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“Hey, Lex…” Reed Keller glanced at his fourteen-year-old daughter as he drove under the massive log arch marking the entrance to his family ranch—the ranch he’d left at the age of nineteen for the good of all involved. “You’re okay with this. Right?”
Lex sent him a look edged with teenage irony. “If I said no?”
“Right.” They had talked this thing to death—he and Lex’s mom, Candice, and her husband, Gregg Lawrence.
They topped a small hill and the Keller property spread before them. Not the largest ranch in the area, but one of the most picturesque, nestled up against the foothills of the Absaroka Range.
“I’m good,” Lex said softly, a touch of awe in her voice. “I love this place.”
Reed’s throat tightened as he took in the familiar view. He loved this place, too, just as he loved his dad, but staying on the ranch hadn’t been an option until now. Too many fireworks between the two of them.
When he’d left, he’d assumed that one of his siblings would stay on to help run the place. Instead, all three had left the ranch for other careers, with their parents’ blessing, leaving the folks with only two hired hands and summer day help.
Daniel and Audrey Keller had told their kids more than once that they’d expected them to go their own ways—they’d raised them to be independent—but Reed always suspected that they’d secretly hoped that at least one of their children would return home. Well, one of them had, and it was not the one they’d been expecting. With the former ranch manager, Jim Myers, having retired in August, and the other long-time hand, Henry Still Smoking, about to do the same, somebody needed to come home. Circumstances decreed that he be the one.
“Pretty isolated here,” Reed pointed out.
Lex cocked an eyebrow at him; a trick he was pretty certain she’d practiced in the mirror. “It isn’t like I’m here forever, and I can talk to my friends. Plus, I have three weeks of online classes before Christmas break to help take the fun out of the day.” She smiled as the dots in the field ahead of them began to assume the shapes of horses. “Grandma said I can do all the horse stuff I want after I finish my schoolwork for the day.”
“The snow might slow you down.”
Indeed, the fields were still yellowy green, and although there was a snowline, it was high in the mountains behind the ranch.
“It’s coming.” But he hoped it held off for a while so Lex could get some riding in. He didn’t want her to die of boredom between now and the end of February when he and her mom would decide whether she would return to school in Bozeman or continue distance learning on the ranch. It all depended on how well Gregg responded to the cancer treatments he was about to begin. Doing horse stuff would give his daughter something positive to focus on.
“I was hoping for a white Thanksgiving,” she said, her gaze fixed on the snow-free pastures they were driving past. “So that Gregg and I could ski before he had to leave.”
She smiled at him, a hint of sadness touching the corners of her mouth, and he reached out to rub her shoulder. Thanksgiving was gone, and Christmas was coming up. Her first holiday without her mom and stepdad. A sucky way to spend Christmas, compounded by concerns about Gregg’s health, and it was up to him to make things as good as they could be.
“I’m okay,” she said, as if reading his thoughts. “This is the way things are and, yeah.”
“And yeah,” Reed agreed.
She ran her fingers through her short dark hair. “But you know, if you need to talk…”
Reed shot her a look, meeting her eyes before pulling his gaze back to the long, graveled drive. If he was so transparent that his kid was offering moral support, then he needed to suck it up.
Yes, he was anticipating friction between him and his dad, but that was a matter of habit. There’d always been friction, although logically, there shouldn’t be any now, because Reed was doing what his dad had always wanted him to do—slowing down, traveling the straight and narrow, focusing on a stable future instead of the next big adventure.
In other words, he was no longer acting like his dad had acted back in the day before marrying Reed’s mother, Audrey. And both he and his dad would be on good behavior with Lex living on the ranch. He’d finally figured out that most of their issues stemmed from conditioning. Just as a horse learned to respond automatically to certain signals, so had Reed and his dad. In other words, they automatically butted heads first, asked questions later.
“I’m good,” he said, because Lex seemed to be waiting for a response.
“Mom said that I shouldn’t worry if you and Grandpa yell at each other.”
“We’re not going to yell.” But it was probably a good thing that Candice had dropped the warning, just in case there was an explosion or two as he and his dad found their footing.
He and Candice had made a colossal mistake when they’d married fifteen years ago, months shy of Reed’s twentieth birthday, but in the years after their divorce and her remarriage, they’d developed a bond centered around Lex, the product of their short union, and in the process, they’d become friends.
Had they known one another better back in the day, they would never have wed, and Lex probably wouldn’t have been born, so there was something to be said for two headstrong kids making stupid decisions.
