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Bailey stuck her hands into the hot, soapy water and began to scrub the dishes she'd put off washing until after lunch, wishing for the umpteenth time that the dishwasher still worked. Her father had helped for a few minutes, until his legs had grown weak and he'd taken himself to the living room and his favorite re-cliner to watch Oprah.
The throaty snore she heard through the doorway told her that he'd fallen asleep. She didn't mind; it was sleep that he needed these days. At least when he was sleeping, he wasn't worrying.
Oprah's voice drifted into the kitchen, borne on the gentle breeze that blew through the house. "So tell me, Suzanne, how much did you pay for your home in Malibu?"
Bailey strained to listen. "Three million, a bargain." Audience laughter.
Bailey shook her head and scrubbed harder. Three million for a house. What couldn't she do with three million dollars? She looked out her window above the sink, at the farm shimmering in the late-afternoon sun. It looked as tired as her dad. A good eye could see that things were falling apart. The fences were sagging and the last windstorm had done a number on the barn roof. Not to mention her truck, which was on its last leg, and tires . Three million dollars. That would help pay the mortgage. Well, of course, with three million dollars in the bank, there wouldn't be a mortgage.
She was doing well if she made the mortgage payment each month. The tips she earned as a waitress put shoes on her daughter's feetone pair at a timeand cutting a few more cows from the herd would pay the property taxes. Life in the Ozarks was far removed from Hollywood.
A little cutting back, a lot of prayer and making it through another day with her dad still in her life. That was how it went in the real world. At least in her world.
Bailey squeezed her eyes shut. She opened them when she heard a distant rattle and the rapid-fire bark of her blue heeler. Her mind turned, wondering who it could be. She wasn't expecting anyone, and it sounded like whoever it was, they were pulling a trailer.
She squeezed the water out of the dishrag, tossed it on the counter and walked out the back door. If she didn't catch the dog now, the person paying them a surprise visit would have a hole in his pant's leg and a bad attitude to go with it. Bailey was holding on to faith by a string; she didn't need someone's bad day to rub off on her.
A shiny, red extended-cab truck pulling an RV rumbled to a stop. Blue, her five-year-old blue heeler, stood in the middle of the yard. The yard that really needed to be mowed before it became a hayfield.
But Bailey stopped herself there and reached for the dog's collar. She had a list of things that needed to be done. All of those things dimmed in comparison with the bigger problem she saw stepping out of the truck and into her life.
The hair on the back of Blue's neck was standing on end. Teeth bared, the dog strained against her hold on his collar. For a brief, really brief, moment, she considered letting go.
Six years had passed since she'd seen Cody Jacobs face-to-face. Six years since she'd spent a summer working on a ranch in Wyoming. Six years since she'd tried so hard to tell him she was pregnant. Six years since she'd given up because he wouldn't answer her phone calls.
Now he was here. Now, when there were so many other worries to work through. She looked up to see if God would send her a sign, a parting of the clouds or some other gigantic miracle. Instead she felt a soft whisper of peace. If only it hadn't gotten tangled with dread and a good dose of anger as her day went suddenly south.
Cody walked across the lawn, looking for all the world like he belonged on her farm. He was suntanned, wore faded Wranglers, and a soft, cotton T-shirt stretched across his broad shoulders. He was smiling like he hadn't a care in the world.
Every time she had imagined this moment, she'd thought what she'd say. She'd be strong, send him packing, show him she was in control and that he couldn't hurt her again.
Not once had she been breathless or speechless. Not once in her imagination had she thought that she'd remember how his laughter sounded on a quiet summer night in Wyoming, or how his hand had felt on hers. She had told herself that she'd only remember him saying goodbye and how he laughed when she told him she loved him.
All of her imaginings melted like a snowman in July when faced with the genuine articleCody Jacobs walking toward her. Now what in the world was she going to do about that? What was she going to do about the little girl inside the house, and the truth that she'd kept from him? All of her good intentionswanting to protect her daughter from someone whose lifestyle had seemed unfit for a childseemed irrelevant at the moment.
Cody Jacobs was about to learn he had a daughter. She hadn't wanted it to happen like this. Meg knew who her daddy was. Bailey had wanted to confront Cody in her own way, when the time seemed right.
