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Christie Simmons put her Cadillac SRX into Park but didn't turn off the engine. She didn't plan to get out of the car unless a certain tall, tan, brown-haired rancher exited the ranch house and asked what the heck she was doing on his property.
She waited, but no one came out. Which meant he probably wasn't home yet.
But he was coming home, any day now. That's what his brother's fiancée had told her on the phone yesterday. That's what the nice waitress at the café in town had told her. Christie knew small towns had very active grapevines. By now, they'd probably be buzzing with news that a blond "city girl" had been asking about Cal Crawford.
A blond city girl with a nine-month-old baby, Christie corrected herself, turning to look at the rear-facing car seat. She could only see his cute little face in the special infant mirror attached to the backseat. Peter slept as he usually did when she drove long distancesjust like a baby. If she stayed parked here too long, though, he'd awaken and want a bottle, some attention or his diaper changed. Maybe all three. She'd rather find a place to stay before Peter started fussing. A bed-and-breakfast, or even a motel would do, as long as it was clean and safe.
Still, she sat for a minute longer, returning her attention to the beige brick ranch house with the green trim. It was neat and well maintained, as was the red barn maybe half a football field away. In the pasture surrounding the yard, black-and-white cowsthe kind in those cheese commercialsgrazed on newly greening grass. In another pasture, bison, of all things, appeared to be dozing in the noontime sun. On a rocky hill, chickens of every colorpecked among the stunted shrubs and clumps of cactus. What a strange and wonderful place!
Especially for a city girl, she thought. She was rarely around animals, except for her mother's overindulged, yappy and slightly asthmatic Pekingese, Mr. Boodles. Christie had always wanted a yellow Lab, but her parents had insisted big dogs were too much trouble, so she'd lavished her attention on her friends' pets.
When Peter was old enough, she'd get him that yellow Lab she'd never had as a child. She'd have a yard for him to play in and one of those cute inflatable kiddie pools. When Peter and the dog got wet and dirty, she'd clean them up and laugh with them, not scold them for making a mess.
She would not raise her child as she'd been raised, in a luxurious but cold home where perfection was more important than happiness.
With a sigh, she circled back onto the drive leading to the county road. She passed under a wooden arch that spelled out Rocking C in rustic iron letters. She was sure Cal had told her that four generations of Crawfords had lived on the ranch. She also had a vague memory of him mentioning he raised Hereford cattle. She recalled those red-and-white animals from the annual Fort Worth Fat Stock Show. She'd dutifully attended for years as the child of one of the rodeo sponsors. Everyone who was anyone in Fort Worth had ties to the Fat Stock Show, the Bass Performance Hall or the Kimball Art Museum. Maybe all three.
Cal had been gone a year and a half. Perhaps the ranch had changed since he'd been away. Perhaps it wasn't even his any longer. But, no, his brother's fiancée had mentioned Cal was really looking forward to returning to the Rocking C.
"Soon," she whispered to her sleeping son. "Soon you'll meet your daddy."
She headed into Brody's Crossing to find a place to stay until Calvin Peter Crawford IV came home from Afghanistan.
THE RIDE FROM DFW AIRPORT was damn near as uncomfortable as having four pieces of shrapnel cut out of his face. Granted, three of them had been tiny, but the fourth one had left an ugly gash near his right temple.
He'd been called up for active duty just a few months before his military commitment was due to end. His service had been extended by a year of active duty, and while he was gone, his little brother had completely changed the ranch into some kind of organic, bizarre collection of everything he didn't want: buffalo, dairy cows and free-range chickens. What self-respecting rancher raised those animals when he could have good old regular beef cattle grazing on his acres?
He should never have given Troy the power of attorney that James Brody, their lawyer, had said they needed. That simple document had allowed his brother to do whatever he wanted with the Rocking C while Cal was away. And, dammit, he had. He and Cal had exchanged sometimes heated e-mails over the changes to the ranch and had talked a few times by phone, until Cal had become too frustrated to speak to Troy. Cal figured they didn't have anything else to discuss until he actually saw the ranch.
