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Leaning over the steering wheel of his blue-and-gray Silverado, Jesse Slater squinted toward the distant farmhouse and waited. Just before daybreak the lights had come on inside, pats of butter against the dark frame of green shutters. Still he waited, wanting to be certain the woman was up and dressed before he made his move. She had an eventful day ahead of her, though she didn't know it.
Aware suddenly of the encroaching autumn chill, he pulled on his jacket and tucked the covers around the child sleeping on the seat beside him, something he'd done a dozen times throughout the night. Sleeping in a pickup truck in the woods might be peaceful, but it lacked a certain homey comfort. None of that mattered this morning, for no matter how soul-weary he might be, he was finally back home. Home—a funny word after all these years of rambling. Even though he'd lived here only six years after his mother had inherited the farm, they were formative years in the life of a boy. These remote mountains of southeastern Oklahoma had been the only real home he'd ever known.
Peace. The other reason he'd come here. He remembered the peace of lazy childhood days wading in the creek or fishing the ponds, of rambling the forests to watch deer and squirrel and on a really lucky day to spot a bald eagle soaring wild and regal overhead.
He wanted to absorb this peace, hold it and share it with Jade. Neither of them had experienced anything resembling tranquility for a long time.
The old frame house, picturesque in its setting in the pine-drenched foothills of Oklahoma's Kiamichi Mountains, was as it had always been—surrounded by green pastures and a dappling of scatteredoutbuildings. Somewhere a rooster heralded the sun and the sound sent a quiver of memory into Jesse's consciousness.
But his memory, good as it was, hadn't done justice to the spectacular display of beauty. Reds, golds and oranges flamed from the hills rising around the little farm like a fortress, and the earthy scent of pines and fresh air hovered beneath a blue sky.
Jesse turned his attention to the child whose sleepy green eyes and tangled black hair said she'd had a rough night too.
It was a sorry excuse of a father whose child slept in a pickup truck. And he was even sorrier that she didn't find it unusual. His stomach knotted in that familiar mix of pain and joy that was Jade, his six-year-old daughter.
"Hey, Butterbean. You're awake."
Reaching two thin arms in his direction, she stretched like a kitten and yawned widely. "I'm hungry."
Jesse welcomed the warm little body against his, hugging close his only reason to keep trying.
"Okay, darlin'. Breakfast coming right up." With one eye on the farmhouse, Jesse climbed out of the truck and went around to the back. From a red-and-white ice chest he took a small carton of milk and carefully poured the contents into a miniature box of cereal.
Returning to the cab, he handed the little box to Jade, consoling his conscience with the thought that cereal was good for her. He didn't know much about that kind of thing, but the box listed a slew of vitamins, and any idiot, no matter how inept, knew a kid needs milk.
When she'd eaten all she wanted, he downed the remaining milk, then dug out a comb and wet wipes for their morning ablutions. Living out of his truck had become second nature for him during fifteen years on the rodeo circuit, but in the two years since Erin had died, he'd discovered that roaming from town to town was no life for a little girl. She'd been in and out of so many schools only her natural aptitude for learning kept her abreast of other children her age. At least, he assumed she was up to speed academically. Nobody had told him different, and he knew for a fact she was smart as a tack.
But she needed stability. She deserved a home. And he meant for her to have one. He lifted his eyes to the farmhouse. This one.
A door slammed, resounding like a gunshot in the vast open country. A blond woman came out on the long wooden porch. Of medium height, she wore jeans and boots and a red plaid flannel jacket that flapped open in the morning air as she strode toward one of the outbuildings with lithe, relaxed steps. No hurry. Unaware she was being watched from the woods a hundred yards away.
So that was her. That was Lindsey Mitchell, the modern-day pioneer woman who chose to live alone and raise Christmas trees on Winding Stair Mountain.
