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The Powell family home, more than a century old, had been transformed. Sierra Powell stood beside the open door of her Toyota SUV, assessing every change, comparing them to how she'd last seen the house, in shocking disrepair after ten years of chronic neglect.
Trees were trimmed, the yard's abundant desert flora and fauna manicured to tidy perfection. A fresh coat of dune-colored paint on the house's exterior gleamed to eye-squinting intensity in the midafternoon sun. Terra-cotta bricks lined the walkways to the front courtyard and back patio, resembling spectators at a parade.
The refurbishings pleased Sierra. It had taken a long time for her family to rebound from the emotional and financial ruin left in the wake of her mother's illness and death. These improvements to the house, she knew, mirrored the ones in her father and two brothers.
She envied them. The Powell men were healed and happy and well on the way to creating wonderful, exciting new lives for themselves while she had never been so terrified of the future or felt so alone.
What if her family rejected her? They certainly had good causeshe'd practically shunned them for almost two years. Now she'd returned, not just for her brothers' double wedding but to ask for her family's help, their love, their support, and, if they could see fit to give it, their forgiveness.
It wouldn't be easy. Sierra had made a lot of mistakes.
She stared at the back patio, working up the courage to head inside where her family and future sisters-in-law waited. Everyone was expecting her, possibly intending to confront her. There would be questions, especially when they saw the unexpected "guest" Sierra had brought with her and heard her request totemporarily, she assured herselfmove home.
By some miracle she'd been able to stand outside this long without being noticed. Maybe no one was home. She immediately dismissed that idea. Someone would be here to greet her. Her father at least, who'd insisted she come home for her brothers' double wedding.
Her brothers, Gavin and Ethan, could be elsewhere on the ranchleading trail rides, teaching riding classes or otherwise making themselves scarce so she and her father could have a few minutes alone. She had hurt him the worst and owed him the biggest apology. It was he who had the power to grant or deny her request to stay.
Sierra might have been lost in thought indefinitely if not for a noise coming from inside her car. She opened the rear driver's-side door and stuck her head inside.
"Hey, handsome. You awake? How was your nap?"
Her son waved his pudgy fists and broke into a delighted grin that displayed six new teeth. His hazel eyes, the image of his father's, beamed at her as he babbled incoherently.
Her heart promptly broke open and spilled a torrent of love as it did every time he smiled or gurgled or nuzzled into her neck and sighed with baby contentment.
"Thank God I have you back," she murmured for the thousandth time, a catch in her voice, the wound within her still raw.
She didn't know what she'd done to deserve this reprieve.
This gift. This chance to right past wrongs. But she was bound and determined to turn her life around and make the best one possible for her and her son. If she needed to get on her hands and knees and beg her family, she would. He was that important to her.
"Let's clean you up a bit before we meet the folks." Using a cotton cloth, she wiped the smudges of dirt from his face and hands. "There. All better."
He kicked his feet, which were clad in white socks and brand-new red sneakers she'd recently purchased. In fact, she'd recently purchased all his clothes, the car seat, a portable crib and every necessity a child his age needed.
She reached onto the seat beside him and retrieved his favorite toy from where it had fallen. He grabbed the plastic pony and waved it in the air as if to say, Where have you been? I was looking for you, and stuffed the pony's entire head in his mouth.
With trembling fingers, Sierra unbuckled the car-seat straps. The distraction of caring for her son had worn off. She was once again dreading the prospect of facing her family.
They love you, she told herself. They will love Jamie, too.
But was it enough to make up for the last two years of shameful avoidance?
Drawing a deep breath, she hefted Jamie into her arms. When he was securely balanced on her hip and the diaper bag was slung over her shoulder, she picked her way slowly up the brick-lined walk to the back patio.
The kitchen door loomed ahead, the outline wavering as if she were seeing it though a very long tunnel. Her flats made scuffing sounds on the dirt and then clip-clopped across the Saltillo tiles, each beat matching her pounding heart.
