Overprotective Cowboy by Elana Johnson

Chapter One





Ted Burrows grinned when he saw the man sitting across the room, wearing a cowboy hat. His heart leapt at the familiar sight of Nathaniel Mulbury, though Ted hadn’t seen Nate in months.

He started chuckling a couple of tables away, and Nate stood up, a giant grin on his face too. “Nathaniel,” Ted said, engulfing Nate in a hug. The other man didn’t particularly like his full name, but he laughed too. Ted clapped him on the back a couple of times. “What are you doing here?”

Nate stepped back, something new lighting his eyes. Ted recognized the shine of freedom in his friend’s face, and he wondered what it would look like on him.

Ted was getting closer to his release date, but he’d been working very hard not to count down the days until he could walk out of the River Bay Federal Correctional Institution. He’d been counting up for so long, that counting down happened naturally. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew exactly how many days he had left inside these walls.

“I thought you were going to transfer to the camp,” Nate said, sitting back down in the seat where he’d been waiting for Ted. “Drive tourists from the ships to the restaurants and stuff.”

“Nah.” Ted sat down too, the chairs in this tiny cafeteria-like room too small for him. “The opportunity came up, but if I moved to the camp, I’d forfeit the opportunity for a halfway house.”

“Or the Residential Reentry Program,” Nate said.

“That too,” Ted said. “But I only have three and a half months. I think they put people in those programs who have more than that.”

“Well, I’m not getting strip searched again,” Nate said with a smile. “So I guess this’ll be the last time I see you before you show up at the ranch.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. It was a compact square that he fumbled to unfold, and when he finally did, he smoothed it on the tabletop and slid it toward Ted.

Ted’s heart beat strongly in his chest, and he didn’t dare hope for the chance to go to the same ranch where Nate had been. His friend had sent plenty of communications about how much he loved it, and how much he thought Ted would enjoy it too. He wouldn’t wear the cowboy hat though, and he glanced at the dark gray one perched on Nate’s head. It felt as natural to Ted as it felt unnatural, and Nate caught him looking.

“You don’t have to wear the hat.”

“No?”

“You haven’t even looked at the paper.”

“Do I want to look at the paper?”

“Yes, Ted,” Nate said, with some measure of exasperation in his voice. “You want to look at the paper.”

Ted held his best friend’s eyes for another moment, and then he looked at the form Nate had put on the table. They’d both spent plenty of time in prison reading over their sentences and appeals, so a simple release form that listed Hope Eternal Ranch as the location of his Reentry Program was easy to understand.

Plus, Ted was a lawyer, and he still knew how to read complicated documents.

The date made him suck in a breath, and Nate didn’t miss that. Another chuckle came from his mouth, and he said, “So we’ll be here on Monday morning, and we’ll see how long you last without a hat.” He grinned like he knew something Ted didn’t, which was entirely possible.

Ted’s life had changed a lot over the past several years, and one of the key moments was the day Nathaniel Mulbury had joined him in prison. They’d become fast friends and blood brothers, always looking out for each other and forming a band of boys that wasn’t to be trifled with. They didn’t cause problems. They didn’t issue threats. Theirs was a mission to provide safety and security to everyone inside River Bay, and since it was a low-security facility, their strong presence ensured that the life here was fairly easy for everyone.

In a lot of ways, life inside the low-security prison was like high school. There were a few cliques, but for the most part, everyone got along with everyone else. There wasn’t much drama, and only a few fights, depending on who was in the facility with them, and for how long.

“Monday?” Ted looked up, trying to remember what day it was now. Had to be a Friday or Saturday, as those were visiting days. Wasn’t a holiday.

“Four days, bud,” Nate said, glancing up as a guard walked by their table. “Hey, Percy.”

The guard turned, surprised, but his face melted into a smile when he recognized Nate. “Nate,” he said. “Wow.” He glanced at Ted as he stuck out his hand to shake Nate’s. “How’s life out there?”

“So great,” Nate said. “I’m engaged now, and Connor hasn’t died yet.”

Percy laughed, and Ted did a little as well. “Wow, engaged.”

Nate cut a look at Ted, who’d heard this news before. “Yeah, she owns the ranch where I did my reentry.”

“And you’re going there too, right Ted?” Percy asked.

“I suppose so,” Ted said, annoyed that he’d known before Ted had. But he knew that was just how things were done in the Bureau of Prisons. The prisoner was always the last to know his own fate, it seemed.

The bell rang, and Nate got to his feet. “That’s yours, Ted. See you Monday.”

Ted stood up and hugged Nate again, realizing he only had to count down three more days. He watched Nate head for the exit along with all the other visitors, and a flash of gratitude and appreciation for the man filled him.

Ted didn’t get a lot of visitors, as his family lived a few hundred miles away, and neither of his parents could make the drive alone anymore. They emailed still, and he talked to his mother on the phone every week, even if the conversation was only fifteen minutes long.

He waited in the room with all the tables and chairs where visiting took place until the guards released them, and he had to make a decision about that afternoon’s automotive class. It would be his last one, and he hadn’t anticipated that.

So he’d go, because Dallas ran the workshop, and the man who was part of the Mulbury Boys never went anywhere without the scent of grease accompanying him. He loved running the workshops, and he even had special permission to work in the shop when he wasn’t doing classes. The beauty of the low-security facility.

There were plenty of rules too, and Ted had bucked against them at first. He’d been in the unit for a while before Nate had shown up, wide-eyed and clenching his fingers into fists as he entered the unit for the first time.

Ted remembered exactly what it was like to walk into the facility for the first time, and he and Nate had tried to make the transition as easy as possible for newboots after that.

He wouldn’t be tinkering with an engine for a couple of hours though, so he returned to the dormitory, choosing not to go outside quite yet. Spring had arrived in Texas, and Ted wondered what the air at the ranch tasted like. Nate had told him about the bees the ranch cultivated, and Ted closed his eyes, almost able to hear the buzzing and taste the honey.

Almost.

Ted had lived his whole life with the word almost riding on the back of his tongue. The fact that he’d almost used a knife in the brawl he’d gotten into which had landed him in this facility was the biggest one. Yeah, that was a very big almost.

“I saw Nate leaving,” a man said, and Ted opened his eyes to look at Slate Sanders. He’d joined the Mulbury Boys the moment he’d come into the facility, because he was a little bit older, a little bit wiser, and extremely laid back.

“Yeah,” Ted said. “He came to visit me. I’m going to Hope Eternal.”

A smile formed on Slate’s face, though Ted could see the longing in his eyes. He’d received a sentence of only thirty months, though, and he’d be out in ten. He could be in the camp too, but he’d stayed in the low because of the opportunities here. With more people, there was more access to health care, and infinitely more classes and opportunities to learn something.

Slate needed something else once he left this place, and he’d wanted the chance to take as many classes as possible so he could find something he could do after his sentence was up.

He came from the financial sector as well, the same as Nate, though Slate had been a stock broker out of Dallas, and Nate had been an investment banker in Houston.

Dallas had been a surgeon who liked to take apart engines on the weekends, and he’d really embraced his mechanic side behind locked doors and high fences.

“That’s great,” Slate said.

“Yeah,” Ted agreed. He honestly had no idea if the ranch was great or not. Nate acted like it was, but Ted had spent so much time here, with his schedule decided for him, his meals chosen for him, and his wardrobe handed to him.

He could barely remember life beyond the bars, and a tremor of nervousness ran through him.

“See you later,” Slate said, and just as quickly as he’d come, he left. Ted sighed and closed his eyes again, images running through his mind. He wasn’t sure if they were memories or imaginations, because he’d had plenty of time to daydream in here. The fact was, Ted could barely distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t, what his life before he’d come to River Bay had been like, and what he’d wished it had been.

Three more days, he told himself.

Then it was two days. Then one.

Monday dawned, and Ted had everything packed and ready to go before the sun rose. The door to the dormitory opened for the five a.m. count, but this time Gregory Fellows walked in. “Ready, Ted?” The Unit Manager wore a smile, but Ted didn’t quite know how to return it.

He looked at the men he was leaving behind. He’d said all of his goodbyes already, and he met Dallas’s eyes, then Slate’s, then Luke’s.

“Yeah,” he said, shouldering his bag that held all of his worldly belongings. He’d have to surrender it when he left, and it would be searched. He didn’t mind. He had nothing left to hide. All of his secrets, all of his dirty laundry, had been exposed, and Ted had survived.

Buoyed by the thought, he followed Greg out of the dormitory as the men he’d shared his sleeping and living quarters with cheered and clapped for him.

Outside in the hall, no one was cheering and applauding, but Ted rode the energy the other inmates had given him. Every step that took him farther from the dorm made his heart pound harder, and he went outside with the guards, getting a pair of handcuffs around his wrists before they went down the steps to make the move between buildings.

Ted hated the jangle of shackles, but he held still as a Unit Officer put them on his ankles. Once he had all his jewelry on, he shuffled down the steps and along the sidewalk, wondering what waited through the door. The Warden? Nate and Ginger, a woman he’d never met in real life? His lawyer?

Greg opened the door with a keycard, and he stood back as a couple of officers entered first, followed by Ted. His lawyer did stand there, and he took Ted’s bag and handed it to a couple of officers who wore gloves and unzipped his duffle. Ted tried not to care, and really, he didn’t.

Prison really had removed the anger from him. Then Jarrell Rose shook his hand, and Ted didn’t hate seeing his lawyer, maybe for the first time. When he’d first been indicted, he’d thought his lawyer could help him. After all, Ted himself had been a lawyer in his first life. He thought he’d worked to help people.

But as Ted had learned painful lesson after painful lesson during his trial and subsequent incarceration, his faith in lawyers was nearly gone.

The Warden came into the room, and all the paperwork got reviewed. Ted had learned to be patient over the years, and how to hold very still, a mask on his face, hiding his emotions. Inside, his muscles itched, and he wanted someone to say something, do something.

Finally, Warden Dickerson looked up and said, “All right, boys. He’s ready.” The Warden ran a tight ship here, and he didn’t make personal connections with the inmates. Ted had never seen him wear anything but a suit and tie, just as he was now, despite the early hour on a Monday morning.

Ted stood still while all the restraints got removed, and one of the officers handed him his duffle bag. “Your clothes,” the man said, and Ted watched them all leave.

He quickly changed out of the prison blues and oranges, things he never wanted to see again. The clothes in the bag were what he’d worn in, and they didn’t seem to fit right. The shoulder in his shirt was too small, and he felt like an oversized man trying to wear children’s clothes.

No one came to get him, and Ted wasn’t sure if he should just walk out.

Thankfully, Jarrell knocked in that moment. He reentered the room and took Ted by the elbow, and they did walk out of the office, down the hall, and right on out of the building. A huge, black truck waited in the circle drive, the early morning sunlight glinting off all the chrome. Jarrell strode toward it, extending the thick folder of paperwork toward whoever was inside.

Nate got out of the passenger side and took the folder with the words, “Thanks, Jarrell.” His gaze switched to Ted, a smile blooming on his face. “You ready?”

He was going to have to be, Ted supposed, and he swallowed and nodded. He relaxed as Nate embraced him again, as Jarrell promised to follow up with him in a couple of weeks, and as he got in the truck after Nate had slid into the middle.

“Ted,” Nate said. “My fiancée, Ginger Talbot.” He looked from Ted to Ginger. “Ginger, this is Ted Burrows, my best friend.”

“Nice to meet you,” Ginger said, and she gave him a real nice smile too, as if she actually meant it.

“And you,” Ted said, because he’d been taught manners once upon a time in his life. He was Texan, after all. He settled into the comfortable seats as Nate told him they had about a three and a half hour drive ahead of them.

“And we’ve got better clothes at the ranch,” he said. “That shirt looks a little small.”

Ted didn’t care about the ill-fitting clothes or the long drive; he wasn’t behind the walls of River Bay, and when Ginger turned down road after road and then onto a highway with the water on the left, all Ted could do was stare.

Nate didn’t try to engage Ted in conversation, thankfully, as Ted felt like he was having an out-of-body experience. The sky was so blue. The water so beautiful. The sunshine so bright.

Eventually, they reached the town of Sweet Water Falls, and Ted thought even the name was too good to be true.

Then Ginger turned onto the dirt lane that led to the ranch. The instructions started then, and he learned where he’d live, and where the women on the ranch lived, and when he’d meet with Ginger.

She pulled into a garage that had doors on both sides, so she could essentially drive straight through the house in one of the three stalls separating the West Wing—where the women lived—from the Annex—where the cowboys lived.

“Your room is right by mine,” Nate said. “And Connor’s. We’ll share a bathroom.”

Ted made a sound of affirmation, because he wasn’t sure what to vocalize. He’d met Connor before, because Nate’s brother used to bring him to the prison to visit.

“Emma will have lunch ready,” Ginger said, opening her door. “You hungry, Ted?”

He looked over at her and nodded. “I didn’t get breakfast.”

“We should’ve stopped,” Nate said. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“I’m fine,” Ted said, though he did get grumpy if he didn’t eat enough. His stomach growled at the same time it told him not to eat, because it was nervous and wouldn’t know what to do with the food he gave it.

“Let’s go eat.” Nate got out on the driver’s side, and Ted finally got himself to move. Ginger had gone into the house ahead of them, and Nate met Ted’s eye. “It’ll be overwhelming for a little bit. But this is a great place, I swear, and you just do the same thing here that you did at River Bay.”

“What’s that?”

“Take it one day at a time.” Nate gave him another smile and said, “Okay, so you’re going to meet a bunch of people at once. Don’t try to remember all of their names. You just need to know Ginger’s.”

“Ginger,” Ted repeated. “Got it.” He never forgot a face, but names did sometimes slip through the cracks in his mind.

Nate climbed up the couple of steps and opened the door, and Ted followed him, a little weirded out that there wasn’t any clinking of chains accompanying his footsteps. Just like he’d had to get used to life at River Bay, he’d have to figure out how to get used to life here at Hope Eternal Ranch.

“All right, guys,” Ginger said over the gaggle of people inside, most of whom were talking. Ted saw several more men wearing cowboy hats. Women wearing cowgirl hats. One in an apron. All of them looked fresh, and happy, and almost like they glowed.

Ted felt completely out of place, and he’d wished he’d asked Ginger to pull over so he could change his clothes. He stood halfway behind Nate as Ginger continued with, “This is Ted Burrows, our new cowboy. I expect everyone to welcome him to Hope Eternal Ranch the way we do.”

He wondered what way that was, and Nate glanced at him, questions in his eyes.

“I need to change,” Ted hissed, and recognition lit Nate’s face.

“Emma has your clothes.” He nodded toward a brunette, who was walking toward them with the widest smile on her face. “Ted, this is Emma Clemson.”

Ted blinked at her, because he knew her face, and her name tickled something in the back of his mind too. He knew this woman. He knew the slender face with the slightly pointed chin at the bottom. He knew the dark eyes with long lashes on the top and bottom. He knew the width of her shoulders, and the high cheekbones, and the dark hair that parted on the right side and fell toward her shoulders in straight sheets.

His eyes narrowed at her, because she didn’t quite look like the woman he’d seen before. She wore a lot of makeup, for one, and Ted felt sure she hadn’t in the past. He’d compartmentalized things from his past, and he wasn’t sure of anything anymore.

Emma smiled at him, and everything in Ted’s world got brighter. She had a gorgeous smile, with straight, white teeth, and an inner light that shone out of her dark eyes. She wore a sleeveless, purple shirt with a pair of jeans, and she said, “I’ll show you where you can change.”

Her voice wasn’t as familiar to him, and he wondered if his firm had represented her as a client. Or if she’d been a witness he hadn’t had to interview in person. Something…something worked in the back of his mind, and he knew she was tied to his old job somehow.

He followed Emma while another woman started explaining the vast amounts of food covering the counter. Emma led him away from the fray, and relief spread through Ted. He was ready to be away from the crowd. He’d lived for too long with dozens of other people in close quarters, and he just wanted to be alone.

“Here you are,” she said, handing him an obviously brand-new backpack.

Ted took it but hesitated. “Have we met?”

Something like fear flickered across her face, but she kept her smile hitched in place. “I don’t think so.”

“Of course not,” he said, feeling stupid for asking. But he’d definitely seen her face before. At least he thought he had. “Thanks.”

He ducked into the bathroom and closed the door, locking it behind him. And finally, it was quiet.





Chapter Two





Emma Clemson stared at the closed bathroom door, her heartbeat thrashing in her chest. She didn’t know Ted Burrows from any other man she’d see on the street in Sweet Water Falls. He could’ve been any tourist that came to Hope Eternal for their annual boar hunt or to sit in one of their bird blinds, hoping to catch a glimpse of some of the Texas Coastal Bend’s rarest birds.

“He doesn’t know you,” she whispered to herself, though at least half a dozen doors had been thrown wide open with that one question.

Have we met?

Emma hadn’t had to deal with anyone thinking they knew her for a while now. Life at Hope Eternal Ranch had become peaceful and easy. Her life was very common, and she lived it well below the radar of anyone who might somehow know someone from her past.

Ted was not the first prisoner Ginger had brought to the ranch through the reentry program. He wasn’t even the second. Emma had honestly never worried about someone coming out of a low-security facility knowing or recognizing her.

After all, the Knight crime family got sent to maximum security federal prisons, most of them in solitary confinement or on death row. No way Ted would’ve run into any of them.

Thankfully, Emma hadn’t either. Not in the last decade since she’d given up her teaching job and started keeping books, paying cowboys, and organizing field trips from the other side for Hope Eternal Ranch.

She’d once been the teacher bringing her students to the monarch butterfly activities here at the ranch. Now she set them up, called teachers, booked buses, and made sure everyone had a great time.

No one had ever looked at her with such interest in their eyes, and to think Emma had thought Ted was gorgeous and mysterious as he stood halfway behind Nate.

She turned away from the door and strode down the hall. Even if Ted was gorgeous and mysterious—and he was—she was not going to get involved with him. She couldn’t, and she knew it.

She could cut his paychecks and make sure he got the money in the right account. She could text him when he needed to meet with Ginger, as she also managed her best friend’s schedule around the ranch. She could endure his presence at ranch-wide lunches or dinners. She didn’t have to become friends with him, and she didn’t have to explain anything to him.

Satisfied in her resolve, which was very, very strong, Emma returned to the party and put her celebratory smile back in place. She told herself she’d be much better off alone, and that had been working for the past decade.

She hadn’t even dated anyone in that time, and no one around the ranch thought that was odd. Hope Eternal really was the best place for Emma, because she needed all the hope she could get. Maybe in another decade, once her daughter was an adult, Emma could consider letting a man into her life.

Until then, she simply had too many secrets she wasn’t willing to share with someone she was in a relationship with.

Ted’s eyes, intense and dark and full of questions, entered her mind. He’d want to know everything about her, and dang if she didn’t already want to tell him.

She wouldn’t, though. Emma hadn’t even told Ginger about her daughter, and she’d known the woman for thirteen years. She’d lived here at the ranch for ten, and her daughter would be eleven this winter.

A month later, Emma’s eleventh-year anniversary at Hope Eternal would be celebrated. Her mind flowed easily back to that time, and how incredibly difficult it had been to leave Missy behind that first time. Even now, when she went to visit on the weekends, sometimes Emma cried the whole way back to the ranch, despite the fact that Missy was whole and well and thriving.

You did what you had to do, she told herself as someone said her name.

She turned toward Jessica Morales, another woman who lived here in the West Wing with Emma and Ginger. “Right?” Jess asked.

Emma had missed the question entirely, and she shot a glance at Nick and Spencer, cowboys here at the ranch, who both looked at her expectantly. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t paying attention.” Her pulse rippled. Did they know about her daughter?

“I said the dip has a ton of dairy in it,” Jess said, and Emma’s stomach stopped swooping. “Right? Nick says he thinks he’s lactose intolerant, but he’s downing that dip like it’s made of veggies.” She grinned at the young cowboy, and Emma laughed too.

The sound filled the air with happiness, though Emma didn’t feel any of it coursing through her. She’d worked so hard to cover up the darker side of her life for so long that it happened naturally now.

No one who knew her would ever say she had a ten-year-old daughter she was hiding from a crime lord. Not only that, but Robert Knight had also been the parent of one of her second graders eleven years ago.

She’d have lost her job if anyone had found out about the relationship and resulting pregnancy. Instead, she’d quit, left town, had the baby by herself without anyone in her life knowing, and then left Missy with a couple in San Antonio.

“Lots of dairy,” she confirmed. “Sour cream, milk, mayonnaise.” She didn’t actually know if mayo was in the dairy family or not. It was made from eggs, so maybe not. No matter what, the dill dip was definitely not lactose-free.

Nick scooped up another dollop of it with a stalk of celery. “I’m taking my chances.” He grinned and took a bite of the celery and dip while Spencer shook his head.

“You just have a dill addiction,” Jess teased Nick, and he shrugged, not denying it. Spencer said something about Jess’s hazelnut addition, and they laughed again. Jess did eat a Nutella and banana sandwich almost every morning for breakfast, claiming that it had fruit, and it was almost like having toast with her coffee.

She was still tall and lithe, because she literally walked twenty thousand steps each day, while Emma went to sit behind a desk for the majority of her working hours. She did work in the stables in the mornings and evenings with the new foals that had been born in the past couple of weeks.

Other than that, if Emma didn’t wear a smart watch, she could go hours without taking a single step. It was also because of this that Emma didn’t eat breakfast at all. Her intermittent fasting schedule had her first meal at noon, and she’d contributed her maintaining weight to the fasting.

Ted came out of the hallway, and he looked much more relaxed in a pair of fresh blue jeans and a white polo with blue and green stripes. She stared at him, because he commanded that she did.

Thankfully, she wasn’t the only one. Spencer had paused in his flirtations with Jess, and they both watched him step over to Ginger and Nate and say something.

Nate grinned and clapped the equally tall man on the shoulder. Then he turned away and picked up a black cowboy hat, handing it to Ted with his eyebrows raised.

Ted looked dubious, but after a few seconds where Nate said something Emma couldn’t hear across the room, Ted took the hat and settled it on his head.

Her breath seized in her lungs, because the cowboy hat only made him more desirable. Her blood heated to a point where she felt scalded from the inside out, and she quickly ducked her head and tucked her hair when Ted swung his head toward her.

Ginger called to Jess, and she said, “I’m up. I knew she was going to give him to me.”

“You’ve got this,” Spencer said, and Nick went with Jess too, as he’d just been assigned to the horse herd as well. Obviously, Ginger was going to have Ted join that crew, and Emma didn’t think Jess really minded. She was always asking for more help with the horses, and this way, she’d get it.

“When are you going to ask her out?” Emma asked, picking up a baby carrot. She swiped it through the dill dip and looked at Spencer.

He kept his eyes on the group across the room for another moment and then looked at Emma. “Who?”

“Jess, duh,” she said. “You’re flirting with her like crazy. And she does the same with you.”

Spencer smiled and shook his head. “I don’t think that’s true.”

“Then you’re blind.”

Spencer sobered and looked back at Jess. “Do you think she’d say yes?”

“Yes, Spence, I think she’d say yes.”

He looked at her, surprise in his eyes. “Really?”

“Sure,” she said. “You’re a good-looking guy, Spence. And you work hard, and you’re smart. Why wouldn’t someone want to go out with you?” Just because they all worked crazy hours at the ranch didn’t mean he couldn’t sneak away and go to dinner with someone. It was hard to meet people on the ranch, Emma could acknowledge that. It was also why this job and life appealed to her so much. She rarely interacted with people she didn’t already know, and in a lot of ways, that provided an extra layer of protection from her past that she really craved.

“You didn’t want to,” he mumbled, and Emma’s heartbeat skipped over itself.

“That’s because of me, not you,” she said as casually as she could, focusing back on the group where Ted stood. Really, she just focused on Ted. If he asked her to dinner…Emma almost spontaneously combusted just thinking about it.

Of course, she wouldn’t go. She’d say no, just like she had to Spencer. They hadn’t met, and Emma didn’t date. The end.

She told herself that for the rest of the party, never more relieved than when the cowboys started heading out the door to get their evening chores done.

“I’ll show you your room,” Nate said, heading for the exit with Ted in tow. Emma stayed in the kitchen, because she mostly manned the kitchen too, and she’d start cleaning up before she wandered back into the office to finish…whatever she needed to do that day.

She didn’t know, because her mind blanked as Ted looked her way and their eyes met. He reached up with his left hand and touched the brim of that sexy cowboy hat, clearly saying good-bye to her without having to use his voice.

Emma froze to the spot and watched him go, his gait easy and casual. Nothing inside Emma felt easy and casual as her whole body throbbed with her pulse now.

“Okay,” Ginger said, appearing in front of her. “I’m headed out too. Thanks for putting all of this together for Ted.” She hugged Emma, and Emma wished she could relax into the embrace. Ginger had always made her feel so safe and so loved, and it was literally because of the auburn-haired beauty that Emma had survived after she’d had Missy.

“All right,” Emma said. “I know Bill kept good records in the stables for you.”

“Yeah.” Ginger stepped back and sighed. “I always feel behind.”

“You were gone for the weekend,” Emma said. “You’re allowed to leave the ranch sometimes.” She picked up the lid to a container of ranch dip—store bought—and clicked it into place. “Did you and Nate and Connor have a good visit with his family?”

“Yeah,” Ginger said slowly. “It was good. I think his family was surprised he’d gotten engaged so quickly.”

“We were all a little surprised by that,” Emma said, glancing at Ginger. “And I was because of you, Ginger.”

“I know.” Ginger looked toward the back door, where the cowboys had gone. “I do love him, though.”

“Mm.” Emma turned to put the cold items in the refrigerator. “What are you going to do? Build another house here? Get a place in town?” She lived in this house with Ginger right now, as did Jess, and three other women—Hannah, Michelle, and Jill. Sometimes, one of Ginger’s sisters needed a place to stay too, and she’d come to the West Wing.

“I haven’t decided,” she said. “I think build another house here. We have plenty of land, and then we can basically call this the administration building and bunks.” She looked at Emma. “Has a nice ring to it, right?”

“Nice,” Emma agreed with a smile.

“I could move the cowboys out into the cabins on the ranch,” she said. “And we’ve got those two in the corner as well.”

“But then where would we put the guests?” Emma asked.

Ginger frowned. “We could build more cabins.”

“Are your parents still considering living in one of those cabins in the corner of the yard?” Emma managed a lot for Ginger, and she didn’t mind reminded her of the things her boss and best friend didn’t keep in her head.

“Yeah,” Ginger said. “I need to talk to them about that. Those cabins haven’t been lived in for a while.” She looked at Emma with hope in her eyes. “Maybe with some creative shuffling, Nate and I could live in the Annex.”

“Another possibility,” Emma said. “You’d have to talk to Hannah about the accounting if you’re going to build or take away revenue from the guest cabins.” Hannah worked on the ranch about seventy-five percent of the time. Other than that, she did the bookkeeping and taxes for the ranch. She oversaw the global money management, while Emma did more of the day-to-day expenses and payroll.

“It would be like five or six more buildings if we built.” Ginger shook her head. “I don’t want that many new buildings. We still want people to come here for a true wildlife experience.” She smiled at Emma and shrugged. “I need to think more about this, but I’ve got to run. See you later.”

“Yeah, bye.” Emma kept cleaning up after Ginger left, her mind moving at ten times the speed of her hands. Hope Eternal Ranch was fifteen hundred acres of wetlands, meadows, natural lakes, trees that grew along the riverbanks, and brush land. People came here for hunting, fishing, bird-watching, to gather and buy honey, to see the butterflies as they migrated south, and so much more.

They made their living on tourists—and the horseback riding lessons they did. So many horseback riding lessons, and Emma suddenly remembered what she needed to get done that day.

Invoices for the almost two hundred horseback riding accounts the ranch had.

A sigh pulled through her body, and she really just wanted to wander down the dirt lane behind the house until she came to the border of the ranch, where the Mission River flowed.

“Later,” she muttered to herself as she put the last of the chocolate cake under foil and moved toward the office. As she sat behind her computer, her mind was already centered on Ted Burrows and not the invoices she needed to complete.

She pushed against him, but he would not move. He stayed right there, those handsome eyes and his deep voice asking, “Have we met?” while she clicked and started setting up the batch invoicing program that would bring in another month’s fees for the lessons.





Chapter Three





Ted didn’t know how to sleep for more than a few hours in a row. His body was used to getting up every couple of hours, and when the sun finally started turning the darkness into day, Ted finally got out of bed for good.

He’d spent some time with just Nate and Connor the night before, in the room on the other side of the bathroom. Nate had a small TV on his dresser, and he and Connor liked to watch a cooking show before bed every night. Ted had relaxed in a recliner in the room, and he’d marveled at how simple life could be outside of prison.

His life before prison had not been simple. He’d been a workaholic, he knew. He didn’t mind it, though, because he’d grown up working. His father owned a dry cleaning shop in a small suburb south of San Antonio, and all of the Burrows kids were expected to learn the business, work at the shop, and more from a very young age.

Ted had gone on to college and then law school, with the full intention of returning to Clydesdale and the family business eventually. He just wanted some experience first, and then he’d open up his family law firm next door to the dry cleaning shop.

That had never happened, and it was never going to happen. He’d lost his license when he’d been convicted, and he had no desire to get it back.

Nate had said he could take Ted to town that day and get some of his personal affairs worked out. Things like a bank account and a cell phone, groceries, personal items, whatever.

Ted had agreed, and as he padded into the kitchen in his gym shorts, he once again marveled that he could walk around without anyone checking on him. Not only that, but he didn’t have to wear a shirt.

He started to make coffee, the action so simple and yet so amazing at the same time. He yawned while it started to percolate, and he reached up to touch his jaw. He had stubble there, and his first thought was he better shave before any of the UO’s saw.

Just as quickly as that thought had come, it left, replaced with, You don’t have to shave if you don’t want to.

And he didn’t want to. He wanted to see how big and long his beard could become, because for the first time in almost six years, what his facial hair looked like was up to him. He could decide.

Nate had told him to eat anything in the house that morning, but before Ted could open a single cupboard, another cowboy came into the kitchen. “You’re up early,” he said with a smile. “And you made coffee already.”

The other man had medium-brown hair with kind, hazel eyes. He opened a cupboard and took out a couple of boxes of cereal. “I know you didn’t have time to go to the store yesterday,” he said. “You can have anything here.”

“Okay,” Ted said, touching one hand to his chest. “I’m Ted. I’m sorry, I didn’t learn everyone’s names yesterday.”

The man had a good air about him, and Ted liked him already. “Oh, right. I’m Spencer Rust.” He extended his hand toward Ted, and they shook hands.

“Nice to meet you,” Ted said. “You’ve worked here for a while?”

“Oh, at least fifteen years now,” Spencer said, and that surprised Ted. He didn’t look that old, but Ted knew better than to ask such a personal question of the guy. Spencer glanced at Ted and opened the fridge. “I got some fruit cups too. Connor likes those.” He took out a couple of peach cups and put them on the counter too.

Ted wasn’t sure why. Surely the men who lived here could get their own breakfast.

The bedroom door down the hall creaked as it opened, and tiny feet came toward them both. Connor, a white-haired boy, appeared, carrying a blue blanket with him.

“Hey, buddy,” Spencer said. He swooped in to pick up Connor. “I got your breakfast here, and you’re coming with me this morning.”

Connor grinned at Spencer and then looked at Ted. “What’s Ted doing?”

“Ted’s going with Jess for a little bit,” Spencer said, glancing at Connor. “And then with your dad to town. When they get back, you’ll go with your daddy, okay?”

“Okay.”

Spencer put Connor on a barstool and picked up a box of Cheerios. “These?” He touched the Lucky Charms. “Or these?”

“Yellow,” Connor said, and Spencer started pouring the Cheerios. He opened one of the peach cups and handed it to Connor. The child dumped the peaches—syrup and all—over the cereal and then waited for Spencer to pour on the milk.

The normalcy of it all astounded Ted, and he looked at Spencer as Connor lifted his first spoonful of breakfast to his mouth. “What time is Jess expecting me? She never said.”

Spencer glanced at the clock. “Thirty minutes, probably. She’ll want you in the stables. You can’t miss ‘em.”

“Nate showed me on the way over here last night,” Ted said. He grabbed the other peach cup as he went back toward the hall that led to his bedroom. “Thanks, Spencer.”

“Anytime.”

Ted showered, wishing he could stand in the hot spray for a lot longer. In prison, he got ten minutes, tops, and the water was never hot. Half the time, it wasn’t even warm. He had to wear shoes in the shower at all times, and Ted stared down at his bare feet as the water ran between his toes.

Twenty minutes later, he left the house and crossed the back deck. The sky held shades of orange and gold, and Ted took a deep breath, getting a nose full of pollen and the scent of freshly mown grass. He sneezed, but he didn’t care.

He was outside. Free. Alone.

He walked toward the stable in the distance but quickly pivoted to go back and get his hat. Ginger had said he’d be working outside in the hot sun almost all the time, and he really shouldn’t try to do that without a cowboy hat.

Properly attired, he retraced his steps toward the stable, but it looked like no one else had arrived yet. All the doors were closed, and Ted honestly had no idea what to do. A ranch wasn’t anything like a dry cleaning shop, a law firm, or a low-security prison facility. Since those made up the bulk of his experiences, he had no idea what to expect from a ranch that housed almost ninety horses on a daily basis, planned riding lessons for every day of the week, and provided physical care for that many animals.

Jess had said he’d be needed and he’d have to work hard, and he’d said he could do it. He hadn’t felt anything looking at the tall, dark-haired woman. He could admit she was pretty in an exotic kind of way, but one look across the room to Emma Clemson, and Ted’s heart had crashed against his ribcage like a pair of cymbals.

Emma was stunning, and while Ted felt sure he’d seen her face somewhere before, he wasn’t going to ask again. He’d figure it out eventually.

One door on the end of the building stood open, and Ted heard a radio playing from inside. He figured he had nothing to lose, so he went through the door and into the stables. The scent of straw and horse flesh met his nose, and while he’d never smelled anything like it before, and it wasn’t exactly pleasant, he took another deep breath. Anything was better than the scent of fifteen other men who’d all been living and sleeping in the same room as him.

A dog joined him, already panting, and Ted bent down to pat it. “Hello,” he murmured, somehow comforted by the cattle dog. As far as he knew, they didn’t have cattle at Hope Eternal, but this was definitely a blue heeler.

Someone sat on a low stool halfway down the row, and the light from the doorway entered behind him, casting the person in shadows. It was definitely a woman, because her hair tumbled down her back, and she said something in a sweet voice to the foal in the pen where she sat.

Ted drew closer to her, expecting her to turn and look up at the sound of his footsteps. She didn’t, and Ted realized it was Emma in front of him. He pulled in a tight breath and stopped.

“Oh, you’re so hungry this morning,” she said, her voice full of adoration for the baby horse. She turned toward the dog as he lay down in the straw at her feet. “Where did you come from?”

She looked up and Ted had the luxury of seeing her face in some of the sunlight spilling through the doorway behind him. Fear filled her eyes, and she sprang to her feet, the baby horse’s empty bottle in her hand. She opened her mouth and screamed, launching the bottle at him in the next moment.

“Whoa,” he said, ducking out of the way. The plastic bottle clattered on the floor, and Ted held up both hands, shocked at Emma’s reaction. “It’s me. Ted Burrows. It’s okay.”

Emma looked like she might pick up her stool and fling it at him next, and Ted fell back a step and then another. “Sorry,” he said. “Sorry, I thought you heard me.”

“I didn’t hear you,” she said, her voice still full of panicked air.

“What’s going on?” someone else asked, appearing in the aisle on the other side of Emma. “Are you okay?”

It was Jess’s voice, and Ted shrank back another step, as if he’d be able to hide. Jess reached Emma, and the two of them looked at him like he was a monster.

“I’m fine,” Emma said. “I just got surprised.”

“Sorry,” Ted said again, though he’d not really done anything wrong.

Jess looked back and forth between him and Emma, and she said, “We’re meeting around the corner in about ten minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

Jess nodded and left the two of them standing there. Ted turned and took a few steps to where the bottle lay on the ground. He stooped and picked it up, turning back to Emma. He approached her slowly and asked, “Why do they have to be fed with a bottle?” He took in the three foals in the makeshift pens and looked at Emma.

Every moment brought more light into the stables, and someone opened the door on the other end of the aisle, and Ted could see her clearly then. She took the bottle from him, though it was empty, and said, “This one is a twin, and his brother is a little bit of a bully, so he doesn’t get as much milk as he should. So he just needs some extra. His name is Second Best.”

“Oh, wow,” Ted said. “Harsh.” He chuckled, glad when Emma smiled. She was just as made up this morning as she’d been at lunch yesterday, but Ted felt like he could see her more clearly.

She moved down the row and looked at the next horse, a brown and white animal that Ted felt an instant connection with.

That surprised him, because while he’d always liked dogs, he’d never thought of himself as a horse person.

“This one’s name is Patches,” she said. “He just didn’t take to his mother. So we still put them out together every day, but he has to be hand-fed.”

“Gotcha.”

“And this is Ruby,” she said, smiling down at the red-coated filly in the next pen. “She’s just hungry all the time, and her momma didn’t have enough milk for her.” She reached over the fence and stroked the horse’s nose. “She’s almost weaned though.”

“And you take care of them?”

“I only do this little bit for the babies,” she said, looking up at him. “Yes. Twice a day. Jess’ll have someone else take them out with their moms and teach them how to ride and all of that.”

“What if there are no babies on the ranch?” he asked. “Then what do you do?”

“I’m the ranch manager,” she said. “I do all the behind-the-scenes stuff that keeps the ranch going.”

“Wow,” Ted said. “How long have you been doing that?”

“Ten years.” Emma tucked the bottle under her arm as Ruby started sticking her tongue through the holes in the fence to lick it. “You’ve had yours,” she told the horse.

Ted looked down as the blue heeler passed him. “And what about the dogs? How many of those live on the ranch?”

“Oh, five or six,” she said. “They roam with the horses and help herd the boars in when we have our boar hunt.”

Ted had no idea what planet he’d landed on. “Boar hunt?”

Emma smiled at him, and everything in the world got a little brighter. “It’s a long story, and I think your meeting starts soon.”

“Right,” he said. “Okay, well, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

“I know,” she said, and she seemed ten times softer now than she had even a few minutes ago.

He reached up and tipped his hat, something he’d done yesterday as he’d left too. He hadn’t even known how to do it, but the motion had been natural then, as it was now. “All right, well, I’ll see you later, Emma.” He looked down at the dog. “And….” He looked up at her, expecting her to fill in a name.

