Authors: Catherine Anderson
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Book / published by arrangement with the author
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Adeline Catherine Anderson
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Electronic edition: October, 2004
“Coulter Family” books by Catherine Anderson
Other Signet Books by Catherine Anderson
Always in My Heart
Only by Your Touch
To Julie Seybert, a.k.a. Jules Maree, whose voice is almost as beautiful as she is. Don’t give up on your dreams, my friend. Nashville is waiting, and the world will be a much poorer place without your music.
And also, as always, to my husband, Sid, who has been my anchor in every storm and never failed me.
s Zeke Coulter parked his red Dodge Ram in front of his new ranch-style home that August afternoon, he was eagerly anticipating the weekend. One of the drawbacks of owning a ranch-supply store was that he had to work most Saturdays, but he’d rearranged the employee shift schedule that morning to give himself a mini-vacation, two entire days to do exactly as he pleased. Although a half rack of cold longnecks sat beside him on the seat, there would be no beer on tap for him tonight. He planned to work outside in the garden until dark and then spend the remainder of the evening putting up vegetables for winter.
Just as he reached to turn off the truck ignition, his cell phone rang. He expected it to be someone at the store. Randall, the night manager, couldn’t wipe his own ass without Zeke telling him how.
“Zeke here,” he answered, his voice edged with frustration.
“You got a hot date tonight?”
Zeke grinned. He hadn’t heard from his younger brother Hank in over a week. “Hey, little brother. I thought your dialing finger was broken.” Hank was newly married, and Zeke couldn’t resist teasing him. “That pretty little bride must be keeping you mighty busy.”
“We come up for air occasionally,” Hank replied good-naturedly. “Carly and I were hoping you might come out for dinner. Southern-fried chicken with all the trimmings.”
“I thought the smell of fried food made her sick.”
“Not anymore. She’s over that and having sudden cravings again. Tonight it’s fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy.”
“Which one of you is pregnant? Sounds highly suspicious to me. That’s your favorite meal.”
Hank chuckled. “We’ve got similar tastes. What can I say? You comin’ out or not?”
With genuine regret, Zeke explained that he had other plans for the evening.
“Picking vegetables and canning?” Hank echoed with unveiled disgust. “You’ve got the Coulter reputation to uphold, remember. It comes as part of the genetic package, right along with the nose.”
Zeke couldn’t help but laugh. It was true; he and all his brothers had their father’s looks—sable hair, dark skin, blue eyes, and sharply chiseled features, the most prominent of which was a large nose that their mother often likened to the blade of a bowie knife.
“If I don’t get my tomatoes put up this weekend, they’ll ruin. I worked too damned hard growing that garden to let the produce go to waste.”
“What’s the matter with you, bro? Thirty-three and single on a Friday night, and you’re going to can tomatoes? You’re supposed to be having fun.”
“Almost thirty-four, and I enjoy canning.”
“Don’t tell anyone.”
Zeke laughed again. “You had enough fun for both of us, and look how you ended up. Canning tomatoes is safer.”
“I like the way I ended up,” Hank retorted, his tone mellow with contentment.
Hank did seem to be truly happy, and Zeke was glad for him. But getting married and raising a family weren’t for everyone. “I’m sorry I can’t make it for dinner, bro. Tell Carly thanks for the invite.”
Zeke had just ended the call when he saw a boy who looked to be about twelve racing from behind the house. Just the way the kid ran, shoulders hunched and body low to the ground, told Zeke that trouble was afoot. Cursing under his breath, he swung out of the vehicle.
“Hey!” he yelled.
His T-shirt flapping and sneakers flying, the kid never broke stride. Zeke watched him cut across the field that lay between his forty acres and the neighboring farm.
. He could well remember being that age. Summers in the country could be long and boring for a boy who wasn’t kept busy, and boredom often led to mischief.
The late-afternoon sunlight burned through Zeke’s blue shirt as he strode along the west end of the house to see what the kid had been up to. When he reached the side porch, he saw a splash of red on the cream-colored siding just below the kitchen window. He snapped to a halt and circled the flagstone steps to get a better look. The pulp of a ripe tomato had been splattered on the new paint.
“Damn it!” Swearing to turn the air blue, Zeke rounded the corner of the house to find countless more splotches of red on the siding. And that wasn’t all. The family room slider and bathroom window were shattered, and the door of the storage shed hung from one hinge, the cross bucks broken clean in two.
