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About the Author
Award-winning author Deb Kastner writes stories of faith, family and community in a small-town western setting. Deb’s books contain sigh-worthy heroes and strong heroines facing obstacles that draw them closer to each other and the Lord. She lives in Colorado with her husband. She is blessed with three grown daughters and two grandchildren. She enjoys spoiling her grandkids, movies, music, reading, musical theater and exploring Colorado on horseback.
Read an Excerpt
Mama loved carnations.
Buck Redmond gently laid the small, sweetly pungent bouquet of purple and yellow carnations against the headstone carved with his mother's initials, careful not to disturb the freshly turned earth that framed the graveside. He brushed his suddenly tear-stung eyes with his thumb and forefinger and, for the hundredth time that morning, wished he'd come home even a day sooner.
He'd never planned to return home at all. But for his mother's funeral, he'd had no choice. Despite the rift he'd created between them, Buck loved his mother, and now he'd never be able to tell her just how much.
But there was no use thinking about things that could never be. Buck had learned that the hard way. He'd make arrangements to sell his mother's property and get out of town as fast as he'd had to return. His childhood home, once a horse ranch and now Esther's House of Crafts, held few good memories for him, anyway.
Buck stood and replaced his black Stetson on his head. Then, feeling like he should say a prayer for his mother but not knowing how, he turned away.
Right into the arms of Ellie McBride.
The last person on earth he wanted to see right now.
"I thought I'd find you here," she said softly, placing her palms on his elbows as if to balance him.
Buck took an unconscious step backward. If he was going to fall down—and he wasn't—a small, raven-haired wisp of a woman like Ellie wouldn't have been able to keep him vertical. Besides, he still felt that little zap of electricity whenever she touched him. It hadn't gone away, not in twenty years.
He was thirty-eight years old now, not an awkward teenager anymore. He and Ellie had both moved on with their lives. He pulled the brim of his hat down low over his eyes.
"What do you want?" he asked. His words came out a bit more gruffly than he'd intended, but he didn't apologize.
"I've been looking for you," she said simply.
"I'm holding a reception for your mother's passing at my…." She hesitated, stumbling over her words.
Buck wondered why, but he didn't ask. He had no intention of going to any reception in this town, but telling Ellie that without hurting her feelings was another thing entirely.
"At…at my ranch house," she concluded, gushing out the words. "The whole town is there, Buck. They want to pay their respects to you—and your son. Where is Tyler, anyway?"
That was exactly what Buck was afraid of, the whole town being there, especially where his son, Tyler, was concerned. He would have left twelve-year-old Tyler with someone—anyone—if there was anyone to leave him with, which there wasn't.
"Tyler is waiting in my truck," he said, choosing to answer the obvious and avoid the rest for as long as he could.
"Oh, good. I didn't get the chance to meet him at the funeral," she said, her voice husky as she tried for a light tone but didn't quite succeed.
Ellie reached out and touched Buck's arm again, this time sliding her hand down his forearm to reach for his palm. Buck had forgotten how tiny her hand felt in his, and he simply stared at their hands as their fingers met.
"I couldn't even get close to you," she said softly. "You took off right after the funeral this morning without a word to anyone."
That much was true. He simply nodded, unable to speak for the well of emotion in his throat.
"I wanted to tell you and Tyler how sorry I am about the loss of Esther," she continued in her high, lilting voice, unashamed of the tears that coursed down her cheeks. "You know your mother was always like a second mom to me. I will miss her desperately. I can't imagine how you feel."
Actually, Ellie could imagine just that, Buck thought, if anyone could. Ellie had been close to his mother, ever since Buck and Ellie had first started dating in his junior—her sophomore—year of high school. Ellie's own mother had died when she was a small child. Perhaps that was the reason Buck's mother and Ellie had formed such a strong, loving bond.
And maybe that was what made it so much harder to imagine returning home at all.
Buck didn't really want to think about that right now. He pulled his fingers from her grasp. "I appreciate the sentiment," he said roughly, his throat closing around the words, "and I'm sure you went to a lot of trouble for the reception, so I'm sorry to say Tyler and I won't be able to make it."
He wasn't sorry, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. But in his years away from Ellie McBride, he'd apparently forgotten one of her more annoying qualities—her stubborn nature.
