WHAT IS SHE HIDING?
Of all the Brody boys, Garrett would have been voted most likely to settle down. But somehow, the right woman never came along. Until now. Veterinarian Natalie Todd left Blue Falls when she was a kid, but she seems to fit right in. Her old friends are there and she has a job with the local vet if she wants it. Every kiss tells Garrett she feels the same way he does. So what's holding her back?
Natalie can't say, and every kiss just makes it harder. She came back to fulfill her father's dying wish, and found a happiness even greater than she remembered. The secret she carries will destroy everything, plain and simple. That's why she can't tell him. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
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The new colt marshaled his strength and pushed up onto his long, spindly legs for the first time, drawing a smile from Natalie Todd. She watched as the little guy steadied himself on legs spread wide then as his dam groomed him. A couple of wobbly steps brought the newborn close enough to his mother to nurse. No matter how many horses Natalie helped into the world, the wonder never faded.
"Hard to believe they were in distress only an hour ago," Jacob Hartwell said as he came to stand beside her.
"Maybe Mama here just wanted some female company."
Jacob laughed a little. "Maybe. She certainly doesn't have a lot around here."
Steven Hartwell, patriarch of the Hartwell ranching family, was a widower, and his two sons, Steven Jr. and Jacob, were still single. Even though Jacob flirted with her a little every time she came out to the ranch, she knew it was harmless and not at all serious.
"Well, it looks like you have a handsome little fella to add to your testosterone ranch."
"You could always marry me and bring some female beauty to the place."
Natalie rolled her eyes and stepped back from the stall. "See ya around, Jacob."
"Thanks again, Doc."
She threw him a wave as she turned and headed out of the barn into the deep cover of night. As she strode toward her truck, she considered just curling up in the seat and catching a quick nap. She'd had a long day at the clinic and then because she was the vet on call tonight, her phone had rung about fifteen minutes after she'd fallen asleep.
When she dragged herself into the driver's seat, however, her thoughts drifted to her comfortable bed. What was another half hour's drive back to her apartment? Hopefully there wouldn't be any more equine or bovine emergencies tonight. At least the Hartwells' ranch was closer to her place south of Wichita than a lot of other ranches the clinic serviced.
She started the engine and headed toward the highway. Once she got away from the ranch, the landscape darkened around her. With no moon and some cloud cover, the southern Kansas landscape was pitch-black. It took ten minutes of driving before she began to see the glow of Wichita's lights to the north. Only a few minutes and a quick shower more and she'd be curling back into her bed.
Her phone rang on the seat beside her, eliciting a groan and, yes, maybe even a whimper. She slowed, thankful there wasn't any traffic, and glanced at the phone. Her heart gave a painful thud when she saw it was her mom calling. Knowing it wasn't going to be a happy conversation, she pulled off the road. Her hand shook as she picked up the phone and answered.
"Did I wake you?" Her mother's voice sounded tired, but then Natalie couldn't really remember a time when her mom wasn't tired.
"No. Actually, I'm driving back from delivering a foal." When her mom didn't say anything in response, Natalie knew for certain why her mother had called. "It's time, isn't it?"
"Yes." Now her mom's voice sounded as if it was laced with tears.
"I'll get there as fast as I can."
"Be safe, okay? I don't want you to have a wreck."
"I'll be careful."
But even though Natalie knew that her father's time was ticking away, she didn't speed. Though it made no sense, some part of her believed if she drew out how long it took her to arrive at her parents' house in Wichita, the longer her dad would have. But that was cruel because he was suffering, had been suffering for a long time. That's what a lifetime of drinking brought a person, a painful death via liver failure.
Pain of a different kind punched her right in her middle, the realization that probably before the night was through her dad would be gone forever. She bit her bottom lip and pressed down harder on the accelerator.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled up in front of her parents' small home, the one she'd helped them buy because they never would have been able to purchase one on their own. She cut the engine but didn't get out of the truck. Instead, she stared at her mom's oldermodel car sitting in the carport. Behind it sat a small SUV belonging to her sister Allison, who'd driven down the day before from Kansas City, bringing their youngest sister, Renee, with her. Her entire family was inside the little blond-brick home, sitting around waiting for her father to die.
