Authors: Lisa Bingham
“I think that a blanket covered in lily pads should belong to a girl named Lily, don’t you?”
This time, there was nothing shy about her daughter’s grin. She accepted the gift with a sigh of delight, rubbing the soft fabric against her cheek.
“You’re welcome, honey. But you know what this means, don’t you?”
Lily shook her head.
“You should never accept a gift from a stranger, so we’d better not be strangers anymore.” She held out her hand. “I’m Stephanie Sato, but everyone around here calls me Steff, so you be sure to do the same.”
Lily shook the woman’s hand and nodded, then Steff helped her wrap the blanket around Lily’s body for warmth.
“All done here?” The deep voice interrupted the introductions.
Bronte wasn’t sure how, but she’d all but forgotten about Jace Taggart. When he loomed beside her, tall and broad and male, she grew tongue-tied and self-conscious.
“Ready to go?” he asked.
“Yes. Thank you.” She turned to Steff. “Will someone call? If there’s a change?”
Bronte reached into her bag, digging around the flotsam of tissues, packets of moist towelettes, hand cream, sunblock, and fruit snacks that had slowly edged out the quaint bottles of perfume, embroidered handkerchiefs, designer lipsticks, and manicure supplies that had graced her pocketbook before she’d given birth. Toward the bottom, she found a scrap of paper—a receipt from a McDonald’s in
Cheyenne—and a pen. She scribbled her contact information and handed it to Steff.
“That’s my cell phone if you need it.”
“I’ll clip it to Mrs. Ellis’s chart.” She waved to Bronte’s daughter. “Bye, Lily.”
Motioning to Kari, Bronte trailed Jace into the hall. Lily ran ahead, pushing the button to the elevator while Kari followed, her eyes still glued to her iPod and her thumbs frantically moving across the screen, sending one final text before she lost the Wi-Fi signal.
As they waited for the doors to open, Bronte turned to Jace. “I really appreciate all you’ve done for us tonight.”
“Glad to help,” he said, unconsciously slapping his hat against his thigh. “Annie is a good friend.”
The doors slid open with a soft
After they’d stepped inside, Jace leaned against the railing, idly watching the lights march toward the ground floor.
“While you were in the ICU unit, I stepped out to make a couple of calls,” he said, his voice rumbling in the close confines. “One of my hired hands is a decent mechanic, so I had him drop by Annie’s and check your van. He thinks the battery is to blame. You’ve been leaking acid. Tyson will pick up a new one at the auto parts store when it opens in the morning. He should be there after nine to install it. If that’s your only problem, it will save you an expensive trip to the shop.”
The elevator opened, but her feet were rooted to the floor. She was stunned that a man she’d barely met had taken her so completely under his wing. “I . . . Thank you.”
The girls ran ahead of them to the revolving front entrance to the hospital. Lily shuffled Morticia-like against the tight stricture of her blanket, and too late, Bronte realized she was about to run outside barefoot.
Lily seemed to discover the same thing, because she came to a halt, stopping the revolving door in the process. Kari, who was trapped in one of the sections behind her, banged on the glass shouting, “Why did you stop, you little creep!”
Jace sidestepped the revolving door, using one of the side
exits. Swinging Lily into his arms, he said something to her that made Lily smile and released Kari from her momentary prison.
The rain had eased while they’d been inside, becoming a fine mist. Yards away from the truck, Jace touched a button on his key fob and the vehicle rumbled to life. By the time they climbed inside, the interior was warm and filled with a heavenly aroma. On the center console, there was a beverage holder with four cups and a stack of food containers.
“I hope you don’t mind, but it’s been a while since I’ve eaten, so I got enough for everyone. There’s hot chocolate for the kids, coffee or chamomile tea for us. There’s also steak fingers and gravy for a snack, if you’re hungry.”
Steak fingers and gravy?
Before Bronte could warn Jace about the dangers of having kids and gravy in the same vehicle, her girls reached for the containers.
