She used her bare toe to nudge the door open a few more inches. She saw no trophies. Just a rumpled bed, hastily made with a faded quilt on top, and a blue terry robe flung across the foot. A basket of laundry sat on the floor. There were venetian blinds on the windows and a chest of drawers standing next to a half-open closet. On the nightstand, next to the bed, were three thingsâa digital alarm clock, a book and a framed school picture of a young boy.
Against her better judgment, Jess took a step inside the room. She could see the photo better now. The boy, a dark-haired, bright-eyed little fellow, looked enough like Ben to be his son. His grin, which showed a missing front tooth, was so infectious that Jess caught herself smiling back.
“Jess? What are you doing in here?”
The deep voice came from right behind her. Clutching her clothes to her chest, she forced herself to turn around. Ben loomed above her, his black eyebrows drawn into a scowl.
There was no way out but the truth.
“I'm sorry. I'd just come out of the bathroom. Your door was partway open and I was curious. If I'm out of line, please forgive me.”
His scowl deepened. “Out of line? I'd say it was more like plain old snooping,” he said. “Whatever you were up to, I wouldn't recommend walking into a man's bedroom dressed in nothing but a towel. You could put the wrong ideas into his head.”
Jess could feel the heat rising in her face, but she chose to brazen it out. “Even if the man's mother is right downstairs?”
“My mother hasn't been strong enough to climb these stairs for the past year. Nobody comes up here but the cleaning ladyâand Ethan, when he's around.” Moving past her, he strode to the foot of the bed, took his terry bathrobe and laid it over her shoulders. It was so roomy that even with her arms full of her clothes, it covered Jess all the way around. “There. I could say that's better, but it would be a lie.”
The twinkle in his eyes left little doubt that he was joking.
“Is Ethan the boy in the picture? I take it he's your son.”
“He is.” Pride resonated in Ben's voice. “His mother has him during the school year, but he'll be here in a couple of weeks for Christmas vacation. The closed door on your side of the hall is his room. You're more than welcome to look inside.”
“Never mind.” If he wanted to make her feel silly, he was doing a good job.
“If you're still around, you'll get to meet him.”
Jess got the messageâhe still wasn't counting on her to stay. For now she chose to ignore it. “He looks a lot like you,” she said. “How old is he?”
“Eight. That's last year's picture. By now he should have both his front teeth.”
“Handsome boy.” She turned to go, then paused, glancing back. “How did it go with the weed-smoking girls?”
“Their folks came and picked them up at the jail. By then they were bawling their eyes out. I don't think they'll try that again for a while.”
“So what are you doing back here so soon?” Jess asked.
“My mother needed some things for her committee meeting. Since she doesn't drive anymore, I picked them up for her. And I thought that, as long as I was here, I might as well see if you needed anything.”
“Uh . . . thanks, I guess. And for what it's worth, no, I'm fine.”
“Mom said she invited you to come to the meeting.”
“Yes. It sounded like a good ideaâalthough I'm always nervous with new people.”
“You'll be fine.” He gave her a roguish glance. “But I'd suggest you put some clothes on first.”
“Ohâplease, just pretend this didn't happen!” Taking her cue, Jess fled back to the guest room. It hadn't been the smartest move, wandering half-undressed into Ben's room. True, she hadn't expected him to show up. But if she wanted to make a good impression on the sheriff, on his mother and on the townspeople, she would have to mind her manners. Being Francine's daughter was already a strike against her. The last thing she needed was to be tarred with the same brush.
* * *
Ben whistled his way down the stairs. His encounter with Jess had been . . . interesting? Was that the word for it? Wrapped in nothing but a towel, with that shower-fresh face and those big, innocent eyes, she was part seductress, part curious child. Under different conditions, he wouldn't have minded finding out more. But out of respect, if nothing else, his mother's house was no place for flirtation. Maybe later, if Jess stuck around and got a place of her own....
Holding that thought, Ben gave his mother a farewell wave, went out to his vehicle and headed back to work.
* * *
As Jess helped set up for the committee meeting, she could feel her nerves tightening. “Are you sure you want me here?” she asked Clara as she unfolded extra chairs around the coffee table. “Maybe I'll just be a distraction.”
