Read an Excerpt
Until one month ago, Alyson Anderson hadn't even known that Etta Forester existed. Now she was sitting on a street just outside the small town of Dawson, Oklahoma, squinting through the windshield of her car at a yellow Victorian house with white gingerbread trim, shrubs that were pruned and flower gardens overflowing with pastel blooms.
She pulled her car into the driveway next to the house and parked. For a moment she sat there, not sure what her next move should be. Her hands shook on the steering wheel and her insides were quaking.
A mower reverberated in the quiet afternoon, and rolling down the window, Alyson could smell fresh-cut grass. She had lived in a lot of places, but never in a place like this.
Never in a place so quiet. She stepped out of her car, pulling off her sunglasses and clutching her purse under her arm. This was it, the moment she had been planning in her mind for nearly a week.
No, she'd been planning something like this for years. She had always planned to walk away someday. She'd been saving for this and waiting until the time was right, until no one else was depending on her.
Because she'd tried once before, but it had been a day on the road and she'd felt guilty because other performers, younger kids, had depended on her for guidance. No one else understood what they were going through, not like she did.
The mower she'd heard got louder.
A man walked around the corner of the house pushing it, not paying attention to her. She watched as he stopped and moved the garden hose, still not seeing her. She liked that, that he didn't notice her.
She liked watching him, a man in jeans, work boots and a stained T-shirt. A gardener perhaps. A gardener who looked a lot like England's Prince Harry, whom she'd met only twice. This man was older, but with the same light reddish-blond hair, the same tawny complexion.
He looked up, ending her quiet reflection. He killed the engine on the mower and paused, staring at her as if she was some type of unknown species.
He took off leather work gloves and half stuffed them in the front pocket of his jeans. He walked toward her, with a slight limp, smiling, looking like Harry, but more mature, with more defined features. His smile was just as charming, with a little spark of mischief.
She'd had enough of charming to last her a lifetime. Charming wasn't loyal. Charming ran off with another woman. Instead of tears, she unearthed a healthy dose of anger that made the betrayal easier to deal with.
"Can I help you?" He stopped just feet away.
"I'm here to see Etta Forester."
"Etta isn't here." His eyes narrowed, drawing in his nearly blond brows.
"She isn't?" That hadn't been one of the scenarios she'd played through her mind during the two-day drive to Oklahoma. She glanced around, at the green lawn, the big house, the fields behind the house. "She has to be here."
Rejection had been a scenario she'd worked through, and she'd even felt angry when the image of the woman she had never met told Alyson she wasn't welcome here. She had worked through indifference, in case that was the reaction. She had even played through a scene in her mind in which she was welcomed with open arms.
But Etta not being here—that wasn't something she had planned on.
"She's in Florida. She's always in Florida until the end of June." He looked at his watch. "She'll be home in about four weeks."
He knew more than Alyson did. And she still didn't know his name. But then again, he didn't know hers. And he didn' t know that her heart had an empty space, and her hands wouldn't cooperate on the piano keys. He didn't know that her father had been raised in this house.
But maybe he did know that. He didn't know that she might have been raised here, had things been different. Whatever different meant.
She thought he probably knew that her father was dead. A man she'd never met, the loss tightened in her throat, aching in her heart, hurting worse than losing Dan.
"Are you okay?" He took a step closer, watching her with brown eyes that were deep and earthy. He continued to stare. She was so tired of being the center of attention, the elephant in the room.
She was that dust collector that got put on a shelf, the odd thing that everyone talked about, wondered where it had come from and why it was there. Sometimes they wondered how it worked. If it quit working, they wondered about that, too.
She was obviously broken. Or maybe cracked. Who would ever know if she was cracked, since they'd never thought she was normal to begin with?
He had asked if she was okay. What did she tell a stranger? How much did she tell? She'd always kept conversations to a minimum—it saved a lot of explanation. She smiled, "I'm fine, just unsure."
The unsure part had fallen into the "too much" category. She was a social moron, inept, unable to carry on a conversation without spacing out, going in odd directions that caused her mother to give her "the look."
If she'd thought that being in Oklahoma would suddenly make her normal, she'd been way off. Being here, in middle America, didn't make her the person who suddenly fit in.
"Well?" He continued to watch her, so she smiled, as if everything were okay. And it wasn't. Her legs were trembling and she didn't know what to do with the rest of her life.
She was twenty-eight and a has-been.
"Where do I go from here? I mean, I really didn't think about her not being here. I planned on staying with her."
"And you didn't call?"
No, she hadn't called. She hadn't wanted a rejection on the telephone. She had wanted to escape. If it couldn't be here, it would be somewhere else.
No matter what, she was going to find a place where she could discover who she was. Not knowing about this part of her past, she had thought this would be the best place to start fitting the puzzle of her life together.
"No, I didn't call. It was going to be a surprise."
He liked surprises. Jason Bradshaw started to tell her that, and that he also knew how to listen if she wanted to talk. She looked like a woman who needed someone to talk to. She also looked a lot like Andie Forester. But Andie was wild, a little out of control and somewhere in Colorado running that crazy horse of hers around barrels.
This woman was dressed in a shell-pink cashmere sweater, dove-gray pants, and shoes so pointed he wondered how she got her toes shoved into them. She looked hot, not fashionably hot, but sweltering in the Oklahoma heat kind of hot. And she looked pretty unhappy.
Beautiful but unhappy, with pale ivory skin, clear-blue eyes and feathery blond hair that hung to her shoulders. Back in the day, he had flirted with women like her and they would either smile and give him a look that invited more flirting, or they gave him the look she'd just given him. It was the "rolled up newspaper on the nose" look, meant to send him back to a corner or under the table.