Granted, things had become more complicated when Candice married Gregg, but it was impossible not to like the guy, and the transition into thruple parenting had been easier than expected thanks to Gregg’s easygoing nature and robust common sense. The unconventional family dynamics marked one of the few times in Reed’s life where things fell into place, and he’d managed to leave them there. The Holloway Ranch, where he’d lived and worked until a few days ago, was only twenty minutes from Bozeman, which meant he was a constant presence in his daughter’s life and she in his.
“It’s okay if you do yell at each other.” Lex gave him another irony-laced look. “Don’t worry about scarring your child. I watch the WWE.”
Reed rolled his eyes behind his sunglasses. Had he been as together as his kid back in the day, maybe things would be different now. He had a feeling that Lex’s personality was the result of being an only child and having three adults presenting a united front from the time she was a toddler, coupled with the fact that she inherited her grandmother’s down-to-earth personality and patience, as well as her mom’s wry sense of humor. The real blessing was that she seemed comfortable in the here and now. She didn’t need to search for the big adventure the way Reed and his father had. She seemed content to read and study, hang with her friends, and tend to her pet guinea pigs, Calvin and Cedric, who were in a travel cage in the backseat of the Dodge.
A few minutes later, Reed parked the truck between the main house his parents lived in and the slightly smaller house, known as the Little House, where Reed’s grandparents had lived. Now it was the guesthouse, and for the next several months, Reed and Lex’s home. If he stayed, he’d probably invest in a mobile home and free up the Little House, but he wasn’t investing until he was certain that he and his dad did okay.
Reed’s mother, Audrey, met them on the porch, enveloping first Lex, then Reed in a hug. She smelled of ginger and home and, as usual, was dressed in jeans and a loose flannel shirt over a tee, the sleeves rolled up to just below the elbows.
“I’ve been baking,” she said as she released her hug and stepped back. “And you know what that means.”
“Fire alert?” Reed asked.
She shot him a dark look. “I have not let myself get sidetracked once.”
“I can bake now that I’m here,” Lex said.
“That would be amazing.” Audrey beamed and pulled Lex against her in a one-armed hug. “There’s a Christmas bake sales coming up and the family baking, and…well…I can use all the help I can get.”
“But not at the expense of your classes,” Reed said. Every time he said something along those lines, he felt a twinge of conscience because he hadn’t given a rat’s ass about classes. But he should have.
“As if,” Lex said on a sniff.
“How’s Gregg?” Audrey asked, glancing from Reed to Lex, then back to Reed.
“Mom and Gregg got to Virginia yesterday,” Lex said. “They’ll start tests tomorrow.”
Reed nodded his agreement. Gregg’s best shot at beating the disease invading his body was at a specialty clinic on the opposite side of the country, and the four of them had agreed that the best course of action was for Reed and Lex to move to the family ranch during the treatments. Lex had segued to online classes after the first quarter of the school year, and hadn’t muttered a word of complaint—to Reed or Candice, anyway—even though it had to be rough, leaving her friends and face-to-face interactions behind.
It’s temporary, Reed reminded himself. Lex understood that eventually they would find their new normal, and then the only question would be, where would he land? On the family ranch if all went well, but truth to tell, he was still a little uncertain about giving up his autonomy. His ability to live it up now and again without causing his family to worry. Having a kid had definitely helped him cut back on following his wild urges, but if he wasn’t booked for time with Lex, and one or more of his fellow ranch hands were in the same mood, he still enjoyed cutting loose.
Those days were over for now. He was temporarily a single parent, and he intended to be a decent role model.
“I’m glad the clinic could get him in earlier than scheduled,” Lex said as Audrey ushered her through the door into a kitchen that smelled of ginger, molasses, and burning sugar.
Well accustomed to the drill, Reed beat his mom to the oven, grabbed the hot pads off the counter, and opened the oven door to pull out a sheet of only slightly overbaked gingersnaps.
“More snap this way,” he said, and Audrey rolled her eyes.
“It looks like it’s just some of the sugar that burned, Grandma,” Lex said as Audrey quickly shoveled cookies onto a waiting wire rack.
Cautiously Audrey tipped up a cookie with the spatula and peered underneath it. “You’re right.” She wet her finger and marked a tick on an imaginary score sheet.
“Do you want me to finish these?” Lex asked, gesturing at the bowl of dough covered with a tea towel.
“You have unpacking to do.”
“I’d rather bake cookies,” she said. “I have a lot of time to unpack.”
“Not with the schedule your grandfather has lined out.”
Lex’s eyes went wide. “He’s making me work?”
“You’ll like it,” Audrey said cryptically. “I’ll let him tell you about it.”
“Where is he?” Reed asked.
“Checking the north fence. We’ve had issues up there.”
