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Sarah Tigarden drove down the deserted highway in the small ranching town of Saddlers Prairie, Montana, asking herself the question that would remain forever unanswered. Why hadn't her parents told her she was adopted?
Anger that had been with her since she'd discovered the truth welled, and the sunlit prairies on either side of the road seemed to dim.
Sarah didn't fault her father, who'd died when she was ten. But her mother, whom she now referred to as Ellen, could and should have told her. Now that she was gone, buried six months ago, it was too late.
They'd been close, growing closer still during the year before Ellen had succumbed to the ovarian cancer that ravaged her. Sarah had put her own life on hold, giving up her apartment and moving back home to care for Ellen. They'd talked about Sarah's recent breakup, finances, Ellen's burialeverything except the fact that Sarah was adopted.
She was still reeling from the shock that had awaited her when she'd emptied her mother's safe-deposit box. Surely Ellen had realized Sarah would find the birth certificate. She had to know how upset, how hurt Sarah would be. Not because of the adoptionbecause of the lies.
Why hadn't Ellen told the truth?
Sick of asking herself the question she might never find the answer to, Sarah cranked up the music and sang along with Adele. The words drowned out other thoughts, just as she wanted.
A sudden gust of wind sent dirt and debris flying, as if Mother Nature were upset on Sarah's behalf. Wind that pushed the car across the centerline. Gripping the wheel, Sarah steered her car to the right side of the road and fought to hold it there.
Ominous clouds suddenly obliterated the flawless blue sky that had been with her since she'd left Boise a day and a half earlier. Sarah tossed her sunglasses onto the passenger seat. Without the warmth of the mid-May sun, the temperature seemed to drop ten degrees, and she closed the sunroof and turned on the heat.
Maybe she should check in to her room first and change into warmer clothes. The widow who owned the house where she'd rented a room for the next two weeks was expecting her about now.
But that would involve a U-turn and a five-mile drive in the opposite direction, and Sarah was too anxious for answers. She wanted to know why Tammy Becker, her biological mother, had given her up, and where she was now. The private investigator Sarah had hired had tracked her mother to a house in Saddlers Prairie, where the Becker family had lived some twenty-nine years ago. It was there that the trail had abruptly endedright around the time of Sarah's birth.
According to the P.I., a Mr. Tyler Phillips had bought the house from the Beckers all those years ago and still owned it. Unfortunately, his phone number was unlisted, and he hadn't answered either of the two letters Sarah had sent. If she showed up at his door, he'd be forced to at least talk to her. Maybe he'd share some valuable insights about Tammy Becker and her parents and provide information on where Tammy lived now. He might even let Sarah into the house. She wanted to walk through it, see Tammy's bedroom and gaze out the same windows her biological mother had once looked through.
She was curious. What kind of person was Tammy Becker, and had she ever thought about the daughter she'd given up? Sarah hoped to one day meet the woman and maybe even develop a relationship.
Even if Mr. Phillips refused to talk to her, she was determined to get some answers while she was in town. Following the directions on her iPhone GPS, she turned her travel-weary sedan onto a small paved street aptly named Dusty Horse Road.
Wouldn't you know, rain began to pummel the car and the dirt-packed ground, sending splashes of wet dust flying.
Great, just great.
The last time Sarah had visited Montana, to research an article on fly-fishing during a hot week in July a few years ago, she'd heard about the fickle spring climate. Now she was experiencing the abrupt shifts firsthand.
Her windshield wipers fought to keep pace with the downpour. Sarah slowed to a crawl, squinting through the weather at the numbers on the mailboxes.
They were few and far between, sentries at the feet of the driveways of modest homes. After a few minutes, the rain eased to a lighter, slower rhythm. She was beginning to wonder if she'd ever find the address she was looking for, when the GPS indicated the house she wanted was a few hundred feet away.
There it wasa bungalow situated back from the road, its pale green siding in need of fresh paint. Scrag-gly weeds filled the garden bed under the front window, but the large front and side yards were mowed, and buds filled the overgrown bushes along one side.
A black pickup was parked under a tall cotton-wood at the edge of the gravel driveway. Someone was homewith any luck, Mr. Phillips himself.
