Read an Excerpt
When Sheriff Cole Trent walked into his house the second Saturday of June, he was met in the living room by three irate females. It was only six in the evening, but from the looks he was getting, one would think he'd been out all night. Mirroring their grandmother, his five-year-old twins had their hands on their slim hips and their lips pursed. The family resemblance was unmistakable, although the girls were blonde like the mother who'd run out on them instead of dark-haired like Gayle and Cole.
He sighed. "I know I'm a little later than anticipated, but"
"A lot late," Mandy corrected.
Alyssa's blue eyes were watery. "You promised to take us swimming."
"I didn't promise. I said I'd try." Lately, not even trying his hardest seemed like enough. Once the girls had started kindergarten, they'd become hyperaware that they didn't have a mommy like most of their classmates. Last month's Mother Day had been particularly rough. "Maybe we can go to the pool tomorrow. For now, how about I take you out for barbecue?" He made the offer not just to appease the girls but because he was too worn out to cook.
After a morning testifying in county court and an afternoon of mind-numbing paperwork, Cole's plans to get home early were derailed by the Breelan brothers, three hotheads who never should have gone into business together. The shopkeeper who worked next to their garage had called Cole with a complaint that the Breelans were trying to kill each other. After throwing a few punchesand an impact wrenchLarry Bree-lan was spending the night in a cell. Deputy Thomas was on duty to make sure neither of Larry's younger brothers tried to bust him out. Or tried to sneak in and murder him, depending on their mood.
Gayle Trent shook her head. "Out to eat again? When was the last time these poor girls had a home-cooked meal?"
Lifelong respect for his mother kept him from rolling his eyes at her dramatic tone, but just barely. "I made them fruit-face pancakes for breakfast. And two nights ago we had dinner at your house. With Jace and William," he reminded her. She'd spent so much conversational energy trying to fix up Cole with various single women that she might not have noticed his brothers were even there.
She continued as if he hadn't spoken. "Speaking of home-cooked meals
Do you remember my friend Joan who owns the little farm down by Whippoorwill Creek? We're in quilting club together and she's signed up to help me inventory donations for the festival auction." The four-day Watermelon Festival every July was one of the town's biggest annual events.
Cole had an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. From the gleam in his mother's eye, she clearly wanted something, and he doubted it was for him to donate an item to auction.
He cleared his throat. "Girls, why don't you go brush your hair and find your shoes so we can leave?" As they scampered off to the far-flung corners of the house to search for the shoes that were always mysteriously disappearing, he returned his attention to his mother, as wary as if he were investigating suspicious noises in a dark alley. "So, what's this about your friend Joan?"
"Her granddaughter, who used to summer here as a kid, is moving to Cupid's Bow with her son. We thought it would be neighborly if you and the girls joined us at the farm for a nice Sunday dinner tomorrow. Joan's inviting other people, too. It's a welcome party," she added, "not a romantic setup."
"Would you swear to that during a polygraph test?"
"Are you calling your own mother a liar?" she asked, looking highly wounded while evading his question. "Not everything is about your love life, you know. Joan's great-grandson won't have many chances to meet kids until school starts again in the fall. I'm sure he'd love to meet the girls. And they'd have fun, too. They were bored silly cooped up in the house with me all afternoon. Joan's farm is like a petting zoo."
The cordless phone on the end table rang, temporarily cutting off his words. Gayle glanced at the display, then smirked in his direction. "Becca Johnston."
His stomach sank at mention of the PTA president who'd been relentlessly pursuing him since her divorce was finalized. "Tell her I'm not here."
"And I can also tell Joan you'll be there for the dinner party tomorrow?" Without waiting for his response, she picked up the phone. "Hello? Oh, hi, Becca." She paused pointedly, one eyebrow raised.
Later, he and his mom were going to discuss the laws prohibiting extortion. For now, he gave a sharp nod, exiting the room to change into civilian clothes and get his girls out of there before his mother talked him into anything else.
Behind him, he heard Gayle say, "Sorry, dear. You just missed him."
"We're going to live out here?" Luke's voice reverberated with horror as he stared through the passenger window.
The movie he'd been watching on his tablet had ended a few minutes ago and he seemed to be truly registering their surroundings for the first time. During the peaceful stretch when he'd had his earbuds in, Kate had taken the opportunity to remind herself of all the reasons this relocation was going to be wonderful for them. Sure, Kate didn't have a job yetand Cupid's Bow Elementary wasn't exactly a rapidly growing schoolbut she still had paychecks coming through the summer. She could give voice lessons or piano lessons if she got Gram's old upright tuned.
