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A rolling sea of bluebonnets in full bloom flowed out from where Grace Cameron sat at a roadside table. Her son, Evan, ran back and forth, pretending to ride an imaginary horse. But not even his boyish antics could lift her mood today.
Once, hills blanketed in bluebonnets had soothed her, allowing her to believe there was hope and beauty in the world beyond her daily existence. Now, the sight of them and the town in the distance caused fear and uncertainty to swirl inside her like a Texas twister.
Texas. She looked toward the horizon, soaking in a tiny sliver of Texas's vast and varied expanse. When her parents had dragged her away nearly seven years ago, she'd thought she'd never see it again. Later, she'd avoided the state for fear she'd lose more than she already had. And yet here she sat gazing out across the spring-painted Hill Country, on the verge of taking the final step in a decision that she'd second-guessed every moment since she'd made it.
She glanced at Evan, at his miniature cowboy boots and hat, the pint-size Wrangler jeans, and couldn't help but smile despite her inner turmoil. When she'd told him they were taking a vacation to Texas, that he was going to attend Cowboy Camp for Kids, he'd transformed into a bouncing ball of joy and excitement. While other little boys his age were into Star Wars and anime cartoons, he loved the reruns of old Westerns. His favorite cartoon character was Woody from Toy Story. He thought horses were God's greatest creation and believed everyone should have at least one.
You couldn't fight DNA.
"You ready to go, kiddo?"
Evan stopped midgallop. "Are we almost there?"
She nodded and pointed across the field of wildflowers. "See that town?"
"That's Blue Falls. The camp is just a few miles on the other side."
His face lit up so much Grace wouldn't have been surprised if he started glowing. He raced to the car and was inside strapping on his seat belt by the time she managed to stand. She stared toward Blue Falls a bit longer, at the waterfalls that gave the town its name, the shimmer off the lake around which the town was built. Thousands of tourists flocked here each year, and all she wanted to do was turn around and leave it far behind.
But this trip wasn't about what she wanted. It was about what was best for her son.
Her feet felt as if they were encased in wet, heavy concrete as she headed for the car. She placed her hand on her stomach as if the action would calm the nausea plaguing her.
As she drove through Blue Falls, it felt familiar, and yet not. Some businesses she remembered from her youth were gone, others still there. She'd swear the same old coots were sitting out in front of the Primrose Cafe swapping probably the same old stories. The Blue
Falls Music Hall had gotten a sorely needed facelift in the intervening years.
Taking in the view of her hometown was a little like having an out-of-body experience. She wasn't the same Grace Cameron who'd lived here before, but that didn't keep a flood of old feelings from washing into every part of her body.
Evan stretched toward the window as far as his seat belt would let him. "I don't see any cowboys." The disappointment in his tone made Grace want to laugh and cry at the same time.
"Don't worry, they're around. A lot of these people are probably on vacation, like us." No doubt here for the popular wildflower tours. The appearance of the bluebonnets in March of each year made people crazy for wildflowers.
Grace looked at the faces they passed, too, searching for someone familiar. Searching for Nathan.
For what seemed like the millionth time, she imagined all the ways he might respond when he found out he had a son. Shock. Disbelief. Anger. Probably all three. And he'd be entitled to each one.
She shook her head. No sense in torturing herself with possibilities. She'd find out the reality soon enough.
They waited at the last stoplight while a tour bus made the wide turn onto Main Street. The words Wild-flower Tours stretched down the side of the bus, and little painted bluebonnets peeked out from around the letters. Grace wondered what it would be like to visit Blue Falls without any previous ties to the town or the people here.
"The light's green, Mom."
"Oops." She reined in her wandering thoughts and proceeded through the intersection.
They began the winding climb out of Blue Falls, and before she was readywould she ever be ready?they reached the Vista Hills Guest Ranch. Her palms grew sweaty against the steering wheel as she made the turn and started down the driveway lined with cedar and gnarled live oak trees.
Panic threatened to overwhelm her. What was she doing here?
She was here because Evan had a father.
And Nathan had a son.
Someday that relationship might be the most important one in the worldto her, at least.
