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"What in the world?"
Up to her elbows in pink ribbons and last-minute wedding favors, Marianne Weston looked around the decorated yard to find the source of a persistent drone that was getting louder by the second. When she realized it was coming from overhead, she glanced up at the cloudless sky. The sound seemed to be racing the midmorning sun, and she shaded her eyes to look toward the east. Squinting against the sunlight, she saw a blue-and-yellow biplane barreling toward the Sawyer family farm.
So low it had to be clipping the trees, she thought for sure the plane was going to crash in the front hayfield. As she watched in amazement, it soared no more than six feet over the large white farmhouse, rocking its wings as if the maneuver was an everyday occurrence. It made a graceful loop before coming in to land in a fallow cornfield.
After that, nothing. She wasn't close enough to see what the pilot was doing, but she knew he had to be her brother Matt's best man. She'd never met Ridge Collins, and something told her this wouldn't be your run-of-the-mill introduction.
Marianne put out the last of the ribbon-tied candy bags and headed up to welcome him. Several chickadees chattered at her from their home in one of the eaves as she passed by the flower-draped front porch. She strolled up the gentle slope, assessing the situation as she went. Life had taught her to be cautious, but the man's unusual appearance had definitely piqued her curiosity.
Just as she topped the rise, the pilot popped up from his seat like a jack-in-the-box, his boots clanging as he descended the ladder attached to the side of the plane. Bracing his hand on the side, he looked underneath, then stepped back and folded his arms. After a few seconds, he was apparently satisfied.
"Thanks for a quick ride, girl," he said, patting the plane as if it were a horse who'd just given him a good run. "I'm late, so your rubdown will have to wait."
The man talked to his plane, Marianne thought with a smile. No wonder Matt had never introduced him to the family.
As she approached, she wasn't sure how to greet him, so she went with something light. "That was quite a landing."
When he turned to face her, her heart skipped a couple of beats. When it started up again, she had to remind herself to breathe.
He looked like he'd just stepped out of Pearl Harbor, one of her favorite movies. His battered leather jacket had a faded animal on the front, and his threadbare jeans had seen much better days. Mirrored aviator sunglasses completed the image. She could almost hear sweeping orchestra music welcoming the hero home.
A friend from Matt's wilder days, Ridge held himself with relaxed confidence. Rugged and independent, he was handsome in a rough-and-tumble kind of way. While they stood looking at each other, Marianne wondered how many women had lost their hearts to this man.
Fortunately, logic returned and set her back on her usual even keel. Intriguing as this man might be, she wasn't one to blindly follow her heart anymore. Her ex-husband had cured her of her romantic streak a long time ago.
It wasn't exactly the reception he'd expected.
According to Matt, his tiny North Carolina hometown was full of gossips and busybodies but was the sort of place that greeted everyone with open arms. Even during the years he'd avoided his sad memories of home, Matt had told him how friendly and open his family was.
So Ridge felt a little awkward standing there while this very pretty woman studied him like a specimen on a tray. The breeze ruffled her honey-gold hair, and her icy-blue eyes stared him down like a gunfighter's. Then he realized he was still wearing his sunglasses.
He dropped them to hang from their braided cord and smiled as he offered his hand. "Ridge Collins."
She took his hand without hesitation, but he got the feeling her smile was a bit forced. "Marianne Weston. Welcome to Harland."
It was the kind of tone people reserved for annoying salesmen, but Ridge did his best to ignore it. He was later than he'd promised, after all, and he hadn't called. In his experience, women hated it when he made excuses.
" Sorry I'm late. The weather got kinda nasty west of here."
"You put on quite a show coming in that way," she said as a screen door slammed.
Ridge glanced at the house to find two kids headed their way. The boy was in a gray suit, complete with navy tie. Wearing a pouf of a pink dress, the little girl made him think of a sugarplum fairy. Freshly scrubbed and polished, they looked ready for a wedding. Too bad he didn't, he chided himself. Then Marianne might have been a little happier to see him.
"A big part of my business is aerial tours," he explained. "Folks love to see what the old girl can do."
Her brittle tone sent up a red flag, and he backpedaled like a center fielder at Yankee Stadium. "Some of 'em."
She nailed him with a glare. "You scared me half to death, skimming over my house like that."
"I apologize. I left a big buffer, but it must've looked closer from the ground."
Based on her peeved look, he'd expected more of a lashing. Something apparently changed her mind, though, and her disapproval melted into a beautiful smile. The difference was striking, and he wished he knew which button he'd just pushed. He wouldn't mind seeing that smile again.
"No harm done, I guess. I'm just glad you got here safely." She motioned toward the boy standing a respectful couple of feet away. "This is my son, Kyle, and this" she held an arm out to the adorable princess "is Emily. Kids, this is Mr.
"Ridge is fine." Reaching out, he shook Kyle's hand before hunkering down in front of Emily to avoid towering over her. Offering his hand, he grinned. "Your Uncle Matt's told me a lot about you. It's nice to finally meet you guys."
Emily was a miniature version of her mother, and she assessed him with a curious look as she shook his hand. "Ridge is kind of a funny name."
Marianne clicked her tongue, but Ridge chuckled. "Actually, it's worse than that. My mom named me for Breckenridge, Colorado, the town we were living in when I was born." He saw Kyle edging closer, and he glanced up at him. "Good thing we weren't living in Albuquerque, huh?" he added with a wink.
The kid responded with a gap-toothed grin, then looked pointedly at the plane. "How come your plane has Betsy written on it?"
"She's named for my grandmother."