Jace seemed to read her mind. “Don’t worry. It’s a ranch truck. They can’t do anything to hurt it.”
Bronte seriously doubted that statement. She turned to offer a warning to the backseat. But when she found her girls talking and giggling with one another as they dunked bite-sized pieces of chicken-fried steak into white gravy, she turned to Jace instead. “Thank you.”
She reached for the container of tea, gravitating toward the familiar, soothing scent of chamomile. It didn’t escape her that, despite his insistence that he’d bought the food to ease his own hunger, he didn’t sample anything but the coffee. The fact that he’d given Bronte and her kids a way to save face in accepting the food was infinitely touching.
Bronte hadn’t planned on eating anything herself, but when her children insisted that she try the steak fingers, she realized why her girls had wolfed them down. After miles and miles of traveling interspersed with fast-food hamburgers, pizzas, and sandwiches, the steak fingers and gravy offered a hint of a home-cooked meal.
More than ever, Bronte prayed their journey was over.
She and her children needed to stop living out of a suitcase. They needed fresh air and sunshine, regular meals, and a daily routine. They needed . . .
As if sensing her tumultuous thoughts, Jace didn’t bother to try to engage her in casual conversation. He lapsed into silence, his fingers tapping against the wheel in time to the country ballads easing from his radio. Yet, there was no tension to the silence. Instead, it wove around her, soothing her nerves, allowing her to sip her tea, breathe deeply, and let the knotted muscles in her shoulders unwind.
“Long day?” Jace murmured.
Bronte glanced at her children, but for once, they were getting along as they played a game on Kari’s iPod.
“Yeah.” The word held a wealth of meaning. Long day, long month, long year.
Her gaze skipped to the clock on the dashboard and she was amazed to find that it was only seven in the evening. She was sure it would have been closer to midnight. But then, she’d driven through several time zones.
“When did you leave Boston?”
She squinched her eyes shut, trying to count backward. “Uh . . . six days ago?”
He whistled softly. “You must have driven straight through.”
She nodded, her eyes opening in time to see the concern in Jace’s.
“That’s a tough haul, especially without a relief driver.”
Tears prickled at the backs of her eyes at the memory of the fear and desperation that had forced her to flee. As if sensing a portion of her emotions, Jace took her hand.
The gesture was so unexpected—so warm, so comforting—that Bronte caught her breath. When he squeezed slightly, as if offering her silent encouragement, the memories faded beneath something closer to wonder.
When was the last time anyone had taken her hand and offered her encouragement—all without being asked to do so? For so long, it had been Phillip who’d received all of the
attention and well wishes of the few friends who hadn’t abandoned them. Bronte couldn’t really blame them, since most of them had known Phillip for much longer than they’d known her. But Bronte had been hurt when these “friends” had begun to treat her as if she were part of the problem, rather than the only person fighting for a solution to their marital woes.
Jace’s thumb strayed to caress the back of her hand before he seemed aware of what he’d been doing. To his credit, he didn’t immediately release her.
“You must be exhausted.”
Her laughter was rueful. “You have no idea.”
“Well, you’re here now. So take it easy the first few days.”
Take it easy.
Bronte wasn’t sure she knew what that meant any more. For years, she’d been working double jobs—one at a coffee shop and another transcribing handwritten research notes for a local professor and typing them on a computer. In order to make sure her girls didn’t feel that they were being ignored, she tried to complete most of the transcribing after they’d gone to bed, working into the wee hours of the morning.
She wasn’t quite sure how either of those occupations would help her find employment here in Bliss. Work was probably limited in such a small town. And even though there were only six weeks left of the school year, it was important that she get her kids enrolled as soon as possible so they could make friends before summer vacation. Then . . .
Jace squeezed her hand again.
“You look like your brain is going to explode.”
A rueful laugh burst free. “It might. I thought that once I arrived at Annie’s, I could take a few days to get accustomed to the area.”
“You can still do that.”
She opened her mouth to argue with him, then simply shook her head, realizing that she didn’t want this man to know how desperate her situation was.