“What kind of issues?”
Audrey was about to reply when her attention jerked to the large window over the kitchen table. Her mouth opened, then closed again, and she shifted her attention back to her son.
“We need to talk.”
“What?” Reed caught sight of dust rising in the air at the far end of the driveway.
Lex was watching her grandmother with a look of open curiosity, the tea towel in one hand. Audrey gave her a quick smile, then took Reed by the elbow and steered him into the living room. He glanced back at the rooster tail, figuring it was still a mile away.
“What?” he asked as soon as Audrey had him at the far side of the living room, noting that she’d hauled him far enough from the kitchen to keep Lex from “accidentally” hearing what she had to say.
“This may be a false alarm, but…you know how I’ve always talked about arranging all the ranch records and photos and…general history…into some kind of order?”
“I started. And I hired help.” Her mouth flattened and she met his gaze. “I thought I’d have time to tell you. I mean, it shouldn’t matter, but it might and—”
His mom was never like this. Ever.
“What the hell?”
“Trenna. I hired Trenna Hunt. She’s going to teach history at the community college starting in January, and I asked if she’d help me. She said, yes, then you told me you were coming home a few weeks early, and she’s not supposed to start until next week, and there was still time to tell her I didn’t need her if that turned out to be the case—”
“Mom. Chill. I’m good.” Stunned but good. “It’s been more than fifteen years.”
Audrey let out a breath. “Yes. But it seemed only fair to warn you ahead of time.”
“Fifteen years, Mom.”
“Right.” She gave him a cautious look, which clearly said that she didn’t know if fifteen years was enough time. It was. He’d built a new life and so had she.
“I’ll just head out and meet her then,” Audrey said, smoothing her hands down the sides of her jeans.
“Does she know about me and Lex being here?”
Audrey shook her head. “Not that you’re already here. You both moved up your timetables.”
“Go meet her, Mom. I’ll be right out.” Trenna Hunt. Fifteen years. As he’d said, a long time.
Why the hell was his stomach knotting?
“So,” Lex said lightly, staring into the bowl as she scooped out dollops of dough. “What’s up?”
“Old girlfriend.” Reed knew that unless it was absolutely necessary, it was best not to hide things from an inquisitive teen.
“One that required a red alert?”
“Bad breakup,” Reed said shortly.
Lex put a hand on her hip. “When did this happen?”
“Before you were born.” He’d done his share of dating after the sting of his failed marriage had worn off, but had yet to bring a woman home to meet the family so to speak, Lex being that family.
“Must have been some breakup.”
“Care to share?”
He shook his head. He’d told her enough, and although she pushed her tongue against the inside of her cheek in a thoughtful way, she accepted his decision.
“Suit yourself.” She turned back to the cookie dough. “But I want an introduction.” She met Reed’s gaze again. He frowned, and she said, “Sue me. I’m curious.”
“I’ll sue you, all right.” He gave her nose a tap, and she batted his hand away. But as he headed for the door, he caught her curious sidelong glance, which made him hope that she didn’t launch an investigation.
As soon as Trenna Hunt caught sight of the classic Dodge truck parked next to Audrey Keller’s sensible SUV, a knot began forming in her midsection. Each of the Kellers had strong preferences in their choices of vehicles. Twins Em and Cade preferred Fords. Spence, the middle child, was a Chevy man through and through, as were his parents.
Reed was the lone Dodge guy.
Trenna forced herself to exhale the breath she’d just realized she was holding. A classic Dodge very similar to the one Reed drove when they were together did not mean that Reed was home. He was coming home, but not until closer to Christmas, and Trenna figured that if she didn’t want to continue helping Audrey catalog documents after he arrived, she’d have enough information by that time to advise from afar.
As she got closer, the Dodge looked more and more familiar.
So what if it’s his rig? Years had passed, and time heals all wounds.
Except for those that it didn’t.
Trenna told herself to get a grip. There is a very good chance this isn’t Reed’s—
The thought stuttered to a stop before it was completed. It was definitely Reed’s truck, because that was definitely Reed following a harried-looking Audrey out the front door of the ranch house.
She’d always known she’d bump into her teen love at some point, especially after moving back to Marietta, but she hadn’t expected a near heart attack when it happened.
Guilt was a cruel bitch.
She closed her eyes, sucked in a breath.
You’ve got this.
But as she pulled to a stop on the opposite side of the SUV from Reed’s truck, her heart was still hammering.
Maybe she should have sought Reed out a long time ago, got that closure.
He probably didn’t feel anything about their breakup, having rebounded, married, divorced, had a child. Yeah. He had other issues at play in his life. She, on the other hand, never felt anything except for a boatload of bad at the way things had ended.
