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"Jace! Jace, come back here this instant!"
The sound of a truck door slamming in the distance tempered the sheer panic in Addie Gentry's voice as she burst through the same door that seconds before her son had shot out of like a pellet from a BB gun. She'd be blasted, though, if she'd duck her head in embarrassment. She wasn't about to give her son the notion he could get away with such behavior just because one of the ranch hands happened to be within earshot. Nossir.
Thank goodness that at her order, Jace stopped short of the weathered gazebo halfway across the yard. She could see he still radiated pent-up emotion, fists nailed to his sides in barely leashed frustration, telling her he was spring-loaded to take off again. And making him look like another who'd up and left.
It raised the fine hairs on the back of her neck.
"You are not running away from here, Jace," Addie said, sparing not a glance toward whoever it was who'd slammed the truck door and marching toward her son. Her progress was hindered by the heels of her one and only pair of nice pumps suck-plugging in the turf with every step, which escalated her own frustration this morning yet another count. The expensive shoes would be ruined in this mud, which only added insult to injury: they'd already punished the tender tissues of her feet, widened by miles in cowboy boots.
The hair she'd spent forty minutes coaxing into order in the damp mid-April weather frizzed up around her face like she'd stepped on a live wire. Now, there was a thought. As good a solution as any. Unfortunately, she had barely enough time as it was to get the situation with Jace taken care of, much less find a moment to fix her hairwith Connor due any minute.
"I will not stand for this sort of behavior," Addie informed Jace when she reached him. "You got a problem with what's goin' on, you stay and work it out. Runnin' tear for bear out the door is not an option!"
He at least had the grace to look ashamed, as he scuffed a boot toe against the gazebo's worn wooden step, making him seem more like the boy she'd raised and not the rebel who'd taken over her son's six-year-old body ever since her announcement last month. This boy she had some hope of reasoning with.
"Jace," she said, gently taking him by the shoulders to turn him toward her, still ignoring the figure at the corner of her vision who had the decency not to intrude on their private business, even if they were conducting it practically in public. "Hon, why won't you at least give him a chance?"
'"Cause he's a phony, Mama!" He looked up at her, amber-green eyes again turning contrary in his boyish face. "He says he's a rancher, but he can't hardly rope a cow or nothin'. All the boys laugh about how he's the only rancher they've seen who gets slicked up before he goes to work every day."
It sounded as if she needed to have a talk with the hands, Addie thought severely, perhaps starting with the one who'd set out toward them from across the ranch yard. She narrowed her eyes, trying to make out his identity, but the drab light and misty air obscured even the edges of the red barn behind him.
She bent back to Jace. "Just because a man's got some things to learn, that doesn't mean he's a phony, hon."
His small shoulders twitched impatiently under her palms. "But he's always callin' me his paland we're not!"
"He's only trying to be friendly! I know for a fact that Connor is one-hundred-percent earnest about being your dad"
"But I don't want him for my dad!" Jace broke in, getting upset all over again. "I don't wanna go live somewhere else 'sides here!"
His struggle against her hold on him nearly broke her heart. It just wasn't like Jace to be so desperatewhich made Addie realize how deeply the feelings in her son went regarding this particular issue, feelings she'd believed long ago resolved.
Well, she sure had been wrong.
What was she to do, though? It was time. Time for her to lay the past to rest once and for all and get on with her lifeand take definite steps toward putting a father into Jace's.
"Jace, please," Addie said huskily, her fingers tightening on his shoulders. "I know this is a lot of change to take in right now. But I really do think you'll feel differently if you just give Connor a chance." She hesitated, then went on in soft appeal. "Give us all a chance to be a real family."
This sent him into an absolute frenzy. "No, we won't! He can't be my dad!"
"But why not, Jace?" she asked, completely stumped.
"'Cause!" His eyes filled with rare tears, disturbing Addie even more. "I don't want a dad, ever!"
With that, Jace broke free, whirling around and taking off like a locomotive at full speed away from her, head down, jeans-clad legs pumping. Addie could only look achingly after him. She'd never felt more helpless in her life, for she didn't believe for a moment that Jace didn't want a father. That wasn't the problem, but she was confounded as to what really was.
And just as at a loss about how she might find out.
