This Montana Home

Clint Andrews is in Broken Bow, Montana on doctor’s orders. A high-stress career, an ugly divorce, and three kids he adores but rarely sees have all taken a toll. Now he’s trading designer suits for cowboy boots and working his uncle’s ranch until he gets the all-clear to return to his life in Chicago. Along the way, he gets the surprise of a lifetime–the chance to parent his kids for a year. Trouble is, he isn’t sure how to parent them anymore, especially since his oldest is harboring some deep resentments of his own. The fact that he’s tied up all day helping out on a nearby farm after a neighbor’s stroke doesn’t help matters. But that’s what people do in places like this, so Clint’s doing his best.

Gail Wheeler’s father is seriously ill, and her mother is in deep denial. Concern for her parents has brought Gail back to Montana for the first time in years. She’s thankful for the help Clint is giving her parents, but she’s having a hard time fighting her other feelings when she’s around him–feelings that have nothing to do with gratitude. Although she loves having Clint’s kids around, Gail’s failed marriage and a disastrous experience as a stepmother have left her gun-shy around good-looking men and other people’s children.

A wonderfully moving story of two people with a chance to start over… this time, together.

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(copyrighted material)

CHAPTER ONE

Stealing a glance at his watch, Clint Andrews rushed from the barn into the bright June sunlight. He scanned the yard for his great-uncle Hal, spotted him sitting in his pickup truck across the yard and cursed under his breath. He was supposed to meet Hal half an hour ago, but he’d only now finished his morning tasks. It was a bad start to the day. Hal hated to be kept waiting as much as Clint hated being late.

After ten months in Broken Bow, Montana, Clint was getting faster every day, but it still took him longer to finish his daily chores than it should have. He hurried toward Hal, who climbed out of the truck as Clint drew closer. “I was just about to give up on you,” Hal said, a deep frown dragging at his craggy face.

“Sorry. I still can’t keep up with you.”

“You’re doin’ all right for a greenhorn.” Hal grinned and leaned over a roll of barbed wire on the ground beside the battered old pickup he was letting Clint drive during his stay. “Grab that end and help me with this, would ya?”

After pulling on his work gloves, Clint lifted his end of the roll. He’d grown hard and tan and lean over the past several months, and he finally looked the part of a Montana farmer, even if he couldn’t match Hal job-for-job yet.

He gave the wire a shove, and the roll tumbled into the truck bed. “Did you get the tools in?”

Hal nodded. “Had to do somethin’ while I was waitin’.”

Ignoring the good-natured jab, Clint tugged off his gloves again and tossed them through the open window into the cab of the old pickup. “You want me to follow you, or are you riding with me?”

Hal made a face. “I rode in that rattletrap old truck for ten years, I don’t have to do it no more. Besides, it’ll save time if you follow me. You can head straight over to Boone’s place after we finish the fence.”

Three days ago Hal’s long-time friend, Boone Knight, had suffered a stroke that had laid him up completely. His wife, Dorothy, hadn’t left the hospital since. At Hal’s suggestion, Clint had been making the ten-mile drive to the Knights’ place every day and spending most of his workday there.

It hadn’t taken him long to realize that Boone hadn’t been managing well for some time. The place had a run-down look that only came with time. Clint hadn’t discussed it with Hal yet, but he thought the Knights needed more help than he could give them.

At least their daughter was coming home tonight, and Clint had agreed to pick her up at the airport in Billings. According to Hal and his wife Phyllis, the daughter hadn’t been home in several years, which might help explain the neglect on Boone’s property. He wasn’t sure how much help a city girl would be, but at least she’d be a support for her mother.

As he reached for the truck’s door handle, he heard the telephone ringing inside the house. He immediately hoped it wasn’t Leslie calling, then instantly felt guilty. But with everything on his schedule today, he needed the day to run with as much precision as his days in Chicago always did. He wouldn’t have time to stop until sundown.