"You need to stop anywhere along the way?" Troy asked.
"No. If I need anything, I'll go into town later." First, he wanted to get out of the desert fatigues and army-issue boots of Sergeant Calvin P. Crawford IV and into the comfortable, worn jeans, Western shirt and cowboy boots of Cal Crawford, rancher. Then, he looked forward to visiting Dewey's Saloon and Steakhouse, seeing his neighbors and having a few beers with a nice, juicy T-bone. No more MREs or institutional trays of food that made school lunches seem appealing.
"Raven has something planned, just so you know," Troy said as they turned onto Highway 16 and headed north, avoiding the main street and its two stoplights.
"Great." There went his plans for the evening. Troy had mentioned that his fiancée was an organic farmer and weaver from New Hampshire. Cal knew she'd come to Texas due to a mix-up with a garden association and had stayed to "help" Troy make all those changes he'd decided were necessary. Cal had seen a picture of Raven in one of Troy's e-mailsshe looked like what their father would call a "hippie." She'd probably serve some kind of vegetarian smorgasbord. Or did folks from New Hampshire have smorgasbords? Maybe not. Cal had lived all his life in Brody's Crossing, Texas, except for basic training, two weeks' service every summer and the deployment to Afghanistan. With any luck, he'd never leave here again.
"Just a few friends and some of our new business associates."
"Don't even get me started on the changes to the ranch."
Troy sighed. "Look, Cal, why don't you just admit that something had to be done? The ranch was failing. You were way too far into the bank for operational loans.You could never have recovered the cost of those Herefords from the market price. I know you liked to look out and see them grazing in the pasture, just like they'd always been there, but"
"Butt out, that's what. You did what you did. I'm going to do what I have to do."
"You're as stubborn as our old man."
"I think the word is loyal, not stubborn. Some of us value the past." Cal didn't understand why Troy was so dead set against the traditions of the Rocking C. Yeah, his life hadn't been perfect, but whose had? Troy had been more of a mama's boy, and when their mother had left the family when he was fourteen, he'd been hurt. Cal knew his brother also resented the fact that he'd been the younger son. Their dad had obviously groomed Cal to run the ranch, and that might chafe Troy a bit, but such was life. The oldest son usually took over the family's responsibilities.
Someday, when he had a son, Cal vowed that he'd groom him the same way. He'd need to be tough to run a ranch.
Of course, first Cal needed to get the Rocking C back to the way it was.
"Just don't take your bad mood out on Raven. All the changes were mine, understood? Just because I chose not to be a rancher doesn't mean I'm ignorant of the cattle industry. I was marketing a new cattle breed, you know."
"Yeah, I know that and I hear you loud and clear. I know just who to blame."
"Hell, Cal, I know you've had a rough time, but your attitude sucks. I'm sorry about Dad's accident. I'm sorry I got to go away to college while you stayed to run the ranch. I'm sorry for the timing of your military service. But I'm glad I could take a leave from my job after my vacation ran out, and I'm glad I got a chance to help the ranch survive. If I hadn't done something, including investing a stack of my own cash into the Rocking C, then you'd be coming back to a foreclosure, no stock and no place to live."
"So you say. I see it differently. And don't talk about my bad attitude when I've been serving my country."
"Oh, please. As if you're more patriotic than the rest of us.
You only joined the reserves because Dad and Granddad and the rest of the men in our family served in the army."
"You're so full of it."
"And you're not? I'm your brother. I think I know you pretty well."
Cal snorted. His brother didn't know him at all. He turned his head and looked out the window as they passed under the Rocking C sign. Troy must have repaired it and painted it black. Just the first of many changes. Fresh gravel crunched beneath Troy's fancy SUV's tires as they drove past repaired fences. Cal didn't want to look into the pastures, where Herefords used to graze.
