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Kat Valentine leaned on the wooden corral fence, gazing across the valley. Sometimes when she stood in this spot, with nothing but Valentine land between her and the mountains, she could imagine Mountain View just as it had been in her great-great grandfather’s day, back when he laid the foundations of his simple wooden homestead cabin on this shelf in the foothills of the magnificent Montana mountains. The landscape was timeless, unchanging.
Oh, some things had moved on. That humble homestead cabin was now a three-story house, more than big enough to absorb three generations of Valentines. The land was no longer worked by just one man, those first few heads of cattle had multiplied by hundreds—joined by hardy sheep a generation or so ago—and the fields they didn’t use for pasture were sewn with hay, wheat, barley, peas, and lentils. The stables, although still full of some of the best horses money could buy, also held trail bikes and Jeeps so the ranchers could get from one side of the ranch to the other in a fraction of the time a horse would take.
Unchanging and yet ever-changing. Kat blew out a frustrated sigh, her eyes pinned on the majestic mountaintops ringing the valley. This was her home, and she had dreamed of returning here for the last two years. But now that she was finally back, nothing was the same. She wasn’t the same. In some ways, she wished she could turn the clock back and be the carefree girl ripe for any adventure she’d been back then. She hugged herself tightly. At least she could look back and say she had really lived during those two years. Lived and loved. Lived and loved and lost…
“Kat! Everything okay?”
Turning at the sound of her father’s voice, she summoned up a smile. The last thing he needed right now was to be worried about her. This dark cloud would pass. It had to. She’d made her choices—how she lived with them was up to her. “Hey, Dad. How’s Grandpops?”
“Making those poor nurses’ lives a living hell.” Tom Valentine’s mouth twisted into his trademark wry smile. “Your grandma has baked them so many cakes and pies to apologize she’s single-handedly responsible for the biggest obesity crisis that hospital has ever known.”
“I miss her. I miss them both. Mountain View doesn’t seem like home without them.” Guilt drenched her. She’d been gone for so long—six months longer than planned—only returning home when she’d received the panicked phone call about her beloved grandfather’s massive heart attack. She’d been on the next plane back to Montana from Scotland. No explanations, no goodbyes. It was probably easier that way.
Kat shifted, aware of her phone situated snugly in the pocket of her jeans. It had been silent for the last week, but she could still feel the phantom buzz of five weeks’ worth of unanswered calls. Calls it had taken every single bit of self-control not to answer. She resolutely pulled her mind back to the here and now. “I know it’s easier for Grandma to stay in Marietta so she’s close to the hospital, but every time I walk into the kitchen, I expect to see her there. It makes me miss her all over again.”
Her father’s eyes crinkled with concern. “You need some time off, sweetheart. You’ve spent six weeks without a day away from the ranch. You should take the evening off, head into Marietta and see Cordelia. She misses you. There’s plenty of room in that big house of hers. Stay over and hit the town.”
“Hit the town?” Kat grinned, affection for her dad filling her. “I admit Marietta has had a renaissance in the last few years, but I’m not sure there’s enough town to hit.”
“Hey there, Missy…” Laughing, her father swatted her. “Marietta may not compare to Auckland, London, or Edinburgh, but it does well enough for us.”
Edinburgh. An image of the old city the last time she’d seen it flashed through Kat’s mind. Austere and grey, softened with the glow of sunrise. She pushed the aching regret of nostalgia firmly away. “It’s a lovely offer, Dad, but I’m too tired to hit any town, big or small. Can I take a rain check?” It wasn’t that she was avoiding her elder sister, exactly; it was more that Cordelia knew her far too well, and she wasn’t ready to submit to that penetrating blue gaze.
“I’ll hold you to that. You looked washed out when you got home, and not even two months of mountain fresh air has put the color back in those cheeks of yours. I have to say, Kat…” Her father’s voice turned serious, and Kat gripped the white-painted fence a little harder. “I don’t know what we’d have done if you hadn’t come home. I’ve spent so much time supporting your grandma at the hospital I’ve been a part-timer here at best. Those sisters of yours have no interest in ranching. There’s only you and me left to look after this place.”