“Oh, we don’t name the dogs,” she said.

“What?” he asked. “You name the horses, but not the dogs?”

She shrugged with another perfect smile on those lips. “Ginger loves horses.”

Ted crouched down and scratched the blue heeler, feeling the dirt in his hair. “Well, he deserves a name too. I’m gonna call him…” Nothing came to mind, and he looked up at Emma for help.

“Don’t ask me,” she said, giggling again. “I’m not having any part of this.”

“I’ve never named a dog before,” Ted said, and he couldn’t believe how hard it was. He looked at the heeler again, and blurted, “Simon.”

“Simon?” Emma asked, and she burst out laughing.

Ted straightened, and he couldn’t keep the smile off his face. “You think that’s funny, huh?”

“Why Simon?”

Ted shrugged, not wanting to say that one of the shows he knew about from his mother was American Idol. She loved Simon Cowell, and maybe Ted wouldn’t feel so lonely if he had a dog here named Simon. Maybe then, it would be like his mother was close by.

“Seems like it fits,” he told Emma, because he didn’t need to get into all of his emotional issues with the woman. “I better go. See you later.”

“Yeah,” she said, backing up a couple of steps so he could move in front of her. “See you later, Ted.”

He wanted to stay near her too and ask her all kinds of things about herself. He’d tell her anything she wanted to know too—including how he’d gotten six years in prison—but he forced himself to keep walking.

Just because Nate had fallen in love at Hope Eternal Ranch didn’t mean Ted was going to. In fact, he was fairly certain Emma’s scream was really how she felt about him, and he didn’t need to put himself through anything unnecessary.

He needed to be here for three and a half months, and then he could return to Clydesdale with his head held high.





Chapter Four





Emma watched Ted round the corner, his stride straight and sure. How he possessed so much confidence, Emma didn’t know. When she’d looked up and seen the tall, broad-shouldered, shadowy figure….

The scream had been instant. So had the bottle throw.

Ted had some good reflexes too, and Emma was very lucky that bottle was made of plastic and not glass.

Embarrassment squirreled through her, getting into the really tight corners and making her mood turn sour. How did she keep running into him? She couldn’t get up any earlier to come feed the foals, and she shouldn’t have to.

“Maybe you should start later,” she mumbled to herself as she walked over to the industrial sink in the corner. She washed out the bottles and set them to dry for later. “All right, guys,” she said to her babies. “I’ll see you tonight.”

She left the stables, and the pink and yellow in the sky made everything sweeter. The last time she’d seen the sky like this, she’d been sitting with Missy out at the Frio bat caves. The sky was getting darker and darker then, not coming to life, but the feeling was the same.

There was a time between dawn and sunrise, and dusk and sunset, where the earth held its breath. Everything was calm and peaceful, and Emma had no worries, no doubts, and no insecurities.

She’d placed a kiss on Missy’s temple, and not ten minutes later, thousands and thousands and thousands of bats had come pouring out of the caves. Emma had never seen anything like it, and she’d stood there with her daughter in complete awe.

It had been a great experience for both of them, and when Emma had driven away last Sunday night, it was one of those times that she cried a lot on the winding roads back to Sweet Water Falls.

Thankfully, Ginger had been out on a walk with Nate, and Emma had managed to sneak through the house while Jess and Michelle shared a bowl of popcorn in the living room. By morning, her tears were dried up, the redness in her eyes gone.

A week and a day later, Ted had shown up, asking questions he had no right to ask.

She couldn’t believe that had just happened yesterday afternoon. It felt like he’d been on the ranch for a lot longer than that.

Emma returned to the homestead and poured herself a cup of coffee while the house cat, Frisco, wound between her ankles. She got out the sugar-free chocolate syrup and squirted in a healthy amount. With added cream, her cup no longer steamed, and it was more like a mug of hot chocolate with some slight coffee flavoring. Just the way she liked it.

The hot chococoffee was all she had in the morning, and since she wasn’t spiking her blood sugar, she counted it as if she’d eaten nothing.

She went into the office and pulled the cord to open the blinds, Frisco mewing behind her. The sunshine had started to stream over the Gulf of Mexico, and while there were a few islands between the ranch and the actual Gulf, Emma stood in the golden glow and fed off the energy of the sun, the sea, and the sky.

Another sip of her hot chococoffee, and Emma sat down at the computer. She had processed all of the invoices yesterday, and she needed to go through accounts receivable this morning, as well as look ahead to Friday, which was payday.

She had paperwork to process for Ted, now that he was here, and she’d need to meet with Ginger to make sure the Bureau of Prisons got the packet back they wanted, by the deadline. That ensured the ranch got the promised checks from the BOP, and Ginger would stay in good standing with them.

Emma got to work, only marking time by how restless she became the closer noon got. When her stomach gave one mighty growl, she allowed herself to glance at the clock in the corner of her computer screen.

Almost noon. Praise the Lord.

She got up and went into the kitchen, Frisco right behind her, intending to put together a shredded Caesar salad and pull out one of the leftover mini-sandwiches from yesterday. She did just that, and sat at the bar. She could take her food back to her office, but she’d made a pact not to eat in front of a screen, because then each bite was mindful.

Emma wasn’t exactly overweight, but that was because she worked really hard at not letting herself develop bad habits. The truth was, she’d lost ten pounds in the past year, after gaining twenty-five the year before.

The weight didn’t come off as fast as it went on, that was for dang sure, especially the closer to forty she got. She didn’t recover as easily from a busy day either, and if she didn’t get enough sleep? She couldn’t catch up without literally snoozing all day on the weekends.

This weekend, she had another trip to San Antonio on her calendar, and she swiped open her phone to check which hotel she’d book for herself. She stayed in a different one whenever she went, and she’d never used the same name twice.

She always paid in cash, and she’d even thought about renting a different car every other weekend when she went to visit her daughter. If anyone watched her for very long, they’d easily see she went to San Antonio on the second and fourth weekends of every month. Month after month, for years.

She’d made that deal with Ginger the day she’d shown up on the ranch, asking about the administrative job. She’d never told Ginger what she was doing, because Ginger assumed she was going to visit her family.

They’d talked a lot about family and the importance of it, and Emma hadn’t lied. She was going to see her family—just not the family Ginger knew about.

Her sisters had never asked her to come visit, and Emma probably wouldn’t have gone anyway. Sally and Meredith were like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way. They both had husbands with respectable jobs, and families of boys and girls—the exact same number of each.

Sally had two boys and two girls, while Meredith only had one of each. They all still lived in Lincoln, a posh little suburb of Dallas, where her parents still resided as well.

Only Emma had broken the mold and dared to move outside city limits. Only Emma hadn’t been married. Only Emma didn’t have the perfect family unit to bring home on holidays and anniversaries.

She’d never told her parents or either of her sisters about Missy either. She’d wanted to, and she’d even called Meredith, the oldest sister, to tell her. But their mother had called in, and Meredith had made it a three-way call.

She’d said, “Em was just going to tell me something.”

“Oh?” their mother had asked. “I’m sure it’s just something about one of her students. You’ll never guess what I learned from Margaret today. Her daughter is pregnant!”

“Oh, no,” Meredith had moaned. “Not Ginny. She’s not even married. She should give that baby up for adoption.”

They’d continued their conversation while Emma sat there and listened, horrified. No way she could tell them now.

She wasn’t married. She was pregnant. And yes, it had to do with one of her students…and his father.

She’d hung up silently, and Meredith hadn’t even noticed for another twenty minutes.

The doorbell rang, and Emma was glad for the distraction. She didn’t like to dwell on negative things, but they’d all been stirred up with three simple words.

Have we met?

She left the rest of her salad on her plate and went to get the door. They didn’t get a lot of visitors to the ranch, and Emma couldn’t remember the last time she’d used this door. She expected to see a salesman standing on the porch when she opened the door, and she regretted interrupting her lunch to do it.

There wasn’t anyone on the front porch anyway. “Hello?” Emma stepped out onto the porch, her eyes scanning the front yard and the dirt lane beyond, the trees, all of it.

A blue truck sat at the fence just beyond the grass, but Emma couldn’t see anyone sitting behind the wheel. No one walked down the sidewalk or the road. She looked left and right, wondering how someone could ring the doorbell and then disappear so quickly. They’d have to positively fly down the steps and around the corner of the house.

She hated pranks and jokes, because making someone else feel stupid wasn’t funny. She eased back into the house and closed the door, locking it behind her. The air conditioning blew, and Emma was surprised she hadn’t heard Frisco yowl when it had clicked on. The cat didn’t like the sudden whoosh of air, and sometimes he ran under Emma’s desk as if the devil was trying to get in through the vents.

Instead of returning to the kitchen, Emma edged over to the front window, which was a bay. It jutted out, and she moved to the other side before barely cracking the blinds, so she could see the whole front yard, the blue truck, the fence, and the road beyond.

That blue truck hadn’t been there earlier—at least Emma didn’t think so. She wasn’t sure. There were so many trucks on the ranch, and she didn’t even know if it belonged to Hope Eternal or not.

She held very still, her heart pounding in the back of her throat, and watched the landscape in front of her. Literally nothing moved. It was just another normal day, full of sunshine and blue sky, with the breeze gently disturbing the grass.

No one used the front yard unless Nate was throwing a ball for Ursula so Connor would cheer up. Everyone loved Ginger’s German shepherd, Emma included. Well, Frisco wasn’t a fan of the big dog, but even they got along okay.

Suddenly, a man emerged from the corner of the house, and he didn’t glance left or right as he went. He carried a clipboard and a handheld instrument, and Emma thought perhaps he was checking the meters on that side of the house. Energy or water or something. People did that, right?

But why would he ring the doorbell?

She watched as the man went over the fence instead of through the gate. Odd, Emma thought. He did look around suspiciously then, and he turned and looked right at the house. Emma sucked in a breath and shrank back, but there was no way he could see her.

She inched forward again, trying to memorize his face. He was white, and he stood almost as tall as the truck. He wore a blue baseball cap with a white letter D on it, and she wasn’t sure what team that was for.

He had on jeans and boots, but not the cowboy kind. The oddest thing was his jacket. It was nowhere near cold enough to wear a bulky denim jacket with fleece lining. He was definitely hiding something.

From this distance, she’d call his hair brown, and she couldn’t see his eyes.

She squinted as if that would help her see better, but she still couldn’t get any more distinguishing features. She’d left her phone next to her uneaten salad, and she wished she had it to snap a quick picture. She wanted one of the man and his truck, and she frantically searched for his license plate as he opened the door and got behind the wheel.

There was no license plate on the front bumper. He backed out and turned, and Emma noticed a logo on the side of the truck. A large grasshopper.

She started to relax; he was the pest control guy, and he’d probably wanted to drop off the bill before he left. They did knock on the door after a treatment. The blue truck trundled down the lane, and Emma did see a license plate on the back bumper.

She only caught a couple of letters, and she recited them to herself as she hurried to retrieve her phone.

She’d just typed them into her notes program when the back door opened and a couple of male voices filled the house. “…it’ll be thirty seconds,” Nate said, appearing from around the corner. He sounded slightly annoyed, but when he saw her, he brightened. “Hey, Emma. Ginger sent me over to get her pregnancy notebook?” He shifted his feet and cleared his throat. “She said you’d know what that meant.”

“It’s where she keeps track of all the births on the ranch,” she said, starting to move her hand to pocket her phone as Ted came around the corner too. She dropped her phone then, because she seemed to forget how to be human when he was around.

The device clattered to the floor, a terrible snapping sound filling the air. She gasped and looked down, the jagged crack in her screen obvious. “Oh, no.”

“We’re going to get Ted a phone,” Nate said. “You could come along.”

“No,” she said, though she did desperately want to. She bent to pick up the phone, thinking she’d just use it as it was until she could get to town. She had a screen protector; everything would be fine.

She tried to swipe and pain sliced through her fingertip. She cried out and looked up at Nate. “Yeah, okay. I’ll come with you. Can you give me a minute?”

“If you get me that notebook, I’ll take it to Ginger, and then we’ll swing by here again to grab you.” he looked at Ted. “It’ll be another ten seconds. Emma will literally jump in the truck as we’re moving.”

Ted nodded, and Emma deduced he must be in a hurry to get to town. She didn’t blame him. He was wearing the same clothes as yesterday, and he didn’t even have a phone.

“Give me a second.” She set her ruined phone on the counter beside her lunch and went into the office. Ginger kept meticulous records of the horse births on the ranch, and she loved the leather-bound notebook with a decade’s worth of data in it. Emma took it to Nate and said, “This is like her most prized possession. Don’t lose it.”

“I’m literally taking it from here to the stables,” Nate said dryly. “I think I can manage.” He nodded to Ted. “Let’s go.”

“I need to use the restroom,” he said. “Can I stay here, and you can pick both of us up on the way back by?’

“I don’t know,” Nate said. “Can you run fast enough to leap into a moving truck?” He laughed and went out the back door, leaving Emma alone with Ted. She stared at him, wishing he wasn’t quite so tall or quite so handsome. She wondered if he even knew what he did to a woman’s pulse.

“I swear I’ve seen you before,” he said. “Did you grow up in Laredo?”

“No,” she said, her pulse positively ricocheting now. No, she hadn’t grown up in Laredo. But she’d gone to college there. She wasn’t about to tell him that, though. She’d run with a rough crowd during college, and the only reason she hadn’t ended up in jail herself was because she’d gotten the teaching job in Sweet Water Falls.

“Okay.” He headed toward the hall and the bathroom where he’d changed yesterday. Emma let out the breath she’d been holding, wondering what Ted had done before he’d gone to prison. Ginger had a whole file on him, and Emma could easily read it. In fact, it sat on the corner of her desk right now.

She picked up her ruined phone and plucked her purse from the hook by the back door. She was just about to go outside to wait for Nate—Ted could find his own way—when the doorbell rang again.

Adrenaline spiked through her, and she turned toward the door but didn’t move.

“I’ll get it,” Ted called, and Emma let him. She heard him say something to whoever was at the door, and then his footsteps came down the hall and into the kitchen. He joined her in the small hallway off the back door, a paper in his hand.

“It was the pest control guy. He dropped off this receipt.”

Emma stared at it, her eyes wide. Everything raced now. She grabbed it from him and flew outside, desperate to see the man and the pest control truck. Thankfully, no one ever closed the garage doors, and she could see all the way to the dirt lane.

A white truck—not blue—still sat there, and it had a license plate on the front bumper. She strode out into the sunshine, lifting the paper as she went. “Hey,” she called, and the guy looked up.

She went all the way to his door, where he rolled down his window. “You just did this?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said.

“You don’t drive a blue truck?”

Confusion furrowed his brows. “No.”

“Have you ever driven a blue truck?”

“Not for Eradicate,” he said. “Always white.” He tapped the door. “With the ridiculous ants on the side?”

She looked down at the side of his truck, which did have several semi-ridiculous cartoon ants painted there. “Not grasshoppers?” she asked.

“No, ma’am.” He shook his head. “Is everything okay?”

Ted had followed her, and he leaned his elbows on the top rung of the wooden fence that separated the dirt and gravel from the grass.

“Yes,” she said, the word barely ghosting out of her mouth. Because it was really a no. No, everything was not okay.

The man who’d been here in the blue truck was not the pest control. She spun toward the left corner of the house, her fist crunching the receipt. She went through the rungs in the fence while Ted asked, “What’s wrong, Emma?”

She didn’t answer him as she marched across the grass. All this striding had really gotten her heart rate up, and sweat beaded along her hairline. She arrived at the side of the house, desperately scanning.

There were no meters.

“Emma?” Ted asked again, gently. “What’s going on?”

“There are no meters here,” she said, looking wildly from him to the smooth siding on the house.

“No,” he said slowly. “There aren’t.”

“There was a guy here,” she said. “He had a clipboard and a meter thingy, and he was driving a blue truck with a grasshopper on the side.” She couldn’t get the words out fast enough. “He rang the doorbell and then disappeared.”

What had he been doing? Had he taken pictures of her? Did he know about Missy?

She needed to call Fran right now. She flung down the receipt and yanked her phone out of her pocket.

Then she had to face reality—her phone was shattered.

A sob started in her stomach and wrenched its way up, catching in her throat for only a moment before it came soaring out of her mouth.





Chapter Five





Ted had no idea what was going on, only that something bad was happening. Emma looked one breath away from pure panic, and Ted knew what that looked like. He’d helped a couple of newboots when they’d come to River Bay, and Raymond had suffered a complete panic attack his first night.

It had been as scary for Ted as Raymond, and they’d been friends until the day Ray got to walk out, a free man.

Emma was about to lose it, and Ted stepped closer to her as a sob came out of her throat. He gathered her tight, because he knew more now than he had when he’d attempted to help Raymond.

“Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “You’re okay. You’re right here.” He held her tightly against his chest, and he couldn’t complain when her arms came up and around him too. She clung to him as if she needed him to stand, which was actually fine with Ted.

Strangely enough.

“Just take a breath,” he said. “Okay? In with me, Emma.” He drew in a long, deep breath, but she ignored him completely. “And out,” he said anyway, releasing his breath. He did it again, and this time, she matched her breath to his.

“Tell me what’s in your head,” he said.

“I can’t.” Her voice was thick as honey and filled with misery.

“Who was the man that was here earlier?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “That’s the problem.”

Ted didn’t quite get how. “You didn’t talk to him?’

“No, I assumed he was the pest guy, because he had that truck with the grasshopper.” Her breath was hot against his chest, but she’d started to calm.

“You thought he was checking the meters?”

“Yes.”

“Or was the pest guy.”

“Yes.”

“But he wasn’t either of those.”

“I don’t think so.”

Ted didn’t either, but he wasn’t sure why it mattered. Emma didn’t seem like the type of woman to be scared by her own shadow, even though she had screamed when she’d seen him earlier that morning.

So why would she literally fall apart over a man coming to the house? Surely they had dozens of people coming and going around this ranch. One dude in a blue truck shouldn’t send her into a frenzy.

Unless she has something to hide, Ted thought, and he realized he’d just hit the nail on the head. Hard.

Emma had something to hide. Something big, and with someone new on the ranch, asking questions, she was afraid…of something.

Ted couldn’t even imagine what, but he knew he’d seen her somewhere, and his guess was in a file for one of the cases he’d worked at his law firm, many years ago. He’d doubted himself for a few hours last night, but this morning, looking at her again in the barn, and then again just now in the house, and he knew.

He’d definitely seen her face before, either in person or in a picture.

“Ted?”

Ted released Emma, but she didn’t move very far from him. Ted stepped to the corner of the house and waved to Nate. “We, uh, need a second.”

“Need a second for what?” Nate started striding toward them, and Ted ducked back around the corner.

“He’s coming.”

Emma wiped at her face, but she’d done a number on her makeup. Her perfectly swept on eyeliner had smudged, and she had streaks down her cheeks. “I’m fine.”

“What’s going on?” Nate asked. “First, you’re all upset that we have to—oh.” His eyes had landed on Emma, who kept her head down while she kept trying to wipe her eyes and not have black come away on her fingers.

“I need a minute,” she said, and she spun and went toward the back corner of the house.

Ted and Nate stood in the shade, staring after her.

“Teddy,” Nate said slowly. “Tell me you did not make that woman cry.”

“It wasn’t my fault,” Ted said quickly. He explained what had happened in literally the last four minutes, and Nate’s eyes got wider with every sentence.

“So who was that guy?”

“She doesn’t know,” Ted said. “She freaked out hard, Nate. There’s something going on with her.”

“I can ask Ginger,” Nate said. “Should we go wait in the air-conditioned truck?”

“Heavens, yes,” Ted said, breathing a sigh of relief. He walked with his friend around the front of the house and to where Nate had parked in the driveway. “How well do you know Emma?” he asked. “Do you know what she’s involved in?”

“You think she’s involved in something?”

“Yes,” Ted said simply. Women didn’t fall apart because someone rang the doorbell and then went around the side of the house. This ranch was crawling with people, and it would take someone with some special skills to do something unnoticed.

But maybe Emma had been dealing with someone with just those kind of special skills. Ted’s mind whirred, especially when Nate didn’t say anything. The man never did just fill the silence with chatter, and Ted normally appreciated that.

Emma appeared in his rear-view mirror, and Ted opened the door and slid out. “Do you want the window or the middle?” he asked.

“Window, please,” she said, her voice stronger now. Her makeup had been cleaned from her face, and she hadn’t redone it. Ted stared at her, finding her natural beauty even better than the gorgeous woman she was with dark eye makeup and blemish-free skin.

And in that moment, he also knew who she was.

Emma Clemson, of course.

Emma Clemson, the girlfriend and known associate of Robert Knight, a suspected crime ringleader from the Knight family of criminals. They operated all over southern Texas, moving people and drugs, committing petty thefts and assaults, and sometimes, if they had to, people ended up dead.

It had been Ted’s firm’s job to find as many of their known associates as possible and interview them about a specific incident that could put Larry Knight, Robert’s brother, behind bars for a very long time.

He’d been right. He’d seen her picture in a case file.

She lifted her eyebrows, and Ted realized he’d fallen into simply staring at her while he reviewed the case mentally. “Sorry,” he said, hurrying to get back in the truck and slide over next to Nate.

“I need to talk to you tonight,” he murmured to his best friend as Emma climbed onto the seat next to him.

“Deal,” Nate said just as quietly, and then he reached for the volume dial on his radio. “Okay, phones first?”

“Yes,” Ted said. Nate set off down the dirt lane that led to the highway, but Ted couldn’t relax. He sat straight and tall, not daring to let any part of him touch Emma. Tension radiated through the cab, despite the pop music playing, and Ted couldn’t help turning his head to look at Emma again.

Something roared to life inside him when her eyes met his, and he wanted to protect her from whatever had happened and whoever had hurt her in the past. His fists clenched, and he had to work to calm his fight or flight reflexes back into submission.

There was no fight here.

And he literally could not leave the ranch by himself, so the flight option was out too, leaving Ted’s tension and adrenaline with nowhere to go but back into his body.





An hour later, Ted stood on the sidewalk outside the cell phone store, the line to his mother ringing.

“Teddy,” she said, her voice full of light though it had grown old in the last several years. “I wasn’t expecting you to call until three.”

“Ma,” he said, a laugh bubbling in the back of his throat. “I’m out of River Bay.”

“Out?”

He let his laughter out, and he met Nate’s eye, the other man smiling in return. “Yeah, Ma,” Ted said, still chuckling. “They approved my request for the Residential reentry Program, and I went to Hope Eternal Ranch yesterday.”

“Oh, Teddy.” His mother began to weep, and Ted sobered a little bit.

“I want you to come visit,” he said. “It’s not nearly as far to Sweet Water Falls as it is to River Bay. A couple of hours.” He cut a glance to Emma, who sat on the fountain wall, her attention seemingly only on her phone. Her fingers flew across the screen while Ted waited for his mother to confirm or deny.

“I’ll call Britta,” his mother said. “We’ll come.”

“Thanks, Ma,” Ted said, his chest expanding in a whole new way now. It felt like he’d broken through an invisible band that had prevented him from taking a full breath. “I don’t have her number memorized like I do yours. I can call her too,” he said. “Or could you give her my number and have her text me everyone’s numbers?”

“Yes,” his mother said. “Yes. Let’s see…let me get a pencil….” A moment later, she told him to go ahead, and Ted rattled off his phone number from the cell phone contract he held in his hand.

He felt…powerful standing there on the sidewalk, talking to his mother at whatever time he wanted. They could talk for as long as they wanted too, and Ted barely knew what to do with himself. He was so used to having conversations in code or in under fifteen minutes.

Nate did tap his wrist a few minutes later, because getting a cell phone wasn’t the only task they needed to accomplish that day.

“All right, Ma,” Ted said. “My friend says we have to go. I have to go buy a bunch of clothes and stuff too.”

“Teddy, do you need some money?”

“No, Ma,” Ted said. He would not take her money. “I’m fine.”

“Okay,” she said. “I have a little extra.”

“It’s not necessary, Ma.” Ted told her he loved her and couldn’t wait to see her, and then he ended the call.

“How is she?” Nate asked.

“You called it, brother,” Ted said, holding out his fist for Nate to bump. He did, and they chuckled. “She cried.”

“Are you going to call your dad?” Nate asked.

“I will tonight,” Ted said. “He’ll be in the back, and he doesn’t answer the phone when he’s in the racks.” His father still ran the dry cleaning shop, despite the amicable divorce that had happened a year before Ted had gone to prison.

He’d barely adjusted to his parents not being together, and with the long separation between all of them, he barely knew how to have two halves of a family that had once been whole. “Do you think I should invite him to come alone?”

“Maybe ask Britta?” Nate asked. “Emma, do you want us to run you back to the ranch? Ted has a ton of shopping to do.”

“No,” she said, looking up from her phone. “I’m fine to wait here. Jess is on her way to get me.” She looked at Ted on the last few words.

“We can wait with you,” Ted said. He wouldn’t just walk away from her and hope she made it back to the ranch okay.

“Yeah, we’ll wait,” Nate said, and he sat down on the fountain wall too.

Ted sat next to him and slipped a glance in Nate’s direction, who said, “Let’s go to the bank first. I have a guy who’ll set you up nice.”

Ted couldn’t argue, and he had very little money. He wasn’t sure how he’d be able to pay for the items he needed, and he’d already let Nate buy his phone.

The noise of the water splashing from the fountain to the pool was the only conversation, and Jess pulled up in a ranch truck several minutes later. “Thanks for bringing me to get a new phone,” Emma said as she reached for the door handle. “And thanks for waiting with me.” She glanced at Nate, because the rest of her words had been directed at Ted.

He couldn’t say anything, so he just tipped his hat at her again, and he really knew why Nate liked this cowboy hat. It was growing on Ted too.

Emma got in the truck, closed the door, and Jess eased away from the curb.

“What was that?” Nate asked.

“What?” Ted stood up, glad to be off the hard cement.

“She barely looked at me.” Nate watched him as they started back to his truck. “I think she has a crush on you.”

Ted scoffed. “You’re delusional.”

No one had ever had a crush on Ted before. Of course, he wouldn’t have known if they had. His focus before prison had been work, work, and more work. He hadn’t dated in years before he’d taken the fall at his firm, and he didn’t even know what flirting looked like or sounded like.

But he was pretty sure Emma hadn’t been doing it.

“Listen, I’m going to put some money in your account, Teddy,” he said. “And I don’t want you to argue with me about it.”

“I’ll pay you back,” Ted said. “Honestly.”

“I don’t care if you do or don’t,” Nate said. “I have plenty of money.”

Ted nodded, because Nate had told him that he had a lot in his bank account while they were in prison together, and Ted suspected Nate had gotten more from his brother. When Ward died, he’d left everything to Nate, and Ted knew he had a house in White Lake, a small town only twenty minutes from here.

Ted got set up at the bank, and he didn’t ask Nate how much money he’d put in his account. Nate went upstairs with a white-haired man for several minutes, and when he came down, he had a debit card with Ted’s name on it. The man really could work miracles, and Ted shook his head and clapped Nate on the back in a quick hug.

“Okay, clothes,” Nate said. “Groceries. Household stuff. We can get it all at Wal-Mart.”

“Deal,” Ted said, because he didn’t care what he wore to work. The only thing he didn’t want to get at Wal-Mart was shoes, because he’d already worked six hours on his feet that morning, and he now knew he needed decent footwear.

Hours later, Ted finally had everything he needed—except dinner.

“I know what you want,” Nate said, and he aimed the truck down the street away from the shoe store where they’d just bought a nice, sturdy pair of work boots, and a pair of running shoes, and a pair of cowboy boots. The last one was at Nate’s insistence, because he claimed if Ted would wear them every day, they’d become the most comfortable shoes he’d ever worn.

Trying them on in the store had felt like sticking his feet into a torture device, so Ted wasn’t sure how that would ever come true. But it was Nate’s money, and Ted just swiped the card.

“Burger Barn,” Ted said, his mouth watering. “I want to go there.”

“I know.” Nate grinned as he swung into the drive-through. “You’ve talked about this place since the day I met you.”

“I can’t believe there’s one here,” Ted said. “They’re not everywhere, you know.”

“So I’ve heard.” Nate rolled down his window to study the menu.

Ted looked at the one on his side of the stall, because he hadn’t been to Burger Barn in a very long time. They didn’t seem to have updated their menu, and he said, “I want combo number fourteen, with chicken strips and half and half fries. Huge Dr. Pepper.”

Nate put in their order, and only five or six minutes later, more food than the two of them could ever eat got delivered right to the truck. Ted once again marveled at the ease with which he could get things on the outside. He’d forgotten about this magical thing called fast food, and his mouth watered as he picked up a regular French fry and a sweet potato fry at the same time.

He closed his eyes and put them in his mouth, and Ted knew then that the stars had aligned.

They’d both eaten through most of their food before Nate asked, “So how do you know Emma?”

“What?” Ted asked. “I don’t know her.”

“Oh, please.” Nate threw him a sarcastic look. “I literally slept five feet from you for five years. I know something’s bothering you, and I think it’s her.”

“Maybe I’m just thinking maybe I have a shot with her, like you and Ginger.”

Nate blinked, clearly taken aback by that. “No, really.”

“So you don’t think I have a shot with her?” Ted enjoyed the heat as it filled Nate’s face.

“No, I just meant…do you like her?”

“Sure, I like her,” Ted said, grinning now.

“Okay, this is ridiculous.” Nate wadded up the paper from his second burger and put it in the bag. “Let’s go back to the ranch.” He backed out of the space while Ted took a long drink of his soda.

“I think it’s interesting you asked how I know her,” Ted said as they left the busier part of town behind them. “I don’t know her, but I did recognize her at the house yesterday. Today, I realized how—she was a known associate in a case I was working before I, you know, assaulted that police officer.”

“Okay, first off,” Nate said. “You didn’t assault anyone. And second, really? She was a bad guy in a case?”

“A known associate is not a bad guy,” Ted said, chuckling. “It just means we wanted to talk to her. Interview her. Find out everything she knew about the guy we were taking to court. We’d get affidavits from known associates, and sworn statements, and sometimes, you could establish an alibi—or break one—with those interviews.”

“So you interviewed her?”

“I didn’t, no,” he said. “I don’t recall if she ever got interviewed or who did it. I just remember her face.” He could still see it in the file, and she definitely hadn’t swept on perfectly pointed wings of eyeliner back then.

“Does she know you know anything about her?”

Ted shook his head, pieces falling together in his mind. “But she was really upset about that guy in the blue grasshopper truck. And she was a known associate—the girlfriend of a Knight, from the Knight crime family.” He looked at Nate. “What if she’s mixed up in something bad?”

“From a decade ago?” Nate swung his attention to Ted. “She’s been working at Hope Eternal for ten years.”

“Yeah,” Ted said, his pulse quieting again. “It doesn’t make sense that something would follow her for that long.”

Nate said nothing, because he’d had loose ends to tie up after he’d gotten out of prison. Ted didn’t; not really.

But maybe Emma had some dangling strings from her past that still needed to be stitched up. If so, what were they?

Ted really wanted to know, because he never wanted to witness her sobbing in a panicked state again. He wanted to help her, protect her. That was what he’d always wanted to do for the people he’d served as a lawyer.

But he wasn’t a lawyer anymore, and she wasn’t one of his clients.

As he put away his groceries and clipped price tags from his new clothes, he actually let his mind wander down the path that led toward a future with him and Emma in it together…just like Nate and Ginger.

It was a scary walk, but a beautiful outcome, and Ted decided he’d simply ask Emma if she knew Robert Knight the next time they were alone together.

Easy, he thought, but he instinctively knew nothing with Emma was going to be easy. He was going to ask her anyway.





Chapter Six





Emma finished feeding Ruby, a sharp pain pulling through her back. “All right, girl,” she said to the horse, pulling the empty bottle from her lips. “You got it all.” She stood up and stretched her back, a groan coming from her mouth.

This day had felt like a week, as her emotions had been all over the place. She’d started the day with a scream, been surprised at the homestead, then had a near-panic attack. She’d been exhausted on the way to the downtown mall, but she’d gone because she needed a new phone.

She’d gotten that, and she’d been able to keep the same SIM card, so all of her contacts were still there. She wasn’t great at using the newest electronics, but she could text and call, and everything else she could figure out later.

Emma had used her credit card to buy the new phone, because so much of what she made at work she sent to Fran and Matt Black, the couple who took care of Missy for her. They were raising her as their daughter, and while her official birth certificate said Missy Clemson, they’d gotten a new one with their last name on it so they could register her for school under their surname.

Fran had said Emma didn’t have to send money, but Emma did anyway. She didn’t want Missy to want for anything, and if that meant she put her fancy cell phone on a credit card, that was fine with her. Fran and Matt hadn’t adopted Missy; she wasn’t in foster care. Emma had looked up an agreement online, because she’d been too afraid to go to a lawyer. If even one person knew about Missy and who her father was, word might spread.

She knew all about the seven degrees of separation, thank you very much. The lawyer might have an assistant, who might have a girlfriend, who might then say something to a client in her hairdressing chair.

And sitting next to them would be Rob’s sister, and before Emma knew it, Rob knew about his daughter.

Realistically, when she wasn’t spiraling, Emma knew this would probably not happen. But she’d done everything she could over the past eleven years to make sure her daughter was one hundred percent safe.

She knew Missy loved Fran and Matt as parents, and they loved her the way a mom and dad would. Sometimes, Emma mourned the fact that she couldn’t raise her own daughter. A lot of times, actually.

A heaviness weighed her down as she washed out the bottle and left it to dry, then left the stables. The sun had started to arc toward its final destination in the west, and Emma looked at all the reds and oranges in the sky. Above them, navy was coming to steal the last of the light from the day, and Emma was glad.

This day needed to end.

She walked slowly back toward the homestead, ready for bed. She’d missed a couple hours of work that afternoon, and she’d have to catch up with payroll and the accounts payable she owed to the travel and tourism bureau and the IFA tomorrow.

Stalling along the fence that ran in front of the homestead, Emma put one foot on the bottom rung and looked out toward the trees that grew along the river. The ranch sat on one side of the river, and down the dirt and gravel lane, as well as over a bridge, sat the highway. Another service road ran along the tree line on the other side of the river, but right now, Emma felt isolated and protected.

She could still see that blue truck parked only a few feet to her left. She closed her eyes and tried to conjure up the man’s face that she’d seen. She could see the denim jacket with the fleece lining. The jeans. The blue ball cap. She couldn’t make out much of his face, and she wished she’d grabbed a piece of paper and a pencil and done a rough sketch.

He’d been tall, but not overly tall. She’d classify him as a medium build, though he’d tried to bulk himself up with the jacket. He’d carried a clipboard and another device. Not a phone, and she’d assumed it was something to read the meters.

But there were no meters there. So what had he been carrying?

She drew in a breath, and though the air wasn’t cold at all, it felt like it froze her lungs together. As she lived a simple life on a ranch, she couldn’t even imagine some of the more evil things in the world.

Yes, she’d dated a student’s father. He’d turned out to be Robert Knight, the son of Gustus Knight, who ran a variety of illegal activities in the southern pocket of Texas. She’d grown up in a middle-class neighborhood and then gone to college in Laredo. Those had been two different worlds, but she’d enjoyed them both.

She hadn’t met Rob until she’d come to the Coastal Bend, and she wished powerfully with everything she had in that moment that she’d never met him. That his son had not been in her second-grade class. That she’d had the power and intestinal fortitude to resist him.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the sky. Since that fateful relationship, Emma had been working toward forgiving herself. She could only hope and pray the Lord would do the same—and Missy too, one day.

Sighing, she turned back to the house at the same time she heard the rumble of an engine. She twisted back toward the trees and the lane she’d been gazing at, but she held very still so as not to disturb any gravel. Not even a blade of grass.

On the other side of the trees, headlights cut through the thickening darkness, but she could barely see them. With spring here, the trees had started to leaf out, and they concealed whatever vehicle was there.

The headlights stopped—which meant the car or truck they were attached to had as well—the light shining across the road on the other side of the bridge. Someone was on that utility road.

Someone had probably just gotten turned around. Emma knew people turned off here all the time when they meant to go down another half-mile to Half-Moon Bay Drive, where a popular Farmer’s Market took place every weekend.

Still, an alarm sounded in her head.

Number one, it wasn’t the weekend.

Number two, it was almost eight o’clock at night. No Farmer’s Market. No reason to be on that road.

Number three, she’d been standing at the fence for at least ten minutes, and she would’ve seen and heard anyone who’d made the turn by accident. They wouldn’t have gone down that road, waited ten minutes, and then turned around.

As much as she wanted to know who was there, she also wanted to rush to safety. That instinct won out, and she hurried across the lawn to the garage—all three of which were open—and up the steps. She practically smacked the buttons that would close up the garage for the night, and as the six doors closed—one on each side, for all three garages—she ducked inside.

The door clicked closed behind her, and she locked it. Then turned the deadbolt. Ginger usually went around and locked up the West Wing when she came in, but Emma knew she was back already. She’d invited Nate for dinner.

Their voices filtered back to her in the hallway, and Emma pressed against the rising desperation in her throat. With shaking fingers, she walked into the kitchen to find Ginger and Nate still sitting at the bar together.

“Hey,” she said, slipping easily into her façade. She’d gotten very good at hiding things over the years, and she was proud of herself for it at the same time she loathed herself. “Horses are fed.”

“Great, thanks,” Ginger said with a smile.

“I’m going to go shower,” Emma said. “I feel hot and sweaty.”

“Welcome to another summer.” Ginger smiled and sighed, and Emma stepped around the counter to give her a quick hug. She hated lying to her best friend, but she reasoned that the fib today had been small. She wasn’t hot, but cold. The shower was meant to warm her up and remind her that she was still alive.

She was sweaty, and the chilly, clammy feeling in her soul was not pleasant. She also didn’t know what else to do to drive it away. So she stood in the shower for a long time, watching the water flow down the drain and wishing she could just as easily get rid of the uncertainty of her life, and the record of her past.





Emma left the West Wing the next morning about twenty minutes later than normal. Ahead of her on the wide path, a man walked with four dogs at his side. It wasn’t hard to know who that was, and Emma actually smiled at Ted’s back.

He’d charmed those canines in a single day. He probably had them all named by now too, and they seemed to know they’d found the one person who wanted to take care of them. Every once in a while, one would veer off to sniff something in the grass, and Ted would whistle, and the dog would come running to catch up to him.

He led them like the Pied Piper toward the stables, his step easy and light. Emma wondered how that would feel. She hadn’t felt light since the day she’d found out she was pregnant.

She wanted to ask him what life was like in prison, and she wondered if he could walk like that now, because this life was so much better than where he’d come from. Nate had said very little about life in prison, at least to her. Ginger probably knew more.

Emma increased her pace, but unless she ran, she would not catch Ted before he reached the stables. She couldn’t think of a reason why she’d need to be running, so she simply watched him stroll through the morning light.

One of his dogs suddenly sprinted away, and Ted’s step faltered until he’d stopped. He watched the dog, and Emma tracked him too. He’d seen Ursula, who was coming down the road alongside the ATV that Nick drove. He must’ve been out in the fields that morning, checking their irrigation system. Emma knew it had been having problems, because Nick wanted money to fix it.

Emma had directed him to Hannah, because again, she did the global ranch finances, and only she would know if they had money for a global thing like that.

Ursula barked, and she trotted toward Ted and his troop of dogs with the one who’d gone to greet her. Ted’s deep voice said something as he crouched down to love on Ursula, and Emma actually felt a rush of jealousy. For a dog.

But Ted had his hands on her, and he spoke to the dog in a kind, loving tone. Emma came up behind him, and he turned to look at her. “Good morning,” she said. “I see you’ve found your pack.”

He grinned at her and said, “Morning.” He looked back at Ursula. “She’s a real pretty dog. German shepherd. What’s her name?”

“How do you know she has one?”

“She doesn’t live outside with the other dogs,” he said. “My guess is she belongs to Ginger, which means she has a name.” He looked up at Emma expectantly, and with his dark eyes so open and so eager to know, Emma found him boyishly charming.

“Ursula,” she said. “What did you name your other dogs?”

“One is Simon,” he said. “Randy, Paula, and Ryan.”

Emma looked at him while she absorbed the names. She giggled and shook her head. “I see where you’re going with this. Let me guess…you only got to watch American Idol in prison.”

Ted chuckled and shook his head, finally abandoning his administrations to Ursula so he could stand. “No, but my mother loved the show. I’d call her every week, and she’d spend at least half of our time updating me on the show, the contestants, and most of all—the judges.” He looked off into the distance, a happy glint in his eyes. “My mother sure did love the original judges. Simon was her favorite.”

“Ah, so that’s why you arrived at Simon yesterday.”

“Yeah.” Ted started walking again, and Emma fell into step beside him. “You going to the stables to feed your babies?”

“Yes, sir,” she said. “How did you like your morning yesterday? Get along all right with Jess and the other horses?”

Ted tipped his head back and laughed. The sound poured out of him and added to the beauty of the morning sky. Emma just kept her eyes on the ground, though a new measure of warmth filled her from top to bottom in less than a second.

“She’s kind of protective of those horses, isn’t she?” Ted asked.

“Jess is great,” Emma said. “But yes, she loves those horses as if they were her own flesh and blood.”

“I liked it,” Ted said. “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I don’t think I messed up too badly. No equines died.” He chuckled again and glanced at her.

Emma met his eye, and something strange and powerful and wonderful tethered them together. She knew what it was—attraction and desire, the finding of a kindred spirit—but she hadn’t felt it for a long, long time.

“How do you like the ranch?” she asked.

“The ranch is great,” he said.

“What do you like most about it?”

“Like most?” Ted seemed to really think about her question. “Well, I have my own bedroom. That’s a nice change. I can shower for as long as I want.” He reached up and ran his hand down the side of his face. “I can leave the house whenever I want, and there’s no razor wire here, and I can grow a beard.”

“It looks good,” Emma said, realizing too late what she’d given away. But her mind was still hung up on not being able to leave a house when she wanted to. What a simple freedom she didn’t want to take for granted.

But Ted just asked, “You think so? It’s been so long since I’ve been able to let it grow, that I’m not really sure how to deal with it.” He scratched his face. “It itches.”

“You’ve got to put this beard oil on it,” she said. “Spencer knows all about that. You should ask him.”

“Beard oil,” Ted said as if he had no idea such a thing existed. “All right. Thanks. I will.” They reached the stables, and Ted reached to open the door. He paused though and looked at her. “You really think it looks good?”

“Yeah,” she said, and before she knew it, she’d reached up and ran her hand down the side of his face, his whiskers soft yet bristly at the same time. She pulled in a breath when she realized what she’d done, and her eyes flew to his.

Desire and shock sat in his expression, which was about what flowed through her bloodstream.

“I think it looks great,” she said, the words scratching in her throat as her hand finally fell away from his face. She could still feel the heat from his skin, and it moved through her, warming her even more.

“Thanks,” Ted said, his vocal cords suddenly infected with the same huskiness. “I think you look great too.” With that, he pulled open the door and nodded for her to go ahead of him. She did, the tension and awkwardness between them intensifying until he said, “My meeting is this way. I’ll see you later, Emma,” in a normal voice.

“See you,” she said, also as normally as possible. And since she was very good at stuffing things away and pretending everything was okay, her voice was normal too.

As she mixed up the formula for Patches, she couldn’t help smiling to herself. Just as quickly though, she remembered why she hadn’t dated since coming to Hope Eternal Ranch.

She wasn’t going to start a relationship with Ted. She could think he was good-looking, with a sexy beard, and just walk back and forth from the house to the stables with him. They could be friends.

After all, she was friends with Ginger, and she hadn’t told her everything. Friends was a category Emma was very good at. She knew which boxes people went into, and she knew which information to share with them.

“Yes,” she whispered to herself. “Just friends.”





Chapter Seven





Ted hadn’t worked this hard for years, and he didn’t entirely hate it. His muscles weren’t sure what to make of lifting the hay bales, and his legs hadn’t quite been walking around as much as he had the last couple of days—and yesterday, he’d only worked until lunchtime.

Today, he’d gone back to the Annex with Nate, and he’d enjoyed a ham and turkey sandwich with him and his son. They’d talked and laughed, and Spencer, Bill, and Nick had come in about halfway through.

Ted liked the vibe at the ranch, and he really liked the guys who lived in the Annex. They all seemed to know who they were and what they were doing, which for him, allowed him to give some thought to who he wanted to be and what he wanted to be doing.

He liked working with the horses, though he still had plenty to learn. Jess had told him today that the horses really liked him because he had “great calm energy.” Ted wasn’t sure what that meant, because out of him and Nate, Ted was definitely more high-strung. Ted could get fired up with a couple of wrong words, and he had more—and stronger—opinions than Nate. He’d been told by his best friend to “take it down a notch” and to not let his anger dictate what came out of his mouth.

When the horseback riding lessons began, Ted had a couple of hours off, and he wandered past the equipment shed and toward the river that bordered the ranch. He’d learned the Mission River ran along three sides of Hope Eternal Ranch, and he’d watched Nate take a group of tourists down the dirt road that led out to the swampier areas of the ranch. Apparently, they’d be bird-watching for the next three days.

The ranch hosted fishing too, as well as hunting. Daily classes on beehives and honey sales. Horseback riding lessons. Farming and hay sales. They even had a half-dozen cabins where people stayed overnight for a true “wilds of Texas” experience.

How Ginger managed it all, Ted wasn’t sure. Jess had emphasized over and over that the ranch relied on its horses for the largest percentage of its income, and it was her job to make sure they were properly cared for.

Ted had learned how to saddle a horse, how to check their hooves and shoes, and how to lead one where he wanted it to go. He had not ridden a horse in years. He had grown up in Texas, so he’d definitely been in a saddle before, but it had probably been twenty-five years at least.

He hadn’t dared mention that to Jess, because he was sure she’d simply stare at him with her mouth hanging down. Then she’d put him in the beginner class with all the children, and Ted would experience a deep sense of humiliation just by being the tallest.

The sun baked the ground he walked on, and once he reached the trees, the shade provided some relief. The river bubbled, and Ted figured it would probably dry up about mid-summer.

He approached a fence and leaned against it, sighing. He took off his cowboy hat and wiped the sweat from his forehead. He would like to learn to ride a horse, and he wondered if he could ask Emma to teach him.

He wasn’t sure what had transpired between them that morning, but he sure had liked the touch of her fingers along his face. He hadn’t experienced the soft, gentle touch of a woman in a long, long time, and his nerves raced through him though he wasn’t anywhere near Emma.

His biggest problem was that he had no idea how to talk to a woman. When or if he should hold her hand. And kissing a woman…he swallowed just thinking about it. He couldn’t believe he was even thinking about it at all.

Emma had some serious walls up, and Ted suspected he’d have to kick them down. He wasn’t sure he had the energy, and he certainly didn’t want to do anything that would put his release in jeopardy.

He’d seen what had happened to Nate, and Ted would not go back to River Bay. He reminded himself that he had no ghosts from his past haunting him. He had no loose ends to tie up. He had nobody who wanted anything from him, and his whole future wide open.

“Three and a half months,” he told himself. He would work with the horses and do exactly what Ginger told him, and what Jess said, for three and a half months. Nothing else. Nothing more.

Nothing with Emma.

A sigh escaped his mouth, and he looked over the fence. About thirty yards away, a dirt road ran parallel to the river, and Ted imagined himself on it, behind the wheel of a brand-new truck. He didn’t have the money for that truck, and he couldn’t actually take another step and go beyond this fence.

But one day, in three and a half months, he could.

His spirits lifted, and a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. “Thank you,” he whispered, glad for maybe the first time that his mother had insisted all of her children attend church. Prison had a way of bringing a man closer to God too, and Ted had relied on elements of his faith every day of his time in River Bay.

He took a deep breath of the fresh air, and he realized he was all alone. No one knew where he was, and he didn’t have to report back to anyone, at least not for a while.

He was just about to turn around and go find something to drink when a blue truck edged into his vision. If Ted walked left along the fence, he’d reach the lane that led to the homestead, and this truck was headed the same way.

Where had it come from? What was down the road to the right? To Ted’s knowledge, the ranch and all its fields and wetlands, bird blinds and cabins, beehives and butterflies.

He looked that way, but there was no other traffic.

The truck continued down the lane, but it wasn’t moving very fast.

He was driving a blue truck with a grasshopper on the side. Emma’s words echoed in his mind.

A blue truck. Had it had a grasshopper on the side? He hadn’t even noticed.

Ted sprang into motion and walked along the fence, intending to catch up to the truck and find out who was driving it. He couldn’t hear the engine as the truck practically crawled along now, and Ted tried to get a good look at the license plate. He did, and he quickly pulled his phone from his back pocket and typed in the license numbers and letters.

SJL 9942.

A single man drove the truck, and he didn’t have any windows down. Ted couldn’t hear any music coming from the truck. He wanted to call Emma and have her meet him on the bridge—as far as he could go. But he didn’t have her number.

The blue truck also didn’t bear a grasshopper. Ted’s step faltered, but his pulse did not. Thinking quickly, he bent down and acted like he was checking something along the fence. He had no idea what that would even be, but he figured the guy in the truck wouldn’t either.

He moved to the next pole and bent again, this time sneaking a peek toward the truck. The driver’s door had been opened, and Ted quickly straightened again, his senses on high alert. He’d seen fights coming in prison, and he’d learned to be ready.

The man walked toward him, not too fast, and not too slow. Ted backed up a step and dusted off his hands. “Hey there,” he said. “Do you need some help?” His voice sounded slightly off, but this stranger wouldn’t know. Ted didn’t smile, and he made sure he was out of arm’s reach as the stranger continued to approach.

“Do you work on the ranch?” he asked.

Obviously, Ted thought, but he just said, “Yep.”

“Do you know if they’re hiring?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said.

“Who would I talk to?”

Ted hesitated, because he didn’t want to give out names. Though, perhaps this man just wanted a job. If he went to the house and spoke to Ginger, maybe she could learn his name. Plenty of people owned and drove blue trucks, and this one didn’t have a grasshopper.

“Were you just driving around looking for someone to talk to?” Ted asked instead of answering his question.

The man shrugged and looked away. Ted tried to memorize his face, from the long, sloped nose, the medium-brown hair, the regular brown eyes. There was nothing memorable about him, other than he wore a jacket in this weather. Normal jeans. Regular tennis shoes. The jacket was blue and white and zipped all the way up. Ted started to choke just looking at the guy.

“What’s your name?” he tried. “I can give it to the ranch owner. She’ll call you if she needs another man.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “I was just hoping something would fall into my lap.” He glanced at Ted and gave a small smile. He waved and turned to go back to his truck. Ted watched him go, and the moment he got behind the wheel and closed the door, Ted turned and started back to the ranch.

He’d find Emma in the West Wing, and he needed to talk to her as soon as possible. It took longer than he’d like to get back there, and he was sure the blue truck would be gone, but he had the license plate. He could describe him to Emma and see if it was the same person.

He was panting and sweating when he made it to the steps that led into the house. He burst through the door and called, “Emma?”

His boots clunked against the floor as he hurried down the hall and into the kitchen. “Emma?” Her office had to be somewhere nearby. Right? But he didn’t know where, and he didn’t want to start poking around the West Wing. In fact, he shouldn’t be here at all. Ginger had told him the men didn’t come over here uninvited.

His heartbeat rippled, and he turned toward the hall where he knew the bathroom was. “Emma?”

“Yes,” she said to his left “I’m right here.” She appeared in a doorway, a gray and white cat at her feet. She bent and picked it up. “What are you doing here?”

“I saw the guy in the blue truck,” Ted said, striding toward her. “I got the license plate. Let’s look him up.” He grinned at her as he approached.

She looked at him with shock in her eyes. “Wait. What?” She fell back into the doorway as he pressed past her.

“You have a computer, right?” He entered the office before she could answer. Sure enough, she had a computer on the large desk in front of the window. “Yes, you sure do.” He tossed her another grin as he continued into her office.

He took a seat in front of her computer, well-aware of what he’d just done. He slowed down a little bit and looked back to where she still stood in the doorway, that cat in her arms.

“Can I use this?” he asked.

“What are you going to do?”

“Look up the license plate number,” he said.

“How do you do that?” She finally took a few steps into the office, but she sure didn’t seem to want to. She used the feline as a shield between them, but the cat meowed, and she put him down. He came toward Ted as if they’d be best friends.

“What’s his name?”

“Frisco,” she said, rubbing her hands up and down her arms. The air conditioning sure did work well in the West Wing, and Ted envied her. She wasn’t wearing shoes either, and he liked her hair in a high ponytail and the vulnerability in her face. She still had makeup on, and Ted was starting to realize she wore it every day, even if she didn’t leave the West Wing.

The cat rubbed against Ted’s ankles, and he didn’t hate it.

“You have a way with critters,” Emma said, giving him a smile. She didn’t come any closer though, and Ted suddenly felt her nerves.

“Yeah.” Ted looked at the computer screen. “I won’t close any of this. I just need the Internet.”

“How do you look up a license plate?” she asked.

“In another life,” Ted said. “I was a lawyer.” He glanced at her. “And we learn all kinds of tricks to get information.” He didn’t want to get too deep into what he’d done as a lawyer, because he wasn’t sure if he’d be able to keep his questions to himself.

He clicked and started typing. “There are a lot of things that are public,” he said. “If you know where to look.”

“What kind of lawyer were you?” Emma asked.

Ted heard the trepidation in her voice, and he forced himself not to look at her. Instead, he kept his focus on the computer screen as the State of Texas website came up. “I worked as an assistant prosecutor,” he said. “In the Southern District Federal Court System.”

“Wow,” she said. “That sounds so fancy.”

Ted chuckled as he typed in the license plate division. “It was a massive organization,” he said. “We spanned a couple dozen counties, and there were almost two hundred prosecutors in the office.”

“Hmm,” she said, and Ted sensed she had other questions she wanted to ask.

He swiped and tapped to get to the note he’d taken for the license plate, and he typed it into the system.

“Kind of funny how a lawyer ended up in prison,” she said, trying to be oh-so-nonchalant.

“Oh, you want to know why I went to prison.” Ted leaned away from the computer, because the information was right there on the screen. He didn’t have the same skills with names as he did faces, but it wasn’t going anywhere.

He looked at her, his eyebrows raised.

“I could just look in your file,” she said. “But I thought I’d ask right from the horse’s mouth.”

Ted nodded. “I don’t mind telling you, but I have something I want to ask you too.” He couldn’t have planned his opportunity to find out about her connection to Robert Knight better than this.

“All right,” she said.

“For real?” Ted asked. “I’m not going to tell you, and then you won’t like my question, so you won’t answer?”

“Maybe you better tell me the question first.” Emma reached up as if she’d tuck her hair, but it was all up in that ponytail.

Ted kept his gaze on hers, hoping and praying that she wouldn’t stalk away from him once he revealed the question. “I have seen you before,” he said slowly, trying to find the right words. “And I know where now.”

Her eyes rounded and widened and stayed that way. She clenched her arms across her middle, and Ted paused for a moment.

“You were in one of my case files when I was a lawyer,” he said. “You were a known associate of a man named Robert Knight, and I want to know what that association was, and if you’re in any trouble now because of it.”

Emma’s eyes filled with tears, and Ted got at least one of his questions answered with that. She was in trouble now, and it most likely had something to do with Robert Knight.

“I can—” he started, but she spun on her heel and beelined for the door.

“Help you,” Ted said to himself and the empty office. Sighing, he returned his attention to the computer screen and copied down the name tied to that license plate. After all, he didn’t have access to a computer in the Annex, and he wasn’t giving up on solving this mystery, even if he couldn’t get the information straight from Emma.

He stood up, sighing, and he’d taken two steps toward the doorway when Emma filled it again.





Chapter Eight





Emma had just needed a moment. A moment to wonder how, out of the millions of people in Texas, she’d come face to face with the one who’d seen her face in a case file. She wondered what that photo looked like, and she guessed not great.

She certainly wouldn’t have the perfectly pointed and slanted wings of her eyeliner. Her hair had probably been the mousy brown variety, not the nearly black hair she had now. Emma hadn’t gone to great lengths to change her appearance, but she wasn’t the same woman she’d been a decade ago.

“I can answer your question,” she said, though her stomach rioted against her. He hadn’t asked about Missy, and she wouldn’t have to go that far to tell him that yes, she’d once been Robert Knight’s girlfriend.

She’d never heard the words “known associate.” It sounded so lawyerly, and she was keenly interested to know how a prosecutor had pivoted completely to become a prisoner. Ted suddenly possessed more power, because now Emma knew he was smart. Smart enough to go to law school, and smart enough to work in a huge office with other prosecutors.

“Okay,” Ted said. “I went to a low-security facility with camp capability for aggravated assault of a police officer.”

Emma absorbed what he’d said. “You beat up a police officer…and went to a jail…camp?”

Ted burst out laughing, but he had to know she didn’t understand anything he’d just said.

“I was at an office party,” he said, perching on the edge of her desk. With the warm afternoon light coming in behind him, he was absolute perfection, right in front of her. “It was Wells Brown’s birthday. Kellie had brought in a cake. I was cutting the cake when some clients came in, shouting and causing a big thing.”

Ted looked straight at her while he spoke. “Apparently, our office had been under scrutiny for some prosecutorial misconduct, and they wanted to see how we’d react when confronted with difficult clients. One of them rushed at us, and Kellie got knocked down. I sort of lost my temper, and I pushed the guy back.”

Emma decided right then and there she didn’t like this story. She wanted to tell him she didn’t need to know, but she didn’t know how to ask him to stop now.

“Well, I had the knife in my hand, and he was a cop, and things got way out of hand from there.”

Emma took a breath, her pulse racing. “Did you use the knife?”

“No,” he said. “But it was in my possession. I may or may not have issued some threats, and the guy was an undercover cop.”

“Did you issue threats?”

“I don’t remember it,” Ted said. “But a couple of people gave testimony that I did.” Ted lifted his hand and ran it up the back of his head. “So I probably did. I can have a temper sometimes.” He resettled his hat on his head, which he’d lowered now so she couldn’t see his eyes. “And since they were already investigating our office for misconduct, it was easy to put it all on me.”

“All of it?”

Ted didn’t need to confirm. The flashing glint in his eyes said it all. “I got a six-year sentence, which probably would’ve only been twelve to fifteen months if the office hadn’t already been under investigation, and if that ‘client’ hadn’t been an undercover cop.” He shrugged, but Emma knew there was a huge difference between one year and six.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“A low-security facility with camp capability is the lowest form of security for prisons in the Bureau,” he said. “The men at the camp actually leave the facility and stuff. I stayed in the low-sec, because that’s where my friends were, and there were more opportunities for classes and recreation. The camp is really crowded.”

“You said something about having your own room,” she said. “Did you not have your own cell there?”

Ted shook his head and smiled. “No cells in a low-security facility,” he said. “We live in dormitories. Sixteen men in each unit.”

“You slept in a room with fifteen other men.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Emma wanted to know a lot more, but she told herself to stop. There was plenty of time to get to know Ted better.

No, she told herself. There’s plenty more time to get more information from Ted.

“That’s it?” Ted asked. “You’re stopping there?”

“Do you want some ice cream?” Emma hooked her thumb over her shoulder, and she turned and started for the door again. “I do, and Lord knows I need it to tell my part of the story.” She went into the kitchen, and Ted followed her. He sat at the bar while she busied herself with pulling open the freezer and taking out a couple of boxes of ice cream bars.

“These are double chocolate, and these are almond,” she said, extending them both toward him.

“Almond,” he said, reaching for one of those. She selected the same and put the rest away. She turned toward him, and he’d already unwrapped his treat.

“You know,” he said. “I could really get used to coming here in the afternoon and enjoying air conditioning and ice cream.”

“If you buy your own ice cream bars,” she said. “You can enjoy your own air conditioning and ice cream next door.” She gave him a pointed look, to which he laughed. Emma liked that he was carefree and casual, and she wondered if she’d experienced the same happiness that spilled from Ted at all in the past decade.

She pretended. She put on the happy face. She painted on her pretty makeup and her smile. But she wasn’t sure she was truly happy. Not the same way Ted seemed to be.

“Yeah, but it’s better here,” Ted said, smiling at her.

She unwrapped her ice cream bar and kept her eyes on it. “I was Robert Knight’s girlfriend a while back.”

“How far back?”

“Oh, let’s see,” she said as if she didn’t know exactly when she’d met him and they’d started dating. “Eleven or twelve years ago.”

Ted nodded. “Where’d you meet him?”

She swallowed, because she didn’t want to say that. “I’ve never talked to a lawyer. I feel like I need a lawyer.”

Ted shook his head and took another bite of his ice cream bar. “I’m not a lawyer anymore, Emma.”

“No?”

“No, ma’am. I got disbarred when I got convicted.” He glanced at her, and her heart positively hurt for him. A flash of pain crossed his face, but it didn’t stay long. “It was a good run, and I’m okay.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.” He finished his ice cream bar. “That’s it? You were Robert Knight’s girlfriend?”

“Yes,” she said.

“How long?”

“Five or six months?” she said, making it sound like a question. It had actually been eight months, as they’d dated for almost the entire school year.

“Did you know he was in a crime family?”

“Not at first,” she said. “But yes, I eventually realized how he made his money.”

“And how was he doing that when you were with him?”

“It was my understanding that he was doing something fraudulent with real estate.”

“Really?” Ted looked at him. “It wasn’t drugs?”

“His brother ran that, I think,” Emma said, her mind spiraling into a dark corner that she didn’t let herself visit very often.

“Larry?”

“Yeah,” Emma said. “Larry. I only met him once, and he was…creepy.” She shuddered and took a bite of her ice cream.

“I’ll bet,” Ted said.

“What were you guys investigating them for?”

“Everything you can think of,” Ted said. “No one ever talked to you?”

“No, sir.”

“Oh, do not ‘sir’ me,” Ted said, chuckling. “I’m not your father.”

Emma giggled, the cold ice cream settling easily in her stomach. “How old are you?”

“Thirty-nine, ma’am.”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“I wasn’t going to ask,” he said. “I have some manners.”

Emma nudged him with her shoulder. “You have plenty of manners.” She licked her stick clean and tucked it into the wrapper.

“Thank you, Emma.” Ted reached over and took her hand in his, real slow, as if giving her an opportunity to pull away. She didn’t, and her fingers settled easily between his as if their hands had been made to connect.

“I like it when you say my name like that,” she said, surprised at everything happening right now.

His phone rang, but he held her gaze for an extra moment before pulling it out with his free hand. He set it on the counter in front of him and said, “It’s my mom.” He tapped the call on and touched the speaker button. “Hey, Ma.”

“Teddy,” she said, and Emma’s fingers automatically tightened. Ted met her gaze, and fireworks popped through her bloodstream.

Teddy? she mouthed, her eyebrows going up.

He grinned and shook his head as his mother started talking about when she could come visit. His sister was going to drive, and his brother was going to come with his father another time. Emma deduced that Ted’s parents were divorced, and she was glad when she heard them say they’d be there on Saturday.

She’d be gone Saturday, and if he was preoccupied, she wouldn’t have to explain anything to him.

“All right, Ma,” he said. “See you then. Love you.” He tapped the phone button, and the call ended. He glanced at Emma.

Before he could say anything, she asked, “Can I call you Teddy?”

“Absolutely not,” he said, a mischievous glint in his eyes.

“No?” She giggled again, a thread a happiness pulling through her. True happiness. She’d almost forgotten what it felt like.

“No,” he said. “Two people on this planet call me Teddy, and I don’t want you to be one of them.”

“Who besides your mom?”

“Nate,” Ted said.

“You’re kidding.”

“We bonded in prison,” Ted said with a shrug. “He’s my brother now.”

Emma liked the idea of that, and she realized in that moment how many holes she had in her life. She didn’t have anyone like a Nate in her life. Even Ginger, though Emma pretended like they were close, she’d held at arm’s length. She knew Ginger really well, and she loved her like a sister.

But she wasn’t a sister, not the way Ted had just come out and said, He’s my brother now.

“So just Ted,” she said, needing this moment to stay light, because she didn’t want to think about such hard things.

“Did you want to see who the license plate belongs to?” he asked.

Anxiety tripped through Emma, and so much for not thinking about hard things. What if she knew the name? What if it was Robert? What if they’d found her?

“I guess,” she said.

Ted looked at her with something in his eye she didn’t like. He definitely looked like a lawyer, and Emma focused back on her wrapper.

“It’s a guy named William Leavitt,” he said, the words low and slow coming out of his mouth.

Emma pinched everything tight and held it, though she continued to fiddle with the crinkly plastic her ice cream bar had come in.

“Do you know that name?”

Emma really didn’t want to lie, but her voice had disappeared behind a giant, flaming ball of anxiety.

“I think you do,” Ted said. “And I think you’re terrified. In fact, I can feel it. You don’t have to tell me, but I really can help you.”

She looked at him then, feeling her eyes and how wide and round they were. Ted looked at her steadily, not a trace of judgement or scrutiny in his expression. Maybe she could trust him….

You don’t have to tell him about Missy, she told herself.

She cleared her throat, and it physically hurt. “Will was one of Rob’s guys.”

“Yeah, I figured,” Ted said, looking back at his phone. “Well, he’s looking for you, is my guess.”

“Why would he do that?” Emma asked, though she knew why. She knew exactly why.

“Do you have anything that belongs to Rob?” Ted asked. “A car, owe him some money? Heck, even his old sweatshirt. Maybe he wants it back.”

Emma couldn’t even shake her head. “I don’t have his sweatshirt,” she said. “Or his car.”

She’d had his child though. How would he even know? How could he have possibly found out?

Emma couldn’t swallow, and when she blinked and looked away from Ted, absolute terror tore through her. She wanted to say excuse me and fly from the house, but she didn’t get the words out before she leapt from the barstool, grabbed her car keys, and fled the West Wing.





Sometime later, Emma didn’t know how long, she pulled to the side of the road. Her vision had cleared enough that she could see she’d driven north. Her heart hadn’t stopped sprinting in her chest, and she’d ignored three calls from Ginger. One from an unknown number, but the message Ted had left had identified it as his.

He’d said he’d had to tell Ginger, and he was sorry, but he was worried about her.

Emma was worried about herself. She had no recollection of getting to where she was, but she recognized this stretch of road as the one leading to San Antonio. Of course she’d come this way. At the same time, her mind had slowed enough for her to realize that perhaps William would be following her.

She couldn’t go to Fran and Matt’s. She couldn’t go make sure Missy was okay. Her daughter had a cell phone, and so did Fran and Matt. They had safe words set up. Emma had left no stone unturned, and she forced herself to calm down again.

Her phone rang, and she looked numbly at the screen. Ginger.

Emma couldn’t ignore her best friend and boss. Ginger would be so worried, and Emma didn’t want to be the cause of that. She wondered what Ted had told her, and Emma supposed there was only one way to find out.

“Hey,” she answered.

“Emma, praise the Lord,” Ginger said. “She answered.”

“Who’s with you?” Emma asked.

“All the girls,” Ginger said. “We’ve been pooling our intelligence to figure out where you would go, but you weren’t at the ice cream shop, and you left no clues on your desk, and we’re all really worried.”

Emma exhaled and leaned her head back against the rest behind her. She needed someone and something to hold her up.

Ginger’s there, she thought. Jess and Michelle and Hannah and Jill.

Ted’s face flashed through her mind too, and she had no idea why. He’d been in her life for two or three days.

But he’d looked at her with kindness, and he’d seen her years ago when no one else had. When Emma had been hiding from everyone, her picture had been in a folder, and he’d seen it. He’d seen it and remembered her, all of these years later.

“Emma?” Ginger asked.

“What did Ted tell you?” she asked.

“He told me about a blue truck,” Ginger said. “And some guy who’s been hanging around the homestead, and that you guys looked up who the truck belonged to.”

Emma nodded, but she didn’t volunteer anything.

“He said he thought you probably knew the guy, and that you’re afraid of him,” Ginger said. “And we want to help you.” A beep came over the line, and Ginger’s voice was less echoy when she said, “It’s just me, Em. No one else is listening, and I just want you to know that no matter what it is, we’re here for you.”

“I know that,” Emma said, her tears welling up again. She had not let them fall in all the time she’d been driving.

“Ted is ultra-concerned about you. He said he can’t help it, and Nate explained that he was a lawyer, and very used to working with victims, being their advocate, and getting justice for them.”

Emma nodded, though Ginger couldn’t see her. She had the very real feeling that Ted wouldn’t fight for her if he knew what she’d done.

In this case, she’d stolen something from Robert Knight. He was the victim, not her.

“I need a couple of days,” Emma finally said, her voice high-pitched and filled with emotion. “I’m sorry, Ginger. I know you’re already behind on so many things. Could you take care of my foals for me? Just for a couple of days.” She was supposed to be off this weekend anyway, and maybe she could take the next five days and find her center.

Recommit to what she needed to do.

Something.

“Ted said he’d do it,” Ginger said. “It’s no problem. Please stay in touch, though. I’m really worried about you.”

“I know,” Emma said. “Love you, Ginger.”

“I love you, Emma.”

“We love you,” everyone chorused, and Emma hung up and finally let her tears fall





Chapter Nine





Ted held the bottle for Second Best, his thoughts as far from baby horses as they could be. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about Emma, and when Ginger had texted him to say that she’d spoken to Emma and she was okay for now, Ted’s relief had been instant and hot.

It had cooled quickly, because he knew Emma was not okay. He’d worked with plenty of people like her in his six years practicing law, and while she was very, very good at hiding how she really felt, when it came out, it gushed from her.

He’d felt her fear, experienced her anxiety as his own, and seen her run away, her flight instinct the only thing driving her.

He wondered where she’d gone, and how long she’d be away from the ranch. Hope Eternal didn’t feel as hopeful or as peaceful without her there, and that made no sense to him. When he’d talked to Nate in private, his best friend had suggested that Ted’s hormones might be a little out of sorts, since he hadn’t really interacted with a beautiful woman in a very long time.

Ted had considered it; conceded it. That could be true. He’d said, “I still know she needs help, Nate. Who better to help her but me?”

He wanted to be helpful and useful. He had to be. Otherwise, what was the point of his life? Why had he experienced what he had? Gone through what he’d endured?

“Please, God,” he whispered, and Second Best finished up his milk. “Good boy, bud,” he said to the horse. He did love the horses, and the babies had a special spirit about them.

He didn’t mind the extra work, especially if it would help someone who desperately needed it. When he finished in the stable, he cleaned up the bottles so he’d leave them the way he found them, and he headed back to the Annex.

Chocolate scented the air as he crossed the deck, and he found Connor and Spencer in the kitchen, spreading frosting over a cake. “Oh, boy,” Ted said, shutting the door quickly to keep the hot evening air out. “What have we got going on here?”

They did not serve cake in prison, and Ted couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten it. Oh, wait, yes he could. That day at his office party. That cake had been disgusting, with that slimy shortening frosting they used at the grocery store.

The light brown frosting Connor had on his knife, his knuckles, and his face looked so much better. “Cake, Uncle Ted,” he said. “I made it with Daddy, but he had to go check on a sprinkler.”

“He did, huh?” Ted grinned at the little boy, who’d climbed right up onto the countertop to frost the cake. He glanced at Spencer. “Problems with the sprinkler?”

“It’s going to be the death of all of us,” Spencer said. “Thus, the cake.” He reached for Connor and picked him up. “Come on, bud. Let’s have a piece of cake and you need to get in the tub so you’re nice and clean when your daddy comes home.”

Just thinking of Nate as a dad made Ted think about his own desire to have a family. He did want a wife and kids; he just hadn’t thought the best years of his life for obtaining them would be spent in prison.

Spencer cut the cake and served them before walking over to the stairs and calling down, “Jack, Bill, there’s cake.”

“Comin’!” one of them called while Ted got forks out of the drawer. He handed one to Connor and helped him onto a barstool—a better place for a boy to eat his cake. The other cowboys came upstairs, and the noise level grew.

They talked about the Marvel movie they were watching, and Ted just listened. He hadn’t seen what they were talking about—and a lot of other stuff. Thankfully, they didn’t ask him what he’d thought of the movie or even if he’d seen it. They probably knew he hadn’t.

After all, he wasn’t the first prisoner they’d hosted at the ranch. He hoped he was the best, but he’d come after Nate, which meant he wouldn’t be the best.

“Come on,” Ted said to Connor the moment he finished his last bite of cake. “Time for a bath.”

“Can I have another piece of cake?” Connor asked.

“After you’re in your pajamas.” Ted lifted the boy into his arms and carried him into the bathroom. He said, “Get undressed. You want bubbles?”

“Yeah, the blueberry ones,” Connor said, fumbling with the button on his shorts. Ted got the water going, making sure not to make it too hot. He poured in some of the blueberry liquid, making a face at the light blue bubbles that immediately started to foam up.

“Thanks, Uncle Teddy,” Connor said, and his voice was so sweet and so angelic that Ted couldn’t help smiling at him. His tiny hand landed on Ted’s thigh as he steadied himself to step over the edge of the tub, and he giggled as he sat down in the bubbles.

“Be sure to wash behind those ears,” Ted said, wondering when he’d turned into his father. He’d spoken to his dad for a couple of minutes last night, and he and Shane were coordinating when they could come see Ted.

Nate would take him to visit them too, but it was hard to get away from the ranch. And taking two men from the ranch for a whole day wouldn’t make Ginger very happy.

“Shoot,” Ted said, his heart leaping into the back of his throat. “Ginger.” He pulled his phone from his back pocket and dialed her.

“Hey, Ted,” she said. “You’re waiting for me in the West Wing, aren’t you?” The wind blew across her receiver, telling Ted she was outside.

“I’m actually sitting in the bathroom with Connor while he takes his bath,” Ted said, though he could’ve let her think she was late. “I just now remembered we were supposed to meet tonight.”

“I’m exhausted,” she said. “Let’s do it in the morning, right after you finish with the foals.”

“All right,” he said, glancing at Connor as he said, “Look, Uncle Ted. I have a bubble beard.”

He nodded and smiled at the child and Ginger said she’d see him then. He hung up and sighed. He wasn’t sure what the point of meeting with her was. Probably to make sure he settled in okay, and that he was following the rules.

Ted had, and he did. The last thing he wanted was to cause any problems for anyone here, or for himself. He’d have to meet with a parole officer eventually, and until then, he had to meet with Ginger. She’d told him they had to meet daily for the first little bit, and Ted didn’t mind. He was used to being told what to do.

He reached up and scratched the hair on his face, as he hadn’t gotten any beard oil yet. He wasn’t even sure how to do that. He did know how to help Connor wash his hair, and dry off, and put on a clean pair of pajamas. He did all of that and tucked the boy into the big bed he shared with Nate, and then sank onto his best friend’s side of the bed.

He started tapping on his phone, which had the Internet, realizing he could buy things online now. No one monitored how much time he spent online or what he did with his money. A simple search for beard oil overwhelmed him though, and he made a mental note to ask Emma about it when she returned to the ranch.

With his thoughts lingering on her again, he did a search with her name. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting to find. A secret website or blog? One didn’t come up. A LinkedIn profile? She didn’t have one.

She had some social media, but Ted did not, as all such things had to be deleted before prison, and he hadn’t set anything up again. He didn’t have a computer, and he didn’t want one.

Emma’s name also came up as a teacher, and he remembered that Ginger had said that afternoon that she’d come to the ranch ten years ago, after quitting her teaching job. And if she had a teaching job, she must’ve earned a degree in education.

Ted added a couple of words to his search, did some quick math on when she might have graduated given her age, and how long she’d been here…and her name popped up, along with Texas A&M International.

“In Laredo,” he said out loud, the word searing his eyeballs. He’d asked her if she’d lived in Laredo, and she’d said no.

He looked up from his phone, a keen sense of betrayal moving through him. He should’ve expected people to lie to him on the outside, especially a beautiful woman. People on the inside lied too. Everyone lied.

“Heyo,” Nate said as he came through the bedroom door. “How’re my boys?” He wore a smile though it was far too late for him to be working.

“Dad,” Connor said, bouncing to his knees. Nate laughed as he picked up his son, and he started asking him questions about that day, the cake, and his bath.

Ted groaned as he got to his feet. “I’m exhausted. I’m not used to working so hard.”

“You’ll get there,” Nate said, grinning at him too. “Thanks for helping with Connor.”

“Yeah, of course.” Ted gave his friend a grin, clapped him on the shoulder, and went through the bathroom and into his own bedroom. He closed the door to the hall and the bathroom, sealing himself in the room with the huge bed he barely knew how to sleep in. He took off his boots and lined them up in the closet. He put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. He’d learned to be neat, neat, neat in prison, and he actually liked the organization and orderliness in his life.

He lay down, trying to sort through his feelings for Emma, his own desires to finish his sentence and start his life somewhere, and a brand-new idea that maybe he’d just stay at the ranch and be a cowboy.





The following evening, Ted sat on the tiny stool where he’d seen Emma sitting when she bottle-fed the foals. Patches was sucking hard tonight, and Ted had to really hold onto the bottle while the over-eager colt tried to get every last drop. “Slow down, bud,” he said to him, glancing to Ruby on the left. She watched the feeding with interest, and Ted smiled at her. “You’re next. Don’t worry.”

He did like these horses, and it was easy to see why Emma did too. He fed Ruby and washed out the bottles, his life already falling into a rhythm and routine he could see himself becoming bored with quickly.

That was one thing he’d loved about working in a law office. The unpredictability of every day. How he never really knew what the day would bring. Just like he hadn’t known he’d have to confront a man during an office party, or that that guy would be an undercover cop bent on making sure the lawyers he should’ve been working with got punished.

When he thought of the circumstances that had brought him to Hope Eternal Ranch always surprised Ted. The memories came at seemingly random times, and his reaction to them was never the same.

Right now, he only felt weighed down by his own reality. He set the last bottle to dry and reached up to scratch his beard again. “That’s it,” he muttered. “I’m gonna have to shave this off.”

“Oh, don’t do that,” a woman said, and he sucked in a breath as he spun toward Emma.

Relief and shock moved through him, a pair of odd bedfellows, and he didn’t have time to think. He only acted. “Emma.” He took her into his arms and took a deep breath of her feminine smell.

Flowers and sugar, with maybe a hint of pine and vanilla. He knew his hormones had kicked into overdrive then, but he didn’t care. She giggled, the vibrations of her laugh moving from her chest to his. “Hey, Ted.”

“You’re okay,” he said, stepping back. “And you’re back. I thought you weren’t coming back for a few days.”

“I had nowhere to go,” she said, tucking her hands into the back pockets of her shorts. She shrugged and looked toward her baby horses. “Thank you for taking care of them.”

“Anytime,” he said easily. And he meant it. He had a weird feeling that he’d do anything for her, anytime, and he didn’t know what that meant.

As if he’d forgotten, he reminded himself that she’d lied to him, and he shouldn’t get too attached to her.

“I got you some beard oil,” she said, extending a small vial toward him.

He just looked at it. “You’re kidding.”

“I found myself in the city,” she said, and Ted noted that she didn’t specify which one. “And I was at this bath and body shop, and I saw it. I thought of you, and I picked it up.” She shook it slightly. “Take it.”

He did, trying to figure out what exactly was at war inside him, and which emotion would win. “Thank you,” he said, ducking his head to study the vial. It had a bunch of essential oils blended together, and he removed the cap to smell it. “Oh, I like that.”

“It’s pine and eucalyptus,” she said. “I love eucalyptus. I have this spray I use in the shower. Mm.” She smiled at him, and Ted couldn’t help returning it.

“Thank you,” he said again, wanting to say so much more. But he also just wanted to enjoy this moment with Emma, when she’d done something kind for him. She’d thought of him while she was shopping.

He reached out with the hand not holding the beard oil and took hers. She let him too, and Ted decided he could ask her about Laredo later. He could ask her about everything later.





Chapter Ten





Emma had spoken true when she’d told Ted that she had nowhere to go. She’d called Fran while sitting in her car on the side of the freeway. Missy had been at school. There hadn’t been any problems. No one hanging around the house. No mysterious phone calls. Nothing unusual at all.

They’d decided to take a trip to see her parents anyway, just to get out of Texas for a few days. Emma had apologized at least a dozen times, and Fran kept telling her it wasn’t necessary. They’d known what they were getting into a decade ago.

Emma had not gone to their house. She had not seen her daughter. She’d texted as usual to make plans for this weekend, and Missy had responded with the news that she was on an airplane bound for Florida.

Fun! Emma had texted. And then she’d had nowhere to go. Since she didn’t have a lot of money, she’d decided to simply go back to the ranch. She’d have to face this music sooner or later, and she decided that if she could hold Ted’s hand while she did, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

They strolled in the dusky twilight, hand in hand, away from the homestead when they should be returning to it. He said nothing, and Emma knew he was waiting for her to explain. She didn’t know how. She’d spent so long keeping everything to herself. That was her natural inclination now, and she wondered if he’d let her stay silent.

At the same time, Emma didn’t want him to let her. Things had changed within her, and she’d almost decided that all of this was happening for a reason.

“Sorry I ran out on you yesterday,” she said.

“I’ve been worried about you.”

“I know,” Emma said. Ginger had grabbed onto her an hour ago and hugged her tightly for a very long time. The other women in the West Wing had too, and Emma had never felt so loved. “I’m sorry.”

“You have things you don’t want anyone to know,” he said.

“Yes.”

“I get that.” His boots crunched over the gravel, and Emma looked out over the marshlands that marked this side of the ranch. “I guess the good news is I got your phone number.”

Emma looked up at him, sure she’d heard him wrong. He started to chuckle, the sound growing into a full-blown laugh. “Oh, come on,” he said. “That was funny.”

Emma finally cracked a smile. “You wanted my phone number?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Why?”

He looked at her, something hooded in his eyes. “You want to know why I wanted your phone number?”

Emma shook her head, some of her senses returning. She really needed to get back on top of her game if she was going to keep her secret. The problem was, she wasn’t sure if she was going to do that. She went back and forth every other minute, and right now, everything was up in the air.

“No,” she said. “I know why you wanted it.”

“Yeah, so I could get you alone and hold your hand,” he said with a grin. He squeezed her fingers lightly.

“You want to know the things I don’t want to tell you,” she said.

“Yes,” he said.

“I get that,” she said, reconstructing the conversation they’d just had. “I’m—I don’t know how much I’ll be able to tell you.”

He took a deep breath and exhaled. “One thing I learned from everything that happened to me is this: No matter what, everything comes out in the end.”

Emma’s internal organs trembled, and she adjusted her hand in his. She cleared her throat. “I don’t know how to tell you.”

Ted let more silence go by as he continued to walk. “You will when you’re ready,” he said. “I learned that too. Everything comes out when it’s the right time. When it’s ready.”

She nodded, her throat so tight. “Thank you, Ted.”

He squeezed her hand in response, and said, “I’ve got to get back. These old bones are still trying to adjust to all this work.” He sighed as he reached back with his free hand and pressed against his back. “And here’s a confession for you. I haven’t ridden a horse in many long years. And it lasted six seconds.”

Emma tried to hold back her laugh, but it came out anyway, a sort of pop of her breath. She laughed fully then, and Ted joined her.

“I can teach you to ride,” she said.

“Would you?” he asked. “I think Jess liked me until she saw me on my back in the dirt.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, still giggling. “And I’m sure Jess still likes you.”

“Maybe,” he grumbled. “I’m not a natural cowboy.”

“Sure you are,” Emma said. “I mean, you look the part, and you walk the part, and you definitely have that Texan twang.”

“Looks can be deceiving.” He reached up and put his hand on his cowboy hat. He turned around, and she went with him, and they started back toward the homestead.

“That’s the truth,” Emma murmured, and she enjoyed the leisurely stroll back to the homestead.

Ted released her hand in the garage, tipped his hat, and said, “See you tomorrow, Emma,” before continuing to the Annex.

She waited until he’d gone inside and closed the door. Then she said, “Yeah, see you tomorrow.”

She had no idea what tomorrow held, and that normally upset her. Made her stomach nervous and her skin crawl. But she had to accept it. She had to face each day with a new kind of bravery and handle one thing at a time.

Inside, she found Ginger sitting at the dining room table, looking at a spread of papers in front of her. She abandoned them the moment she looked up and saw Emma. “There you are.” She crossed the kitchen to her and hugged her again. “Where did you go?”

“To check on my babies,” she said, holding her friend tight.

“How are they?” Ginger fell back and looked at Emma, her dark green eyes never missing much.

“Good,” Emma said, her voice a touch on the high side. “Ted was out there.”

Ginger said nothing, but a frown appeared between her eyebrows.

“I gave him the beard oil and thanked him for taking care of my horses. He…he wants me to…Ginger, I need to tell you something.”

Emma swallowed, her throat sticky and rough at the same time.

“Anything,” Ginger said, glancing toward the hall that led to the bedrooms. When she looked back at Emma, there was no time left.

No way to find the right words. They didn’t exist. Emma could only pray that her best friend wouldn’t feel too betrayed. So she did that and then opened her mouth and said, “I have a daughter.”

Ginger absorbed the words, and Emma couldn’t believe how four words could change so much. “You do?” she asked, but her voice carried no surprise.

“Yes,” Emma said, nodding. “She’s ten—she’ll be eleven by the end of the year—and she lives with a couple in San Antonio. I send almost everything I make to them, and I hid her because her father is a bad man.”

Emma took a deep breath, trying to get everything to settle again. She’d never imagined this day, because she’d never intended to tell anyone about Missy. Ever. Her hands shook, and she couldn’t quite meet Ginger’s eye.

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

Ginger was so strong, and so capable. She ran this ranch with a lot of help, but nothing was done without her knowledge. To Emma, she held the world in her hand, and she couldn’t expect a woman like Ginger to understand her reasoning.

“It’s okay,” Ginger whispered. She gathered Emma into another hug and held her tight. “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this by yourself for so long. You could’ve told me.”

Emma clutched her best friend, as she hadn’t felt this level of true comfort in a long time. In that moment, she missed her mother powerfully, and the bond between her and Ginger became even stronger.

“I wanted to,” Emma said, her voice tinny and childlike. “But I didn’t dare. The guy I was involved with is dangerous. He has a dangerous family, and I was so scared. I couldn’t—wouldn’t—put my baby in any danger.”

Ginger released her, and Emma wiped her eyes and kept her head down. “You think he may have found you.”

“I’m not sure,” Emma said, and that summed up just about everything in her life at the moment. “Ted looked up the license plate, and it was someone who worked for my old boyfriend.”

She employed her bravery and lifted her eyes to Ginger’s. “Do you think badly of me?” She didn’t want Ginger to see her in a different light, but Emma knew she would. That was what secrets did. They shed new light on situations and people.

“Of course not,” Ginger said.

“I wasn’t married,” Emma said. “He was the father of one of my students.”

“It was a long time ago,” Ginger said. “Everyone has things they’ve done that they regret.” She took Emma by the shoulders, her eyes intense and blazing. “You’re a good woman, Emma. You work hard, and you’re kind. You don’t have to carry your mistakes forever.”

Emma nodded, because she wanted to believe that. Deep down, she did. She’d been to church as a little girl and a teenager, and she’d learned that God forgave even the vilest of sinners. She’d tried to do the right thing. She’d operated within a sphere she knew and understood.

“She has a good life,” Emma said. “That’s all I ever wanted for her, and now everything might be compromised, and I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to turn.” Fat tears slid down her face, and she made no move to wipe them away.

“We’ll figure it out,” Ginger said, and it sounded like a promise. “Together, okay?” Ginger reached up and wiped her tears for her, the kindest, most compassionate look in her eyes. “We’ll figure it out together.”

Emma nodded, utterly spent. She’d been so tired for so long. She kept everything laced so tight, and it was extremely hard to carry so much, day in and day out. She needed a reprieve. She needed help. She needed someone to take the burden for just a few minutes.

“Okay,” Ginger said, some of the hardness returning to her face and her voice. “Let’s get you to bed, because you look like you could use a good night’s sleep.”

Emma let Ginger walk with her into her bedroom and stay while she quickly changed into a pair of pajamas. She let Ginger stroke her hair off her forehead as if Ginger were her mother, and she looked up at her the way she’d been admiring her for so long now.

“Anything else I need to know?” Ginger asked.

“Not right now,” Emma said. Her friend got up, switched off the light, and left the bedroom. As the door shut behind her, Emma closed her eyes and thought of Ted Burrows.

Tall, strong, sexy Ted Burrows, with his warm skin and his musky cologne and those deep, caring eyes. Yes, she could keep him and their budding relationship a secret for a little bit longer.

Tomorrow, she’d face whatever she had to, and she whispered, “Please bless me and Missy and Fran and Matt that this will all work out. Please, Lord, I need to keep my daughter safe.”





Chapter Eleven





Ted spent the next few days feeding the foals with Emma in the morning and evening. If there was no one around, they strolled to the stables hand-in-hand, and took an evening walk together too. He sure did like holding her hand, and talking with her, and getting to know her.

She never brought up anything sensitive, and he learned she had two sisters—both married with children—and he told her about his younger brother and older sister.

“Ah the middle child,” she teased him, and Ted nodded.

“That’s right,” he said. “You’re the youngest. I think we both have issues.” They laughed together, and Ted wondered—not for the first time—if he could kiss her before he dropped her off at the West Wing.

She’d taken him down a dirt road lined with trees, and he was pretty sure this was where Nate had kissed Ginger for the first time. His best friend didn’t do a lot of kissing and telling, but Ted had asked a few questions, and Nate had been open and honest with him.

Just be careful with her, Teddy. Nate’s advice was good, and Ted once again pushed on the brakes of their relationship.

“My mother is coming tomorrow,” Ted said into the glorious night sky. He never spoke too loud at night out here. It felt like the sky would amplify the sound and broadcast it to the whole world.

“Oh, that’s right,” Emma said. She looked up at him, and though the darkness had gathered quickly, the weight of her eyes still landed on him. “Are you nervous?”

“Yes,” he admitted.

“Why’s that?”

“My mother hasn’t seen me in a while,” he said. “The trip to River Bay became…difficult for her as she aged, and Britta’s girls got older. Everyone got busier.” And he’d missed it all. In fact, he’d only held his nine-year-old niece a couple of times when she was an infant before getting shipped off to the low-security facility.

Britta had brought their mother to visit, and Ted’s brother, Shane, had come often too. At least in the beginning. Neither of them had ever brought their children, for which Ted was grateful.

“How long?” Emma asked, squeezing his hand.

Ted got the feeling she’d asked once before, but he’d been too deep inside his own mind. “Oh, uh, at least three years. Britta’s come in the last year or so. Shane too. But not Mom.”

“What about your father?”

“He stopped coming before she did.” Ted looked out into the deep purple sky, watching it turn navy in the blink of an eye. That part of the Earth was covered with water, and Ted wanted to walk right up to the edge of it and feel it lap against his ankles. “My dad and I have a rocky relationship,” he admitted. “It wasn’t great before I went to prison, and it actually improved while I was behind bars. But then he stopped coming when he got pneumonia a while back….” Ted shrugged and tipped his head back.

“I can see so many stars here,” he said. “It’s incredible.”

“You’ve said that every night for the past three nights.” Emma giggled and tugged on his hand to get him to keep moving. “Come on, the mosquitoes are eating me alive.”

An extreme measure of gratitude moved through Ted that he was alive enough to be eaten by bugs. A smile slipped through his soul, and as he and Emma increased their stroll to a walk, he asked, “Do you go to church, Miss Emma?”

“Occasionally,” she said.

“Would you take me on Sunday?” he asked. “There was a preacher that would come to River Bay sometimes, and I liked listening to him.”

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll take you.”

“Great.” He released her hand and slung his arm around her shoulders. “Are you going to come out of the office to meet my family?”

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes,” he said simply. “I can’t leave the ranch alone, and Ginger told me today I can’t leave with only them either. I have to be with her or Nate…or you.” He looked down at her, but it was hard to see her features very clearly. “She specifically said I could leave the ranch with my family if you came with me.”

“Hmm,” Emma said.

“Have you been tellin’ her things about us?” Ted asked quietly.

“A little,” Emma said. “Nothing big. You should know that Ginger knows every single thing that happens on this ranch. So she knew I was coming in later than normal from feeding the babies, and she knew I was leaving earlier.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “She knew you were too.” A smile seemed to light her face from within, and Ted basked in the glow of it.

He chuckled too. “Yeah, I got that feeling about her,” he said. “I don’t mind if you tell her, I was just wondering.”

“Are you talking to your brother?” she said. “Because Nate and Ginger are thick as thieves.”

“I should hope so,” Ted said. “Since they’re getting married and all.” Nate hadn’t said much about the wedding, only that it would take place in the late fall, so they had plenty of time to plan it. Ginger seemed to have too much on her plate already, and Nate wasn’t much into bows and frilly things. “And no, I don’t tell him much. He knows too, though.”

“It’s a small place, this ranch,” Emma said. “I’m sure everyone knows.”

“Not your secrets, though.” As soon as Ted spoke, he regretted it. Thinking quickly, he added, “How does one keep secrets around here? You seem to have done it.”

Emma took a couple more steps in silence, and then said, “Well, it’s not easy, that’s for sure. The trick is to put yourself together and pretend you’re okay.”

The lights from the homestead shone out into the night, throwing some rays onto her face. Ted paused and studied her. “Put yourself together?”

“Yeah, you know, I always have my makeup done up right. My hair is super cute, wouldn’t you say? Every day. I get dressed every day, though I barely leave the house and I hardly ever leave the ranch. I’m not getting dolled up for the foals or my computer screen.”

Ted simply looked at her, wishing he could scrub everything off her face, and let her hair down, and unwrap the paper she’d hidden herself in one layer at a time until he could see it all. “So I’ve got to keep my beard neat and trim, cut my hair, brush my teeth, and get dressed every day.”

“The pretending is important too,” she said, looking somewhere over his shoulder. “You smile when you don’t feel like it. You laugh even if you’re not having a good time. Eventually…eventually, you’re smiling because you do feel like it, and you’re laughing and genuinely having a good time.”

He put his fingers gently on the side of her face and made her look at him. “Is that true? You pretend you’re happy until you actually are?’

“It’s worked for me,” she said.

Ted wondered if it really had, or if Emma had somehow convinced herself that it had.

“How did you make it through prison?” She reached up and slid her fingers through his, which still rested against that smooth skin on her face.

“One day at a time,” he said.

“That’s how you keep a secret too,” she said. “One day at a time.”

Ted nodded, and they faced the homestead together. Someone peered through the window, and he knew he wouldn’t be kissing her. Sure enough, a few seconds later, Nate came out of the garage door and called, “Hey, Teddy. Can I talk to you for a sec?”

“Sure thing,” Ted called as he walked toward his friend. “See you tomorrow, Em.”

“Night, Teddy.” She grinned at him and flitted away while he tried to figure out if he should growl at her or simply bask in the flirtatious tone of her voice.

In the end, he just smiled—maybe he was pretending he was happy with the nickname?—and joined Nate as they walked toward their back deck.

“What’s up?” Ted asked.

“It’s Family Weekend next weekend,” Nate said. “And I talked to Slate today, and he said no one is coming for Dallas. I think we should go.”

“Of course we should go,” Ted said instantly. “If we’re not his family, who is?” He climbed the steps ahead of Nate. “His wife really isn’t coming?”

“His wife moved to Louisiana,” Nate said grimly. “He just found out when he got the divorce papers.”

“No,” Ted said, turning fully back to Nate.

“It’s worse,” Nate said, his mouth settling into a thin line. “She left their son and daughter at her sister’s.”

Ted reached up and removed his cowboy hat, his mind whirring now. He wanted to be there for Dallas right now, even if that meant going back inside River Bay. The man wasn’t cut out for prison, and while he’d only gotten a few years, his first had been terrible for him. If it hadn’t been for Nate, Ted, and Slate, Ted felt sure Dallas wouldn’t still be alive.

He’d spent a few nights on suicide watch, and that was when Nate had taken him right under his wing, brought him into the Mulbury fold, where Dallas had been thriving ever since. He taught mechanic classes now, and he was the leader of the Mulbury Boys now that Nate and Ted were gone.

He would not be handling himself very well right now, Ted knew that. Martha had been all he’d clung to on the inside, and Ted had met her several times as she came to visit her husband every week, like clockwork. He’d even met Dallas’s kids a couple of times, and they were great—as far as Ted knew.

He had no idea what it would be like to be a single parent, raising kids by himself. He didn’t know what it took to prep a child to go see their father in jail. He didn’t know what it was like for those left on the outside, the explanations they had to give to people, the internal fortitude it took to carry on without their loved ones.

“He only has nine months left,” Nate said.

“He’s got to get out of there,” Ted argued. “Maybe he can come here.” He looked at Nate with pure hope shining in his soul. “Petition the judge that his wife abandoned the children, and he can get them, and come here.”

“Teddy.” Nate shook his head. “You’re here, and Ginger can’t have more than one inmate in the program.”

“I could go back in.”

Nate shook his head. “Nope. I see you, Teddy. I knew you’d react exactly this way. And no. I worked dang hard to get you here, and just because you don’t like working from sunup to sundown doesn’t mean you can get Dallas to trade places with you.” He grinned and nodded his cowboy hat in the general direction of the West Wing. “Besides, what are you going to tell your girlfriend? Hey, I’m—”

“First off,” Ted said, his voice way too loud under this night sky. “She is not my girlfriend.” He lowered his voice and glanced around, as if there might be reporters there, waiting to pounce on this juicy story.

“You knew who I was talking about,” Nate said.

“Duh,” Ted hissed. He turned back to the house and strode away from Nate, his heart pounding now for some unknown reason. “We’ll go to Family Weekend,” he said. “And I’m going to try to call Dallas tomorrow.”

“Come on,” Nate said behind him, but Ted pulled open the door and went inside. Air conditioning drifted over his face and arms, relaxing him, and the scent of something brown and roasted filled his nose.

Jack stood at the stove, turning as Ted and Nate’s boots hit the hard floor. “Carne asada tacos,” he said.

“Bless you,” Ted said as his stomach growled. Not only would he get fed, but he wouldn’t have to continue the conversation about his “girlfriend” with Nate.





The next morning, Ted woke as the first rays of sunshine lit his window. He’d had a very hard time falling asleep, his anticipation keeping him mentally awake long after his body had collapsed into bed.

His mother was coming today. In fact, she’d be on the ranch in a few hours.

Excitement mingled with nervous energy, and he got up and into the shower. Afterward, with a towel tucked around his waist, he looked at himself in the mirror. Emma’s words circled through his mind, and he reached for his razor.

After making sure his beard was exactly right, he brushed his teeth and actually plucked a few errant hairs from his eyebrows. Nate knocked on the other door, calling, “Connor needs to use the bathroom.”

Ted opened the door, and the little boy streaked inside. “Hey,” he said to Nate, the two of them eye-to-eye in height. “Would you cut my hair this morning?”

“You already showered.”

“I’ll shower again,” he said. He didn’t need to say he wanted to look good for his mother. He didn’t need to ever tell Nate he was going to present himself perfectly and pretend he was happy.

He was happy.

Happier than he’d been in years and years. Hope Eternal Ranch was far superior to the River Bay FCI, and Ted merely needed to smooth over his nerves with a smile and clean-cut look.

That was all.

“Sure thing,” Nate said. “Let me get the kit. Meet you in the kitchen after you get dressed?”

Ted swallowed as he nodded, and the two separated. Ted didn’t bother with what he was actually going to wear that day; he simply put on gym shorts and went into the kitchen. Nate snapped the drape around his neck and got to work.

Ten minutes later, Nate brushed Ted’s shoulders and proclaimed, “You’re done.”

“Thanks, brother,” Ted said as Nate unsnapped the drape. Ted turned toward Nate, and their eyes met.

“I’m sorry about what I said last night,” Nate said.

“I’m sorry I got mad about it.”

“Oh, you weren’t mad.” Nate grinned, and Ted grabbed onto him and clapped him on the shoulders.

“I wasn’t mad,” Ted said, holding onto his brother and best friend. “I just don’t know what’s going on with Emma.”

“I know,” Nate whispered. He stepped back and cleared his throat. “I know, but you’ll figure it out.”

“I hope so,” Ted said, but he wasn’t so sure he could figure it out. He wasn’t particularly experienced in dating to begin with, and his long absence from normal society had further stunted his romantic side and his knowledge of how he felt about a woman.

“Okay.” Ted took a deep breath. “Be out in a bit. Thanks again, Nate.”

“Send Connor out, would you?” Nate said as Ted walked away. “It’s his turn to make breakfast.”

Ted did as Nate asked, and he showered again quickly, dressed in jeans and the nicest button-down shirt he’d bought earlier in the week. He pulled on his cowboy boots, because he’d been wearing them for several days now, and Nate had been right. They were comfortable.

Plus, he sure did like feeling like he was a real cowboy. He hadn’t tried to get on a horse again, and Emma hadn’t mentioned when she might be able to teach him. Thankfully, Jess hadn’t tried to get him in the saddle again either, and he’d managed to keep some of his dignity.

He went out onto the front porch to greet the sun. The heat of the day had already started to fill the air, and this side of the house faced directly into the sun. He drew in a deep breath and closed his eyes as he tilted his head toward the brilliant sky.

“Hello, world,” he murmured to himself. What a luxury it was to stand outside in the fresh air, listen to the silence, and breathe in the sunshine.

His mother wasn’t due for another hour or two, so Ted went down to the stables, where there was always work to do. The foals weren’t in their pens, which meant Jess or someone had taken them out to spend time with their mothers.

He found Jess down the hall, standing in front of a stall where a tall black horse hung his head over the half-door. “What do you need me to do this morning?” he asked.

Jess glanced at him. “I thought your parents were coming.”

“My mom,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of hours, and I don’t need to just stand around.”

“Storm Warning needs a bath,” she said. “And you can feed Row H. That’ll probably take a couple of hours.”

“Consider it done,” Ted said, already moving toward Row H. Feeding was easy, and he knew how to do it. Bathing a horse was a little harder, as he’d only done it a couple of times. Hope Eternal had great equipment, and the horses were used to standing there and getting washed.

Ginger did take great care of her animals here, and the horses expected it.

Ted did his best by them, getting them fed and out into the pastures before he returned to get Storm Warning to take him to the wash bay. The separate building had three bays, and Ted took the end unit, hooking the horse to the tether. “You stay there, bud.”

He got the water hooked up, and he returned to the bay. “I took two showers already this morning,” he said. “So you hold still now, y’hear?”

Storm Warning moved one hoof, and Ted stroked his hand down the side of his face. “You’re a good boy.” He smiled at the horse. “I think you already know it, though.” He started bathing the horse. “So do you know Emma? What do you think of her?”

The horse didn’t answer of course, and Ted decided to whisper his secrets to him, getting how he felt about Emma out into words. When he finished, he was a little bit wet, but it wasn’t anything the hot Texas sun couldn’t dry quickly.

He put Storm Warning out in the pasture, cleaned up the wash bay, and headed toward the homestead. From a couple hundred yards away, he saw a car pull up to the fence. His heart started beating triple-time, and he broke into a jog when he saw Britta get out of the driver’s side.

His breathing came quickly by the time he reached the lawn. “Ma,” he called as Britta helped his mother out of the passenger side.

They both turned toward him, and Ted’s emotions rose in his throat. “Mom.” The word barely left his mouth, and he couldn’t get to her fast enough.

“Oh, my Teddy,” she said as Ted swept her into his arms. He held her so tight, a smile touching his mouth as he tried to hold onto his emotions so he wouldn’t cry.

But hugging his mother was like coming home, and Ted hadn’t been able to do either in so long. This—hugging his mother—was like heaven to Ted.





Chapter Twelve





Emma watched Ted’s reunion with his mother and sister through the bay window in the living room. She pressed one hand to her heart as she saw the joy on his mother’s face. They hugged for a long time, and then Ted stepped over to his sister and did the same thing.

Two girls got out of the car, and Emma sucked in a breath. She was good at judging age, and it looked like one was nine or ten, with the other a couple of years older than that. Her heart beat irregularly in her chest as she thought about Missy.

Emma should be on the road to San Antonio this morning, but Fran, Matt, and Missy had gone to Florida. She missed her daughter with a fierceness she’d never experienced, and it had only been two weeks since she’d seen her.

Ted hadn’t seen his mother in three years. Three. Years.

Emma couldn’t even fathom that. Her heart throbbed in the back of her throat as Ted picked up both girls. Through the window, Emma heard their laughter and witnessed the joy on their faces.

“Emma,” Ginger called, and she spun away from the happy family reunion on the front lawn. “There’s a timer going off.”

Emma bustled into the kitchen, where Ginger stood at the stove trying to get the beeping to stop. She really was useless in the kitchen, and Emma gave a short laugh. “It’s the top one, G.”

She picked up the oven mitts, and Ginger got the timer off. “Scootch over,” Emma said. Ginger got out of the way, and Emma pulled the cookies out. There was nothing that said welcome to a ranch better than oatmeal chocolate chip cookies.

Ted didn’t bring his family to the West Wing right away, and Emma suspected he’d taken his mother to see where he was living. She wandered into the office and sat down to get some things done. She’d been so distracted this week, and she’d missed a day and a half of work, so she was quite behind in the things she needed to do.

She had managed to get payroll processed, so everyone had gotten paid yesterday. She’d sent out the invoices, and she’d paid the bills for the week. She’d ignored all the emails about the monarch butterflies, and she really needed to start confirming those for school groups, Girl Scout troops, and their family evenings on Monday night.

So, with the task of clearing out her butterfly email account, Emma pulled her schedule book in front of her and clicked to get the email open. It was much easier to keep track of things on paper as she went through the email digitally. Then she didn’t overbook or double-book, and everyone was happy.

She sorted the email by schools first, as she could schedule them during the day. She started with the oldest email first—first-come, first-served, after all—and she started scratching names and class sizes into the grid she had for the two weeks of monarch butterfly hatching and migration.

Sometime later, Ginger called, “Emma,” again, and she immediately dropped her pencil and left the office. In the kitchen, Ginger wore a warm smile to go with her jeans and a cute yellow tank top with tiny black butterflies on it.

Emma always felt a shade darker than the light Ginger put off, but she’d never minded it. Her best friend held Nate’s hand, who grinned at Ted’s mother with pure joy. “You probably don’t remember,” he said. “But I met you once, my first month in the facility.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Ted’s mother said, her voice pretty in a high, throaty sort of way. Emma’s chest tightened, because she sounded elderly and motherly, and Emma hadn’t spoken to her mother in a while.

Nate hugged her as Emma moved to Ginger’s side. “This is my fiancée, Ginger,” he said.

“She owns the ranch, Ma,” Ted said, flicking a glance to Emma. His smile was wide, his teeth bright white, his beard trim and neat. He’d also had a haircut since she’d seen him last night, and he wore a bright blue and white button-down shirt that made all of his dark features lighter. Sexier.

Emma realized in that moment how much she liked him. She couldn’t believe he’d only been on the ranch for six days and how much her life had changed in that time.

“Yes, I’ve heard about Ginger, too,” his mother said, drawing the tall auburn-haired beauty in a hug too. “Thank you for having Teddy here. It’s such a blessing to see him. Such a blessing.”

Ginger stepped back, obviously embarrassed, and Emma watched the flush fill her face. “Thank you, ma’am. We’re glad to have him here.” She beamed at Ted, and Emma marveled at the change in her.

She’d been through a lot with the prisoners she’d brought to the ranch through the Bureau of Prisons Residential Reentry Program. She’d fallen in love with one of them, and he’d nearly stolen everything from all of them.

Ginger hadn’t brought anyone to the ranch for a long time after that, and then Nate had sorely needed a place. Emma had been in the room when the BOP had called, and Ginger had put the call on speaker.

His brother has passed, Miss Talbot. If you take him, the boy can live with him. You haven’t taken anyone in a while, but he’s one of the best.

Nate really was one of the best, and he was absolutely the right person for Ginger.

Emma glanced at Ted again. Was he the right man for her?

“This is Emma Clemson,” Ted said. “She’s the administrative arm of the ranch.”

“Lovely to meet you, ma’am,” Emma said.

“My mom, Carla,” Ted said, slinging his arm around his mother’s shoulders. “My sister, Britta. Her two daughters, Allie and Leslie. Her husband….” He looked around the kitchen and living room. “Where did Dwayne go?”

“You lost him in the pastures,” Britta said. “With that paint pony.”

“Oh, Dusty Rose is beautiful, isn’t he?” Ginger asked, and Emma very nearly rolled her eyes. Leave it to Ginger to focus on a horse over anything else.

“I made cookies,” Emma said, looking at the girls. “Who wants one?”

They both looked at their mother, a woman who had the same dark hair as Ted, the same sparkling, intense eyes, and plenty of fashion sense in her white capris and violet blouse. She nodded, and the two children moved with Emma into the kitchen to get the cookies.

“Oatmeal chocolate chip,” she said, picking one up. “Take one to your momma, okay? And your grandmother.”

“Thank you,” the youngest said, smiling at Emma.

Her heart expanded a couple of sizes, and all she could do was smile widely and nod. If she tried to speak, she was afraid her voice would break, and everything inside would spill out. She turned away from the group and took a bite of her cookie, hoping that would give her a moment to collect herself.

A warm hand slid along her waist, and Emma turned toward Ted. “Thank you for the cookies, Em.” He grinned at her, and he looked so darn happy. Beyond happy. Full of joy.

“Sure,” she said, painting on a smile she hoped was even half as happy as his.

He leaned closer to her, and Emma’s pulse jumped around in her chest. What was he doing? Was he going to kiss her right there? Right now?

She hadn’t kissed anyone in so long, and she did not want their first kiss to happen in this kitchen, with everyone watching.

She couldn’t even believe she’d thought about their first kiss. But, oh, she wanted to kiss him. Just not right now.

“Dinner tonight?” he whispered, his lips practically touching her ear. “Just me and you. I can leave the ranch with you.”

All of Emma’s cells vibrated, but she managed to say, “Yes, I’d like that.”

“Great,” he said, backing up. “Ma.” He turned toward her. “You have to try these cookies. I think they have your secret ingredient in them.”





Later that night, after Emma had taken a nap and finished the schedule for the full two weeks of monarch butterfly activities, after everyone had been emailed, she stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom, twisting and turning to make sure the sandals she’d chosen looked okay with her outfit.

She’d chosen a pair of black shorts that went all the way to her knee, and they slimmed her legs. She’d always been a little thicker in the leg, and she’d liked it during the couple of years her mother had paid for gymnastics. Now, as she thought about Ted showing up to take her to dinner, she didn’t as much.

But the black shorts helped. She’d paired a pink shirt with them, with buttons up the chest and sleeves that went all the way to her elbow. She’d learned that if she covered up a little more than the other women on the ranch, she looked better.

“These sandals are not it,” she said, kicking them off. She turned back to her closet and picked up the silver pair. They would work, and she decided not to spend another moment on her footwear.

The doorbell rang, and Emma ran her fingers through her hair, that sound a trigger now. She thought of that blue truck and that man walking across the lawn with a clipboard. She hadn’t had any phone calls. No texts. The truck and the man hadn’t returned to the ranch.

Ted had seen him on the service road, and he hadn’t seen him again, though he went out to the river every day after the horseback riding lessons started. Then he came to the homestead to enjoy the air conditioning and to see Emma.

A sense of warmth filled her, and she left her bedroom.

“There you are,” Jess said, meeting her in the hall. “Ted is here, and he has flowers.” Her brown eyes glinted with surprise and pleasure.

Emma smiled. “How romantic.”

“You two are going out?”

“Yes,” Emma said.

“Wow,” Jess said. “I haven’t seen you date anyone in the whole time I’ve known you.”

Emma reached out and touched Jess’s arm. “That’s because all the men look right past me to you.” She grinned at Jess, who was beautiful, inside and out. Emma had wished many times over the past six years since Jess had come to the ranch that she could be the type of person Jess was.

But she was slowly starting to realize that she couldn’t be anyone else. She was Emma Clemson, and she had to figure out what that meant.

“Please,” Jess said, scoffing. “Look at you. You look so amazing. He’s going to lose his mind.”

“You think so?” Emma looked down at her shoes again, still unsure about them.

“Yes, now come on. I left him in the front room.” Jess linked her arm through Emma’s, and they walked into the front room together.

Ted had sat down on the couch, and he sprang to his feet, the bouquet of flowers in his hand obviously picked from somewhere out on the ranch, and his smile just as brilliant as before. “Hey.”

“Here she is,” Jess said. “You two have fun.” She made a hasty exit, and Emma had never been more grateful for Jess.

“Hey,” she said, accepting the flowers from him. “Thank you, Teddy. These are beautiful.”

“You’re beautiful,” he said, his voice catching on the last syllable. He cleared his throat. “And I guess I’m going to have three people who call me Teddy, because I kinda like it when you say it.”

Emma leaned down and inhaled the flowers. “If it’s okay with you,” she said.

“It is.”

“Do you want to wait while I put these in water, or should we go?”

“Oh, I just picked them from along the river,” he said. “You don’t need to put them in water.”

“You looked like you had a great time with your mom.” Emma looked at him, a new level of vulnerability entering her system. She was sure he’d be able to see it in her eyes, and sure enough, he paused.

“It was a great day,” he said, letting his hand come close to hers. His fingers trailed over hers. “Do you see your family a lot?”

“Hardly ever,” Emma said. “I’m going to put these in some water.” She turned to go into the kitchen, but Jess appeared in the doorway, and she held a vase. Emma handed her the flowers with a murmured, “Thank you,” and turned back to Ted. She reached for his hand, and he secured hers in his.

She enjoyed the warmth of his skin, the strength in his fingers, and the thrilling zing that went up her arm and across her shoulders. “Ready?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He reached up with his free hand and slid it along the side of her face and around the back of her neck. “Well, almost.” He leaned down, hesitating.

She met his eyes, and she found fear in his. It pounded in her veins too. “I haven’t dated anyone in a decade,” she blurted.

“Neither have I,” he whispered. “But I really want to kiss you.”

Emma let her gaze drop to his mouth, and oh, she wondered what that beard would feel like against her face. What his lips would feel like against hers. She let go of his hand and slid it up his arm.

“Kiss me, then,” she said, and she smiled at him.

His lips curved up too, and he pulled in a long breath. Then he kissed her, matching his mouth to hers perfectly, as if he’d done it countless times before.

Emma had never been kissed with the level of care and tenderness with which Ted kissed her, and she felt herself being reborn.





Chapter Thirteen





Ted could literally not remember the last woman he’d kissed. And it didn’t matter who she was, because as he kissed Emma, he never wanted to kiss anyone else. He seemed to know what he was doing, because she broke the kiss for a moment, took a breath, and kissed him again.

He threaded his fingers through her hair, and then cradled her face in his hands. He simply couldn’t get enough of her, and he knew it wasn’t because he craved the human touch. He’d spent the day with his family, and he’d hugged his mother at least a dozen times. He’d strolled around the ranch hand-in-hand with his nieces. His sister had linked arms with him while he took them out to the river in the trees.

He’d gotten his fill of the human touch he’d been deprived of for so long.

This was something else. Ted wasn’t sure what, but it felt like something good.

He finally had the good sense to pull away, and he struggled to breathe as his pulse bounced in his chest. Emma sighed and fell back a step, finally opening her eyes. He looked at her, unsure of what to say to a woman after he’d kissed her.

“Is she still here?” Ginger asked, and not a moment later, she entered the front room. “Oh, good, Emma. I need to talk to you for just a second.”

Emma held Ted’s gaze for another moment and then she turned back to Ginger. “Yeah?”

Ginger glanced over her shoulder to Ted. “Sorry, Ted, it’ll just be a moment, I swear.”

“Take your time,” he said, moving over to the couch he’d sat on before. It was comfortable enough, but this whole room smelled like dust. The women obviously didn’t use it much, and a vein of stupidity moved through him for coming to the front door to pick up Emma as if their relationship was traditional.

It wasn’t, and he knew that.

He’d wanted to ask her about her time in college, and if that was when she’d met Robert Knight, but he’d been enjoying their morning and evening strolls so much, and he didn’t want to put tension between them or add to her stress level.

So he hadn’t brought it up. You can tonight, he told himself as the moment stretched into a minute.

Emma returned a couple of minutes later, an apology on her lips.

“No problem,” he said, taking her hand and leading her out the front door. She’d drive them to town, because Ted didn’t actually have a driver’s license or a vehicle.

“So,” he said as he buckled his seat belt. “Where did you go to college?”

She whipped her head toward him, and Ted saw the nerves in her expression. “Oh, uh, Texas A&M.”

The warmth in him turned icy. “Emma,” he said as she started to back up. “Maybe we shouldn’t go to dinner.”

“What?” She pressed on the brake and stopped the car. “Why not?”

“Because you just lied to me,” he said, swinging his attention out his window. “Five minutes after I kissed you.”

A few seconds passed, and she asked, “If I tell you the truth, can we go to dinner?”

“I didn’t realize we needed to negotiate to tell the truth.” He looked at her, lifting his eyebrows. “I’m not going to judge you.”

“Oh, yes, you will.” She put the car in drive and started down the lane toward the bridge.

“I just don’t want to be lied to.”

“Fine,” she said, as if he’d asked her to do something really hard. “I won’t lie to you.”

Ted wasn’t sure why she wanted to go to dinner if he upset her so much. He told himself that he hadn’t upset her—she was upset with herself.

“I went to UT Austin,” he said. “I studied economics and business before I went to law school.” And it all felt like it had happened to someone else. Someone Ted no longer was and who he no longer knew.

Emma gripped the wheel and looked both ways before turning onto the highway. Ted couldn’t help sweeping his gaze left and right, right and left, trying to take everything in. The trees, the curves in the road, just all of it.

“Could we go to the beach sometime?” he asked. “You know what? Never mind. I want to go to the beach on the first day I’m really free.”

“You’re free.”

“No,” he said. “I’m in the reentry program. I’m still a prisoner. In fact, I got a message from my parole officer today. He wants to come in a couple of weeks.” Ted didn’t want to dwell on things that made his heart sink and his eyebrows draw down. So he’d put it out of his mind. If he set the beach as a goal, he’d be able to use it to help himself stay on track should he be tempted to sway.

Emma drove for a few more miles, the town of Sweet Water Falls coming into view in that time. “I went to Texas A&M International,” she said.

“That’s in Laredo,” he said. “You said you didn’t live there.”

“No,” she said, glancing at him. “You asked me if I’d grown up there. I said no, and that wasn’t a lie. I didn’t grow up there.”

“Is that where you met Robert Knight?”

Her jaw tightened, and she focused out the windshield as she shook her head.

“The Knights did a ton of business out of Laredo,” Ted pressed.

“I met him here,” she said, her voice stiff and flat, with an undercurrent of anger in it. “He was the father of one of my students.” She delivered the line evenly, and Ted sensed there was so much more to this story. He wanted to know it all. He wanted to share the deepest, most secretive parts of himself with this woman, and he wanted to have many more kisses like the one they’d just shared, and more dinners like the one they were about to have.

Ted hadn’t known the Knights had ever been in Sweet Water Falls, and the lawyer in him wanted to fact-check what she’d said. He’d find other witnesses and people who knew Robert from that time, maybe even track down his kid.

At the same time, he didn’t want to do any of that. He wanted to trust Emma and trust in the fact that she’d tell him the truth—and all of her secrets, when she was ready.

“Did you always want to be a teacher?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said, her fingers relaxing on the wheel. “What about you? Was there ever anything but being a lawyer for you?”

“Oh, sure,” he said. “I was totally going to be in the NBA. Then an astronaut. Then an inventor. It wasn’t until my sophomore or junior year that I gave up the NBA permanently.” He chuckled at the memories that still ran through his mind. “When I didn’t make the basketball team.”

“Oh, dear,” she said with a smile.

“Yeah, it was a rough reality,” he said. “After that, I realized I wasn’t going to be an astronaut or an inventor, as I’ve never really had any great ideas.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Oh, it’s true,” he said. “So I started thinking about what I’d really like to do, and well, I became a lawyer.”

Emma flashed him a smile, and Ted wanted everything to be lighter. “Sorry I asked about Laredo,” he said.

“It’s fine,” she said.

“It’s never fine when a woman uses that word,” he said. “My grandmother taught me that.”

Emma gave him another smile, and this one was definitely more relaxed. “It really is. I should’ve just told you I went to college there. You’d just seemed interested in the place, and I don’t know. I got nervous.”

“You don’t need to be nervous around me.” The idea was unfathomable to him. He was the one who should be nervous around her, not the other way around.

“I’m usually not.”

“I got too close to your secret, didn’t I?”

“A little.”

“You know, if you just told me, then we wouldn’t have to dance around it.”

“I…need a little more time.”

“Sure,” Ted said easily, because a man who’d spent almost six years in prison knew there was always more time. Another day. Another week. Another month. “So something light for the rest of the night. If you could have any pet, what would it be and why?”

She looked at him like he’d lost his mind, and maybe he had. Maybe he should press her on the tough topics and force her to talk to him. But his logical side told him that a woman like Emma would just run—in fact, he’d seen her do that once already. He didn’t want her to do it again.

“I want a teacup piglet,” she said. “Because they’re so cute, and I’d name her Petunia, and she’d sleep in a little bed in my office while I work, and she’d trot along beside me when I went to feed the baby horses.”

Ted simply gaped at her, the words teacup piglet not quite making sense in his mind. He started laughing, which definitely lightened the mood, and when she joined in, the moment turned into perfection.





Minutes and hours combined together into days. Ted sat beside Emma in church, and he liked hanging out with her in her office in the heat of the afternoon. He kissed her every chance he got, because he still wasn’t sure he hadn’t been dreaming when it had happened the first time.

They didn’t go out again, because the next Friday night found him packing an extra set of clothes in a backpack for his trip to River Bay with Nate.

His lungs vibrated a little strangely as he folded his gym shorts and tucked them in the bag too. He couldn’t believe he was going back. He’d told himself for the years and years he’d lived in the dormitory that he would not go back once he left. He’d turn his back on the place and find a new path in the world.

“Hey,” Nate said, coming into Ted’s room. He glanced up from the items he’d laid on his bed. Nate hardly looked like the man Ted had bonded with in prison. With the cowboy hat and the facial hair, he definitely looked more rugged. More weathered. More western.

Ted knew that storm in Nate’s eyes, though. “What’s up?”

“Ginger says we can’t leave until the horses are fed in the morning.” Nate kept the frown on his face and looked over his shoulder. “And Connor’s downstairs crying his eyes out that he can’t come.”

“Then let him come,” Ted said. “It’s not that big of a deal.”

“It is to me,” Nate said quietly, and Ted heard the phantoms in his voice.

“He’ll have more fun here,” Ted said. “Spence is taking him to the beach, right?”

“Yes,” Nate said with a sigh. He sank into the armchair in the corner of Ted’s room. “He’ll be fine once we go. I just feel guilty.”

“Well, don’t,” Ted said, but he knew that was easy for him to say. He didn’t have a five-year-old crying about wanting to go to a prison. When Ted actually thought about it, the idea was ludicrous, but he’d met Connor long before Nate had been released to take care of him. Ward, Nate’s brother, had brought him to River Bay several times.

“And feeding the horses is fast,” Ted said. “We’ll go out early and together, we’ll get it done. Jess will finish whatever we don’t.”

“I want to leave by six-thirty,” Nate said. “I don’t want Dallas to think no one is coming. I want to be there before it even starts.”

“And we will be,” Ted said, sitting down on the bed and facing Nate. “What’s the real problem?”

“No real problem.” Nate’s gaze skated away from Ted.

“Sure,” Ted said sarcastically. “Because I’ve never seen you do that before.” He scoffed and shook his head. “You can’t keep a secret from me for long.”

“No, I can’t,” Nate said, but he still didn’t confess to what was bothering him. Ted had told him about his date with Emma last weekend, and he hadn’t needed to give all the details for Nate to know he’d kissed her, or that he was still worried about her, or that he wanted to help her.

Nate just knew Ted, and Ted knew Nate.

“I don’t want to go back there,” Ted finally said, breaking this new brand of silence between them. He looked up and met Nate’s eyes.

“That’s what I was going to say.”

“We’ll be okay, right?” Ted said. “They’re not going to handcuff me and toss me back in Unit NF?” The sentence came out as a question, all of Ted’s fears laid out between the two of them.

“No,” Nate said. “They won’t do that.”

“You’re authorized to be with me when I leave the ranch.” Ted needed to reassure himself. “Ginger knows where I’m going. Heck, I even texted my parole officer.” He hadn’t had a meeting with Martin Landy yet, but they’d texted to set something up. Ted had thought it prudent to let the man know where he was going, and with who, and for how long.

Martin had only responded with a few words about being with someone authorized to take him off the ranch.

“It’s going to be okay,” Nate said, and he clenched his jaw—another move Ted had seen from the man before. It was like he’d simply make up his mind that a situation would be a certain way, and that was that. It would be that way, because the mighty Nathaniel Mulbury had decreed it.

In this case, Ted sincerely hoped he was right. He drew in a deep breath and blew it out. “I’ll go talk to Connor.”

“I’ll text Ginger.”

Ted nodded and left his friend in the armchair. He had no idea how to talk to a crying child, and when he went downstairs, he found Spencer sitting on the couch, his feet up on the ottoman in front of him, the towheaded boy asleep against his chest.

“He’s going to be fine,” Spencer said with a smile. “He’s sleeping down here with me tonight, and we’re going to have a great day.”

Ted nodded, said, “Thanks,” and went back upstairs.





The next morning, Ted worked with Nate in the stables, and he sure did like that a whole lot more than Bill or Jess. He liked them too, but he was so comfortable with Nate, and it was almost like they knew what the other was going to say or do before they did it.

At six-fifteen, Nate took off his gloves and tucked them in his back pocket—very cowboy-like. “Let’s go get cleaned up.”

“I have one more,” he said. “I’ll be two minutes behind you.”

“Okay.” Nate left, his energy too much to be contained by waiting. Ted finished with Black Widow, and took an extra moment to stroke her cheek. “Have a good day, okay, Widow?”

The horse almost nodded to him, and Ted headed down the aisle. He was about to turn left to leave the stables when he saw Ginger sitting on the low stool, feeding the foals. Surprise kicked through him. “Where’s Emma?”

Ginger looked up at him, her eyes narrowing. “She left for the weekend.”

“She did?” He looked down the aisle as if she were really standing at the sink, getting another bottle ready. Concern spiked through him.

“Yep,” Ginger said, obviously not concerned, though she didn’t hold his gaze for very long. “She has every second and fourth weekend off. But last week threw some things off.” She glanced up at Ted for a fraction of a second. “So she left this week.”

“Every second and fourth weekend? Where does she go?” He distinctly remembered her telling him she’d returned to the ranch in the middle of last week because she had nowhere to go.

“To see her family,” Ginger said, her voice slightly false. “She’s been doing it forever. Since the day she started.” She tugged on the bottle. “Come on, Ruby. It’s empty. Let it go.” She wrestled with the filly for another moment, finally succeeding in wrestling the bottle away from the horse. She stood up. “It was part of her contract when she started here. Every second and fourth weekend off.”

Ginger walked away, leaving Ted in her wake. Stunned, he could only stare after her. Ginger didn’t seem like this information was Earth-shattering, but to Ted, it was.

Something as routine as that…Emma had somewhere she was definitely going. So when she’d said she didn’t have anywhere to go, that wasn’t true.

He turned and left the stables, needing the open air to clear his thoughts. But they refused to clear, no matter how quickly he walked. He took the steps to the deck two at a time, and entered the Annex at six-twenty-five.

Nate came out of the hallway with his backpack. “I’ll come back and get yours while you shower.”

“I’ll be five minutes.”

“I know.” Nate had obviously already showered, and he carried his cowboy hat under one arm, because his hair was still damp. He wore a new pair of jeans, a spotless white polo, and a plain pair of sneakers. Since they’d have to dress down to go in, simpler was always better.

Ted hurried into the shower, letting his ranch clothes drop to the floor for once. No one was there to write him a ticket anyway.

Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t put his finger on exactly what. No, Emma hadn’t always been truthful with him, but all he had to do was ask and he felt sure she’d tell him. They’d agreed to that, at least.

He joined Nate in his fancy truck with the heated and cooled seats, and said, “Ready.”

Nate pulled out of the garage at six-thirty-two, and Ted thought that was pretty dang good for what they’d done that morning.

Only five minutes down the road, a light bulb clicked on inside his brain.

“She’s not visiting family,” he blurted out.

“What?” Nate asked, and Ted looked at him with wide eyes.

Emma had told him that she “hardly ever” saw her family, so there was no way she was going to visit them every other weekend, for ten straight years.

So where was she going? And to see who?





Chapter Fourteen





Emma pulled up to the perfectly suburban house on the east side of San Antonio. It wasn’t where Fran and Matt lived with Missy, because Emma refused to take any chances with anyone following her.

She’d left the ranch on Friday night—late—instead of Saturday morning. That one deviation from what she normally did might throw off someone watching her. She’d always been a little paranoid when she came to see Missy, but nothing like this trip.

She’d driven to a bus station an hour away and parked. She sat in her car for twenty minutes just to see if any cars were trolling the lot, looking for her. Satisfied, she’d gone inside and slipped into the bathroom. After pulling up her hair and covering it with a cap, she’d changed her clothes and taken out the folded reusable shopping bag from her purse. She put all her stuff in that next, making herself someone different who’d gone in. She wanted anyone looking to think she’d just gotten off the midnight bus and was headed home after a long week of work.

She’d left the bus station a half an hour later and joined the cab line, where she’d taken a taxi to a faceless motel. She hadn’t seen a single person besides the man who’d given her the key, and in the morning, she’d walked the mile to pick up her rental car.

Then she’d made the drive north, where she’d exchanged the car for a different one after complaining that the engine had been making a funny noise. It hadn’t been, but she wanted a different car.

Now, she sat in that car—after driving around the city for a good two hours and checking her rear-view and side mirrors every few seconds—three houses down from where her daughter lived.

Fran and Matt were expecting her in ten minutes, and Emma kept her hyper-vigilance up. She would not put any of them in danger, and her string of changes, hops, skips, and wild goose chases had to have thrown anyone off her trail.

No one came down this street. No blue trucks, no slow moving cars. Emma felt like she’d succeeded in making sure no one knew where she’d gone or how she’d gotten there, and with that assurance in her mind, she eased down the curb to the right house.

Almost before she’d put the car in park, the front door to Fran and Matt’s house opened, and her daughter came spilling outside.

Joy filled Emma, and she couldn’t get her seatbelt unbuckled fast enough. She fumbled the latch, her emotion catching her in the chest, the back of her throat, and behind her eyes. By the time she got out of the car, her daughter waited on the strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb.

“Momma,” the little girl said, and Emma swept the dark-haired beauty into her arms. She quieted the sob, but it shook through her whole body.

“Oh, my baby,” she whispered, holding her tight and never wanting to let her go. She almost had an out-of-body experience, standing there on the side of the road, holding her daughter.

She couldn’t believe this was the life she had with Missy, and everything felt so heavy in her life. So, so heavy.

She saw no way out of it either. She didn’t own a home. Ginger paid her well enough, but she didn’t want to leave the ranch. She never wanted Rob to know about Missy, and she knew it was getting to be time for her to tell the girl why she lived with Fran and Matt and had her mother come visit every other weekend.

Emma finally released her daughter and stepped back. She wiped her eyes as she asked, “How was Florida, baby?”

“So much fun,” Missy said, looking at her with smiling eyes. They were the color of gray tea, and Emma saw herself in them. “Matt booked the sea ponies, Momma. Can you believe it?”

“Horses on the beach,” Emma said, glancing toward the front door. Fran and Matt stood there, watching. Fran leaned against the pillar on the porch, and Matt has his arm around his wife. “That sounds like a dream come true for you.”

“It was,” Missy said, putting her hand in Emma’s as they crossed the lawn. “They had a stool to help me get on, because they were big horses, Momma. They weren’t ponies.” She looked up at her. “And I still want to come to your ranch to ride.”

“Hmm,” Emma said, because she’d never told Missy more than she worked on a ranch. She wouldn’t tell her the name of it or anything. She looked up at Fran, who wore a beautiful smile on her face.

“Hello, Em,” she said, coming down the steps.

Emma embraced her and held her tight. “Hey, Fran.” She had not known Fran before she’d shown up on the woman’s front porch, a pink bundle of joy in her arms. They’d connected randomly through a community chat board about adoption. The thread had actually been about temporary stewardship, and Emma had been very interested in it.

Fran had said she would take a child even if she could never adopt it, and Emma had messaged her off the board. Things had gone from there, and Fran had been raising Missy for almost eleven years. Never once had she asked if she and Matt could adopt Missy. Never once had she or Matt ever done anything against the agreement they’d signed with Emma.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to Fran.

“Nothing to be sorry about. Come inside and have some sweet tea.” She stepped back, that smile still in place. Emma reached for Missy’s hand, and they went up the wide staircase together. Emma hugged Matt too, because he had to be the most patient man on Earth.

Her emotions quivered so close to the surface, but Emma managed to bite them back. They went inside, and with the front door closed and locked behind her, Emma finally started to relax.





Her tears had dried up about halfway back to the ranch, and as Emma pulled across the bridge, her face felt dry and cracked. It had been a great weekend with her daughter, and while they didn’t get out and do as much as they otherwise might have, she’d still enjoyed the basement movie afternoons, and the roller skating in the backyard.

Matt had put in a huge cement pad, and Missy had started to choreograph a routine to her favorite pop song—all while wearing roller skates. Emma smiled just thinking about it, and she had a video on her phone she’d have to erase before she went into the West Wing.

No one looked at her phone but her, but it was part of the pact Emma made with herself to keep Missy safe. She couldn’t be caught watching a video of a girl who looked a lot like her. There would be too many questions, and all of her secrets would come out.

She brought her car to a stop far enough back that someone who’d parked in the garages would be able to get out, and she reached for her phone. A fresh wave of emotion threatened to pull her under as she looked through her photos and videos. For the first few years of Missy’s life, she’d invested in cloud storage—password and authenticator protected—so she had lots of baby pictures.

But it had gotten expensive, and she’d found herself combing through the pictures and videos far too often, her heart cracking a little more with every photo she flipped through. She’d cancelled the subscription, but she could get to her photos and reactivate at any time.

“Maybe it’s time,” she whispered to herself. Then she could add the pictures and videos she’d taken that weekend.

She tapped on her gallery and the first picture that came up made her breath catch between her lungs and her throbbing heart. It was her and Missy, looking right into the camera, laughter in their eyes and sitting in the lines around their mouths.

She looked so much like Emma, with her dark hair, her smattering of freckles, the shape of her nose. Rob had manifested himself in the slope of her chin and the width of her forehead. They both had dark eyes, which had given Missy a stunning pair of eyes that lit up from within whenever she laughed.

Fran had taken this picture of the two of them on the couch only a few minutes before Emma had left. Missy said she needed a photo of someone important to her for a school project, and she wanted that to be of her mother.

I have to do an interview too, Missy had said. Can I call you this week?

Emma couldn’t say no to that, and she’d simply make sure she was alone when the call came in. She didn’t have Missy’s name in her phone, but she’d labeled the contact as Fran2.

Suddenly unwilling to delete this weekend from her phone, Emma quickly made a folder in her gallery, labeled it my babies, and moved all the items into it. If anyone saw it, they’d think it was full of baby horse pictures. In fact, Emma would take a bunch tomorrow morning and put them in the folder too, covering up the other items.

Done with that, and ready to be in her room so she could cry some more if she needed to, Emma pocketed her phone, grabbed her bag from the passenger seat, and went inside. She didn’t see Nate’s truck, which meant Ted wasn’t back from his weekend visit with his friend still in prison.

Good, Emma thought. The last thing she needed was to have to explain to him where she’d been all weekend, and what she’d been doing. At the same time, she had the very powerful thought that she’d like to have someone she could trust enough to tell—and that that person would be Ted.

She thought about showing Ginger the pictures of her daughter as she went inside, but in the end, Emma was so used to keeping her secret that she just went down the hall to her room without saying anything.





She didn’t see Ted the next morning in the stables, and he didn’t come to her office in the afternoon either.

By then, Emma knew something was wrong. Ted was a creature of habit, she’d learned that. He liked to do the same things, in the same order, each day. He thrived on it, he’d told her. He felt accomplished when he did, because he knew what had to get done, and he got it done.

Unable to focus, she finally picked up her phone and texted him. Where are you right now? I usually see you in my office by now.

Algae bloom in one of the ponds, he said. Ginger called us all out to help. Lots of dead animals and stuff.

Oh no, Emma typed, her stomach churning. She realized she hadn’t eaten lunch, and she got up to get a granola bar and an apple. Maybe I’ll see you in the stables tonight.

He’d kissed her passionately while he pressed her against the wall beside the sink where she washed out the bottles. Several times. She wanted that connection again, and she could admit she missed Ted.

She was best friends with Ginger, but Emma had purposely kept some distance between them. Ginger had let her, because Ginger wasn’t a super touchy-feely kind of woman to begin with. Emma loved her fiercely, though, and she wondered how she could start to let some of the most important people into her life and keep her daughter safe.

She’d never thought that was possible before, but in the two weeks since Ted had come to Hope Eternal Ranch, he’d started to make her think differently.

I’ll try, Ted texted, and Emma supposed that was all she could ask for.

That evening, she lingered with the horses after she’d finished feeding them, hoping and praying Ted would walk through the doors. She hadn’t seen him in far too long, and she didn’t like the dark cloud that had been following her around for a few hours now.

He didn’t come, and Emma left the stables alone, the dusky night around her deeper than normal. She didn’t like being out here alone, and she hastened to return to the brightly lit homestead. Instead of going into the garage and up the steps to the West Wing, she went to the Annex’s back door and knocked.

Her heartbeat knocked through her veins while she stood there waiting. No one came. Helplessness filled her, and she turned around to leave. But she couldn’t make herself do it.

Ted was avoiding her, and she wanted to know why. With her breathing hitching in her throat, she turned back to the door and knocked again, this time trying the doorknob. It gave under her grip, and she opened the door. “Hello?” she called. “It’s Emma.” She took a tentative step into the back of the kitchen, sweeping it quickly.

There was no one there, and only a light on above the stove. “Hello?” she called again, a little louder this time. “Teddy?”

Footsteps came down the hall, and Nate appeared, wearing a pair of gym shorts and nothing else. “Emma,” he said, pure surprise in his voice. He reached up and ran his hand through his hair. “Let me get Ted.”

She nodded as he turned around and went back the way he’d come, closed the door behind her, and pressed her back into it. That was as far from the men who lived here as she could get and still be in the house. The house was far too quiet for the number of men who lived here, and Emma heard voices coming from the direction of the hall where Nate had disappeared.

They didn’t sound like happy voices, and Emma’s flight instinct kicked into gear. Her fingers scrambled to find the doorknob, but when they did, she froze.

She literally had to stop running from every difficult situation in her life.

Help me, she prayed, and she felt sure the Lord did, because she didn’t run. Even when Ted appeared at the mouth of the hallway, his eyebrows drawn down. He too was dressed down, and Emma liked this softer version of him, a man who wore silly T-shirts and casual shorts and bare feet.

His hair looked tousled, as if he’d been about to fall asleep and she’d interrupted him. A stinging sensation buzzed in her chest, because he hadn’t been busy tonight. He could’ve come to the stable to see her. He’d chosen not to.

“What are you doing here, Emma?” he asked, not taking one single step toward her. With him looking at her with those hooded, displeased eyes, her voice stuttered in her throat, and she couldn’t say anything.





Chapter Fifteen





Ted didn’t want to make Emma’s life more difficult. But he didn’t want to be lied to either. He didn’t want a woman who kept secrets from him day after day, even when he knew she had them.

He’d been telling himself all day that he’d only known her for two weeks. He didn’t have to know everything about her in two weeks. She didn’t have to completely trust him in only fourteen days. She was allowed more time.

All of that was true.

He still hadn’t gone to the stables tonight, because he liked his heart in one piece. He felt like she was holding a carving knife, and there was no reason for him to open his chest and give her free access to cut his most vital organ into a thousand pieces.

When she didn’t answer his question, Ted took a tiny step toward her but stopped. “It’s getting late.”

“Why didn’t you come to the stables?”

Ted looked away, because words could be sharp, he knew. “Busy weekend, and a long, tiring day,” he said. Both of those things were true.

“Okay,” Emma said, opening the door behind her. She had to edge forward to let it swing past her, and Ted watched her do that. She was nervous, and he honestly wasn’t sure why he wanted to be with someone who didn’t want to share their life with him.

“Where’d you go this weekend?” he asked.

She froze, her eyes locking onto his. “San Antonio,” she said.

“Why?”

“I go every couple of weeks,” she said. “Get away. See friends.”

Ted couldn’t tell if she was lying, and all the other times he’d been able to. “Okay,” he said. “Did you have fun?”

“Yes.”

“What did you do?”

“We mostly stayed in,” she said. “Watched movies and made homemade bread.” She flashed a timid smile. “My friend always wants me to teach her how to make bread.”

“I’d like that too,” Ted said, putting a smile on his face he hoped was gentle. He felt like he was trying to coax a scared squirrel to come get a treat from him. He wasn’t sure why he wanted Emma to stay if she wanted to go. If she didn’t want to confide in him, he shouldn’t make her.

“You also said you’d teach me how to ride a horse,” he added.

“When you have time to do that,” she said. “All the horses are taken.”

“So maybe you’ll have to teach me to bake in the afternoons.”

“And heat up the house during the hottest part of the day?” She shook her head, clearly flirting with him now. Ted did like that, and he told himself he still had three months here at the ranch. He didn’t need to know everything right now.

The lawyer inside him just wanted to have all the facts up front. The protective side of him wanted to know what situation Emma found herself in, so he could plan best how to help her.

“So horseback riding is out,” he said, stepping all the way to the island in the kitchen. “And so is baking. Hmm, what else could we do?”

“I actually work while you nap in the chair in my office,” she teased.

Ted ducked his head, though he wasn’t wearing his cowboy hat and couldn’t actually conceal his face. He sobered and looked up at her. “The weekend trips are part of the secret, aren’t they?”

The flirtatiousness slid off her face. “Yes.”

He nodded and looked away again. “Okay, well, I said you could tell me when you’re ready, so I guess I can’t be mad if you’re not ready.”

She swallowed hard enough for him to see the movement in her throat, and he said, “Good night, Emma. See you in the stables in the morning.” He fell back a step, and then another, and she moved out of the way of the door so she could leave the Annex.

“’Night, Teddy.” With that, she was gone, swallowed by the night beyond the door. Ted waited a couple of seconds, and then he crossed the kitchen to the door to lock it. Emma wasn’t on the deck, and Ted took a deep breath of the air where she’d been standing. He caught just a hint of her perfume, the soft, floral scent of it calling to everything male inside him.

“I want to trust her,” he whispered to the glass, still trying to see her though she wasn’t there. “I want to get to know her, but that’s a two-way road.” And it felt like he was trying to get to Emma. He was in a very fast truck, with his foot pressing the accelerator all the way to the floor. He was desperate to get to where she was.

And she was running just as fast in the opposite direction.





Ted fell back into the routine on the ranch. He didn’t mind doing the same thing day after day, especially because here, no one was telling him where he had to be, and when. Jess had taught him what to do, and Ted did it. He worked steadily, and he took a break when he wanted to.

He took his lunch and all the dogs to the shade under the trees, only a stone’s throw from the river, every afternoon, and he’d gone back to helping Emma with her foals and relaxing in her office in the afternoons. When he left the West Wing, his dogs were always waiting for him, panting in the shade of the backyard.

His conversations with Emma had gone back to normal things, like siblings and favorite pets, birthday meals, and their past careers. Ted learned something new about Emma every day, and he shared things about himself as well.

But they were just dancing, waiting for the end of this song to see what the next one would be. He didn’t like the dance. He wanted to sit down to dinner and have it out. Get the truth. See all the pieces and try to figure out how they fit together.

She left the ranch again that weekend, and Ted didn’t ask where she was going. She wasn’t going to tell him anyway.

San Antonio.

Visiting friends.

Making homemade bread.

The words ran through his mind on a constant loop, and he knew he was missing something.

“You’ve got to focus when you’re in the saddle,” Nate said, and Ted blinked his way out of his own mind. Because Emma couldn’t teach him to ride, Ted had asked Nate to do it. The ranch did horseback riding lessons on weekends too, but not after noon. So Ted and Nate had taken care of the horses from the lessons that morning, and then Nate had taught Ted how to saddle a horse and how to get on.

“Sorry,” Ted said. He squinted into the bright sunlight, grateful for his cowboy hat. “I’m paying attention.”

Nate went through how to balance, and how to get the horse to move and how to command him to stop. Nate had given Ted a pretty gray horse named Enterprise, and he’d learned that Ginger named all of the horses on the ranch, and apparently, she liked Star Trek.

“Now you try,” Nate said, and Ted nodded.

He held the reins loosely in his hand, and he moved his heels back. “Go,” he said, and to his great surprise, Enterprise started walking. A smile spread across Ted’s face, and he looked at Nate like he’d just done something great.

“Let’s go,” Nate said, and he brought his horse around to walk side-by-side with Ted and the four blue heelers. Nate rode a brown horse with a black mane and tail. It was a special type of horse that Ted had forgotten the name of. But he was beautiful, and his name was Painted Desert.

Nate led them down the road Ted had walked on with Emma several times. There would be some shade up ahead. The steady rhythm of the horse’s hooves soothed Ted, so he was off-guard when Nate said, “Ginger wants to have the wedding out here.”

Ted swung his attention to Nate. “She does?”

Nate nodded, his cowboy hat doing a poor job of hiding his displeasure.

“Why aren’t you happy about that?”

“In September? Out here? It’s going to be as hot as Hades.”

Ted let a beat of silence pass, and then he burst out laughing. “That’s what you’re worried about?” He continued to chuckle as he shook his head. “Nate, you have a ton of money. Buy some misters and fans. Get some big tents set up, and air condition them. It’ll be fine.”

Nate looked at him, new hope entering his eyes. “That’s not a bad idea.”

“Of course it’s not,” Ted said. “When you’re rich, you don’t have to be hot, even outside in September.”

Nate rolled his eyes and looked forward again.

“What?” Ted asked. “I’m right.”

“I was hot in River Bay.”

“Yeah, well.” Ted thought quickly. “We only got a hundred and fifty dollars a month.” Yes, he knew even the rich went to prison. Dallas was a great example, as the man had been a renowned surgeon before he’d been convicted of insurance fraud and medical misconduct.

Nate didn’t respond, but Ted didn’t want to go back into his own thoughts. There were simply too many of them, and he couldn’t sort through them well enough to know which ones he should worry about and which ones he shouldn’t.

“Are you excited to get married?”

“Yes,” Nate said. “I’d get married tomorrow, if Ginger would do it.” He glanced at Ted. “But she wants everyone there. Her parents. Her sisters and her brother. All of that.”

“You don’t sound happy about that either.”

“I don’t know,” Nate said. “Of course her family should be there, but she doesn’t seem to be that close to them in the first place. Just pick a date and tell them. If they can come, great. If not, well, we’ll save them some cake. You know?” He glanced at Ted. “I’m trying to be neutral about it. Let her do what she wants. But she doesn’t want that either.”

“What does she want?”

“She wants me to voice my opinion. Says I have a say.” Nate shook his head. “It’s not really true, because when I tell her what I think, she just argues back with me.” He clicked at his horse as it tried to stall and get a bite of the sweet grass along the side of the road. “It’s fine. We’re fine. Planning a wedding and running a ranch is a lot of work all at once.” Nate tossed a smile at Ted. “How are you and Emma?”

“Okay,” Ted said, his voice pitching up a little bit.

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“She’s got secrets,” Ted said. “She doesn’t want to tell me.”

“Ah, I see.”

They continued down the road, and Ted was impressed with himself that he hadn’t fallen off his horse yet. In fact, he made it all the way back to the stable without even slipping in the saddle.

“You did great,” Nate said with a smile. “You want to go out to the marshes with me? I need to check a couple of cabins that were used this week.”

“Sure.”

After they’d brushed down their horses and watered them, they turned them out into the pasture and went to the equipment shed. Ted’s blue heelers were never far from him, and two of them even jumped up onto the back seat of the ATV.

“Oh, you want to go for a ride?” He grinned at them, and caught the key Nate threw to him. “I guess you can.” He swung his leg over the seat of the ATV, and the dogs adjusted themselves so they were balanced.

He followed Nate, who’d fired up a side-by-side, down the road, his friend going much faster than Ted felt comfortable going. He hadn’t driven a vehicle in a very long time, and certainly not one with two dogs on the back of it.

He pulled up to the cabins several seconds after Nate, who’d already gone inside. He came out with a trash bag in one hand and a wad of sheets in the other. Ted realized in that moment that Nate was doing housekeeping for these cabins.

“Get over here and make yourself useful,” Nate said with a grin, and Ted killed the engine on the ATV. He took the clean sheets inside and started making the bed while Nate replaced the trashcan liners and swept the floor. He started the dishwasher as Ted marveled that this cabin at least a mile from anything else in the world even had a dishwasher.

After Ted had run a duster over everything and Nate had scrubbed the bathroom, they went back outside, only to go to another cabin to do the same thing all over again. They repeated it two more times, and Ted found himself on a part of the ranch he’d never visited before.

Ginger claimed this ranch wasn’t nearly as big as some others out there, but to Ted, it felt massive. He’d spent most of his time in the stables and working with the horses, except for earlier in the week when he’d gone out to the pond to help clean up the carnage caused by the blooming algae.

Bill had been working on a solution to neutralize the water to stop the algae from spreading, and they’d put a fence around the pond so no animals would drink from it again.

His phone rang while he was running the duster over the windowsill, and Ted pulled it out to look at it. “It’s Martin,” he said, dropping the duster in favor of swiping on the call. “Hey, Martin.” He looked at Nate, who barely glanced at him and kept working.

“What does Wednesday look like for you?” Martin asked.

“It’s fine.”

“I believe you said afternoons are good. say, four o’clock?”

“Sure.”

“Great,” Martin said. “I’ll be at the homestead at four. See you then, Ted.”

“Yep.” Ted hung up, suddenly more nervous than before. This was a new step for him along this journey. He’d never met with a parole officer before, and he wasn’t sure how it would go.

He’d met with Ginger every day for the first week, and after that, she’d only checked in with him once a week. On Monday, he’d start his fourth week on the ranch, and as Ted got back to work in the cabin, he realized how much he liked the ranch.

He hadn’t anticipated that, because he’d come from a desk job, to prison, to this. He’d worked hard as a lawyer, and he’d often returned home exhausted. This was just a different kind of exhaustion.

“Okay, done,” Nate said. “Let’s loop around to the east here, and that’ll take us to the homestead to get this laundry done.”

“Lead out,” Ted said, and Nate swung himself behind the wheel of the side-by-side. He took off, and Ted thought perhaps his vehicle just went faster than Ted’s ATV. He didn’t mind being left in the dust, and he could see Nate just fine, so Ted knew where to go.

He enjoyed the sunshine on his skin, and the wind in his face, and the presence of the dogs on the back with him. Out this far from the epicenter of the ranch, Ted felt like the only person in the world, and he knew why people rented these cabins. To get away from everything, and be with people they loved, and experience the stillness of the air in a way few people did. All of that appealed to Ted.

The river bordered this side of the ranch too, and Ted slowed to look at it on this side of the property. One of the dogs jumped down, and Ted applied the brake. “Hey, Randy,” he called after the canine. To make matters worse, Paula jumped down too.

“Okay, guys,” he said, thinking they’d just run to the river and grab a drink. Instead, Randy started barking.

Ted looked out into the trees, but he couldn’t see anything. The dogs were trained to chase wild boars, and maybe Randy had caught a whiff of something. Ted turned off the ATV and got off, walking toward the two dogs.

Randy had quieted, and Ted kept looking out into the brush and trees that grew alongside the river. He couldn’t see anything.

His heart pounded in his chest, but Randy and Paula didn’t seem concerned now. They trotted at his side, and he looked down at them. They both looked up at him, and Ted asked, “What did you see?”

He stepped past the first tree, and came to a complete stop. Something blue loitered on the other side of the fence. Ted approached the fence much slower now, holding out one hand to keep the dogs back.

The truck wasn’t on; Ted couldn’t hear the engine idling. He’d have to jump the fence to see if anyone was in the vehicle, and he wasn’t allowed off the ranch. He didn’t wear an ankle bracelet or anything, but he wanted to be obedient to the terms of his reentry program.

He stood several feet back from the fence for what felt like a long time, undecided about what to do. No one got out of the truck, and there was no movement inside the cab.

“Come on, guys,” he said to the dogs. “Let’s go.” He edged backward a couple of steps when he heard the tell-tale sound of another vehicle. It came from the left, which was the road that went around the back of the ranch. Ted didn’t actually know where the road went. It could diverge at any point, or have another road connect to it, and he wouldn’t know.

This new truck was black and shiny, obviously recently washed. It was a king cab, and much, much nicer than the blue truck parked on the road.

Ted fell back even more, pausing when the leaves and branches started to block his view. “Come on,” he whispered to the dogs. “Come.” He ducked behind a tree trunk and crouched down, glad when Paula and Randy came to his side.

The black truck pulled to a stop behind the blue one, and the passenger door opened. So did the driver’s side door, but Ted couldn’t see that person.

He could see the man that got out on the side closest to him, and he watched with a measure of shock and horror moving through him as Robert Knight took off his sunglasses and looked out at the ranch.

The gurgling of the river couldn’t cover the sound of their voices, and Robert said, “I’ll meet you back at the shop,” as he rounded the front of the truck.

The driver, who Ted still couldn’t see, asked, “Do you want me to see if I can find out where she is?”

“No,” Robert said. “I’ll take care of it.” He got behind the wheel while the driver got in the blue truck. He drove it down the road in the direction it was pointed, but Robert turned the black truck around and went back the way he’d come.

Ted pulled in a breath as he realized he’d stopped breathing. Do you want me to see if I can find out where she is?

They were talking about Emma.

And Robert had said, No, I’ll take care of it.

Not I’ll take care of her.

Maybe they weren’t talking about Emma.

“They have to be,” Ted mused to himself, finally standing up straight and tall. “Come on,” he said to the dogs. “Let’s go.” He pulled his phone out as he strode back to the ATV. He needed to call Emma and warn her immediately.

He had no service out here, and Ted cursed his bad luck as he swung his leg over the seat and waited for the pups to jump up and get settled. Then he took off for the homestead at a much faster clip than ever before.





Chapter Sixteen





Emma set her spoon down, her stomach beyond full. Fran was an excellent cook, and Emma had made her honey-wheat bread to go with the sweet corn chowder Missy’s second mom had made.

“Thanks for always feeding me,” she said as Matt got up and moved into the kitchen. He had similar dark hair as Missy, where Fran was lighter. She had dirty blonde hair that she kept cut in a cute, stylish short style. Emma had never seen her without a large pair of earrings dangling from her lobes, and while she didn’t always wear makeup, she loved things that sparkled.

“Anyway,” Fran said, smiling at Emma. “Missy was so excited when she learned you were coming again this weekend.”

Emma liked having her schedule, and it was either come again or wait three weeks. Since Ginger had said she didn’t care, Emma had packed up her things and made the two-hour drive again.

She’d relaxed her precautions a little bit by skipping the overnight stay in the bus station. She’d simply rented a car instead of bringing her own, and she’d only spent a half an hour driving around the city before coming to the suburbs.

“Coffee, Em?” Matt asked, and she nodded.

“Lots of cream, if you have it.” They would, Emma knew. Fran loved eating it on fruit and cereal, as Matt had told her several times.

He brought over a sugar bowl and a pitcher of cream, meeting his wife’s eyes. Emma tensed, because she’d seen that look between them before. She waited until Matt went back into the kitchen to get down the mugs before she looked at Fran.

“What’s going on?”

“Missy, why don’t you go get your violin, so you can play your new song for your mom?” Fran smiled at the girl who sat at the table with them. She’d finished long ago, really only eating bread and a couple of bites of soup before she’d gotten out her latest coloring book. This one was all geometric shapes, and Emma had brought her a new package of metallic colored pencils. Missy had been anxious to try them, and no one cared if she colored while they finished dinner and chatted.

“All right,” Missy said, still coloring with the bright blue pencil. “Look, Momma. It’s so shiny.”

“It sure is,” Emma said, admiring it. “It’s like that blue ribbon your dad won at the fair last year.”

Missy’s face lit up, and she got down to go show Matt the blue of the pencil. Emma felt sure her heart would beat right out of her chest while she waited for Missy and Matt to finish their talk. Missy put her book back on the table and headed down the hall to her bedroom.

She met Fran’s eyes, and Matt seemed to know exactly when to come over. He sat beside Fran and took her hand in his. “I can’t say it,” Fran said, her voice choked.

Emma looked between the two of them, her nerves firing like rifles.

“We think it might be time for Missy to come live with you,” Matt said, looking only at Fran. He finally switched his gaze to Emma, whose breath had frozen in her lungs.

“Missy’s asked if she can go live with you every day this week,” Fran asked. She brushed at her eyes, her smile quick to follow. “I’m fine. I’ll miss her, because I love her, but I know I’m not her mother.”

Emma didn’t know what to say. She’d been blessed beyond measure to have these two in her life—and taking care of Missy for so long. “Yes, you are,” she finally said, her voice only half of what it normally was. “You’re her mother, Fran. And Matt, you’re her father.”

“She wants to be with you.”

“I live in a single bedroom on a ranch,” Emma said. Her mind went into overdrive, because she could get a place for her and her daughter. She could. She could work on payroll and send invoices from any computer with Internet access. She didn’t have to use the office at the ranch. She made enough at the ranch to pay for an apartment or a small house, and the whole world opened up, with so many new possibilities.

“I don’t know,” she said, swallowing. “You guys went to Florida two weeks ago.” She ducked her head, all of her familiar protections flying back into place and slamming the doors that had just opened. “Robert isn’t gone completely. He’ll find out if I suddenly have a ten-year-old living with me.”

“He’s not in Sweet Water Falls,” Matt said. “We had someone check.”

“Robert is highly mobile,” Emma argued back, studying her fingernails. “And well-connected.” She couldn’t forget that. None of them could forget that.

“I think you should think about it,” Fran said.

Emma nodded, because she knew she wouldn’t be able to stop thinking about it.

Missy returned, her violin already out of its case. Emma pasted a smile on her face and slipped into her pretending persona. “What song have you been working on?” she asked.

“It’s called Govotte,” Missy said, adjusting the instrument under her chin. She took a breath and glanced at Fran, who nodded at her. Missy took another breath, her slight shoulders lifting up and falling back down. She put the bow on the strings, and they made a squeak. She swallowed and breathed again, and Emma wished she could take her nerves from her. At the same time, she found them utterly fantastic and endearing.

She grinned at her daughter too, tears already gathering in her eyes. Missy moved the bow then, and the movement became sure and strong, and the instrument began to sing.

Emma couldn’t believe her daughter could make such beautiful music, and she wondered how she’d ever keep Missy in violin lessons in Sweet Water Falls. Fran didn’t work outside the home, so she had time and energy to dedicate to Missy. The truth was, Emma wouldn’t be a good mother—certainly not as good as Fran—and her emotion rose and rose until it choked her.

Missy finished the song, and Emma started clapping. She could play off her emotion as love for her daughter, which it was. But it was also very, very hard to accept that Missy was better off here with Fran and Matt than she would be with her own mother.

“Wonderful,” she said, her voice high-pitched and thick. “Awesome, baby.” She reached for Missy, and the little girl handed her violin to her dad and came around to hug Emma. “I love you so much,” she whispered against her daughter’s ear. “So much.”

“I love you too, Momma.”

The moment stretched, and Emma wished she could bottle it up and hold it close to her heart for a good long while.

“Missy,” Matt said, and the girl pulled away. She turned to look at him, and Emma wiped the tears from her eyes. “We mentioned that you wanted to go live with your mother.”

Missy pulled in a breath, and her eyes widened. She spun back to Emma, her hope strong and bright. It could’ve lit the whole night sky above Texas, and Emma hated disappointing her.

“And?” Missy asked.

“There’s a lot to work out,” Emma said. “But I’m going to start working on it.”

Missy squealed, and Emma hugged her again. She couldn’t believe she’d just said that. But maybe…maybe there was a way she could have her daughter with her for the second part of her childhood. Perhaps Robert wasn’t as big of a threat as she’d originally thought. They’d had no problems up to this point.

Her phone rang, and Emma pulled away from her daughter to see who it was. Ted’s name sat on the screen, and Emma’s heart bounced to the back of her throat.

“Who’s Ted?” Missy asked, and Emma looked up into her daughter’s innocent eyes. She had absolutely no idea how to answer.

“I need to take this,” she said instead, standing and looking at Fran. She swiped on the call before it could go to voicemail, and she said, “Hey, Ted,” as she walked out of the kitchen.

“Emma, praise the Lord,” he said. He sounded breathless and on the verge of panic.

Emma’s nerves immediately started a low wail in the bottom of her stomach. “What’s wrong?”

“I just saw Robert Knight,” he said.

Emma stopped walking, her brain misfiring in such a way that all she could do was breathe for a moment. Walking was out of the question. “What?” The word came out as little more than air. Ted couldn’t leave the ranch. “He’s on the ranch?”

“He was on the northeast service road with that guy in the blue truck. Well, his truck was black, but he dropped that other guy off. William.”

He wasn’t making any sense. Emma couldn’t keep track of so many names and colors right now. “Did you talk to him?”

“No,” Ted said. “I just overheard him say he’d meet William back at the shop, and William asked if he should figure out where ‘she’ is. Robert said he’d take care of it.”

Emma felt like she’d swallowed liquid nitrogen. If she moved at all, she’d crack and break. “Am I the ‘she’?”

“I think so, sweetheart,” Ted said. An engine roared on his end of the line, and then it went silent. “I just got back to the ranch. I had no service out there.”

“Momma?”

Emma spun around, her heartbeat tripling. Had Ted heard that? She accepted Missy into a hug while Ted said, “Anyway, I thought you should know. And listen, I know I said you didn’t have to tell me anything, but Em, I really want to know. I can help you.”

“I know,” Emma said. She looked down at her daughter. Felt the tight grip of her arms around her middle, and she just didn’t know how to say it.

“I’m worried,” Ted said. “And I usually don’t worry unless there’s a good reason. He…I didn’t like seeing him. I got an eerie feeling.”

Emma couldn’t get her voice to work. Several long seconds passed while she tried. Finally, Ted sighed, a sound heavy with frustration. “Okay, well, I guess that’s it if you’re not going to say anything.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“You tell me where you are,” he said. “And who you’re with. Right now, Emma. Where are you? Who are you with?”

She looked down at her daughter again, and Missy looked up at her with such an open expression of love. If she had any hope of taking her daughter home with her—ever—she’d have to tell people about her.

But this felt like she was doing everything out of order. “I need an hour,” she said to Ted.

“Sure,” he said, his tone filled with acid now. “You take what you need, Em. I’ll be here, because I literally can’t leave.”

She pressed her eyes closed, the tears in them stinging and burning. She’d heard what he really meant. If he could leave, he would. He’d leave her, because she was so frustrating to him. He’d walk away from their relationship, because she couldn’t confide in him.

“Good-bye, Emma,” he said, and while his voice wasn’t unkind, she flinched when the call disconnected.

Please don’t let that be our final good-bye, she thought as she lowered her hand holding her phone.

Her mind seemed to be running in two tracks. One moved slow enough for her to understand what she needed to do next. The other raced right up against the rails. She ignored that part for now and crouched down in front of her daughter.

“Missy,” she said. “It’s time for you to know who your father is and why I’ve had you living here with Fran and Matt and not me.”

The little girl said nothing, and Emma knew she was the one who needed to talk. In every instance, she was the one who needed to find the courage to open her mouth and talk. To Missy. To Ginger. To Robert.

And especially to Ted, at least if she wanted to keep him in her life.

It had only been a few weeks since he’d come into her life, but so much had changed in such a short time.

“Okay, Momma,” Missy said, drawing in a long breath. “I’m ready.” She’d asked innocent questions about her father in the past, and Emma had been able to put her off, because she was a child. She’d been asking a lot more questions about where Emma lived and why Missy couldn’t be there with her in the past couple of years, and Emma knew she’d started to grow her “big kid” eyes.

She was almost finished with fifth grade now, and she could handle this.

“Let’s go sit in the swing on the back porch,” she said. “And I’ll tell you everything.”

As she walked with her daughter through the kitchen, she tried to put on a brave face for Fran and Matt. Ted’s words from a while ago rang in her ears.

Everything comes out when it’s the right time.

Everything comes out in the end.

All she could do now was pray that it was the right time, and that her daughter would understand why Emma had done what she’d done.





Chapter Seventeen





Ted sat on the front steps of the Annex, watching the gravel lot in front of the homestead. Paula lay at his feet, while Randy, Simon, and Ryan had taken up spots at the bottom of the steps. The sky looked like an old bruise, but he couldn’t enjoy it. Emma should’ve been back by now.

What he had to judge that by, he didn’t know. Last week, she’d returned to the ranch while it was still light. Tonight, he hadn’t seen her car or heard from her—and he’d called twice.

He would not allow himself to call again. He’d told her about Robert and William. He’d told Ginger too. And Nate. They’d counseled him to just wait and see what Emma would say when she got back.

He was starting to think she wasn’t coming back. She could literally be anywhere, and his foot started to bounce again. He hated this gnawing, anxious feeling in his chest, the way his stomach felt too heavy one moment and then like it had lost gravity the next.

The sun went completely down, and darkness draped over everything. Emma still hadn’t come back.

The front door opened behind him, and Nate said, “Teddy, you’ve got to come in.”

“I can’t,” he said.

Nate sighed as he sat on the hard cement with Ted. “This is so uncomfortable.” He nudged Paula, who just lifted her head and glared at Nate.

Yes, it was, but Ted couldn’t force himself to get up. Nate let the silence go on and on between them, and finally Ted said, “I started to fall for her.”

“I know.”

“I feel like an idiot.”

“I know.”

“She’s never going to tell me anything.”

“You don’t know that.”

Ted looked toward the faint yellow lights leaking out from between the slats in the blinds at the West Wing. “What if she doesn’t come back?”

“Ginger says she will. She says she’s been this late before.” Nate sat with him a while longer, and then he went in with the words, “Ten more minutes, Teddy. Then I’m dragging you back inside. You can’t do this to yourself.”

Ted nodded, and as soon as Nate closed the door, sealing Ted outside in the blackness alone, he set a timer for nine minutes. He wasn’t going to make his best friend come drag him inside. He wasn’t pathetic.

He just wanted to see Emma and make sure she was okay. Yes, he wanted to question her again. Maybe in person, he could get his earnest and genuine feelings across. Couldn’t she tell he just wanted to help her?

Why wouldn’t she let him help her?

Nine minutes later, his alarm buzzed, and Ted stood up. His backside and legs pricked with pins and needles, and he almost went down again. He steadied himself and whispered, “Please bring her home safely, Lord,” and went inside.

He slept fitfully, his window open so he could hear the noise if anyone should pull onto the gravel or close a car door. When he woke in the morning, he felt like he’d never truly settled to sleep, and he’d lost count of how many times he’d sat up to peer through the blinds when he’d thought he’d heard something.

He couldn’t stop himself from looking through the blinds first thing, but he didn’t see Emma’s car parked in the driveway.

She really hadn’t come back to the ranch.

Surly and with his mind swollen with worry, he dressed and got to work, skipping breakfast completely. He was on cleaning stalls that morning, and he moved Raindrop and Lucky Penny to the pasture. With several more horses out of their stalls and his four canine friends close by, Ted put on his gloves and picked up the shovel.

He could work, work, work to distract himself. He wished he had a pair of earbuds so he could play really loud music and drown out his thoughts. As it was, all he had to entertain him while he scooped sawdust and straw was his own circular thoughts about Emma.

He finished the stalls in record time and went to feed her babies. “Do you know where she is?” he asked Second Best. He could relate to the colt’s name, because Ted felt about two inches tall and invisible. He knew Emma had seen him when he’d come to the ranch, but it didn’t matter. She was so far into her own narrative that she couldn’t see the possibility of telling him the truth. Doing so would unravel so many of her other carefully crafted lies until her entire existence would collapse.

She’d have to admit that everything in her life was a fraud, and Ted didn’t know many people who would do that. He’d seen it before as a lawyer. It was easier to live inside the lies one told themselves. They made their own reality, and they would not deviate from it, even when presented with facts and direct evidence to the contrary.

That’s where Emma existed, and Ted was simply not enough of a pull to get her to come out and see a new way of being.

He sighed as Second Best cried for more milk, and bless his heart, Ted wanted to give it to him. So he did, despite Emma’s strong warnings not to feed the babies more than one bottle each morning and night. She was actually trying to wean them, and she would not approve of Ted giving in to Second Best.

“But she’s not here,” he muttered to himself, a muted sense of darkness gathering in his very soul. He was well-acquainted with this feeling, and he struggled mightily against it. In River Bay, all he had to do was look at Nate for the man to know of the storm in Ted’s soul.

They’d go to the library or out on the yard while everyone else ate, and somehow, Ted would find a way to catch a ray of hope and wrangle it into staying with him for a while. Right now, Ted could not see any light at the end of this tunnel, and he started to spiral.

He pulled in a breath and held it, trying to find something to hold onto. There was nothing. “Can’t do this,” he said, and he pulled out his phone. Tapping quickly, he called his mother. Pick up, he begged. Please, Ma, pick up. Beside him, Randy whined, and Ted reached over to scratch the dog’s head.

“Teddy,” she said, and her voice alone centered him.

“Ma.” He sounded like a strangled goat, and he couldn’t say anything else.

“What’s wrong, Teddy?”

“Just tell me a story,” he said, leaning his head against the fencing separating him from Second Best. “Something good, Ma.” He’d requested this of her before, when he’d been in prison. When he’d been struggling in law school. When he’d left home for the first time and been so lonely in his dormitory at college.

“Teddy, who are you with?”

“I’m feeding a baby horse,” he said. “I’m alone. Well.” He looked at Randy. “I have my dogs here with me.”

“Go find Nate.”

“I can’t, Ma,” he said. “Just tell me a story. Maybe the one when we went to Epcot.”

A beat of silence passed, and then his mother’s kind, lovely voice filled the line. She detailed how Shane had wanted to stand in the line for the biggest roller coaster. “I can’t even remember the name of it.” She gave a light laugh, and that chased away some of the panic in Ted’s mind. “But we did. We stood there for hours. Britta had to go to the bathroom so bad, and we were all starving. Then, right when it was our turn, the ride malfunctioned. It scared Shane, and he wouldn’t get on it, even when they got it fixed.”

“So we went without him,” Ted said, finishing the story for her. “I remember that.” He smiled, because life had been simple then. His parents hadn’t had a ton of money, but they’d saved for a year to take the family to Florida. His mother had made everyone matching shirts—green and blue stripes—so no one would get lost in the theme park.

“Thankfully, that cured him of lines, and we were able to go around to the different countries and get snacks.” His mother laughed again, the sound of it made of pure magic.

“Mom,” he said, lifting his head and pulling the bottle away from Second Best. “I’m really sorry about everything that I’ve done that has caused you any pain at all.” His chest suddenly tightened, and he wasn’t even sure where the apology had come from. Only that it was there, and he’d needed to say it.

“Oh, Teddy,” she said. “You’re a good man, and you always have been.”

Ted wasn’t sure about that, because did good men really go to prison? Yes, there was a lot that was unfair about his case. If the man he’d hit hadn’t been an undercover cop, Ted might still be practicing law. If his firm hadn’t been dealing with some shady characters, the UC wouldn’t have even been there.

If it hadn’t been Wells’s birthday, and if Kellie hadn’t brought a cake, and if someone else—anyone else—had been cutting it, Ted wouldn’t be where he was.

He also believed with everything inside him that he was right where he was supposed to be, and that his path here was the one he was supposed to be on. So while he didn’t understand it, at least it didn’t add to his spiral.

“Thanks, Ma,” he said. “I love you.”

“I love you billions and billions, Teddy-bear,” she said.

Ted would never be too old or too rough to hear that from his mother, and he ended the call feeling a great deal better. He finished feeding the baby horses and sent a quick text to Emma. I took care of your babies. Are you all right? Can you call me when you get a second so I can hear your pretty voice?

He didn’t care what the last question revealed about his feelings for her. He wanted her to know he’d started to fall for her.

He didn’t normally take a break to walk by the river until afternoon, but he needed a few minutes to gather his wits back about himself. So he left the stables and headed for the trees that grew along the fence, which ran right along the river. This was where he’d first seen the blue truck and William Leavitt.

Ted forced himself to breathe slowly, taking in the biggest breath he’d ever taken. He held it. Then blew it out. Once, twice, three times, and Ted started to control the negative emotions that had been controlling him since he’d sat on the steps last night.

The sound of a vehicle had him turning right, and he couldn’t quite tell where it was coming from. Could’ve been Nate on the ATV or in the side-by-side, behind him. His heart pounded like it would be Robert Knight’s big, black truck.

When the blue one emerged through the trees, Randy growled and flattened himself on the ground. Ted’s reaction wasn’t much better. “What is this guy doing here?” he asked the four dogs who went everywhere with him.

Then, without thinking, Ted went over the fence and right off the ranch. “Hey,” he called, because William had his window down. The man looked toward him and slowed his truck. Ted waded right through the river, which wasn’t very wide or deep and sloshed up onto the dirt road where William liked to loiter.

“What are you doing here, William?” he asked.

Surprise crossed the other man’s face, probably because Ted knew his name. Ted marched toward him, pulled open the door, and yanked the guy right out of the truck.

“Hey,” William protested as Ted pushed him against the truck. “What are you doing?”

“What are you doing here?” Ted asked again, getting really close to William’s face. “And I spent almost six years in prison, so I know a lie when I hear one. Do not lie to me.”

“Get your hands off me.” William shoved against Ted, and he fell back, his vision going white. Ted sucked at the air, trying to blink his way back to reality.

What had he just done?

He’d left the ranch.

Strike one.

He’d put his hands on another human being.

Strike two.

He couldn’t afford a third strike. “Sorry,” he said, sucking at the air. Nothing in his life made sense anymore. “I’m sorry.”

“I know who you are,” William said. “And you best get back over that fence, Ted.”

Ted looked up and into the man’s brown eyes. “Why are you here? What does Emma have that you want? What does Robert want with her?”

William sighed like Ted was being difficult on purpose, and he looked down the road in both directions. “His ex-wife lives here, and his son is graduating from high school this week. So he’s back in town. He won’t be here long.”

“What does he want with Emma?”

“They were an item, back in the day.” William brought his gaze back to Ted’s, and it was filled with meaning. “I suppose he wants to see if there’s anything left there. His ex mentioned that Emma was still in town, because she was the boy’s second-grade teacher. Robert’s interest got piqued.”

That only made a bright fire burn in Ted’s soul. William took a step away from the truck and toward Ted. “I’m here to make sure whatever he says or does with her is legal.” His eyes shone with a new energy. “Do you get my drift?”

Ted studied the man’s face, trying to read between the lines. Confusion filled his brain, and everything felt so muddy. “No. Spell it out for me.”

“I’m a CI,” William said. “And trust me when I say you do not want me to tell your parole officer—or any police officer—that you just assaulted me.”

“I didn’t—” Ted started, but he cut himself off. He had dragged the guy from his truck and slammed him into it. And not just a guy. A guy who worked for the police. A confidential informant. Regret lanced through him hard, causing fear to slice through his chest. “I’m sorry.”

“You have an overprotective streak,” William said. “Reminds me of myself.” He got behind the wheel and closed his door. “Go back over the fence, Ted. I’ve been working on Robert for months. Let me handle this.”

“Do you know where Emma is?”

“She’s not on the ranch?”

“No.” Ted shook his head. “She left on Saturday morning. Some garbage about visiting friends in San Antonio. She didn’t come home last night.”

Alarm crossed William’s face, and he reached for his phone. “No wonder you’re worked up.” With that, William started to roll away from Ted.

“Hey,” he called after him. “Do you know where she is?”

But William didn’t answer. He didn’t wave out his window. Nothing.

Frustrated, and feeling like he was right back in prison—inside situations he couldn’t control and couldn’t change—Ted did what William had said to do.

He went back over the fence, his mental prayers now centered around blessing William with a forgiving heart so he wouldn’t tell anyone that Ted had snapped and done what he’d sworn to never do again—break the rules.





Chapter Eighteen





Emma crossed the bridge that led to Hope Eternal Ranch, her headlights carving a path through the darkness and directing her home. Driving away from Missy this time had been excruciating, because the child had cried and cried and cried.

It was hard to leave her behind in San Antonio when she was cheerful, a smile on her pretty face and her hand waving as Emma drove away. But to see and hear her sobbing into Fran’s shoulder?

So much worse.

Emma felt like someone had tied a dozen bags of rocks to her limbs, and her eyes burned with exhaustion. She had no tears left in her eyes, and they were now a barren desert—and it honestly felt like she’d rubbed sand in them.

She eased to a stop just past the fence, her tires crunching over the gravel. She cut the engine but stayed in the car. Only a soft glow came from the West Wing from a light someone had probably left on by accident. Probably Hannah, as the woman stayed up really late, and never turned off a light.

Emma had needed an extra day in San Antonio so she could talk to Fran and Matt in a rational way, while Missy was in school. They’d discussed Robert, and what Emma’s options were. There were many, and Emma didn’t dare let herself start to think about them right now, or she’d never go to sleep.

She left her bag sitting on the passenger seat and went inside the West Wing. She stopped at the fridge for something to drink and then tiptoed down the hall to her bedroom. The moment she lay down after changing into her pajamas, she fell asleep. She was just that tired.

She woke only a moment before her alarm went off, and Emma groaned as she rolled over and dismissed it. She kept taking slow, even breaths, though her need to use the restroom wouldn’t allow her to go back to sleep.

She finally got up and into the shower, realizing she’d left her toiletries out in the car. She made do with the soaps and shampoos she had in the bathroom, and started putting her façade together.

The makeup. The cute clothes. The hair.

All of it bothered her now. All of it felt like a huge amount of work for no reason whatsoever. She looked at herself in the mirror, and though she had the same pair of brown eyes looking back, and her hair really had gone into perfect waves that morning, and her eyeliner had never been more en pointe, she felt ugly.

She wasn’t herself.

The real problem was she didn’t know who she was.

Sighing, she turned away from the confrontation with herself and went outside. A glance to the Annex only revealed landscape, and she’d half-expected Ted to be waiting for her, the way he’d done several times in the past. They’d held hands on the way to the stables before, and Emma missed him keenly in that moment.

He’d called and texted several more times, but she’d been so busy, and then so preoccupied, and then so out of it, that she hadn’t returned his messages. His last text has asked her to call him so he could hear her voice, and Emma’s chest warmed. Maybe she hadn’t ruined everything with him.

“Maybe you should call him right now.” She took her phone out of her pocket and did just that.

“Emma?” he asked after only one ring.

“Hey, Teddy,” she said, her mouth automatically curving up into a smile. “I got your message about calling, but it was really late last night.”

“Yeah, I heard you pull in.”

“You did?”

“Yes,” he said simply. “Where are you?” Up ahead, she saw him step out of the stables, and Emma quickly lifted her hand in a wave. “There you are.” He started striding toward her, and Emma didn’t say anything, but she didn’t hang up either.

He finally lifted his phone away from his ear, and then pushed it into his back pocket. “Hey,” he said as he drew nearer and nearer. He swept her right into his arms, and Emma wondered if this was what it felt like to come home. Funny how within the circle of Ted Burrows’s arms had become her safe space.

“I’ve been so worried about you.” He stepped back, and now he wore displeasure in his eyes. “I don’t like it when you leave town like that.”

“I know.” Emma bristled at his tone, but she couldn’t really blame him.

“Where’d you go?”

“San Antonio,” she said, already weary of the conversation. She’d enjoyed the hug, and she’d felt his relief at seeing her. But he still had enormous expectations for her, and Emma already knew she couldn’t deliver. She stepped past him and continued toward the stables. “Thanks for feeding the babies yesterday.”

“Yeah,” he said, following her. “Is that what we’re doing?”

“Is what what we’re doing?”

“Emma.” He put his hand on her upper arm, and she stopped walking.

She sighed as she turned back to him. “Why can’t we just be happy to see each other?” she asked. “I’m so happy to see you.”

Ted searched her face, his eyes moving back and forth between hers. “I want more than that.”

“You want too much from me.”

“The truth is too much? So I don’t have to lie awake at night and wonder if you’re okay? That’s too much for you?” He shook his head, anger flashing in his dark eyes now. “Wanting to be trusted is too much.” He wasn’t asking now. “Okay, I get it.” He brushed past her and entered the stables.

Emma didn’t want to go inside, but she had five days of work to do in four, so she couldn’t stand out here, doing nothing. She went inside the stables too, the sight of Ted’s back to her utterly devastating.

She’d told Ginger about Missy. Why was it so much harder to admit to Ted?

And if she couldn’t tell him, how could she ever sit down with Robert and tell him?

“Ted,” she called, but he just kept going. As if a switch had flipped, he spun on his heel and came back toward her.

His fingers clenched and unclenched. He stopped a healthy distance away. “I know I’m demanding,” he said. “I want the truth. I always have. It’s why I became a lawyer.” He refused to look away from her. “I started to fall in love with you. Stupid, and idiotic, and maybe I was just kidding myself. I know. I know all of that. But I also know a soul in trouble. I can feel it. I just know it. And I’d been in so much turmoil myself, and I thought we were a good match.”

He shook his head and pressed his teeth together, making his jaw muscles jump. “I know it’s only been three weeks, but I feel close to you. It’s stupid, I know, because you obviously don’t feel the same.”

“Teddy,” she said. “That’s not true.”

“Then tell me where you were.”

“I was in San Antonio.”

“It’s a big city, Em. And I know your family doesn’t live there.” He took one calculating step toward her, his eyes glittering with that frustration. “So who do you go there to visit?”

Her heart trembled. “I have friends there,” she said. “They’re like family.”

“What are their names?”

“Fran and Matt Black,” she said, dancing dangerously close to the edge of her sanity. He could look them up. Ted seemed to have resources and instincts normal people didn’t.

“I talked to William,” he said. “He said Robert’s in town for his son’s graduation.”

“Oh.” Emma didn’t want to talk about Robert or his son.

“He said Robert’s interested in finding out if the two of you can pick up where you left off.”

The very idea was laughable, but Emma didn’t laugh. No, pure horror had struck her right between the ribs.

Ted lowered his head, his voice going with it. “Emma, I don’t want a relationship that isn’t built on trust. That’s the very bottom layer. The very most important. The one that should be the strongest.” He looked up at her. “So you should call Robert and see if he’s really interested. Because I’m not.” He nodded like that was that. “I’m already late for work. So I’m gonna go….” He fell back a step and turned fully when she didn’t try to stop him.

Emma simply stared after him, her mind whirring like a blender. He wanted her to call Robert and see if he was interested in having another relationship with her? Was he insane?

“No,” she murmured to herself as he rounded a corner and disappeared from her sight. “He just broke up with you.”





The next couple of days passed in a haze. Friday morning, Emma woke to two texts. One from Missy, who’d asked if she could call Emma after school. She didn’t say what for, but Emma said, yes, of course, sweetie. Just tell me what time so I can make sure I’m available.

The other text was from Robert Knight. Her stomach flipped and her eyebrows drew down as she looked at the text. The words were in English, but she didn’t understand them. See you at twelve-thirty for lunch. Can’t wait!

“Twelve-thirty for lunch?” she looked up, as if someone would be standing there in her bedroom to remind her that she’d texted Robert earlier in the week—mere minutes after Ted had broken up with her, in fact—and set up this lunch with him.

She scrolled back up through the conversation, and everything came flooding back to her. She’d reached out to him to tell his son congratulations on his graduation for her. Things had gone from there, and she’d been the one to suggest lunch on Friday.

She supposed she thought Friday would never come. Every minute on the ranch with Ted was torture, and stringing sixty of them together to make an hour made her head ache. Then the hours became days, and as time marched on, Friday had arrived.

Someone knocked on her door, and a moment later, Ginger eased through it. “Hey, Sunshine,” she said, her voice low and her smile high. “How are you today?”

“Okay,” Emma said, wondering why Ginger was treating her like a wounded animal. “I’m getting up.” She stood, realizing how much actual sunshine was pouring through the slats in her blinds. “What time is it? I’m so late.” She thought of the foals, and she wondered if she could skip showering.

It wouldn’t be the first time. Wait. Yes, it would.

She turned toward Ginger, who she now noticed held a cup of tea, which she extended toward Emma. “What’s going on?”

“You’ve kind of…disappeared?” Ginger guessed.

“Where did I go?” Emma sat back down on the bed and sipped her tea.

“You just…well, here’s an example. Yesterday, I got a call that we had a rogue tourist on the ranch, walking through the stables in their pajamas.”

Emma looked up from her teacup, so many memories flashing through her mind. Horror filled her as her eyes rounded.

“It was you, Em,” Ginger said, sitting next to her and patting her leg. “Bill didn’t even recognize you.”

“That’s because I’ve been hiding behind makeup and jewelry and cute clothes for a long time,” Emma said.

“Mm,” Ginger said. “Are you sure that’s it?”

“What else would it be?”

“Maybe you fell in love with Ted Burrows.”

“Please,” Emma said, scoffing. “With everything else I have going on, Ted is at the bottom of the list.”

“Okay,” Ginger said, but her tone suggested that she didn’t believe Emma.

The words scraped against Emma’s own feelings besides. She knew the reason she’d given up putting on her perfect persona was because of Ted. Unhappiness filtered through her, but she didn’t know what to do about it.

Yes, she told herself, and she had the distinct feeling she would’ve said it out loud had Ginger not been in the room with her. You know what to do. Work things out with Robert. Get Missy here. Talk to Ted.

That was why she’d texted Robert—to get Ted back.

“Thanks for the tea,” she said, handing the cup back to Ginger. “I’m going to shower.” She went through all the motions, and today, she did plait her hair just so, and paint on the pretty eyeliner, and put the perfect smile on her face.

She didn’t do much in terms of working in the office, and by the time the alarm on her phone went off, the West Wing was quiet and empty. No fanfare for Emma as she took her keys from the hook by the door and left the house. No one to wish her luck. No one to say a prayer with her.

So she wished herself good luck, and she kept a steady stream of silent prayers running through her mind as she made the solitary drive to town. Somehow, she knew where she and Robert had agreed to meet, and she saw him waiting beside a huge black truck when she turned into the parking lot, driving her decade-old car.

Everything about the two of them was opposite, and she wondered what she’d ever seen in him. Had she once envisioned a future with him? If so, how had she thought that would work?

When she thought of next year, or five years from now, she wanted just two things: Ted and Missy.

Well, and her job at the ranch, and maybe that teacup piglet.

She’d never looked forward to the future the way she was now, and she knew that switch had been flipped by Ted Burrows.

Emma got out of the car and approached Robert, her pulse pounding in her ears.

“Emma.” Robert laughed, and his deep, rich voice struck a chord in Emma. She let him swoop her into a hug, as if no time at all had passed between them. As if he hadn’t simply left town one day without a word. As if she hadn’t then hidden her pregnancy from everyone and lived the last ten years as a near-hermit while she paid someone else to raise her daughter.

“Hello, Robert,” she said. “Should we go in?” It was much too hot to stand around outside, and she wanted to get down to business.

“Sure.” He tried to take her hand as they walked toward the restaurant, but Emma deftly slipped it away from him.

“How long are you going to be in town?” she asked while he held the door open for her.

“Oh, I don’t know.” He blew his breath out, and Emma had heard that before. I don’t know for Robert meant he wasn’t there to stay. He could come or go, according to his whims—and he did.

“Jason’s graduating,” Emma said.

“Yes.” He signaled to the hostess that there would be two of them, and she led them to a table. Emma kept breathing in and out while they settled down, looked at the menu, and ordered drinks.

Then she leaned toward him and said, “Listen, Robert, the reason I wanted to meet with you is because I have to tell you something.”

He reached for his water glass, his keen eyes missing nothing. “Okay.”

Emma swallowed, finding her throat beyond dry. She too reached for her water and took a small sip. Her stomach raged at her to flee from this place. Keep her mouth shut, and just go back to the system they’d been using before. It had worked. No one had gotten hurt.

At the same time, her heart wailed at her that it had been hurt. She was terribly lonely, and she wanted her daughter with her. She wanted to build a family with Ted.

In that moment, she realized just how right Ginger had been. Maybe she had started to fall in love with Ted Burrows.

That thought gave her the confidence and strength she needed to open her mouth and say, “We have a ten-year-old daughter, and I thought you should finally know.”





Chapter Nineteen





Ted’s phone rang as he put the last bite of his turkey sandwich in his mouth. Paula huffed and laid down, and Ted felt a bit bad that he hadn’t shared with the dog. He’d meant to, but his mind had been a maze the past few days.

The only thing anchoring him to the earth right now was his job. And Nate and Connor.

He looked at his phone, his heartbeat stuttering over itself. Emma’s name sat on the screen.

He knocked the phone off his leg in his haste to answer it, and he muttered under his breath as he picked it up and swiped the call on. “Emma?”

“…I just think you should try to see reason,” Emma said, her voice quite high-pitched. “Think about it, Robert. What are you going to do? Keep me locked up in your huge house? Until when? My friends will know I’m gone. They know I went to lunch with you today.”

Ted hadn’t known that, but he sprang to his feet and started toward the homestead. He needed another phone to call the police, because Emma was in trouble.

Emma was with Robert.

Robert was not happy, if the curt, blunt tone of his voice was any indication. “I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “But you don’t get to make decisions for me, Emma.”

Ted wasn’t sure what that meant, and he broke into a jog. “Get him to say where you are,” he said, hoping Emma could hear him but Robert couldn’t. “I need an address, Emma.”

“How long have you had this house?” she asked him. “It’s nice, out here in the hills.”

Out in the hills.

Huge house.

There couldn’t be that many of those, could there?

Ted had obviously forgotten he lived in Texas.

“Rockwood Estates,” Emma said. “These are new. How long have you lived here?”

“I don’t live here,” Robert said, his voice dark and cold. “I have fractional ownership in a cabin here. My son and I are staying here for a couple of days until he leaves on his senior trip with his mother.”

“Fractional ownership?’

“Yes, it means I can use the cabin for seventeen weeks out of the year. I just have to arrange it with the other owners.”

Ted didn’t know how to call for help on one phone and listen to the conversation on the other. But he picked up the landline in the Annex and dialed 911 anyway. “Hang on, Emma,” he mumbled, muting his end of the call. He could still hear her, but she couldn’t hear him.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?’

“Yes, hi,” Ted said, pacing in the kitchen. The run from the river to the Annex had taken something from him too. “My…this woman I know is being held against her will.”

“She is?” the operator asked. “Did she get abducted?”

“I don’t know,” he said. It was entirely possible that she’d gotten into Robert’s truck of her own volition.

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know,” Ted said, and he wasn’t sure of anything anymore. “She called me on my other phone, and she sounds afraid, and she said things like he’s going to lock her up in his huge house in the hills.”

“Wow, this place is nice,” Emma said while the emergency services operator asked Ted another question. But he couldn’t hear it, because he needed to listen to Emma.

“Fishing Run Cabin,” she said. “Did you name it that?”

“You really have forgotten everything about me,” Robert said. “I don’t fish, Emma.” He said it in a sarcastic, cruel voice, and Ted needed to get emergency help there quickly.

“I’m sorry, sir,” the woman said. “But if she hasn’t actually been abducted, I can’t send an officer out.”

“I think she’s in trouble.”

“Okay,” the woman said. “Why do you think that?”