This was it, the chance she'd hoped for. Slightly breathless, she pulled into the driveway and braked to a stop near the truck.
Shielding her hair with her shoulder bag, she dashed onto the porch, which was nothing but a concrete slab. Thanks to the overhang above the door, she was sheltered from the rain. Before ringing the doorbell, she smoothed her cap-sleeve blouse over her jeans and fluffed her hair, which had gotten wet despite the purse. Then she pressed the bell with a hand that trembled, thanks to a combination of nerves and a little fear. Though she couldn't have said what scared her.
Through the door she heard the faint, chiming ding-dong. Above her, clouds raced by, and another gust of wind whipped wet strands of hair across her face. So much for trying to look decent.
Sarah dug into her purse and quickly found her comb, but she needn't have hurriedMr. Phillips, or whoever was inside, did not answer the door.
Maybe he needed extra time to reach itthe P.I. said he was in his mid-sixtiesor maybe he hadn't heard the bell.
Determined, she rang again, letting her finger linger on the buzzer. After a short wait, she knocked. Nothing.
Frustrated and disappointed, but too curious to leave without at least sneaking a peek inside, she left the porch. Keeping under the shelter of the eaves, she stepped into the neglected garden along the front of the house.
Knee-high weeds raked the calves of her jeans, and mud sucked at her expensive leather slip-ons. Wishing she'd worn sneakers, she leaned forward and peered through the large front window into what appeared to be the living room. A sofa backed up against the window, and two armchairs and a coffee table faced an old TV. The off-white walls were completely bare. Mr. Phillips wasn't much for decorating.
Suddenly the deadbolt clicked. Sarah froze, but not for long. She turned and made a mad dash for the porch, stumbling over a dip in the ground in her haste. She'd barely regained her balance before the door swung open.
Caught in the garden like a thief. Great way to make a first impression, Sarah.
Her face burned, and she knew she was beet-red. With all the grace she could muster, she brushed off her hands and moved causally toward the door.
It wasn't until she planted her feet on the concrete slab that she mustered the courage to actually look at the large male standing in the doorway.
When she saw who it was, she almost stumbled again from the sheer shock. What was Clay Hollyer doing here?
The corner of his sexy mouth lifted in the devastating quirk women everywhere swooned over. Not Sarahnot anymore. She'd never thought she'd see him again and hadn't ever wanted to.
Yet there he was, as imposing and magnetic as ever.
He pushed his longish brown hair off his forehead, momentarily exposing the faint scar along his right temple, the result of an angry bull's attempt to rid himself of his tenacious rider sometime during Clay's brilliant career as America's champion bull rider.
As talented and good-looking as he was, Clay Hol-lyer was also cocky and full of himself. He was one of the biggest players Sarah had ever met, let alone profiled for a magazine article. The buckle bunnies who buzzed around him, vying for his attention like bees around a honeycomb, only increased his inflated opinion of himself.
That Sarah had been one of themnot a buckle bunny, but just as smittenmade seeing him now all the worse.
It had been nearly three years. Plenty had happened since then, and she doubted he even remembered her. Hoped and prayed he didn't. But the striking jade eyes known to every rodeo fan in the world narrowed, and his lips compressed into a thin, flat line, and she knew that he did.
She wanted to sink into the ground. Or better yet, make a beeline for the car. But she was no coward. She forced a smile. "Hello, Clay. You probably don't remember me. I'm Sa"
"Sarah Tigarden. How could I ever forget you?" His expression hardened, belying his light tone. "What the hell are you doing here?"
Of all the women Clay had known, one of his least favorite was standing on his doorstep. If that wasn't bad enough, she'd trampled through the dead flower bed to snoop through the window. He was so not amused.
Despite his nasty-ass scowl, she barely flinched. She lost the phony smile though, and clutched the strap of her purse in a stranglehold. "I'm looking for Mr. Tyler Phillips."
"You want to talk my landlord." Clay snorted. "He doesn't live here, and FYI, he doesn't know anything about me."
"But this is his house."
"And he rented it to me. I don't do interviews anymore."
Even if he did, he wouldn't talk to her. A few years back, her big oh-so-guileless blue eyes and great legs had all but reeled him in. That and the habit she had of pushing her then long black hair behind her ears and catching her provocative lower lip between her teeth.