She gripped the steering wheel, fighting the visceral need to drive away, as far and as fast as she could. Even though she'd known this moment was coming for months, she still wasn't ready. It wasn't as if she had a perfect relationship with her dad, but he was still her dad and she loved him, despite everything. She wanted to be angry that he'd done this to himself, that his drinking had made his wife's and daughters' lives much more difficult than they should have been. But what was the use of being angry now? It wasn't going to change the outcome.
With a deep, shaky breath, she opened the truck door and slipped out onto the quiet street. Almost every light in every house was dark, except for those of her parents and Jackie Kincaid across the street, the neighborhood gossip to beat all neighborhood gossips. Natalie resisted the evil urge to find the nearest paintball gun and cover Jackie's big picture window with globs of paint. Instead, she forced herself to walk toward her parents' front door.
She didn't knock, instead slipping quietly into the living room to find Renee sitting there alone, reading a copy of some French magazine she'd obviously brought with her from Paris. Natalie had the unkind thought that Renee might have brought the magazine solely as an outward symbol ofjust how far away she'd gone from Wichita and their family. Part of Natalie couldn't blame her for leaving, but now wasn't the time to bring it up. Natalie kept those thoughts to herself as her sister looked up and smiled at her.
"Hey, Nat." Renee jumped up and wrapped Natalie in a hug.
Needing that hug more than she cared to admit, Natalie held her baby sister a little longer than Renee probably expected, then continued to hold on to her upper arms as she took in how different her sister looked.
"I like the new haircut," she said as she finally released her sister.
Renee ran a hand over the chic bob. "Thanks."
As Natalie examined Renee from head to toe, she realized that her sister looked more European than Midwestern. An odd sense of loss settled in Natalie's heart despite the fact that Renee had been living in France for five years.
Natalie glanced toward the hallway that led to the bedrooms. "How's he doing?"
Natalie jerked as if she'd been slapped.
Renee softened her expression. "Sorry. I'm too blunt sometimes."
"I know you probably don't want to be here, but thanks for coming."
Renee shrugged. "I'm not totally without feeling. There's a part of me that loves him because he's my dad, even though he wasn't worth much."
"Renee." Natalie knew she sounded like the scolding older sister, but she couldn't help it even though there was some truth in her sister's words.
"Tell me I'm wrong."
Natalie couldn't. Their dad's drinking had led to him not being able to keep a job, to their mom working two jobs to support their family of five. He hadn't been mean, or violent, but his inability to conquer whatever demons that led him to drink had caused his family a lot of hardship.
Not wanting to focus on the past, Natalie instead took a fortifying breath and headed toward her parents' bedroom. The mingling scents of cleansers and sickness assaulted her as she entered the bedroom, and it took all her effort not to let the way her stomach turned show on her face.
Allison was the first to notice her and gave her a tired smile. Her sister reached across the bed and gently touched her mom's hand and nodded toward Natalie.
Her mom stood on legs that looked as shaky as the newborn colt's and wrapped Natalie in her arms. "I'm glad you made it safely."
Natalie was struck by just how thin her mother felt and wondered if she hadn't been eating properly.
"There's my other girl."
Natalie looked toward the sound of her father's thin, labored voice. As unkind as it was to think it, Renee was right. Bill Todd did look dreadful with jaundiced skin and eyes, cracked lips and swelling in his abdomen that was obvious even under the blanket covering him. He'd never been a big, strapping man, but now he honestly looked like the death he was facing.
Her mom stepped back, indicating that Natalie should take the dining room chair that sat next to the bed. Natalie wondered how many hours her mother had sat in that uncomfortable chair at her husband's side, watching him slip away more with each passing minute.
"Hey, Dad." Somehow she managed to force some chipper light into her voice as she sat and placed her hand over his gnarled one.
He tried to squeeze her hand but obviously didn't have the strength to do so. Sadness swept over her, not so much that his life was ending but that so much of it had been wasted. All the times he'd made her mad, embarrassed her, caused her to question why she hadn't been born into another family tumbled through her mind. It all could have been so different if he hadn't been trapped in an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
"I'd like to talk to Natalie alone." He took a shallow breath, as if only a small portion of his lungs remained functional.
Natalie tried to figure out why he'd want her mother and Allison to leave the room, but then she caught a glance between her parents, an understanding of some sort. What was going on?