"Yep." She smiled at the picturesque pastures and blue skies. It was after six o'clock, but the June sun was shining brightly. "No traffic, no constant city construction"
"No internet connection, no cell phone reception," Luke predicted.
"That's not true. Last time I visited Gram, I used my cell phone." She didn't volunteer the information that she'd had to stand with one foot in the laundry room and the other on the attached porch, leaning forty-five degrees to the left while holding on to the dryer. Maybe service had improved since then.
"This is the middle of nowhere! Nobody could possibly live here."
She jerked a thumb toward the side of the road. "The mailboxes suggest otherwise." She appreciated that the mailboxes they'd passed were spread out at roomy intervals. They'd had a nice enough home in the suburbs, but the yards were so small that when Damon used to throw a football with Luke, they spent half their time knocking on the neighbor's door to retrieve the ball from the fenced backyard.
"You're going to love it here," she told Luke. "Lots of community spirit and camaraderie, plenty of home-cooking and fresh air."
He rolled down his window, inhaled deeply, then grimaced. "The fresh air smells like cow poop."
She ground her teeth, refusing to let him spoil her mood. He 'll come around with time. Her first victory might even be as soon as tonight. Gram could cook like nobody's business, and Luke was a growing boy. A couple of helpings of chicken-fried steak or slow-cooked brisket should improve his outlook on life.
They'd be at the farm in twenty minutes. As eager as Kate was to get there, when she spotted the gas station down the roadthe last one before Gram's placeshe knew she should stop. The fuel gauge was dropping perilously close to E. Plus, it might be good for her and Luke to get out of the car and stretch their legs for a few minutes.
While she pumped gas, Luke disappeared inside to use the restroom. Although she'd lived her entire life in Texas, sometimes the heat still caught Kate by surprise. Even in the shade, she broke a sweat. She tugged at the lightweight material of her sleeveless blouse to keep it from sticking to her damp skin, then lifted her hair away from her neck, making a mental note to look for an elastic band when she got back in the car.
While waiting for Luke, she went into the station and bought a couple of cold beverages. She'd barely pocketed her change before twisting the lid off her chilled bottle of water and taking a long drink. If Luke didn't hurry, she might finish her water and start in on the fountain soda she held in her other hand.
He was taking a long time, and she wouldn't put it past him to stall in a mulish display of rebellion. She turned with the intention of knocking on the door and hurrying him along, but then stopped herself. Half of parenting was picking one's battles. They'd be at Gram's soon, and her grandmother hadn't seen Luke in months. Was this really the right time to antagonize him? She didn't want him arriving at the farm surly and hostile. A smooth first night might prove to all of them that this could work.
Quit hovering, go to the car. She pivoted with renewed purpose. And crashed into a wall that hadn't been there a moment ago. Okay, technically, the wall was a broad-shouldered man at least six inches taller than she. He wore jeans and a white polo shirtwhich was a lot less white with Luke's soda running down the front of it.
Kate opened her mouth to apologize but, "dammit!" was the first word that escaped. A high-pitched giggle snagged her attention, drawing her gaze downward.
Behind the startled-looking man were two blue-eyed little girls. They were dressed so dissimilarly that it took Kate a moment to realize they were identical. One wore a soccer jersey over camo shorts; tangles of white-blond hair hung in her face, and her sneakers looked as if they were about to disintegrate, held together only by an accumulation of dirt. The other girl was wearing a pink dress that tied at the shoulders and a pair of spar-kly sandals. Someone had carefully braided her hair, and she carried a small sequined purse.
Great, she'd doused the guy with a sticky soft drink and cursed in front of his young, impressionable children. She'd been in town less than an hour and already needed a fresh start for her fresh start.
"I am so sorry." She grabbed a handful of napkins off the counter next to the hot dog rotisserie and began frantically dabbing at his chest.
He covered her hand with his. "Let me."
She glanced up, taking a good look at his face for the first time. Wow. Like the girls, he had eyes that were as blue as the Texas sky outside, a dramatic contrast to his jet-black hair. And his
"Mom? What are you doing?"
Perfect. Her son picked now to return, just in time to catch her ogling a total stranger.
Without waiting for an answer, Luke scowled at the man. "Who are you?"