Guilt twisted in Kat’s chest. “What would happen if I couldn’t look after it?”
“We’d have to sell, I suppose. Your mother helps where she can, but she has always preferred the office work to the physical stuff. Even if your grandpops recovers fully—and the doctors seem optimistic—he won’t be able to work at the pace he used to—if at all.” Her father shook his head with a sigh. “Four children and only one with ranching in her blood.”
“Juliet might change her mind yet.” But even as she said the words, Kat knew they were futile. Her sisters were all competent riders and more than able to manage the physical work ranching required, but they weren’t interested in running—or living on—the ranch. Olivia, the eldest, had headed East after grad school, marrying and settling in Boston suburbia. Cordelia was making an extremely good living as a freelance project manager, while Juliet, newly graduated from high school, dreamed of the stage. She was spending the summer in Marietta at Cordelia’s large Victorian in the center of town, working in the diner and saving for college. Her sisters’ absences echoed throughout the ranch every bit as much as her grandparents’ did.
“I always hoped one of them would settle down here alongside me, just like you and Uncle Steve did. It’s not quite the same, going it alone.” She glanced at her left hand, at her bare fourth finger, and tried not to think about just how very alone she really was. “Is it wrong to hope Jules hates college and Cordy decides she has had enough of Gantt charts and they come back home, tails between their legs and cowboy hats in hand?”
“That would be great, but I don’t think it’s likely. No, truth is if you didn’t want to stay here, Kat, then selling would be the only option.” Her father turned to gaze wistfully over the fields. “Oh, we’d be rich. Every living Valentine would get a share; that’s what your great-great-grandfather’s will specified. And in that case, a ranch like this goes for millions. But how can money compare with this view? This air?”
Millions? That kind of money would transform all their lives. Her grandparents and parents would be able to retire at last, and Juliet could follow her heart and go to the northeastern liberal arts college she hankered for. But Kat knew her sisters wouldn’t want the money, not when it came down to it. They might have no interest in living and working on Mountain View themselves, but the ranch defined them. It was what kept the Valentines together, made them a family.
Besides, everyone knew Kat wanted to become the next custodian of Mountain View. After all, family legend proudly proclaimed she’d learned to ride long before she could walk. Had fearlessly approached the fiercest bulls and wildest horses from the moment she could toddle. Her college degree had focused on agriculture and business. After graduation, she’d worked full time on the ranch before taking two years to travel, but even that time had centered on working on other farms, ranches, and rural businesses, gathering ideas for her future. She should be excited it was finally time to implement some of them.
Should be. Would be if she could just put her soul into it. Wrench her stubborn heart back from Scotland where it had never really belonged.
The crunching of wheels on the long road leading to Mountain View broke her introspection and she and her father started in unison, like two deer scenting an intruder. “Expecting anyone?” her dad asked.
“No. Mom’s probably coming home early. Or maybe Grandma’s decided she needs a break from the hospital?”
Kat curled her hands into fists and concentrated on her breathing, but her morning yoga sessions seemed like a distant dream. Relax, she told herself. There was no obvious reason for the ominous feeling pressing down on her stomach. Mountain View was out of the way for casual callers sure, but the neighbors often swung by, as did her parents’ friends—and of course any one of the ranch hands could be expecting a visitor. But as Kat watched the low, sleek car purr up the road and pull in by the nearest barn, she could feel the fates closing in on her.
Worse, she felt a jolt of hope. The same hope that had made her linger in Scotland when every common-sense nerve had screamed at her to leave. That last forlorn hope that still believed in the chance of living happy-ever-afters. Her hands tightened. She had to be stronger than that. Fairy tale were just that—tales.
“Don’t recognize the plates,” her dad said as the engine was turned off. “Looks like a rental.”
