Read an Excerpt
Jason Welborn stared at the young woman who had just approached the check-in desk of the local hotel in McAffee, Oklahoma. She wasn't what he expected.
With a frown, he approached her. "Miss Watson?"
The woman whirled around in surprise, the hope in her gaze quickly dying. "Yes?"
"I'm Jason Welborn, your father's partner. He had an appointment this morning that he couldn't miss. He asked me to meet you and invite you to the ranch. He'll meet us there."
"All right. As soon as I register, I'll"
"No," Jason interrupted. "Sam wanted you to come to the ranch for the length of your stay." She continued to stare at him. "If you don't mind," he added reluctantly.
Jason saw the woman pause slightly, as if she wondered whether going with him was a good idea. After taking a deep breath she collected herself, "Very well, Mr. Welborn." Then she turned and thanked the man behind the desk and said to Jason, "I can follow you to the ranch. I have a rental car."
Jason didn't think Sam had planned on her hiring a rental car. With a shrug he agreed.
He followed her out the door and took the opportunity to take a closer look at the woman he had come to meet and who he already didn't trust. She was good-looking, he'd give her that. Her dark hair was pulled back in a simple ponytail, and her features were perfect, her blue eyes remarkably like her father's. But if she was anything like her mother, from what Sam had said, she was to be avoided at all costs.
Once she was in her car, a brand-new sedan, Jason climbed into his SUV and headed down the narrow road that would lead to the ranch he shared with Sam Sanders. He'd met Sam ten years ago, long after Jennifer Watson had been taken away by her mother to live in New York. Sam had been a drunkard, wasting his life and his ranch.
Jason frowned as he recalled that night many years ago. Sam had been sure he could drive home from the bar, but Jason had driven him. Jason's own parents had died in an accident with a drunk and the pain still haunted him. Jason had made sure that Sam had gotten home safely, and their close friendship had begun that night.
Now this woman was going to hurt Sam. Jason just knew that was going to happen. A New York woman, just like her mother. He ground his teeth and fought to control his anger.
When he parked by the barn, she pulled up next to him. Jason noticed that she just sat in her car, not moving. What was wrong with her? Was she waiting for him to open her door? She probably had people who did that for her in New York. Well, not here. Jason wanted to walk away, leave her sitting in her car. But Sam had asked him to do the job.
Opening her car door, he said, "We're here Miss Watson, are you going to get out?"
She turned to stare at him. "Oh! Oh, yes It hasn't changed that much, has it?"
He stared at her. Then he turned away. She hadn't seen the place when it had been suffering from Sam's neglect. "Rachel is waiting to see you."
His words stirred her, much to his surprise. Rachel had been the housekeeper for as long as Jason had known Sam. Was she so important to Jennifer after all these years? Where did that leave Sam? "Do you think DaI mean, Samis back, too?"
"Oh, okay. I'll I'll just get my bag."
He stood there, fighting the gentlemanly behavior his mother had taught him. After she lifted her bag from the trunk of her rental car, Jason reached out and took it. Without waiting for her, he started toward the house.
When he didn't hear her following him, he turned around. "Aren't you coming, Miss Watson?"
Jason noticed that she simply stood looking up at the house, wringing her hands together as though she was nervous. Eventually she shook herself and looked Jason squarely in the eye. "Sorry. Yes! Yes, I'm coming." She started walking toward the house.
Her shoes had a low heel. Acceptable wear. In the hard-packed dirt, she was able to move all right. He couldn't fault her there. But he could fault her on her treatment of her father.
Eighteen years of silence and she shows up now to "get to know him." Why hadn't she answered his letters over the years? Why hadn't she ever called? Sam hadn't complained. At least, not to Jason. But he knew how much her absence had hurt him. And now she was back.
Just then Rachel came to the back door, watching them approach. Jason didn't know what Rachel thought about Jennifer's reappearance. She was intensely loyal to Sam, always had been, and she had stuck by him when he had hit rock bottom. Maybe she would ignore this smartly dressed young woman. Jason sure hoped so.