“It'll be fine, dear.” Clara cut the cake and arranged the saucers and forks on a tray. “I'll introduce you, and you can tell us whatever you like about yourself. Then we'll get down to business. You can listen and learn, or feel free to add your own ideas.”
“But will they know who I am and why I'm here?”
Clara smiled. “Word does travel fast around this town, but not quite that fast. I haven't told anybody about your reason for coming, and I'm sure Ben wouldn't either. But if you don't mind a word of advice, being open and up-front about your mother will win you friends in the long run and could prevent some misunderstandings.”
“Thank you, that's very wise,” Jess said. But before she could think it over, the front doorbell rang. Jess moved out of the way as Clara hurried to answer it. Two figures, briefly silhouetted by the afternoon sunlight, stepped into the living room.
“Come in and have a chair,” Clara said. “I'd like you to meet my houseguest, Jessica. Jessica, this is Connie Parker, and her daughter Katy.”
“Pleased to meet you, Jessica.” The woman who took Jess's hand was in her forties, her graying hair slicked back from a careworn face that would have been plain except for the sparkle in her gray eyes. “Say hello, Katy.”
“Hullo.” As Katy extended her hand, Jess realized the young woman had Down syndrome. Dressed in light blue sweatpants and a pink shirt with a kitten on the front, she gave Jess a sweet smile. “Katy goes everywhere I go,” Connie said. “So when they asked me to be on the planning committee, of course they invited her too.”
Jess gave the small hand a warm squeeze. What a self-absorbed jerk she'd been, to feel as if her own concerns were the center of the universe. Compared to what others were dealing with, they were nothing. “Hello, Katy,” she said. “I'm happy to meet you.”
“Connie's husband, Silas, runs the garage in town,” Clara said.
“Then I've spoken with him on the phone,” Jess said. “He's waiting for a part so he can fix my car. Come sit down. Maybe you can tell me more about the Cowboy Christmas Ball.”
They were taking their seats when the doorbell rang again. The next arrival was an older woman named Maybelle Ferguson. Stout and matronly, with a no-nonsense air about her, she greeted Jess with cool reserve, casting a disapproving glance at her black leggings.
I can't win them all
, Jess told herself.
With everyone seated, one chair remained empty. Clara glanced out the front window, then at the mantel clock. “It's about time to start,” she said. “Has anybody heard from Kylie?”
Maybelle opened her folder of notes. “You know Kylie. She's always a Last-Minute-Lucy. Once she has that baby, she'll be even worse. Let's just start without her.”
“How about we give her another five minutes?” Clara suggested. “Meanwhile, I'd like to formally introduce Jessica and let her tell you a little about herself.”
Jess cringed inwardly. Clara had put her on the spot. But the gesture was well meant, like forcing bitter medicine down her throat.
With all eyes on her, Jess told the briefest possible version of her storyâhow she'd been adopted as a baby and, after losing her legal parents, decided to find her birth mother, who turned out to be Francine.
Connie was wide-eyed. “Wow!” she said. “This should be a movie! I can't wait to find out what happens next!”
Maybelle had drawn back into her chair, looking as if Jess had just broken out with some exotic disease. “Well!” she huffed.
Katy smiled her angelic smile. “Hey, you found your mom. That's really nice.”
The doorbell chimed twice. Before the end of the second ring, the door flew open. “Don't get up, anybody,” a cheery voice called. “Sorry I'm late!”
The woman who burst into the room looked a little older than Jess. She was blond, pretty and late in her pregnancy. As she took her seat, Clara made the introductions.
“Jess, this is Kylie Taggart. Her husband, Shane, is Ben's best friend. Kylie, Jess is Francine's birth daughter. She came here to find her mother.”
“Oh, my stars!” Kylie beamed in delight. “So you're Annie!”
Jess's jaw dropped. “You knew about me?”
Kylie nodded. “I spent a little time with Francine last year. She told me about you. She said you had red hair and that she'd never stopped thinking about you. I can't believe you're really here! You could be just what that poor woman needs!”
“So, are you here to stay?” Connie asked.
“I hope so,” Jess replied. “But first I'll need to find a place to rent. Clara was kind enough to take me in for a couple of days, but I don't want to impose on her any longer than I have to. As soon as I get my car back, I can start looking.”