Thank goodness she didn't have to worry about Jamie's father being anywhere near Mustang Valley. The last she'd heard, which was soon after their too-brief affair ended, he was married and living in Austin, Texas. Sierra had taken a risk returning to Arizona, but a small one so long as he stayed far, far away.
And she needed that distance, for her sake more than their son's. His betrayalshe couldn't think of it any other wayhad shattered her. Granted, she'd been naive. That in no way made it acceptable for him to take advantage of her.
She reached the kitchen door and found it slightly ajar. Odd.
Knocking, she called, "Hello! Dad?" When there was no answer, she knocked again.
The door drifted open a few more inches. Sierra nudged it the rest of the way and stepped tentatively inside.
"Hello. Anybody home?"
The only answer she received was the soft humming of the refrigerator and the whirr of the slowly twirling ceiling fan over the kitchen table.
She frowned. This was more than strange. Her family knew she was coming. Heck, she'd called her father not an hour ago letting him know her anticipated arrival time.
She ventured farther in. It was then she noticed a large sheet cake in the center of the counter. Inching closer, she read the message scrawled with blue icing.
Welcome Home, Sissy. Her family's pet name for her.
Was it possible they weren't angry with her after all?
A dam broke, and the relief washing over her was so intense it stole every ounce of strength from her knees. She reached for the counter to steady herself before the combined weight of Jamie and the diaper bag dragged her to the floor.
"Surprise!" The resounding chorus of voices erupted from nowhere, echoing loudly off the walls. People, so many of them, converged on her from around corners and down the hall.
Sierra's entire body jerked in response, out of alarm and fear. This wasn't how it was supposed to happen. "You're here, honey!"
"We've missed you!"
Jamie screwed up his mouth and started to wail. Holding on to her, he hid his beet-red face in her sweater. His beloved toy pony dropped to the floor, along with the diaper bag.
The room went instantly silent, like a TV when the mute button was pressed. Even Jamie stopped crying and turned teary eyes to the gathering of people gawking at him.
A young girl of about six or seven whom Sierra didn't recognize broke the silence with an excited, "You have a baby! Can I hold him?" She scrambled over to Sierra, her angelic face alight. "I'm Isa, your niece. Or I'm going to be your niece when my mama marries your brother."
"Hello, Isa." Sierra had trouble speaking and cleared her throat. "I've heard a lot about you."
Actually, Sierra had heard only a smattering about her future stepniece. She might have heard more if she'd answered her family's phone calls or read their emails.
Glancing around the kitchen, she took in the puzzled and shocked expressions on everyone's faces. Except for Isa, they kept their distance, as if waiting for someone else to break the ice.
What had she expected? She'd brought a fourteen-month-old child home with her, and had given them no warning.
Her oldest brother, Gavin, studied her with his usual seriousness. As a girl, she had been intimidated by that look. Living on her own since she was seventeen apparently made no difference.
Ethan, younger than Gavin by two years, nodded encouragingly at her. He'd always been there for herexcept for when their mother had died almost a decade ago, and he'd run off to join the marines.
Everyone else was a blur. Some she recognized, like Ethan's fiancée, Caitlin. Others, she didn't.
"I like babies." Isa reached up to tickle Jamie under his chin.
He flailed and turned his head away from her. Isa pouted.
"He's a little shy," Sierra explained.
"Well, well." Her father finally came forward, breaking the trance that had fallen over everyone. The reserved smile he presented reassured Sierra not in the least. "Why don't you introduce us to this young man."
"Dad," Sierra said shakily, "this is Jamie. My my son." Her hand instinctively cradled the side of the baby's head as if to shield him.
Her father's reserved smile dissolved into one that warmed her through and through. "I have a grandson. Oh, Sierra." He opened his arms.
She went to him, let him hug her and Jamie and, temporarily, set right a world that had been completely out of control for almost two years.
"I'm so sorry," she murmured into his shirtfront.
"Don't be. Everything's going to be fine. You'll see."
She wanted to believe him, and dared to let herself.
Jamie squirmed and started to cry.
Sierra drew back, reluctant to leave the comfort of her father's embrace. "He's hungry. I'd better fix him something to eat."
