RUST CREEK RAMBLINGS
Have you met eight-year-old Lily? The fast-talking street-smart New Yorker has charmed everyone here in Rust Creek Falls. She has even managed to win over Caleb Dalton, our curmudgeonly cowboy who usually avoids all things family related. Or could it be that Caleb's real interest lies in Lily's adoptive mom, Mallory Franklin?
It's hard to believe our eternal bachelor would consider getting involved with someone who has a child. It's even harder to fathom that spunky Mallory would date a man whose only documented commitment is to playing the field. But Lily insists the two are the perfect couple, and who are we to argue? Stay tuned, dear readers, and see if Lily can lead them down the bridal path!
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The little Asian girl sitting at the desk where his father's receptionist normally sat was one heck of a surprise to Caleb Dalton. It was something you didn't see every day, at least not in the law offices of Ben Dalton. Cute as could be, she looked about seven or eight, going on twenty-five. A dainty, beautiful little doll.
"Hi, there," he said, politely removing his hat.
"Are you a real cowboy?" Her black eyes glittered with excitement.
"Yes, ma'am, I am."
"Cool." Her delicately shaped mouth curved into a smile for just a moment, then she was all business. "I'm sorry to tell you, but the office is closed. Can you come back tomorrow?"
"I'm pretty sure Mr. Dalton will see me anyway." The man was his father and that should get him a pass. "Do you have an appointment?"
"Sort of." Picking his dad up to take him out for a beer should qualify.
"Mr. Dalton is doing something very important right now and can't be disturbed. You'll have to wait. Please take a seat." Little Miss Efficient went back to reading her book.
Caleb wasn't sure whether to laugh or do as he was told but finally opted for the latter, since he was in no particular hurry. And how often did a kid get to boss around grown-ups? Might be good for her self-esteem. Although from what he could tell, she was definitely not low on confidence.
Spinning his hat in his hands, he walked over to a chair against the wall and sat as ordered. The high oak reception desk where the little girl wielded power like a Supreme Court Justice separated the client waiting area from the wide doorway beyond, which was his father's office. His paralegal worked back there, too.
Here the floor was dark wood and the beige walls were decorated with watercolor paintings of mountains, cowboys on horseback and the local waterfall for which Rust Creek Falls, Montana, was named. He'd been there less than a minute when he heard the click of high heels hurrying closer, and a young woman emerged from the back office.
"I heard the bell over the door. Is someone here ?" The woman stopped short and looked at him.
The little girl glanced up from her book. "I told him Mr. Dalton was busy."
"With important business, I was told." Caleb stood and walked closer, as if drawn by some invisible force.
This woman wasn't classically beautiful, but there was something about her that intrigued him, attracted him. Maybe it was the long-sleeved white silky blouse tucked into a straight, formfitting black skirt. She wasn't very big, but the high heels made her legs look long and sleek.
"I'm so sorry. Please tell me she wasn't rude." Spoken like a concerned mother. The little girl must be adopted. "No apology necessary."
"Lily, you should have let Mr. Dalton know his son is here."
"You told me to read and be quiet as a mouse and not get in the way when Cecelia dropped me off," the little girl protested.
"I know. But sometimes there are exceptions " The woman sighed and the movement did interesting things to the body under that silky white blouse.
"How did you know?" he asked her.
Caleb was sure they hadn't met. A striking woman like her would be nearly impossible to forget. "That Ben is my father."
"There's a picture of you in his office. He has photos of the whole family. You're Caleb, the youngest of the boys." She smiled. "He brags a little."
"Have you called him out on it?"
"All the time, but he's not intimidated."
"That's my dad." He grinned. "You have me at a disadvantage. I don't know your name."
"Mallory Franklin. I'm his paralegal. And this little girl is Lily. My niece. It's nice to meet you."
"Same here." Caleb took the slender hand she held out and his own seemed to swallow it.
He was certainly no stranger to meeting women; it happened to him on a regular basis. But this was different. SheMallorywas different. Her auburn hair was long and shiny, spilling past her shoulders. Warm brown eyes met his and he saw easy laughter there. What was it about the combination of features that made him want to charm her straight into his bed?
There was a thought Caleb wanted to put out of his mind. He didn't see a ring on her left finger, but that didn't mean anything. Her niece was probably adopted and he wondered why Mallory was taking care of her. There could be a husband, and marriage was a sacred line he didn't cross. Even if she wasn't, a woman with a child was a complication he didn't need.
"So, you're here to see Ben?" She looked at their joined hands and he realized he was still holding hers.
With a fair amount of reluctance he loosened his fingers. "Yeah. I'm taking him out for a beer."