“You know, it's a shame Branding Iron doesn't have any place for people coming into town to stay,” Kylie said. “We'd get an even better turnout for the Christmas Ball if folks from out of town could get a room here and not have to drive home.”
“Opening a place like that would cost money,” Connie said. “And who's got money around here?”
“We're wasting time,” Maybelle interrupted. “We've got a lot of decisions to make. Let's get started.”
“Cake now or later?” Clara asked.
“Later,” Maybelle said. “We can't talk with our mouths full, can we?”
Jess settled back in her chair to listen. She had a lot to learn about the town and the people in it, and she was just getting started.
aybelle, who chaired the planning committee and insisted on following parliamentary procedure, called the meeting to order. As Clara read the minutes from the last session, Jess sat back to listen.
The Cowboy Christmas Ball would be held in the high school gym, the only place with enough room for the townspeople who'd already bought tickets and extra guests who would pay at the door. Since the menu was traditional, and the Nashville band had been booked over a year ago, there were few decisions to be made. This meeting was mostly for the purpose of making sure everything was covered down to the last detail.
As they went down the listâticket sales, decorations, plates and utensils for the buffet, security, cleanup and even a pre-party dance instruction class, Jess paid as much attention to the women as to the business at hand. She reflected on how each had responded differently to the news that she was Francine's daughterâClara with graciousness, Connie with curiosity, Katy with sweet acceptance, and Kylie with warm enthusiasm.
Only Maybelle had seemed put off. But that shouldn't be surprising. There were bound to be people in Branding Iron who'd judged Francine harshly and would view her daughter the same way. Until she could change their minds, she would just have to live with that.
Still, she couldn't deny that it hurt.
Forcing the thought aside, Jess focused her attention on the plans for the ball.
The local firemen would dig the barbecue pit and cook the prime beef. The rest of the food for the buffet table would be donated by people in the town, who'd already signed up for their dishes. The proceeds would go to pay the band and fund next year's ball, with any leftover cash going to the schools for supplies, field trips and other activities.
“Are all the food assignments filled?” Maybelle asked Connie, who was in charge of the buffet.
“Plenty of folks have signed up to bring food,” Connie said. “We've got more than sixty people on the list. But they're all going to need confirmation and reminder calls to make sure they don't forget. With so much to do, I could sure use somebody to do the calling. Any volunteers?”
The women glanced at each other. This was clearly a job nobody wanted.
“How about you, Jessica?” Clara offered. “We could give you a list, and you could make the calls from here, since I know you don't have a landline phone.”
“Oh, but I don'tâ” Jess scrambled for an excuse. Once, out of desperation, she'd taken a job at a phone center, making sales calls to strangers. She'd hated it. This wouldn't be the same, but the thought of calling all those people she didn't know made her want to cringe.
“Oh, please, Jessica,” Connie said. “I could really use your help, and it would be a great way for you to get to know people here.”
“Please, Jessica.” Katy echoed her mother.
Jess knew when she was outgunned. “All right, I'll do my best,” she hedged. “But I may need some help.”
“Yay!” Katy clapped her hands.
Kylie raised her hand and spoke. “I move that we accept Jessica as a member of the Christmas Ball committee.”
“Seconded.” Katy had been in enough meetings to know the rules.
Maybelle raised an eyebrow. “This is highly irregular.”
“It's been moved and seconded, Maybelle,” Connie said.
“Oh, very well,” Maybelle said with a disdainful sniff. “All in favor?”
“Aye!” chorused the rest of the committee. Maybelle didn't bother to ask who was opposed.
Jess sensed that she'd been railroaded, but Connie was right. If she wanted to be welcomed and accepted in the town, this thankless job was a gift. “Thank you,” she said. “And please call me Jess.”
* * *
Ben was nearing the end of a long dayâone that showed no sign of ending anytime soon. A rear-ender on the highway into town had become a drug bust after the smashed Corolla turned out to be stolen. Fortunately his deputy had run the plates and called for backup before trying to arrest the armed driver, who'd suffered a nasty head gash and surrendered without a fight. With the man in custody, Ben and the deputy had found a large stash of meth and marijuana in the smashed trunk.