When Zeke turned to survey his garden, a wave of regret washed over him. His tomato plants and corn looked as if a tornado had flattened them. Fury, sudden and searing, fired his blood. This wasn’t mere mischief, but malicious vandalism. The tomato stains would never wash off his house. He’d have to repaint. And that wasn’t to mention the cost of replacing the windows and the storage shed door.
Spurred by rage, Zeke set off across the field, following the boy’s footprints.
What the hell is the world coming to?
he asked himself as he marked off the distance with angry strides. Just as he suspected, the kid’s tracks led directly to the old farmhouse, a white, two-story monstrosity with a wraparound veranda, peeling paint, and a green shingle roof sorely in need of repair. As Zeke entered the patchy side yard, which was peppered with shady elms and oaks, he saw movement on the front lawn. His steps long and purposeful, he circled the house, hoping to collar the child before he escaped inside.
Instead of finding the boy, Zeke came upon a woman. No question about her gender. She was bent over a long plank table, struggling to cover an assortment of odds and ends with a blue plastic tarp that kept catching in the breeze. Her skimpy black dress rode high on her bare thighs, revealing long, shapely legs the color of coffee generously laced with cream. When she stretched farther forward to catch the tarp, her hemline inched higher.
. If he had known someone like this lived next door, he’d have come over to borrow a cup of sugar.
“Excuse me,” he said to her attractive backside.
“Oh!” Startled by his voice, she jerked erect and spun around.
The front of her was just as delightful to look at as the back. Normally Zeke preferred fashionably slender women, but he quickly decided there was something to be said for females who were generously round in all the right places, especially when the roundness was showcased in clingy black stuff that revealed every dip and swell.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you drive up.” She tugged her skirt down and fluttered a hand at the collection of stuff on the table. “I was just closing up shop until morning, but if you’d like to take a quick look, feel free. This is the third day, and I just marked everything down.”
Zeke decided she was having a yard sale. Unfortunately, the only item of interest didn’t sport a price tag. Despite the heavy layer of makeup, she was beautiful. A mane of curly black hair cascaded past her slender shoulders, which were bare except for thin black straps. Her mouth was lush, soft, and defined with deep burgundy gloss, the lower lip pouted and glistening in the sunlight, the upper shaped in a tempting bow. Above the bodice of the dress, full, creamy breasts plumped up, displaying a dusky cleavage that invited him to look. Raised to be a gentleman, Zeke resisted the urge, dropped his gaze, and found himself staring at her legs instead.
He caught the scent of vanilla, which rattled him even more. His most pleasurable moments were spent in the kitchen. “I, um—I’m not interested in buying anything,” he finally found the presence of mind to say.
Smoothing her short skirt again, she gave him a questioning look, her sherry-brown eyes warming as she smiled. “Are you here to see my father then?”
For an awful moment, Zeke couldn’t recall why the hell he was there. Then he glanced at his feet, saw a chunk of tomato clinging to the toe of his Western-style boot, and remembered in a rush. Before he could launch into an explanation, she dimpled a cheek at him and said, “Are you
I can’t sell you something? I have a set of Ping golf clubs that are like brand-new.”
You could sell me almost anything
. Zeke shook his head. “I’m not into golf.”
“How about some perfectly good warm-up pants?” She gave him a measuring look. “Probably not. Robert is quite a bit shorter than you.” Her eyes fairly danced with mischief. “I’ve got a great shotgun, though, that I’m willing to sell cheap, along with a reloading kit that has never been used. I’ve also got every issue of
dating back to March 1970. You can have the entire lot for a dollar.”
“That’s quite a collection.”
“Yes, well, Robert is—” She broke off and shrugged. Something dark flashed in her eyes, momentarily veiling the shimmers of brightness. “He’s an enthusiast, I guess you might say.”
Zeke wondered how any man in his right mind could ogle other women when he had this one at home. With a soft sigh, she regained her composure, and the shadows left her eyes. Her mischievous smile was infectious, and Zeke found himself grinning.
“You aren’t, by any chance, getting a divorce?” he asked.
“Done deal. Now I’m just trying to recoup some of my losses and exact a little revenge while I’m at it.”
She could make any man cry with one swing of her hips. Zeke kept his gaze fixed on her face and did his damnedest to look like a choirboy.
