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Churning white-water rapids, treacherous black slopes, amateur bronc riding. Until recently, Trent Baker had dared much, accustomed to triumphing over obstacles. Nothing, however, had prepared him for the reality of being a single father.
"Kylie, honey, you'll be late for school."
"I've got to find it, Daddy. Mommy said it looks pretty."
Curbing his impatience, Trent slumped against the wall of the pink-and-white bedroom while his seven-year-old daughter emptied the contents of her musical jewelry box, hunting for the elusive barrette she insisted was the only one that matched her outfitpink leotards and a purple-and-pink flowered turtleneck. They'd already searched her dresser drawers, the floor of her closet and the bathroom cabinet.
"Here it is!" She pirouetted to face him, her cornflower-blue eyes alight. She handed him her hairbrush, then plopped onto her bed. "Fix me."
Her innocent words stabbed him. Doing his daughter's hair was challenge enough. Other things, regretfully, went far beyond "fixable."
Kylie sat quietly as he drew the brush through her straight, silky blond hair, so like her mother's. Fumbling with the barrette clasp, Trent wished for the umpteenth time that little girls came with instruction manuals. His clumsy fingers could scarcely wrap around the purple plastic bow. "How's that?" he said at last.
She jumped up to inspect herself in the mirror.
Trent sighed. Ashley would have done it perfectly. "Get your coat, honey."
Her look let him know he'd failed as a hairdresser, but to his relief, she walked to the hall closet, where he helped her into her parka, careful not to disturb the all-important barrette.
Dragging her book bag behind her, she followed him from their first-floor condominium to his extended-cab pickup, engine and defroster already running. After settling Kylie in the backseat, Trent scraped the remaining ice and snow from the windshield. "Warm enough?" he asked as he climbed behind the wheel.
Kylie merely shrugged, folding her arms around her body and ducking her head, her lower lip thrust out.
With slight variations, the same thing happened each morning. Today the delaying tactic was the lost barrette. Other times she complained of a stomachache, refused to eat breakfast or gave him the silent treatment, as she was doing now. He fought the familiar panic. He had no idea what to do for herwith her.
Ashley had always known. But Ashley wasn't here. Would never be here. And back then Kylie had been a model child.
Her behavior was natural, the school counselor had told him. Children handled grief in different ways, an aversion to school being one of them. Or withdrawal. Controlling behavior. Acting out.
Trent glanced in the rearview mirror. Eyes downcast, Kylie stared at her clasped hands. She looked fragile, defenseless, lonely.
His grip tightened on the steering wheel. It wasn't fair. Vibrant, beautiful Ashley wasting away, ravaged by the relentless leukemia he'd been powerless to stop. Nearly a year had passed, and still their condo echoed with her absence. The leukemia had sent a message loud and clear. Trent Baker no longer controlled his life. Man, he couldn't even find a way to help Kylie. Some kind of father he was.
A sullen voice from the backseat jarred him. "I'm not going."
He struggled for a neutral tone. "We've discussed this, Kylie. You are going. It's the law."
"I hate you!" He couldn't bring himself to glimpse in the mirror once more and see the belligerence that he knew sparked in his daughter's eyes.
"That's too bad. I love you." Pulling in to the driveway of the school, he noted that most of the children had already been dropped off. While Kylie unbuckled her seat belt, he spoke soothingly. "Try to enjoy yourself. Give school a chance. You just might like it." He mustered a grin, which was met with the withering scorn of a pint-size cynic.
Kylie scrambled from the car, and without a backward glance trudged toward the school entrance. By afternoon, her teacher had told him, Kylie would be fine, but with a fatalism born of experience, he knew that the cycle would repeat itself tomorrow morning.
It didn't help that after school she would be bussed to a day-care center and then picked up by her grandmother until he got off work. Or that the cold Montana winter kept her confined to the condominium much of the rest of the time. Or that his rental agreement prohibited pets.
But even if he could have addressed all those issues, he still wouldn't be able to provide the one thing she needed mosther mother.
Libby Cameron shrugged into her goose-down coat, gathered the tote bag loaded with graded papers, locked the door and carefully made her way down the ice-covered steps of her house toward the Suburban SUV waiting at the curb. "Brr," she said as she climbed into the passenger seat. "Cold morning in Whitefish."
Doug Travers grinned. "What's a little bracing Montana air?" He picked up her gloved hand. "Especially when I'm with such a pretty woman."
The scent of expensive aftershave and new-car leather mingled with the welcome warmth from the heater. "Thanks for taking me to work. One of the other teachers will drop me off at the garage after school to pick up my car."
"Sure I can't help?" The eagerness in Doug's voice was unmistakable.
She studied his profilefirm chin, full lips, Roman nose, high forehead, prematurely receding hairline. Handsome in a successful-executive kind of way. A good man. Dependable. Family-oriented.
Libby had been surprised when Mary Travers, principal of the elementary school where she taught, had suggested the blind date with her son. Initially Libby had resisted, reluctant to consider dating after several dead-end relationships. And she most certainly did not want to entertain that ridiculous fantasy called romance. In fact, living alone was a bargain compared to being with the wrong man. She was no fool, and experience had been a powerful teacher. Yet slowly but surely, Doug had ingratiated himself with her. He had been a total gentleman in the six months they'd been dating, and much as she hated to admit it, having an escort for movies, community functions and faculty parties was pleasant.
"Lib, I was able to get tickets to the symphony in Missoula this weekend. I thought we could run down there, have a fancy dinner, take in the concert, maybe stay at this new bed-and-breakfast I heard about."
Her palms moistened in her suddenly over-warm gloves. Was it her imagination or had he deftly slipped in that last part about the B and B? She found herself stammering, "I the concert Who's the guest artist?"
He gave her a puzzled look before answering. "A cellist from Prague."
"Oh." Say something, she urged herself.
"Saturday," he said evenly as he pulled into the faculty parking lot.
She scrambled to hook her arm through the handles of her tote. "Let me think about it."
He stayed her departure with a hand on her forearm. "Lib, are you worried about the B and B?"
Her mouth went dry as week-old chalk dust. "I didn't quite know what to think." She must sound ridiculous. Any thirty-plus woman in northwest Montana would jump at the chance to spend a weekend with Doug Travers. By any standards, he was a catch. A successful insurance agent accustomed to nice things, generous with his money, a doting son and uncle. She wished.
"I can book separate rooms," he said.
Libby swallowed. "That would be nice." She stepped from the car. "All right, then. I'll look forward to it."
As she stood in the overcast early morning watching him drive off, an unsettled feeling lodged in her stomach. Up to now their relationship had been.comfortable.
The cold December wind whipped the ends of her scarf, mocking the word. What normal, red-blooded man wanted to settle for comfortable?
Why couldn't she offer more?
She knew the answer. Don't go there, she muttered as she sought the sanctuary of her brightly decorated classroom, where the giggles, hugs and infectious enthusiasm of second-graders made her come alive in a way nothing else had since.
Idiot! Absolutely do not go there.
Trent rested on his haunches, surveying the French doors he'd just installed in the monstrous family room. Through the glass he could see the city of Billings, then, across the Yellowstone River, the sweep of prairie shadowed by dark, heavy clouds. Behind him in the kitchen, his father-in-law conferred with the demanding home owners, who were belatedly requesting yet another change in the specifications. Trent groaned. He didn't understand how Gus stood it, but as his father-in-law frequently reminded him, building a custom house meant exactly thatfulfilling the customer's expectations, no matter how inconvenient or frivolous.
Tool chest in hand, Trent moved to the guest bedroom, out of earshot. Plugging in his sander, he worked on shelves for a built-in bookcase. Even before his friend Chad's phone call last week, he'd wondered how much longer he could last as a home builder. Not that he hadn't appreciated Gus Chisholm's employment offer at the time. When Trent had met Ashley, he was coming off a series of jobs that included ski instructor, rafting guide, ranch hand and carpenter. He'd known he had to settle down if he wanted to marry her. Up to that point, though, he'd concentrated on fun and adventure, unwilling to commit to the hazy notion of "career."
But soon after they got married, she'd discovered she was pregnant, catching both of them off guard.
Gus's offer to have Trent join him in his business building luxury homes had been a gift, and he didn't want to think about what he and Ashley would've done without the company medical insurance when Ashley got sick. But more and more lately, Trent realized he didn't have the patience for the construction business or the diplomacy to massage the egos of wealthy, demanding clients.
Was now the time to make a change? Chad Larraby, his best friend since boyhood, needed a partner in order to buy out Swan Mountain Adventures, an outfitter in their hometown of Whitefish that offered seasonal excursions rafting, hunting, fishing, hiking, backpacking and mountain biking. It was the perfect job opportunity. He and Chad had always made a great team, whether it was pulling off a spectacular high-school prank or combining their scoring talents to win the league basketball championship. There was no one Trent trusted more.
He pinched his nose, permanently crooked from an opposing center's elbow. Back then, he and Chad were convinced the world had been invented for pleasure, and they had taken every opportunity to test that belief. Now? Chad was married with a son and a daughter, and both men took fatherhood seriously. Although miles apart, they'd tried to stay in touch, but since Ashley's death, Trent had especially missed his friend's ready laugh and common sense. Chad's was an offer he had to consider. The work would satisfy both his zest for adventure and his need to secure the future.
But what would a move back to Whitefish or anywhere for that matterdo to Kylie? Was it fair to uproot her from her grandparents?
It wasn't a question of finances. He and Ashley had set aside considerable savings, hoping to buy a house, and Gus had been generous with bonuses. There was also the money from Ashley's life insurance policy, which he hadn't been able to bring himself to touch. But if it bought him and Kylie a better future?
With the palm of his hand he tested the newly sanded shelf, then nodded with satisfaction. Chad's offer seemed perfect for him.
Except for one thing.
If he moved back to the Glacier Park area of Montana, inevitably he would run into Libby.