Jace glanced at her again, seeming to invite her to confide in him, but she offered him the same plastic smile she’d
perfected over the years to hide her true feelings. She’d learned long ago that she was alone in her struggles. Although help might have been offered by Phillip’s friends, they hadn’t really wanted her to accept.
But she could tell that Jace saw through the subterfuge because the smile he threw her in return was openly amused. “Give it a try, okay?”
He released her then, subtly, when he made the left-hand turn back into Bliss. Immediately, her gaze fell to the long, slender fingers gripping the wheel, even as the warmth of his touch continued to soak into her skin like a phantom caress.
Again, she was struck by the way a man she’d known for only a few hours already knew more about her situation and her emotions than most of the people she interacted with at home.
No. Not “home.” Boston wasn’t “home” anymore.
“Thanks,” she said softly. “I’ll do that.”
the time they arrived at Annie’s home, both of her children were asleep. Without being asked—not that Bronte would have the chutzpah to do so—Jace gathered Lily in his arms and carried her into the house. Bronte was startled when he walked right in, but then she remembered that Annie never locked her doors. She probably wouldn’t know where to find a key after all these years.
It took several minutes for her to wake Kari enough for the teenager to stumble into the house. Bronte tried to guide her upstairs, but Kari veered into the living room and dropped onto the couch, pulling a folded afghan around her body. Bronte left her there and stumbled back into the entryway.
Jace’s boots clattered on the steep treads. “I put Lily in Annie’s room,” he said with a hitch of his thumb in that direction. “Do you need help bringing anything in from your van?”
She shook her head, slightly flustered. Here in the cramped confines of the hall, she became even more aware of his height, the width of his shoulders in his jacket, and the button-down shirt that hinted at a hard, flat waist and well-defined musculature. His shirt had been tucked into jeans that were
butter soft, and the narrowness of his hips was emphasized by a leather belt with an oval silver buckle.
For several long minutes, her gaze hung there, focusing on the gold-tinted figure of a horse and rider. Inexplicably, a fluttering began low in her belly—a tingling of awareness that she hadn’t felt in a very, very long time. It spread through her body, branching out until it reached the tips of her fingers, so that they twitched with the need to—
What? Reach out and touch a stranger?
Her cheeks flamed and her gaze shot up to tangle with Jace’s. Unable to look away, she watched a montage of emotions march across his face—curiosity, confusion, then a recognition of her need. But when she saw the first spark of interest flare up in his eyes, she took a step backward, folding her arms protectively across her chest.
But that was a mistake as well. Even though she refused to look at him, she could feel his regard shift to her breasts, and that fact alone—that for the first time in years, a man was staring at her chest—caused her nipples to immediately respond.
He’d asked her a question. She should answer. Now. So that he didn’t feel the need to stay any longer.
But for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what he’d asked. Worse yet, she wasn’t sure she wanted him to leave. Not yet. This man—this stranger—exuded warmth and strength and safety. In a single evening, he’d come to her aid, reassured her children, kept them warm and dry, and filled their stomachs, all without being asked.
“Thank you, Jace.” The words emerged with a huskiness she hadn’t intended but that she wouldn’t have changed. Jace Taggart would never realize how close she’d come to the brink. She honestly didn’t know what she would have done without his intervention—probably spent the evening worrying about her grandmother and cursing her own inadequacies. By shouldering some of the burden, however inadvertently, Jace had given her a chance to gather her dwindling strength and return to the fight.
His smile was slow and crooked and filled with hidden
undercurrents that hadn’t been there before. Lordy, lordy, what it did to her knees.
“My pleasure.” He gestured to the door. “Are you sure you don’t want me to help with your luggage?”
That was the question he’d asked her earlier.
She quickly shook her head. “I’ll go out in a few minutes and grab my overnight bag. Since the girls are already asleep, I’ll have them get their gear in the morning.”
He worried his hat in his hands for a minute, and then settled it on top of his head. “Well, I’ll say good night to you then. I’ll be back in the morning with Tyson so that he can see to your car. I’ll stop on the way and get you a few of the necessities—milk and bread. It’ll tide you over until you’ve visited Annie in the hospital again and can make a proper trip to the grocery store.”
She opened her mouth, and then laughed softly. “Is everyone here in Bliss this nice to strangers?”
He shifted, clearly embarrassed, and then said, “Only if they’re as pretty as you.”
Then he settled his hat on his head and offered, “Good night, Bronte. Sleep well.”
Before she could think of a response . . .
He was gone.
Bronte didn’t know how long she stood there, staring into space, trying to corral the disjointed thoughts stampeding through her brain. Somehow, in the block of a few hours, everything had changed. She’d come looking for sanctuary, for a hole that she could crawl into and lick her wounds. She’d thought that if she ran far enough and fast enough, she could leave her troubles behind, not knowing that they’d accompanied her much like the baggage stowed in her van.
But then . . . even when she thought she would be completely crushed by her sorrow, the kindness, the consideration, and the hint of interest given to her by a stranger had offered her a pinprick of hope, one that threatened to flicker and disappear as his taillights disappeared into the darkness.
Sighing, Bronte forced herself to move. She staggered outside, swearing when she remembered, too late, that there
was a loose board on the top step. But when she landed heavily, she discovered that the stoop had been repaired in the last few hours.
Another of Jace’s miracles?
A serenade of crickets accompanied her as she waded through the damp grass to her car and retrieved her overnight bag. Then, too tired to think, she made quick work of washing her face and brushing her teeth.
In the stark bathroom lighting, the bruise on her cheek seemed even more garish. The injury was fading, true. But beneath the harsh fluorescent bulb, she was sure that she could see the outline of a pistol grip.
Whirling away from the image, she sat on the edge of the claw-foot tub, gulping air into her lungs. She’d told herself that once she arrived at Annie’s she could cry and cry and cry until there were no more tears left to shed. But now, with so many people relying on her—Kari, Lily, and Annie—she knew she couldn’t start. If she did, she’d never be able to stop.
Her gaze dropped to the bag open on the floor, to the thick envelope awaiting her response. All it would take was her signature on the legal documents inside. In the swipe of a pen, she could officially dissolve her marriage and relegate a relationship that had lasted half her adult life to the dustbin.
But she couldn’t think about that now. Not when her heart was as battered and bruised as her face. Much as she wanted to move on, to find a new purpose, to dig herself out of this morass of misery, she was stuck in an unfamiliar limbo. She knew she couldn’t—
—go back, but she also didn’t know how to go on.
Which was why, in the end, she refused to make any decision at all. She simply flipped off the light and crawled into the high tester bed next to Lily, praying that the gods of sleep would be kind to her tonight.
* * *
Big House was dark and quiet when Jace let himself into the kitchen, closing the door behind him with a muffled
He couldn’t remember the last time that he’d had the place to himself. Sometimes, he felt as if his life had become a tag team relay race. As soon as Barry had gone to Elam’s or an activity, Bodey would need his help, or a hired man would need instructions, or a horse would turn up lame, or a cow would escape from a fence. It was as if the universe plotted against him, offering him barely enough time to think, let alone relax.
But now that he had a chance to do whatever he wanted, wherever he wanted . . .
He had no idea what he really wanted to do.
Out of habit, he opened the refrigerator door and stared inside. But there was nothing there that tempted him. The contents were a weird combination of bachelor fridge meets preschool with a selection of beers, half-empty condiments, juice boxes, an economy bag of carrots, and enough ranch dressing to drown a small horse. Jace could get Barry to eat just about anything as long as there was a puddle of ranch sauce on the side. True, sometimes there was more sauce than real food that went into his stomach, but Barry went through weird eating cycles—like this month’s carrot fetish—where he would eat nothing but one specific item. So if Jace had to get creative to make sure his brother got some semblance of a balanced diet, he was willing to do it.
But tonight, nothing looked tempting enough to expend the energy to fix it.
Restless, Jace shut the door and threw his hat on the table. He supposed he could head to Vern’s and get some dinner—maybe find some adult company. But even as the thought appeared, he dismissed it. Since Bodey had apparently hooked up with a new woman, he had the whole house to himself. All alone. Wasn’t that what he’d been saying he needed?
Disgusted at his mood, Jace headed upstairs, intent on showering and changing into a pair of sweats. But even as he padded toward the master suite at the end of the hall, his steps slowed, and without thought, he veered toward the attic steps.
The flight of stairs was steep and narrow and covered with a fine layer of dust. Jace hired a local woman to come clean the house once a week, but there was no need for her to go up there. He supposed he should tell her to sweep off the treads, but this way . . .
He would know if anyone had been up here, prying into the person he’d once been.
Once at the top, Jace stopped, his hand closing around the knob to the upper door. There he paused, knowing full well that to open it would be the equivalent of poking a nearly healed wound with a pointed stick. He’d be better off heading to his study to get some book work done.
But even as he told himself to walk away, his fingers tightened around the worn brass.
Slam. Thump, thump, thump.
“Jace! Where are you?
Jace released the latch as if it had caught on fire. Hurrying down the steps, he’d barely managed to reach the hall when Barry barreled toward him, all gangly arms and legs, his brow furrowed with intent. He held a brown paper sack in his hands, which he thrust toward Jace.
“P.D. told me to give you this.” His face screwed up into a caricature of concentration as he tried to remember Prairie Dawn’s exact words. “She said, ‘Tell him not to bother with his own nasty cooking. And don’t you dare spend a blessed . . .’” Barry paused to think. “‘. . . a blessed minute of this ideal doing ranch burps or pest reports.’” Barry’s eyes blinked in rapid succession, his lips twisting into a frown. “I don’t know what that means. And who’s Ed?”
It took a few seconds, but then, as if he could hear P.D. herself scolding him, Jace understood.
And don’t you dare spend a blessed minute of your idyll doing ranch books or pesticide reports.
Jace’s lips twitched, but rather than answering Barry directly, he decided to have some fun and said, “I’m not sure who Ed is. Why don’t you ask Elam?”
Without taking a breath, Barry whirled and thundered
back the way he’d come. But he must have gone only midway down the staircase before he turned around and came running back again. Jace barely had time to brace himself before Barry wrapped his arms around his waist and squeezed him with the unrestrained force of a sixteen-year-old boy who didn’t know his own strength.
“Love you, Jace,” Barry said. Then, he raced back down the stairs and out the front door, slamming the screen behind him.
Jace stood rooted to the spot, his chest seeming several sizes too small.
Shit, shit, shit.
In that display of uninhibited affection, his brother had once again wrapped Jace around his finger, and all the “coulda, woulda, shouldas” turned to ashes on his tongue.
Turning his back on the staircase to the attic and past choices that still haunted him, Jace followed Barry’s path much more slowly. The scent of pizza and garlic wafted up from the sack—homey and comforting. Some borrowed affection.
That would have to be enough.
Jace had knowingly charted his current course when his brother had reached toward him from a hospital bed, his cheeks streaked with tears.
“Wait for me, Jace! Please wait for me!”
Jace had made his brother a promise all those years ago. Since then, he’d tried his best to keep it. So what if his future had veered away from the path he’d originally planned? He’d built a career and a life for himself that he could be proud of.
He was happy enough. He
to be happy enough.
Because there was no turning back now.
* * *
woke to sunlight streaming through lacy Priscilla curtains, flowered wallpaper . . . and the smell of bacon.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d awakened to that heady scent. A year into her marriage, Phillip had
grown rabid in his attempts to best his own marathon scores. He’d insisted on lean, center-cut bacon at first, then turkey bacon, then no bacon at all, merely a tofu bacon-flavored substitute with the consistency of overcooked liver.