He struggled with the Chevy’s beat-up door and finally wrenched it free just as the back door of the house opened and Hal’s wife, Phyllis, stepped onto the wide porch, shading her eyes with her hand.

“Clint? You’ve got a phone call. Long distance.”

Scowling, Hal leaned out the window of his truck. “Who’s that, your gal-friend?”

“Probably,” Clint said.

“Well, try not to take too long. The day’s wastin’.”

“I know. You go on ahead. I’ll be right behind you.” Whether or not Hal disapproved, Clint should at least talk to Leslie. He’d just have to cut the conversation short and hope she’d understand.

Every day he put aside another piece of his Chicago-bred up-and-comer persona. And every day he liked this Montana farmer he was becoming a little better. Until he thought about his career. He’d spent half his life working up to this point, and now he was just a stone’s throw away from a vice-presidency at Garrity & Garr. Duncan Morris was expected to retire within two years and, if all went well, Clint would have his job.

If all went well.

Two years ago, a stomach full of ulcers had perforated and landed him in intensive care. He’d healed—sort of. Well enough to return to work until they’d put him back in the hospital last summer. Following doctor’s orders, he’d agreed to allow himself a year away from the stress of his job to heal, which was why he was in Montana now. But he wouldn’t sacrifice a day more. He wasn’t about to lose the opportunity of a lifetime.

He started up the steps of the back porch, surprised that Phyllis had remained outside to wait for him.

“It’s not Leslie,” she said quietly, almost as if she wanted to keep the caller from hearing her.

That set him back half a step. “Who is it?”

Phyllis touched his arm tenderly. “I think it’s Barbara.”

Clint came to a complete stop and studied Phyllis’s face. Her eyes were full of concern, proof she wasn’t joking.

Even two years after the divorce, even with Leslie part of his life, Barbara’s name sent a jolt of pain through him. “What does she want?”

“She didn’t say.”

He didn’t want to talk to his ex-wife. Not right now. Actually, not ever. But she had custody of their three children, and she never called these days unless there was trouble with one of the kids. Praying none of them had been hurt, he hurried inside and snagged the receiver from the kitchen table where Phyllis had dropped it. “Hello?”

“Clint? God, you sound old. Is that what playing cowboy has done to you?”

“It’s nice to hear your voice too, Barbara. How are you?”

“Wonderful. Thanks for asking. I need a favor.”

“And I’m dying to do you one.” He dredged his most sarcastic tone from the bottom of his soul and let it out in his voice. He hadn’t had to use it much since the divorce and he’d kind of missed it.

“I’m sure you are,” Barbara said. “You’ve always been all about making my life easier.” Apparently, she hadn’t forgotten how to use sarcasm either.

Clint took a deep breath and tried to bring his anger with his ex-wife under control. It was over and done. She’d left him. She’d remarried and moved to St. Louis. She was ecstatically happy with Dave McAllister, and the kids were delighted with their new stepfather, Clint saw evidence of that every time they visited.

“What do you need?” he asked.

She hesitated, probably because she didn’t believe he was abandoning the argument so easily. “It’s the kids.”

“Are they all right? Has one of them been hurt?”

“No,” she said with a thin laugh. “This isn’t anything bad. The fact is, Dave’s been given a wonderful new career opportunity.”

“Great,” Clint said, even though Dave’s career mattered less to him than the names of the seven dwarfs. “I’m happy for him.” Not true at all, but he had to say something.

“He’s going to South America.”

Now that perked Clint up a bit. He imagined Dave spending the rest of his life in some South American rain forest, far away from Clint’s kids. Maybe Clint would have a chance to win them back.

“He wants me to go with him,” Barbara said, cutting short his flight of fancy.

He didn’t mind the idea of Barbara surrounded by poisonous rain forest critters, but if Dave and Barbara were going to South America that meant the kids would be leaving the country too. His mood took an abrupt nose-dive. “That’s what you called to tell me?”

