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Dr. Kate McNeal sat back in her seat by the front window of Jackson Hole's newest coffee shop, enjoying her cappuccino. It was Saturday and, thanks to a very generous on-call rotation schedule at the pediatrics clinic, she had the whole weekend off.
All Dressed Up and Nowhere to Go could be her motto. Kate sighed and took another sip. Although she'd been in Jackson Hole for almost two years, she had no close friends. Oh, she had tons of social buddies, men and women who invited her to their parties and other events. But no one she felt comfortable calling up on a Saturday morning and asking, "Hey, do you want to grab a scone and then do some shopping?"
Part of the problem was that most of the women she knew had husbands and children. Once she'd reached her early thirties, Kate had discovered there weren't many women left in the single, never-married category. But she couldn't blame her current loneliness all on her marital status.
As a child, Kate had been painfully shy. While in her professional life she did fine, shyness was still a struggle in social settings. Worse yet, her reticence often led to her being labeled "aloof" or "standoffish" by those who didn't know her well.
She smoothed the skirt of the buttercup-yellow dress she'd purchased last week. Even though most of the coffee shop patrons were wearing jeans or shorts with a casual shirt, Kate liked to dress up. Wearing pretty things made her feel pretty, a feeling that had been in short supply during her growing-up years. Unlike her sister, Andrea, who everyone still raved over, it had taken years for Kate's lanky body to develop a few curves and for her teeth to not look too large for her face.
Back in her early twenties, when she was finally reaching out and becoming the woman she was meant to be, her world had fallen apart. Her grandmother had died. Her boyfriend had deserted her. And she'd had to make a decision no woman should ever have to make alone. A decision she now lived with every day of her life.
Kate choked down the last bite of lemon-curd scone and gazed out the window, wondering if some shopping therapy would help get her out of this funk.
She was ready to give it a try when she saw Joel Dennes heading toward Hill of Beans, his nine-year-old daughter, Chloe, in tow. Even though she told herself to look away, Kate couldn't take her eyes off them.
Thankfully Joel didn't see her staring. Dressed in jeans and a striped cotton shirt that brought out the green in his hazel eyes, the handsome contractor's entire focus was on his young daughter. Joel was tallat least six foot twowith a rugged outdoorsy build. His child was petite and slender as a reed with delicate features. From the bag Chloe held, it appeared they'd just come from the dance studio down the street.
So far, on this sunny June morning, Kate had seen at least six little girls walk by with their mothers. All carried the same type of "dancer" bag she'd once owned.
The normally reserved Chloe let out a peal of laughter at something her father said, and his eyes crinkled with good humor as he settled his hand on her shoulder.
From everything she'd heard and seen, Joel had been doing his best to be both mother and father to Chloe since the death of her mom two years ago.
As far as Kate was concerned, such actions spoke volumes about a man's character. She admired him for stepping up to the plate, admired him a lot.
She shifted in her seat so that her back was to the window, ensuring if they looked her way, she'd simply be a dark-haired woman in a yellow dress.
"Is Joel why you told Ryan you didn't want to see him anymore?"
Kate shifted her gaze to find Lexi Delacourt standing beside her table, latte in hand, wearing a stylish green-and-brown dress with a short green sweater. Lexi's dark hair hung loose to her shoulders in a sleek bob. The social worker's amber-colored eyes held a knowing look as her gaze shifted from Kate to the front door. If the bells jingling were any indication, Joel and his daughter had just entered the coffee shop.
"C'mon, Kate, spill." Without waiting for an invitation, Lexi took a seat at Kate's tiny table. "Did you break it off with Ryan because you've got a thing for Joel?"
Lexi and her husband were part of the large ensemble of young professionals that Kate considered "social" friends. They held frequent parties and embraced any opportunity to get together.
Kate's ex-boyfriend, Ryan Harcourt, was part of this group. A former championship bull rider, he had gone on to law school, then returned to his hometown of Jackson to practice. He and Kate had dated until recently when she'd told him she thought it best if they didn't see each other anymore.