Blue yanked at the collar and jerked her forward a few feet, a warning that her visitor had entered the imaginary danger zone of the dog. Bailey flexed her fingers and wished she wasn't leaning forward the way she was.
"Bailey, you're looking good."
Her foot she was looking good. She was wearing the same faded jeans and stained T-shirt she'd worn while working in the garden.
Still smiling, he held his hand out to Blue. The dog suddenly forgot that the man was the enemy. Pulling free from her grasp, the animal belly crawled to Cody. Bailey stood, stretching the kink from her back. Her gaze connected with Cody's, really connected for the first time since he'd gotten out of the truck.
Up close and in person he was still about the prettiest man she'd ever seen. Like the average bull rider, he wasn't tall, just a few inches taller than her five feet five inches. He still had lean, boyish looks and long eyelashes that could make a girl swoonif she were the swooning type. Bailey wasn't, not anymore.
"How've you been?" He closed the gap between them, his hand still being licked by Blue.
"I'm fine." Most days she really was. "What are you doing in Missouri?"
She knew the answer. She was a convenient stop on the highway to Springfield, just thirty miles north. The town was hosting a pro bull-riding event, and Cody was in line for the world title this year.
"I wanted to talk to you."
Looking suddenly unsure, he took off his bent-out-of-shape, straw cowboy hat and shoved his fingers through black hair, which was straight and a little too long. When he looked at her, with his stormy blue-gray eyes, she thought of Meg and how she didn't want Cody to learn the truth without any warning.
Her heart shuddered at the thought. With a quick glance over her shoulder, she breathed a sigh of relief. Meg was taking a nap on the couch. That gave Bailey a few minutes to decide the best course of action.
"Bailey, I'm here to say I'm sorry." Cody shrugged and said, "I guess this is part of a man turned thirty and realizing he's wasted a lot of years and hurt a lot of people."
"I'm not sure what to say." The words of his apology were much as she had imagined them to be, but in her dreams they made more sense. In real life his words didn't bring instant healing.
"You don't really have to say anything. This is something I have to do. I.." He cleared his throat and brought his gaze up to meet hers. "I joined AA and part of the process is making amends for the things I've done. I know that when I drove away from Bar A Ranch, I hurt you."
"So is this about wanting forgiveness, or are you truly sorry?"
She needed more than words because words were easy enough to say. Words promised forever and something special on a summer night.
Words said I'm sorry and even I forgive.
Cody worried the hat in his hands, keeping his head down and his gaze on his dusty boots. When he looked up, his eyes were clear, his jaw set and determined. She had seen that look on his face before, normally with a camera focused in tightly as he gave the nod and the bull he was set to ride busted from the gate for an eight-second ride that always seemed to last eight minutes.
"This is about me needing forgiveness, and it is also about being truly sorry."
It was her turn to look up, to search for something in his gaze, in those eyes that reminded her of a summer storm on the horizon. He meant it, or at least she thought he did. She nodded and took a step back.
"Okay, you're forgiven."
"You mean it?"
Did she mean it? She closed her eyes, wanting him to be gone, wanting to walk back into the house to a sink full of dishes and chores waiting to be done. Those were the things that made sense to her these days.
What also made sense was Meg, and the life they had here, the life they had built for themselves in spite of everything. Bailey had paced the floor alone when her daughter had been colicky. Bailey, alone, had held Meg tightly when a bad dream woke her in the middle of the night.
Cody hadn't been there, not even for that stormy night when Bailey's dad had driven her to the hospital.
Her conscience poked at her, telling her that he couldn't apologize for the things he didn't know. Cody couldn't apologize for leaving her to raise a child alone, not when he'd never known about that child. They'd both made mistakes. He didn't know it, but they both had apologies to make.
"I forgave you a long time ago." She smiled, feeling the heat of the August sun on her head and back.
"That means a lot to me, Bailey. I want a fresh start, and I didn't want to make that start thinking about you and what happened."
What happenedthe way he said it made it sound simple and easy to forget. It wasn't easy to forget a decision that made a person feel like she'd let down not only herself, but everyone who counted on her. Even God.