"Good. He works too hard and needs to relax."
"That's what my mother says."
"I'm guessing you're going to Ace in the Hole?" One of her auburn eyebrows lifted.
"It's the only place in town. And I really mean that."
"I like that Rust Creek Falls is small," she said.
"It is that." Instead of being grateful that he hadn't met her sooner, the reminder of how small the town was made him wonder where she'd been. He refused to even add all my life. "You're new here."
"I moved here in January."
Since it was now August, that meant she'd been there almost seven months. "How is it I haven't seen you around?"
"I'm guessing Bee's Beauty Parlor and the doughnut shop aren't at the top of your list of places to hang out."
"Good guess," he admitted.
"What about church?"
"I go when I can. Work on the ranch keeps me busy, but on Sundays when I can't get away, I look at the mountains, trees, falls and that's my place of worship. It's prettier and more fitting than the inside of a building."
"I can't argue with that." She tapped her lip and a sly look turned her eyes the color of melted chocolate. "You probably don't get over to the elementary school much, either."
"Nope. Once a year when everyone in town pitches in to get it ready for opening day is about the only time."
"I like that small-town spirit. Lissa Roarke captured it in her blog and caught my attention. It's one of the reasons we moved from Manhattan. It's a wonderful place to visit, but I grew up and lived most of my life in Helena."
"A Montana girl." He wasn't sure why that should please him, but it did.
"Yes, sir. So raising Lily in the city didn't seem best."
"Do you miss it?"
"Excuse me. Twenty-four-hour takeout," the little girl chimed in. "I miss fast food whenever I want it. And Central Park."
He hadn't been aware she was listening. In fact he'd all but forgotten she was there. "Yeah, that's a problem. What about you, Mallory?"
"Multiplex movie theaters," she said dreamily.
"Museums," Lily added.
"Montana has been an adjustment for her. It was awfully quiet at first but she's getting used to it."
"I have a friend." The little girl smiled. "And I like cowboys. I want to learn how to ride a horse."
"I rest my case," Mallory said. "All indications are that we made the right decision moving here."
His father appeared in the doorway to the reception area, then walked over to join them. "Caleb, sorry to keep you waiting."
"No problem, Dad." They shook hands.
Ben Dalton was roughly six feet tall, the same height as Caleb. They had the same blue eyes and folks said their hair was an identical shade of brown before the older man's began to show silver. Folks also said Caleb got his good looks from his dad and a little too much charm from his mother's side of the family.
"I see you've met Mallory and Lily."
"Best paralegal I've ever had." The older man nodded approvingly.
"It's nice of you to say so," she said, a becoming pink flush spreading over her cheeks.
"Not nice at all," he protested. "Honest-to-God truth. You're a valuable asset to this office and I appreciate all your hard work."
"And I appreciate having a boss who understands and respects family obligations. Being able to leave at five o'clock every day to pick up Lily from day care is really important to me."
"I was informed in no uncertain terms that the office was closed." Caleb looked at the clock on the wall that said it was half past six. "All evidence points to a boss who's a slave driver."
"Mallory graciously offered to stay," his father defended.
"It was an emergency," she said. "Besides, Lily isn't in school right now and Cecelia Clifton was watching her and offered to drop her off here."
Caleb began to doubt that Mallory was married because it sounded as if there wasn't a husband to pick up the slack. But that was not his problem and none of his business. "So, you ready to go, Dad?"
"Just let me shut down the office. I'll be back in a minute. Mallory, go home."
Caleb watched Lily close her book and climb down from the big chair to stand by her aunt. The way the little girl tucked her hand into Mallory's tugged at something a little empty inside him.
"I'm glad we finally met," he said. "And your niece shows a lot of promise as a sentry. No one gets past her. You've done a great job with her."
"And she did it all by herself. She doesn't have a husband," Lily volunteered cheerfully. "But I think maybe she'd like one. Maybe a cowboy."
Mallory looked horrified. "Lily"
"Okay, son. Let's go get that beer. Will you lock up, Mallory?" His father rounded the corner like the cavalry coming to the rescue.
Caleb wasn't about to ignore a diplomatic exit strategy when he saw it. He put his hat on, touched the brim respectfully toward the two ladies, then followed his father out the door.
He'd done his fair share of dating and then some. He'd gone out with blondes, brunettes, redheads and women whose hair was every shade in between. Ladies with blue eyes, green, black and brown had flirted and cozied up to him.
His brothers would laugh him off the ranch if he said it out loud to them, but meeting Mallory Franklin had felt like a lightning strike. No woman had ever had that effect on him before and he didn't much care for the fact that this one did. He could deal when there was a ghost of a chance that she was married, but now he knew for sure she wasn't and it was a problem. Not only was there no husband, she was looking for one.