Not much had sent him running back then. He'd dated, never thinking about the future, settling down or maybe even having a family. He'd thought about riding the next bull, dating the next woman, getting to the next event.
Until God reined him in.
"I'm sure Etta would have liked the surprise." Jason finally came up with something to say. The woman standing in front of him looked about to wilt. Had she told him her name? "Do you want a glass of ice water? I have the key."
He pulled the key to the house out of his pocket and held it up. She glanced at it, and then at the front door, and something lit up in her eyes, something like hopefulness. He wasn't sure what to do with her.
"Who'd you say you're here to see?"
She shot him a look and he knew that had been the wrong question.
Something that sounded like Beethoven rang from inside her purse. He looked at the pink leather bag that probably cost more than most people spent on groceries in a week and waited for her to answer. She stared at him, like she didn't hear it. But she did. He saw the quick flick of those blue eyes, down to the purse and then back to his face.
Her brows shot up in a look that asked "What?"
"You going to answer that?"
She shook her head. He had to think hard to put their conversation back together. People should start calling him Humpty Dumpty. He was the bull rider who'd fallen on his head, and all of the surgeons had tried to put him back together again.
"Fine. So you planned on staying with Etta?" He walked up the stairs of the front porch, right leg first because his left ached from pushing the mower. She came up behind him, smelling as soft and sweet as the sweater she was wearing.
And he had thought he'd left his girl-chasing days behind. This was his new life, detoured from bull riding, and looking for the adult Jason. When he stopped having headaches from the concussion, he'd get on with that adult thing. As soon as he could remember any thought for more than five minutes.
"I had planned on staying here. If she…" She sighed, her chest heaving and she looked away, her gaze wandering down the country road.
"I see." He pushed the door open and motioned her inside the shadowy interior of the house. It was cool inside, even without the air conditioner turned on, and it smelled as if Etta had been home that morning, slicing cantaloupe and baking muffins.
As they walked, he noticed that she slowed to look into each room. What if she was some kind of classy cat burglar? What if she was casing the joint? Maybe he should call Andie and tell her to come home, or have her contact someone to stay in the house for a few days.
"What's your name?" she asked as they walked down the long hallway to the kitchen at the back of the house. She paused to look at pictures on the wall.
She was taking too much interest in the pictures to be a mere cat burglar. He waited for her to finish. "I'm Jason Bradshaw. I live about a mile down the road. And that's a picture of Etta's son and daughter."
"Son and daughter?"
"Alana is in Florida. James passed away a few years ago."
"I see." Her word was quiet, barely a whisper. She blinked a few times and shook her head. "The water?"
"Are you okay?" He started to reach for her arm, but didn't. She nodded.
"I'm fine." Soft voice, and blue eyes that shimmered. He didn't push for more. He remembered what it was like, to fight that hard to show people he was fine.
He knew what it was, to smile when smiling was the last thing he wanted to do, or felt like doing. He knew how it was to put on an act for so many years that the act became his life.
"In here." He flipped on the light and walked to the fridge. "So, what's your name?"
"Alyson." She looked away, pale and surreal in this country kitchen with the crocheted dishrags, needlepoint verses hanging framed on the walls and the oak, butcher-block table.
"Well, Alyson, here's your water." He handed her a glass of ice water and she took it, sipping and looking away from him. Her hands shook and she looked even paler than she had in the yard. "Why don't you sit down?"
"Thank you." She didn't immediately go to the table. Instead, she stopped at a needlepoint verse, touching it, reading the Bible verse. "Do you know if she did this?"
He pointed to the initials in the corner. "I think her granddaughter Andie did that for her."
"Andie?" She turned, setting the water down on the table, droplets splashing over the side.
"She's James's daughter. Etta raised her because James worked away from home."
Alyson, with no last name, sat down. She moved the glass and held it between hands that trembled. Jason sat down across from her, trying to think of something that would make her laugh, or smile. He couldn't handle tears.
But he didn't know her, didn't know how to make her laugh.
"You look like Andie." More than looked like her. He thought maybe that was a piece of the puzzle that he was starting to put together.
"How old is she?"
He had to think about that. "A few years younger than me. Maybe twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She's on the rodeo circuit. She's a barrel racer."
"So no one is here." She lifted the glass again.
"I'm here." He winked.
"I'm afraid you don't count. Sorry." She said it with a smile that lifted shadows from her eyes. Aha, a sense of humor. She might be related to Andie after all.
"What were you wanting with Etta?"
She didn't answer right away. She looked out the window, out gingham curtains that had been closed long enough to let dust coat them. The housekeeper only came in once a month. Alyson, with a well-manicured hand, nails painted the same light shade as her sweater, pulled the curtains back to peer outside.
"I wanted to meet her." She bit into her bottom lip and he wondered if she would cry. She didn't. "I'm…"
She turned to face him, smiling a little. "I'm her granddaughter, too."
And that's how she knocked the floor out from under him.
"Stop staring." Alyson slapped the palm of her hand on the table to get the attention of the handsome cowboy sitting across from her. She was still a little shocked, she didn't need his overreaction to her announcement.
She had a sister.
She hadn't found that information in the box inside her mother's desk when she'd been digging for her bank book.
A sister. That was the missing piece of her life, that part of her she had never been able to connect with. Andie. A memory, fuzzy, faded, but always in the back of her mind. She had thought it was her imagination, not a real memory.
She was still trying to figure out why she'd told the man sitting across from her that she was Etta Forester's granddaughter. Was she that needy? Or was it just easier to share with this man she didn't know?
She had other secrets, but those were hers, locked away where no one could use them against her.
"Okay, no longer staring." He looked out the window, avoiding eye contact. She smiled, because he was trying to make this easy. It was anything but.
She wanted to find a life, a family, and instead she'd found more secrets than she knew how to process.