’d be worried about the little frozen bride and groom still holding hands back in the barn. Only a half hour ago, she’d had the bakers set the sculpture on top of our western wedding cake right in the center of a white and burlap draped table. Rows of tables bedecked with matching cloths and turquoise-dyed Mason jars lined the barn, along with burlap napkin rings and floating candles. Marta had warned the preacher that the wedding must end at a certain time, or else the sculpture would be dripping down the sides of the cake.

The preacher glanced at me, then sent a frightened look toward Marta.

I’ll just explain it to them later.

I smiled an apology, handed my bouquet to a surprised guest with a mumbled excuse even I couldn’t understand, and fled in the midst of the processional. A warm breeze picked up, as if to spur me on my way. I headed toward the orchard and couldn’t disappear fast enough through the rows of leafy fruit trees that showered their carmine-colored petals all over my lacy veil. I just knew they were cheering my quick retreat, and, in response, I yanked the skirt of my dress all the way up to my hips and ran full-on, high-heeled cowgirl boots and all. I wondered if this was what it was like to be one of the Quarter horses Keith raised at his ranch. Some days I sat on the back deck and watched them gallop across the pasture, their flanks shining, sinewy muscles flexing, their heads reaching for that invisible point ahead. I didn’t like riding them, though. I was an orchard farmer’s daughter, not a horsewoman. I’d always been afraid of horses.

Heaven only knows what my bronco-riding fiancé saw in me. He liked to tease that it was because I was his pretty, young thing, my being six years younger than his thirty-seven, and I teased that I liked older men, but sometimes I felt like I was the one who’d snagged the bigger prize, hardly believing such a great-looking, talented, and smart man would want to marry me. And did I mention famous? Not that it mattered when it came to my falling in love with him, but he did just happen to be a famous saddle-bronc riding cowboy.

Keith Black probably could’ve married any horse-loving woman he wanted after his ex-wife ran off without so much as a good-bye, but, instead, he picked up his broken heart and chose me, a farmer’s daughter who likes fancy things and is afraid of horses. Keith says I look pretty cute in a cowgirl hat and my favorite fringe suede vest, but despite a closet full of denim that he says hugs me in all the right places, I don’t have a cowgirl bone in this body. Now, Keith, on the other hand, is the real thing, trophy belt buckle and all, and there I was, leaving him standing back at the altar with a bunch of eligible cowgirls in the audience while I ran away like a filly.

I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was doing the right thing. While it’s true, I could’ve given all those former rodeo queens in the crowd a lesson in hairspray and makeup, I didn’t know the first thing about being a rodeo cowboy’s wife. Even the way all those capable cow people sitting on hay bales trying so hard to make me feel like I belonged with them made me doubt myself. They had no idea who I really was inside, or what I was running from when Keith found me. What I was still running from, I reminded myself, pumping my legs faster.

Watery silk rode up my thighs as I stretched my legs into a sprint, but no matter how fast I ran, I couldn’t shed the slithering at my knees. I ran faster, farther away from the wedding party, yanked off my hat-veil, and, for a moment, I dismissed the wedding altogether. I was a sun-kissed, fourteen-year-old girl, slipping through the orchard so fast that Marta couldn’t keep up. I have always been fast. Even now, as I sped further away from the wedding, blossoms blurred past in pink streaks on either side. I didn’t even bother to tuck in the strawberry-blonde curls that had slipped out of their pins. Marta would fix them when I got back, and I did plan to go back. They all realized that, right?

Hopefully, my groom, who I assumed still stood with that puzzled, but not truly surprised expression on his tanned, cowboy face, framed by a black Stetson atop that thick, peppery blond hair would wait as long as it took, but I couldn’t be sure of a lot of things anymore. Nobody could. This fact occurred to me as I rounded the end of the row, stopped abruptly, and leaned with my hands on my knees. My chest heaved. I have to admit, it’d been a long time since I ran like that. In fact, it would have been easy for Marta to catch me if she’d wanted to follow, and considering that she might have, I peeked around the end of the row.

