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Leaves floated down like rain and littered the path with bright color, red and aspen gold. The air had a crisp bite to it, clean and fresh, the scent of autumn. Above, the sky was cloudless, a pure Wyoming blue. Perfect training weather.
Becca "Bex" Stuart flashed by another runner with a nod. The trail was busy on this Saturday morning. Mustang Creek had put in a series of municipal paths specifically for walking, biking and running, and the money had, in her opinion, been well spent. She sure took advantage of her tax dollars every chance she got.
Just a light run. That was her goal this fine morning. Luckily, Bex had access, thanks to her business, to the finest athletic equipment available, so she could get an accurate time. The upcoming marathon was the usual 26.2 miles, and her strategy was to gradually work up to that. And then she'd begin tapering down. By next Saturday she should be ready.
Her friends thought she was insane.
From experience, because this wasn't her first endurance race, Bex knew they could be right. Mile nineteen was where you just wanted to chuck it all and quit, but if you got past it
you were home free.
Her phone, clipped to her shorts, beeped.
She could read it as she ran; however, she couldn't answer, not without stopping, and she wasn't going to stop now.
It was from one of her best friends, Melody, recently married, so now Mrs. Spencer Hogan.
Meet us at the ranch for lunch? Hadleigh and I want to talk to you.
It was, according to her high-tech pedometer, a manageable time frame as long as they meant around noon. She was able to type K without breaking stride.
There was definitely a shower in her future before she sat down with other human beings to eatas a favor to them. Despite the cool temperature, Bex was perspiring, as she should be, or she wasn't trying hard enough.
"Bex? Bex Stuart?"
Male voice. Familiar.
The sound jarred Bex out of her endorphin haze, brought the world around her back into focus.
She'd just reached the second loop around Pioneer Park, and the place was filled with small, noisy kids celebrating life in general. The male voice belonged to Tate Calder, she saw with dismay, his two young sons among the crowd of children crawling all over the playground equipment.
Tate looked, as usual, put together and handsome with his clean-cut features, wavy chestnut hair and dark eyes. He wore a leather jacket and nice jeans, while she was arrayed in the scruffiest outfit she ownedand, naturally, sweaty, as well.
"Hi," she said. Not exactly brilliant, but polite at least. A little breathless, Bex ran in place, her body on autopilot. Keep that heart rate up.
Not that it was a problem. Just looking at this man seemed to have an aerobic effect on her.
She'd encountered Tate two or three times before, since he was a friend of Hadleigh's husband, Tripp, both men having flown for the same company as charter pilots back in the day, before Tripp decided it was time to sell the firm and come home to Mustang Creek.
Tate's dark eyes were amused, missing nothing. "How've you been?"
"Good." Now there was a snappy answer. Yes, she was on a conversational roll, all right, a regular genius with words.
Tate grinned. "You seem to be in a hurry, so I won't hold you up. Tripp tells me you're training for a marathon." A brief, measured pause. Meaning what? "Really?"
"Really," Bex replied. She managed a small smile, friendly enough, but wobbly. "Nice to see you," she said, trying to distance herself from him, still running. Still going nowhere fast. "What can I say? Guess I'm a glutton for punishment." Terrific. More snappy repartee. Annoyed with herself, she sprinted off, probably improving her time slightly, since she didn't particularly want him to remember her with a shiny face and a messy ponytail.
Of all the luck.
Make that bad luck.
Tate was tempting as hell, no denying that, but Bex got the nearly subliminal impression that he was as wary of involvement as she was. His wife had died, and she'd lost Will in Afghanistanit wasn't hard to do the psychological math.
Thoughts in a muddle, Bex finished her run and headed for home. There, she took a hot shower, put on her favorite red sweater and black jeans and, perhaps as a nod to the cosmic forces that governed vanity, she spent a few extra minutes doing her hair and adding lip gloss.
Satisfied that she looked okay, Bex left the house, got into her sporty SUV and, after making a brief stop downtown, zipped off to meet Mel and Hadleigh.
Reaching the Galloway ranch minutes later, Bex felt a twinge, a bittersweet sensation somewhere in the back of her heart. Tucked among the looming mountains, crystalline streams and venerable trees, the house and barn and other outbuildingseven the fences and corralsseemed to belong there, organic to the landscape itself.
Tripp had taken over the place after his stepfather, Jim, long a widower, had finally remarried and moved into town. The house itself wasn't fancy, but it was spacious and solid and homey, with a welcoming air.
Secretly, Bex had always wanted to live in the country. She loved her work, felt she was making a genuine contribution to people's health and all-around well-being by furthering the cause of fitness through her ever-expanding business. And, if not actually country, Mustang Creek was certainly no clamoring metropolis. There was something
nurturing about being out here, with all this unspoiled nature.
