GUESS WHO?S BACK IN TOWN!
Her acting career over before it began and her bank account drained, Lilah Owens returned to her tiny hometown of Kalamoose, North Dakota, with the one thing she did have, a big secret in the form of her eleven–year–old daughter. Not five minutes in town, she ran into the unbearably handsome, hardscrabble boy she left behind but never forgot. Only now Gus Hoffman was all man, owned most of Kalamoose, had a fancy fiancee and had no idea that he was a father!
Gus knew the beautiful woman he'd loved and lost was hiding something and that meeting once more at midnight, the way they used to, would reveal her secrets. But could Gus handle the truth and his still–burning passion for Lilah?
About the Author
Wendy is a two-time recipient of Romance Writers of America's RITA Award and was a finalist for Affaire de Coeur's Best Up-and-Coming Romance Author. When not writing, she likes to take long walks with her dog, settle in for cozy chats with good friends, and sneak tofu into her husband's dinner. She enjoys hearing from readers and may be reached at P.O. Box 82131 Portland, OR 97282-0131.
Read an Excerpt
It's incredible, Lilah Owens thought, fingers curling around the steering wheel of her old Pontiac. The kid can complain without punctuation.
She looked at her passenger, trying to be patient, be-cause the eleven-year-old had been through a lot in the past several weeks.
Then again, so had Lilah. That, coupled with the fact that she was also hot, hungry and had to pee, tended to blunt her compassion. She took a deep breath, as deep as if she were about to belt a song, and answered back, "If-you're-so-hot-suck-on-some-ice-We-just-drove-past-a-sheep-ranch-so-what-do-you-expect-You-ate-an-entire-bag-of-Funyuns-five-minutes-ago-You-can-pee-when-we-get-where-we're-going-And-this-car-is-moving-as-fast-as-she-can-If-you-don't-like-it-get-out-and-walk."
She felt fairly pleased with herself until her passen-ger's small fingers reached for the door handle and tugged. True to form, her stubborn Sunfire did not give in easily. Eventually, though, the rusty car relented and the door swung open. On the highway. At the Pontiac's top speed of forty miles per hour.
"Are you crazy?!" Lilah lunged across Sabrina's caught the handle on the first try, pulled with all her might and managed to shut them in tight again, locking the door for good measure. "Never do that again," she said, glaring at Bree with fury and disbelief. "Do you want to get us killed?"
Bree shrugged with apparent lack of concern. Lilah tried to breathe past the pounding of her heart and wondered, not for the first time, if they would ac-tually survive this road trip. The tension had mounted with each mile they'd traveled from California to North Dakota.
Looking out the windshield, she dropped her usual cynicism and for a moment allowed herself to imagine there was a heaven somewhere behind the blindingly hot summer sun.
I know, I promised to act like a mother, Gracie, .
Silently, Lilah spoke to the friend who had passed on a month earlier and, who, if there was a heaven, certainly deserved to be there. But I may kick Sabrina out of the car myself.
Grace McKuen had been a perfect friend. Perfect in every way, except in her estimation of Lilah's abil-ity to take care of a child. Four months ago, Grace had kidney transplant. A month later she and her daughter, Sabrina, had moved in with Lilah. Two months after that, Gracie was gone, and Lilah Owens, singleton, had become, Lilah Owens, instant mother. Add hot water and stir. Now she knew what she'd merely guessed at before: motherhood was only slightly less daunting than skydiving without a parachute.
"I saw a sign that said "gas and food, two miles,'" Bree insisted, still using the tone of voice that made Lilah want to open the door and step out of the car her-self. "That was probably a mile and ninety-nine one hundredths ago, so like it would kill you to think of someone else for five seconds?"
Lilah brought a smilethe sweetest one she could musterto her face. Perhaps if she pretended she was Florence Henderson on The Brady Bunch she could respond without doing Bree harm. "I told you, Sabrina" you little pisher "I lived in this area for seventeen years. The only gas station on this road closed in 1989. So, you'll have to wait until"
"Oh, big wow, you lived here seventeen years," Bree interrupted. "You're way older since then. They could have built, like, a nuclear sub station by now."