“If you’re interested in a tried-and-true lucky shirt or a prized letterman’s sweater, you’ve come to the right place.” She wore sexy black stilettos with snappy straps that showcased her slender ankles and shapely calves. As she circled the table to retrieve the tarp, she balanced her weight on her toes to prevent the thin heels from sinking into the grass. “I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m running late for work. If you’re here for eggs or milk, you’ll find my dad in the house.”
Zeke wondered what kind of work she did, to be dressed like that.
Don’t even go there, son
. She looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties, which, if she had married young, put her at about the right age to be the tomato thrower’s mother. Zeke looked into her pretty eyes and regretted his reason for being there. He doubted she’d be happy to hear that her son had just inflicted costly damages to her neighbor’s house and garden.
“I’m Zeke Coulter. I live next door.”
“Ah, Pop’s new neighbor.” She finished drawing the tarp over the table and stepped forward to offer him her hand. “It’s good to finally meet you. Right after you moved in, I baked you a cake, but it met with disaster before I got it out of the oven. My daughter, Rosie, jumped rope in the kitchen.”
“Uh-oh. Rope jumpers and rising cakes don’t mix.” Taking care not to squeeze too hard, Zeke shook hands with her. Her fingers felt slim and soft against his calloused palm. “That’s a shame. I love a good cake.”
“I didn’t say it was a good cake.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’m not much of a cook, I’m afraid. It probably would have fallen, regardless. Rosie just gave me a good excuse.”
With those looks, who needed culinary skills? Zeke hated to let go of her hand. “And your name is?”
“Oh!” She laughed again and rolled her eyes. “I’m sorry. Natalie Patterson.” She tugged her fingers free and glanced at her watch. “I’m sure you’d like to meet my father. If you’ll step into the house, I’ll introduce you before I grab my purse and run.”
Again Zeke wondered what kind of work she did. A barmaid, possibly, only how could she survive an eight-hour shift in those impractical shoes?
“Actually, meeting your father isn’t what brought me over.” Zeke wished he knew a gentle way to say this, but straight and to the point was more his style. “When I got home from work a few minutes ago, I saw a boy running from my backyard. I followed him here.”
Her smile slowly faded. “That would be my son, Chad. Is there some sort of problem?”
“You could say so, yes.” Zeke told her about the vandalism to his property. “At a quick guess, if I do the repairs myself, I’d say about a thousand dollars’ worth of damage has been done. That isn’t to mention all my hard work on the garden down the drain. I’ve been babying those tomato plants since early June, and the fruit was just getting ripe enough to pick.”
Her finely arched brows drew together in a frown. “Oh, Mr. Coulter, I’m so sorry.”
Zeke had expected her to jump to the defense of her son, not immediately conclude that the boy was guilty. “No sorrier than I am.”
She rubbed her bare arms as though to ward off a chill as she turned toward the house. “Chad!” she called. “Can I see you out here for a moment, please?”
Zeke saw that the old-fashioned, double-hung windows of the house had been raised to let in a breeze. Through a living-room screen discolored with age, an elderly man with unkempt white hair peered out at them. “What’s happenin’, Nattie? You need me out there?”
“Nothing’s happening, Gramps. I just want to talk to Chad.”
“Chad!” the old man yelled. “Yer mama’s hollerin’ fer ya!”
The wind picked up, bringing with it the refreshing evening coolness that made summers in Central Oregon so enjoyable.
. Zeke liked the ring of that. It suited her, somehow—sweet yet sassy. The breeze trailed black strands of curly hair across her face. As she brushed at her cheek, he took the opportunity to study her features, which seemed only more perfect upon closer inspection. Sculpted cheekbones, a dainty little nose, a mouth that begged to be kissed, and a flawless, sun-kissed complexion.
The front screen door slapped open, and the boy emerged onto the veranda. He cast Zeke a look that burned with resentment. Then he hung his head and tromped down the rickety porch steps. When he reached his mother, he shoved his hands in his jeans pockets, slouched his shoulders, and toed a clump of overgrown grass.
“Chad,” Natalie began, “this gentleman says that you ruined his garden, threw tomatoes at his house, broke two windows, and wrecked his shed door.”
The boy finally raised his head. A shock of honey-brown hair fell into his eyes, which were a mirror image of his mom’s. “So?”
It wasn’t what Zeke expected. No denials? Not that lying would have been a smart move. The boy’s Portland Trailblazer T-shirt and Nike running shoes were smeared with tomato pulp and seeds.