Before she could even get out of the car, Mel and Hadleigh stepped onto the side porch, smiling and waving.
Both her friends were pregnant, and both of them were more beautiful than ever.
Bex felt a pang of affection, tinged, alas, with mild envy.
Hadleigh was farther along than Melody, her baby bump more pronounced. She'd married first, and she and Tripp had been eager to start their family.
All systems go.
Melody, running a close second, was just starting to show, a bit rounder than usual, her loose shirt disguising her pregnancy. If you didn't know her, you'd never guess, but they'd all been friends since they were six years old, so Bex was attuned to every change. She was living this with them, sharing the experience in a way, and she couldn't have been more pleased by their obvious happiness.
They really did glow.
They knew Bex felt slightly left outthere wasn't much Melody and Hadleigh didn't know about herand they not only understood, they were also convinced her turn at marital bliss and motherhood would come. Soon.
When Bex's own hopes flagged, these two never failed to notice and offer encouragement. She was so lucky to have them in her life.
That choked her up for a moment, brought the sting of tears to her eyes. Romantic flings, career highs, fun timesall those things came and went, but friendships like theirs were as permanent as bedrock.
She paused, took a breath and squared her shoulders.
"I brought dessert," she announced cheerfully. "Don't kill me, but it's those puff pastries from Madeline's. You guys can't drink wine or coffee, so you need some sort of vice." She paused, chuckling. Some fitness guru she was, she thought wryly. "One pastry won't hurt." This was true enough, in her opinion. One pastry wouldn't do any harm. The problem arose when the rate of consumption ratcheted up to three or four tasty treatsor ten. Feeling cocky, she added, "Considering that I just ran eighteen miles, I can afford a reasonable level of indulgence."
Motormouth, her inner moderator gibed.
"Give me that bag." Hadleigh grabbed for it as Bex came up the steps. "I'm having mine before lunch, so no lectures on nutrition, please. And if Tripp has the gall to say a wordhe has the metabolism of a shark, the rat finkI consider it your solemn duty as my friends to drop him in his tracks." Paper rustled as she peered inside the bag. Sniffed appreciatively. "Oh, dear heaven," she lamented happily, in a near moan, nudging Melody lightly with one elbow as she spoke, "it's the ones with lemon whipped cream."
"Yep," Bex confirmed with a twinkle. Judging by the current reactions, if she hadn't surrendered the bag willingly, one or both of these watermelon smugglers would have tackled her for it.
Melody, feigning greed, made a comical effort to snatch the fragrant sack from Hadleigh's hands, and Hadleigh, in turn, pretended to dodge the move.
"Hey, share and share alike," Melody said with a grin. "If you think you're going to snarf up my share right along with your own, sister, think again."
Hadleigh laughed, still employing diversion tactics, an awkward endeavor under the circumstances, and Bex wondered if the third pastry, intended to be hers, would survive this good-natured tussle.
Hadleigh correctly read Bex's expression. Yes, she was fit and yes, she ran a fitness empire, but she loved Madeline's lemon-cream dreams as much as anybody did. "You can drink wine," Hadleigh continued, cheerfully accusatory. "We can't. Coffee?" She waved one hand in a dismissive gesture while holding the pastry bag just out of Melody's reach with the other. "Gone. A distant memory."
Bex had to giggle at her friend's histrionics.
Hadleigh took in her friend's trim figure with a mock glower. "Laugh if you want, Becca Jean Stuart, but one of these days, you'll be pregnant and craving all kinds of things you can't have, and we'll be the ones rubbing it in."
"Yeah," Melody agreed staunchly, making another grab for the bag.
For all the joking around, a whisper of sadness brushed Bex's soul.
If Will, Hadleigh's older brother and the love of Bex's life, had made it home from Afghanistan, everything would be so different.
She'd loved Will Stevens so much.
Maybe the phrase, "better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all," was poignant, but it really didn't offer much comfort in reflective moments like this one.
Tough up, woman, Bex told herself. Then, after a beat or two, when she could trust her voice again, she went on. "Once you two get a handle on dessert, what's on the menu for lunch?" she teased. "I heard a rumor that we were going to eat an actual meal, and I could use some sustenance here."
Hadleigh closed the bakery bag and rolled it shut with a little sigh of resignation. "I made spinach lasagna," she answered. "Garlic bread, too. The guys will be here soon, so maybe we ought to fill our plates before they get back with the boys."
"Boys?" Bex asked cautiously. Guys usually meant Tripp and Spence. Boys implied someone else.