But his hope for Rachel's support disappeared as soon as she stepped outside the house. The young woman's face lit up and she hurried to meet Rachel.
"Oh, Rachel," she said with a sob, wrapping her arms around the housekeeper.
"Jenny," Rachel said, an uncertain smile on her face and tears in her eyes as she stepped back from the younger woman's hug to look at her. "You have certainly grown up."
"I should hope so," Jennifer said, her voice shaking. "I'm twenty-six now."
"I know, it's been so long. Come on in. I'm glad you've come."
Jenny paused before asking, "Is is he here?"
Rachel shot Jason a quick knowing look. Then she said, "No, he's not here yet."
"I'm I'm anxious to see him. Is he doing all right?"
"He's fine," Jason said, then added, "At least he was until he got your letter."
Both women turned to stare at him, but he didn't back down. He'd seen the anguish Sam had suffered when he'd read the letter that had arrived just a couple of weeks ago. Jason had feared he would reach for the nearest bottle again. But he hadn't.
Rachel led Jennifer into the kitchen and Jason followed.
"I'll take your bag up to your room," he growled.
"No!" She looked him in the eye. "I'll wait until he comes. He may prefer that I I leave."
"No, he won't, honey," Rachel assured Jennifer.
She smiled at Rachel, a small smile full of long history. "I think I should wait, anyway. He may r-regret his offer of hospitality."
An uncomfortable silence fell between the group. "How about a glass of iced tea?" Rachel said, trying to lighten the mood.
"I'd love one."
Jason set her bag against the wall. "I'll take a glass, too, Rachel, if you don't mind."
"Of course, Jason. I even made some cookies. You used to love them, Jenny."
"Your oatmeal-raisin-pecan cookies? They are so good! I've never found any like them anywhere else."
"I'm glad you remember them," Rachel said with a smile.
Jennifer looked at her. "I remember a lot."
They all heard the automobile coming down the driveway. Jason thought Jennifer would be pleased, but she seemed to freeze, staring at the back door but not moving.
Rachel walked to the window over the sink. "That's your daddy," she said to Jennifer.
As if facing a firing squad, Jennifer slowly stood, continuing to stare at the back door.
Jennifer's stomach had butterflies that were doing flips. Many years ago she'd almost made herself sick with missing her father and her home. She'd pleaded with her mother to take her back to her father's ranch. But her mother had been adamant that her father didn't want her. He would have preferred to have had a son.
Over the years Jennifer had hung on to the hope that her father would come back for her, but he never had. Maybe her mother had been right after all. The young man who claimed to be his partner was only a few years older than her. Had her father transferred his affection for Jennifer to Jason Welborn?
Was that why he'd never answered her letters? She'd worked so hard on them, pouring out her love and hope for a reunion. She'd hurried home from school each day, looking for a letter from her daddy.
Now, at twenty-six, she needed to know just what had happened all those years ago. So she had written to her father one final time, asking to meet him. She hadn't been sure he'd respond or if he'd even want to meet her. But she'd come anyway, hoping for a miracle.
The back door opened and the man she remembered, with a few more lines around his eyes and a few more gray hairs, stood in front of her. At least, she thought she remembered him. There'd been no pictures of him.
Her heart was in her mouth. Words couldn't get past that lump. She stared at him, wanting so badly to close the gap between them by rushing into his arms. But he did nothing to encourage her, and her feet remained glued to the floor.
Rachel seemed to realize her predicament. "Look, Sam, Jenny's come home."
"It hasn't been her home for eighteen years, Rachel," Sam said harshly.
Jennifer felt the blood leave her face, and she wavered, fearing she would faint. Such rejection in the face of her hopes. "Hello Sam." She didn't dare call him Dad. He'd made his feelings clear.
Jennifer slowly sat down. "I appreciate the offer to stay here. It was more than generous." Her voice didn't sound right, but it was the best she could do.
He nodded and looked away.