Well, not completely alone. His gaze drifted to a monstrous German shepherd trotting along beside her. The animal gave him pause. He glanced over at Jade who was dutifully brushing her teeth beside the truck. She hadn't seen the shepherd, but when she did there would be trouble. Jade was terrified of dogs. And for good reason.
Running a comb through his unruly hair, he breathed a weary sigh. Dog or not, he had to have this job. Not just any job, but this one.
When his daughter had finished and climbed back into the cab, he cranked the engine. The noise seemed obscenely loud against the quiet noises of a country morning.
"Time to say hello." He winked at the child, extracting an easy grin, and his heart took a dip. This little girl was his sunshine. And no matter how rough their days together had been, she was a trooper, never complaining as she took in the world through solemn, too-old eyes. His baby girl had learned to accept whatever curves life threw her because it had thrown so many.
Putting the truck into gear he drove up the long driveway. Red and gold leaves swirled beneath his tires, making him wonder how long it had been since anyone had driven down this lane.
The woman heard the motor and turned, shading her eyes with one hand. The people in the nearby town of Winding Stair had warned him that she generally greeted strangers with a shotgun at her side. Not to worry, though, they'd said. Lindsey was a sweetheart, a Christian woman who wouldn't hurt a flea unless she had to. But she wasn't fool enough to live alone without knowing how to fire a rifle.
He saw no sign of a weapon, though it mattered little. A rifle wouldn't protect her against the kind of danger he presented. Still, he'd rather Jade not be frightened by a gun. The dog would be bad enough.
He glanced to where the child lay curled in the seat once again, long dark eyelashes sweeping her smooth cheeks. Guilt tugged at him. He'd been a lousy husband and now he was a lousy father.
As he drew closer to the house, the woman tilted her head, watching. Her hair, gleaming gold in the sun, lifted on a breeze and blew back from her shoulders so that she reminded him of one of those shampoo commercials—though he doubted any Hollywood type ever looked this earthy or so at home in the country setting. The dog stood sentry at her side, ears erect, expression watchful.
Bucking over some chug holes that needed filling, Jesse pulled the pickup to a stop next to the woman and rolled down the window.
"Morning," he offered.
Resting one hand atop the shepherd's head, Lindsey Mitchell didn't approach the truck, but remained several feet away. Beneath the country-style clothes she looked slim and delicate, though he'd bet a rodeo entry fee she was stronger than her appearance suggested.
Her expression, while friendly, remained wary. "Are you lost?"
He blinked. Lost? Yes, he was lost. He'd been lost for as long as he could remember. Since the Christmas his mother had died and his step-daddy had decided he didn't need a fourteen-year-old kid around anymore.
"No, ma'am. Not if you're Lindsey Mitchell."
A pair of amber-colored eyes in a gentle face registered surprise. "I am. And who are you?"
"Jesse Slater." He could see the name held no meaning for her, and for that he was grateful. Time enough to spring that little surprise on her. "Calvin Perrymore sent me out here. Said you were looking for someone to help out on your tree farm."
He'd hardly been able to believe his luck when he'd inquired about work at the local diner last night and an old farmer had mentioned Lindsey Mitchell. He hadn't been lucky in a long time, but nothing would suit his plan better than to work on the very farm he'd come looking for. Never mind that Lindsey Mitchell raised Christmas trees and he abhorred any mention of the holiday. Work was work. Especially here on the land he intended to possess.
"You know anything about Christmas-tree farming?"
"I know about trees. And I know farming. Shouldn't be too hard to put the two together."
Amusement lit her eyes and lifted the corners of her mouth. "Don't forget the Christmas part."
As if he could ever forget the day that had changed the direction of his life—not once, but twice.
Fortunately, he was spared a response when Jade raised up in the seat and leaned against his chest. She smelled of sleep and milk and cereal. "Where are we, Daddy?"
The sight of the child brought Lindsey Mitchell closer to the truck.
"You're at the Christmas-tree farm." She offered a smile that changed her whole face.