He had a sick feeling in his stomach, along with a racing heartbeat and overreaching sense of dread. He was finally home, but whose home? Not the one he remembered, that was for sure.
His little brother had taken over his life.
Troy thought he knew so much about running a ranch, about life in Brody's Crossing, about family heritage, but he didn't know everything. He didn't know Cal's secret.
And he never would. No one would.
RAVEN HAD INVITED CHRISTIE to the casual family "welcome home" party for Cal, but she'd declined. For one thing, she had no one to watch Peter. For another, she didn't think springing "Hi, welcome home, you're a daddy" would be the right approach in the midst of a family get-together.
So she'd wait. She'd already waited a year and a half since she'd discovered, to her great surprise, that she was pregnant.
During her marriage, while they'd lived in Europe, she'd been told she couldn't get pregnant. The Italian doctor had been so wrong, she thought, as Peter pulled himself up on the ottoman.
They were staying about ten miles away in Graham since Brody's Crossing had no hotel, motel or bed-and-breakfast.
"All that's about to change," Christie told her grinning son. "Yes, it is." She smiled back at him and stroked his soft, downy hair. Light brown, like his father's. But he had blue-green eyes, like hers.
"We're going to open a motel, aren't we?" she asked as he held on and wobbled, trying to stay upright on the carpet. The idea of running her own business still astounded her, and yet felt so right.
She'd bought the Sweet Dreams Motel in Brody's Crossing just yesterday, paying with a cashier's check from her bank in Fort Worth. The place was a run-down mess, with broken windows, horrid bathrooms and a parking lot so patched it looked like a crazy quilt. The stucco and concrete block walls were cracked in places, and the roof had to be replaced before the next big rain. During the walk-through with the Realtor, they'd disturbed a surly opossum and a family of mice living in the maintenance shed. Birds had flown out of gaps in the siding over the office.
Other than that, it was perfect.
"It will be great," she told Peter, and she believed it. Because despite the neglected motel's problems, it had one thing going for it: retro appeal. The old sign alone had made her want to own the darn thing. A crescent moon and sleeping baby, the name and vacancy sign all outlined incurrently inoperable neon lights. The style was pure late fifties/early sixties, with a low roof and colored, painted doors and metal railings with geometric shapes. The motel had never been remodeled before it closed in the 1980s, so it was still authentic.
Christie wasn't a remodeler or a decorator, but she knew what she liked. And she absolutely loved the decrepit Sweet Dreams Motel.
She'd already hired a contractor. Brody's Crossing mayor Toni Casale was the best, Christie had been told by several people, and she'd hit it off with the other woman, who was near her age and also a blonde. As a matter of fact, they'd shared a laugh at the fact that two blondes were doing what no men had attemptedopening the old motel, which, according to Toni, was sorely needed in a town with no rooms to rent.
She glanced at the clock. "Aren't you getting tired?" she asked Peter, who had grown bored with standing and had crawled over to his favorite toy, a plastic piano that played the most irritating electronic tunes when he hit the big, primary-color keys. To answer her question, he grinned and began pounding.
Christie hoped they didn't have any close neighbors tonight who objected to her baby's piano music.
She was going to call Cal at the ranch later and arrange a meeting. There was no sense in putting off the news any longer. Perhaps they could have lunch in a public place, like that steakhouse she'd gone to with Toni. Or the cute little café in town, although that would be much more public and people might be able to hear their conversation.
That was her big fearthat Cal would find out about Peter from someone else. That's why she'd been very careful to mention she was a widow, and not to act too interested in Cal when she'd talked to others. She'd developed a friendly relationship with Troy's fiancée, Raven, although she'd never told the other woman about Peter. They'd only talked on the phone. She'd tried to be very careful and respectful of Cal's privacy, just as she would have wanted had she been in the same situation.
Not that she'd ever expected to be a single parent. Or to have her own biological child.