"Can I hold him while you do?" her father asked.
"He doesn't like" She'd started to say strangers. Not wanting to hurt her father's feelings, she changed it to "New people."
He held open his arms. Jamie stared at them, a dubious frown knitting his otherwise perfectly smooth brow. When his grandfather clapped his hands and held them open again, Jamie twisted and reached for Sierra. Her father's smile fell.
"He'll get used to you in a day or two," she reassured him, though, in truth, she didn't know what to expect. She and Jamie were still getting to know each other.
Her brothers came over next. Ethan's hug was enthusiastic. Gavin's less so. He loved her, but he was also angry at her for the pain she'd caused them and slower to let go of hard feelings.
"I'm so happy for you both," she said. "I can't wait for the wedding."
That seemed to ease the tension. More introductions were made. Sierra greeted Caitlin warmly, having known Ethan's fiancée since grade school. Sage, Gavin's fiancée, impressed Sierra with her genuineness.
"Your son is beautiful." Sage patted Jamie's leg.
He jerked his leg out of her reach.
Sierra smiled apologetically. "He's hungry and a little cranky."
While she warmed a jar of baby vegetable stew in the microwave, Jamie, still sitting on her hip, polished off a bottle of apple juice. Everyone began talking again, thank goodness.
After a while, Gavin's daughter, Cassie, came over. "I'm a good babysitter if you ever need one."
"Thanks." Sierra patted the girl's shoulder. "I'll keep that in mind."
She hadn't met Cassie before. The twelve-year-old had only come to live at the ranch last summer. Sierra noticed the affectionate glances Gavin sent his daughter from across the room. Maybe one day she'd have the same loving relationship with Jamie.
"It's so nice to have another baby in the family," Caitlin said, joining Sierra at the table where she fed Jamie.
"Sage is four months along, and I'm two."
"You're both pregnant!"
Sage dropped into the remaining empty chair. "Yes, so I guess it's a good thing the wedding's soon! I wouldn't fit into my dress otherwise."
"Congratulations." Sierra observed the joy in their faces and felt a pang of regret. Her face had been a mask of sorrow all during her pregnancy.
"Is Jamie's father in San Francisco?" Caitlin asked.
Sierra tensed. She'd prepared herself for this question on the long drive. "He's not part of mine or Jamie's lives. I'm raising him alone."
She couldn't tell her family the truth. If they ever found out Jamie's father was the son of the man who'd stolen their land and sold it to an investor, they'd disown Sierra and toss her and Jamie out on their rear ends.
Near the end of the meal, Sierra excused herself and went to the hall bathroom to clean up Jamie and change him.
On her way back, she was stopped outside the kitchen by a chorus of hearty welcomes and the sound of a voice that instantly ignited wave after wave of panic.
Impossible! This couldn't be happening.
He was in Texas. And even if he wasn't, her family hated him. He wouldn't be allowed on the property, much less to set foot in the house.
"Sissy, come see who's here," her brother Ethan called to her.
She trembled so violently, she nearly dropped Jamie. He made it worse by wriggling.
"Hey." Ethan came around the corner. "Is something wrong?"
"What's he doing here?" she hissed.
"Clay? He came to see you."
"He's a friend."
"No, he isn't. His dad cheated us. You hate him. We all do."
"Since when?" she squeaked.
"Since we captured the wild mustang last fall. It's a long story, I'll tell you after the party." Ethan hooked her by the elbow and gave a tug.
She refused to budge.
"Come on. You haven't seen Clay since before Mom died." Not true.
Ethan all but dragged her and Jamie into the kitchen where she stumbled into her chair, praying for invisibility. Her family and Clay were friends again? How could that be? In every scenario she'd devised, he'd been a thousand miles away.
He strode farther into the kitchen.
Please, please, don't come over here, she silently prayed.
Of course, he did, and she steeled herself.
"Hi, Sierra." His smile was friendly, his voice deep and honeyed like she remembered.
She looked up at himhow could she not?and stared into the face of her baby's father. Her heart, open with love for her son and the recent reconciliation with her family, promptly closed tight.