Read an Excerpt
It Had to be YouA Novel
By LINDA WINDSOR
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2001 Linda Windsor
All right reserved.
Chapter OneExcuse me, Sir, are you finished with your drink?"
Rancher Dan Jarrett handed the pretty stewardess the empty cup along with a generous tip. "Thanks, I appreciated the suggestion on the lemon."
The young woman smiled and dropped the empty cup into the trash bag. Dan could imagine she was thinking he was a hick from cattle country. It grated him to pay for water in a bottle to start with, but the tap water in these public places would gag a catfish. When the name-brand water tasted like the plastic it was bottled in to boot, he'd made the mistake of making a face. Instantly, the flight attendant had supplied him with a lemon slice to improve it.
"You're welcome, Mr. Jarrett. Enjoy your trip in the Caribbean paradise. Wish I was going."
He swallowed the better-you-than-me reply that popped into his mind and mustered a regretful smile as she moved on to the hostess station. Over the speaker, one of her coworkers announced from the open doorway that the passengers could now deplane.
Paradise ... He slumped down in the seat as the plane came to life with activity. Paradise was the last place this cowboy wanted to be. Like the plane, the water, and his new jeans, it was going to be miserable.
He drew in his elbow as the passengers,who'd shared his flight from Houston to Miami, began threading their way off the plane through the narrow aisle next to his seat. They looked like a gaily bedecked herd of cattle. Uneasy in crowds, Dan waited, but not with the lazy patience the worn Stetson pulled down over his face implied. Unlike his clearly happy, vacation-bound fellow travelers, he felt he was on his way to one very hot place-and he didn't mean the series of Caribbean ports listed on the brochure.
The cruise his family booked was not his idea of how to spend a holiday, but then he was for skipping Thanksgiving altogether this year. As if that would change the way his life had suddenly been thrown into anarchy by his widowed mother's sudden marriage. It was bad enough his new stepfather was so desperate for a woman that he'd signed on the cruise his mother had taken with her seniors group a few months ago as a social host, but now ...
Well, now he was changing tradition.
Besides, Dan's mom just hadn't been herself since this whirlwind romance. She'd moved out of the family home, dispersing the household she'd kept all those years to Dan and his sister as if it meant nothing to her. Love at first sight. Love boats. Hah! She was totally bamboozled, like some love-struck schoolgirl.
Dan shifted his feet beneath the plane seat in front of him, spurred by a twinge of guilt. If he'd gone on the first cruise with his mom as she'd asked him to, this wouldn't have happened. But a trip with the Sunshine Club seemed ideal for her, not him. Besides, how much trouble could a bunch of church ladies get into playing bridge on a cruise ship?
Dan clenched his teeth. How much trouble? Obviously a whole lot more than he'd imagined. And now this senior lothario was spending mom's savings right and left, and there wasn't a blessed thing Dan could do about it-at least until the investigation he'd initiated was complete.
To date, all Dan knew was that Meyers was using his mother's credit cards instead of his own. The investigators confirmed that in their first report-the one Dan had waited for, forcing him to delay his departure with the family and catch a later flight. Meyers' bad credit rating only increased the young man's certainty that his mother had made a terrible mistake and was going to pay dearly ... with something far more important than her money.
With her heart.
"Oh my gosh!"
Instinctively, Daniel cringed as his hat flew to the floor, knocked askew by a giant straw bag and snapping him back to the deplaning frenzy of the present.
"I'm sorry I woke you."
"No problem, ma'am," Dan drawled. Sleep was the last thing he'd been able to do of late. He cocked his head to examine the source of the ruckus.
A slight, fair-haired young woman stared at him with wide-eyed dismay. She struggled with a hat as wide brimmed as his Stetson. Her more feminine version had a large sunflower attached to a checkered band and was perched atop a short, no muss, no fuss hairdo. Like her matching bag, it looked too big for her. Another tourist ready to part with good money.
"I need four arms." She laughed, trying to hoist the strap of her bag up to a slim shoulder with the hand carrying a cosmetic case. In the process, she nearly knocked the sunglasses off the gentleman behind her. His evasive jerk backwards had a domino effect on the line behind him.
Four arms! Daniel had to agree, but not for the reason she made the remark. For a female, traveling alone was the perfect prey for some no-good slimeball with less-than-chivalrous intentions. In addition to the woman's purse and carry-on, she was hauling a small Styrofoam cooler, which squeaked and creaked as she tried to balance it between her body and one of the seats. It was sealed with enough duct tape to finish up the air and heating system in the house he was modernizing.
No doubt about it. This woman was a perfect target for a pickpocket or purse-snatcher.
"Here, let me help."