When she rounded the last curve that brought her within view of the heart of the ranch, she had to take a deep breath. She didn't want Evan to sense how nervous she was. He might be only six, but he was observant and not easily fooled. As she pulled into a parking space next to the ranch office, Grace noticed a few other families with small children. They really were here for a vacation, to allow their kids a bit of cowboy fun. How she wished the days ahead would be that simple for her.
She eyed the other guests, but from her vantage point she couldn't tell if Laney and her daughter, Cheyenne, were among them. Grace didn't know if she could have come here without Laney for moral support.
"Mom, look! Horses!"
Grace looked toward the barns and surrounding corrals, remembering their locations as if she'd been here only yesterday. Half a dozen horses stood in the fenced enclosure next to the stables, and two families were gathered there as their little ones climbed up the fence for a better view. She noticed a man in jeans and a cowboy hat inside the fence talking to the group, but from this distance she couldn't tell if it was Nathan, one of his brothers, or an employee.
"Can we go look at the horses?"
"In a few minutes. We have to check in first."
"Honey, the horses aren't going anywhere. You want to see our cabin, don't you?"
"Not as much as the horses."
The way he said it, all dramatic and pouty-faced, caused a laugh to escape her. Evan met her eyes in the rearview mirror, not at all amused.
Grace shook her head as she got out of the car. If she gave Evan a couple of minutes, he'd forget being put out with her and move on to admiring something else.
Evan's boots clonked on the wooden front steps of the office, and Grace wondered if Nathan had looked like that when he was young. A full-grown cowboy in his mind but only a little boy in truth.
With another deep breath, Grace opened the door and followed Evan inside.
"Well, hello there, young man," the older woman at the front desk said when she spotted Evan.
"Hello. I'm here to be a cowboy."
Merline Teague laughed, totally unaware she was talking to her grandson. Grace's throat went uncomfortably dry as she realized they'd just stepped beyond the point of no return.
"Well, then, you've come to the right place. What's your name, cowboy?"
"Nice to meet you, Evan Cameron."
Evan flicked up the front of his tan hat the way he'd seen movie-star cowboys do in all those old films. Merline paused as she reached for the appointment book, looking at him a moment longer as if she'd seen something that surprised her. Grace held her breath as her heart did its best to crack her ribs with its frantic beating.
Merline consulted her reservation book then looked at Grace for the first time. "Grace?"
Merline glanced at Evan again, but only for a brief moment. "It's so good to see you. Been a long time."
"Yes, ma'am." Jeez, could she say nothing else?
Merline waved her hand in a "no need for that" type of gesture. "You're a grown woman now. Call me Merline."
"Yes " Grace caught herself before she three-peated her response.
Merline eyed her reservation book again while Grace marveled at how little Nathan's mother had changed. She was still trim and fit with a tan that spoke of lots of time spent outdoors. She wasn't the type of woman to color her hair, but she didn't need to because she had gorgeous silver hair cut in a bob just below her ears. She was casual and classy at the same time, a woman comfortable in her skin and her surroundings.
"So you're living in Arkansas now," Merline said.
Grace could almost imagine the unspoken words. Always wondered where you and your family disappeared to.
"Moved there after college. My best friend was from the area, so we decided to set up shop there."
"What do you do?" Merline pulled a key from a rack behind her.
"Oh, I bet that's fun. I love watching all those design shows on HGTV. I start watching one, and the next thing you know three hours have passed."
"Even when you do it all day?"
Grace nodded. "Can't seem to get enough of it, I guess." She supposed she was still trying to fill her life with beautiful things after so many years of being forbidden them.
Merline handed Grace the key and a sheet of paper. "You're in cabin twelve. Just take the drive behind the office."
Merline smiled, looking as if dozens of questions were swirling unspoken inside her. Could she possibly have put things together that quickly, especially since Grace and Nathan had never really dated? Grace fought the urge to grab the key and run, telling herself that her anxiety was causing her to see things that weren't there. She tried not to think how Evan might have inherited his keen sense of observation from his paternal grandmother.
"That's the schedule for the weekend," Merline said as she pointed to the paper she'd handed Grace. "You're just in time to get settled before the tour."
