Once Upon a Groom (Harlequin Special Edition #2146)

Once Upon a Groom (Harlequin Special Edition #2146)

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by Karen Rose Smith
     
 

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"WILL YOU MARRY ME?"

Those were the words Jenny Farber had always longed to hear Zack Decker say. But marrying him would have meant leaving the only home she'd ever really known. So instead of following her high school sweetheart to L.A., she stayed on at his family's ranch, training the horses she adored. Zack never knew about the secret she

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Overview

"WILL YOU MARRY ME?"

Those were the words Jenny Farber had always longed to hear Zack Decker say. But marrying him would have meant leaving the only home she'd ever really known. So instead of following her high school sweetheart to L.A., she stayed on at his family's ranch, training the horses she adored. Zack never knew about the secret she carried…or how much she still loved him. Until a near-tragedy brought him home again….

Fifteen years ago, Jenny broke Zack's heart. Seeing her again rekindles all the sweet passion they once shared. But Zack came home to Miners Bluff only to deal with a family crisis—then he's pulling up stakes again. So why is Jenny making him dream of settling down in the one place he'd vowed to leave forever?

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780373656288
Publisher:
Harlequin
Publication date:
09/20/2011
Series:
Harlequin Special Edition Series, #2146
Pages:
224
Product dimensions:
4.10(w) x 6.50(h) x 0.80(d)

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Late October

Finally back in L.A., Zack studied the stack of script revisions on his desk, the mound of messages not important enough to return while he'd been on location. He started with the most recent, saw Dawson Barrett's name and smiled. He and Dawson had kept in touch over the years, and they'd reconnected briefly at the reunion a few months ago.

He'd call Dawson when he returned to his penthouse later that night. From the amount of reading on his desk, he would be staying in the city this weekend.

He swore. He'd been looking forward to a couple of days at his house in Malibu. That was the one place he could relax. Usually he derived satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment after a movie was in the can. But this time, his mind had kept drifting. The adrenaline rush had been missing and he didn't know why.

His cell phone vibrated against his hip. He considered ignoring it, then pulled it from his belt and studied the caller ID on the screen, surprised to see it was Jenny. A sense of foreboding zipped from his head to his loafers.

"Jenny?"

Words came tumbling from her. "I was afraid you'd still be out of the country."

"I just got back yesterday. What's wrong?"

He heard her take a steadying breath and he braced himself for what was coming.

"Silas collapsed. I rode with him in the ambulance to Flagstaff—" Her voice caught.

Zack went numb, absolutely numb. Images of his dad riding Hercules, giving the hands orders, smoking a Cuban cigar, flew through his mind. The idea of Silas being loaded into an ambulance…How could Jenny have been so right when he'd seen no evidence of a problem? Was he blind where his father was concerned?

He pushed out the words lodged in his throat. "I'll catch the first flight out."

"Zack."

To his surprise, he still felt connected to Jenny and could read her thoughts. "I know you're scared. Try to take a deep breath and hope for the best. Call me with updates. If I'm on the plane, I'll get your message when I land."

"What if you can't get a seat?"

"Then I'll charter a plane. You don't have to go through this alone."

"Thank you."

Her voice wobbled in a way that was so unlike Jenny that Zack's throat tightened. "No thanks necessary. I should have listened to you."

She said nothing.

"I'll be there as soon as I can. Hold tight."

She murmured her thanks again and ended the call.

Conflicting emotions battered Zack as he turned to his computer to make a reservation. What would he find when he got to Flagstaff? Hope for the best, he'd told Jenny.

Just what was the best?

Late that night, Zack rushed into the emergency room entrance of the stucco and brick hospital in Flagstaff, his pulse racing. He'd thought he'd distanced himself from his father. He'd thought he simply didn't care anymore. Maybe that's why he hadn't seen the symptoms Jenny had noticed when he'd been home for the reunion. Or maybe his father pretended as much as he himself did.

It was possible his father had put up a front for Zack's benefit, but Zack's coolness and reserve toward Silas wasn't a pretense. They'd had many arguments before Zack had left for film school. Growing up, he'd often seen his dad inebriated after a high-stakes poker game. He'd heard his parents' arguments and known his dad was always at the root of them. When Zack had learned what had happened the day his mother died, why she'd taken off in that airplane to visit her sister in Montana, he'd disowned his father just as his father had practically disowned him when he left the ranch to pursue a film career.

After inquiring at the desk and showing ID, he headed for the cardiac intensive care unit and found Jenny in one of the waiting rooms. Even looking distraught and pale, she was a beautiful woman. At thirty-three, maturity had touched her in attractive ways. Her glossy blond, shoulder-length hair framed a heart-shaped face that had taken on a more haunting beauty. Her deep brown eyes, always wide with emotions, were stunning as she looked up at him.

"I'm so glad you're here. They've stabilized him but—" The quick shutdown of her thoughts told Zack just how upset she was.

Shrugging out of his leather jacket, he laid it over the back of the sofa.

"Did you even have time to pack?" she asked.

"No. I keep a duffle in my office with a change of clothes and workout gear. I just grabbed that."

"Are you going to try to see him now?"

"Yes, for a few minutes. Thanks for giving me his doctor's number. I called him after I landed. He said he'd noted on the chart that I could see him when I arrived."

"Zack, you can't upset him." She looked as if that was hard for her to say, but yet she knew she had to say it.

Her regret didn't help the sting, though, and he replied, almost angrily, "Do you think I would? My God, Jenny, I don't wish him harm."

"How would I know what you wish him, Zack?"