Kat swallowed. “Someone probably took a wrong turn. Why don’t you go call Mom to see if she wants someone to pick her up? She’s been helping Grandma all day, and she might appreciate a break. I’ll see if I can help our mystery guest.”
But Tom Valentine didn’t move. Kat hadn’t really thought he would. She stood ramrod straight next to him, heart racing as the car door opened and a familiar figure slid out. Tall, lean, and supremely confident, he straightened, turned, and looked right at her. Their eyes locked and longing swamped her, despite her attempts to push it away. To safeguard her far too-fragile heart.
“I don’t recognize him at all.” Her father turned a keen gaze onto her. “But he seems to know you, Kat. Who is it? Friend of yours?”
Had she really thought she could just leave her life behind and come home with no repercussions? That the past wouldn’t catch up with her?
“I…” she managed through dry, cracked lips, but it was already too late. He was right here.
“Hi.” The deep burr of his voice vibrated through her and her chest tightened at the sound, every nerve ending tingling at the achingly familiar Scottish accent. “Fancy seeing you here.” He turned slowly. “So this is Mountain View? I have to hand it to you, Kat. It’s as beautiful as you said.”
“Kat? Do you know this man?” The confusion in her father’s voice shattered the spell the Scot always cast on her and panic shot through her, reality hitting home hot and sudden. She blinked, not knowing how to answer. The truth was here, was catching up with her, and all she wanted to do was run and hide in the stables, just as she had when she was a little girl and life seemed harder than she knew how to navigate.
She leaned closer to her father, away from the Scot, as if she could put the ocean back in place between them. Green eyes flared hot, just for a moment, before the old easy expression slid over his face. “Dad, this is James McKendrick. Jamie, this is my father, Tom Valentine.”
Jamie’s smile was polite and friendly, as if this was just another social occasion. “Nice to meet you, sir. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Kat couldn’t watch the two men size each other up, focusing on her booted feet as her father responded. “All lies, I’m sure. So, you’re a friend of Kat’s? Nice of you to come by and look her up.”
Kat concentrated hard on her boots, powerless to stop the words she knew would come next, the quick glance Jamie shot her burning straight through her thin cotton shirt. “I wouldn’t say we were exactly friends. Would you, Kat?” She raised her head at the cutting tone, and saw his mouth tighten the moment he noted her bare left hand. “And I didn’t come here to look her up. I came here to retrieve my wife.”
Damn it. Jamie was usually a master at controlling his temper, but it seemed that a twenty-hour journey after six weeks of radio silence from the woman who had promised to love and honor him was enough to strip away that civilized veneer. Noting the shock—and disappointment—settle on Tom Valentine’s face he cursed again. It was hard to imagine a worst introduction to his father-in-law. But much worse was the way Kat had flinched when he spoke. Flinched away from him. Away from the truth of their marriage.
Or what remained of it.
Jamie ignored Kat’s beseeching expression. “You waited until we were together to tell them? How very considerate of you, lass.”
“I…” He’d never heard Kat sound so small. Jamie’s heart twisted with empathy for one traitorous second, then hardened as he remembered the note on the bedside table, the unanswered calls, and the ignored texts. She hadn’t even told her family about him. About them. Apparently, she hadn’t just married in him haste, she’d decided to repent just as hastily. “It didn’t seem the right time to tell you, Dad. Not with Grandpops so ill and not knowing what I’d be doing next.”
What I… The word wasn’t lost on Jamie. Well, it was her independence that had attracted him to the Montana ranch girl, just as much as her silky brown hair and candid blue eyes. His family was right. He and Kat weren’t just from different countries, they were from different worlds. Kat had found it hard to fit into his, and it was very clear she didn’t want him in hers. He should respect her wishes, turn around, and leave. Chalk the last six months up to bitter experience.