"Will we get to see the horses?" Evan was bouncing on the balls of his feet, unable to keep still.
Merline smiled at him. "Yes, sir. Lots of horses."
Grace laughed right along with Merline. "Excited, isn't he?"
Grace pushed down the front of Evan's hat. "Yes, he's talked about nothing else since I told him he was going to Cowboy Camp."
"Our boys were crazy for horses at that age, too. Still are."
The mention of the Teague brothers ratcheted Grace's anxiety up another notch. She placed her hand on Evan's back. "Let's go, pardner. We need to unpack."
This time, Evan didn't express how unpacking was way down his list of things he wanted to do. Instead, he turned and headed for the door.
"Good to see you again, Grace."
Was there an extra layer of meaning in those words, or was she imagining it?
Grace met the other woman's gaze only briefly. "You, too, ma Merline." She stepped toward the door before she could stumble over something besides Mer-line's name.
Just as she and Evan reached the door, it swung open and a much larger version of her son stepped inside.
"Mom, it's a cowboy," Evan said in awe.
Yes, it was indeed a cowboy. And Nathan Teague still took her breath away.
Nathan looked down at the little guy tricked out in full cowboy attire. Whose idea had it been to let the ranch be overrun by munchkins all week? Oh, yeah, his. Temporary insanity, had to be. Already, two campers had cried when the horses got too close. One had screamed so loudly his parents had apologized profusely and headed back to Austin so they could check in to a hotel with a nice, big pool. He looked at their latest arrival and wondered how this one would react. Oh, well, he had to make the best of the situation.
He touched the front of his hat. "Looks to me like there are two cowboys in here."
The little boy scanned the office before he realized what Nathan meant. He smiled so wide, Nathan couldn't help but smile back. Maybe there was hope yet.
"Nathan, you remember Grace Cameron?"
He looked at his mom, who nodded at a woman standing to the side of the little boy. It took a few clicks of the cogs in his brain for the truth to slip into place. But beyond the stylish, beautiful blonde in front of him, he could just make out the girl who'd been his algebra tutor. A girl he'd made love to and then pretended like it didn't happen.
A girl who had disappeared without a trace, without a word. And now she reappeared just as suddenly and without warning.
"Grace." For some reason, his brain couldn't force more than her name out of his mouth.
"Nathan, good to see you."
She only met his eyes for the barest hint of a moment before she turned her attention to the boy. "Yours?" he asked.
"Yes." Her voice sounded small, the same as he remembered it. So a part of that teenage girl remained below the surface of the woman she'd grown into.
The little boy looked up at Grace. "Mom, do you know the cowboy?"
"Yes, honey," she said, her voice stronger. "This is Nathan Teague. We used to go to school together."
The kid looked as if his mother had just told him she knew his favorite football player or superhero.
Grace placed her hands on the boy's shoulders in what looked like a protective gesture. Maybe she was nervous that he might get hurt here, a common worry among the parents he'd met so far today. He resisted the odd urge to reassure her.
"Nathan, this little cowboy is Evan," she said.
Nathan extended his hand, and Evan shook it without hesitation.
"You've got a good grip there."
If possible, Evan grinned even wider.
"Were you good at school, too?" Evan asked.
Nathan laughed. "Not as good as your mom. In fact, she had to help me pass one of my classes."
Evan nodded. "She helps me with my homework, too."
"You're mighty young to have homework."
"You'd be surprised," Grace said. "School has changed a lot in just a few years." So had Grace. Or had her voice always been that pretty, the audible equivalent of a gorgeous spring day, and he'd never noticed it cloaked in her shyness? He had the oddest sensation that he'd like to hear her read to him. This time when she met his eyes, they held for a little longer, allowing him to appreciate their pale blue color. When she seemed to realize this, she ushered her son toward the door. Having forgotten what had brought him inside, he followed in her wake.
"Are you back in Blue Falls?" he asked.
"Just a little vacation."
Evan spotted the horses and a few more kids down by the corrals. "Mom, can I go see the horses? Please!"
She looked about to refuse, with an edge of concern pulling at her features. It wasn't the first time he'd seen that look today. "He'll be safe. Simon and Dad are down there."