She pulled the keys from the ignition and palmed them. They were different people now and probably didn’t have nearly as much in common as they’d had when they’d been together fifteen years ago.
Right. Fifteen years. Think about that.
Yes. They would start fresh. What else could they do?
Trenna pulled in a long breath, then shoved the car door open before she had second thoughts and abruptly drove away.
“Audrey, hi.” She smiled at the woman, who, though dressed in denim and flannel, with her rich brown hair knotted on top of her head, exuded an air of casual elegance.
Audrey looked like she wanted to say more, but Trenna turned to face Reed whose expression told her that he, too, was fighting for equilibrium. He wore his classic closed look, which had the effect of making him appear both coolly distant and hot as hell.
A whisper of relief went through her, because although the hot-as-hell part wasn’t helping, closed-down Reed was safe. He wasn’t going to engage, which worked for her because, holy shit, she hadn’t expected to feel a surge of…whatever this was. Attraction coupled with regret coupled with low-key panic that she was reacting to him like this.
“Reed.” She cleared her throat. “Long time.”
He nodded, his gaze traveling over her, making her wonder how much she’d changed since he’d last seen her. She’d lost the baby fat in her face and her hair was a touch lighter than the sun-kissed dark blonde she’d been blessed with naturally—mainly because her sun-kissed dark blonde was shifting to brown, and she liked being a blonde. And it was wavy now, bordering on curly, because she’d gotten tired of her hair and the flat iron battling for supremacy. One morning she’d simply tossed the device into the trash and never looked back.
“Yes.” The simple answer was delivered without a smile. She could live with that.
She turned back to Audrey, talking a little too fast as she said, “I was on my way to an appointment, which just got canceled.” She took a breath and slowed her words. “Since I was nearby, I thought we could discuss the project, look at time frames, and determine what could be accomplished in the short term.” She shot Reed a quick glance. “I, uh, wouldn’t have dropped by without calling if I’d suspected you had…”
Guests? Company? The prodigal son back in the fold?
“I’m early, too.” The corners of Reed’s gorgeous mouth curved up, as if he was forcing himself to act natural, the half smile causing her to flash on all kinds of things she’d be better off not remembering. “It’s good to see you, Trenna.”
He sounded like he meant it, which meant he had better control of this situation than she did. “Let me introduce you to my daughter, then you and Mom can get to work while I unload our stuff in the Little House.”
She blew out a silent breath as the three of them started toward the house. Reed has a daughter. She knew that, but it was still kind of mind blowing.
She had several college degrees. Reed had a kid. They’d traveled different paths, thanks to her dad, and for the most part, she didn’t regret her life choices. Now she wondered if that was because she hadn’t allowed herself to think on the matter.
Audrey held the door open, and Trenna followed Reed inside the kitchen that had once been her home away from home. She’d forgotten how much she’d loved about the homey space. At the counter, a dark-haired girl was scraping the last of the batter out of a mixing bowl. She paused mid-swipe and gave Trenna a curious once-over.
“Trenna, this is my granddaughter, Reed’s daughter, Lexa.”
“Lex,” the girl said with a grin. “Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.” Trenna used her teaching voice, which made her feel more in control, even if it came off as a bit phony. Of course, the girl was the image of Reed. Angular face, cleft chin, a mouth that was fuller than her father’s, but the same basic shape. Trenna once again found her stomach knotting.
She shoved the sensation down as deep as she could and smiled at the girl. “Your dad and I are old friends.”
“I heard,” she said in a way that had Trenna shooting Reed a quick look, catching him mid–eye roll. What on earth had he said?
Trenna turned to Audrey, thinking the matter was best dropped until she had better mental footing. “If you don’t have time to meet today, what with family arriving and all—”
“Lex is finishing the cookies and Reed is hauling stuff, so yes, I have time. We can meet in my office—”
The words were barely out of her mouth when the sound of an old-school diesel engine brought everyone’s attention to the window. A dually Chevy pickup pulled to a stop next to Trenna’s car, and Daniel Keller, Reed’s dad, got out. Unlike Audrey, he had changed. He was still a strikingly handsome man, but his once dark hair was now silvery white, and despite his determined steps, he moved like a man recovering from an injury. Everyone in the kitchen held in place as he stomped up the steps and pushed open the door, rattling it in the process.
“You cannot believe what that asshole Hunt has done—” He stopped short as his gaze fell on Trenna, then he shot his wife a questioning look.
“It’s okay,” Trenna said in the most normal tone she’d managed since arriving. “I have no illusions about my father. Please…carry on.”
End of Excerpt