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New Year’s Day, Wyoming
Briar Phillips had driven all night to reach the Sundowner Ranch from her home in Paradise Valley, Montana. Her dad thought she was at a New Year’s Eve party. Instead, she was on the highway with a full tank of gas and a turkey and cheese sandwich she’d picked up inside the gas station’s mini market. She’d only discovered where her half brother was a day ago. Now that she knew Cade Hunt managed the Sundowner, she tossed an overnight bag into the car and went.
It didn’t matter that the weather wasn’t the best. It didn’t matter that it was the holidays. It didn’t matter that he was in Wyoming and not Montana. She just had to find him. She’d been looking for him forever.
But now that she was at the Sundowner and one of the bleary-eyed cowboys outside pointed her to an old log cabin, she was finally meeting him, finally face-to-face.
She’d surprised him at the door, and he invited her in, saying it had been a big night. They’d recently welcomed a baby.
Clearly, she’d come at the wrong time, but she’d been waiting years to meet him. Years to find family that was hers, that she belonged to … genetics, DNA, home.
But now that she was face-to-face with him, Briar wasn’t sure what to feel. Cade didn’t look anything like her. He was very tall and broad through the shoulders. He had a big frame, strong face with a square jaw. She was a brunette, but he was fair, with thick sandy-blond hair, light eyes, and a firm mouth that didn’t seem as if it knew how to smile.
Cade introduced her to his wife, MerriBee, and their new baby, and then MerriBee and the baby disappeared into the bedroom, and Cade had Briar join him in the kitchen as he made a fresh pot of coffee. “This is a shock,” he said.
“I probably should have warned you,” she said, “but once I knew where you were, I couldn’t stay away.”
“I’m glad you’re here,” he said, facing her.
She searched his expression wondering if that was how he truly felt. “It’s taken me a long time to find you.” She tried to make it a joke. “Were you hiding?”
He didn’t get the joke and her desire to smile faded. “Why did you change your name? I’d spent two years looking for a Cade O’Connell—”
“I changed it after Mom died and I found out that my stepfather was just my stepfather and not my dad.” He gestured to the coffeepot now brewing. “I didn’t even ask if you wanted coffee. Would you prefer something else? Tea, a soda, water?”
“Coffee’s great. My favorite drink.”
“Mom used to drink a lot of it, too,” Cade said.
“Really?” Briar glanced around the log cabin, wondering if there were any pictures of their mom. “I know nothing about her. She left me a letter. I got to read it when I was eighteen. She told me in the letter about you. She said her husband Jimmy wasn’t my dad so I couldn’t live with them.”
“Jimmy wasn’t my dad either and was a horrible human being. You’re lucky to have been raised somewhere else.”
“It was that bad?”
She swallowed, uncertain why a lump filled her throat. “Do you have any photos of Suzy? Our mom?”
“I have a couple but they’re all in storage. We recently converted the spare room into the baby’s room and so a lot of things ended up in boxes in the attic.”
“You must miss her,” Briar said.
He shrugged. “She wasn’t happy, and then she wasn’t well. She’s probably better where she is—”
“Dead?” Briar interrupted, shocked.
“Out of pain,” he said. “No longer suffering.”
The heaviness returned to Briar, sinking in her, from her shoulders to her chest and down into her belly. “Did I do that to her?”
Cade grabbed two mugs from an open shelf and filled them with coffee. “Why would you think that?”
“You said she wasn’t happy. That she was suffering.”
“Did she regret giving you up? Probably. But I don’t think she had any other choice. She did what she did to give you a better life.” He handed her the coffee and then gestured to the bruise on her cheek.
It took Briar a moment to understand, and she lifted her hand, lightly touching her cheek. She’d forgotten all about the mark. “Oh, no. That’s nothing. You should have seen it two weeks ago.”
“It’s a pretty ugly bruise. Takes up half your face.”
“Hardly. I should have known better. I was being impatient.”
“Impatient doing what?”
“Training. I work with horses. I like horses. Probably the only thing I like.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Bad home life?”
“No. My parents are great. I shouldn’t complain about them. I shouldn’t have anything to complain about.”
“But you do.”
Suddenly her chest tightened, and she couldn’t breathe. “Are there some things I’d change? Yes. My mom passed away when I was in high school, and I wish she was still with us today. My dad’s a really good man, and he tries hard, but he misses her terribly and I haven’t been easy on him.”
“That’s part of being a teenager. But you’re growing up, growing out of it now.”
She nodded but the emotion was hitting hard, so much emotion. She’d been looking for her brother for so many years and he didn’t seem all that excited to see her. Perhaps she’d expected too much, wanting so badly to have family that was connected by blood. She didn’t know why it mattered but for most of her life Briar had just felt out of step … different. Problematic. She’d hoped finding Cade would help ease some of that emptiness. Instead, she felt even more alone.
“What’s wrong?” Cade asked, his blue gaze narrowing.
She shook her head, forced a smile, not wanting to be an emotional wreck already. Her brother was thirteen years older and had grown up in a tough family and he didn’t need a half sister to show up bawling on his doorstep. “Just glad to finally find you,” she said huskily, smiling bigger, hoping the smile would hold back tears.
“Not that it’s a competition,” he said, jaw easing, his expression warmer. “I’ve been looking for you a long time, too. I’ve been looking for you even longer than you’ve been looking for me. I’ve been worried about you, worried you weren’t in a good situation, worried you needed me and I was nowhere to be found.”
“My family couldn’t have been nicer. My dad, Patrick, is a pastor. My mom, Joany, was one of the best human beings on this planet. I guess that’s why God needed her back.” Briar swallowed hard, a lump filling her throat. She studied Cade carefully, trying to see a family resemblance. She wasn’t finding what she’d hoped to find in his face. “Do you look like Mom … our mom?”
“No,” he said. “But she was beautiful.”
He nodded, expression somber.
His expression made her chest tighten and ache and her eyes sting, hot and gritty. “What did she look like?”
“You,” Cade said almost grimly. “Just like you.”
End of Excerpt