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Caley Foster really wanted to put out a fire.
Or, for that matter, do anything more exciting than unload the rest of the boxes secured in the back of her beat-up red truck.
But that wasn't going to happen today. With a resigned sigh, Caley hiked one booted foot on the tire, shimmied over the edge of the truck and landed with a thump in the bed crammed full of boxes and tubs. She'd have thought after living in nine different cities in the past three years that she'd be used to moving by nowbut this time felt different. Maybe because this time, she had to stay awhile.
Too bad whoever said you can't go home again hadn't meant it literally.
Caley's two-year-old black Labrador barked at her from the driveway as she began to shove yet another box across the rusted bed toward the open tailgate. "Scooter, like I told you before, it's going to take me a while to find the dog biscuits." She grunted as the box caught on an exposed bolt, and pushed again. Some days she almost regretted rescuing the hyper stray from a warehouse fire. But it was nice to take a friendly face along on her many travels, one who actually seemed to understand her.
Scooter barked again, and she wrinkled her nose at him. "Be patient, unless you want to do this work yourself."
A sudden giggle floated on the breeze toward Caley and wrapped around her ears like a cozy set of muffs. She glanced up with surprise, midpush, just in time to see a young blonde girl perched on the fence dividing her meager property from the sprawling acres of the Double C Ranch next doorand just in time to send her cardboard box tumbling over the edge of the tailgate.
Caley winced. Hopefully that wasn't the kitchenware, though it wouldn't have been the first time after a move that she ended up at the discount store searching for dinner plates. She slid her petite frame off the tailgate and righted the box on the ground.
The girl timidly hopped off the fence and approached her. "Do you need help? Did anything break?" Her blue eyes widened with worry, and she twisted a long strand of hair anxiously around one finger as if she thought the accident was her fault.
Caley straightened and smiled at the girl, who looked about ten or eleven years old. The golden years. It was sweet of her to be concerned. "It's all good. Thankfully, this was a box of pillows." She rummaged through it one more time to be sure. "And apparently an apron. And a bird feeder." She winked. "No wonder the box wasn't labeled."
The girl laughed again, and the sound warmed her heart. She'd missed being around kids. Her days spent nannying to earn a paycheck through college felt longer than just five years ago. It'd been nice to get an inside glimpse into families during that timehealthy, functioning families, that was.
A pinch of regret started in Caley's stomach, and she shook her head to dislodge it. No use dredging up the past. She was back in Broken Bend, Louisiana, to enjoy the remaining years she had with her grandmother while Nonie occupied the nursing home, and Caley would do exactly that. No more regrets.
If she started thinking on those, she might never stop.
"Scooter, look." Caley produced his sought-after box of canine treats from under a pillow and shook it. The eager dog pressed against her shins and barked, tail wagging hard enough to leave a bruise on her leg. She glanced at her new neighbor. "Want to feed him?"
The girl lit up with a bright smile, then hesitated, her grin fading as she looked over her shoulder toward the fence. "I probably shouldn't."
"Why not? He won't bite, I promise." She held out the box in one hand and offered a handshake with the other. "I'm Caley Foster. Looks like I'll be your neighbor for a while. I'm just renting, though." Why she felt the urge to clarify that to a kid, she wasn't sure. Maybe for her own benefit. Temporary. Always temporary. Though this time, temporary held no definite boundaries. She'd be here as long as her grandma needed hereven if Broken Bend was the last place she had ever hoped to land again.
"I'm Ava. My dad owns the Double C Ranch." Ava shook Caley's hand, then pointed with one skinny arm behind her to the property on the other side of the fence.
"It's beautiful." Caley took in the rolling fields and the tree-studded landscape, the crimson- and gold-toned leaves offering a stark contrast to the bareness of Caley's plain half-acre lot. It'd have been nice to rent a bigger place while she was here, but at least she'd have some scenery next door to borrow. Hopefully Scooter wouldn't be too tempted to play in greener pastures. She nudged him with her foot. "You sure you don't want to feed him?"
Scooter barked again at the shaking of the treat box, and warmth slowly took over the wary look in Ava's eyes as he pressed his black nose against her hand. "Maybe just one treat wouldn't hurt."