The seventy-six-year-old farmer whose pickup had hit the Corolla was unhurt, but he was so jittery that Ben had called his daughter to calm him down and drive him home. The smuggler had been stitched up at the clinic. Now, dosed with pain meds, he was sleeping it off in a holding cell. Ben hoped he'd be out until the state troopers came to pick him up in the morning. But the man couldn't be left here alone. Tired and hungry, Ben had sent his deputies home to their families and stayed to write up a report of the incident and wait for the night shift to come in.
Walking back down the corridor to the cells, he looked in at the sleeping prisoner and thought of all the things that could've gone wrong out there on the highwayâgunfire, with somebody getting shot, maybe killed; or a dangerous chase through town, putting more folks in danger. He could only be thankful that none of those things had come to pass. Life was too precious for such tragediesâand the burden of his job was to try to keep them from happening.
He was about to go back to his office, and maybe order a pizza, when he heard a sound coming from farther down the hall. It was the sound of deep, heartfelt weeping.
Besides the drug smuggler, only one other person was locked up tonightâFrancine.
A few strides carried him down the hall to her cell. Through the bars, he could see her huddling on the edge of her bunk with her face buried in her hands. Her shoulders shook with sobs.
“Francine, are you all right?” he asked.
She raised her head, her eyes bloodshot, her hair disheveled, her face blotched with tears. “Lord, look at me, sheriff! Look at what a mess I am! My little girl comes all this way to find her mother, and this is what she getsâa broken-down old wreck in jail! I wouldn't blame her if she left and never looked back!”
Tears would likely be good for the woman's soul, Ben thought. But he couldn't just walk away and leave her like this. She probably wanted sympathy. But what she needed right now was tough talk.
“Your daughter cares about you, Francine,” he said. “Now that she's met you, she's determined to stay and help you change your life.”
“She'd do that for me?” Francine wiped her nose on the sleeve of her orange jumpsuit. “Even after I gave her away?”
“I've no reason to believe she holds that against you,” Ben said. “Jess means well. But I don't think she knows what she's getting into. I've seen you in and out of here over the years. I've seen you go to AA and then quit, sober up and then fall off the wagon again. I've picked you up off the street and hauled you out of bar fights. If your daughter thinks she can change you, she's got an uphill battle ahead of her.”
“Oh, I know that.” Francine sounded like a little girl who'd just been scolded for getting her shoes muddy. “But now I've got my baby back. With her bein' there for me, things are bound to turn the corner.”
“Are they?” Ben shook his head. “Nobody can change youânot even your own daughter. You have to change yourself.” Ben leaned closer to the bars. “Think about this, Francine. What if Jess puts her faith in you, gives you her all, and you let her down? You'll break her heart. Is that what you want?”
Francine looked down at her hands. “You sure do know how to stick the knife in and twist it, Ben Marsden.”
“Somebody has to say this. You've got less than half of your sentence left. Don't lead her on. If you can't changeâor if you don't want toâtell her up front and let her go. If you love her, that would be the kindest thing you could do.”
“I'll think on it, but it's not what I want.” Francine was silent for a moment. When she looked up at him, her expression had changed to a sly smile. “My girl's a lovely little thing, isn't she? I get the idea you kind of like her. Am I right?”
The words caught Ben off guard. Sure, he liked Jess. She was pretty, intelligent and fiercely compassionate. But he'd barely had time to get to know her. And even if he was attracted to her, his life was complicated enough without a new woman in it.
The sound of his two night shift deputies arriving gave him an excuse to leave without responding to Francine's question. “Sleep on what I said,” he told her. “Ask yourself how badly you want to change, and what you're willing to do.”
She nodded. “Will you be bringin' my girl around?”
“That depends on her, and on how much time I have. See you tomorrow, Francine.”
By the time he'd briefed the deputies and made it out the door, it was dark. Ben was still hungry, but his mother usually left something to warm up when he worked late. He would wait and eat when he got home.
The night was chilly, the air around the jail tinged with cigarette smoke and diesel fumes. The security lights mounted under the edge of the roof elongated Ben's shadow, casting it ahead of him as he walked to his SUV. He was just climbing inside when his cell phone rang. He took the call.