Jamie wavered, doubting for the first time that he had been right to come out here. He had thought, what? That she would take one look at him and fall into his arms? That she had an amazing reason for not contacting him, like amnesia, or she’d been sucked through a vortex into another dimension? That she hadn’t meant it when she’d written to him, stating baldly that their marriage had been a mistake…
No. She’d meant it all right. And he should respect her enough to abide by her decision. Marriage wasn’t a business deal; there was no place for stubbornness and not accepting the first answer. If he loved Kat, really loved her, then maybe letting her go was the right, the honorable, thing to do.
Without a fight? Was he a McKendrick or not? Jamie set his jaw, narrowing his eyes against the sun as he turned to his erstwhile wife. “But I’m here now, lass. There’s no reason to keep our marriage a secret any longer. Is there?” He smiled softly, challenging her to contradict him.
“Jamie…” It was half a repudiation, half a plea as she finally she looked up. Their gazes hooked and for one cold moment, Jamie thought he had lost before he had even begun. There was nothing new to see; her expression was the same polite mask it had been during the long weeks before she left Scotland. Jamie opened his mouth to speak—although he had no idea what the words would be. An apology? A surrender? But her eyes flickered and he paused, arrested by the fleeting expression, a mingled mix of grief and regret. Grief, regret, and something that looked a little like relief.
Relief that he had come for her? That he hadn’t given up on them? Jamie pressed his lips together, planting his feet solidly on the ground. If there was a chance, any chance, of reclaiming his runaway bride, then he would take it. Giving up simply wasn’t in his DNA.
“Welcome to Mountain View.” The words and the hand held out were friendly, but the expression on Tom Valentine’s face showed he was clearly waiting to assess this unexpected new family member before welcoming him wholeheartedly. Jamie took the proffered hand, appreciating the quiet strength apparent in the older man’s grip. He hadn’t expected anything different from Kat’s father.
“Thank you, sir. I apologize for my tardiness. There were things I needed to settle back in Scotland before I joined Kat here. I didn’t expect them to take so long.” He noted the start of surprise Kat gave at his words. “Kat, it’s been a long journey. Any chance of a shower and a cup of tea?”
Jamie followed Kat’s line of sight as it fixed on the big white house, looking out over meadows and mountains. So this was her home. It was just as Kat had described, from the wide, covered veranda, which seemed to run right around the whole house, to the green trim, matching shutters, and the circular windows high under the roof.
“A shower?” Her gaze skittered past his, resting on her father. “I… Of course. At least, Dad, is it okay with you if Jamie stays?”
Her dad’s eyes were still narrow with suspicion, but he kept his tone light. “Kat, he’s your husband. Your call, not mine. I’ll see if your mother is planning on staying in Marietta tonight or if she wants me to collect her. I’ll leave it to you to tell her about the new arrival. I plan to be on the other side of the ranch when your mother finds out you went and got married without telling us first.”
“In that case, you’d better take provisions and a tent because I don’t see her getting over it too soon.” Kat rose onto her tiptoes, then pressed a kiss onto her father’s cheek. Jamie watched, envy gripping him as Tom clasped her shoulder, love and pride in his gesture, his expression an unspoken warning to the man who had just shown up and claimed his daughter. What would it be like to have a father who stood up for you? Who worried about you? Who would always have your back? “I’m sorry, Daddy.”
“Save your apologies for your mom, sweetheart. But I’m looking forward to hearing how you two met.” And why you haven’t mentioned a husband until now. The unspoken words hung there, the air thick with tension.
Jamie nodded at the older man. “Thank you. I know things are difficult at the moment, and the last thing you need is a stranger in the house. How is your grandfather?” he added, turning to Kat.
Surprise creased her forehead. “My grandfather? A little better. Still in hospital. Fighting.”
“That’s good,” Jamie murmured. “If he’s your grandfather, he must be some fighter.”
“He is.” She paused, visibly fighting for control. “Okay. Let’s do this.”
She sounded more like a martyr being led toward the lions than a blushing bride bringing her new husband home. But he was here—step one accomplished. It was past time that Jamie McKendrick reclaimed his bride. He just needed to win her back first.
End of Excerpt