If he wasn't even going to look at her, then she had no reason to stay. She stood again and started for her bag. "I think I'll go back to the hotel."
"No! No, you'll stay here. I won't have the town talking about us!"
Jennifer sat back down. She couldn't stand up to receive the indictment that she felt was coming. She hadn't wanted to believe all her mother's rantings about her father, but maybe now she should.
"Do you want some iced tea, Sam?" Rachel asked.
"Yeah, that would be good." Sam moved to the table but took the seat farthest from Jennifer. As if she carried a disease.
Jason took the seat next to Sam as though he was showing what side he was on. Was he trying to prove to Jennifer how much more her father favored him over her?
Jennifer bent her head, hoping to hide the tears she felt forming in her eyes. She was beginning to think it had been a mistake to come here. How could she stay here? How could she accept her father's rejection for a second time?
"How are you, Jennifer?" Sam asked after a minute.
She blinked several times before she raised her head. "I'm fine. I I was surprised to see that the place still looks the same," she said.
"We're managing to stay afloat. But I have to warn you I don't have as much money as I used to have. If you're here to get some money, I can't give you any." He sounded angry.
Another blow. He thought she was here to take. Jennifer again swallowed the urge to leave. She knew that if she didn't fight for at least acceptance from her father, she'd have nothing.
"I didn't come to get money Sam. I just.. just thought that maybe it was time to get to know each other. We haven't seen each other in such a long time. I hoped you wouldn't mind seeing me for a little while. I'll leave as soon as you want me to go."
Sam was silent for a moment as he looked down at the table. "Okay," he agreed with no emotion. "I have to change clothes and get to work. Ask Rachel for anything you want." And he got up and left the room without even tasting the tea Rachel had fixed for him.
Jason stood and followed him.
Jennifer sat there, staring at the chair her father had occupied. She didn't realize she was crying until Rachel handed her a tissue.
"Don't cry, Jenny. It was hard for him when you left, and it's been a long time. Things can't be changed overnight."
Jennifer wiped her cheeks dry. "No I guess not." After a moment she asked, "I'm not sure I should even be here, it seems so hard between us! Should I leave, Rachel?
Would that be for the best?"
"No! Never, Jenny. Just give your dad some time. Do you need to go back to New York right away?"
"No. I quit my job when Mom died. There was so much to take care of, and I wasn't happy there. I'd always wanted to come back home."
"I'm glad you think of it as your home. Let's go get you settled in your room." Rachel stepped over to Jennifer's suitcase and picked it up. "Just follow me."
Jennifer followed Rachel up the staircase and turned right to go to her old room. When Rachel opened the door, Jennifer entered and was immediately struck by how much time had passed since she'd left the ranch. She had expected the room to look the same as it had when she'd been a little girl, but, of course all her toys were gone, except for one stuffed rabbit that rested its head on the pillows. The gaily decorated room she'd left when she was eight was now an elegant room done in shades of blue.
"I love the way you've decorated the room, Rachel," she said, pasting a smile on her face.
"We kept it the same for a long time, Jenny, but when it was obvious you weren't coming home, I changed it because because your father couldn't deal with with the memories."
It was the first sign Jennifer had that her father had any kind of emotions for her. "He missed me?"
"Of course he did! Something fierce. If Jason hadn't come along and helped him, I'm not sure he'd be alive now."
"Oh. Jason. I can tell that they're very close."
"Yes, they are. Jason has been good to your father. It would be a mistake if you tried to come between them, Jenny."
"No, Rachel, I would never do that. I knowI'm sure he's been very helpful to
"Why don't you call him Dad?"
Jennifer blew out a long breath. "I don't know, Rachel, he doesn't seem to want me to. He didn't even touch me when he saw me."
"You didn't touch him, either."
"No. I guess I was afraid to."
"Well, give it time. Why don't you unpack and come back down and then we'll talk some more."
"All right. Rachel, thank you for welcoming me. I've missed you."
Rachel hugged her. "I've missed you, too. It was a dark day when your mother took you away."
"Yeah, for me, too."