"Well, it was kind of a wreck when Grandpa brought it home. He named it after her so she wouldn't kill him."
"What's this?" Emily asked, pointing at the front of his jacket.
"A wolf." He shifted to show her the full-size version on the back. "My great-grandfather flew in the Wolf Pack in World War Two."
"Is this his plane?" Kyle asked, eyes wide with amazement.
"No, but it's the same kind he trained in."
Kyle opened his mouth for another question, but his mother cut him off. "I'm sure Mr. Collins is tired from his trip. Why don't we bring him inside and get him something to eat?"
The mother-hen comment made him remember something. "That sounds great, but I have to make a call first." He swept a hand in Betsy's general direction. "Go ahead and have a look."
The kids didn't have to be asked twice, and he enjoyed watching them gawk at his pride and joy. When he caught Marianne frowning at the plane, he assumed she was angry with him for landing at the farm. With the wedding only a couple of hours away, he understood.
"Matt said it was okay to fly in here," he said. "But I can head to the airstrip outside of town if you'd rather."
"No, it's fine." Sighing, she shook her head. "When your response card said you were bringing Betsy, I thought she was your date."
At first, he didn't get it. When the significance of the misunderstanding hit him, he felt terrible. "And you ordered her a meal."
"There was no food preference, so I went with the chicken."
A laugh was threatening, but she seemed like the serious type, and he didn't want to insult her. "Sorry about that. I figured Matt would know I was flying out here."
After a second, humor warmed her eyes to the color of a flawless summer sky. "I guess I should've chosen high-test."
They both laughed, and he was relieved that their awkward first meeting had turned into something more positive.
"Excuse me a minute." He took his cell phone from the pocket of his jeans. When Marianne started to move away, he waved her back. "No need to leave. Mom was worried about the weather, so I promised to call her when I landed."
He punched up her number and waited for the call to connect. "Your mother is number one on your speed dial?" Marianne asked.
He chuckled. "She wouldn't have it any other way. Hey, there. Yeah, I'm fine." He paused, then chuckled again. "Yes, I'm telling the truth. Okay, hang on."
Holding up the phone, he snapped a picture of himself in front of Betsy and hit Send. While he waited for the picture message to go through, he sighed. He loved his mom to pieces, but she worried about him way too much. For her birthday, he'd gotten her a cute fox terrier to dote on, but it hadn't changed anything. He still flew, and she still worried. It was kind of comforting, in a way. No matter how old he got, he'd always be her boy.
"Believe me now? Good. Give your little ankle biter a treat for me." He grinned. "Love you more. See you in a couple weeks."
He hit the off button and noticed Marianne's expression. Since he'd just met her, he couldn't be sure about it, but she seemed to like what she'd heard. "Moms. What can you do?"
"We are what we are."
"I'm real sorry I didn't call to tell you about my change in plans," Ridge apologized again.
She waved it away as she took Emily's hand and turned toward the house. "We're used to it."
As he followed Marianne and the kids insidecarrying his duffel bag and suit carrierRidge admired the setting for his best friend's wedding. The garden out front was magazine-perfect, with a rose-covered trellis and round tables scattered around the expansive side yard. Each one was draped in linen and held a vase overflowing with flowers. There were several racks covered in tarps. He assumed they were for the folding chairs, and he made a mental note to help put them away later.
With the kind of efficiency that came from lots of practice, Marianne pulled out snacks and juice boxes, then set glasses and a pitcher of sweet tea on the table. Ridge decided it was best to get out what he wanted to say.
"Matt told me about your father passing last year. I'm so sorry."
"Thank you," she said as she'd probably done a million times since his sudden death. Her eyes went to the empty chair at the head of the table. "We really miss him."
Ridge wished he could say the same about his own father. Unfortunately, when the abusive drunk who'd made his childhood a living nightmare died a few years ago, it took every ounce of compassion he had not to celebrate.
While she sliced up some great-smelling banana bread, he filled glasses with ice and tea for both of them. After a long swallow, he grinned his appreciation. "I've been out west the last month. I really missed this stuff."
That got him a gracious smile. "There's always plenty, so help yourself."
"Southern hospitality," he complimented her as he refilled his glass. "Gotta love it."
"Don't get used to it, city boy."
Ridge glanced over to find Matt Sawyer filling the doorway. Dressed in a gray suit with a buttoned-up white shirt and burgundy tie, Matt looked a lot different from the last time Ridge had seen him. Of course, that had been a trip to Vegas he suspected Matt's family knew nothing about.
Laughing, Ridge shook his old buddy's hand. "I won't, believe me. Betsy and I don't fare well if we're in one place too long."
Matt took the sweet tea Marianne handed him and drained it in three gulps. "Thanks, Mare."
"When did you finish up the haying last night?"
Matt squinted at the schoolhouse clock on the wall. "Two, I think. There's a lot more to do, but I've done all I can."
"We need some more help around here," she commented with a worried frown.
"Can't afford it. Speaking of help, that reminds me," he said to Ridge. "I rustled up some dusting contracts for you. Starting with us Monday morning. Did you talk to John?"
"Your little brother said I can stay with him while I'm in town. He was really cool about it."
"Not much bothers John." Matt glanced at his sister and apparently read the very obvious disdain on her face. "What?"
She didn't respond, just stood there with her arms folded and giving him The Look. After a few seconds, understanding dawned, and he chuckled. Ridge didn't remember Matt having much of a sense of humor, and he suspected the bride had something to do with his buddy's new lighthearted view of things.
"Forgot to tell you Ridge was staying here, didn't I?" Matt asked his sister.