"Tate and his sons," Hadleigh explained airily.
It figured, Bex thought, unsurprised. She was going to have to deal with Tate Calder twice in one day? Just one more indication that God had a sense of humor.
Cosmic complaints department? This is Bex Stuart and I
Please hold for the next available operator. Your call is very important to us
There she was. Again.
Tate had spotted Becca right away, back at the park. With looks like hers, she would've been hard to miss. She was trim, compact, with the kind of curves that drew a man's eye, even beneath baggy sweatpants and a faded T-shirt. And then there was all that silky hair, trying to fight its way out of a crooked ponytail.
At the time, he'd hesitated to say anything because he was rusty, to say the least, when it came to the whole man-woman interaction thing. Out of practice.
This particular woman stirred him, deep down, in ways he couldn't quite explain, rational thinker that he was. She made him want to take chances again, live for himself as well as his children.
But what if he fell for BeccaBex, as the others called herand his young sons got their hopes up, let down their guard, started to believe they might have a mother again, only to see the whole thing crash and burn? Would there be survivors?
He had no choice but to be philosophical.
Like it or notTate both did and didn't like ithe and Bex were face-to-face again.
The boys had both scrambled out of the truck the minute he pulled to a stop. He was grateful that they enjoyed visiting the ranch so much, and were distracted, as always, by the dogs and horses and all that space to run wild in. It meant the kids probably hadn't noticed that their dad had been flash frozen before their very eyes.
Tate worked up a smile, acknowledging Tripp and Hadleigh and Melody and Spence's existence with a slight wave of one hand as he approached them. Odd, how, just a moment before, he'd been so focused on Bex that she might've been standing all alone on the ranch house porch.
In fact, she might have been the only other human being on the planet.
Still, he was nothing if not a left-brained realist, and his attention had slowly widened, after that first weird instant, to include the others.
The cognitive dials in his head began to click, registering further details. Construction had started on the new house, for one thing.
Tripp and Spence looked like what they werehappily married men. Satisfied men, maybe even a little smug.
Their wives, he noted, were downright radiant, the way women tended to be when they were not only cherished by their husbands, but gloriously pregnant, too.
And all the time he was formulating these observations, his sons were tearing around the yard with the dogs, overjoyed, high on blue skies and green grass and every blessing in between.
Of course, part of this boyish exuberance was for his benefit; Ben and Adam had been actively engaged in a campaign for a furry friend of their own for quite a while now. Although Tate wasn't averse to the ideahe'd always loved animals himselfthey lived in a rented house, and the landlord didn't allow pets. So for the time being, anyway, adopting a critter was out of the question.
In the meanwhile, Muggles and Ridley filled the canine-companion bill.
Tate shifted mental gears, centering himself in the now. It was a beautiful afternoon, Ben and Adam were healthy, balanced kids and they were having fun.
Plus, they had a decent meal to look forward to. Tate's version of Saturday lunch was usually something along the lines of canned tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches. He had the feeling that they'd get something a little more appealing from Hadleigh Galloway.
Inevitably, since Tate was flesh and blood, reasonably young and completely normal, his gaze strayed back to Bex. Ms. Stuart had looked two notches above terrific in her jogging clothes. Now, in a pair of well-cut jeans and a red sweater that showed off her feminine figure, she was downright distracting.
Just a few yards from the casual gathering on the porch, Tate almost froze againso much for getting centeredbut an amused, all-too-knowing glance from Tripp kept him moving forward.
"Hello again," he heard himself say, his voice suddenly husky.
Damned if the Galloways and Hogans hadn't evaporated once more, leaving him and Bex alone on the planet. He gravitated toward her, like a passing asteroid yanked into the orbit of some strange new sun, and thenthen he literally collided with the woman, for God's sake, right there at the top of the porch steps.
What the hell? he thought, but what he said was, "Sorry. I was thinking about the boys."
Flustered, Tate looked back over one shoulder, trying to lend some credence to his fib, and saw no sign of the kids or the dogs.
Bex pointed in the direction of the barn and said, "They went thataway."
He gave a muffled laugh, realized he'd gripped Bex's shoulders at some point, and that he was still holding her, as though he'd expected her to fall. He let go.
After that brief expansion, the universe zoomed in again, with a swiftness that left Tate's head spinning.
She smiled, which only increased the sensation, and her voice seemed far away. "Good luck catching up with them, though. All parties were moving fast. They could be in Canada by now."
Tate struggled to regain his equilibrium. "That's a definite possibility," he agreed. "They're both a little hyper."
This was a routine, even mundane, conversation. So why did everything seem so awkward?