Then the boy was suddenly swept from his feet with a deep "Whoa there, Slick," and swung around in a movement as smooth as a dance step, dislodging Jace's cowboy hat from his head. The move surprised him enough that he struggled not at all, but only stared up at the stranger who held him under the arms like an eight-week-old puppy.
For this man, Addie now saw, wasn't one of the Bar G's ranch hands although there was something uncommonly familiar about him. She couldn't make out his expression under the shading brim of his black Stetson, but his stance was like stone as he, too, stared down at Jace in surprise.
Leaning a hand against the railing, Addie straightened as she took in the whole of himlithe and lean and tense as a jungle cat, vigilant. Dangerous.
A steel rod of shock shot through her spine, making every muscle in her body go rigid. It couldn't be!
The sun broke through the clouds, cranking the humidity up another couple of notches and distracting her from the danger swirling around her. It was getting late. She needed to get Jace taken care of, needed to batten down this thicket of hair and scrape the mud off her heels. Needed to remind Opal, the wife of one of the ranch hands who tended the house, to pick up Daddy's prescription at the pharmacy when she was in town for groceries. Needed to do the thousand and one things that signified life going on as usual.
The problem was it couldn'tnot when the danger wasn't around her but within her. For in that instant her traitorous heart rose up in her with the force of a hundred-year flood, drowning out every other sound in the world with its jubilant cry: At last! At last, he's come back.
Oh, I knew he 'd keep his promise!
He had a son.
The realization rocked him, tipped his world and set each ever-so-carefully placed piece on it careening perilously toward the rim.
Deke Larrabie scrutinized the dark-haired boy that he held; his hawk eyes that could spot a case of scours in a calf before it started looking peaked were hindered not one whit by the overcasting clouds. The air hung heavy around him, though, making it hard to breathe, hard to think.
For it changed the whole picturehis whole lifeif he'd left Addie Gentry pregnant.
Could he be wrong? A skirmish over the question broke out in him. Even as Deke did a review of the events of the past couple of months that had brought him to this moment, he clung to the possibility as he would a rope over a yawning canyon.
But why else would Addie's father have labeled his call providential, even if Deke had been phoning in direct enquiry to Jud Gentry's ad for a ranching consultant at the Bar G? Except that when Jud hadn't mentioned Addie, Deke had assumed life had taken her away from the ranch and that she no longer lived there.
Of course, he hadn't had the guts to assign the label "happily married" to the situation, even in his own mind. But when he'd first spotted her a moment ago with the boy who was obviously her son, he'd felt nothing but relieved gratefulness that after he left she had gone on and found happiness.
That hadn't exactly been evident in the tone of their words, unclear to him except for the lastthat heart-wrenching cry of I don't want a dad, ever!
Desperately, he peered at the boy as he slowly lowered him to the ground, the small hands continuing to clutch Deke's shirtsleeves. The smattering of freckles across his nose, like splatters of tan paint, was all Addie, he thought. So was the wide lower lip that gave the youngster the appearance, at least at this moment, of being able to bend without breaking, being able to yield precious ground while not giving it all up.
But the Will Rogers cowlick in front and those cat-colored eyes looking up at him with an even more impossible mixture of hope and doubtthose were pure Larrabie, come by in a straight shot from Deke's father D.K., to Deke, to this boy.
He had a son. They had a son. He and Addie.
And the past seven years he'd been living a lie.
Another depth charge of emotion buffeted Deke, as nitro-potent as he'd experienced in ages. What a fool he was, thinking he had a chance to make anything up to Jud or in any way change the fate that had been written for him the day he was born.
Because it was not this boy, but Addie who changed everything. Everything.
At the realization, his heart set up a pounding cadence, its pace growing stronger and faster, like a clock wound too tight after years of never being wound at all. Holding his breath, he focused on slowing down the sound until it beat out a nerve-steadying rhythm, metronome-like. One-two thud-thump.
Deke knew the mantra; it had become a part of him. You and you alone are in charge of your destiny. He was not at the mercy of his inclinations. At the mercy of his emotions.
Slowly, he raised his head and found her gaze.
"Hello, Addie," Deke said, speaking for the first time in seven years the name of the woman he'd lovedand left.
