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The last thing Abby Diaz needed was to be surrounded by little kids and pestered by a flirtatious cowboy.
At the moment, she had the misfortune of both.
She sucked in a steadying breath, acutely aware of the echoing chirp of sparrows in the indoor arena's rafters, the smell of straw, hay and horses-and the engaging smile of the good-looking man patiently awaiting a response to his question.
At least she wouldn't be in Canyon Springs much longer. In a few hours she'd be sailing her Chevy down the curving mountain road to Phoenix, then pushing farther southward through the desert to Tucson and home. It had been foolish to make the trip anyway, a futile, final grasping by her rapidly ebbing faith.
"So what do you say, pretty lady?" the sandy-haired cowboy with impossibly wide shoulders urged again, his low, mellow voice teasing her ears. Dressed in boots, faded jeans and a Western-cut shirt, he tipped back his summer straw hat as twinkling hazel eyes studied her with unconcealed interest. "It will take half a minute to lead another horse out here and get your lessons started right along with these kids."
Was he out of his mind? "I'll pass, thank you."
He briefly dipped his head in acknowledgment, a smile twitching at his lips. Then he glanced at the half dozen grade-schoolers milling around them, including her brother Joe's son. Since entering the arena, Davy had stuck gluelike to her side despite only having met her three days ago.
The seven-year-old had been excited about coming today, begging his almost-nine-months pregnant stepmother not to renege on his first riding lesson. But after another sleepless night of acute discomfort, Meg hadn't been up to it. With his daddy working an extended shift as a regional paramedic and Grandpa Diaz seeing to an RV park crisis, Aunt Abby had been dragged into this familyoriented outing. She'd planned to drop Davy off and return for him later, but on the drive to the High Country Equine Center-which most locals still called Duffy's after the original owner-the brown-eyed boy seemed to be having second thoughts about the adventure. She'd hung around for moral support.
Avoiding the cowboy's assessing gaze, Abby rested her hand on her nephew's shoulder and gave it a reassuring pat. "This will be fun, Davy-won't it, Gina?"
His best buddy, a blonde pigtailed dynamo, nodded emphatically, her instructor-issued riding helmet bobbing atop her head. "Majorly fun."
Not to be outdone by a girl, Davy shook off his aunt's hand and gave a manly nod reminiscent of his father. "That's right. Majorly fun." He cut a glance upward. "You don't have to stay if you don't want to, Aunt Abby."
That caught the cowboy's attention. "Aunt Abby?"
"Daddy's little sister," Davy announced proudly, stuffing his hands into the back pockets of his jeans.
"Well, what do you know?" The man's smile broadened as he again caught her eye. "Joe has a sister? Where's he been hiding you, ma'am?"
Obviously this man, no more than a handful of years older than her, wasn't a Canyon Springs native or he'd know the whole story. But there was no point in enlightening a stranger on the Diaz family history.
"He didn't hide her," Davy piped up with a giggle. "Aunt Abby lives in Tucson. She's a librarian."
"Davy," Abby said firmly before the boy could further elaborate on her personal affairs. She didn't want him sharing with the world that she'd recently lost her librarian position and not too many months before that had sent her fiancé packing. Or at least the latter was what she'd allowed her family to assume.
Today-the first of June-was to have been her wedding day.
"A librarian," the cowboy echoed, his gaze flicking over her appreciatively. If the sparkle in his eyes was any indication, for a reason known only to him he found that bit of information amusing.
He held out his gloved hand. "Good to meet you, Aunt Abby. Diaz, is it?"
She nodded and reluctantly shook his hand.
"I'm Brett Marden."
A shrill whistle pierced the air.
"Brett! Let's go!" Another cowboy-hatted man, this one taller and walking with a slight limp, made his way across the arena's expanse. He clapped his hands and motioned to the portable corral assembled on the far side of the arena where half a dozen saddled quarter horses waited quietly.
Abby had met Trey Kenton, manager of the equine facility, her first night back in town and remembered his wife, Kara, from grade school. It had come as a shock to discover she and the other woman might be stepsisters in the not-too-distant future. Thanks for the warning, Dad.
Brett studied Abby a moment longer. "Why don't you stick around, Aunt Abby? You never can tell Could be you'll find something that catches your interest."
He stepped back with what she instinctively knew was a well-practiced wink.
Warmth crept into her face. Did he mean him? Of all the
Not waiting for a response, he lightly rapped his knuckles on her nephew's helmeted head, then spread his arms wide to herd the youngsters toward the corral. "No running, no yelling. We have things we need to go over before you get to ride."