Though she probably wasn't much younger than his own thirty-two, in the early-morning light her skin glowed as fresh as a teenager's. Lindsey Mitchell was not a beautiful woman in the Hollywood sense, but she had a clean, wholesome, uncomplicated quality that drew him.
Something turned over inside his chest. Indigestion, he hoped. No woman's face had stirred him since Erin's death. Nothing stirred him much, to tell the truth, except the beautiful little girl whose body heat warmed his side just as her presence warmed the awful chill in his soul.
"A Christmas-tree farm. For real?" Jade's eyes widened in interest, but she looked to him for approval. "Is it okay if we're here, Daddy?"
The familiar twinge of guilt pinched him. Jade knew how her daddy felt about Christmas. "Sure, Butterbean. It's okay."
In fact, he was anxious to be here, to find out about the farm and about how Lindsey Mitchell had come to possess it.
"Can I get out and look?"
Before he had the opportunity to remember just why Jade shouldn't get out of the truck, Lindsey Mitchell answered for him. "Of course you can. That's what this place is all about."
Jade scooted across the seat to the passenger-side door so fast Jesse had no time to think. She opened the door, jumped down and bounded around the pickup. Her scream ripped the morning peace like a five-alarm fire.
With a sharp sense of responsibility and a healthy dose of anxiety, Jesse shot out of the truck and ran to her, yanking her shaking body up into his arms. "Hush, Jade. It's okay. The dog won't hurt you."
"Oh, my goodness." Lindsey Mitchell was all sympathy and compassion. "I am so very sorry. I didn't know Sushi would frighten her like that."
"It's my fault. I'd forgotten about the dog. Jade is terrified of them."
"Sushi would never hurt anyone."
"We were told the same thing by the owner of the rottweiler that mauled her when she was four." Jade's sobs grew louder at the reminder.
"How horrible. Was she badly hurt?"
"Yes," he said tersely, wanting to drop the subject while he calmed Jade. The child clung to his neck, sobbing and trembling enough to break his heart.
"Why don't you bring her inside. I'll leave Sushi out here for now."
Grateful, Jesse followed the woman across the long front porch and into the farmhouse. Once inside the living room, she motioned with one hand.
"Sit down. Please. Do you think a drink of water or maybe a cool cloth on her forehead would help?"
"Yes to both." He sank onto a large brown couch that had seen better days, but someone's artistic hand had crocheted a blue-and-yellow afghan as a cover to brighten the faded upholstery. Jade plastered her face against his chest, her tears spotting his chambray shirt a dark blue.
Lindsey returned almost immediately, placed the water glass on a wooden coffee table and, going down on one knee in front of the couch, took the liberty of smoothing the damp cloth over Jade's tear-soaked face. The woman was impossibly near. The clean scent of her hair and skin blended with the sweaty heat of his daughter's tears. He swallowed hard, forcing back the unwelcome rush of yearning for the world to be normal again. Life was not normal, would never be normal, and he could not be distracted by Lindsey Mitchell's kind nature and sweet face.
"Shh," Lindsey whispered to Jade, her warm, smoky voice raising gooseflesh on his arms. "It's okay, sugar. The dog is gone. You're okay."
The sweet motherly actions set off another torrent of reactions inside Jesse. Resentment. Delight. Anger. Gratitude. And finally relief because his child began to settle down as her sobs dwindled to quivering hiccups.
"There now." Adding to Jesse's relief, Lindsey handed him the cloth and stood, moving back a pace or two. She motioned toward the water glass. "Would you like a drink?"
Jade, her cheek still pressed hard against Jesse's chest, shook her head in refusal.
"She'll be all right now," Jesse said, pushing a few stray strands of damp hair away from the child's face. "Won't you, Butterbean?"
Like the trooper she was, Jade sat up, sniffed a couple of times for good measure, and nodded. "I need a tissue."
"Tissue coming right up." Red plaid jacket flapping open, Lindsey whipped across the room to an end table and returned with the tissue. "How about some juice instead of that water?"