He knows, Addie thought wildly. He knows about Jace. But perhaps that was all he knew at this point.
She had to get both herself and Jace safely away, though, from the force that was Deke Larrabie.
"Jace. Come on back here, hon," she said as calmly as she could, holding her hand out to her son. Thankfully, he came, although the whole way he craned his head around to stare at the stranger as if he were Duke Wayne in the flesh.
Once he'd reached her, she couldn't prevent herself from pressing him close to her side, obstructing his sight of the stranger. Or was she blocking Jace from Deke's view?
His eyes were only for her, though, as he started toward her. Amber-green, eerie in their detachment, yet as intense as ever.
In fact, everything about him was more intense. More Deke-like. He'd always filled out a Western shirt and pair of Wranglers in a way that was uniquely, devastatingly him. Had always worn a Stetson at that exact angle, pulled low over his eyes, in a way that had her believing the cowboy hat had been invented just for him.
Now, though, he wore everything with even more command, so that the fit of the shirt stretching across those wide shoulders, the cut of the jeans hugging those long legs, even the shade over his eyes created by his hat's wide brimall of them seemed branded by Deke Larrabie as she once had been, and as her son now was.
It took every bit of her willpower to silence her heart, which continued to beat against the walls of her chest like a captive hostage, because she knew that the real moment of reckoning had yet to comethe one in which she'd discover why Deke Larrabie had really come back.
Whatever the reaction showing on her face, at least it stopped him ten feet from her and her son. Addie seized the advantage and pressed it home while she could.
"All right, hon." She brushed back Jace's thick, burnished-bronze hair. "You don't have to go with us to Houston if you don't want, but then you need to go help Granddad in the office."
"Why?" Jace stalled, pulling away from her, his questioning gaze trained on her face.
Her own eyes remained on Deke. She almost expected from him a lightning move or sleight of hand that would snatch away some precious belonging, leaving her feeling dispossessed and bewildered by what had happened and how.
But that had already occurred, hadn't it?
And, by God, it wouldn't happen again.
"Do as I say, please, Jace," Addie said more sternly, giving the boy a helping push in the right direction.
"I'm not leavin'." He planted his booted feet in front of her.
Exasperated, she glanced down. Her son had sure picked a fine time to go from running away from conflict to hanging tough. She wondered whether to kill him or kiss him, but she knew that her first order of business must be to protect him.
"Please, hon," Addie said, trying for a reassuring smile. "I'll be all right."
"But you know him, don'tcha, Mama?"
"Yes," she said, praying he'd take the rest of her answer on trust. Yet how could you convey such a feeling if you'd given it up a long, long time ago?
"Then, who is he, Mama?" Jace asked.
"Who's that man?"
The boy's question was like a wake-up call, breaking the spell he'd been under. Deke found his feet moving from the spot where Addie's warning look had riveted him. He started toward her again, still not knowing what he would say, how he would say it, if he should say anything at all. Regardless, any explanation Addie chose to make shouldn't have to be made alone.
He stopped in front of her, trying hard not to put a label on the nature of the emotion radiating from her. Trying not to anticipate his own reaction.
Yet the sight and sound and smell of her filled his senses to the brink. Her eyes were even bluer than he remembered, the shade of blue that could bolt a man to the wall or drown him in desire. That flaming red hair spilled over her shoulders in a thick flow, like lava over a mountainside, as it swirled and waved with a life of its own. She wore a form-fitting skirt and short jacket in yellow, making her look as out of place as a daffodil sprung from the winterscapeand yet fitting as much as she ever did the definition of Texas ranch royalty.
Of course. He'd been the one who hadn't fit in here. Sons of alcoholic cowboys who were surviving only by the grace of such royalty weren't included in that class. Especially after his father had repaid the Gentrys' kindness by letting a hundred-thousand-dollar ranch building burn to the ground around him, too drunk to save it or even himselfalthough, in truth, he'd already been dead inside for years .
At the thought, Deke felt his heart speed up, like a time bomb inside him just waiting to explode.
No! He must remember: Sure, he was D. K. Larrabie's son. And yes, they bore the same name. But he was not his father. This D. K. Larrabie had set his every fiber to taking charge of his future, just as he'd set his mind to becoming the best damn ranch manager in Montana.