In truth, she'd have been content to continue dating him. He was smart, fun and helped fill those lonely hours when she wasn't working. But Ryan had begun to push for a physical and emotional closeness that was more than Kate could give.
Because of her past, she found it difficult to be open even with guys she dated. No, especially with guys she dated.
Ryan had given their relationship his all. She'd given it as much as she could, but refused to pretend to have feelings that weren't there.
"Be honest with me," Lexi pressed. "Do you like Joel better than Ryan?"
"It's not that." Kate took a sip of her cappuccino, stalling for time, considering how much to divulge. She hated discussing her personal life. "Ryan and I wereare simply friends."
That much was true.
"His feelings go deeper than friendship." Lexi's eyes never left Kate's face. "I know he really likes you."
Kate fought a surge of irritation. Coming from Pittsburgh and then doing her residency in Los Angeles, she still hadn't completely acclimated to living in a small community. Even though Jackson Hole was a thriving tourist destination, it sometimes felt as if everyone knew everyone's business.
"I realize you and Nick consider Ryan a good friend." Kate chose her words carefully, not wanting to offend. While she might travel in their social circle, she hung on to the fringe by a fingernail while Ryan was firmly woven into the fabric of the group.
"We consider you a friend, too, Kate." As if she'd read her mind, the attractive brunette reached over and briefly covered Kate's hand with hers. "As well as Joel."
The sincerity in Lexi's voice touched Kate's heart. Perhaps she should come clean with the beautiful brunette. After all, it wasn't as if there was any big secret underlying her relationship and breakup with Ryan.
Not like there would be if I dated Joel.
Kate inhaled sharply. Date Joel? Where had that thought even come from? Joel Dennes was the last person she'd ever consider dating. The very last person.
"I'm sorry," Lexi said unexpectedly when the silence lengthened, her cheeks now a bright pink. "It's none of my concern."
"Ryan is a great guy," Kate said honestly. "But you're right. He was looking for something more than I wanted out of our relationship."
Ryan had made it clear he was ready to settle down. He'd been convinced he was in love with her. But how could he be? There was so much about her he didn't know.
Lexi gave a little laugh. "That simply tells me he wasn't 'The One' for you."
"The problem wasn't with Ryan." Kate rose to his defense. "It was me. I'm not ready to settle down."
Kate conveniently pushed aside the promise she'd made to herself that when she turned thirty, she'd put her past to rest and move on. That had proven impossible, especially in Jackson Hole.
"If Ryan had been 'The One' it wouldn't have mattered if you were ready or if this was the right time or not."
Kate opened her mouth to argue the point, but Lexi waved her silent.
"Let me tell you a little story." The social worker's hands encircled her cup, the large diamond on her ring finger glittering in the sunlight. "If you'd asked me three years ago why I wasn't in a relationship, I'd have given the same excuse. I was raising Addie on my own and I was content with that arrangement. Then I met Nick."
Kate envied the happiness she saw in Lexi's eyes and heard in her voice, but she wasn't about to get drawn into a discussion about Mr. Right. She focused instead on Lexi's other comment. Even though someone had once mentioned in passing that Nick wasn't their oldest child's biological father, it was easy to forget. "Your ex-husband doesn't live around here, right?"
While she waited for Lexi's answer, Kate took a sip of her cappuccino and noted that Joel and Chloe had gotten their drinks "to go." Obviously they weren't staying. The tightness in her chest eased.
"Actually there is no ex-husband." Lexi's confession pulled Kate back from her thoughts. "Addie's dad and I never married. When Drew found out I was pregnant, he made it clear he didn't want a baby. His career was revving up and he believed having a child would only drag him down. He offered to pay for an abortion."
"Did you ever consider"
"Not having the baby?" Lexi shook her head. "Never."
"How about adoption?" Although Kate felt her lips move, the words seemed to come from far away.