“Partly. I want to go with Dave, of course. And that’s where you come in.”

Intrigued, Clint pulled a chair away from the table and settled in. “How so?”

“We need a place for the kids to stay while we’re gone. I wouldn’t ask this of you except my parents have gone to Europe for the summer—”

“You want the kids to come here?”

“I know it will be an inconvenience—” she began.

He cut her off before she could finish. “That’s not what I meant. I’m their father. This is where they should be. I’m just surprised, that’s all. How long will you be gone?”

“At least a year.”

“A year?” Clint’s heart leapt, then immediately dropped. A year.

“I know it seems like a long time—”

Clint wanted nothing more than to have his kids with him, but he wanted a permanent arrangement. In a year, he’d get wrapped up in their lives again, they’d pull him back under their spell, and then Barbara would come back and whisk them away again. Clint didn’t think he could survive losing them a second time.

Barbara obviously sensed his apprehension. “Look, I wouldn’t ask under any other circumstances—”

“When do you want them to come?” he interrupted.

“Next Tuesday?”

It was such short notice. Clint suspected she’d been trying for months to make other arrangements. Nothing like knowing he was her very last resort.

“Perfect,” he said without hesitation. Maybe he should have talked it over with Hal and Phyllis first, but they knew how much his enforced separation from the kids hurt him. They’d jump at the chance to bring them together.

“Really?” Barbara sounded surprised. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this. They’ll be so excited.”

He didn’t know whether he believed that—about Justin and Brad, anyway. When they’d visited him in Chicago for Christmas, Justin had been withdrawn and aloof. Brad had raved about Dave and Dave’s new computer and Dave’s new car until Clint thought his heart would break.

But Megan— Clint smiled at the thought of his four-year-old daughter. Megan still thought he was a knight in shining armor.

He listened with half an ear while Barbara made promises to call again with the kids’ flight information. He made all the appropriate responses, gave her the shipping address so she could send the bulk of their things ahead, and hung up.

But the entire time his heart demanded that his head explain why it had put him in this position. He’d vowed never to leave himself open to that kind of hurt again, yet now, the first time Barbara offered him significant time with the kids, he ran after pain open-armed.

He wondered what they’d think of him now, so different than he’d been when they last visited. Whether the past few months had made any difference in the way the boys felt about him. Whether Megan had joined her brothers in adoring Dave.

Pushing worry aside, he concentrated on his mounting excitement. A year would give him time to work through Justin’s barriers and win Brad back. And in twelve months with Megan, he’d probably never know a dull moment.

For the first time since Barbara sent him away, he felt a ray of hope. He might be able to salvage his relationship with his children, after all.

Gail Wheeler followed the stream of passengers down the boarding ramp and followed signs toward the baggage claim area. Even though she knew her mother couldn’t meet her at the gate, she scanned the waiting crowd for her mother’s face. Since her mom’s frantic telephone call three days ago, Gail hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything. Sleep had eluded her, her appetite had dwindled, and she hadn’t been able to work.

The fact that she’d been able to get only sketchy information about the stroke that had felled her strong-as-an-ox father troubled her. Each time she’d phoned the hospital, her mother had been unwilling to tell her anything except that Boone was strong and healthy and that he’d recover quickly, but Dorothy hadn’t left Boone’s side since the stroke, and that made Gail worry. Her father’s doctors would tell her nothing without her mother’s approval, and Dorothy hadn’t given that approval yet.

Gail desperately wanted to believe her mother’s optimistic reports. After all, her father had never been sick a day in his life—never even had a sniffle that Gail could remember—but the lack of detail bothered Gail and she couldn’t shake the suspicion that her mother wasn’t telling her the whole truth.

Finally, after getting the runaround for two days, she’d given up trying to deal with the issue from San Mateo and had booked a ticket on the next flight to Billings. Now that she was here, she planned to use the drive to the hospital to draw details from her mother. Face-to-face her mother had to be more forthcoming.