"So," Lilah continued, "you may have misread the sign."
"As i-i-i-f. If I misread the sign, what's that?" She pointed, and Lilah followed the direction of the skinny arm, mostly so she wouldn't have to make eye contact.
On their side of the quiet two-lane highway, no more than fifty yards ahead, was a large sign that read Union Gas and Minimart. A gas station and a minimart? Lilah gaped. On a highway that led to a string of towns so small and insignificant they hadn't appeared on a map since Custer whupped Sitting Bull?
She shook her head. Well, crud. Now she would have to deal with a rude, angry, right preteen. "Okay. We'll stop for a bathroom break," she conceded, adding in a mutter, "I can't believe someone put a minimart out here. Everything will go stale inside of a year."
"Maybe they sell food to kids whose guardians aren't trying to starve and torture them. I have to pee-ee!"
Gritting her teeth, Lilah pressed the accelerator. Even though her own bladder was crying for relief, she would have kept going if it were up to her. Her sister's house was perhaps a half hour down the road, and Lilah wanted to get there soon.
More than a potty break, she needed the comfort of sisterly arms, a commiserating smile and someone who knew her well enough to understand that unexpected motherhood had thrown her into a panic worthy of a Valium drip.
Turning into a station that boasted two bays of shiny new pumps, Lilah pulled alongside a handsome struc-ture designed to resemble an old-fashioned general market. The minimart had a wood exterior and a win-dow painted in block letters that read Free Ice Water and Restrooms Inside.
Parking, she attempted a tone of good cheer, as if stopping had been her idea all along. There had to be some way to get along with an angry eleven-year-old. "So, okay! Let's check out that bathroom and then"
Bree was out of the car and pushing open the store's glass door before Lilah could unbuckle her seat belt. still more defeated. Note to self: Save tone of good cheer for someone who gives a flip.
She grabbed her purse, shaking off the food wrappers Bree had thrown into the backseat despite the plastic bag Lilah had given her for garbage. Carrying what she could, she dumped the empty bags and drink contain-ers into a trash can at the front of the store.
Lilah had spent the past decade in Los Angeles going on acting auditions and waiting tables while she hoped for the big break that still hadn't come. In retrospect it was excellent preparation for motherhood; God knew she was used to rejection and feelings of inadequacy. Even so, those years in L.A. were a piece of cake com-pared to the past month with Bree.
Shoving her sunglasses atop blond hair that, sadly, had not seen a stylist in six months, Lilah followed her charge into the store then blinked in surprise at the attractive and well-stocked market.
A young woman she recognized immediately as Lakota Indian sat on a stool behind the counter. "Hi," the girl greeted, white teeth gleaming in contrast to her dark skin and hair. "Do you need gas?"
"No, thanks," Lilah declined, noting that Bree was already disappearing into the restroom at the rear of the store. Since that appeared to be the only women's rest-room, Lilah hovered by the cashier. Lord, she was tired.
"The cookies are fresh if you're hungry, and we have iced lattes."
Lilah looked at the girl, who pointed to a highly pol-ished cappuccino machine. A drink menu sat on the counter. She didn't want to be rude, but she felt her first genuine chuckle in weeks coming on. Iced lattes? In Kalamoose?
Born and raised just a few miles from here, Lilah considered her hometown to be a dead ringer for Mayberry, R.F.D., except that Mayberry was more hip. As far as she'd been able to tell on her infrequent visits home, the only thing that had changed in Kalamoose in the dozen and a half years since she'd made her escape were the heads of lettuce at Hertzog's Grocery, and rumor had it that a few of those were still the originals.
Now someone had opened a gas station that served lattes? That someone was a little out of the loop.
Passing on the coffee drink, Lilah ventured, "Your sign mentioned ice water?"
Apparently unfazed that her only customers had stopped in to use the john and bum a free beverage, the clerk nodded pleasantly. "All the way in the back. Cups are next to the cooler. Help yourself."
Lilah reached the water as Bree emerged from the restroom.