"It's a great option, but not for me." Lexi's gaze grew thoughtful. "Still, I have to tell you, being a single mom was no walk in the park. Addie and I endured some pretty lean years. In fact, when I met Nick, I was working two jobs."
"Not every woman could do that," Kate murmured. The scone she'd just finished eating sat like a dead weight in the pit of her stomach.
"Keeping my daughter was easy," Lexi said, "compared to how hard it would have been to give her up."
Kate could only nod.
"What brings you two fine ladies downtown this morning?"
At the sound of the familiar baritone, Kate's heart plummeted to the tips of her toes. Somehow she managed to lift her gaze and smile.
"I rounded at the hospital early and thought I'd check out Cole and Meg's new business." Even though Kate's heart was above the safe number of beats per minute, thanks to years of practice her tone gave nothing away.
"Chloe and I were just talking about how glad we are that they opened a coffee shop just down the street from The Dance Studio." Joel smiled at his daughter. "We've become Saturday morning regulars."
Kate made a quick mental note not to come here again on the weekend, then settled her gaze on the nine-year-old. Chloe's straight dark hair, which normally hung past her shoulders had been pulled back into a makeshift pony-tail. Like many preteens, her eyes and teeth seemed too large for her thin face. Although it wasn't obvious to the casual eye, Kate saw the promise of great beauty.
"What do you usually get when you come here?" Lexi bestowed a friendly smile on the two.
"Coffee with cream for me." Joel lifted his cardboard cup. "Nothing fancy."
Even though it would have been easy for him to answer for his daughter, to Joel's credit he merely offered the child an encouraging smile.
Chloe's eyes dropped to the clear plastic cup in her hand. "I got an Italian soda."
"I almost ordered one of those this morning," Kate said, surprising herself by jumping into the conversation. Perhaps because she'd been a shy child and knew how hard it was to have all eyes on you. "My favorite flavor is watermelon."
Chloe lifted her gaze, her eyes wide. "Mine, too."
"Watermelon." Although Joel shook his head in apparent disgust, a smile tugged at her lips. "Must be a girl thing."
For a second, Kate basked in the warmth of the child's pleasure. As Chloe's doctor she'd seen only the little girl's serious side. She'd even spoken with Joel after that first visit about his daughter's reticence, thinking it might be related to her mother's death. But Joel said Chloe had always been shy around strangers.
"Would you like to join us?" Lexi asked. "We could pull up a couple chairs."
Kate remained silent.
Chloe looked up at her father.
Kate held her breath, hoping he would say no, but at the same time wanting them to stay.
"Thanks for the offer," Joel said, sounding sincere. "Unfortunately I have a potential client to meet, so we need to hit the road."
Joel built highend custom homes in Jackson Hole and from everything Kate had heard, his business was booming despite the economy.
"If that person wants references," Lexi said, "feel free to give them our number. I know Travis and Mary Karen would also be happy to sing your praises."
"Thank you for that. Much appreciated." Joel shifted from one foot to the other, as if embarrassed by the compliment.
Since Joel's Montana-based company had established a presence in Jackson Hole almost five years ago, he'd built homes in the mountains surrounding Jackson not only for Lexi and her husband, but for Mary Karen and Travis Fisher, as well. Kate knew he was in the process of building one for Cole and Meg Lassiter, the couple who owned the shop where they were seated.
"Daddy." Chloe tugged on his arm. "You promised we'd stop and pick up my new ice skates before your meeting."
"You ice skate?" The question popped out of Kate's mouth before she could stop it. If she truly wanted them to leavewhich she didshe was doing a poor job of hurrying them on their way.
"Since I was a little girl," Chloe said with a nine-year-old's maturity. "Do you like to skate?"
"I used to," Kate said. "When I was your age."
For her, skating had been a way to forget her troubles at home. She hoped it wasn't that way for Chloe.
"That's cool," Chloe said, then ducked her head, staring down at her hot-pink sneakers.
Joel pulled his phone from his pocket and glanced at it. "We better get going."