Abby stared after him. Find something that catches your interest, indeed. Talk about an over-the-top ego. Nevertheless, her gaze lingered on the masculine form as he crossed the arena, a booted Pied Piper with a covey of trailing kids attempting to mimic his confident stride.
"You may as well come on over here and have a seat," a feminine voice called from somewhere behind her. "Abby, is it?"
Jerked from her reverie, Abby turned toward a small semicircle of folding chairs placed just inside one of the arena's side gates. She hadn't noticed the arrangement when she and Davy had slipped inside to join the other kids. Apparently Brett Marden had been a bit too distracting. Four women now claimed the seating area-a gray-haired lady and three others near Abby's late twenties or slightly younger. One, the spokesperson she assumed, patted the sole empty chair next to her in invitation.
A knot tightened in Abby's stomach. Why'd the most friendly one have to be holding a baby?
"Yes, Abby. Abby Diaz." With considerable effort she returned the smiles of the women. Then she reluctantly closed the distance between them to take the seat next to the woman who cuddled her napping infant close. If they'd caught her name, they'd probably heard the whole conversation between her and the flirtatious cowboy.
"I'm Davy's aunt," she nevertheless confirmed. "From Tucson."
"Joey's sister." The familiar-looking older woman on the far side of the semicircle nodded knowingly. Abby sensed she was aware of the family's sordid history, how Abby's parents divorced when she was ten, with her mother taking both her and middle child Ed and leaving teenage Joe to be raised by their father.
"Are you visiting, Abby?" the woman continued with an encouraging smile. "Or have you come home?"
Even though she'd once lived here for a decade, it had been more than strange to drive through Canyon Springs a few days ago for the first time since childhood. To pass down Main Street and by the elementary school. To eat lunch at Kit's Lodge. To again spend the night under her father's roof at his Lazy D Campground and RV Park. It was surprising how much she remembered and how little had changed. But home? Not even close.
"I'm visiting my family for a few days."
The woman to the left of Abby leaned forward and she caught the faint scent of baby powder and a glimpse of a pretty, rounded face in the blanketed bundle in her arms.
"How is Meg?" the brown-haired woman whispered.
The other three women nodded at her words, concern darkening their eyes.
"She's hanging in there." Abby didn't know how well these four knew Meg and Joe, so she wasn't about to elaborate on the family's whispered concerns for Meg's health. "She's looking forward to being a few pounds lighter."
The women laughed and Abby's tension eased. She could get through this.
"I'm Mina Ricks, here with my boy," the woman next to her offered before glancing down with a proud smile at the infant in her arms. "And this is Ruthy."
Then she motioned to each of the women, starting with the blonde seated on the other side of Abby. "This is Melody Smith, who brought a neighbor's daughter today. Joy Haines is here with her twins. And Janet Logan accompanied her grandson."
Memory clicked and Abby again focused her attention on the woman who'd asked if she'd come home. "Mrs. Logan. You ran the school library and were my Sunday school teacher, too."
A sturdy, outdoorsy, take-charge kind of woman who didn't fit any of the librarian stereotypes Abby was all too familiar with, she'd seemed as old as the hills when Abby had been in grade school. But in reality she was probably even now only in her early to mid-sixties.
"Call me Janet. I'm still the librarian and a Sunday school teacher." The woman's gaze warmed. "I wondered if you'd remember me. It's been such a long time. But my goodness, how you remind me of your beautiful mother."
"Thank you." The compliment was well intended, but she wasn't fooled. In reality she didn't come close to her mother's striking looks or her vivacious personality.
"Do you remember me, too?"
Abby turned to the young woman next to her who was looking at her hopefully.
Melody. Melody. She hated this. Everyone knew who she was, but she'd been put on the spot so many times over the past few days that she'd become paranoid about meeting people. That was one more reason to get out of town. She hoped this woman about her age wasn't another cousin. The whole town seemed to be crawling with them.
"I wasn't a Smith back then. Or a blonde." Melody brushed back her layered golden tresses. "You might remember me as the chubby carrot-haired girl who tried to crawl out the second-grade-classroom window-and got stuck."
Abby's eyes widened with belated recognition. What a fuss that incident had created. "Oh, that Melody!"
"I've slimmed down considerably ." The young woman laughed as she spread her fingers wide to protectively cradle a barely rounded abdomen, and Abby tensed, sensing what was coming next. "But I understand that won't last much longer. I'm due in November. Our first."