"Of course you're going to the reception," she replied in a no-nonsense voice that brooked no argument. "Buck, your mother just passed. You may not care about the people in this town, but they care about you."
Ellie glared at him, daring him to argue with her. When he didn't speak, she continued her tirade as if she hadn't even paused. "And they cared about your mother. It would be good of you to allow them to express their grief at her loss."
"I don't owe the people in this town a thing," he bit out, shaking his head.
He believed his own words. The town he'd been born and raised in had betrayed his trust in everything he'd believed in. They'd sold their souls to the almighty dollar.
Even his own mother.
Why should he care what the town folks of Ferrell thought about him? He should get out of town right now, while the getting was good.
"Larry Bowman is there," Ellie went on, obviously ignoring the fact that Buck had pulled away from her yet again. "I'm sure he'd be willing to talk with you about your mother's will as soon as the reception is finished."
Buck groaned aloud. With grief shrouding his thoughts, he'd temporarily forgotten he would have to take care of his mother's estate before leaving town. He wanted to leave now. Grief washed through him once again, shadowing his other feelings.
He was his mother's only child, and no doubt the sole beneficiary of her will. He needed to speak with Larry Bowman, the town lawyer, sooner or later; at the moment, his heart was voting for later rather than sooner.
"I don't know if I can do that," he said, his voice gruff and low. He pinched his lips together. He hadn't meant to say the words aloud.
"I can't imagine what you're going through," Ellie said in an equally low tone, repeating her earlier sentiment. "I know this is a rough time for you. If it helps, I'll be at the reading of the will."
Buck's head jerked up, and he looked Ellie straight in her deep violet eyes for the first time. He was thoroughly shaken by the amount of warmth and compassion he read there—he'd expected more anger, he supposed—but even so, it was her words that unsettled him the most.
"Why would you be there?"
Ellie shook her head, looking away from his gaze and squeezing her eyes closed for a brief moment.
Buck wondered if she had something to hide—something she wasn't telling him. Not that he would ask.
"I just know I've been asked to attend," she said, opening her eyes and once more making eye contact with him. "And I thought it might help if you had a—a friend," she stammered awkwardly, "by your side through all this."
Buck turned away, unable to meet her gaze any longer. Ellie had been a friend, the best friend he'd ever had. But she had been so much more than that.
His first love.
Puppy love, some might have called it, but Buck knew better in his heart.
Ellie McBride had been his first love—if he were completely honest with himself, his only love.
But that was a long time ago, in another lifetime. Too much had happened since then, for them both. He was amazed she would still consider herself to be anything to him, much less call herself his friend.
At long last he sighed and turned back to her. "All right," he said, surrendering to the inevitable. "I'll go to your reception. But I'm not sure what to do with Tyler. He doesn't want to be here at all. I don't think he'll be keen on meeting the folks of Ferrell, Texas. Especially right now."
Ellie nodded, her beautiful violet eyes gleaming. "I understand. I wouldn't want to be around a bunch of strangers if I were grieving for my beloved grandmother, either. And twelve is a tough age for a boy."
Buck barely held back his disbelief. What would she know about twelve-year-old boys? Buck's mother, on her brief visits to see Buck and Tyler on the west side of Texas, had mentioned more than once that Ellie had never married—not that he had asked. But he knew why his mother had persisted in bringing the subject up: always in the hope he would return to Ferrell, something he'd long since vowed never to do.
"Listen, I think I can handle Tyler," Ellie said, brushing her long, thick, straight black hair back from her forehead with her thumb and middle finger. "Why don't we head over to the ranch, and I'll see what I can do?"
Buck knew any overtures to Tyler on Ellie's part would be met with resistance by his surly son. Tyler was a handful, with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas itself.
But what else could Buck do?
He nodded and gestured toward the church, where he'd parked his truck. They walked in silence, Ellie obviously lost in her own thoughts and Buck wondering what she was thinking. Maybe he didn't want to know.
Ellie had enough reason to hate Buck for what he'd done to her twenty years ago. For all they'd meant to each other, he'd disappeared out of her life without a single word to her.