Ben's spirit lightened. There was no voice he'd rather hear than his eight-year-old son's.
“Hi, Ethan. Isn't it about your bedtime? You've got school in the morning.”
“Yeah. I'm in my bed, talking to you under the covers.”
“What's up? Some big secret?”
“Sort of. I wanted to ask you something, and I don't want Mom to know.”
“Will she be mad if she finds out?” The last thing Ben needed was to get crossways with his ex. Cheryl could fight dirty, and she wasn't above using her control of Ethan as a weapon.
“Maybe. I think Mom's getting married again.”
“Oh?” Questions flooded Ben's mind. He was fine with Cheryl getting remarried, but how would it affect Ethan? And how would it affect their current custody arrangement? “Are you happy about that?”
He could hear the sound of Ethan shifting in the bed. “Maybe not,” he said. “Mom's boyfriend is from Boston. His name is Nigel. I think he's rich.”
“Nothing wrong with that.” But this didn't sound good, Ben thought. “Do you like him?”
“Not much. He's kind of snooty. He's got a big house by the ocean. Mom showed me pictures of it. He wants Mom to move there, and he wants to send me to the boarding school where he went. He says it's to make a gentleman out of me. But I think he just wants me out of the way.”
“It sounds like I need to talk with your mother.”
“Not yet. She'll know I told you.” He paused. Ben could hear him breathing into the phone. “Here's the thing, Dad. If Mom gets married, can I come and live with you?”
In a heartbeat!
Ben wanted to say. But Cheryl had a way of throwing up roadblocks. He would fight her in court, if need be, for more access to his son. But that would take time and money. Meanwhile, he didn't want to get Ethan's hopes up only to have them crushed.
“I'd like that more than anything,” he said. “But it's something I'll need to work out with your mother.”
In the silence on the other end of the phone, Ben could sense his son's disappointment. “Hey, when are you coming for the holidays?” he asked.
“School lets out in three weeks. But Mom says I can get out early because she wants to go to Boston with Nigel and meet his family. Can we go sledding, like we did last year?”
“You bet, if there's snow. If not, maybe we can ride my friend Shane's horses. And we'll have a big Christmas tree at Grandma's house. Do you know what you want yet?”
“I'm thinking about it.”
“Well, let me know. And let me know when I can plan to drive to Dallas and pick you up.”
“Gotta go! Mom's coming upstairs!” Ethan ended the call.
Ben pocketed his phone, wondering what changes lay ahead. Cheryl's remarriage to a wealthy easterner, if it really happened, could be a real game changerâfor better or for worse. Nothing would make him happier than to have his son live with him. But would Cheryl let Ethan go, or would she hang on to the boy out of pure meanness? No matter how it played out, he'd be damned if anybody was going to subject his precious boy to the horrors of boarding school.
Driving down Main Street, he saw that the Christmas lights were upâcolored twinkle-bulbs strung on wires between the streetlights and across the intersections. The display, which went up right after Thanksgiving, was nothing spectacular, but it was Branding Iron's way of signaling the start of a holiday season rich in tradition. Ethan loved the Christmas parade with Santa in an antique sleigh drawn by a team of massive gray Percherons. And that night, there'd be the annual Cowboy Christmas Ball.
If Ben attended the ball, it would only be as part of his job. Most years he volunteered to work security that night so his deputies could attend with their dates and families. No reason for this year to be any different. If Ethan wanted to go and enjoy the food and kids' games, and maybe meet up with some friends, the boy could go with his grandmother or with one of the neighbor families.
As he turned up the street to home, he could see that the lights were on in the living room and kitchen. His mother, always tired by the end of the day, was usually in bed by nine. A glance at the dashboard clock told Ben it was nine-thirty. Maybe she'd stayed up to talk to him, orâthe thought gave him an unexpected tingleâhe might find Jess waiting for him when he walked in.
He'd tried to block today's upstairs incident from his thoughts. But seeing her with her curvy little body wrapped in nothing but a large towel, with beads of water glowing on her creamy shoulders and on her long golden eyelashes, had done some naughty things to his libido. His self-control had been worthy of a medalâand would continue to be. Cute, sexy and sassy as Jess might be, he was no candidate for romanceâespecially under his mother's roof.