"Cole." The guy had been handsome already. When he smiled, those eyes crinkling at the corners, the barest hint of a dimple softening that granite jaw, he was breathtaking. "Cole Trent."
Despite the easy, practiced smile that came with being a public official, Cole's mind was racing as he processed the events of the last few minutes. The jarring chill of icy soda, the rarity of finding himself face-to-face with a stranger when he knew almost everyone in Cupid's Bow and, the biggest surprise of all, the jolt of attraction he experienced when he looked into the woman's amber eyes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd had such an instant reaction to someone.
Was his interest visible in his expression? That could explain the waves of hostility rolling off her son as Cole introduced himself.
From behind him, Alyssa's voice broke into his thoughts. "Daddy, can I have a candy bar?"
He turned, shaking his head. "A candy bar will ruin your appetite."
"But I'm hungggrrry." She drew out the word in a nasal whine.
"Which is why I'm taking you to dinner." They'd only stopped because Mandy had insisted she needed to go to the bathroom and couldn't wait another ten minutes to reach the restaurant; apparently, seeing him doused with soda had temporarily distracted her. "If Mandy will"
"It's not fair!" Alyssa's lower lip trembled. "I didn't get to go swimming like you said. They ran out of the color I needed to finish my picture at art camp. I don't"
"That's enough," he said firmly.
But Mandy, who could barely agree with her sister on the color of the sky, picked now of all times to demonstrate twin solidarity. She took a step closer to Alyssa. "It's mean you won't let her have a candy bar."
He fought the urge to glance back at the woman with sun-streaked hair and beautiful eyes. Did she think he was inept at handling his own children? "You're supposed to be in the bathroom," he reminded Mandy. "If you'd hurry, we could be on our way to the Smoky Pig by now. But if the two of you don't stop talking back, we're headed straight home. Understand?"
The threat of having to return home and wait for Cole to cook something motivated Mandy. She navigated the tight aisles of chips and road maps in a rush. He returned his gaze to the woman. The gangly boy who'd called her mom had wandered away to refill his soda cup.
"Kids," Cole said sheepishly. "You have days like this?"
"With a teenager?" She laughed, her dark gold eyes warm and understanding. "Try every day."
"I keep waiting for single parenting to get easier, but sometimes I question whether I'm making any progress."
She nodded. "Same here."
So, she was single, too? That thought cheered him more than it should. He didn't even know her name. Nonetheless, he grinned broadly.
She returned the smile, but then ducked her gaze to the sodden napkins in her hand. "I, uh, should throw these away." As she walked toward the trash can, he couldn't help but appreciate the fit of her denim shorts.
Quit leeringthere are children present. Well, one of his children, anyway. He turned to see if Alyssa had forgiven him yet. In his peripheral vision, he caught the blonde's son pressing a quick finger to his lips as if sharing a secret with Alyssa. The boy quickly dropped his hand and moved away. Alyssa frowned at her purse.
"Sorry again about the soda." The blonde was back, her tone brisk, as if she wanted to put their encounter behind her. "And good luck with the parenting."
Cole hated to let her go. He wanted to know who she was and why she was here. Was she visiting someone in Cupid's Bow or simply passing through on her way elsewhere? Maybe he would have asked if she hadn't seemed so anxious to go. Or if he weren't busy puzzling over Alyssa's strange expression.
"Good luck to you, too," he said.
With a nod, the blonde walked away, holding the door open for her son.
"Can we go now?" Mandy rejoined them, bouncing on the balls of her feet. "I'm starving!"
"Same here." He ruffled her hair, but kept his gaze on his other daughter. "What about you, Alyssa?"
She jerked her gaze up from her purse, a flush staining her cheeks. Even someone without Cole's training in suspicious behavior would have spotted the guilt in her eyes.
"What have you got in your purse?" he asked. "N-nothing." She clutched the small sequined bag to her body.
He held out his hand, making it clear he wanted to see for himself.
Tears welled in her eyes as she pulled a candy bar from her purse. "B-but I didn't take it! That boy gave me it."
Cole's blood pressure skyrocketed. Alyssa was, by nature, a sweet, quiet girl, but throughout her kindergarten yearafter every field trip or class party where other students had mothers presentshe'd grown increasingly unpredictable. The teacher who had once praised his daughter's reading skill and eager-to-please disposition had started calling Cole about behavior problems, including a memorable graffiti incident. Now some punk was trying to turn Alyssa into a shoplifter, too? Hell, no.