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Maegan Shay couldn't believe she'd started talking to the teddy bear. She'd been on the road for three days and her anxiety was building. If Smokey the stuffed animal hadn't been there, she'd be talking to the little brass button on her steering wheel by now. She should have waited until she arrived in Dry Creek, Montana, to make the call to the Parker family, but her first worry had been that everyone would be away from their ranch when she got to the small town. So, before she left Chicago, she phoned and told Clint Parker that she was coming to meet her nine-year-old niece. That had been a mistake.
"He can't stop me from seeing Lilly," she turned to remind Smokey as he sat in the passenger seat of her car. She was supposed to meet her niece for the very first time when she arrived in Dry Creek. She'd already told the bear the whole story, especially the part about how the girl's uncle, Clint, had barely let her explain why she was calling before he accused her of trying to take advantage of the young girl.
"Since when is a woman in search of her family taking advantage of anyone?" she asked the bear. "If he only knew how many hoursmake that yearsI've worked to find them."
Smokey didn't answer her question, but his black button eyes did look sympathetic. He wore a sequin studded pair of suspenders and corduroy pants. She'd bought him for her niece at a gas station outside of Grand Forks when it suddenly occurred to her that Lilly might not take to strangers. Maegan hadn't at her age. Some days she still didn't, although at the age of thirty-two she could usually hide her distrust better than someone Lilly's age.
So, the bear was going to be her goodwill offering to her young niece and, by extension, to the man who appeared to be raising her. She wished she didn't feel the need for a present. She usually had more confidence. She should be a match for a rancher like Clint Parker, even if he did have enough steel in his voice to give her visions of John Wayne holding off the bad guys. She pictured him as an older, burly man with a rifle across his knees and a scowl on his face. Not the most comforting image to have in her mind as she neared her destination, especially not when he was the one in charge of her young niece.
Maegan turned her full attention back to the road. She was used to driving in big-city traffic and it made her slightly nervous that there were no other cars in sight. The ground on both sides of the asphalt was as flat and empty as it could be. Grain fields had been cut short last fall and the stubble left to die during the winter. Plus, the sky was overcast. It was only March and spring was nowhere in sight.
She couldn't stop thinking about the phone conversation. She kept wondering if Clint would stand by his agreement to let her meet her sister's daughter. He had clearly been reluctant, like he didn't understand the importance of this trip to her.
She would think her need to see Lilly was obvious. Maegan and her sisters had been scattered across the foster care system twenty-five years ago when their parents died in a car accident. She had located her middle sister, Olivia, last fall and just recently discovered that her youngest sister, Dawn, had died three years earlier in another car crash, leaving two children behind. Each of the children were now living with their respective fathers. Olivia would be checking on the youngest child, a boy, who lived in Mule Hollow, Texas. That left Lilly for her.
Maegan glanced into the rearview mirror as she tucked her honey-colored hair behind the large amber barrette she wore. She'd learned years ago that loose hair annoyed most of the adults looking her over for adoption so she always had her barrette handy just in case she ever wanted to make a good impression. She hadn't used it much back then. She was in no hurry to be adopted. She wanted a perfect family or none at all.
Back then, she had hope. And faith. She remembered repeatedly praying to God for the perfect parents, whichin her mindwere a couple who would keep her and her sisters together. It hadn't seemed like too much to ask. She'd even found a man and woman she thought would do, but when she whispered to them about her sisters, they just shook their heads. After several of these disappointments, she finally realized no one was going to help hernot God, not the social workers, not the people who said they wanted to be parents. They all talked about families, but they didn't care about hers. Finally, she and her sisters lost track of each other.
From then on, Maegan just gave up. She had no intention of replacing her sisters or her parents with new people so she bounced around from foster home to foster home. She'd do without a family if she couldn't have the one she was born with. Almost everything else she owned had been taken away. Even her faded T-shirts were replaced with some scratchy cotton blouses that were supposed to make prospective parents like her better.
The only thing she had left was the little plastic bar-rette her mother had given her for her eighth birthday. That, along with her ever-changing pairs of orthopedic shoes, seemed to be the only two constants in her life. Not that she was complaining. She had long ago learned it was pointless to feel sorry for herself. A lot of other foster kids had lost everything, too.
The fact that her foot was slightly deformed, causing her to limp, might have made it harder for her to make her way than it was for others, but it had also forged in her the strength to get through law school. And the patience to cut through the endless red tape needed to find her sisters after all the paperwork mistakes that had been made in their case files over the years.
That strength was probably what had given her the courage to insist Clint Parker let her meet Lilly at the cafe in Dry Creek on this cold morning. It was a public place, she had told him. What harm could she do? She'd also asked him to read the packet of information she'd sent to Lilly's father, Joseph Parker, detailing the history of her and her two sisters. Apparently, Joseph was out of town, but Clint acknowledged an envelope had come for his brother. He said it was sitting unopened on top of the refrigerator in the house they shared on their family's ranch and he'd promised to read it.
Maegan slowed her car and forced her muscles to relax. She could see buildings ahead. It had to be the town of Dry Creek, even though it wasn't much to look at from a distance. The wood-frame houses had porches, but they didn't have chairs on them or hanging plants or anything that looked like it was added for beauty rather than practicality. The few trees around had no leaves, just those long gray branches reaching upward to nowhere.