Then again, soon enough someone in Rust Creek Falls would clue her in that Caleb Dalton wasn't marriage material.
Mallory wished she could get the look of panic on Caleb Dalton's face out of her mind. Clearly, escaping from her as quickly as possible had been his top priority. That was several hours ago; she and Lily had come home to their three-bedroom house on the southeast corner of South Broomtail Road and Commercial Street. It was after dinner, so the two of them were in the middle of the bedtime routine. Still, every time she remembered this child telling him she'd like a husband, Mallory wanted the earth to open and swallow her whole.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
She looked at the little girl, blow-drying her thick, straight black hair after her shower. This child had been placed in her care by a cruel twist of fate, making Mallory a mother. Lily hadn't come with a set of instructions or a how-to manual. There needed to be a discussion about what she had said, but Mallory didn't want to make her think she'd done something wrong or stifle her natural enthusiasm and spontaneity.
She just needed Lily to understand that she couldn't go around telling virtual strangers, not even cowboys, that her aunt was looking for a husband. But how did one approach that?
Mallory had no model from her childhood to fall back on. Her own parents would have oozed disapproval, then given her the silent treatment. She'd decided when Lily came to live with her that when there was an issue, she would do the exact opposite of what her mother and father had. So far Mallory had managed to handle every situation fairly easily, but now was definitely the time for a talk.
When the little girl turned off the blow-dryer, Mallory said, "Lily, how did you like spending time at the office today?"
"It was okay. A little boring."
Not from where Mallory had been standing. She squeezed toothpaste onto a princess toothbrush and handed it over. "Oh?"
"I like reading, but it would have been more fun at Amelia's house."
Her new best friend. "I'm sorry that didn't work out. But sometimes"
"Things don't go the way we want and we all have to do things we don't like," she parroted.
"Right." That was good, no? Finishing the sentence proved that she listened and filed it away. "You did a very good job at the receptionist desk."
Lily stuck the toothbrush into her mouth and talked around it. "Do you think Mr. Dalton will pay me?"
Mallory laughed. "I think that was pro bono. That means you did it at no charge."
"That's what I figured." She brushed her teeth, then rinsed and wiped her mouth on the green hand towel sitting beside the sink.
Mallory was sitting on the closed lid of the toilet and stood. "Are you ready for bed?"
"Do I have to be?"
"It's time," she answered, firm but kind.
The token pushback was part of the established nighttime ritual. After Mallory's sister and brother-in-law died together in a car accident, she'd become Lily's guardian and the two of them had gone to grief counseling. She'd learned that routine would provide security and stability, a safe environment to put one foot in front of the other and get on with the business of living. It seemed to be working.
Lily turned off the light as she left the bathroom and Mallory followed her down the hall. The child's room had lavender walls with white baseboards and doors. A canopy bed was centered on one wall with a princess spread over it that matched the lamp and curtains. Her niece had picked out everything because Mallory felt it was important for her to feel as if she had some control over her life. Even if control was an illusion, a fact hammered home after the trauma of losing her mother and father at the same time.
Lily hopped on the bed and grabbed her favorite stuffed animal, a pink elephant. "I like Mr. Dalton's son."
"Caleb." Mallory cringed just thinking about him, then sat on the bed.
"I think he's very handsome. Like a prince. Can a cowboy be a prince?"
Mallory thought he was handsome, too. Brown hair, blue eyes, muscular. The white cotton snap-front shirt he wore fit him like a second skin and highlighted the contours of his broad chest and flat stomach. Worn jeans hugged strong thighs that no doubt kept him from falling off his horse while he did whatever job needed doing on the family ranch. But saying any of this out loud to Lily wouldn't be productive to this conversation.
"That depends on your definition of prince. Usually that's a male child born to royalty."
"That's not what I meant, but it's okay. You're changing the subject. You do that when you don't want to talk about something."
"Do I?" She hadn't realized Lily noticed. All her energy went into learning and knowing this child and she hadn't thought about the fact that it worked both ways. "I guess I do. But there is something I'd like to talk about."
Lily sighed. "I bet it's about what I said."
"What do you think you said?" She was a smart little cookie.
"I shouldn't have told Caleb you'd like a husband."
"That's right." She took Lily's small hand into her own and brushed a thumb over the delicate knuckles. "The thing is, ladybug, you and I have been through a lot of changes in the last year."
"You mean because Mommy and Daddy died."
"Yes." Her heart caught. Would that always happen when she thought about her only sister being gone? She couldn't even imagine how Lily felt. "You and I are getting used to each other."
"I like living with you."