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"Seventh grade is so gonna suck." Zoey Bannerman flopped down on her best friend Brandy Evers's couch and accepted a bowl of potato chips. "Thanks. The Open House at the junior high was the worst! Did you hear that snarky Heather Reed say I dress like a cowboy? She said Jay Lowery and all his friends call me a loser."
"Who cares what Heather says? She's mean." Brandy looked fierce as she passed Zoey a can of soda before sinking cross-legged onto the floor.
Opening the can, Zoey let it stop fizzing before she drank. "Things would be way better if I had a mom. I even heard Erma tell my dad he needs a wife. I wish I could help him find someone nice."
"You say that a lot, Zoey. I dunno. My mother says you can't just go out and pick a mom. It's up to your dad. Maybe you should talk to him."
"He might think I don't love him. I do, but next year school will be different with coed dances and stuff. Dad and Erma think since we live on a ranch it's okay if I wear jeans and boots all the time."
"Your housekeeper makes the best cookies in the world, but she's my grandma's age. And Erma doesn't shop anywhere except at La Mesa's general store.
What about setting your dad up with Trudy Thorne? Everybody knows she likes him."
"She's so phony. Erma says Trudy's only interested in how much my dad and Turkey Creek Ranch are worth."
"Then how about your dad's veterinarian? You like Delaney Blair and her kid."
"I love Delaney and Nick, but I heard Benny Lopez telling one of Dad's new ranch hands that Delaney's hung up on some guy who lives in Argentina."
"I don't know. He sold Dad his prize bull."
"Weird. I wonder why they aren't married."
Zoey shrugged. "Don't ask me. If my dad wanted to date anyone from La Mesa, don't you think he'd have done it by now?" She munched a few chips. "Your parents are so happy together. My dad's been alone for a long time. He's gotta be lonely." She set her soda can on a coaster on the coffee table. "I wish a nice woman from someplace else would move to La Mesa. Someone who wants a family." Hesitating, Zoey added, "Someone who'd love my dad, but who I could talk to about clothes and and boys."
"But your dad would have to meet her and ask her out first."
"Like that'll happen," Zoey lamented, twisting one of her braids.
"My mom said she'd take me to a big department store before school starts again in September-a place where they teach people how to put on makeup. And she promised I can get my ears pierced. If your dad says it's okay, you can go with us."
"Thanks. But I keep horning in on you and your mom."
"It's okay 'cause you don't have a mom, Zoey. And Erma doesn't even wear makeup, does she? Hey!" Brandy jumped up off the floor. "I have an idea. My mom gets a magazine called Her Own Woman. Last week her gourmet cooking club went on about a contest the magazine is running. With single men, one a month. My mom's friend Lacy Doran said readers go online and write up what they like about a certain man. Readers get picked by the magazine to meet the guys and deliver a check to his favorite charity. They go on a big night on the town, sort of like a date. I bet your dad qualifies. Wait, I'll show you."
She crossed the room and dug some glossy magazines out of a rack. Dropping down next to Zoey, Brandy flipped pages until she found the contest. The girls huddled together, reading.
"They need photos," Zoey said, frowning. "And an essay on why he deserves to be chosen. They've done January already. He's a skier." She opened the second magazine. "February is a mountain climber. Gosh, March and April aren't wearing shirts. I don't think my dad would go for this. And look it says all nominees have to sign a release."
"Only if he's picked, Zoey. You can write an essay. It says they want a compelling story. Remember when Mrs. T. did that lesson in language arts about how certain words show emotion or sympathy or whatever? Just write that your dad's lonely and you want him to be happy. It can't hurt to mention that it'd be great if your dad makes the cut, if they'll send a woman who knows about ranching.and teenage girls."
Zoey mumbled, "I won't officially be a teen till November."
"Still, the sooner you put in a request, the more chance your dad has to win." Brandy leaped up. "If they don't choose him, we'll figure out something else."
"Okay. Help me write. When I go home I'll start taking pictures."
"Let's go up to my room. I'll borrow my mom's laptop. If she comes in from her greenhouse, she'll probably say this is a bad idea. Moms are fussy like that, Zoey, I'm just saying."
Mack Bannerman stomped into the barn and began furiously pitching hay into a hay wagon.
"Worried about the drought?" asked Benny Lopez, who had been Turkey Creek's ranch foreman since Mack was a boy. "You'll feel better knowing I rode out to the spring that feeds Turkey Creek yesterday. There's water bubbling up. Your plan to drive the herd to Monument Draw May 1st should give them a chance to fatten up on sweet grass before we take them to market."
