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"It was the kiss that changed everything," Laney whispered.
Stella Rose nuzzled her neck. Named after her favorite lead character from the play A Streetcar Named Desire, and her favorite flower, Stella Rose was Laney's prized thoroughbred and her closest confidante.
"Not yours, silly," Laney exclaimed, giggling. "Austin's!"
She gently patted Stella's chestnut mane. "Only you know how I truly feel about him," she whispered. "That's a secret between us girls."
Her newly minted sister-in-law, Brooke, who'd married Laney's older brother Jameson, knew the biggest secret of all.
Laney was four months pregnant with Austin's child.
All because of one night that she would never forget.
Ever since New Year's Eve, Austin was the focus of her dreams, and they were naughty indeed. So much so, she'd often wake up in a sweat and it was difficult to control her thoughts for the remainder of the day.
But if she were honest with herself, the fact was that on most days she didn't know how she felt about Austin. Only that she was scared to tell him the truth. First, she had to get through the process of telling her family.
"I sure wish they were as easy to talk to you as you are, Stella." She grabbed the leather reins. "Come on, girl. Let's get you groomed before you get as antsy as I am."
Laney's boots made a sucking sound as she led the horse through the pasture. Spring and early summer was rainy season in Montana. It was great for the soil and the vegetation, but terrible for her long, straight hair, which she kept tucked up under her taupe cowboy hat to try to avoid the frizzies.
When she reached the rough-hewn log fence, she leaned against it and took in the blessings before her eyes.
She had her own home on the huge Broward family homestead, complete with a large stable and plenty of pasture for her horses to graze. The white square-shaped clapboard farmhouse, circa 1930, was just the right size and suited her ideal of "organized simplicity." Beyond, prairie grasses swayed gently as far as she could see. Farther still, a ridge of mountains jutted against the blue sky.
But it was the air she loved the most. Breathe in clean, fresh Montana air and everything seemed right again. At least for a little while.
Laney unhitched the fence gate and led Stella Rose out of the paddock. She was almost inside the barn when she heard tires crunching on the long gravel driveway.
She looked up and saw Brooke approaching. Everyone she knew in Granger had a truck or an SUV and at least one horse. Brooke had all three, plus a Jeep, the vehicle that she was slowly driving into the clearing just to the left of the stable.
"Hey," Laney called out, patting her waist. Even though she was wearing jeans one size larger, she was oddly relieved that there was barely a bulge. It had become a habit to check and she was glad to know that even this far along, she still wasn't showing.
Keeping a firm grip on the reins, she drew Stella Rose to one side and patted her nose with her other hand to calm her. Although with her ranch hands coming and going, the horse was used to cars in close proximity, Laney wasn't taking any chances. Horses startled easily, sometimes for reasons that only they knew.
Brooke exited the car. "Hay is for horses," she quipped, tossing her long curls over her shoulder.
Laney rolled her eyes. "Ha-ha. You creative types have the corniest sense of humor."
Brooke, in jeans and an oversize yellow button-down shirt with a clay stain on it, put her hands on her slim hips. "That reminds me. Did I ever tell you the one about the elderly printmaker and the nude model?"
Laney held up her hand. "No, and please don't. I'm pregnant, remember? My stomach is very sensitive."
She loosened the cinch that secured the saddle. "Now enough with the jokes. Come help me get Stella Rose settled. She and I just finished a nice ride. It'll be our last
until the baby comes."
At the thought of not riding her horses for another five months, something welled up in her throat. The further along she got in her pregnancy, the more risks there were with riding, and at her last visit, her doctor had ordered her to stop.
Her eyes burned with tears and she turned so Brooke couldn't see her face as she led Stella Rose away.
Riding was her life, and although the safety of her baby was her number one priority now, the sacrifice still hurt. She just needed some time to get used to it.
Back in the stall, Brooke's hazel eyes flitted down to her abdomen. Laney wanted to squirm with unease. She guessed she'd have to get used to people looking at her stomach all the time, too.
She led Stella Rose into her stall, unbridled her and put on her halter.
Brooke followed. "Is everything okay? I haven't seen you in a while and I've been worried."
Laney took off Stella Rose's cinch and hung it on a hook outside the stall, warming at the sentiment. Her initial reaction to Brooke's sudden marriage to Jameson had not been positive. However, she'd lived up to her role as the "neutral" and "quiet" one in the Broward family and had not said a word.
