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"I can't believe you're going to do something so risky," Natalie Sinclair exclaimed.
Grace leaned back in the kitchen chair and smiled at her younger sister. "This conversation is backward. Isn't it usually me saying stuff like that to you?"
The two were seated in Grace's kitchen where the late May afternoon breeze drifted through the open windows, bringing with it the sweet scents of early summer.
"That's because normally I'm the one doing the crazy, reckless things," Natalie replied. She picked up her lemonade and took a sip, eyeing Grace over the top of the glass as if suspecting her older sister had been replaced by a lookalike alien. "Maybe this is some sort of postpartum insanity," she said as she placed her glass back on the table.
Grace laughed. "It's been almost a year since I was pregnant. This definitely isn't postpartum anything." Her laughter faded as she leaned forward. "I have to do this, Natalie. I've made up my mind, and I'm leaving first thing in the morning."
Natalie shook her head. "At least give me the directions to where you'll be so I know where to send the police when you're in trouble."
Grace opened the manila folder next to her laptop and took out a piece of paper. "I already intended to give you the details, although I'm certainly not expecting any trouble." She handed Natalie the directions she'd printed off her computer earlier in the morning.
"You're leaving here to travel almost two hundred miles away to a place you've never been before because some person on the internet, who you've never met, told you to go there. Gee, sounds brilliant to me," Natalie said sarcastically.
Grace felt an uncharacteristic flush heat her cheeks. "It's not just anyone. It's MysteryMom."
"Yeah, and for all you know this MysteryMom is some fifty-year-old male pervert sitting around in his underwear and talking to you over the computer."
Once again Grace couldn't help but laugh. "I've been corresponding through email with MysteryMom for almost two years now. I'd think if that were the case I would have gotten a clue by now. Besides, I'm taking my gun with me."
Both Grace and Natalie had gotten handguns from their mother on their twenty-first birthdays, unusual gifts from a strong, nontraditional woman. She had endured a violent mugging and had sworn her daughters would never be helpless victims.
"At least that makes me feel a little better," Natalie conceded.
"It would make me feel a little better if you had a job. Are you putting in applications everywhere?" Grace asked, eager to get the conversation off her plans and on to something else. Certainly Natalie's lack of employment was a concern, especially since she wasn't going to school either. She was twenty-four years old and just seemed to be drifting through her life at the moment.
"Sure, I'm trying, but I can't find anyone who wants to hire me."
"Maybe if you'd take that ring out of your eyebrow somebody would be more interested in giving you a job," Grace replied gently. "Or you could go back to school and get some training. You have the money to do that and you could decide to go into whatever field you wanted to."
"Okay, that's my clue to get out of here," Natalie said, not hiding her irritation. She checked her watch. "Not only do I not want one of your loving lectures, but I'm meeting Jimmy in a few minutes for a late lunch."
"When do I get to meet this paragon of virtue that you've been dating?" Grace asked as they both rose from the table.
Natalie gave her a secretive little smile. "When I'm good and ready for you to meet him." Together the two walked to the front door. "You'll call me as soon as you get to where you're going tomorrow and let me know that you're okay?"
"Of course I will," Grace replied and pulled Natalie close for a quick hug. There was almost ten years' difference in their ages, and Grace had always mothered Natalie. Now that their mother was gone, she felt especially maternal toward her younger sister.
Natalie stepped out of the embrace and opened the front door. "You know the routine. You've said it often enough to me. Drive carefully and be aware of any potential trouble around you."
"I will. And when I get home I want to meet this Jimmy of yours," Grace replied.
Natalie waved her hand as she headed toward her expensive little sports car in the driveway.
Grace watched until Natalie's car zoomed out of sight and then shut the door and walked back into the living room.
For a moment she simply stood in the middle of the room and listened to the silence. It was rare for the house to be so quiet. Grace hoped it would stay that way for another thirty minutes or more so that she could finish packing for her road trip in the morning.
She scooted into her bedroom, determined to take advantage of what little time she had. As she began to pack the open suitcase on the bed, she tried not to think about what Natalie had said, but her words kept echoing in Grace's head.
Risky? Grace had only done one risky thing in her entire life and the consequence of that particular action had changed her life forever.
No, she didn't believe what she planned for the next day was particularly risky. As crazy as it sounded, she trusted the woman who had been her cyberfriend for almost two years. MysteryMom had been a source of support and comfort from the time Grace had found herself pregnant until now. She had never given Grace a reason not to trust her.
Grace put the last blouse in the suitcase and then closed and latched it. She left her bedroom and went to the doorway of the room next to hers.
The walls were a powder-pink and the furniture was white. There was a double dresser, a rocking chair and three cribs, each one holding a precious ten-month-old.
Grace leaned against the doorjamb as her thoughts drifted back in time, back to the night she'd attended her best friend's wedding.
The wedding had been glorious and the reception had been a wild party. The handsome cowboy from Oklahoma had danced and flirted with her as they'd downed glasses of champagne like water throughout the entire event.
When she'd awakened the next morning in her hotel room bed with him next to her, she'd been horrified. She'd stumbled out of the bed and into the bathroom. The hangover she'd suffered was nothing compared to the embarrassment that flooded through her as she realized what she had done
what they had done.