"Congratulations." Abby swallowed the knot in her throat. "That's wonderful."
The others joined in with cheerful words of encouragement, an exclusive little club of women who'd been there, done that, who reveled in the blessings and agonies of childbearing and motherhood.
Grasping for a diversion, Abby turned toward the corral where Brett and Trey instructed the kids on horse safety. Trey was a handsome man, but it was the self-assured Brett who now held her attention. Brett, with the broad shoulders, dimpled grin and laugh lines crinkling around his eyes. In spite of his unapologetically flirtatious behavior, her heart beat faster.
"Don't pay any mind to Brett," freckle-faced Joy commented almost as if following Abby's train of thought. "He can't help but turn on the charm when he's around a female."
Melody laughed. "A born sweet-talker if there ever was one."
So Abby had pegged him right. A superficial skirt chaser.
"Don't be too hard on that young man," Mrs. Logan- Janet-chided gently. "He's got a heart of gold."
"He's been in Canyon Springs about a year and a half and everyone seems to love him. Hard not to." Mina shifted the sleeping baby in her arms. "But my advice, Abby? If you're looking for a keeper, steer clear. I'm not sure even a lasso and piggin' string could keep that one corralled."
Joy laughed, then Melody chimed in. "But let it be said that Britney Bennett isn't one to take no for an answer."
"Isn't that the truth. Poor Brett."
Janet smiled, shaking her head.
Little towns. Abby had just met these women and already they were sharing advice of the heart with a total stranger.
"Don't worry about me." Abby lifted her chin slightly, as if to assure them she wasn't the susceptible sort and could take care of herself. "I'm going back to Tucson today when Davy's finished with his lesson."
"So soon?" Janet's forehead puckered. "I was hoping you'd stay awhile and could be recruited to help at an upcoming summer camp for kids. You should at least stay for church tomorrow. I'm sure there are many others who'd love to see you all grown-up."
Abby forced a smile, again conscious of the empty, echoing rafters above, the tinny cheep of sparrows and a horse's whinny reverberating through the vast space. Reasons to make a getaway were rapidly multiplying. But she wouldn't admit to these kindhearted women that she hadn't been to church in five months. Not since the day doctors confirmed she'd forever remain childless-and her displeased fiancé had walked out the door.
From across the arena, Brett's gaze again roamed to Davy's aunt Abby. She was a pretty little filly with big brown eyes and below-the-shoulder, straight black hair demurely pulled back with a satin ribbon. Although dressed conservatively in dark gray slacks and a simple white blouse, that slim waist nevertheless invited a man to slip his arm around it and draw her close. But except for a glimpse of warmth directed at her nephew, he'd yet to see a smile and could only imagine how a laugh might transform her sadness-kissed features.
That there was a melancholy reflected in her eyes, in her bearing, he had no doubt. Did others notice or was he too finely attuned to the nuances of sorrow? He'd worn that heavy cloak himself, hadn't he? Sometimes it still weighed on him when he least expected it.
"When do we get to ride?" Abby's nephew demanded as Trey, the equine center's manager, expounded on safety precautions when working around horses.
The other kids nodded eagerly, including Janet Logan's grandson, Ace, and Brett grinned. Small for his age, the fair-haired fifth-grader had good coloring today and appeared to be breathing well. That wasn't always the case. He might not be up to every lesson this coming summer but, when it came to facing challenges head-on, the kid took after his grandma with a can-do attitude they could all learn from.
"We're almost to the riding part," Trey assured the children as he turned to his own saddled horse to demonstrate mounting and dismounting.
Today they'd let the kids ride in the corral, closely supervised, to allow them a taste of what they were here for. The next lessons would include vocabulary, equine anatomy and basics of horse and equipment care, as well as getting them started on the fundamentals of horsemanship.
Brett glanced again at Davy, several years younger than Brett's own son would now have been. Jeremy, who'd been held close in his father's arms for five hard but precious years and was now held even more tenderly by his Heavenly Father.
Smiling down at the dark-haired boy, a deeply buried longing of his heart surfaced. Would he ever have another son? A daughter? Could he ever love another woman in such a way that she'd choose to commit to him for a lifetime and not shake her fist at God and walk out when the road became unbearably rocky?
He again looked over the tops of the children's heads toward the group of women seated near the gate. He'd glimpsed heartache in the eyes of Abby Diaz. With three sisters of his own, he never liked seeing a lady in distress and always did his best to cheer them up, to make things right. Maybe when they wrapped things up here he could have a few words with her. Tease out a smile. Maybe even coax a laugh.