"Good. But it's not about the drought. It's Zoey. For three days she's been obsessed with taking pictures and it's driving me nuts. Every time I turn around she shoves a camera in my face. Today was the last straw. She barged into my bathroom when I was shaving and, bam, a flash blinded me. I cut my chin. We were both damned lucky I had a towel wrapped around my waist."
Benny threw back his head and laughed.
"I might laugh, too, if I hadn't had to give her a lecture on privacy. I hate scolding Zoey. Usually I support everything she does, but I'll admit I freaked out when she told me she wants to take photography classes in junior high. Maybe it's a passing fancy, but " Mack sighed and leaned on the handle of his pitchfork.
"Ah, you're thinking about Jilly." Benny rasped a thumb over his stubbled chin as he eyed Mack, who winced. Benny's remark propelled him back to the time of his father's death from a massive stroke. He'd been madly in love with a girl from Lubbock, where they'd both attended college. They'd even been engaged. Jill Walker was a photography major who, instead of supporting him in his hour of need, returned his ring by mail and flew off to Paris to further her career. That much he'd learned from her mother, who said he should forget Jill. And he'd had to drop out of college to run the ranch.
"I rarely think of Jill," he muttered. "But since you brought her up, you can't blame me for not wanting Zoey to be a globetrotter?" Mack dug his pitchfork into the pile of hay again.
Benny grunted and went back to hosing out stalls.
Mack paused to rub his shoulder. Telling Benny he rarely thought of Jill Walker wasn't true. He'd completed his agriculture degree online, so he received the college alumni newsletter-which often touted Jill's accomplishments. And he kept two of her early photos hanging on his bedroom wall. One was of a sunset over South Padre Island that Jill had shot the weekend they first made love-after he'd asked her to marry him. The other, a picture of their group of friends, she'd taken on campus. She'd set up a tripod and snapped the photo via remote. They all wore sappy grins.
He should toss the pictures. For one thing, the members of the group had scattered, or worse. Tom Corbin, a quiet, likable Yankee, had been killed in a motorcycle crash a week after Mack's dad died. And there was Faith. Her heart-damaged by childhood rheumatic fever-gave out during childbirth. Memories of Faith always came wrapped in sorrow and regret. Her life had never been happy. They'd dated for a while in high school, in spite of fierce opposition from her controlling, too-pious father. Even after they'd broken up because her parents were such jerks, Faith's father had insisted she attend a religious college. In defiance, the next year she followed Mack to Texas Tech. But by then he'd fallen in love with Jilly. Yet, through a quirk of fate he and Faith had ended up married. And Zoey-Faith's gift to him after so many losses in his life-came as a blessing.
He let his vacant gaze cruise past Benny.
"Maybe you should take a day off, boss. Go into town and have some fun."
"What? Oh, no, I was just thinking. Have you noticed how fast Zoey's growing up?" Mack's tone was wistful. "I wish I could still pop her in that chest sling I used-remember when the only thing that lulled her to sleep was me riding around the lowing herd at night?" He grinned. "She was so excited the first day we let her ride Misty."
"I don't see her riding as much these days."
"No. Erma thinks it's a phase because of her age . She mopes around. I don't know what to do, Benny. And I see Erma slowing down when Zoey most needs a woman's guidance."
"That's why Erma nags you to find a wife. If not for your sake, Mackenzie, then for Zoey's."
Shoving a lock of dark hair off his forehead, Mack stared out the open door into the nearby corral. "My heart's not in the hunt, Benny. My heart's not in the hunt."
Photojournalist J.J. Walker rushed into the weekly planning meeting at the New York high-rise offices of Her Own Woman magazine. She juggled her morning coffee, a bulging camera case and a portfolio from her most recent fashion shoot in Cancun, where she'd gone after covering the Mardi Gras in New Orleans. It was already April. She'd been on location for a month, and if her office assistant hadn't reminded her about this meeting, she would have missed it. Settling into an empty chair, she took a big gulp of coffee, liberally laced with cream and sugar. When she glanced at the hundred-inch wall screen where editors were displaying upcoming layouts, she was bombarded by four up-close photos of a man she'd never expected to see again-the only man she'd ever pledged to marry.