No Marta. They’d sent Peyton after me instead. She was headed my way, the purple-jeweled cell phone she would never part with pressed so close to her face, I worried she might trip. That phone never ceased to annoy me. It had an old voicemail from her mother that Peyton played every night. Peyton had only been a little girl when she received that voicemail, but she checked that old phone several times a day, just in case her mother called—a hope she liked to cling to, but that was about as likely to happen as me getting on a horse. At least I hoped so. It gave me chills just to look at that phone, but getting her to accept a new one, or to put it away on my wedding day, was obviously too much to ask.

Ignoring the anger, or was it jealousy, the phone provoked in me, I reached under the hem of my dress and caught the edge of lace clinging to my skin. I was a grown woman and I wasn’t going to give a woman who’d run off and abandoned her family another moment of thought on my wedding day.

“Oh, heavens to Betsy,” I called to Peyton. “You should have stayed back with your dad!”

My soon-to-be stepdaughter paused to stuff the phone inside her pretty turquoise boots and then dragged the toes, scraping them through the orchard toward me and I caught my breath. Not because I was mad about the boots, but because that child had no idea how gorgeous she was with her short, breezy peach-colored sun dress against her olive complexion. ’Course, if I told her, she just would’ve argued in that fourteen-year-old girl way and there was certainly no time for that. The closer she got, the more I could make out the pout on her pretty mouth. Was the flush in her cheeks from the unusually warm, spring day or from being singled out in front of everyone at the wedding to go find her stepmother? I’d bet on the latter for sure.

And who thought that would be a good idea?

My dad. It had to be Daddy.

I wished I could meet her halfway and place my arm about her shoulders, but she wouldn’t have liked that. Instead, I focused on working my dress up over my hips while I waited for her to catch up. When she came around the corner, she gaped as if I’d just chomped into a rotten apple I picked up off the ground and offered her a wormy bite. She even gagged a little bit for effect. I was obviously the most appalling person on her planet that day.

“What are you doing?”

I just ignored the snotty tone that’d been saturating her speech for the past few months. It was my wedding day. Nothing, except for that stupid slip, could steal my joy. Besides, she had a reason.

“I just can’t bear to wear this old, ratty slip,” I said, shimmying right out of the flimsy yellowing piece of silk I’d put on that morning without even considering its history.

“People actually wear those?” she asked. “I thought they were for old ladies.”

I chose to ignore that comment and how it pointed out that I wasn’t a spring chick anymore. But I was no old lady either!

“I’ll be rid of it in a second.”

“What on earth are you thinking?” she asked. “Dad’s waiting for you.” She jabbed her palms out for affect, shook her head back and forth, and abruptly crossed her silver bracelet adorned arms across her chest. What a little drama queen. All I can say is that she’d be fantastic in the local theater if she weren’t so shy. But the kid had a point.

What in the world am I thinking? What would Keith think of me? I’m over thirty. I shouldn’t be running away from my own wedding. I should be over this. A slip was just a piece of flimsy fabric.

Only it wasn’t. I would explain it to Keith later.

I’m not the least bit superstitious –well, okay, just a bit, but even I know something like a little slip can’t bring a person bad luck. It was more the sadness attached to it that bothered me. Not to mention, it was on the tattered side. I couldn’t believe I’d let it get that way.

That very morning, I’d sat at the breakfast table in the same old slip and camisole I’d always worn with dresses without even thinking about it. And when Marta slipped the antique lace and silk shift we’d made from our late momma’s wedding dress over my head, she’d not even noticed the slip and only told me how beautiful the dress was. And it was. I loved how it stopped below the knee, but was still short enough to set off the rhinestone-studded boots Keith’s mother had given me.

“You look like the bride of a bronco rider, sis.” Marta’s hot pink lipstick grin made me believe it, too, at least for a few minutes. They’d gone to so much trouble making my wedding day to Keith different than the first one, and boy was it different with all that western wear. It wasn’t until later, walking through the sea of cowboys and cowgirls toward Keith, who looked dapper in his black Stetson and western cut tuxedo, that I remembered my slip’s origins.