She was right. How would she know? They hadn't really talked except about the most mundane practical things when he called his father now and then. He'd felt it was his duty to keep in touch even though he hadn't wanted to. Sometimes Jenny would answer. Sometimes they'd exchange pleasantries. Others she'd just tell Silas he was on the line.

We live in different worlds, he reminded himself, not for the first time. Yet standing here, facing her again, years dropped away and lingering nudges of what they'd once shared startled him. Memories ran through his head of the two of them sitting on the corral fence talking…of gentling a foal together…of graduating…of making love in the hayloft. No—not making love. Having sex. If it had been love, Jenny would have gone with him to L.A. when he'd asked her.

"How long are you going to stay?" she asked, and he could see she was already preparing herself for the fact he might be here merely twenty-four hours again.

"I don't know. Let's just see what happens after tomorrow. I'll conference with the doctor and then decide."

She appeared to want to say something, maybe ask him if he could stay longer than a day, but she didn't. Instead she murmured, "I'll get a blanket and pillows while you're gone. I'm bunking here tonight."

Zack knew his father had become a dad to Jenny, the way her own had never been. It was ironic that Silas couldn't be a real father to Zack when Zack was growing up, but with Jenny—Silas Decker had never been anything but supportive, positive and encouraging with her even before his wife had died. Maybe that's because Jenny hadn't been a disappointment to him. Or because she had stepped into the role that Zack had been groomed for but had refused.

"I'm going to see him now." Zack steeled himself for the visit, knowing he did have to distance himself from this experience and whatever happened next.

Surprising him, Jenny crossed to him and touched his forearm. It was just a whisper of a touch, no pressure at all. Yet Zack felt the fire of it. He felt his body respond to it, and he pulled away before she could guess what was happening. But not before he saw the disappointment on her face that they couldn't have a heart-to-heart about this.

There would be no heart-to-hearts, not tonight, not in the days to come. He didn't do that because letting himself be vulnerable would only invite pain. He'd seen it with his parents. He'd felt it with Jenny, and he'd certainly experienced it in L.A.

He headed for his father's cubicle, not knowing what to expect.

Zack walked into the glass enclosure and stopped short. Silas's eyes were closed and his complexion was ashen, almost as gray as the hair fringing his head. His mustache was still black but streaked with gray, too. His father was a strapping man—six foot tall and husky. He'd gained weight over the past ten years. Seeing him like this, lying in a bed in a hospital gown, hooked up to IVs and God knew what else, Zack had to absorb the fact his father was aging.

What had Zack thought? That the years would keep passing and his father would remain the same?

His dad's eyes fluttered open, and he stared at Zack for a few seconds without speaking. Finally he said hoarsely, "You came."

Still struck by his father's appearance, Zack didn't respond.

"You didn't want to come, did you?" Silas asked, sounding more like his old self. "This is a duty call."

Was that true? Not entirely, but he didn't admit it. "You had a heart attack," he said without answering the question.

Silas gave a slight shrug. "That's what Jenny tells me. The doc uses words that don't make any sense, and tomorrow, well, I don't know what's going to happen. There's always a chance—"

Zack stepped closer to the bed. "No, there isn't. You're going to have what's called a cardiac catheter-ization. It's going to show what's wrong and your doctor is going to fix it."

"Sometimes you can find out what's wrong and not be able to fix it."

"You can't think that way going into it."

"And here I thought you'd like it if I just faded away and you didn't have to deal with me anymore."

"Don't be ridiculous." Zack said the words, but he did feel guilty. Hadn't he often wondered what life would be like without his father's carping?

"Don't lie to me. The truth is the truth is the truth."

No matter what had happened before, Zack said with certainty, "I want you to be well. I want you to be healthy again. Jenny is worried sick about you and she needs you."

His father swallowed, looked away for a moment, then back at him. "She's the daughter I never had. Her own father's a fool for not realizing what a gem he has in her."

Silent, Zack considered Jenny's background and the year he'd been closer to her than he'd ever been to anyone.

Silas asked, "What are you thinking about?"

After a few moments' reluctance, he answered, "How much Jenny meant to Mom and you." And how she'd refused to go with him to L.A. That thought still had the power to bring back bitterness and regret.

"I need you to promise me something," his father entreated in a low, serious voice.

"What?" Zack asked warily.

"With me out of commission, Jenny can't handle the burden of the Rocky D on her own. She's taken over even more responsibility the past couple of months with management of the ranch as well as training the horses, but it's all too big for any one person. So no matter what happens tomorrow, will you stay a month, six weeks, and help her get a handle on whatever has to be done?"

"Dad—"

"I know it's a lot to ask. I know this isn't your life. You have big fish to fry. Well, the Rocky D has big fish, too. I know you think I have no right to ask anything of you. That might be true. But Jenny's going to need some help, and you're the only one I trust to give her that help."

If his father had asked for his own benefit, Zack might have been able to turn him down. But the way he'd put it, how could Zack refuse? Still, he had commitments of his own.

Silas continued, "You could set up shop at the Rocky D for a while. There's plenty of room. You could have your own office in the east wing." He hesitated. "I have a home theater there now, too."

The sliding glass doors of Silas's cubicle opened and a nurse bustled in. "Time's about up," she said gently but firmly. "Your father needs his rest."

Zack knew that was true. He also knew state of mind could make a big difference if his father was to recover. No, he didn't want to stay. No, he didn't want to get roped back into a life he'd left behind. No, he didn't want to be around Jenny and feel that old tug of desire they'd shared.

"Think about it," his father said.

Zack knew he wouldn't be able to do much else.

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