"Do they have hot dogs?" the girl asked before she'd truly acknowledged Lilah's presence.
"I don't think so."
"Well, then I want a Coke."
"Negative, Commander. You've had so much sugar and caffeine on this trip you could have flown to North Dakota." When Bree looked like she was about to protestloudlyLilah decided she'd had enough. Pointing, she said, "There's a water cooler right there. Have all the ice water you can hold, but don't start with me. My sister Nettie is a fabulous cook. You can drink and gorge yourself into a stupor after we arrive, but from now until then no more anything."
"I'm gonna look at the magazines." Shrugging as if the matter was no longer of any interest to her, Bree put her hands in the pockets of her low-slung jeans and slouched off.
Lilah sighed heavily and downed a cup of water, wishing it were a stiff tequila. She ducked briefly into the restroom and emerged to discover Bree in the candy aisle, about to shoplift a Carmello bar.
"Stop!" Hissing, Lilah grabbed the candy the girl had been about to tuck into the waistband of her jeans, beneath her T-shirt. "What do you think you're doing? Now you're a thief? What is the matter with you?"
Careful not to crush the candy bar in her tensed fist, Lilah closed her eyes and tried to collect herself. She's only eleven. She just lost the only mother she's ever known. She's acting out. The only cool you can keep is your own.
"Bree." Lilah began again by greatly modifying her tone. She looked directly into the rebellious hazel eyes.
"Grace, your mother, was the most honest woman I've ever met. She wanted nothing but the best for you. How do you think she'd feel if she saw you trying to shoplift?"
Bree shrugged with classic impenetrable sedition. "Not as bad as she'd feel if she knew you wouldn't buy it for me."
The last of Lilah's anger deflated like a popped balloon. With no job, she'd been trying to carefully bud-get their cash. Yesterday she had limited the between-meal treats to three a day. Today, at Bree's insistence that she was going through a growth spurt and needed extra calories, Lilah had amended the limit to six. She didn't know what was right anymore.
"Look, Bree, " Clutching the candy bar in a death grip, she took a stab at reason and compassion. "I know this is a really, really difficult time for you. I wasn't much older than you are now when my mother died. It's awful, and it's probably not going to get a whole lot better right away. At least, it didn't for me. But if you could just give me a chance here, I bet you and I, you know, I bet we could be friends."
Bree rolled her eyes. Frustration rocketed up Lilah's ought to buy a lot of candy and eat most of it herself.
Suddenly she noticed a bulge in Bree's pocket, a bulge that had not been there before. Disappointment sucked her heart to the pit of her stomach.
"Did you take anything besides the Carmello?" Bree responded with a stone-faced stare.
Lilah raised both hands. "Cut me a break! One of my sisters is the sheriff of Kalamoose. She will freak if she hears you picked up a rock from the playground with-out asking, much less that you tried to pinch half the chocolate in town." Bree remained impassive. "My sister, Sara, is very, very scary."
Following a prolonged stare down, which resulted in absolutely nothing, Lilah held out her hand. "Give me whatever is in your pocket. Please." Her request was met with crossed arms and a bite-me glare. Instantly, Lilah realized she had to win this battle or risk losing the war.
Trying not to attract the clerk's notice, she moved quickly toward Bree, ending up in a brief wrestling match until she was able to pull a Baby Ruth, a packet of M&M's and a box of Junior Mints from the girl's baggy pants pocket. Torn between triumph and dismay, she was about to return the candy to its proper place when Bree took off.
Lilah followed, but Bree was faster, and the element of surprise was on her side. Lilah hadn't made it past the chips before Bree was through the door. Throwing smack into a barrier at the end of the aisle.
"Oof!" She grabbed him to steady herself.
Big, steel-vise hands gripped her shoulders as she re-bounded off the chest of a man who stood a good six inches taller than her own five foot eight. Beautifully cut from exquisite material, the suit she clutched to keep herself upright was as out of place in a North Dakota minimart as the Hope diamond in a box of Cracker Jack. Catching a whiff of expensive cologne, Lilah looked up, a hasty apology ready on her lips.
It died the moment she saw his face.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews