Authors: Trish Milburn
When she looked up again, she had a smear of chocolate at the corner of her mouth. Before he could tell himself not to, Will reached over and wiped the chocolate away with his finger. Elly’s mouth parted, but before she could say anything the front door opened and a gust of chilly air brought Will back to his senses.
He looked over his shoulder to see Jesse Cody standing in the foyer, door still open at his back, his eyes glued on the scene in front of him. Will thought this would be the part of the movie where the guy in his position gulped. But instead, he met Jesse’s gaze and leaned back in his chair.
Elly spoke first. “Close the door, dude. Mom swears up and down you weren’t born in the barn, but I’m not convinced.”
Will glanced back at her and smiled. He heard the door close behind him, but he couldn’t look away from her. At least not until she gave him a small smile back, making him feel like he could face any Cody brother, no matter how big and imposing.
ILL RETURNED HIS
attention to Jesse, Elly nearly rolled her eyes at the look on her brother’s face. She’d seen it any time a guy had expressed interest in her. Jesse and her other brothers had a way of saying things to guys that made them decide she wasn’t worth having to deal with the Cody men.
Would Will be as intimidated?
For a moment, she pictured Will running that gauntlet with a smile on his handsome face and a look of determination to get to her. The image was so powerful, her hand fumbled her mug and she nearly spilled her coffee.
She made the mistake of meeting Jesse’s gaze. Her blunder hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“Well, I’ve got to get ready for a tour.” Even though she wanted to look at Will again, she resisted. Instead, she played as if no unexpected emotions were swirling inside her and retreated to her room.
Once inside, she closed the door and dropped to the side of her bed.
What was going on with her? The moment Will had touched the edge of her mouth, a zing had ricocheted through her body. She had to get a grip and realize he was probably just being nice.
Maybe she was reading too much into his invitation to dinner, into looks and kind gestures, into Janie’s assertion that Will had liked her once upon a time. But if that was true and she’d rejected him, what were the odds he’d give her a second chance? He’d said nothing romantic, had not asked her out on a date, hadn’t attempted to kiss her when they’d stood near each other as she’d poured coffee as many guys might have.
Besides, he was two years younger than her.
Now, why did that matter?
She flopped back on the bed and stared at the ceiling, strained to hear his voice. But all she heard was a faint rumble, Will’s and Jesse’s voices indistinguishable from each other through two doors. She wondered if Jesse had dived right into the business at hand or if he’d said something about her.
Why was she torturing herself when she didn’t even know if Will thought of her as more than a girl he’d once known, maybe had had a teenage crush on? She could be no more to him than the sister of a client.
That thought stopped her. She’d known why he’d come to the ranch, and yet she hadn’t asked him if he’d learned anything. Granted, he might not have told her since he’d technically been hired by Jesse, but she hadn’t even asked.
Other questions, ones totally unrelated to Mark’s parentage, had somehow overridden what she should be concerned about. How could she think about how Will made her heart rate pick up when he could be the harbinger of news that might split her family apart? News that could cost Elly her best friend.
She had to start thinking of Will as her brother’s legal counsel, not as the first guy in a long time to make her yearn for what was missing from her life. She needed to focus on her family, on the Finals. Not on how she wanted to find out what Will Jackson’s lips felt like on hers.
The sound of a bus pulling up outside made her close her eyes and wish she could disappear. Normally, she liked conducting tours of the ranch, talking about her family’s rich heritage in this part of Wyoming and the realities of modern ranching.
But this was the first time she had to wonder if there was more to the Cody heritage than she’d believed all her life. That maybe she had another brother, one who because of his age could claim the position of the firstborn.
Elly made it through the tour, relying on experience to recite details and answer questions. Normally she enjoyed learning where everyone was from, what they did for a living and what had brought them to Wyoming. Usually it was Yellowstone or the Big Horn Mountains, but occasionally someone would surprise her with a different response.
No surprises today, and honestly not much interest on her part. She’d spent as much time thinking about her family’s situation and her attraction to Will as she had the stops on the tour. When she waved goodbye to the bus full of tourists, exhaustion pressed down on her.
She glanced toward the house and noticed Will’s vehicle still sitting outside. Despite the fact she wanted to see him again, the topic of conversation in that house caused her to turn and walk in the other direction. She hopped into one of the golf carts they used to zip around the ranch and was halfway to her parents’ house before she realized where she was going. She waved to Barbara, her parents’ longtime housekeeper, as the older woman passed by in her car.
The main house was a gorgeous work of architecture that had graced the covers of half a dozen magazines.
Walker’s wife, Paula, had supplied the spectacular landscaping. Even though Elly could appreciate all the grandeur, she preferred the homestead house where she’d grown up right down in the thick of things.
What type of house did Will live in? Or was it an apartment?
Elly shook her head as she parked and headed in through the double front doors. As she skirted the huge cowboy statue in the foyer, she combated the desire to talk to her mom about Will and her unexpected feelings toward him. But Will wasn’t a good topic to broach with her mom, not when Elly knew the reason Will was even at Cottonwood was because Anne Cody’s husband had been unfaithful.
She stopped halfway through the house and took a deep breath, tried to think of things to talk about with her mom that would be light, happy, with no hint of Mark Hansen or Will Jackson. The scents of baking announced not only where her mom was but also the fact that she was still upset.
As Elly approached the doorway into the kitchen, she doubted anything she said was going to lift her mother’s mood. Anne sat at the table, surrounded by baking pans of all sizes and shapes; bags of flour, sugar and chocolate chips; a large can of cooking spray; and two opened cookbooks. One of the cookbooks sat right in front of her, but Elly doubted her mother was paying attention to the ingredients list or instructions because she was too busy sniffling and using a tissue to dab at her eyes.
Elly’s heart broke for her mom. She’d never been as furious with her father as she was the moment she saw her mom’s tears. Anne seemed unusually fragile, as though she might crumble like a too-dry cookie.
When Elly stepped into the room, Anne jumped then hurried to dry her eyes and put on a brave face.
Elly slipped into the chair opposite her mother and wrapped her hand around one of her mom’s. “I’m sorry.”
Anne looked up and met her only daughter’s eyes then her shoulders slumped. “You know.”
Elly nodded, but she didn’t offer an explanation of how she knew or ask any questions. This wasn’t something she was going to push her mom to talk about, especially not when her mom looked so sad and hurt.
Anne slipped her hand out from between Elly’s and rose to her feet. She moved the cookbook to the countertop beside the stove. Next she pulled together the makings of what looked like it would become a lemon bundt cake. If there were a less heartwrenching reason behind the baking, Elly would have looked forward to the result.
“What do you know?” her mom asked, pretending to study the recipe.
Elly swallowed and forced herself to stay seated when everything was telling her to go to her mother and wrap her arms around her, to offer comfort. But she suspected her mom really would fall apart then, that contact with anyone would shatter the precarious hold she had on herself.
“That…that Dad had an affair, that he might be Mark Hansen’s father.”
“Is it true?” Elly’s question came out as a choked whisper.
Anne stopped mixing ingredients and stared down into the bowl. For several seconds, she said nothing. “We believe so. Your father has told Mark as much,” she whispered finally.
“The bastard,” Elly said under her breath.
“It was a long time ago. We went through a difficult period after I miscarried.”
Elly knew there had been a baby before Jesse, one her mom had lost at three months. Her mother rarely mentioned the baby or how she’d fallen apart after the loss. Each year, on the day of the miscarriage, Anne always seemed sadder.
Anger welled up inside Elly. How could her father have betrayed her mother when she’d been hurting so much? All her respect and admiration for her father disintegrated around her. She wanted to scream and curse, but now wasn’t the time or place.
“Don’t say anything to your father,” Anne said.
“Why not?” Elly couldn’t prevent the bitterness that coated her question. She felt as if it was oozing out of her pores.
Anne looked back over her shoulder. “This is something your father and I have to handle.”
The knowledge of what was going on at the homestead right at that moment weighed on Elly. She didn’t like keeping anything from her mom. Being the only girl, she and her mom had always been close. Close enough that she could well imagine what it must have been like to find out her husband had not only had an affair but had fathered a child with another woman, a child who was the brother of her daughter’s best friend. No wonder she was sitting at the kitchen table alone, crying. Living next to a lie did that to a person.
God, she didn’t want to talk about this anymore. Didn’t even want to think about it.
“Do you need any help?”
Anne shook her head. “Honestly, if you don’t mind, I think I’d like to be alone.”
The words would have hurt if Elly didn’t know this was how her mom always dealt with major upsets. She baked and wanted to be alone with her own thoughts until she sorted through things.
“Okay,” Elly said, but it took her several moments to force herself to her feet and walk out of the kitchen. She paused at the doorway and looked back at her mother. “I love you, Mom.”
Anne met her gaze and gave her a sad smile. “I love you too, honey. Now, go ride or something. Days are ticking away until Denver.”
Even amidst all the turmoil in her own life, Anne was able to think about her children and what was important to them. It’s what made her such a wonderful mother.
Someone who should have never been betrayed.
Elly trudged toward the front door then outside. She stood on the edge of the front porch and let her gaze run over the miles of Cody land in all directions. This ranch was as much a part of her as the blood pumping through her body. If her father’s mistake had endangered that, she’d never forgive him.
She tried to shake away the doubts, wanted desperately for this entire situation to not be true. Not because she disliked Mark. No, that was Jesse’s department. But she ached for her father to have never done what he had.
Maybe everyone was wrong. Even if her dad had an affair, that didn’t mean Mark was his son. After all, Tomas Hansen had raised Mark as his own. Wouldn’t he have known otherwise? Maybe Jesse was right in his demand for proof.
Or maybe the knowledge that Mark wasn’t his son was what had driven Tomas to drink.
Unbidden, memories of Abigail Hansen looking at her in an odd way rose to the surface. At first Elly had thought she’d imagined it. Later she’d attributed it to the onset of Abigail’s Alzheimer’s disease. Never had she suspected what might have truly been running through Abigail’s head—that her son was a Cody, too, that he deserved the wealth and privilege as much as Elly and her brothers. Not the hard life he’d had with Tomas Hansen as a father.
She stepped off the porch and returned to the golf cart. The sound of her mother’s pain echoed in her head as she drove back down the road toward the main area of the ranch. As she approached the homested, she noticed Will coming out of the house and heading for his Yukon. Quick and irrational anger exploded within her at his involvement. She just wanted all of this to go away, to have never seen the light of day. But here Will was digging for a truth and consequences she didn’t think she wanted to know.
How could she look at Will and not think about what had brought him back into her life? He’d be tainted, and she wanted him to remain untouched by the ugliness of the situation. Maybe she could convince Jesse to hire another attorney so she could look at Will without thinking about her father in Abigail Hansen’s arms.
Of course, that was assuming that she’d have the opportunity and a reason to look at Will if he wasn’t working for her brother.
Despite everything, she found she wanted that very much.
LLY SAW DAWN MAKE ITS
stealthy way onto the Cottonwood for the beginning of another day. She sat on the porch, a thick quilt wrapped around her and a steaming mug of coffee in her hand. A night of tossing and turning made her feel like something found on the bottom of a boot, but she’d given up sleeping an hour before daybreak.
She’d dragged herself out of bed and did her Web site and blog work for the day, checked the tour schedule and sent some e-mails regarding the upcoming Last Chance Trail Ride. The Cottonwood Ranch hosted the event for the locals each year before the heavy snows blanketed the mountains and valleys around Markton.
Movement at the edge of the fog still clinging to the ground caught her attention. When Jesse came into view astride Sundae, it surprised her. She’d thought he was still in bed and had envied him for it.
She could tell when he noticed her because he hesitated, pulling back on Sundae’s reins, probably without thinking. But he started moving again after only the span of a breath.
“You couldn’t sleep, either, huh?” she said when he came close enough to hear her.
“I’ve had better nights.” He dismounted in a sliding motion that made her think it had been a great many nights since her brother had slept well.
“Was it something Will said?”
“Please, not this early.”
“I have a right to know, Jess.”
He sighed and rested one hand against Sundae’s saddle horn as if he needed the horse’s presence to keep him upright. “Nothing new.”
Elly thought of what her mother had said about J.W., believing he was Mark’s father. She wondered if Jesse had any inkling, but she couldn’t bring herself to tell him.
“You two sure talked a long time for there to be nothing new.”
“Give it a rest, okay. I just want five damn minutes where I don’t have to think about this.” He palmed Sundae’s reins and headed toward the barn.
Didn’t she want the same thing? To not think about the fact that Mark Hansen might be her half brother. Was that even possible?
Her quiet morning shattered, she headed into the house for a shower and a breakfast she suspected she wouldn’t even taste.
Later, when she ran into Paco in the barn and learned he was headed into town for a load of feed, she offered to go instead. She had to get away from the ranch for a while.
When she arrived at the Feed and Grain with her order in hand, however, she wished she’d stayed at home. One look at Janie’s drawn face and she feared the cause. A painful lump formed in Elly’s throat, and for the first time in her life she didn’t want to walk the final steps toward her best friend.
But she did. And the closer she got, the more she could see that Janie looked as if she was trying hard to hide her sadness. Just going through the motions to get through the day.
“Elly,” Janie said when she spotted her. So much distance in that word.
“You need something?”
Elly bit her lip to keep it from trembling as she handed over the list of supplies she’d come to pick up.
Janie looked it over and nodded. “We should have all of this in stock.” She started to walk away.
The girl who’d been her closest confidante for as long as she could remember stopped but didn’t make eye contact.
“I don’t know what to say,” Elly said, wishing the right words to make everything okay would magically land on her tongue.
Janie met her eyes then. “You know?”
“I found out a few days ago.”
“But you knew the last time I talked to you.” Elly nodded.
Janie let her breath out in a long exhale. “So no more secrets.”
“Secrets?” There was something odd about what Janie had said. “When did Mark tell you?”
Janie refused to make eye contact. “He didn’t.”
Elly glanced around to see if any of the other customers were near enough to hear their conversation. “My father?”
Janie swallowed visibly, like she was trying to work a grapefruit down her throat. “I’ve known for a while, before Mark.”
Elly’s breath caught in her chest. “How long?”
“Since Dad was sick.”
Before Elly could question her further, Janie choked out, “I can’t talk about this now,” then turned and gave Elly’s list to Leslie Pearsoll, who was just stepping out of his office.
“Take care of Elly. I’ve got to help Collum McKinney find a new pair of boots.”
If Elly stood where she was any longer, she was going to cry and make a fool out of herself.
“Elly?” Leslie said, sounding worried.
“I’ll be back in a few minutes to get my load.” She spun on her boot heel and hurried out of the store. Once outside, she realized there was nowhere to hide to get her emotions under control, to wrap her mind around the fact that Janie had known about the affair, about Mark, for months. How had she acted like nothing was wrong? And why the change in her behavior now? Was the news going to be made public? Elly’s stomach rolled at the thought.
She spotted the Sagebrush Diner across the street and stalked toward it, pushed her way through the front door and up to the counter.
“Hey, Elly,” Martha Pickens said from her post behind the cash register.
Elly just nodded and ordered a monster, one of the diner’s signature six-inch diameter sweet rolls, and a large black coffee. She paid, offered a perfunctory thanks and retraced her steps outside.