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Macy Ward had never imagined that on her wedding day she would be running out of the church instead of walking down the aisle.
But just over a week earlier, she had been drawn out of the church by the sharp crack of gunshots and the harsh squeal of tires followed by the familiar sound of her fiancé's voice shouting for someone to get his police cruiser.
Her fiancé, Jericho Yates, the town sheriff and her lifelong friend. Her best friend in all the world and the totally wrong man to marry, she thought again, her hands tightening on the steering wheel. She shot a glance at her teenage son who sat beside her in the passenger seat.
"You ready for this, T.J.?"
He pulled out one earbud of his iPod. Tinny, too loud music blared from it. "Did you want something?" TJ. asked.
It was impossible to miss the sullen tones of his voice or the angry set of his jaw.
She had seen a similar irritated expression on the face of T.J.'s biological father, Fisher Yates, as he stood in his Army dress uniform outside the church with his brotherher fiancé. Fisher had looked far more attractive than he should have. As she had raced out into the midst of the bedlam occurring on the steps of the chapel, her gaze had connected with Fisher's stony glare for just a few seconds.
A few seconds too long.
When she had urged Jericho to go handle the incident and that they could postpone the wedding, she had seen the change in Fisher's gaze.
She wasn't sure if it had been relief at first. But the emotion that followed and lingered far longer had been more dangerous.
Now, there was no relief in T.J.'s hard glare. Just anger.
"Are you ready for this?" she repeated calmly, shootinghim a glance from the corner of her eye as she drove to the center of town.
The loose black T-shirt T.J. wore barely shifted with his indifferent shrug. "Do I have any choice?"
Choice? Did anyone really have many choices in life? she thought, recalling how she would have chosen not to get pregnant by Fisher. Or lose her husband, Tim, to cancer. Or have a loving and respectful son turn into a troublesome seventeen-year-old hellion.
"You most certainly have choices, T.J. You could have failed your math class or gone to those tutoring sessions. You could have done time in juvie instead of community service. And now"
"I'll have to stay out of trouble by working at the ranch since you decided not to marry Jericho."
It had been Jericho who had persuaded a judge to spare T.J. a juvenile record. The incident in question had resulted in rolls and rolls of toilet paper all over an old teacher's prized landscaped lawn and a mangled mailbox that had needed to be replaced.
"After postponing the wedding, I realized that I was getting married for all the wrong reasons. So, I chose not to go ahead with the wedding and I'm glad that I did. It gave Jericho the chance to find someone he truly loves," she said, clasping and unclasping her hands on the wheel as she pulled into a spot in front of the post office.
"I told you before that I don't need another dad," he said, but his words were followed by another shrug as T.J.'s head dropped down. "Not that Jericho isn't a nice guy. He's just not my dad."
Macy killed the engine, cradled her son's chin and applied gentle pressure to urge his head upward. "I know you miss him. I do, too. It's been six long years without him, but he wouldn't want you to still be unhappy."
"And you think working at the ranch with some gnarly surfer dude from California will make me happy?" He jerked away from her touch and wagged one hand in the familiar hang loose surfer sign.
She dropped her hands into her lap and shook her head, biting back tears and her own anger. As a recreational therapist, she understood the kinds of emotions T.J. was venting with his aggressive behavior. Knew how to try to get him to open up about his feelings.
But as a mother, the attitude was frustrating.
"Jewel tells me Joe is a great kid and he's your age. Maybe you'll find that you have something in common."
Without waiting for his reply, she grabbed her purse and rushed out of the car, crossed the street and made a beeline for the door to Miss Sue's. She had promised her boss, Jewel Mayfair, that she would stop by the restaurant to pick up some of its famous sticky buns for the kids currently residing at the Hopechest Ranch.
When she reached the door, however, she realized he was there.
Decorated soldier, Jericho's older brother and unknown to him or anyone else in town, T.J.'s biological father. Only her husband, Tim, had known, and he had kept the secret to his grave.
The morning that had started out so-so due to T.J.'s moodi-ness just went to bad. She would have no choice but to acknowledge Fisher on her way to the take-out counter in the back of the restaurant. Especially since he looked up and noticed her standing there. His green-eyed gaze narrowed as he did so and his full lips tightened into a grim line.
He really should loosen up and smile some more, she thought, recalling the Fisher of her youth who had always had a grin ready for her, Tim and Jericho.
Although she couldn't blame him for his seeming reticence around her. She had done her best to avoid him during the entire time leading up to the wedding. Had somehow handled being around him during all the last-minute preparations, being polite but indifferent whenever he was around. It was the only way to protect herself against the emotions which lingered about Fisher.
In the week or so since she and Jericho had parted ways, it had been easier since she hadn't seen Fisher around town and knew it was just a matter of time before he was back on duty and her secret would be safe again.
She ignored the niggle of guilt that Fisher didn't know about TJ. Or that as a soldier, he risked his life with each mission and might not ever know that he had a son. Over the years she had told herself it had been the right decision to make not just for herself, but for Fisher as well. Jericho had told her more than once over the years how happy his older brother was in the Army. How it had been the perfect choice for him.
As much as the guilt weighed heavily on her at times, she could not risk any more problems with her son by revealing such a truth now. T.J. had experienced enough upset lately and he was the single most important thing in her life. She would do anything to protect him. To see him smile once again.