When she'd left the bathroom he was gone, and she'd shoved her first and only one-night stand to the back of her mind. She'd returned to her life as a third-grade schoolteacher and hadn't thought about him again. Until two months later when she'd discovered she was pregnant.
It was at that time that she'd tried to find him. But she only knew he was from someplace in Oklahoma and she thought his name had been Justin. She'd called her friend who had gotten married that night, but Sally had told her that the cowboy had been a friend of a friend and she had no idea what his last name was or exactly where he was from.
Two months after that, when the doctor told Grace she was expecting triplets, she'd stopped trying to find the father and instead had focused all her energy on preparing herself to be the mother of three babies.
It wasn't until a week ago that MysteryMom had sent her a message indicating that she thought she'd found the cowboy. His name was Justin Johnson and he operated a ranch with his brothers just outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Grace had no idea how her cyberfriend had come up with the information, but it felt right. She vaguely remembered Justin telling her he ranched with a couple of brothers.
She'd sat on the information for several days and then yesterday morning, after a slightly traumatic event the night before, had decided to pack up the girls and drive to his ranch outside the small town of Cameron Creek, Oklahoma.
She now smiled as Abby peeked over the crib railing. Her dark curls were tousled from her nap and a delighted smile curved her rosebud lips.
Grace hurried over and picked her up, hoping to sneak her out of the room before she awakened her sisters. But at that moment Bonnie and Casey also woke up, squealing to get down and breaking the silence that had momentarily gripped the house.
It was after nine the next morning when the girls were finally loaded in their car seats and Grace left her house, heading to a ranch just over the Kansas state line in Oklahoma.
Thankfully it was Saturday and the Wichita traffic was light, making getting out of town a breeze. But she wouldn't have needed to worry about traffic for a while. Summer vacation had begun a week earlier, and she had almost three months to do whatever she wanted and spend time with the daughters who were her heart.
She loved teaching, and it was wonderful to be working at a job that gave her summers off, especially now that she was a mommy of three.
The girls were contented passengers, especially since Grace had armed them with their favorite toys, oat cereal in plastic snack containers and sippy cups filled with apple juice. They chattered and giggled for the first hour of the trip and then eventually fell asleep, leaving Grace with only the softly playing radio music and her own thoughts.
MysteryMom. She'd met the woman in a chat room for single mothers when she'd first discovered she was pregnant, and the friendship had been instantaneous. It had been MysteryMom who had helped Grace cope with morning sickness and swollen feet, who had talked her through the fears of raising triplets all alone.
When Grace's mother had fallen down a staircase and died when the babies had been only a month old, it had been MysteryMom that Grace had turned to for comfort.
Even after MysteryMom had given her the information about Justin Johnson, Grace hadn't been sure she wanted to make contact. But then a near-fatal car accident had made up her mind. That night she'd realized that if something happened to her there was nobody to take care of the girls except Nataliewho shouldn't have care of a goldfish.
She now glanced at the directions MysteryMom had given her to the Rockin' J Ranch. She couldn't imagine that MysteryMom had any ulterior motive other than to help Grace find the man who had fathered her triplets.
Grace wanted nothing from the handsome cowboy who had shared her bed for a single night after too much alcohol. She certainly didn't expect any kind of a relationship with a man who had never tried to contact her again after that night.
But she did believe he had a right to know that he was a father, and she hoped that he would want to be a part of the girls' lives.
She wanted that. She wanted that more than anything for her daughters. She'd never had a father in her life, and the old saying that you can't miss what you never had simply wasn't true. The absence of a father had resonated deeply. Not only in Grace's soul, but, she suspected, in Natalie's heart and soul as well. Of course, she couldn't imagine any man taking a look at the sweet baby faces of her daughters and not wanting to be a part of their lives.
Thankfully, the small town of Cameron Creek, Oklahoma, had a motel, and she'd already booked a room for the night with the understanding that she might stay longer. If MysteryMom was right and Justin was at the address Grace had been given, then Grace was prepared to stay a couple of days in the motel so he could spend some time with the girls and they could decide how to handle things in the future.
She slowed the car as she realized she was near the turnoff that would lead to the Rockin' J Ranch. She was vaguely surprised the sleeping babies in the backseat couldn't hear the thump of her heartbeat.
Nerves. She was suddenly incredibly nervous.
Afraid that she'd been a fool to trust a woman she'd never met in person before. Afraid that this was all some crazy wild-goose chase.
Patting her purse, she felt herself calm somewhat. Her gun was inside, loaded and ready to use if necessary. She wouldn't hesitate to fire it if she sensed her own safety or, more importantly, her children's safety was in peril.
Her nerves eased a little more as she reached the entrance to the ranch. Massive stones with wooden plaques indicated it was the ranch she sought. In the distance a two-story house rose out of the lush pastures. The ranch looked huge and well-kept, definitely not the place you'd expect an old man to be sitting around in his underwear and pretending to be a woman named MysteryMom.
Still, as she pulled up in front of the house and parked the car, the first thing she did was pull her gun out of her purse and slip it into the pocket of her navy blazer.
"Better safe than sorry," she muttered beneath her breath. The girls were still soundly sleeping as she got out of the car. She'd left her car window cracked open a bit to allow in the sweet summer breeze, and she figured it would only take a minute to find out if she was at the right place or not.