Her compassion in light of their past together confused him. Perhaps she was doing this only for the sake of his mother. He sensed an unseen wall between them, erected by Ellie's emotions, one he knew he couldn't break down even if he wanted to. He'd built that wall with his own two hands.
Not that it mattered, he told himself.
Buck knocked on the glass on the passenger's side of his pickup truck, a vehicle that had seen better days.
Tyler, dressed in a new pair of blue jeans and a blue denim shirt, had his head back against the seat and his eyes closed, his MP3 player in his hand and earphones in his ears. Buck knew Tyler wasn't dozing, even when he didn't so much as open an eyelid to Buck's persistent knocking.
Maybe the boy was playing his music too loud to hear Buck knocking.
Choosing to give Tyler the benefit of the doubt, Buck dug his keys from the front left pocket of his black jeans, unlocked the door and opened it.
"Wake up, kiddo," he gently told his son, shaking the boy by the shoulder. He presumed Tyler was intentionally ignoring him, as he had been all through the trip back to Ferrell, and through the funeral service, as well. "I want to introduce you to someone."
That got the boy's attention. Apparently Tyler's music wasn't as loud as Buck had first supposed.
Tyler opened his eyes—blue, like his mother's—and scrubbed a hand through his light blond hair, also a maternal trait, not at all like Buck's own sandy brown hair and green eyes.
Ellie stepped forward, extending her hand. "Hi, Tyler. It's nice to meet you. I'm Ellie McBride. I was a friend of your grandmother. And your father," she said, making it sound almost like an afterthought. "I'm truly sorry for your loss."
Tyler squinted down at Ellie's outstretched hand but ignored it. Instead, he simply shrugged and tipped his head back against the seat, closing his eyes once again.
"Miss McBride is having a reception in honor of your grandmother," Buck said sternly, wishing he'd taught his son better manners, though glancing at Ellie, she didn't seem to have taken the least offense at Tyler's breach of etiquette. She was smiling compassionately at the boy.
"There are quite a few boys your age," she offered. "I can introduce you, if you'd like. Maybe you can make a few new friends while you're in town."
Tyler grunted and shook his head, and Buck began to think he'd raised a Neanderthal. How could he blame the boy, though? Buck knew all about being silent and broody. He'd invented it.
"Tyler, get out of the truck. Now," he stated in a firm, no-nonsense voice.
"No," Tyler and Ellie replied at the same time.
Buck didn't know who to glare at first, so he swept his gaze across both of them.
"Really, there's no need," Ellie continued. At least she was attempting to explain herself, while Buck's own son chose to ignore him completely. "My ranch is just north of town, just off Main Street, to the right. McBride's Christian Therapy Ranch. You can't miss the sign."
That was a mighty fancy name for a tourist trap, Buck thought with an internal scoff. He wanted to cringe in distaste. This was exactly why he'd left Ferrell in the first place.
Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself. Forcing himself to be polite, he tipped his hat at Ellie and strode purposefully to the driver's side of the truck. "We'll see you there."
* * *
Ellie's meeting with Buck and Tyler hadn't gone at all as she'd anticipated. Actually, she'd had no idea what to expect—not after twenty years.
What she hadn't expected was how quickly all her feelings came back, flooding into her heart as if someone had opened a gate. Buck still made her stomach weak with butterflies and her heart sing, no matter how she tried to tamp it down.
Frankly, Ellie hadn't expected to feel anything for Buck. Twenty years was a long time.
And if she felt anything, it should be anger, she mused. But she'd buried that emotion ages ago, and it hadn't returned, at least not yet. Not even when she'd first seen Buck at his mother's graveside. God's forgiveness was an amazing thing—she knew it wasn't her own spirit that had healed her heart.
Time had healed her heart. That, and a lot of prayer. Still, she continued to surprise herself. Ellie had felt a bit of righteous indignation on Buck's mother's behalf, perhaps, but not what she would classify as anger.
And as she watched Buck now, standing in the middle of her family room, surrounded by townspeople he'd known all his life, she felt nothing but pity. Buck had once been the most important part of her world. She had moved on, but Buck, Buck looked like a man who'd seen one too many days on the rough side of life.
At least he looked more comfortable now than he had at the graveside, having shed his Western jacket and bolo tie. He was still dressed entirely in black, however.