Now she was glad she hadn't voiced her opinion. If she had, she and Brooke would not be on their way to becoming good friends.
Laney nodded. "Yes, I saw my OB-GYN last week and he says everything looks good."
"I'll say it is. You're not even showing yet," Brooke said, admiringly.
For Laney, not showing early in her pregnancy was a blessing. It had given her some time to try to figure things out, without her family poking their noses into her life. Unfortunately, her answers only led to more difficult questions. One of which was how in the world was she going to raise her child alone?
"Yet is the operative word," Laney emphasized. "The doctor says I could start to pop at any time."
"Even so, I hope when I get pregnant, I'll be as lucky and as beautiful as you are."
Laney blushed and laughed. "Thanks. And I'm hoping to be an auntie sooner, rather than later."
Brooke looked away, as if she were embarrassed. "I'll get back to you on that. Jameson and I are just enjoying being a married couple right now. Throwing children into the mix would only complicate things."
"Tell me about it," Laney muttered.
In an instant, she felt ashamed at her statement. Although she was starting to get more excited about the baby as the days went on, she still felt guilty about keeping the little one a secret from her family for so long.
As for Austin, he was too busy traveling the world to even care about what was happening with her, not to mention the town of Granger.
Just last week, her father, Steven Broward, the most powerful man in Granger and one of the wealthiest in the state, mentioned that he had emailed Austin a few newspaper articles about all the land grabbing that was going on in Granger. Laney wasn't at all surprised that her father had yet to receive a response.
Of course, Laney knew that not answering an email did not mean that Austin was unfit to be a parent. That would be ludicrous. But it did speak volumes about how easy it was for Austin to ignore her father, even though he had conducted business with the Broward family.
Or maybe Austin was trying to send the message that the Browards themselves didn't matter, neither did the land grabbers and least of all, Laney. Although he'd contacted her a few times the week after their evening together, she hadn't heard from him since.
Laney took off Stella Rose's saddle and handed it to Brooke.
"I'm sorry. That didn't come out right. I'm happy about the baby. It's just that"
"Nobody can blame you for being upset," Brooke interrupted. She wiped the saddle down with a towel before placing it on a shelf. "You're going to be a single mom. That's a situation that would be difficult for anyone to face."
Laney took off the saddle blanket. It was a little damp from the ride, so she hung it over the stall door to dry.
She sighed. "Yeah. I'm dealing with things the best I can."
In truth, Laney was scared to death, but she tried not to think about it. If she did, she would never be able to gain enough courage to tell her family.
Laney grabbed a clean towel off a hook and started to wipe the saddle marks off Stella Rose's back.
Brooke frowned. "Where's Trey? Do you really have to do all this work?"
Trey Dawson, Laney's equine manager, was in charge of running the stable and taking care of her seven horses. He also assisted with her breeding program, everything from fielding calls from interested buyers to monitoring test tubes.
Laney walked around Stella so she could rub down her other side. "He has the morning off. Besides, I can still groom my horses. It relaxes me. And Stella Rose is special to me."
Stella Rose, the foal of Daphne Blue and Dante's Inferno, both champions, was a beautiful chestnut thoroughbred. As her beloved horse had grown to adulthood, Laney had gotten closer and closer to her until one day she'd decided that she would never sell her or breed her. After her gold medal win, Stella was officially retired and seemed perfectly content to spend her days grazing and eating.
Laney raised an eyebrow. "You may not be a horse breeder, but you're a rancher, just like I am. Do you mean to tell me that when you get pregnant, you're going to stop being who are?"
Brooke paused. "I may be a rancher, but my heart is in being an artisan. When I have a baby, I certainly wouldn't stop doing pottery."
Laney pointed her towel at Brooke. "That's what I'm talking about. Women don't have to change who they are just to have a baby."
Brooke nodded in agreement. "You're right. I'm just worried about you, that's all. When you told me you thought you'd had a miscarriage early on in your pregnancy, I"
Laney wiped Stella Rose's face, ignoring her neigh of disapproval. "Well, I didn't," she stated firmly. "I was mistaken and I'm fine."
Brooke cocked her head to the side. "I wouldn't expect anything less from a gold medalist," she teased, trying to lighten the mood.