“Gut instinct,” he said.

“Do you know where she is?”

“Fishing Run Cabin?”

The woman sad something and started tapping on her keyboard, the strokes of it so loud in his ear. “No Fishing Run Cabin,” she said. “Sir, this line is for emergencies only. Do you have an emergency?”

“Yes,” he said, practically barking the word. “My friend has been taken to Fishing Run Cabin.”

“Wow, Robert,” Emma said on the other line. “Look at this place.” He paused, because she didn’t seem to be talking or acting like a woman scared for her life.

“Sorry,” Ted said. “I have to go.” He hung up while the operator attempted to say something.

He looked to the bowl where the other cowboys kept their keys. Technically, Ted wasn’t supposed to leave the ranch. But, he could leave with Emma. So he’d get to her, and then they’d be together, and it wouldn’t matter that he’d broken the rules—again.

Without second-guessing himself, he grabbed a set of keys and went out to the garage. Emma had gone silent on the call, though the timer indicating how long they’d talked continued to tick.

He wasn’t even sure whose keys he’d grabbed. He used the fob to honk the horn, and that was how he got behind the wheel of a ratty, once-white pickup. He couldn’t think too hard about what he was doing, or he’d turn around and go back inside.

Instead, he drove past the gate, over the bridge, and off the ranch.





Twenty minutes later, no one had pulled him over. He’d even passed a police cruiser going the other way, and he hadn’t suddenly spun around, spit gravel behind his tires, and come after Ted.

His phone had told him to turn right, and Ted eased the ancient truck off the highway and onto a dirt road. His heart pounded in the back of his throat, because he couldn’t see very far down the road, and trees stood tightly against it.

Anyone could be anywhere, and they’d surprise him. His muscles bunched, and tension radiated from the front of his body to the back. He’d felt like this before—during the fight in the office, at his trial, on the way to the federal correctional facility. The low-security prison had very few fights, but there had been a couple, and Ted thought of his friends still in River Bay.

Determination filled him. He would always fight for what was right, and going to Emma’s aid was right.

“She called you,” he told himself. The call had ended only a few minutes after he’d left Hope Eternal Ranch, and he hadn’t dared call her back.

He eased around a corner, and a gate loomed ahead. Made of red and brown bricks, it stood sentinel on both sides of the dirt road, and the Texas flag protruded from the top of it on the left. On the right, a sign said Fishing Run Cabin.

A brief moment of relief calmed him, because he’d made it. Funny how his app on his phone had found this address, but the emergency operator hadn’t.

He turned another corner, and a massive cabin came into view. Made of logs and glass, it was easily the biggest house Ted had ever seen. A set of stairs led up to the wide front deck that wrapped around the sides of the cabin, and that shiny, black truck Ted had seen before sat out front.

Ted pressed on the brake and stopped. The entire front of the three-story cabin sat in front of him, and if anyone looked out of any of the windows, they’d see him. “They probably already have,” he muttered, and he pulled right up next to Robert’s truck.

Ted got out of the truck, his cowboy boots crunching against the gravel and dirt beneath them. He looked around, trying to see everything at once. The trees had been cleared around the cabin, and anyone could come out of the thicket at any time.

Ted stayed behind the black truck and his open door, listening. He couldn’t hear anything but the rustling of leaves with the breeze and something else he couldn’t identify. Perhaps the distant sound of music playing from somewhere inside the house.

Ted left his door open so the slam of it wouldn’t disrupt the silence out here, and he edged away from the front of the cabin. Around the back, a set of double doors entered the cabin on the bottom level, and the music became louder.

It came from down the hall to the right, and something whispered to Ted that he wouldn’t find Emma that way.

He started up the steps, moving slowly and wondering what he was going to do when he ran into someone. He’d just broken into their house.

Panic filled him, and he nearly ran back out the double doors, leaving them open behind him. “Stupid,” he muttered under his breath as he went back around to the front of the house. He was playing this all wrong, and he was going to go back to prison because of it.

“Not happening,” he told himself. He was allowed to be off the ranch with Emma. He was. He went straight to the pickup he’d arrived in and slammed the door shut. He walked up the front steps of the cabin, trying to think of a reason why he’d have come down this deserted road to this luxury cabin in the woods.

He lifted his hand and knocked, his pulse racing. He didn’t expect anyone to answer, because why would a criminal who’d just kidnapped a woman come to the door?

No one did come, and Ted wasn’t sure what to do. This was a big place, and maybe no one had heard his knock. He looked for and found a doorbell, not a moment’s of hesitation before he reached for it.

He could hear it peal through the whole house, and he waited, his heart knocking against his ribcage. Leaning closer, he could hear a man’s voice, then footsteps coming closer, and Ted pulled away just as the door opened.

Robert Knight stood there, and though Ted had never met him face-to-face, his was a face Ted knew well. He’d looked at it in enough files to have it memorized, even if he didn’t have an affinity for remembering every face he saw.

A growl filled the man’s expression, and he asked, “What do you want? This is private property.” He leaned into the doorway, not letting Ted see past him at all, the door only open a couple of feet at most.

Ted would not put his hands on another human being, though his fingers fisted as he stared into the other man’s dark eyes.

He forced a chuckle from his mouth. “My truck ran out of gas. I managed to push it down here, and I was wondering if you could give me a ride back to town.” He kept the smile on his face and hooked his thumb over his shoulder to the ratty pickup truck.

Robert narrowed his eyes, never looking away from Ted. “Don’t you have a phone?”

Ted’s smile slipped, his phone in his pocket suddenly very heavy. “It died,” he said, his throat so dry. Robert wasn’t going to let him in the house, and if he had Emma here, he wasn’t going to drive him back to town.

The two men stood there, staring at one another, and Ted’s fear multiplied. He was bigger than Robert—slightly, but definitely taller, with more bulk in his muscles thanks to the time he’d had to work out over the past six years in prison.

Robert seemed to know Ted was lying, and he finally said, “I can’t help you,” and started to close the door.

Ted stuck his boot out and stopped the movement. “Where’s Emma?” he demanded.

Robert’s eyes widened, and Ted pushed against the door, sending the other man backward into the house. Ted took a step inside, then another, trying to assess the situation, where entrances and exits were, furniture he could put between him and Robert, all of it.

“Emma,” he called. “It’s Ted. Where are you?”

“Get out of my house,” Robert said. “There’s no Emma here.”

“Emma,” Ted called again, his stomach tight but the fight strong in him. He wasn’t just going to walk away from her. She’d been nervous on the phone, and Ted wanted to protect her with everything inside him.

A scream came from somewhere in the house, and Ted’s gaze flew to Robert’s. Neither of them moved, and the thumping bass from the music in the basement was the only sound.

Ted took a step, and Robert darted toward him. He latched onto Ted’s arm with one hand and lifted a piece of art with the other. A very pointed, very heavy piece of glass sculpture.

“Go,” he hissed, and Ted let Robert push him through the front room and into the back of the cabin, where an expansive living room stretched to the right, with the dining room and kitchen to the left.

Emma sat in a recliner, and it took Ted a moment to see she’d been handcuffed to the nearby TV cabinet. Tears streamed down her face, and Ted’s heart wept with her.

He knew in that moment that he could easily fall in love with her. He’d been sliding that way already, and his strong desire to protect her, keep her safe, and learn everything about her only intensified.

“Let me go,” he said, ripping his arm away from Robert. He rounded the couch and went to Emma. “Hey. I got your call.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” she said, her voice so high. “I shouldn’t have called.”

“You called him?” Robert asked, his presence coming up behind Ted. All of the rage was directed at Emma, though, and Ted’s gaze flickered to the TV cabinet. He needed to get her unhooked from that thing.

He rose silently and turned toward Robert. “You need to let her go. I’ve already called the cops.”

Robert searched his face, and Ted had learned a thing or two about hiding his emotions from his time in prison. He covered everything with the stone mask that had served him well in the dormitory and cafeteria as he glared right back at Robert.

“Now,” he added.

“Are you her boyfriend?”

“That’s right,” Ted said, his voice utterly even.

“Ted,” Emma said behind him.

“Does he know?” Robert asked, leaning around Ted and shooting a dark look at Emma. He zeroed in on Ted again. “Do you know she has a ten-year-old daughter? My ten-year-old daughter? She’s been hiding her in San Antonio.”

Shock filled Ted, though he’d known something had been hidden in Emma’s past.

“Robert,” Emma said, her voice sharp.

Ted found himself turning toward Emma, and she looked back at the two men standing in front of her. Time stood still while everything streamed through Ted’s mind. So much seemed to be there, and then with a snap of his fingers, it all disappeared.

“I don’t care,” Ted said. “I didn’t know, but I don’t care.” He crouched down in front of Emma and reached up to wipe her tears. “I don’t care, Emma. It doesn’t matter.”

“Oh, it matters,” Robert said, and he grabbed Ted’s arm again, this time deftly handcuffing him to the handle on the sliding glass door.





Chapter Twenty





“Tell me her name,” Robert said again, but Emma pressed her teeth together. She’d told him plenty already, and she wasn’t going to put her daughter in danger while she was handcuffed to a piece of furniture.

Robert wouldn’t leave until he knew where he could go to find Missy, and right now, he didn’t even know her name. San Antonio was a big place, and he’d never find her without more information.

“You need to let us go,” Ted said. “This is going to be bad for you, Robert.”

Robert barely flicked his eyes in Ted’s direction. All of his anger and malice stayed solely centered on Emma. She wasn’t sure what he would’ve done if Ted hadn’t rang the doorbell, but he’d been standing in the kitchen, doing something with his back turned to her as he threatened her with legal action.

He’d told her to stay quiet, but when Emma had heard Ted call her name, she hadn’t been able to comply. He’d come. She’d called him, and though they weren’t on the best of terms, he’d come.

He’d been the first name in her mind in her panicked state, though she could’ve called Ginger and not risked Ted’s freedom.

He doesn’t care, she thought, and that was as magical as it was unbelievable. She’d spent so long hiding the truth about her past, as well as the evidence of the kind of person she’d been, that she hadn’t ever stopped to consider that she could outgrow all of it.

She had become someone different. The past was the past, not a roadmap for her future.

“All right,” Robert said in a freaky-calm kind of voice. He turned and went back into the kitchen, and Ted shifted on Emma’s right. She glanced over at him to see he had his cell phone out, and her heart leapt with hope.

“I see how this is going to be played,” Robert said. “I was just telling Emma here when you showed up, Ted, that I had ways of making her tell me what she knows.”

Ted tapped out a message to Nate, and sent it. Then he called 911. He looked at her, and their eyes met. Fear streamed through her, because Robert would hear him if he spoke.

She glanced at Robert, but he still stood a dozen paces away, his back to them, as he looked down at something on the kitchen island.

“We’ve been taken captive,” Ted whispered. “Fishing Run Cabin. Twenty minutes north of Sweet Water Falls. We need help.”

“Dad?”

Emma’s attention flew to the newcomer to the room—a young man who looked almost identical to Robert. “Jason,” she said, her memory of the seven-year-old fitting together with his face. “Help us.”

“What is going on?” Jason asked, looking from Ted and Emma back to his father.

Robert had turned from the island, and Emma couldn’t tell what his expression said. He wasn’t happy, but she wasn’t sure if he was embarrassed, angry, or surprised.

“You’ve got to find the key,” Ted said. “And get us out of here.”

“Please,” Emma added. “Jason, do you remember who I am?”

The young man looked at her, confusion drawing his eyebrows down. “I feel like I do know you.”

“You don’t,” Robert said. “Go back downstairs, Jason.”

“I can’t just go back downstairs,” he said. “You have two people handcuffed in our living room.” He waved his arm toward Ted and Emma, as if Robert didn’t know they were there. “You can’t do this kind of stuff, Dad. It’s ridiculous.” He folded his arms. “Give me the key.”

“No.”

Jason’s jaw jutted out, and he took a couple of steps toward his father. He passed him and went into the kitchen. “Who are you?” he asked as he started opening drawers.

“It’s Miss Clemson,” she said. “Your second-grade teacher.”

Jason paused then, looking up. Shock ran through his expression, and he abandoned his search in the kitchen. He came toward her, recognition lighting his eyes. “It is you.” He paused near the end of the couch. “Why are you here?”

“Your father kidnapped me,” she said.

“Oh, come on,” Robert said. “Tell him the truth, Emma. Why can’t you tell the truth?”

Emma swallowed, because there were so many eyes on her. Ted’s were the heaviest, and she wasn’t sure she believed that he didn’t care about her past. For a few minutes there, she had, and what a glorious few minutes they’d been.

“He’s very angry with me,” Emma said. “Because we had a child together, and I didn’t tell him.”

Jason’s mouth opened slightly, and his eyes widened. He looked at Robert, who gestured to Emma like everything that was happening was her fault. She certainly felt like it was.

“So what, Dad?” Jason bit out. “You don’t care about your kids.” He stalked away from them in the living room, and Robert followed him.

“What does that mean?”

“Oh, come on,” Jason said, and he sounded exactly like his father, who’d said the same thing only a few seconds ago. “You sail into town for graduations and anything else you think you need to show your face at. But you don’t care about me. You never wanted me.”

“That’s not true,” Robert said.

“Oh?” Jason asked, ripping through drawers again. “When’s my birthday?”

Everything stilled then, and Emma sensed an opportunity. “Just let us go,” she said. “We won’t say anything, and you can keep doing what you do. I don’t want child support. I just want you to leave me alone, and leave my daughter alone.”

Robert spun toward her, pure rage on his face. “She’s my daughter too.”

Jason scoffed and laughed, and in the next moment, he said, “Found it.”

Robert stepped in front of him. “You will not let them go.”

“What are you going to do?” Jason challenged. “You’re going to get blood on your precious rugs. And then what will Gustus think?”

Robert seemed to deflate, but beside her, Ted perked up. “You’re still working for your father?”

Robert faced them again, his eyes like live coals. “No.”

“Yes,” Jason said. “The old man keeps tabs on everything, and he’s not going to like this.”

“I can’t believe it,” Ted said. “Why haven’t you taken over the family business yet?”

Emma looked at him, wondering what in the world he was doing. Adding more fuel to Robert’s fury didn’t seem like the smart thing to do.

Ted looked at her and nodded, but Emma wasn’t sure what he wanted her to say.

Jason tried to get past his dad, but Robert wouldn’t let him.

All at once, Emma knew what she needed to say. “He hasn’t taken over the family business, Ted, because Robert wants all the glory without any of the responsibility.”

“Oh, I see,” Ted said, meeting her eye. For a second, it seemed like they were just having a normal conversation about someone while they enjoyed the sunshine pouring in the windows beside them. “Just like with his son. So he sails into town for graduation, probably with a big gift, but he doesn’t want to be around for any of the hard stuff.”

“Exactly,” Emma said. “Which is why I didn’t tell him about my daughter. She didn’t need that. She still doesn’t.”

“Stop it,” Robert said.

“Dad, let me release them.”

“No,” Robert yelled. He held out his arm to keep Jason from going by, and he thrust the other one toward Ted and Emma, though they were paces away. “No. No one’s going anywhere.”

“He only owns this place for seventeen weeks out of the year, too,” Emma said. “Can’t even take responsibility for a house full-time.”

“Stop it,” Robert said.

Jason pushed past his father, a bellow coming out of his mouth. Robert grunted and grabbed onto his son, and they both went to the ground. Threats were issued, and Ted yanked against his handcuffs, a frustrated sound coming from his mouth. Emma had already tried to get free from the cabinet, but nothing had budged.

“Leave him alone,” Ted said, reaching over and slapping his palm against the glass. He stood up, and everything seemed to be happening so fast. He pulled against the door handle again; it didn’t move. He picked up his chair with one hand and threw it through the glass.

The shattering sound brought the unseen struggle on the other side of the couch to a stop, and Ted strode away from her, the door handle from the sliding glass door dangling from his wrist.

Before he could reach the pair, commanding, loud voices filled the air.

“Freeze. Get down on the ground!”

Relief filled Emma as four police officers streamed into the living room, and she couldn’t stop the tears as they flowed down her face again.

Ted knelt with both hands on the back of his head, saying nothing. Jason said plenty, though, and the cops didn’t haul Ted to his feet, cuff him, and lead him out of the house.

They did do that to Robert, and Jason looked at her, his hair rumpled and blood trickling out the corner of his mouth. “Here’s the key,” he said to one of the cops, and he released Ted first, and then Emma.

She automatically reached to rub her wrist, which bore an angry red mark.

Ted got swept away, out into the front room with two cops. Another sat Jason at the dining room table, where a paramedic knelt in front of him to tend to his lip. Another came toward Emma, who could not stop crying.

“Are you hurt?” the man asked, and Emma didn’t know if she should shake her head yes or no. She let the man check her, and when they finally let her leave the house, she couldn’t find Ted anywhere.

“Emma,” Ginger said, rushing forward from where the police had been holding her, and Emma hurried down the front steps and into the arms of her best friend.





Emma pulled the blanket tighter around her legs and looked at Ginger. “We can really have the cabin in the corner?”

“My parents decided not to come back to the ranch,” Ginger said. “It’s all yours.” She looked down and picked up her phone. “I’ll miss you here in the West Wing.”

“The office is here.”

“So you won’t quit?”

“Nate has Connor here,” Emma said. “I can get Missy to school and back, and she’s been saying she wants to learn to ride in the afternoons.” She thought about the violin lessons, but she pushed her insecurities away. “So no. I can do this job, Ginger.”

“I know you can.”

The incident at Robert’s cabin was a day old now, and she’d talked to Fran and Matt and Missy. Saturday, she’d be driving to San Antonio one final time, and Matt and Fran would follow her back to Hope Eternal Ranch.

They wanted to see it too, and they’d tow a trailer with everything Missy needed to start the second half of her childhood with Emma as her mother.

Pure fear flowed through her. She’d never taken care of another human being besides herself for any length of time, and she had no idea what she was doing. Fran had said she could call anytime, but the guilt of taking Missy from Fran and Matt threatened to smother her almost all of the time. She wouldn’t be calling to ask for advice.

No, she’d only call and text them about the awesome things Missy did. Invite them to her riding lessons and school performances and just to visit for the weekend. She’d make sure Missy called them all the time, and that they had the opportunity for video chats. All the things they’d done for her, she’d do for them.

When she didn’t know how to discipline her daughter, or how to comfort her, Emma would not bother Fran and Matt. They’d never burdened her with the hard things of raising a child. So, with everything else, she’d just have to muddle through and figure things out the best she could.

“And what about Ted?” Ginger asked.

Emma shrugged, because she hadn’t spoken to him. He hadn’t texted; she hadn’t been out on the ranch at all since completing her interview with the police officer and coming back to the ranch with Ginger and Nate.

“You like him, though, right?” Ginger asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” Emma said. “I didn’t tell him about Missy, and it’s a huge elephant between us.”

“So just go over there and shoo the wildlife out of the room.”

Emma smiled and shook her head. Ginger’s phone went off, and she got distracted by her device. “There’s a problem in the stables.”

“Go,” Emma said, smiling.

Ginger looked at her, her eyebrows up. “You sure?”

“You have a problem with a horse, Ginger, and they’re your babies.” Emma gave a light laugh, though she wasn’t sure what she had to laugh about. “Go.”

Ginger got up and hugged Emma, and then she went. Emma sighed and leaned back into her pillows, her thoughts wandering through the next few days of getting the cabin ready for her daughter, packing the things she had here, and trying to keep up with her work on the ranch.

She didn’t see Ted in the stables the next morning or evening. They didn’t walk down the lane hand-in-hand. She left on Saturday morning with a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand and her purse in the other.

Ginger gave her a hug, and Jess told her to drive safe. Hannah and Michelle promised to have lunch ready when she got back, and Emma cast a glance at the Annex when she walked to her car. She wished Ted were sitting on the front steps, the four dogs who had adopted him surrounding him.

He wasn’t.

She hadn’t been able to work up the courage to text him or go next door and talk to him.

“Maybe he just needs time,” she told herself as she went over the bridge and left the ranch. She knew exactly what that felt like, and he’d given her a pass several times from having to explain anything to him.

“And now he knows,” she said. He’d said he didn’t care, that it didn’t matter that she had a daughter with Robert Knight. But his silence said otherwise.

Emma sighed, and she knew the sound of love when she heard it. She dismissed the notion immediately—she was not in love with Ted. She sure did miss him, though, and the hole he’d left in her life gaped, grew wider, and got harder with every day that passed.





Chapter Twenty-One





Ted stood in the kitchen next to the refrigerator, hoping to stay out of the way during this luncheon. He’d tried to get out of coming, but Nate had deliberately come out to the river to get him, saying, “You can’t avoid her forever.”

“I’m not avoiding her,” Ted had said without looking at his best friend. “How did you find me?”

“I brought Ursula.”

Ted looked down at the German shepherd, and Ursula looked up at him. “Traitor,” he said, and Ursula whined.

He looked at Nate, who’d raised his eyebrows. “Fine,” Ted said. “But I’m only staying for ten minutes. She doesn’t want me there.”

“Yes, she does.”

Ted didn’t want to argue with Nate. They’d had this conversation at least daily for the past five days, and Ted didn’t have the energy to do it again. So he’d walked back to the West Wing with Nate. He’d accepted a bottle of water from Ginger. He’d put a smile on his face.

And he’d been waiting for Emma to show up with her daughter for fifteen minutes.

Five more minutes, he told himself, and then he was leaving. In the very next moment, the back door opened, and voices preceded Emma into the kitchen.

She entered first, her eyes full of apprehension. She brought a little girl behind her, their hands pressed together. “Hey, everyone,” Emma said. She glanced around the room, smiling at the group gathered there.

Another couple entered after them, and Emma edged out of the way and drew in a big breath. “So this is Missy. She’s my daughter.” She beamed at the little girl, and the girl beamed at her. They clearly loved each other, and the bond between them was palpable.

She looked at the couple, and they seemed well-dressed and sophisticated. “And this is Fran and Matt Black. They’ve been taking care of Missy for me for…they’ve been taking care of Missy. They’re her mom and dad.”

“Oh, no,” Fran said, shaking her head.

“Yes,” Emma said, meeting Fran’s eye. They had a special friendship too, Ted could tell. “So Missy, come meet everyone.” She started taking her around to all the women who lived in the West Wing and introducing her to the cowboys who worked the ranch.

Ted tried not to track her, and he tried to get himself to leave before it was his turn to meet the dark-haired girl who looked so much like Emma.

“And this is Ted,” Emma said, finally getting to him.

“Oh, he’s the one with all the dogs.” She looked up at Emma and then Ted. “Can I meet them?”

“The dogs?” Ted asked.

“Yes, sir.”

He grinned at her. “Sure thing. Let’s go.” He reached for her hand, and Missy slipped her fingers into his. He looked at Emma, so much he wanted to say. The words felt trapped though, and he didn’t know how to let them come out.

“She wants to see the horses too,” Emma said, her voice a type of forced casual Ted didn’t like. He needed to figure out how to talk to her. How to tell her how he really felt, and that he wanted to take her out again, that it really didn’t matter to him what had happened a decade ago.

Yes, he’d wanted her to be truthful with him. She’d struggled with that, but he’d pushed her hard in a short amount of time.

And she’d called him when she needed help.

They’d been dancing again for the past several days, and he was still trying to find some sort of solid ground to stand on with her.

“So let’s go see the horses,” Ted said. “I have a couple of favorites I can introduce you to.”

He glanced at Emma again as he walked away, and he couldn’t judge how she felt about him going with her daughter. The fresh air outside was a relief, and Ted drew in a deep breath of it. “So, Missy, here are the dogs.”

The heelers picked themselves up and came toward him. Ted crouched down to pat them, and added, “This is Simon. And Paula.” He stroked her head. “And Ryan, and Randy.”

Randy licked Missy’s hand as she reached to pat him, and she giggled. “What kind of dogs are they?”

“They’re blue heelers,” he said. “They like to herd things. Cattle, usually.” He glanced over at Missy. “But they’ll keep our horses together. And I’ve heard they drive the wild pigs around here.” Ted straightened, and Missy did too.

He started walking down the road, and it was so very hot. Missy slipped her fingers back into Ted’s, and all the dogs came with them.

“Momma was right,” Missy said.

“About what?” Ted asked, his heart melting for this girl, and that made zero sense.

“The dogs just came with us.” She smiled down at them.

“Did you know they didn’t even have names when I got here?” Ted asked. “So I named them, and they seemed to like that. So now they come around with me.”

“I’ve always wanted a dog,” Missy said. “But my dad is allergic, so we never got one.”

Ted nodded, because her family situation was so unique.

“What’s your favorite food?” she asked, and Ted relaxed a little bit. They chatted about simple things, and he took her to meet Storm Warning and a couple of other horses before finally stopping in front of Emma’s babies.

“These are the horses your momma takes care of,” he said. “She makes sure they get a bottle in the morning and evening, and I take them out to their mommas in the pasture.” He pointed them out and named them, and Missy looked up at him.

“What?” he asked.

“My mom said she likes you.”

“Did she?”

“Yeah. Do you like her too?”

Ted’s immediate reaction was to deny it. He looked away from the ten-year-old and all of her perfect innocence. “Yes,” he finally said. “I like her. I think she might be mad at me though.” He sat down on the low stool in front of Patches. “Has she ever been mad at you?”

“Yeah, a couple of times,” Missy said. “Once, I let go of her hand at this big Easter egg hunt, and I got lost. She was so mad when she found me. So I asked Fran, and she helped me make her favorite cookies.”

“The ones with the M&M’s in them?”

“Yeah,” Missy said. “She likes banana bread too. I could help you make some, and then you could give it to her, and she might not be mad at you anymore.”

“Does that work?”

“Yeah, when I gave her the cookies, she wasn’t mad anymore.”

Ted longed for the innocence of a ten-year-old. “So me and you, tomorrow. We’ll make banana bread or cookies?”

“Well, you have to have black bananas for banana bread,” she said matter-of-factly. “Do you have those?”

“No,” he said.

“Do you have M&M’s?”

“I can get some,” he said, though he’d have to send Nate to the store.

“Maybe the cookies then,” she said.

“Sounds like a good idea,” Ted said. “Do you want me to talk to your mom about you coming over?”

“Sure,” Missy said. They started back to the West Wing then, and Ted let her pet all four of the dogs before she went up the steps and inside. He didn’t follow her, because the ideas in his mind had him turning to face the wide-open sky.

Cookies—Emma’s favorite.

Time—he had two more months at Hope Eternal Ranch. He didn’t want another day to go by where he couldn’t talk to Emma. He was tired of the dance. It was exhausting trying to plan his day so he wouldn’t run into her.

Something romantic—he could get more wildflowers from the fence line where he liked to walk. That reminded him of their first date, and maybe it would bring back good memories for Emma too.

“What else?” Ted asked the pure blue sky.

His apology—that he’d pressed her too hard. He could own that, and he could try to fix it.

One of his dogs barked, and Ted looked down at Randy. His pulse jumped too, because the last time his dogs had barked, Robert Knight had been nearby.

This time, though, he heard the squeal of a wild boar in the distance, and everything came together.

Grinning, he hurried to the Annex, where he could use the computer to find the final piece of his plan to make up with Emma and get her back into his life.





Ted returned to the homestead the next morning about the time the sun fully painted the day gold. He’d just reached the driveway when the rumble of Nate’s engine came up behind him. Ted moved out of the way as Nate pulled into the garage closest to the Annex, and he opened the passenger door for Connor.

“Hey, bud.” Ted grinned at the boy and held the flowers he’d just gathered from the fields out of the way as he gathered the child into his arms.

Connor clung to him as he babbled about the doughnuts they got that morning and that Nate had promised to take him to the beach next weekend.

“That’s great,” Ted said, setting the boy on his feet. He expected Connor to run into the house while he helped Nate carry in their groceries. Instead, he stood there, and Ted looked to see what had frozen him.

Missy stood several feet away, and she lifted her hand in a wave as Ted’s heartbeat picked up. “Morning, Missy,” he said. “You’re up early.” He scanned the front yard for Emma, but he didn’t see her.

“Is it too early to make the cookies?” she asked.

“Nope,” Ted said, glad Nate had gotten up at the crack of dawn to go to town.

“And we have doughnuts,” Nate said, lifting the box. “C’mon in. Connor, get at least the bag with the chips, okay?”

The boy moved to the back of the truck, and Ted did too, the flowers in his hand suddenly feeling so heavy.

Missy didn’t even have to be asked to help. She started picking up bags too, and she asked Connor whose birthday it was.

“Mine,” Connor said. “Daddy’s gonna make me a cake, and everyone’s going to come to the beach for a party.”

“Oh, is that what’s happening next weekend?” Ted asked as he picked up a couple of bags too. “At the beach?”

“Yep.” Connor took his single bag with two packages of potato chips and skipped toward the front door.

Ted smiled at him. “He’s going to be five.”

Missy smiled too, and she started for the house as well.

“Does your mom know you’re here?” Ted asked, glancing to the right and down the road. A couple of cabins sat out in the corner of the yard, and he could barely see the front door of the far one.

“I left her a note,” Missy said. “She said I could, Ted. I asked her.”

“I know,” Ted said, because after he’d asked Emma, she’d returned his text. Just one message, but it had introduced hope back into his heart.

Thanks for having Missy over to make cookies.

That was it. She hadn’t asked if she could come. Ted had sat on the edge of his bed for at least ten minutes, staring at his phone, trying to decide if he should invite her. In the end, he wanted everything to be a surprise, so he’d said, No problem. We’ll bring them to you when we’re done.

That way, she wouldn’t come knocking, and he wouldn’t have to try to have everything organized until he was ready.

“Ted,” Spencer called as Ted went through the front door. “Where is he? Ted!”

“I’m right here,” he said as Spencer came striding out of the kitchen. He did not look happy, and Ted knew what had happened.

Spencer frowned and slowed down before he bowled over Missy. “Your pig ate through the bag of popcorn.”

“You have a pig?” Missy asked at the same time Connor burst into giggles in the kitchen.

“I told you to put everything up,” Ted said, nudging Missy to keep going. “Sorry, Spence. She won’t be here much longer.”

He’d found the perfect teacup piglet for Emma, and Nate had taken him to pick her up last night. He’d learned more about small, indoor pigs as pets than he’d thought possible, and he hoped Emma would like the one he’d picked out for her.

In the kitchen, he set down his groceries and watched as Connor held the feeding pellets in his hand for the piglet to eat. He giggled again, and Missy put her bags down too and went to join him.

“Oh, she is so cute,” she cooed. She giggled too as the pink piglet with tawny, light brown hair around her eyes and down her back nosed her. “Can I hold her?”

“Sure,” Connor said. Missy scooped her into her arms, and when Ted finally looked away, he caught the look on Nate’s face.

“What?”

“What? What do you mean what?” Nate kept lifting boxes of granola and protein bars out of the grocery sacks.

“I mean, you’re looking at me like I’m doing something wrong.” Ted took out a couple of bricks of cream cheese and a pound of butter from a bag and turned to put them in the fridge. “I just want her back.”

“Even with the girl?”

“Yes,” Ted said without hesitation. He turned and looked at Missy and the piglet. “She doesn’t change anything for me.”

“I’m just…” Nate exhaled heavily and finally looked at Ted. Concern sat in his eyes, and Ted appreciated it. He really did. “It feels fast, Teddy. That’s all. You’ve been here, what? Five weeks?”

“Six,” Ted said, as he still counted down the days until he’d be truly free. “And I know. I’m not going to ask her to marry me today, Nate. I’m going to ask her for a second chance. That’s a lot different.”

“What if she says no?”

Ted didn’t even want to consider such a possibility. “Then I put my head down and get through the next two months.” He also didn’t know how to do that. The past week had been torture. The dance was painful and exhausting. “Then I’ll go live in that big house your brother left you and figure out my next steps.” He looked steadily back at Nate, who blinked at the mention of his brother’s house.

“I need to go clean out that house,” he murmured. “I just don’t want to.” He too looked to the children on the floor, playing with the piglet. They were so carefree, and Ted envied them.

“I’ll go with you,” Ted said.

“I’m worried about what it’ll do to Connor,” Nate said, returning to the groceries.

“Don’t take him,” Ted said. “You and I will go, and we’ll figure it out.” He put his hand on his best friend’s arm for a beat. Nate stilled and looked at Ted, and he saw the pain there. Fresh and raw, it made Ted’s heart expand for his friend. “Isn’t that we said we’d do? Once we got out, we’d help each other figure everything out.”

Extreme gratitude filled Ted, and his throat narrowed. “You did that for me by getting me here. Let me help you with this.”

Nate swallowed, his jaw so tight. His eyes shone, and he nodded a couple of times. They finished unpacking the groceries before Nate said, “Not next weekend. It’s Connor’s birthday. The weekend after that?”

“Works for me,” Ted said.

“I’ll talk to Ginger. We’re going to need a few days.” He sighed as he folded up the reusable grocery bags. “Someone will have to watch Connor, and I don’t know if she can let us both go at the same time.”

“Just let me know,” Ted said. “I’ll have to talk to Martin.”

Nate nodded, stuffed the bags in the drawer where they kept them, and said, “Come on, Connor. We have chores on the ranch this morning.”

The little boy got up and let Nate help him into a pair of cowboy boots while Missy put down the piglet and looked at Ted.

“All right,” he said, blowing out his breath. “I called your…” He had no idea how to reference Fran. “Fran. Missy, what should I call her? Your mom? Your other mom? Fran?”

Missy climbed up onto a barstool, her dark hair falling over her shoulders. “It doesn’t matter. Momma calls her my other mom. Fran calls Momma my mom.” She shrugged as if this wasn’t an odd situation at all.

Ted didn’t want it to be odd for them either. “Okay,” he said. “I called your other mom, and she gave me the recipe you two used when you made these cookies before.” He put his phone down and slid it toward her. “So it’s right there. I’m not great in the kitchen, so you’re gonna have to come help me.”

Missy picked up his phone and smiled. “All right.” She got up and rounded the island. “Do you have an apron?”

“Uh.” Ted literally ate from boxes and bags and bottles.

“It’s okay,” Missy said. “Fran told me things would be different here.” She opened the fridge. “We need butter and eggs.” She continued to chit and chat as she put together the dough, and all Ted had to do was listen and ask questions and marvel at the maturity of this child.

She reminded him so much of Emma, and Ted couldn’t wait to walk down the road and knock on that cabin door.

What if she says no?

Nate’s words became his own thought process.

Ted resisted the thoughts. Emma just had to say yes. He didn’t want a long-term commitment. He just wanted a second chance with her.

He’d gotten one in life, thanks to Nate, Dallas, Slate, and Luke. And Ginger. And the four dogs waiting for him and Missy the moment they stepped out the front door.

Ted carried the flowers and the baby piglet in the little purse she’d come in. Missy had the plate of cookies in her hands. Ted had practiced his apology, and he’d taken two minutes to brush his teeth and oil his beard while Missy put the freshly baked cookies on a plate.

“Give me strength,” he murmured as he followed Emma’s daughter down the steps.





Chapter Twenty-Two





Emma had returned from the stables an hour ago, the scent of chocolate floating on the air as she’d passed the Annex. The desire to go inside and see what Ted and Missy were doing had been nearly impossible to resist.

She’d even climbed the steps to the deck before realizing what she was doing.

She’d scurried quickly back down to the yard and continued to her new home. She’d been working every waking minute for the past six days to get it habitable for her and her daughter. Fran and Matt had stayed yesterday for hours, helping get Missy’s bed set up with her comfortable and familiar blankets, stuffed animals, and trinkets. She had Polaroid pictures of her and her friends. Her and her other parents. Just her.

Emma had cried for hours last night after Missy had gone to sleep. What was she doing, pulling this child from the only life and the only parents she’d ever known?

Fran had called about one-thirty in the morning, claiming she couldn’t sleep because she knew Emma would be having a hard time. That had only made Emma cry harder. Fran had assured her and reassured her that she and Matt were okay.

“We’ve always known she was only ours on loan,” Fran had said. “Please, Emma, don’t let this hurt you for too long.”

Emma didn’t know how to make it stop hurting. She’d wanted Missy to have the best life possible, and she’d had it with Fran and Matt. She had friends, and a big window in her room that let in lots of light, and violin lessons. Fran had taught her how to cook and Matt had taught her how to ride a bike. They’d loved her and raised her as their own, and Emma couldn’t just let that all go.

She didn’t know how.

She knew Missy wanted to be here with her, and for Emma, it was all of her dreams come true. “You’ve been working toward this day for a decade,” she told herself as she pulled out another chunk of grass from the flowerbed rimming the cabin.

“Momma?”

Her daughter’s voice filled the air and lifted her spirits. She clapped her gloved hands together and groaned as she got to her feet. “I’m out back,” she called. The back door opened a few seconds later, and Missy stood there.

She smiled at Emma and lifted the paper plate in her hands. “Come get some cookies.”

Emma couldn’t say no to that. She’d given her permission for Missy to bake with Ted that morning, even if she didn’t understand it. She’d never known the cowboy to beat, batter, or bake. But Missy had wanted to, and Emma could admit she’d hoped Ted and Missy would become fast friends.

He seemed to like everyone, and they all liked him too. Emma had been trying to convince herself for a week now that the connection between them was because of his magnetic personality and not because she’d started to fall in love with him.

“Let me wash up,” she said as she entered the cabin. It was bigger than the single bedroom she’d come from, but still small for a house. Two bedrooms at the end of a hall that was only three steps long, with a bathroom between them. A galley kitchen she had to walk through once she entered through the back door to get to the dining room and living room at the front of the house. The whole thing was nine hundred square feet, but it had felt huge as she’d cleaned it, that was for sure.

She paused at the kitchen sink and washed her hands. “All right,” she said, turning back to her daughter, who’d waited behind her.

At that moment, Missy’s phone chimed, and she lit up. “I think that’s Frannie. Can I call her?”

“Of course,” Emma said, taking the plate of M&M cookies from Missy. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to wait to have one of these.” She beamed at them and then her daughter. “They’re my favorite.”

“I know,” Missy said, her attention already on her phone. “You don’t have to wait for me, Momma.” She smiled and hugged Emma, who held onto her for an extra beat of time. Long enough to commit the moment to memory and feel a wave of gratitude roll over her.

Missy went out the back door, and Emma turned toward the rest of the house. Out of the kitchen, she turned left, and froze at the sight of Ted Burrows standing next to her dining room table. “Ted,” left her mouth in a gasp.