"I'm positive he agrees with you." Caley dug a bone-shaped cookie from the box and handed it to Ava, who offered it to Scooter. He gulped it down quickly, blinking afterward as if wondering where it'd gone.
"He's so cute. I love animals." Ava tentatively patted Scooter's head. "I thought Labs were bigger?"
"Scooter must have been the runt of his family. Or maybe he's not a purebred." She shrugged with a smile. "Either way, he makes up for his smaller size with heart."
Ava rubbed him a little harder, and Scooter immediately leaned against her jeans-clad shins and whined deep in his throat.
"He's shameless." She laughed and rustled the fur on his back. "And spoiled. He'll stay like that forever if you keep petting him."
"I wish I could." Ava glanced toward her ranch, then back at Caley. "My dad has a bunch of animals, but doesn't let me do much with them. Says it's too dangerous."
That sounded familiar. Growing up, everything under the sun was dangerous, according to Caley's father. Animals. Carnival rides. Staying out past nine o'clock at night even after she had her license. Then again, maybe Ava's father only owned high-strung Thoroughbreds or bulls. Most men had reasons to be protective.
Just not her dad.
"We have a bull, some cows, horses, a couple of foals and a few chickens." Ava crouched down to pet Scooter more thoroughly. "But I'm not allowed to help feed them or anything. I wish I could. Ever since Mom died " Her voice trailed off and she buried her face in Scooter's floppy ears.
Empathy filled Caley's heart. Apparently she and her young neighbor had a lot more in common than just a love for animals. Although Caley wasn't sure if her mom still walked the earth or not. She briefly touched the girl's hair, warm from the autumn sunshine spilling through the tree limbs. "I'm sorry to hear that. You're welcome to play with Scooter anytime you'd like."
"As long as it's okay with her father, of course." A deep baritone sounded from the other side of the fence, and Caley jerked, spilling the box of biscuits. Scooter barked and scurried to eat them as Ava's face waxed pale.
"Hi, Dad." Ava winced and stepped away from Scooter. "I was just about to say that."
"You know you're not supposed to cross this fence without permission." Ava's father, dressed in a plaid work shirt, faded jeans with dirt on the knees and equally muddy boots, strode across the short driveway toward them. A cowboy hat perched atop dark hair that peeked and curled from under the brim. He drew near and a smile broke the stubble on his tanned face, lightening the mood. Caley could almost tangibly feel Ava relax, as if the smile meant she wouldn't be in trouble. "Brady McCollough. And you are?"
"Your new neighbor, Caley Foster." She shook his hand, noticing the calluses on his palm, and quickly bent to scoop up the dog treats Scooter hadn't yet devoured. Hopefully Brady wouldn't see the color she knew burned her cheeks like a birthmark. She'd always blushed easily, but a man hadn't had this effect on her at close range in quite a while. She didn't remember him from her school daysand she was pretty sure she'd have remembered a face like that.
"Welcome to the neighborhood." Brady hooked one thumb in his belt buckle and draped his other arm casually around Ava. "Though it's not much of one. Your house and mine are the only ones for a few miles. The ranch next door to us has the next hundred acres, and his house is down the way."
Caley bit back a smile. She might not have missed much about Broken Bend when she left ten years ago, but the Southern accents might make the list next time. She hadn't heard such a lazy drawl in a while. "Good to know. I'm used to being alone, though." Nothing new there, and no good reason to change it. Hard to pack up and move on a whim with a bunch of baggage to bring along. That's why she always rented furnished houses or apartments.
"So where you from?"
Brady's pointed question yanked her back to his steady gaze. She licked her dry lips, almost unable to remember where she'd lived last. "New Jersey." Before that had been Chicago. No, Indianapolis.
Brady's eyebrows hitched higher on his forehead. "That's quite a ways. What brings you to Broken Bend?"
Brought her back. But no reason to dive into personal history best left buried. "My grandmother was put into the nursing home here. I was between jobs, so I thought I'd catch up with her." Redeem the past, as it were. If that was even possible at this point. Brady definitely didn't need to know she hadn't spoken to Nonie in years, and the woman had been deemed a ward of the state because Caley, her only living relative, had been unreachable for months. If her former church pastor hadn't seen the newspaper feature the .Mew York Times had run on female firefighters from the South, Caley might still have no idea her grandmother needed her. The familiar wave of guilt pressed in thick and heavy like a scratchy wool blanket, and she cleared her throat.