Other passengers brushed past Gail in their hurry to meet connecting flights or get to the baggage claim area first. The walk seemed to take forever, but at last she left the secure zone and began to search for her mother in earnest. Her flight was one of the last arriving at the small airport that evening, but a surprising number of people were milling about.

A small family group huddled near the elevators while the parents tried to reason with a tearful child. A beaming young woman with a baby strapped to her chest rushed past and embraced an older couple. Across the wide room, near the baggage carousel designated for Gail’s flight, a tall blond man wearing a straw cowboy hat over his medium-length hair leaned against a wall, one booted foot crossed over the other.

There was no sign of her mother anywhere

Growing concerned, Gail moved closer to the carousel as the warning alarm blared. She’d wait a few more minutes—just until she retrieved her luggage. If her mother hadn’t arrived by then, Gail would call her.

The carousel began to move and a couple of bags toppled into view. The cowboy uncrossed his boots and pushed himself upright, rising to an even greater height than Gail might have imagined. In three strides, he was standing beside her. “Gail Knight?”

His voice, deep, bass, and warm, did something strange to her insides. She looked up and met his eyes, clear blue and the color of a Montana sky. “Wheeler,” she corrected automatically, then hesitated. “Who—”

“Clint Andrews,” he said, holding out a hand for her to shake. “I’m Hal Taylor’s nephew.”

Gail had known Hal all her life. As her parents’ dearest friends, Hal and Phyllis had played a big part in her life. They had no children of their own, but they’d often had relatives staying on their place. Gail was convinced she’d met every niece and nephew on the family tree, but she couldn’t place Clint. If he’d been one of the Taylors’ summer visitors, she felt sure she’d remember him.

He smiled down at her. “Actually, Hal’s my great-uncle.”

She flushed, embarrassed that her confusion had been so obvious. “That explains it, then. But what—?”

“Your mother asked me to meet you. I thought she’d told you.”

Everything inside her froze. “Why? Is Daddy worse?”

He touched her arm as if to ward off her concern. “No. His condition hasn’t changed. She just didn’t want to leave him alone at the hospital.”

Gail tried to force away the sudden ache his words caused. She didn’t want to resent him for knowing more about her parents’ conditions than she did. “I see. Thank you.”

“Did you check any baggage?” he asked.

She nodded and glanced toward the line of suitcases snaking past. “Yes. Two bags.”

“You want to point them out to me?” He asked, lightly touching her elbow. “I’ll grab them for you.”

She was acutely aware of his hand on her arm and her reaction startled her. She’d been on her own since her divorce from Richard, and in those three years, she’d handled everything without help. She didn’t want or need a man to take care of her. “That’s okay,” she muttered. “I’ve got them.”

She retrieved the bags, slightly irritated by the twitch of his lips as she struggled a bit with the larger of the two. Before she could stop him, he tucked the smaller bag under his arm and grabbed the larger by its handle, wheeling it easily. He touched the flat of his free hand to the small of her back, guiding her to the parking lot and a beat-up old truck she thought she remembered as one of Hal’s.

She walked quickly, tottering slightly in her low heels as she struggled to keep up with his lengthy strides. Even when he noticed and tried to adjust his pace to hers, she had trouble matching his gait, and she wished she’d worn jeans and flats rather than this narrow skirt and heels. Her head only reached the top of his shoulder, and she felt small beside him.

Clint opened the truck’s door for her, and while she climbed into her seat, he tossed her bags into the truck bed. The cab dipped and settled as he joined her inside and pulled his door shut. “I assume you want to go straight to the hospital?”

“Yes, please.”

Still a little annoyed by his take-charge attitude, she glanced at his profile as he drove out of the parking lot and onto the road that led off the Rimrocks and down into the city of Billings. His presence seemed even larger in such a small space, and she was far more aware of him than she wanted to be.