“Oh, I thought you were calling me Teddy,” he said easily, both of his hands wrapped around the stems of a bouquet of wildflowers. A smile slipped across his mouth, but it didn’t stay long. “I’m…”

He swallowed, and he was so adorable when he was nervous. He called to her soul in a way no one ever had before, and while it scared Emma senseless, she also wanted to embrace the feeling. Give in to it.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “For pushing you to tell me stuff you didn’t want to. I said you could have time and you could tell me when you were ready, but I didn’t really honor that.”

“Don’t,” she said, her voice tight and harsh and pleading at the same time. “Please do not apologize to me. I’m the one who owes you an apology. I wanted to tell you.” She looked down the galley kitchen to see Missy had settled on the back steps, her phone to her ear. “She’s everything to me, and I was so used to keeping her to myself.” She looked back at Ted. “I realize now how wrong I was. She’s so wonderful, and everyone should know about her.”

“I know why you did,” Ted said quietly.

“I was scared.”

He nodded as if he really did understand.

“But you were right,” Emma said, finally able to take a step toward him and the table. Only a couple more and she arrived and set the cookies down. “Everything comes out in the end.” She looked up at him.

Hope emanated from his expression. “I brought you these flowers,” he said. “Because I did the same thing on our first date, and that went really well, and it’s a good memory for me.” He cleared his throat and laid them on the table.

“We made your favorite cookies, because Missy told me that she’d done that once when you were mad at her, and you forgave her.” He pressed his fingers to the table, his attention on them. “I was hoping for the same thing. That you’d forgive me for anything and everything, and that we could somehow try again.”

The brim of his cowboy hat kept most of his face concealed, and he finally lifted his chin enough for their eyes to meet. “I sure do like you, Emma. Nate thinks it’s because I’ve been in prison for a while and don’t know many women.” He shook his head. “I know one-hundred percent that it’s not that.” He reached up and touched his chest where his heart beat inside. “I feel things for you. I started to fall in love with you. I know I’m a bit of a bull sometimes, and I’m overprotective, and I’m not perfect.”

Emma’s eyes filled with tears, and she shook her head.

“I know I’m going to mess up again,” he said quietly, dropping that chin again. “Because I’ve never felt like this about anyone before, and it’s all uncharted territory for me. But I was kinda hoping you’d started to fall for me too, and that if you had, we could—I don’t know.” He shrugged and shifted his feet. “Try again.”

Emma wanted that with her whole heart and soul. Before she could contain her emotion enough to answer in a voice that wasn’t broken and cracked with tears, she heard a strange sound. A snuffling, rooting sound. A…piggish sound.

“Oh, no,” Ted said, taking a couple of steps into the living room. He bent and scooped something into his arms and came back. “And I got you that little pig you wanted.” He held the most perfect pink and brown piglet Emma had ever seen. “I didn’t name her,” he added. “I figured you could go with Petunia or change your mind.”

He looked at her fully now, everything laid out between them. “I honestly don’t care about what you did or didn’t do a decade ago. Missy is a pretty special kid, and I understand—”

“Okay, enough,” Emma said, because she couldn’t stand to listen to him tell her how right she was again. She wasn’t right, and she knew it.

She pressed her palms together, her nerves screaming through her. He’d said all the right things and delivered them perfectly too. She didn’t have a speech prepared, and she was messing everything up right now.

“I started to fall in love with you too,” she said, her emotion staining and seeping into every word. “Let’s try again, okay, Teddy? Please?”

Ted put the piglet down and stepped over to her, taking her into his arms effortlessly. “As many times as we need to, okay, sweetheart?”

She nodded as the tears spilled down her face. She pressed her eyes closed, and Ted’s gentle, warm hands brushed the tears away. “I like it when you call me Teddy,” he said, his voice a husky whisper. “I’m going to kiss you now, and then you’ll have to name your piglet.”

Emma half-laughed and half-cried, and she positively melted into Ted’s kiss the moment his mouth met hers.

She felt unworthy and in complete awe that everything she wanted in her life was happening. Her daughter home with her. Ted Burrows in her house, kissing her with such tenderness and such passion that even if he hadn’t said he was falling in love with her, she’d have known.





“Come on, Petunia,” she said to the little pig who’d wandered away from her. She’d grown to about fifteen pounds in the past couple of months, and Ted had told her there was no such thing as a true teacup piglet. Not only that, but pigs grew for the first three or four years of their lives, and he couldn’t predict how big Petunia would get.

But she had been bred to be smaller, and to be an indoor pet. She’d been a pest in the beginning, always trying to root for something under the rug in the bathroom and always squealing for food whenever Emma or Missy ate. But they’d trained her religiously, and now she was pretty much the perfect version of the pet pig Emma had always wanted.

She came trotting over to Emma, who walked down the road toward the stables. Missy would be finished with her riding lesson soon, and Ted was off with his parole officer for the last time.

The last time.

Emma couldn’t imagine what he was feeling, and he hadn’t been able to adequately describe what being free felt like for him.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” he’d said when she’d asked him last night. They’d been sitting on the front steps of the cabin while Missy romped around with Petunia and the American Idol dogs.

“Tomorrow, though,” Emma said. “How do you think you’re going to feel?”

“Don’t know,” he’d said. And he’d not said much else. She knew he was deep in his thoughts, as they’d spent a lot of time together over the past eight weeks. The three of them. Him, her, and Missy.

He’d said he wanted to go to the beach when he got released, and Emma had been planning that trip for a month now. She had everything ready—she just needed Ted to be the free man he wanted to be.

When Ted stopped talking, it meant he was thinking really hard. Trying to figure something out. He’d gone with Nate to clean out Nate’s brother’s house, and both times, they’d both come back quiet and reflective. She’d taken Connor for Nate, as he and Missy were the only children on the ranch, and though they were five years apart, they got along great.

And apparently, whenever Ted wasn’t around, Emma was a good enough substitute for his four dogs, so she never went anywhere by herself anymore. She always had Petunia with her, and usually Randy, Simon, Paula, and Ryan too. Missy too, if she wasn’t at school.

Emma couldn’t believe how much her life had changed in the past three and a half months, and as she approached the stables, she tipped her head back and looked up into the heavens. “Thank you, Lord.”

God really was good, and Emma wanted Him to know she knew it, appreciated it, and would do whatever He wanted her to.

Ted usually took care of the horses after riding lessons, and she saw him when she picked up Missy. He’d work for a couple more hours, and then he came over to the cabin for the evening. Their routine had been nice and normal for a while now, and she glanced around the corrals, expecting to see him.

When she didn’t, her anxiety picked up steam. He wasn’t done with his parole officer yet, and she wondered how long it took to tell him he was officially released from the Bureau of Prisons. She’d wondered if he’d have to keep meeting with Martin after his release, but Ted knew the law, and he said he wouldn’t.

He’d served all of his time, and he’d been in the reentry program. He’d told her he expected today’s meeting to be the last one.

Which was probably why it was taking so long.

The children and instructors started returning, and Emma scooped Petunia into her arms so the little pig wouldn’t get trampled by the influx of horses.

Spencer stood next to Jess, and they laughed about something. Jess put her hand on Spencer’s chest, and Emma watched them closely. Jess liked him, and Emma had never seen her act like this before—not with Spencer.

She’d told him to ask her out, but she hadn’t known if he had or not. “Looks like he did,” she murmured to her piglet. “Good for him.” She smiled in their direction and started scanning the horses for Missy.

She took pictures every Wednesday afternoon to send to Fran and Matt, because they’d so wanted to give Missy horseback riding lessons. Emma had set up virtual violin lessons with the teacher in San Antonio, and they’d go up there for a few in-person lessons before the recital. But that was months away, as summer was in full swing, and the only thing on Missy’s schedule was these afternoon riding lessons.

“Emma,” Ginger said, and Emma turned toward her. “Can you come help me for a second?” She wore stress on her face, and Emma couldn’t wait until Ginger and Nate were married. The date drew ever closer, as Nate had convinced Ginger to move it to August, before the major harvest started and before school started again and their lessons picked up. After the breeding season for horses, which they were in the full swing of now.

Only three more weeks until the big wedding on the ranch, and Ginger had been relying on Emma, Jess, Hannah, Jill, and Michelle for a lot of decisions. Emma had eaten fancy meals, and tasted chocolate cake until she never wanted another bite. They’d all gone to town to help Ginger pick her dress, and only Emma and Ginger had gone to order flowers.

“Sure,” Emma said, casting another glance to the riders still coming in. She hadn’t seen Missy yet, and Emma reminded herself that her daughter was ten years old. She could dismount and hand over her reins by herself. She didn’t need Emma there to hold her hand the moment she returned from lessons.

She put Petunia down and followed Ginger into the stables.

“I just need help deciding on the altar design,” Ginger said over her shoulder, her longer legs eating up more distance with every step. Emma had never been able to keep up with Ginger, and she’d stopped trying.

Her friend paused in front of two altars and studied them.

“Oh, you actually have them here,” Emma said, joining her. She gazed down at the beautiful altars, both of them made out of natural wood.

“They’re both from trees right here on the ranch,” Ginger said. “I can’t decide if I like the simple one, or the one with more detail.”

Emma would never be able to decide. One had been stained a darker color, and it was simple in the way it was simply a chest-high altar, with natural bark still on the rounded curve of the top piece that lay over the legs. They’d been stripped, sanded, and stained, and the altar was rustic yet elegant.

The other one included more details in the carving, and the yellow wood had been allowed to shine through the glossy stain. Emma ran her fingers over the swirls on the side of this altar, which had the top squared and completely free of bark.

“Wow, Ginger. Who made these?”

“I did,” a man said, and Emma spun around at the sound of Ted’s voice.

He stood there in that stunning cowboy hat, wearing a blue T-shirt and jeans, every piece of him in the exact right place. He’d grown out his beard, but he kept it neat and trim, oiled to perfection whenever they went out or when he met with his parole officer.

All four of his dogs loitered near his cowboy boots, and Emma inched toward him. “How did it go with Martin?”

Ted flicked a look in Ginger’s direction. Emma followed his gaze, and she caught the tail end of her best friend’s nod.

“Good,” Ted said, their eyes meeting again. A smile exploded onto his face. “It’s done, Em. I’m out.” He laughed, the sound bright and bold and loud as it zoomed up to the rafters in the stables. He took the few remaining steps to her and picked her right up off her feet, still laughing.

She laughed too and held onto his shoulders. “I’m so glad, Teddy,” she said.

He set her on her feet, his smile still in place though he sobered. “That chapter is over,” he said, his eyes bright. “I can hardly believe it.”

Emma didn’t know what to say, so she just smiled up at him and reveled in the feel of his arms around her, his hands on her waist.

“I’ve been waiting for this day for so long.” He swallowed and shook his head as if in wonder.

Emma wrapped her arms around him and pressed her cheek to his chest. “What are you going to count down to next, cowboy?”

“I’ve got something in mind,” he said.

Emma pulled back and looked up at him. “You do? What?”

He nodded to someone behind her, and Emma twisted in his arms to find Missy holding something toward him.

A little black box.

Emma sucked in a breath, which made a rasping, gasping sound fill the stable. “Teddy.”

“I’ve been waiting for this day for so long,” he said again, shifting and stepping to take the ring box from Missy. “And not just because I would be a free man. But because I’m in love with the most wonderful woman, and I didn’t want to ask her to be mine until I actually had myself to give to her.”

He opened the ring box and looked inside it.

The seconds seemed to pile on top of one another, and then he finally turned the box toward her and lifted his eyes to hers.

“I love you, Emma Clemson. I love your daughter, and I want to be your husband and her dad.” He looked to his left, and Missy came to his side.

“Will you marry him, Momma?” Missy asked.

Emma looked from her daughter to Ted to the ring. Then back around again. “Yes,” she said, the word easy and filled with joy. She burst out laughing again and threw her arms around both of them. “Yes, yes, yes.”

They laughed together, and Ted took the ring out of the box and slid it on her finger. He gazed down at her, and murmured, “I’m going to kiss your momma now, Missy.”

“Gross,” Missy said, and she walked away.

Emma couldn’t look anywhere but at Ted. Kissing him was definitely not gross, and Emma grinned at him as he smiled at her. “I love you too,” she said.

“Good to know,” he whispered before kissing her. He brought such a calm presence to her life, and Emma had never felt safer and more protected than she did in the arms of her fiancé.

She knew they weren’t alone, though, so she didn’t kiss him for long. She tucked herself into his arms, pure peace and joy filling her.

“All right,” Ginger said, and Emma turned to her. Ginger opened her arms, and Emma hugged her too. “I’m so happy for you,” Ginger whispered. “You deserve the very best, Em, and I think he’s it for you.”

“Thank you,” Emma said, getting emotional over Ginger’s words for some reason.

Ginger stepped back, and they faced the altars again. “Pick one, Emma. I’ll use the other one.”

“I can’t do that,” she said. “You pick, and I’ll use the other one.”

“He made them for you,” Ginger said. “I caught him, and he said he’d make me one too if I’d help him stage this proposal.”

Emma turned toward Ted, who only shrugged, that gorgeous grin on his mouth. She reached for him, and he secured his hand in hers. Missy stood on his other side, and Emma wanted to stop time and live in this moment for the rest of her life.

She’d had no idea a person could actually experience this much happiness, and her vision blurred as she looked at the altars.

“Pick one, Em,” Ted said.

“Which one do you like?” Emma asked, looking at Ginger.

“I like them both.” Ginger was neutral, and she gave nothing away.

Emma looked at Ted, who’d also turned into a statute. “Missy?”

“Teddy told me I couldn’t tell you,” Missy said. She stooped and picked up Petunia.

“Oh, I see how it is,” Emma said.

“If you don’t like either one of these,” Ted said. “I’ll make you a different one.”

“I didn’t even know you could do this with wood,” she said, almost accusing him of holding out on her.

“Well,” he said. “Now you do.” He squeezed her hand. “Ginger is going to go ballistic if you don’t choose in the next sixty seconds.”

Emma glanced at her best friend, who hated wasting time almost more than anything else on the planet.

“I want this one,” she said, reaching out and touching the one with the preserved natural bark. “It’s half perfect, and half not, and that’s how I feel. I feel like I know what I’m doing about half the time, and everything is great. The other half of the time, I need that protective bark, which is beautiful in its own way.”

“That was my favorite too, Momma,” Missy said.

“Sounds good,” Ginger said with a light laugh. “I wanted the other one, so you picked perfectly, Emma.” She put her arm around Emma’s shoulders and squeezed. “Now I have to go check on our new hire. He has the worst sense of direction I’ve ever seen. I found him wandering on the east side of the ranch yesterday, sure he would run into the homestead at any moment.” She shook her head and left.

Emma giggled and snuggled into Ted’s side.

“I love you,” Ted said. “I love both of you.” He put his arm around Missy too, and Emma’s heart rejoiced. “I got my second chance at this life, and I can’t promise I’ll be perfect, but I’m going to try as hard as I can to do the right thing. Be the best husband and father I can be.”

“You’ll do great, Teddy,” Missy said. “Can I go? Spence said I could help brush down the horses and put them away.”

“Sure,” Ted said. “Go.”

Missy paused in front of Emma to give her a hug, and then she skipped out of the stables to go help with the horses.

Emma gazed at the altar where she’d marry Ted, and then turned to the man himself. “I love you, Teddy. Thank you for taking a chance on me.”

“Funny,” he murmured. “I was going to say the same thing to you.” He dipped his head and kissed her again, and this time, because they were alone, Emma kissed the man she loved for as long as she wanted.





Read on for a sneak peek at Ginger and Nate’s wedding, as told by Dallas Dreyer, your next cowboy hero in RUGGED COWBOY. Preorder now!





I’m so glad Teddy and Emma were able to build a family with Missy, that little piglet, and all those dogs! If you are too, please leave a review now.





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Sneak Peek! Rugged Cowboy Chapter One





Dallas Dreyer breathed a silent sigh of relief as he saw the city limits sign for Sweet Water Falls. He’d been driving for hours, and he was so ready to be out of the car.

At the same time, the temperature gauge on the dashboard told him not to get out of the car unless he wanted to be instantly incinerated. How Nate could get married in weather like this, Dallas didn’t understand.

Why Nate wanted to get married at all eluded Dallas. Bitterness gathered on the back of his tongue, and it was new and hard to deal with.

He’d had no idea Martha was so unsure about their marriage. She’d been coming to River Bay for over two years—every week—and she’d brought the kids many times.

Her departure from their life had surprised him. Shocked him, actually. Rendered him speechless.

He could clearly remember when he’d gotten the news, and that he’d sat on the bottom bunk where he’d been sleeping for twenty-seven months and just stared.

Even when Slate had come to tell him it was time for dinner. Even when Luke had gotten him a special pass for an extra hour in the library, without anyone there, Dallas had just stared at it.

He didn’t know what life would be like on the outside as it was. And without Martha? Dallas didn’t know how to function.

She’d been in Louisiana for the past three months, and her sister had been taking care of his two children. Martha had left them behind too, and Dallas honestly didn’t comprehend her behavior.

He’d been released five days ago, and Amy had been kind enough to come pick him up. She’d brought Thomas and Remmy with her, and Dallas had held his children tightly for several minutes right on the sidewalk outside the River Bay Federal Correctional Facility.

He glanced to Remmy, his six-year-old asleep in the backseat of the used sedan his brother-in-law had helped him purchase.

Dallas had money from before his time in prison, but not a whole lot. Enough to buy new clothes and this car and food and gas for the trip to Sweet Water Falls.

He’d stayed with Amy and Brent for a couple days to get the essentials in order, and then he’d set his app to direct him to Hope Eternal Ranch.

He would not miss Nate’s wedding. The man had done more for Dallas than anyone else on Earth—save Martha. But now that she was gone, Dallas’s only fall-back was Nathaniel Mulbury.

Ted Burrows was at the ranch too, and Dallas couldn’t wait to see his friends. The pull to them was all he had left, and he’d embraced it. After they’d come for Family Weekend and treated him exactly like one of their brothers…Dallas got choked up just thinking about it.

“Turn right in a quarter mile,” the cool female voice of his navigation app. Dallas started to slow down, and his son lifted his head from his game machine.

“Almost there, bud,” Dallas said, surprised at how chipper his voice came out.

Thomas nodded and powered down the game. Dallas felt like he didn’t know his ten-year-old. He’d missed all of his eighth and ninth year on the planet, and though Dallas had seen his son start to grow in his permanent front teeth and he’d gotten emails with attachments of the boy’s art, it was completely different than being with the child day in and day out.

Dallas had never considered the fact that he might be a single parent one day. Martha had been the perfect surgeon’s wife, and she’d charmed hospital administrators, kept the house tidy and the bills paid, and the children in appropriate, wholesome activities. Dallas had loved coming home to her and the kids, and until the lawsuit that had diverted his life onto another path, he’d been blissfully unaware of any of the things he was currently dealing with.

He made the right turn, and the road started to wind out of town. Dallas glanced at his new phone, the concept of even owning a device like this that could make calls at any time a bit novel to him.

“Just a couple more miles,” he said more to reassure himself than Thomas.

And just a couple more miles and a few more minutes down the road, Dallas made the right turn onto the road that had Hope Eternal Ranch at the end of it.

The road turned from asphalt to dirt, and the sedan bumped over the new surface. He crossed a bridge, and passed the trees, the ranch spread in front of him.

A massive house sat just beyond a small patch of grass, which had a fence separating it from a large gravel pad, where Dallas pulled to a stop.

He peered out of the windshield, taking int the house that was really two houses—one on each side of a three-car garage. Nate and Ted had told him all about it, and Dallas could see the appeal of it.

And then Ted was walking toward him, a giant smile on his bearded face. Dallas started laughing and said, “Come on, guys. Let’s get out.”

He got out of the car and met Ted at the opening of the fence. The other man had four inches on Dallas, and at least fifty pounds. He really was like a big teddy bear, and Dallas clapped him heartily on the back.

“Look at you,” Ted said, and that was all. Dallas didn’t need more; he knew what Ted meant.

Look at him outside the fences of River Bay. Look at him in regular clothes. Look at him, a single dad to two kids.

Those kids came up beside him, Remmy clutching her blanket though it was far too hot to cart that around for long, and rubbing her eyes.

“Guys,” he said. “This is Ted Burrows. Do you remember him?”

“Yes,” Thomas said at the same time Remmy said, “No,” and shrank into Dallas’s side.

He put his palm on her back and gave her a quick squeeze.

“He’s one of my best friends,” Dallas said. “Ted, these are my kids, Thomas and Remmy.”

Ted crouched down, his smile bright and genuine. “Hey, guys. I’ve got something for you in the West Wing. It involves chocolate. You want to come see what it is?”

Remmy edged away from Dallas, and Ted straightened as he took her hand. Thomas looked up at Dallas, and he nodded. I’m coming in too.”

Thomas went ahead of him, and Ted chatted with Remmy about her blanket and the character on her T-shirt.

“Oh, our clothes.” Dallas turned back to the car to get the small suitcase he’d brought with their dress clothes for the wedding. “I’ll catch up. I’m grabbing our clothes.”

He retrieved the bag and turned to follow Ted, but they’d disappeared. A flash of panic hit Dallas, and he worked to tamp it back. He hadn’t been alone for so long, and he didn’t like the feeling of not knowing exactly where to go.

The panic itself was new, and Dallas loathed it. He’d never had a confidence problem or been plagued with anxiety or other mental illnesses. But his incarceration had changed a lot more than the status of his marriage and the age of his children.

He walked down the driveway toward the wide garages, and Nate came out of a doorway, clearly looking for Dallas.

Relief rushed through him, and to his great surprise, tears pricked his eyes. “Nate,” he said, and Nate’s face burst into a grin.

“You made it.” He came down the few steps and engulfed Dallas in a hug. They embraced for several long moments, neither of them saying anything.

“Come on in,” Nate finally said, falling back. “There’s food, and you can change.”

“The big day,” Dallas said.

“Yeah, in a couple of hours,” Nate said, ducking his head so the big black cowboy hat he wore hiding his face.

Dallas studied his friend—the man who’d literally saved his life on the inside. There was something so different about him, and yet so familiar.

“I like the hat,” he said, and Nate glanced up. He reached up and touched the cowboy hat as if he didn’t even know he was wearing it.

“It’s useful,” Nate said.

“And you like it,” Dallas said, because he may not have seen Nate for a while, but he knew the man didn’t do anything he didn’t like for very long. At least not by choice. Now that they were out, they could all choose.

“I like it,” Nate admitted. “Come meet Ginger.” He led the way up the steps and into the house, which had blessedly cool air conditioning.

Dallas immediately looked around for his children, and he didn’t have to look far. They sat at the bar with two other kids, one of whom Dallas recognized. Connor, Nate’s son. The other was a dark-haired girl who looked to be close to Thomas’s age, and he assumed that was Ted’s fiancee’s daughter.

Dallas couldn’t remember her name, though, and he paused as he took in the enormity of the kitchen.

An auburn-haired woman turned toward them, a warm smile on her face. She came over to Nate, and he took her hand in his. “Ginger, this is Dallas Dreyer.”

“One of your boys,” she said, extending her hand toward Dallas.

“I’m actually the same age as Nate,” Dallas said. “But it’s so nice to meet you.” And he was one of Nate’s boys. Nate had created a family inside River Bay, and Dallas had been lucky to be included in it.

He smiled, which was also not his default for the past couple of years. But the gesture sat nicely on his face, and he watched his kids as they stuck chocolate kisses into cookie dough.

It felt like such a normal thing to do. A normal place to be. He liked the energy in the house, and he needed somewhere like this to settle down.

He wasn’t sure where he’d go after the wedding. He had the house in the suburbs of Houston, but he wasn’t sure he could just go back there.

The man he’d been the last time he’d left that house didn’t exist anymore. He didn’t want to interact with any of those neighbors. He didn’t want to go into the bedroom he’d once shared with Martha.

So he’d sell that house and find somewhere else to build a life. He’d lost his medical license, so he couldn’t go back to that career.

He wanted to be a mechanic, and open his own shop, and take care of his kids.

He let Nate sweep him into the kitchen for a sandwich, where he met Ted’s significant other, Emma Clemson.

The girl was definitely her daughter, as they looked so much alike, and Emma introduced the girl as Missy.

Dallas met a couple of other women and cowboys, and then everyone started talking about getting ready for the wedding.

“You can use this bedroom,” Ginger said, taking him down a hall to a room with a queen bed in it. “Ted said he’d come get you guys when he goes out to the tents.”

“Thanks,” Dallas said, herding his kids into the room with him. The door closed behind him, and he just wanted to lie down for a bit. Close his eyes and just see if the world was the same when he woke up.

Instead, he hefted the suitcase onto the bed and opened it. “All right, Tommy,” he said. “Here’s your suit.”

“It’s way too hot to wear a suit,” his son complained.

“Yes, it is,” Dallas agreed. “But Nate said they have misters and fans out in the tents, so it’ll be okay.” He had to believe that, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be able to get himself to leave the house.

The West Wing, he told himself. Apparently, all of the women lived in the house on this side, and all of the cowboys lived in what Nate had called the Annex, the house on the other side of the garages.

After they returned from their honeymoon, Nate and Ginger were going to move into a cabin in the corner of the yard, which was apparently next door to where Emma lived with her daughter.

Dallas found that odd. Ginger owned this house and this ranch. Seemed to him that the other women living in the West Wing should have to find somewhere else to live so she and Nate could live here. But he hadn’t said anything. He didn’t know the situation, and if prison had taught him one thing, it had taught him to reserve judgement on things he knew nothing about.

He pulled Remmy’s dress out of the suitcase and told her to get changed. He then stepped out of his khaki shorts and T-shirt and started buttoning himself into the suit he’d bought off the rack at a cheap department store.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d worn something off the rack, and it was simply another testament of how different his life was now.

With everyone changed, Dallas told Thomas to go brush his teeth, and he pulled a hair bag out of the suitcase. Amy had put it together for him, and it had a brush, two combs, a bunch of hair ties and bows, and a spray bottle so Dallas could do his daughter’s hair.

He’d done it twice now, and he still felt like Edward Scissorhands when he touched his daughter’s fine hair to try to make it into something beautiful.

“Ponytail?” he asked her. “That’ll keep your hair off your neck, and you’ll be cooler.”

“Can you do two ponies?” she asked.

“Pigtails, sure,” he said, because he’d done those yesterday. Well, he’d done half of the hairdo. Amy had demonstrated how to do the first one, and he’d attempted to copy her on the second one. He’d only had to try twice before he got it tight enough.

Today, he sprayed and parted her hair, then began smoothing the hair on half of her head into a pigtail that sat just above her ear. The right side was easier than the left, and he secured that one on the first try.

The other side took a couple of tries, but he eventually persevered, and he grinned at Remmy. “All ready.”

“Thanks, Daddy.” She threw her arms around his neck, and Dallas’s heart swelled to three times its normal size.

“Love you, bug,” he said, calling on the familiar nickname from years ago.

“Love you too, Daddy.”

He was so grateful she did, and he hoped she wouldn’t have too many memories of his absence in her life. He adored her high-pitched, Texas-twang voice, and he threaded his fingers through hers.

“Let’s go wait for Ted out in the kitchen.”

Thomas was out there, wiping down the counter, and Dallas paused to look at him. When had he become responsible enough to clean up without being asked? Dallas barely did that.

“Thanks for doing that,” Dallas said, not sure how to relate to his son.

“There’s a bunch of chocolate on the floor right there,” he said, and Dallas went to the sink and got another washrag. He wetted it down and moved over to the floor where sure enough, chocolate had been tracked toward the door he’d entered from the garage.

He didn’t want to kneel down in his suit, so he bent over and started scrubbing the dried chocolate. After several minutes and several trips to the sink to rewet the washcloth, he got the floor clean.

“There.”

He stood up and looked at his hard work, a sense of pride moving through him. He’d felt like this after stitching up the arteries leading to a heart too, and after getting all the parts in the exact right spot to rebuild a motorcycle engine.

“I’m so late,” a woman said, and Dallas turned toward a tall, dark-haired woman he hadn’t seen in the brief time he’d eaten a sandwich earlier. “Excuse me.”

She ran toward him, her cowgirl boots making loud, slapping noises on the floor. He backed up, an alarm sounding in his head.

“The floor is—”

She yelped as she slipped, and time slowed into terrible bursts of motion. The woman flailed her arms.

“Wet,” Dallas finished.

He reached for her.

She grabbed onto his forearm.

But she was going down.

He blinked, and he was bending over, her hand still gripping his arm in a painful way.

She groaned, her eyes staring straight up as she was now flat on her back on the floor.

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “Are you okay?”

She blinked a couple of times, and a brand new fire entered those dark eyes. Dallas felt sure he was about to be burned, and he actually found himself welcoming it.





Sneak Peek! Rugged Cowboy Chapter Two





Pain radiated through Jessica Morales’s body, and while she wanted to get up, she couldn’t. She was used to going and going and going, and she was strong.

But her back was in control at the moment, and she was not moving.

Anger flowed through her like river rapids though, and she stared into the light gray eyes of a man she’d never seen before. “What were you doing?” she demanded.

“There was chocolate on the floor,” he said, kneeling beside her. “Can you sit up?”

“I think so.” She groaned again, wishing she wasn’t in the presence of a handsome man with such a noise coming out of her mouth. Her back spasmed, and she stilled.

“I don’t have time for this,” she said. “I have to get out to the stables and get the horses ready.”

“I’ll help you,” he said, putting his hand on the back of her elbow.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Dallas Dreyer,” he said. “I’m a friend of Nate’s.”

“If I don’t get those horses ready, the wedding will be ruined.” Another flash of impatience hit her. “Help me up. You’ll have to come help me. Do you know anything about horses?”

“Not really,” he said, practically lifting her off her feet.

“Great,” she muttered. She took in his appearance, and he wore a cheap suit. At least it was clean. His hair was cut short and spiked in the front, and if he stayed outside for longer than twenty minutes without a hat, he’d be fried under this intense sun.

She didn’t care. Or maybe she did.

Jess wasn’t entirely sure what was running through her body. Attraction? Could that be true?

“Dad?”

“Let’s go,” Dallas said. “You’ll have to lead us to the stables though.” He looked at Jess. “We don’t know where the stables are.”

A boy that stood to his shoulder came to his side, as well as a little girl. Jess hadn’t even seen them in her haste to get out to the stables.

These were brand new cowgirl boots that she’d bought specifically for the wedding, and they had no traction on the bottom. A wet floor had taken her down, and humiliation started to rise from the soles of her feet.

She left the West Wing, already too hot so that when she took in a lung full of the September air, she almost passed out from heat exhaustion.

“What’s your name?” Dallas asked, and Jess realized all of her good sense had fled the moment she’d slipped on the floor. Maybe she’d hit her head.

“Oh, uh, Jessica,” she said. “Morales.”

“These are my kids,” he said. “Thomas and Remmy.”

“Daddy, I can’t keep up,” the little girl said, and Dallas slowed down.

Jess did not. She really had to get Marshmallow Crème and Texas Tyrant saddled and decorated for the wedding. Nate and Ginger weren’t doing anything very traditionally, including the lunch they’d had before the wedding, and they were riding horses down the aisle instead of having Ginger’s father walk her toward a waiting Nate.

Jess had done horseback weddings before, and she knew how to braid manes and tails, weave in flowers, and balance crowns on the horses’s heads to make them a beautiful addition to the ceremony.

She’d gone to town to get the flowers, and she’d missed most of the lunch. Thankfully, the flowers waited for her in a cooler in the stables, and she just needed to get there.

She’d washed Marshmallow and Tyrant that morning, and they still waited in the wash bay.

“Hey,” she said to them, always better able to relate to horses than people. Her disastrous relationship with Spencer proved that. And the brief relationship she’d tried with a man named Preston before that. And the boyfriend she’d had before that? They’d only dated for a week before everything fell apart.

Jess frowned at the track her mind took. She’d never dwelt much on the barren wasteland that was her love life. She didn’t like acknowledging and facing her failures, and the fact was, she’d failed with every man she’d ever tried to get close to.

“I think there’s something broken inside me,” she whispered to the cream-colored horse. Marshmallow Crème had beautiful, long lashes and a supremely calm demeanor. Jess had loved her from birth, and she’d raised her the past three years for just this moment when she would carry Ginger down the aisle toward her future.

“All right,” Dallas said, stepping to her side. “Tell us what to do.”

Annoyance sang through Jess, but she had barked at him to help her. “If you’ll grab that cooler, I’ll start braiding.” She looked at him, which bordered on dangerous. He was extremely good-looking, and though Jess had just bowed out of a relationship with Spencer a couple of weeks ago, she wondered if she could ask Dallas to dinner.

He has two kids, she reminded herself as she turned Marshmallow around. Not that she didn’t want children. But she barely knew how to take care of herself, and she’d never had a relationship for longer than two months. So the thought of getting to know Dallas and two children was so far outside of her realm of reality.

She tethered Marshmallow and moved back to her tail.

“What are you going to do?” Remmy asked, and Jess smiled down at the little girl.

“I’m going to braid her tail,” she said, starting to part the hair. “And we’re going to weave in ribbons and flowers. She’s going to carry the bride for the wedding.”

It was all so romantic, and Jess longed for a horseback wedding of her own. She’d have to figure out how to have a boyfriend for longer than two months, though.

So it was probably hopeless to even think about something like riding a horse toward her anxious groom.

She focused on her work and asked Remmy for the flowers when she needed them. Dallas fed them to his daughter, and she didn’t go more than a few feet from Jess’s side.

Jess eventually relaxed, and she’d dressed both horses in record time with the help of Dallas and his kids.

“All right.” She reached up and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead. “It’s hot.”

Something was definitely wrong in the stables, and Jess had just realized it. “The air conditioning isn’t working.”

“You air condition the stables?”

“Yes,” Jess said. “They’re temperature controlled, because it can get so hot here.” She sighed and turned around. “I need to check it.”

“I’m really handy with machines,” Dallas said. “I’ll come with you.” He started to say something to his children, and Jess took a few steps away to wait for him.

“They’re going to wait here,” Dallas said. “Lead on.”

Jess took him down the aisle to a locked door and fitted her key into it. “This is the control room.” The door swung open, and a burnt, mechanical smell met her nose immediately.

“Oh, something’s burned up,” he said, stepping past her. He went straight to the air conditioner and started fiddling with the front panel. A moment later, it came off, and Dallas coughed.

“Do you have any tools?”

“There’s a toolbox on the shelf there,” she said, pointing.

Dallas followed her finger and found it, pulling it down with authority. He came alive as he rooted through the box and came away with a wrench.

Jess sure did like watching him, as he had a lot of confidence now when he hadn’t before. He moved with precision, and only five minutes and a couple of grunts later, he swung the whole front of the air conditioner open.

“Yep, you’ve got a belt here that’s come off and burned up.” He looked at her. “I don’t suppose you have spare belts?”

“I have no idea,” Jess said.

“Do you have a ranch mechanic?” he asked. “Maybe someone we can call?”

“No,” Jess said, though Ginger had talked about hiring someone to maintain their equipment. “I’ll call Ginger.”

She really didn’t want to, but Ginger loved the horses as if they were her own offspring. She wouldn’t be happy they didn’t have the temperature controls they were used to.

“I’ll look on the shelves,” Dallas said, and Jess took a few steps away to make the call.

“What’s wrong?” Ginger asked when she picked up Jess’s call.

“How do you know something’s wrong?”

“You said you’d see me with the horses unless there was a problem.” In the background, Jess heard her sisters bickering about something to do with Ginger’s hair.

“The air conditioner in the stables burnt out a belt,” she said. “Dallas has it open and he can fix it, if we have another belt.”

“Dallas?”

“Yeah.” Jess continued to walk down the aisle, but she lowered her voice anyway. “He seems to know exactly what he’s doing with it.” He’d been a natural with a wrench in his hand, and Jess wished she didn’t find that quite so attractive.

“I know Nick bought spare parts,” Ginger said. “I’d look on the shelf.”

“He’s doing that,” Jess said.

“He’s really mechanical?”

“Seems to be,” Jess said, shrugging though her friend couldn’t see her.

“Are we still on schedule?”

“The horses are ready,” Jess confirmed. “I’ve got ten minutes, right?”

“If I don’t kill MARIE,” Ginger whispered. “The sooner, the better.”

Jess laughed and said, “I’ll do my best.” She turned back toward the mechanical room just as Dallas poked his head out of the doorway.

“Got it,” he said. “You want to see?”

“You found a belt?”

“Yep,” he said. “And fixed it.” He wiped his hands on a towel that was probably dirtier than his skin.

“And fixed it?” Jess didn’t believe that, but as she walked into the room, the air conditioner kicked on with a resounding click.

She met Dallas’s eyes, and with that smile on his face, a charge filled the air surrounding them that left Jess’s bones vibrating and desire filling her.

“Thank you,” she said. “Will you please help me get the horses over to Nate and Ginger?”

“You bet,” Dallas said, and they went to retrieve Marshmallow Crème, Texas Tyrant, and his kids.

Ten minutes later, Jess delivered the horses to the preparation tent, and helped Ginger into the saddle. She went around Marshmallow and pulled the train out so it lay exactly right.

Nate sat in the saddle by then, and he looked tall and regal and absolutely amazing in his tuxedo and deep black cowboy hat.

Jess’s emotions clogged her throat again, and she nodded to Ginger. “Give us two minutes to find a seat, and then you’re set.”

“Thank you, Jess,” Ginger said, smiling. She seemed softer today, and Jess was glad. Ginger had so much to be in charge of around the ranch, twenty-four-seven. She had to wear the stern expression and ask the hard questions.

But not today.

Jess hurried into the main tent, where thankfully, the misters and fans had the temperature at a tolerable level. Hannah and Michelle had saved her a seat in the front row, and she heard Dallas’s footsteps behind her as Ted had saved him and his kids seats there too.

So she sat down next to Hannah with a whispered, “She’s beautiful,” and her skin tingled as Dallas sat right beside her and drew his daughter onto his knee.

She glanced at him, that electricity between them still crackling. She wondered if he could feel it too. Spencer had, and they’d tried going out several times. He’d even tried to kiss her—and it hadn’t been horrible.

It just hadn’t been memorable. By then, the snap, crackle, and pop between them had fled.

Jess had no reason to think this attraction would last longer than it took for Ginger and Nate to say “I do.”





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OVERPROTECTIVE COWBOY

Hope Eternal Ranch Romance, Book 2

by Elana Johnson



Copyright © 2020 by AEJ Creative Works Inc, Elana Johnson

All Rights Reserved



This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. No part of this book can be reproduced in any form or by electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without the express written permission of the author. The only exception is by a reviewer who may quote short excerpts in a review. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in, or encourage, the electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

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