Laney laughed and tossed the towel into a basket outside the stall to be washed later. She started to check Stella Rose's hooves for any rocks or pebbles that may have gotten in them during their ride.
"Where do you keep that thing anyway? Hidden in some hay?" Brooke asked. She looked around, pretending like she was on a hunt to find Laney's gold medal.
Laney cast a secretive smile. "Don't worry. It's in a very safe place."
Satisfied that her horse was appropriately groomed, she undid the halter. Both women laughed when Stella Rose immediately started nibbling at the hay pile in the corner.
They exited the stall and Laney secured the latch. Stella Rose's ears pricked up at the sound.
"Don't worry, sweetheart," Laney cooed lovingly. "When Trey gets back in a little while, he'll put you out in the pasture with everyone else. You need some time to cool down now, okay?"
Stella Rose stared at her owner and then dipped her head back down to her food.
Brooke giggled. "Good thing I speak horse, too. Otherwise"
"You'd think I was crazy?"
Brooke nodded. "I haven't gotten to the point where I talk to my pottery," she joked. "And I hope I never will!"
They both roared with laughter as they walked outside.
"So, did you find anything out from Jameson? What's the deal with the family meeting?"
Brooke pulled her hair back in a loose ponytail. "Other than more talk about the land-grabbers in Granger, he doesn't know."
Leave it to Jameson to have his head buried in the ground, Laney thought. Her brother wouldn't know gossip if it hit him in the face.
"I bet Jameson will be the first one at the meeting," Laney said wryly. "We both know how he feels about strangers buying up our town."
Brooke nodded. "He's a real hometown boy. He loves ranching and the town of Granger so much."
"You know that better than anyone," Laney replied.
Brooke's family, the Palmers, were ranchers, too, but certainly not at the same level as the Browards, both land and profitwise.
She still couldn't believe Jameson had married Brooke just so that she could keep her half of the family ranch. Due to an odd codicil in Brooke's father's will, Brooke had to be married to inherit her half of Palmer Ranch. And even though Brooke had no real interest in ranch life, she had felt compelled to carry out her father's wishes.
Laney adored the BWB Heritage Ranch, the formal name for the Browards' massive estate, but would she marry a man she hardly knew just to keep it in the family? She doubted it.
"Is Jameson still hoping to buy Meredith's portion of the Palmer Ranch?" Laney asked.
Brooke's sister, Meredith, who was estranged from the family and already married, owned the other half of the Palmer Ranch. Laney knew that Jameson wanted to purchase all of Meredith's acreage in order to prevent Samara Lionne, one of Hollywood's biggest movie stars, from buying it for herself.
Brooke nodded. "Yes, but he hasn't had much luck yet. He's really worried that Samara will one day own the entire town of Granger, and to tell you the truth, so am I."
"My father has voiced the same concern," Laney said. "He's still hurt that Wes sold all of his land to her. Plus, there's been no word on what she plans to do with it, so it's a huge mystery. Not to mention the fact that no one knows what Wes is planning on doing with his life, now that he's decided to stop being a rancher."
Wes, Laney's older brother, who was once dubbed one of Montana's Most Eligible Ranchers, seemed to have his sights set on living and earning a living anywhere but Granger. He and his new fiancée, Lydia, who was Samara's former assistant, had spent the past few weeks traveling in Europe. Their next move and the overall drama that had plagued the town for the past several months were the subject of many spirited conversations around the Broward family dinner table.
Laney and Brooke sauntered out of the barn to the fence, taking their time to enjoy the feel of the spring breeze against their skin. They were both country girls at heart. There was no need to rush. Not when everything around them was so beautiful and peaceful.
"I don't think Jameson will ever truly forgive Wes for selling off his portion of the Broward land to Samara," Brooke noted. "I'm sure my sister will sell Samara her half of the Palmer Ranch eventually."
Laney turned toward her. "Why would Meredith do that?"
Brooke leaned against the fence and snorted. "Why wouldn't she? She hasn't set foot in Granger in ages! Plus, Jameson found out that Samara is offering way over market value for the land. My sister has never been one to turn down lots of cold hard cash."
Laney sighed. "Wes can be the same way. Hopefully, married life will soften him and help him rearrange his priorities. I love my brothers and I can't stand when they disagree. I know their little feud keeps my mom up at night. And my dad, he just retreats into his office in the barn."