Maybe Cody was finally starting to understand. "That's good, Cody. I hope that this is the change you need." She paused, unsure of how to proceed. She should tell him about Meg. Before he left she should let him know what she had tried to tell him the last time she saw him.
The screen door thudded softly behind her. Bailey lifted her gaze to his, fearing the truth and the look on Cody's face. He stared past her, his eyes narrowing against the bright sunshine. As his gaze lingered, Bailey knew that the time for truth had arrived.
It had never happened this way in her dreams.
Cody stared at the little girl standing on the porch. He tried to catch his breath, but the weight on his chest pushed down, forcing air from his lungs as his heart hammered against his ribs. He stared into a tiny heart-shaped face he'd never seen before, and yet, and yet, the face seemed so familiar.
The little girl had Bailey's straight blond hair. She had a rosebud mouth, just like her mom's. His gaze stopped at her eyes. It was there that he discovered the truth and he knew that Bailey had apologies of her own to give.
Six years of traveling, riding bulls and putting money in the bank for a place of his own, a place he wouldn't let his own dad buy for him, and it came down to this. It came down to a child with stormy-blue eyes wearing jean shorts, a T-shirt and pink cowboy boots.
Cody felt a huge dose of regret because while he'd been having the time of his life, Bailey had been here raising his daughter alone.
With a million questions and plenty of accusations racing through his mind, he switched his attention back to Bailey. She twisted away from him but not quickly enough for him to miss the streak of red creeping up her neck.
Cowgirls couldn't lie.
"Go inside, Meg," Bailey said.
"But I need a drink."
"Get a juice box out of the fridge. I'll be in soon."
"Who is he?" The little girl crossed her tanned arms and gave him the look that said she was the only law in town and he was trespassing. He wanted to smile but he couldn't. Not yet.
"He's someone I used to know."
The little girl nodded and walked back into the house, the screen door slamming behind her. Bailey waited until her daughter, his daughter, too, was out of sight before facing him.
"It looks like I'm not the only one who needs to apologize," he whispered, not really sure if he could say the words aloud.
He had a daughter. He was six months sober, living in an RV, and he had a daughter.
He was on step 9, and it seemed that Bailey had a Step 9 of her own. Making amends.
"I tried to tell you." She looked away, the breeze blowing her hair around her face. He remembered the feel of her hair, like soft silk and feathers.
He remembered that being with her had made him believe in himself. For a few short months he had believed he could be something better than his own father had been. Now he couldn't find that feeling, not with anger boiling to the surface.
"You didn't try very hard."
"The day you left the ranch, I told you that I loved you and that we needed to talk. You laughed and walked away because, and I quote, 'Cowgirls always think they're in love.'"
As she faced him with his own stupid actions, it was his turn to look away. He focused on the same tree-covered hill her gaze had shot to moments ago. Without really trying, he remembered that day. He remembered getting in his truck and driving away, with her running out of the barn trying to stop him.
He remembered thinking that if he didn't get away, he would drown in her. More memories returned, along with the knowledge that he had wanted to lose himself in that feeling. That had scared him more than anything. At twenty-five he'd been too afraid of love to take a chance. He'd been afraid of failure.
Now he had a daughter. He was in the middle of a program that included not starting new relationships, and this one had to be taken care of. He had a little girl. He needed to wrap his mind around that fact and what it meant, not just for the moment but for the rest of his life.
"I should have listened to you." He ran his hand through his hair and shoved his hat back in place. "But you could have told me. You've had six years of opportunities to tell me."
"I left messages for you to call me. After a while I gave up. Wouldn't you?" She crossed her arms, staring him down with brown eyes that at one time were warmer than cocoa on a winter day. "You were running so fast, Cody. You didn't want to hear what I had to tell you because you were afraid it would be about love and forever."
"You should have told me."
"And have you believing that I was trying to trap you? The day you left Wyoming you made it pretty clear to me that you weren't looking for 'forever' with anyone."
He needed to sit down. He didn't want to think about how much he needed a drink. Six months sober, and he wasn't going to end his sobriety like this.
"Bailey, don't throw my words back in my face. That was six years ago. I've learned a lot, and I've been through a lot." He shook his head and took a step back from her.
"Keep your voice down."
"And on top of that you want me to be calm about this?"