Choking, she spewed coffee all over her skirt and new Dolce Vita wedge sandals, which even with her deep professional discount had cost a mint. She created a stir in the room as she noisily mopped up. When everything except her racing heart had calmed down, she asked, "Wh-what's with the, uh, cowboy?" She wanted to deny it, but she knew the pictures staring down at her were of a more mature, but still handsome, Mack Bannerman.
A beaming features editor loudly announced, "He's our Mr. August, J.J."
"Yeah, our Mr. Hot August," an art assistant joked as she fanned her face.
Though she didn't intend to give anything away, J.J. blurted, "I thought all our featured men had to be single."
"I hoped you might know him." Donna Trent, the boss, turned in her seat to focus on the flustered J.J., even as the features editor went on to say, "According to the essay, Mackenzie Bannerman, Texas rancher, is very single."
Last year someone on staff had proposed featuring one man a month in the magazine. J.J. had been one of the few dissenters. She continued to shake her head. "I must have confused him with someone else."
Donna pounced. "Come on, J.J., he's from La Mesa. Your hometown is Lubbock. I know you've been home recently. Didn't you just help your mom move into an apartment in an assisted-living community? On the map, Lubbock and La Mesa aren't too far apart."
"Texas is big," J.J. mumbled. "Okay-I know of him. Everyone within hog-calling distance of La Mesa, which by the way is pronounced La-mee-sa, not La-may-sa, knows of Mack Bannerman. He owns Turkey Creek Cattle Ranch, the biggest Hereford breeding ranch in West Texas." Although what J.J. really wanted to say-that Mackenzie Banner-man was a two-timing rat-she couldn't without opening a vein and releasing years of pent-up heartache. She thought she'd vanquished those feelings, but apparently she hadn't.
"Perfect," her boss said. "Since you'll be interviewing and photographing Mr. Bannerman for his layout. He's a hit. Readers are already clamoring online for a chance to meet him, based solely on his entry photos."
J.J.'s heart dropped to her brightly polished toes, now sticky with cream and sugar. "Assign someone else, Donna. I'm still jet-lagged from back-to-back assignments. I haven't had time to download the pre-summer fashions I took in Cancun yet."
"Joaquin is in Miami filming Mr. July, who's studying migrating sharks and dolphins. Our part-time photog is on maternity leave. I'd think you'd jump at the chance to check on your mom. I know you were worried that she'd have a hard time after losing your stepdad."
"True. But honestly, Donna, after taking a closer look, Bannerman's not all that photogenic. Let me scan our other prospects and find someone better."
The room erupted in hoots of laughter. "What's 'better?'" an assistant shouted. "He's gorgeous."
The creative director waved the essay, silencing the staff. "Everyone on the selection committee thinks it's so sweet, J.J. His daughter nominated him. She hopes we'll send the check for his charity with a nice lady who might make a suitable wife for her poor, widowed dad."
Donna broke in again. "This program has given us a huge jump in subscriptions. Almost triple compared to last year. If you write a story to capitalize on the sympathy angle, think of the publicity. Of course, we'll have to do our best to send a reader who ends up marrying him. That will make a fantastic follow-up down the line."
J.J. considered Donna a friend as well as a boss, but with Donna the magazine always came first, so she wasn't surprised by the suggestion. However, the notion that she'd participate in setting Mack up with some unknown woman was appalling. J.J. knew, of course, that he had at least one child. She was only too aware he'd had that child with Faith Adams, his former girlfriend. Although they'd betrayed her, J.J. had been sorry to hear about Faith's death.
The staff member with the essay said, "We'll screen the candidates carefully. It's obvious that his daughter wants her dad to fall in love and be happy again. And she's yearning for a mother, so we'll have to find someone nurturing. This poor kid lost her mother at birth."
That shocked J.J., who had specifically avoided asking about Mack on her trip home. And her mother, who hadn't wanted her to marry a rancher, would have never been the one to bring him up. However, the Mack Bannerman she'd known had been an intensely private person, and he'd be horrified to have a bunch of people mucking around in his life. Unless he 'd changed.
She could still clearly recall the night thirteen years ago when she'd driven from Lubbock to Turkey Creek Ranch to tell Mack about a scholarship she'd been offered to study for her master's in photojournalism in France. She'd hoped Mack would ask to move up their wedding date; she'd have gladly foregone Paris to be his wife. But she'd walked in on a touching scene with her fiancé consoling his sobbing former girlfriend. Faith was blubbering about being pregnant, and saying that her very religious parents would, if not kill her, make her life miserable for what they'd deem a terrible sin.