He'd soaked up her interest in him, had liked her enough that he'd even considered dating her. She didn't have the voluptuous curves he preferred, but those legs and her sweet little behind compensated for the small breasts.
Early one memorable morning, after ten days of letting her shadow him and answering her endless questions, he'd kissed her, in the stable with the horses, leaning against a clover-scented bale of hay. A sizzling kiss he'd thought about for monthsand sometimes still did.
At the time, she'd seemed just as awed by the wallop that kiss had packed. Yet for some reason she'd cooled off, fast.
For the rest of the day and the night, she'd avoided being alone with him. The following morning, a full day before she was supposed to leave, she'd taken off without even thanking him for his time. She'd ignored his calls, emails and texts. Then she'd slammed him in print, calling him shallow, a player with a big ego that needed constant feeding. As if he were responsible for the women who threw themselves at him.
His buddies had laughed and said they wouldn't mind a similar article written about them, but that article had caused him no small amount of pain and trouble.
"I'm not here to do an interview, Clay."
Yeah, right. She was probably here to write a scathing piece about the life of a has-been. No, thanks.
Those big eyes widened, once more tempting him to fall under her spell and stay awhile. Not about to get suckered in again, he tore his gaze away. "How'd you find me?"
Not that his living here was a secret. He'd put out the press release himself, mostly to announce his new business venture. Since the accident and his forced retirement, interest from reporters had been all but nonexistent. Which suited him fine.
"Believe me, you're the last person I expected to run into," Sarah said. "I have no interest in you at all. None."
Why that bothered him was anyone's guess. She wasn't the first to feel that way. The angry bull that had crushed his knee had ruined more than his career. The buckle bunnies he'd once taken for granted had quickly turned their attention to other bull riders. Never mind that he'd driven them away. He didn't need their pity.
"Then why are you here?" he asked, not hiding his displeasure.
"I was hoping I could see the house."
Right, and he was a ballet dancer. "You're telling me Phillips wants to sell this place? Too bada couple of months ago, I signed a nine-month lease. I'm not leaving until the contractor finishes my house, and he just broke ground."
His bad leg was beginning to ache. He leaned against the doorjamb and crossed his arms.
"You're building a place in Saddlers Prairie." She frowned. "I thought you lived in Billings."
"You're not riding anymore?"
She hadn't followed the stories, then. Just went to show how far he'd slipped from the radar. "Nope," he said. "I retired a year and a half ago."
The ache in his leg advanced to low-level pain, a sure sign that hell was on its way. He shouldn't have pushed himself so hard this morning.
"Thanks for stopping by." He backed inside and started to close the door.
Her voice had a desperate ring to it he couldn't ignore. He hesitated.
"If I could just peek at the house," she said. "I won't stay long, I promise."
Vulnerability he hadn't noticed the last time they'd met made her look softer and even more attractive. Leaning heavily against the jamb, he eyed her. "Give me one good reason why I should believe you."
"How about the truth? I'm researching my family roots, and I found out that my mother and her parents once lived in this house."
He barely hid his surprise. "Can't you just ask them what you want to know?"
"I would, but both my parents are gone nowmy adoptive parents, that isand there are no other relatives to ask. This was my biological mother's house." Shadows filled her eyes. "Until recently, I didn't even know about her."
Interesting. "Closed adoption, huh?" he guessed.
"Something like that." She ducked her head, as if wanting to hide from him.
Curious, he cautiously flexed his bad leg. "When did she live here?"
"Twenty-nine years agowhen she was pregnant with me."
"And you're looking to learn something about her in this house, after all that time." Clay didn't buy it.
"I know it's a long shot, but it's all I have. Tyler Phillips bought this place from Bob and Judy Beckermy biological grandparents. The private investigator I hired said that Mr. Phillips still lived here. His phone number is unlisted, so I wrote to him for information, but he never replied. I thought that if I came in person, if he talked to me and showed me around, I might. .never mind. Thanks for your time."
She turned away, but not before Clay saw her crestfallen expression.
Hell. He wasn't doing anything right now, anyway, so what could it hurt to let her in? "I'll give you ten minutes. Then you have to leave."
She brightened right up. "Thank you."