Carefully he raised the carry-on's strap back to her shoulder. For a moment, he was tempted to rip off a piece of duct tape and secure it, but he refrained. It would take more than tape to hold this loony bird together. His watch snagged on the material of her knit top as he drew his hand back.
"Oh, m'gosh!" The young woman's face turned scarlet as he inadvertently bared a smooth, golden-tanned shoulder.
"No problem. I can get it."
Daniel grimaced as he untangled the yarn from the pin on his watchband. Self-conscious, he smoothed the material out as he'd seen his sister do under similar circumstances.
"I don't think it'll show."
Instead of moving, the woman continued to stare at him, her lips pursed as if to speak. Daniel wondered if he should know her but quickly dismissed the notion. He'd never seen her in his life. He'd have remembered blue eyes like that. They were the color of a spring sky, the invigorating kind that made humans and animals alike want to kick up their heels and frolic after a long winter's seclusion.
"You best get going, miss, before the line runs you over." His gaze darted to the impatient passengers shuffling behind her.
"Oh yeah ... sorry." With a comic grin that reminded him of Goldie Hawn, she shifted the cooler in her arms and moved to the front of the plane, squeaking like chalk on slate all the way. Fortunately for them, the passengers in the front seats had already disembarked. Shaking his head, Daniel stood and retrieved a duffel bag from the overhead compartment.
That gal needs a keeper. But Dan had his hands full of his own problems right now.
It suited him to be the last one off. He hated being rushed and was in no hurry to get in that pert, walking disaster's way. As it was, he didn't even have to search for his duffle bag. It was the only one left in the overhead compartment. He hauled it down and onto shoulders broadened by hard work. The role of gentleman squire didn't suit his personality.
"Have a nice time on your cruise," the stewardess told him as he passed through the exit. "And don't forget the lemon slices."
"Sure thing. Appreciate it."
He forced a smile back, preoccupied with his quandary rather than flirtation. The thought of his mother being hurt and deceived churned in his chest till it hurt. Just let anyone mess with his loved ones, and he'd make a junkyard dog look like a friendly pup.
Tugging the brim of his Stetson down, he turned and strode up the long, carpeted ramp to the terminal, where he was supposed to meet a representative of the cruise line. He sure hoped his luggage made it aboard the ship like Sis said it would. It was bad enough going on this jaunt at all, but having to hold back the suspicions he had about Meyers-at least until they were confirmed-was trying his patience to the limit.
Since he did have to wait, he'd just as soon do it with a change of clothes. Unlike these flower-shirted tourists, he worked out in the sun every day-being cooped up on a ship in the middle of the tropics was the last place he wanted to pay hard-earned money to go.
Sunny Elders stood on tiptoe next to her haphazard hill of possessions and waved excitedly at her approaching nine-year-old nephew, knocking the large sunflower on her hat askew in the process. Keeping up with the hat was becoming a full-time occupation, but if she'd put it in her case it would have come out like a giant straw tortilla. As she adjusted it, she spied her niece Allison, who was a far more demure sixteen, following in her brother's wake.
Before Sunny could finish her niece's name, Jason tackled her around the waist in a bear hug and tried to lift her off the floor with a macho show of strength.
"My, but you're getting to be such a man."
Rocked by her nephew's enthusiasm, Sunny reached too late to steady her hat. She barely kept her footing. "Now, don't hurt your back before we even get to the ship."
Oh yes, she was definitely going to have a good time with these two ... if she survived Jason's roughhousing. He was getting too big for Sunny to handle. Not that Sunny really minded. She enjoyed his boisterous energy. In fact, her sister, Melinda, always teased that she acted like she was one of the kids, rather than their aunt.
Turning to fetch the runaway hat, Sunny came face to face with the tall and lanky cowboy she'd whacked on the head earlier. Clearly a bit wary of her, he silently picked up the hat and handed it over.
"Thank you again." The scorch of embarrassment fired her cheeks. "At least I have reinforcements to help me now."
Grinning like the Cheshire cat from Alice's wonderland, she motioned to Jason and Allison to move out. It wasn't as if she hadn't met handsome men before, and heaven knew, having been born and raised outside of Houston, she'd heard her share of Texas drawls. So why was she staring at the man as if he'd grown horns? Funny. She needed to think of something funny to say instead of standing on her tongue.
"Hey, you're going with us."
Jason's exclamation diverted the cowboy's gaze from her face.
"You're going with us." Jason repeated, fingering the tag on the man's duffle bag. "We're all going on the Love Ahoy." The freckled boy looked beyond Daniel with a frown. "Got any kids my age?"
Sensing, more than seeing, the stranger's irritation, Sunny handed Jason the cooler. "I'm sure there'll be others your age on the ship. Holiday cruises are great for whole families."
"Well, all my friends are staying home and having a party on Saturday, which I can't go to because of family," Allison complained, snatching up the cosmetic case.