Her mom ushered an equally confused Allison from the room and closed the door behind them. When Natalie looked back at her dad, his eyes were closed, and for a split second she thought he was gone. But then she saw the faint movement of his chest.
"Do you remember when I took you fishing the first time?"
Her forehead wrinkled at the out-of-nowhere question, and she wondered if his mind was going before his body. When he opened his eyes and focused on her, she realized she hadn't answered him.
"Yeah. The first and only, if I recall."
The edges of his mouth lifted in a weak smile, and she forced one in return though she'd never felt less like smiling.
"You always did love animals of all kinds, couldn't stand to see them hurt," he said. "I can still see the tears in your eyes when you realized the hook was stuck in the fish's mouth."
Even though she'd been sad at the time, as she looked back it was one of her favorite memories of her dad. They'd still lived in Texas then, and that day he'd seemed to be totally sober, the kind of dad she'd always wanted. Though it'd been many years since that day, she remembered the hope that had surged within her. Sometimes hope was cruel when it led you down a path toward even more hurt.
His smile faded away, and she wasn't sure if it was because it took too much energy to maintain or a darker thought had shoved aside the happy memory.
Despite everything, she searched for a way to make him smile again. "I remember we sat beside the lake and had chicken-salad sandwiches and bread-and-butter pickles from the Primrose Cafe."
The barest hint of a smile tugged at his lips. "I can't believe you remember all those details. You were so small."
She'd liked living in Blue Falls and the fun she'd had with her best friend, Chloe. But she also remembered how her heart had broken when her dad said they had to move to Kansas. She'd watched the lights of Blue Falls fade away as she stared through the back window of their old Buick sedan, fat tears streaming down her face.
Her father turned his hand so that he could hold hers. "I'm sorry I wasn't the father you and your sisters should have had. I wanted to be, but " He shook his head on his pillow. "There's no excuse."
She wanted to tell him it was okay, to let him be able to slip into the next life knowing he was forgiven. But the words got stuck in her throat, and all she could manage was to squeeze his hand. He looked so haunted, more so than she'd ever seen him.
"What was it that made you drink so much, Dad?" She'd asked before, many times, but he'd never had an answer. The intensity of her need to know felt as if it was burning a hole inside her. This time, when his eyes met hers, she could tell he was finally going to tell her. Suddenly, she was scared to know the truth. Had it been better all along not knowing?
No, she needed this answer, whether or not it proved satisfying.
"There was a reason we left Texas. I I was in an accident." He paused, and she wondered if he was reconsidering telling her the truth. "I hit someone, and then I ran."
"You were in a hit-and-run?" For some reason, it took a moment for her to realize he'd fled because he was driving drunk, that he could have ended up in jail.
"Yes. I hit another car. I stopped to check on the driver, but there was nothing I could do."
Natalie's stomach churned. Surely he wasn't saying what it seemed, that he'd. "Dad, no."
"I knew the moment I saw her that she was dead."
Oh, God, this couldn't be happening. Without thinking, she slipped her hand out of her father's grasp. "You're confused, not remembering things correctly."
That was a symptom of late-stage liver failure, right? This couldn't be a horrible deathbed confession.
"I wish that was true." He shifted his eyes to stare at the ceiling, and she got the impression it was so he wouldn't cry. "But the truth is that your father is worse than you ever realized. I killed someone and I never owned up to it, not even when I realized who I'd hit."
"You knew her?" Her question came out as a strangled whisper. But in the next breath, the true horror of his confession slammed into her. "No. Please tell me you're not saying what I think you are."
His bottom lip trembled and he lost the war against his tears. "It was Karen Brody."
Natalie stood so quickly that she knocked the chair over and nearly followed it to the floor. Karen Brody, Chloe's mom, the woman who had been like a second mother to Natalie. As if the mere mention of her name pulled a sense memory from Natalie's mind, she suddenly smelled fresh sugar cookies straight from Karen's oven.
She paced across the room, hoping that she was having a nightmare and the movement would make her wake up. But when she finally stopped and looked at her dad, any hope that she was dreaming disappeared like water down a drain.
For what felt like hours, she simply stood searching for something to say. But what did you say when your father admitted he'd killed your best friend's mother?
"Mom and I went to her funeral. Chloe clung to me and cried so hard I thought she would fall to pieces." She shook her head slowly, her heart breaking in so many ways she couldn't count them all. "Why didn't you come forward?"