“Holy cow,” I muttered, the slip’s thin fabric suddenly heavy, scratchy at first, and then catching like plastic wrap around my hips.

I can’t wear this.

How could Marta not have noticed? How could I have even put it on? Habit, I guessed, but I didn’t want it on my body now—not minutes before marrying Keith.

I’d had that dumb slip forever, long before Keith was in my life. I distinctly recalled receiving it as a gift at my first wedding shower, a drab event with pink and green mints and tart red punch. That slip had stretched with me through all of my failed pregnancies, remarkably snapping back to hang on my hips during the empty months that followed, and later still to the private funeral of my daughter, Sarah, who survived for a few minutes as if God had breathed into her tiny lungs and then sucked her life right back up to heaven. But it wasn’t only those memories that bothered me about the slip. I’d also worn it when I married Sarah’s dad, the same man who divorced me for someone skinnier, more beautiful, and more fertile. And did I mention skinnier?

I held the slip out between my finger and thumb, studying it as if it were a piece of somebody else’s random clothing plucked off the ground. In a way, it was. I wasn’t that girl anymore. Heck no, I hoped I wasn’t that girl anymore. I doubted Keith would have liked that girl either, and I doubted he’d like this slip on my body.

“So, I take it you’re not wearing that? You might have thought about that this morning.” Peyton raised her pretty eyebrows and I couldn’t keep from smiling. She was suddenly mothering me?

“No. I am not wearing this old thing. No way, no how, young lady.”

“But, I thought you liked vintage things.” She narrowed her gaze. “You said they have good feelings attached to them.”

“Okay,” I said. “I don’t know what that has to do with the price of tea in China or with my wedding day.”

She huffed and looked at me like I was the only one being difficult. “You’re always getting rid of my mother’s stuff and replacing it with all your vintage stuff. Is that her slip, too? Where’d you get it?”

I flinched, careful not to lose my omelet on her pretty cowgirl boots as I imagined wearing her deadbeat mother’s slip. Gross.

I was about to say something about her attitude when I recalled a particularly intense argument that resulted from my trying to remove a certain lavender velveteen couch of her mother’s from the ranch house. It had made no difference to Peyton that her mother abandoned her along with the couch, or that the sofa was the ugliest thing this side of the Mississippi. She’d kicked the shabby chic piece I’d replaced it with and told me how much she hated all of my old junk. Never mind how all that discarded junk was made new by my own hand, so that it could bring happy memories to new owners who don’t mind paying a pretty penny at The Southern Pair. Still, understanding how an object can have so much meaning to a person, particularly a little girl who has lost her momma, I promptly removed the couch from my project room and put it in Peyton’s already crowded bedroom.

“Of course this is not your mother’s slip, Peyton. And I do love old things, but this slip—it doesn’t have any good feelings attached to it. Trust me.” I couldn’t bring myself to explain why.

She rolled her eyes to the tops of the trees, looking every bit like a brat, but I didn’t have the heart to fight with her. Granted, Peyton was a bit spoiled by her father. But let’s be honest. Truly spoiled little girls have mothers who dote on their daughters and who don’t run off and leave them to care for their little brothers and cry themselves to sleep at night. It’s as if Violet Black – oh! I dislike sharing a last name with her – just vanished, and left Keith to pick up the pieces of Peyton’s heart. Who does that?

At first, everyone had thought Violet was a missing person, but when the divorce papers came from the lawyer, her family and friends were devastated in another way. She’d rejected them all, choosing anonymity, baffling those who’d believed her to be a loving mother and wife. Only heaven knew why she really ran away and gave Keith everything, including full custody of the children. Sometimes I wondered…did she take anything at all? A photo of the kids? Some trinket to remember them by?

My heart broke a little more for Peyton as she took a great breath and let me have it.

“I figured it was just one more thing of my mother’s that you needed to toss,” she said, jabbing her finger at the slip.

I felt like she was jabbing me, but it was okay. The slip was gone and I was me again.

“Dad already told me we have to get rid of mom’s stuff so you can feel at home.” She stared me down and I noted tears gathering in her eyes. “But it’s our house.”

Whoa. I placed my hand gently on her arm and she shrugged it away. Peyton was about to have a meltdown. Thank goodness she didn’t know I’d heard that conversation between her and her dad about my getting rid of their old stuff. I’ll never forget how hurt I was when I rounded the corner just as Peyton was raising her voice to a very frustrated Keith. His glance had passed through the kitchen when I peeked in from the hallway and our eyes locked. Understanding the warning in them, I’d backed away, but not so far that I couldn’t hear the rest of the conversation.

“You can’t get rid of Mommy’s stuff!” Peyton cried. “It’s special!”

I remember thinking Peyton didn’t understand that not everything in the house was associated with good feelings, at least not for Keith, and not for me.

Peyton was breathing like she was hyperventilating, something I noticed she did when trying to get her way with her dad, and when she got her way, she became perfectly normal again. If I’d ever tried that with Daddy, well, I never would have. Kids know what they can get away with.

“Yes, we can,” Keith said, despite her gulping inhalations. “Like these dishes.” He’d walked to the cabinet and removed a plate of her mother’s sacred china ringed in a wide circle of purple. “Maybe Manda would like to have her own plates, and not your mother’s.” His voice, tinged with that cowboy drawl, had deepened to a warning tone.

I’d cringed, my frustration with Violet’s old things notwithstanding. Keith was saying the absolute worst thing, even though it had been true that I was tired of having Violet’s stuff everywhere in my new house. Everywhere! I was tired of her rodeo queen crowns, photos of her atop thoroughbred horses, and her trademark purple and violet decorations all over the house. I hated walking past trophy cases and feeling pops of anger that rang in my ears, and every time I picked up a lilac colored coffee cup, I swear the coffee tasted bitter. But now, seeing the pain on Peyton’s face, I regretted my complaining. All of Violet’s things reminded Peyton of her mother, and she was afraid of forgetting.

I’d decided I could probably keep her mother’s tacky china if it made the kids happy, but before I could intervene, Peyton had rushed forward. She wrenched the plate from his hands, and in her clumsiness knocked it to the floor. It clattered and rolled at first, looking like it might simply rattle safely to a stop. I sucked in a breath and held it, pleading for it not to break, but a dull thud and a crack splitting the air as the plate broke in two was the only answer to my fervent prayer for Peyton’s mother’s plate.

I slowly exhaled, allowing muted images of ultrasound photos I kept hidden in an old family Bible, a flash of blue pen scraping my name across the bottom of divorce papers, a vision of Daddy on his knees in the hospital chapel when Momma was dying whispered through my mind, all reminders that maybe God likes to break things more than put them together. I added the image of Peyton’s crumpling face as she lunged for the broken plate.

A breeze swept through the orchard and lifted the hems of our wedding day dresses. Peyton looked like she might laugh as she pressed her skirt back down. Warming at the sudden change in her disposition, I wanted to reach out to her, brush her hair from her cheek and adjust her cowgirl hat, but my dad strode toward us. Wise-looking and slightly wrinkled in his bolo tie and western hat, he let Peyton clasp his arm.

“Grandpa Marshall!”

Cue the sweet, old man come to rescue the princess from the evil stepmother.

“What’s going on?”

Peyton held her palms out in a grand gesture. “Manda’s trying to get rid of her slip.”

He eyed the slip, me, and Peyton. I was ready to rush into his arms myself, tell him what a big mistake I might be making, how the kids were never going to accept me as a stepmom, and how I was never going to fit into Keith’s adventurous rodeo life. I couldn’t do that, of course, not in front of Peyton. But he knew. He held up a finger with a slow wink while he placed an arm around Peyton and ushered her a few paces away.

I leaned over to dust off my boots while he whispered something in her ear. She beamed, then saluted as if he were the chief who just bestowed some great honor on her before she ran back to the wedding party. Only then did he take my hand.

“She loves you, Daddy.”

“She loves you, too.”

I bugged my eyes at him, doubting the truth in his words.

“Just like you love her,” he said, placing his arm around me.

“That much is the truth,” I said. “But I’m pretty sure Peyton won’t ever believe it. She thinks I’m going to be the wicked stepmother from H-E-double hockey sticks.” Daddy looked like he was going to disagree with me, but a squawking bird drew our eyes.

“Dratted crows,” he said. The oily-looking black birds were always a problem.

“What did you say to get that smile from Peyton?”

Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “That’s between me and Peyton.”

“Fine.” I swiped at a stupid tear.

“Now, Amanda,” he said, using my full name the way he had when I was a teenager looking for advice – or getting grounded which was often the case, and justified, too. “It’s not that she doesn’t want you. She just doesn’t want to forget her mom.”

My chest ached. I couldn’t help it. Why did that woman have to keep coming up in the middle of my wedding day?

“Now that’s just the truth, Manda. We can’t get around her missing her momma on a day like this. Her life is about to change again.”

And this day was proof that her dad was never going to be with her mom again. Not that it could’ve ever happened anyway, since nobody knew where in Tennessee, or anywhere else, that no good woman was.

I waved my hands to keep my eyelashes from dripping. “Do you think she’ll ever get over her mom and accept that I’m in her life now?”

“Depends,” he said, giving me a knowing look. “Do kids ever get over losing their momma?”

“Never,” I said, almost erupting into tears, but there was no way I was going to ruin all that mascara. I sniffled. “So, at least tell me what you said to make her smile like that.”

“I promised her a date with grandpa while you and Keith are on your honeymoon, just me, her, and Nashville. I’m sure Marta can keep Stevie.”

“Daddy.” I squeezed his hand. “I wish you wouldn’t drive that far by yourself.”

“Now, don’t even start that. I changed your diaper, girl. I can drive forty-five minutes to Nashville. And I can walk my girl down the aisle. Are you ready? Your soon-to-be husband is waiting for you.”

Emotion rose up, pressing against the back of my nose. The burning started, and I had to breathe deep to stop the tears. He’d done more than change our diapers. He didn’t even blink when one of the church ladies offered to take me and Marta to buy our first bras. He would take us himself, he told her. And when we started our periods, he drove to the store and bought every brand of pad he could find since he wasn’t sure what exactly we needed. He was there when pimpled boys picked us up for dates, making us stay seated on the couch until the boys got out of their honking trucks and knocked on the door. He made us change out of our denim miniskirts and into more appropriate clothing. He raised us all by himself, never shirking from things that moms usually took care of for daughters, and now he stood holding out his wrinkled hand to take my old yellow slip from me.

I handed it over. “I can’t wear it.”

He was confused, but smiled reassuringly. He’d done that a lot, too, when we were teenagers.

“This will sound ridiculous, but I was standing there, ready to get married and all of a sudden I realized: the slip!—it’s the same one I wore at my first wedding.” I swiped at a tear, and there went my mascara. Marta would have her hands full touching up the muddy trails I was sure traced my cheeks. Isn’t there some saying that cowgirls don’t cry? Well, like I said, I’m not one.

“It would be like wearing a hand-me-down from my last wedding, Daddy. Keith doesn’t deserve that, and it’s probably even bad luck.”

He nodded, and my heart expanded to fill the far reaches of my chest. I loved this about him. I don’t know if he really understood all of the emotional dramas Marta and I went through, but he always tried.

“You’re right not to wear it.” He tossed it into the closest apple tree where it snagged on a branch. I laughed, despite my tears, as he reached out to smooth a curl behind my ear. “This wedding, it’s a whole new first. This is a new day.” I hugged him for his goodness. If only everyone could see the world the way Daddy does.

I spotted Marta’s leopard print cowgirl hat before I saw Marta herself behind Peyton, wobbling like a toddler to keep her matching high-heeled cowgirl boots from sinking into the loamy earth. She was a fancy farm girl if ever there was one. For about two seconds I wished I was wearing the leopard hat and boots, and I honestly preferred her shorter dress over mine, but dad had sworn he wouldn’t be walking me down the aisle if I insisted on showing off more leg than was decent for a bride in front of the church ladies.

“Aunt Marta here to save the day,” Peyton proclaimed, as if all would have been lost had Marta not arrived at just that moment.

And maybe it would have been, since I must have looked like a bird had nested in my hair after running a sprint through the orchard in my wedding outfit, not to mention that I really hoped she had some deodorant and perfume since I was starting to glow, and it wasn’t from bridal happiness, either.

“What is it, cupcake?”

“My makeup.”

“And your hair,” she said, and I knew it was a travesty. Thank goodness Marta knew just how to salvage it, since she had the exact same hair. Our strawberry-blonde manes were not the only interchangeable thing about us, much to the exasperation of our teachers and friends when we were growing up, not to mention Daddy.

In fact, we’d switched places so many times that, at that very moment, I couldn’t help but notice how fresh Marta looked compared to me after my sprint through the orchard. My wedding pictures could turn out so much better!

“You are a bad, bad girl,” she exclaimed when I asked if she wanted to trade places right now. “You’d better be joking.”

“Well, of course I am, mostly. Nobody’s kissing Keith, except me today, but you have to admit it’s tempting. You look a ton better than I do. Look at me. All sweaty.”

“You do look awful, but let’s not resort to drastic measures. I happen to be an expert when it comes to you.” Marta reached into her bottomless gold sequined purse and began touching up my face, spraying things on my hair to make the frizz go away, and handing me her vanilla-scented deodorant before I could even blink.

“Thank heavens you’re here, Sissy.” There were many things I loved about having a twin, and one of them was that she knew exactly how to make me look good.

I let Daddy and Peyton tell Marta about the slip.

“Tell me you didn’t really do that!” Marta grimaced. “Oh, sissy. You’re so funny. But you’re right. You can’t wear that old thing.” A beauty pick fluffed up a curl, and I held back a sneeze as a brush swept powder across my cheeks.

“I guess it’s silly, but I’m glad to be rid of that slip just the same.”

“It was a sad slip,” Marta sympathized. Her four-inch hoop earrings, dangling back and forth, seemed to giggle along with her laughter. Peyton gazed at Marta like she was the queen of England, and I didn’t blame her. I idolized Marta, too. She was a breath of spring, of sparkling daring. Just having Marta there making me over made things right.

“I wish we hadn’t done all this cowgirl stuff for the wedding.” I complained.

“You told me you loved it,” she said.

“I do,” I admitted.

“And you’re about to marry a famous cowboy at that. It’s perfect.”

“But don’t you think I look kind of fake?” The silver Concho bracelets jingled around my wrists.

“Since when have you ever worried about fake?”

I shrugged. “I guess never.”

“Now let me check your nails. You haven’t popped one off, have you?” She’d done them herself, complete with jeweled flowers in the center of each pretty nail.

“But all those people sitting on his side,” I said. “They’re the real thing. Did you see some of the outfits those rodeo queens have on?”

“Former queens, most of them.” Marta pointed out.

“They aren’t all queens.” Peyton assured. “Some of them are barrel racers, and a bunch of them are just normal ladies who can’t even ride a horse.”

“Unlike you,” I said, reaching for her hand. “You’re a real cowgirl, Peyton. I showed your barrel racing trophies to Grandpa Marshall.”

She blushed. Once, when I suggested she should enter the rodeo queen pageant, she was mortified. Not all horsewomen—so cute how she said that—want to be rodeo queens, she told me. I have to admit I was disappointed. She would make a darn cute rodeo queen.

“Manda, you have to hurry. My dad is going to think you jilted him at the altar.”

Marta giggled as she took the veiled hat from me. I watched the worry temporarily fall from Peyton’s face as she watched Marta carefully adjust the hat over my curly hair. Dad helped pull the lace and tulle over my face and I turned to smile at Peyton through the gauzy veil. She looked away like I had caught her eavesdropping. And I guess I had.

After zipping her purse, Marta stepped back to admire her handiwork. Even Peyton stepped close to Marta and studied me.

They all proclaimed my beauty, but it was Peyton’s voice that whispered through the branches.

“You look nice.”

My heart melted like ice cream on a hot sidewalk, especially knowing how hard it must have been to dole out a compliment to her soon-to-be-stepmom. Maybe, if I worked hard enough, I could make things new for her, for Stevie, and for Keith. I couldn’t replace their mother, but I could be the best stepmother ever. At least I could try!

The other worries I faced were ridiculous, and I chalked them up to being a nervous bride. A pesky worry that Keith was going to try and make me ride a horse, concern that the kids were going to hate me, even the improbable chance that Keith, who in his single years was rumored to have had a string of cowgirls on his arm, had secretly done something to make his ex-wife run off. What if she wasn’t the deplorable person I thought she was? Maybe whatever it was that made her leave would make me want to run away, too. I mean, look at me already. Running away on my wedding day.

Oh no! I hope Keith doesn’t give up on me and ditch the wedding. I’d better hurry.

“Peyton Black. You are a doll.” I smiled at her. “We need to get back to your dad now, but first, I want you to wear something for me.”

I reached up and removed my hat, and then hers.

“Let’s trade,” I said, placing her hat on my head. I couldn’t put myself in her boots, but I could wear her hat today and try to show her how much I loved her dad, loved little Stevie, and loved her.

“Manda.” Marta’s voice dropped. “Are you sure you don’t want to wear that?”

Peyton blinked through the lace as I settled the veiled hat on top of her pretty head. Tugging gently at the ends to make sure it rested prettily over her small shoulders, I said, “If this wedding is a new first for me, then it should be for Peyton, too.”

I couldn’t make her love me right away, but I could do that one nice thing for her in that one moment.

“I look silly,” Peyton said. “I don’t think it would be allowed anyway.”

“It’s my wedding. I like to be different. If you want to wear it, you can.”

“It is like you to do everything different than everyone else,” she said.

I smiled. “You noticed that?”

“Everyone has,” she said seriously, as if breaking a piece of news to me that I didn’t already know.

“Then I might as well not have a veil,” I said.

“Are you sure?”

“Absolutely. Besides, it looks so much prettier on you,” I told her, wondering if it could ever be possible that she would want to be my daughter.

If only we knew why her mother left, Peyton could move on. And that was the final worry I had about marrying Keith—that his ex-wife might show up out of the blue, or that she wouldn’t, and then Peyton would always be tortured by her mother’s abandonment. And of all people, I knew more about that than Peyton realized.

Someday, I’ll tell her all about it.

“Thanks.” Peyton focused on the toes of her boots and I marveled at the girl’s beauty, her dark hair muted by the lace and tulle, her tan shoulders peeking out beneath, and looking more like her rodeo-queen mother than ever in that moment. But Keith gave her his eyes.

I bent slightly to gaze into those blue eyes, not at all sure she would let herself hear anything I’d say, and whispered. “I’m not trying to replace your momma, sweetie. I just want us to be friends.” I held my breath, wondering if I’d pressed too deep into her heart.

She still stared at her boots, but I was close enough to see the slip of moisture trail down her cheek, even through the hat’s short veil. Without thinking, I pulled her into an embrace, but I’d gone too far. She gently wriggled away and trudged back toward the wedding party, where her bronco-loving father waited for both of us. At least she’d kept the hat. I wondered again how a mother could leave her children behind.

I wanted to love all the sadness out of my stepchildren, but I had a feeling it would take a while. And then there was that silly worry that Peyton might get her wish and her mother would come back into their lives. What then? She’d vanished without a trace—the divorce papers delivered later the only evidence she was alive and well somewhere.

“Let’s go,” Marta said. “Your cowboy awaits.”

Daddy crooked his arm.

“You sure he’s still waiting?” I asked, laughing when I said it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about cowboys, it’s that they aren’t good at standing around.

“If he’s not, then Daddy and I’ll find him and knock him into next week.” Marta declared.

For Keith’s sake, I headed back up through the orchard toward the stand of oak trees, because even a cowboy like Keith was no match against Daddy and Marta. When I saw him still there waiting for me, I clutched the hem of my dress, sans slip, and ran to him.

End of Excerpt

The Real Thing is available in the following formats:

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April 7, 2016

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