Which included staying away from Fisher Yates no matter how much she wanted to make things right between them.
Fisher was just finishing up a plate of Miss Sue's famous buckwheat pancakes when he looked up and glimpsed Macy Ward at the door to the café.
She seemed to hesitate for a moment when she spied him and he wondered why.
Did she feel guilty about avoiding him the whole time he'd been home or was her contriteness all about her change of mind at the altar where she had left his brother? Not that it had been the wrong thing to do. From the moment his kid brother Jericho had told him about his decision to marry Macy, Fisher had believed it was a mistake.
Not that he was any kind of expert on marriage, having avoided it throughout his thirty-seven years of life, but it struck him as wrong to be in a loveless marriage. Jericho should have known that given the experience of his own parents.
Their alcoholic mother had walked out on the Yates men when he was nine and old enough to realize that if there had been any love between his mother and father, drink had driven it away a long time before.
Macy finally pushed through the door and as she passed him, she dipped her head in greeting and said, "Mornin'."
"Mornin'," he replied, and glanced surreptitiously at her as she passed.
At thirty-five years of age, Macy Ward was a fine-looking woman. Trim but with curves in all the right places.
Fisher remembered those curves well. Remembered the strength and tenderness in her toned arms and legs as she had held him. Remembered the passion of their one night which was just another reason why he had known it was wrong for his brother and Macy to marry.
He couldn't imagine being married to a woman like Macy and having the relationship be platonic. Hell, if it were him, he'd have her in bed at every conceivable moment.
Well, at every moment that he could given the presence of her seventeen-year-old son TJ.
Which made him wonder where the boy was until he peered through the windows of Miss Sue's and spotted him sitting in Macy's car. His mop of nearly-black hair, much darker than Macy's light brown, hung down in front of his face, obscuring anything above his tight-lipped mouth.
Fisher wondered if TJ. was angry about the aborted wedding. To hear Jericho talk, the teenager had been none too happy with the announcement, but to hear his father talk, there wasn't much that TJ. had been happy with since T.J.'s father's death from cancer six years earlier.
Not that he blamed the boy. It had taken him a long time to get over his own mother's abandonment. Some might say he never had given his wandering life as a soldier and his inability to commit to any woman.
From behind him he heard the soft scuff of boots across the gleaming tile floor and almost instinctively knew it was Macy on her way back. Funny in how only just a couple of weeks he could identify her step and the smell of her.
She always smelled like roses.
But then again, observing such things was a necessary part of his military training. An essential skill for keeping his men alive.
His men, he thought and picked up the mug of steaming coffee, sweet with fresh cream from one of the small local ranches. In a couple of weeks, he would either be heading back for another tour of duty in the Middle East or accepting an assignment back in the States as an instructor at West Point.
Although he understood the prestige of being assigned to the military academy, he wasn't sure he was up for settling down in one place.
Since the day eighteen years ago when Macy had walked down the aisle with Tim, he had become a traveling man and he liked it that way. No ties or connections other than to his dad, younger brother and his men. People he could count on, he thought as the door closed on Macy's firm butt encased in soft faded denim.
A butt his hands itched to touch along with assorted other parts of her.
With a mumbled curse, he took a sip of the coffee, wincing at its heat. Reminded himself that he was only in town for a short period of time.
Too little time to waste wondering over someone who probably hadn't given him a second thought in nearly twenty years.
What made the drive to the Hopechest Ranch better wasn't just that it was shorter, Macy thought.
She loved the look of the open countryside and how it grew even more empty the farther they got away from Espe-ranza. The exact opposite of how it had been in the many years that she had made the drive to the San Antonio hospital where she had once worked.
Out here in the rugged Texas countryside, she experienced a sense of balance and homecoming. When Jewel Mayfair and the California side of the Colton family had bought the acres adjacent to the Bar None in order to open the Hopechest Ranch, Macy had decided she had wanted to work there. Luckily, she and Jewel had hit it off during her interview.
It wasn't just that they had similar ideas about dealing with the children at the ranch or that tragedy had touched both their lives. They were both no-nonsense rational women with a strong sense of family, honor and responsibility.
They had bonded immediately and their friendship had grown over the months of working together, so much so that she had asked Jewel to be her maid of honor.
Because she was a friend and understood her all too well, Jewel hadn't pressed her since the day she had canceled the wedding, aware of Macy's concerns about marrying Jericho and her turmoil over the actions of her son.
Macy was grateful for that as well as Jewel's offer to hire T.J. to work during the summer months at the ranch.
At seventeen, he was too old for after school programs, not to mention that for the many years she had worked in San Antonio, she had felt guilty about having him in such programs. Before Tim's death, T.J. used to go home and spend time with his father, who had been a teacher at one of the local schools.
She pulled up in front of the Spanish-style ranch house, which was the main building at the Hopechest Ranch. The Coltons had spared no expense in building the sprawling ranch house that rose up out of the flat Texas plains. Attention to detail was evident in every element of the house from the carefully maintained landscaping to the ornate hand-carved wooden double doors at the entrance.
Macy was well aware, however, that the Hopechest Ranch wasn't special because of the money the Coltons lavished on the house and grounds. It was the love the Coltons put into what they did with the kids within. She mumbled a small prayer that the summer spent here might help her work a change in T.J.'s attitude.
She parked off to one side of the driveway, shut off the engine and they both stepped out of the car.