Sunny pulled her niece under her arm, trying to ignore the retreating figure of the stiffly polite cowboy in the crowd ahead. "Be grateful for your family, Alli," she told the girl fiercely. "They're too precious to take for granted."
A cloud lighted briefly on Sunny's heart. She prayed Alli would not know the terrible loss Sunny and Melinda were facing. Had been facing for years. She supposed it was youth that allowed her niece to take the deaths in stride and move on so quickly. Allison was so wrapped up in figuring out who she was in the midst of puberty's changes, that little else held her attention too long-unlike her mother, Melinda.
Shaking off the gloom, Sunny smiled. "I have a wonderful sister, a gorgeous brother-in-law, a beautiful niece, and an ornery nephew to spend the holidays with. What more could I ask?" Sunny squeezed her niece's slim shoulders, determined to focus on the upside of this trip, rather than the down. She hoped Melinda and Alan would do the same. "We are going to have such a good time."
"All passengers for the Love Ahoy, please follow me. Stay together."
The amplified voice of the cruise representative drew the prospective passengers together in a straggling line behind the sign he held high over his head. It was emblazoned with the name of the cruise line.
"You heard the man." Sunny glanced around. "By the way, where are your mom and dad?"
At first Melinda had said that she didn't feel like going, but finally agreed that she and Alan needed this trip. Toward the end of her parents' illness and after, Melinda had drawn into a shell, away from Alan. It was telling on their marriage. Sunny had volunteered to watch over the kids on the cruise so Melinda and Alan would have some time together without distraction to work things out.
"At the bus. They said we could meet your plane and come with you." Allison spoke with pained indifference, and Sunny grinned. Life was such a bore at the girl's ripe old age. At least the kids seemed to be clueless to the undercurrents between their parents.
To the unknowing eye, the entire trip was a waste of time for her niece, but Sunny knew Allison was as excited as the energetic boy who raced ahead of them through a group of seniors. According to Melinda, Allison had discussed in detail over the phone with all her friends every outfit she'd packed, while visions of exotic places and romance danced behind her ho-hum demeanor.
The tourist menagerie was made up of men in bright floral shirts and women in comfortable knit ensembles, some of which were a nautical red, white, and blue, and some dashed with glitter or studded with silver or gold. Sunny's hat was one among many bobbing along in the hubbub.
"This looks like it's going to be a real blast." Allison had not missed the significant show of white- and gray-haired individuals. "I'll bet the highlight of the day is bingo."
"Only if the boys who pass out the cards are cute." Sunny gave her niece a wink. "I'll bet it will be all I can do to beat the young men away with a stick when they see you."
"Aunt Sunny." Allison produced a metallic smile, forgetting her braces for a moment and blushing like the schoolgirl she was.
"Although I wouldn't mind keeping one or two for myself."
"Aunt Sunny, puh-leeze."
"After all, I should get something for rooming with you guys so your mom and dad can have some private time."
"And I've always taught you to share."
Sunny stopped in her tracks as if shot. "I beg your pardon?" she said in her most offended voice.
Allison burst into giggles. "Come on, Aunt Sunny. We're going to be late."
Sunny and her charges were the last to get on the long, silver bus exhaling diesel fumes in the parking lot. Her brother-in-law, Alan, waved at her as she followed Allison through the narrow passage between the rows of double seats filled with passengers of all ages. Melinda smiled, but Sunny could tell it was a forced one.
Thank the Lord Melinda had agreed to see a doctor who belonged to their church before she left. At least now the circles under her eyes from lack of sleep were starting to fade. Sunny had jumped at the chance to suggest Melinda see the doctor when her sister complained about them and how hard it was to sleep through the night.
He'd put her on medication to help her through this stress-related depression, but it took time to work. Sunny knew the prescription wasn't a cure all, but it would help until Melinda learned new ways to handle her depression. Of course, there was always the chance that Melinda was chemically burned out as well, that she'd need to take her medication indefinitely, much like a diabetic was forced to take insulin. But if that were the case, they'd deal with it. Together.
"Nice flight?" Melinda asked.
"Great." Unless one counted the sourpuss she'd behatted. "Alan, are you keeping your wife straight?"
"Trying," her brother-in-law chuckled. "Good to see you."
Sunny stopped to hug her sister and admire a baby traveling with its parents when the driver announced that everyone had to be seated before the bus would start.
"I didn't think you were going to make it." Melinda called after her as Sunny hurried to find an empty seat.
"It's Allison's fault. She was trying to pick up guys in the terminal."
"Was not!" Allison dropped into the spare seat next to her brother. "But Aunt Sunny was flirting with a cowboy."
Excerpted from It Had to be You by LINDA WINDSOR Copyright © 2001 by Linda Windsor
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.