As she got closer, she saw that many of the houses needed a new coat of paint or, at least, a good hosing down to remove the traces of dried mud from their clapboard sides. It must have been a hard winter. The only building that gleamed with cleanliness was a church with a short steeple; the white paint on its walls reflected what little sun came through the clouds until the place practically shone.
She, of course, already knew God didn't have much to do with foster kids like her, but she didn't begrudge others their faith. Life was always a little rougher and muddier for strays like her; it was just the way it was. She did wonder though what made people shine up their house of worship before they painted their own houses. God must answer a lot of their prayers for them to be that pleased with Him.
She slowed her car more. There were no sidewalks in this town and no formal parking spaces, either. The sign leading into town said one hundred sixty-seven people lived here, but she thought that might be an exaggeration. As she looked around, everything looked worn.
Even the two-lane asphalt road that went through the town was caked with brown dirt. A couple of pickup trucks were parked in front of a hardware store and another car was sitting farther down the road.
She didn't care about the hardware store so she studied the cafe instead. White ruffled curtains hung in the windows and a large porch led to the front door. She couldn't see into the cafe, but a light was on inside so it had to be open. She pulled off the road next to the black pickup and stopped. For good or bad, she had arrived.
Clint Parker watched Lilly crumble the piece of toast that was left on her breakfast plate. She was one forlorn little girl. They were sitting at a table in the cafe, waiting to meet the woman who claimed to be her aunt. For the life of him, he didn't know why he'd agreed to let a stranger talk to Lilly. The woman could have said she was the Queen of Sheba and how was he to know if she really was or not?
"Remember, you don't need to tell this woman anything about yourself," Clint reminded his niece. He'd almost taken Lilly over to her Sunday school teacher's house so she would be somewhere safe while he figured out if this woman was legitimate.
Lilly shrugged, but didn't look up to meet his eyes.
The two of them had enough trouble without some woman coming around stirring up painful memories. Lilly didn't talk about her dead mother; he wasn't sure what she would say to someone claiming to be her mother's very alive sister. As far as he knew, there had been no mention of an aunt when Lilly was delivered to his brother last fall.
It had taken social services a few years to track down his brother since Joe had been sweet-talked into going down to Brazil and working for some rodeo organization there. Clint suspected there had been a woman involved, but his brother never said and he never asked. He wished now that he had urged his brother to come home sooner. Lilly spent those years bouncing around to various foster families and it hadn't done her any good. Eventually, Joe came back and voted in Montana for the first time in years. That let everyone know where he was.
Clint realized he should have asked Maegan Shay to send some identification when he talked to her on the phone. Of course, he had read the packet of information she had sent, but what did that prove? With digital photo programs, anyone with a computer could have created some of those forms.
Clint looked down at his niece. "I'll ask Linda to bring you some ice cream before we go back home."
The Engers owned this cafe and, although Linda was back in the kitchen at the moment, he knew she'd check with him soon. She'd stocked up on maple nut ice cream when he found out it was Lilly's favorite. Not that ice cream did enough to make his niece happy. He was at his wit's end. A girl her age should chatter away and laugh andhe stopped himself. He honestly had no idea how a nine-year-old girl should act. All he knew was that she should make some kind of noise.
Lilly was the quietest little thing he'd ever seen. He had been on his knees every night for the past three months, asking God to show him how to make her happy. That's how long ago Joe had left her with him, saying she slowed him down on the rodeo circuit. Slowed him down? She'd only been with him two months. Clint had almost given his brother a tongue-lashing for even thinking his daughter could be a botherand having the nerve to say so in front of herbut then Clint had looked down and his heart squeezed tight. Lilly's shoulders were soldier straight. Her small face was stoic and her eyes focused on her feet. At first, he thought there was something wrong with her shoes and then he saw they were orthopedic ones.
Joe had seen him looking and nodded wearily. So, the feet were the deal-breaker with his brother. It was obvious Lilly had some kind of problem and couldn't walk fast enough to please him. That sounded like Joe. He was never willing to stay through the hard times with anyone.
Clint hadn't known what to say to his brother or his niece so he'd announced that, of course, Lilly should stay on the ranch with him. It was her home. He added that he could use some company, although that wasn't strictly true. He'd almost become a recluse over the past few years since his father had died, not even going to church regularly. Clint's failing was the opposite of Joe's. He stayed with things too long. If there was a lost cause out there, he'd sign up for it. Knowing that, he kept himself apart from what he called complications. Mostly, that meant people and the emotions they brought with them.
Clint had been engaged briefly five or six years ago to a woman he'd met on a cruise sponsored by the cattleman's association. As eager as a lovesick pup, he'd proposed to the woman in the Caribbean moonlight. She had ended the relationship a month later, saying she could not live on the ranch with him. It had broken his heart. He suffered for a time until he realized his engagement had taught him a valuable lesson. He just wasn't good with people. His mother died when he was young, but he could tell she had been often disappointed with his father. Clint figured he was the same, letting people down in some way he didn't even understand. Since then he'd thought twice before he committed to anyone, even a helpless little girl.
Still, Lilly had stood there looking lost and he didn't trust Joe not to send her back to the social services agency. He didn't know what would happen then. Clint couldn't have that on his conscience, or on his heart. He had to risk taking her in.
Of course, he'd had no idea how hard it would be for him and Lilly to connect. They often sat silent in the house together. He made sure he fed her well, but she didn't seem to have much of an appetite. Or anything she wanted to say. Maybe that's why he'd agreed to this meeting. He'd try almost anything to see her happier.