Brady's eyes softened. "I'm sorry to hear that. I know the manager over there, and they run a great facility, if that helps you feel better about it."
The only thing that would make her feel better about the nursing home was if there wasn't a need for it at all. She'd hoped to be able to move Nonie into the rental house with her, but after talking to the staff on the phone and letting them know she was coming, she quickly realized home health care wasn't an option any of them could afford, nor could her grandmother's physical condition thrive without constant care. She'd have to redeem herself with daily visitsit was the least she could do for the woman who helped raise her.
"Who's your grandmother?"
She swallowed, determined not to let the wave of emotion overtake her. "Irene Foster." Her dad's mom, who'd never failed to try to explain her son to Caley, despite Caley's lack of interest in excuses. Motherly love might overlook a lot, but it was harder from a daughter's end of things. Not that it mattered much now. "I call her Nonie. She's a Broken Bend native."
"I recognize her name from the church prayer list. She's been on the homebound sheet for a while." Brady nodded, sympathy and something brighterawareness?lighting his eyes as his gaze held her own. "Well, neighbor, if you ever need help out here, just holler." He gave Ava a squeeze before he released her, then gently caught her chin and directed her gaze to his. "Though next time, little miss, you better ask permission before climbing over that fence. You hear?"
"Yes, sir." Ava ducked her head, her long hair draping over her flushed cheeksbut not before Caley caught the disappointment in her eyes. Disappointment over breaking a rule and being reprimanded? Or was it over not being able to visit and see Scooter freely?
Either way, she couldn't bear her crestfallen expression. "Ava is welcome here anytimewith your permission, of course. Scooter loves playmates." She caught her dog's collar with one hand and nudged him in the behind with her foot. He immediately sat and panted, his tongue lolling out the side of his mouth and giving the impression of a doggy smile.
"We'll see." Brady shuffled one boot against the driveway, the sole scraping against the rocky gravel. "She has plenty to keep her busy. I'm sure you don't need her underfoot over here."
Caley's stomach tightened. Was he trying to be polite and not impose? Or was this the brush-off? The attraction she'd felt toward Brady at first sight had definitely seemed reciprocatedhowever pointlessly. Still, why would he try to dodge her? Maybe he just wanted to make sure she really liked kids and Ava wasn't intruding. Besides, just because she couldn't embrace a relationship right now didn't mean she couldn't use a few friendsespecially neighbors.
She straightened her shoulders and hoped her smile appeared more casual than it felt. "Ava would never be a problem here. In fact, I could use the company while I unpack." She turned to include Ava in the conversation instead of continuing to talk about her as if she wasn't there. "We might find some cookies somewhere in the truck. Want to help me look?"
"Yes! I mean" Ava's eager eyes darted from Caley to her father and then back again, as if unsure if it was okay to answer honestly. "Dad? Can I?"
Brady scooped his hat off his head with one hand and ran his fingers through his rumpled hair. "I don't know, Ava."
Caley took advantage of his temporary hesitation. "It'd really help me out. I hate unpacking. And the quicker I get it done, the quicker I can get out and find a job." Especially now that her contact at the district fire station had proven slightly off in his assurance they would hire her. Turned out the guaranteed position wasn't as guaranteed as she'd hoped, and an upcoming budget meeting would determine her fate. Putting in some volunteer hours definitely wouldn't hurt the decision-making process, but she still had to find something to draw a paycheck in the interim.
Brady's expression tightened, as if just remembering bad news. "It's not that." He squinted down at Ava, shading his eyes from the sun peering over the roof's edge. "I came over here to find you because I just heard from Ms. Mary. Her sister broke her hip and she's got to go to Arkansas next week to help her out."
Concern furrowed the skin between Ava's eyebrows. "Is she going to be okay?"
"I think so, it just means Mary's going to be gone awhile. Several weeks, at best." He glanced at Caley. "Mary is Ava's nanny. She watches her after school and on the weekends while I'm out in the fields, and cooks and keeps up the house for me." He released a sigh heavy with burden. Caley could recognize that particular sound a mile awayit was an echo of her own. "So I'm sort of in the lurch right now."