Turning away, she gazed at the familiar rocks and twisted cedar trees on the bluff. Far below, the city stretched to the Yellowstone River, eventually gave way to the plains, and welcomed her home. But Montana wasn’t home anymore. She’d been gone too long and she’d changed too much to come back again.

“Your mother will be glad to have you home,” Clint said after several minutes. “She sounded tired when I spoke with her this morning.”

Gail felt another flash of resentment. She’d been trying all day to reach her mother, but Dorothy had spoken to Clint. But Clint wasn’t to blame, so she tried not to let him see her resentment. “Did she? What time did you talk with her?”

“Around nine. It’ll be good to have you here, I’m sure. I don’t think she’s been home once since your dad got sick.”

It was just what Gail suspected, but she didn’t want this stranger telling her about her family. She made a noncommittal sound, hoping that would discourage conversation.

He stopped at a traffic light and glanced across the truck’s cab at her. “I’ve been giving your parents a hand while your dad’s in the hospital. I’ll keep on as long as you need me to.”

Gail swallowed her pride and managed a lukewarm smile. “Thank you. I’m sure Daddy appreciates the help.”

“It’s no problem. How long will you be staying?”

In spite of her best efforts, Gail snapped, “Look, do you mind if we don’t chat? I’m not in the mood for small talk right now.”

He shrugged and turned his eyes back to the road. “We’re almost there.”

She bit back the observation that she knew that and tried to concentrate on the familiar landmarks, but guilt nagged at her conscience. Clint hadn’t caused her father’s stroke. He hadn’t intended to hurt her. All he’d done was give her parents a hand, and she’d repaid him by sniping at him. Her reaction made her feel petty and small.

“I’m sorry,” she said softly. “I didn’t mean to sound rude.”

To her surprise, he smiled at her. “You didn’t.”

But she knew she had. “It’s just that I—”

“You didn’t sound rude,” he insisted. “You sounded hurt. There’s a big difference. And you don’t need to apologize for feeling hurt.”

“But it’s not your fault. I shouldn’t take it out on you.”

“It’s nobody’s fault,” he said. “Besides, I’ve got broad shoulders.”

He certainly did. Gail glanced away quickly and tried not to smile at his choice of expressions. An easier silence fell between them this time, and several blocks passed before she said, “I plan on staying a month, unless Daddy recovers quickly and doesn’t me to stay.”

Nodding as if he’d just asked the question, Clint maneuvered around a car in their lane. “That’ll give you time for a good visit.”

“Yes,” she said quietly. “I hope so.” It had been too long since she’d come home for a lengthy stay, and she knew that bothered her parents. “I didn’t realize—” She cut herself off, still not ready to get word about her father’s health from a stranger. “I mean, I hope I can be some help to them while I’m home.”

“You’ll be more help than you know. Hal tells me your father thinks the sun rises and sets on you. It’ll do him a world of good just to have you home for a while.”

His words gave her a thin veneer of comfort, and Gail didn’t push it away. But she thought it odd that someone she’d known less than half an hour could offer consolation at a time like this.

When they pulled into the hospital parking lot a few minutes later, the sensation evaporated and reality came rushing back at her. Except for one brief visit just after the divorce, she hadn’t been home in three years. Her mother wanted to see her married and happy. Her father wanted to see her settled and cared for. Neither could accept that she’d found happiness alone, or that she could care for herself. To avoid dealing with the issue, she’d stayed away. And their obligations on the farm had prevented them from coming to her.

She knew her parents would be happy to see her, but the way she’d avoided them in recent years made her feel uncertain and anxious.

Clint switched off the engine and studied her. “Are you going to be okay?”

“Yes, of course.” She opened the truck’s door and forced her lips into a smile, but as she hurried into the hospital, her anxiety seemed to increase with every step.

Her footsteps echoed in the hushed corridor. Behind her, Clint’s boots struck the linoleum heavily as he followed. Clutching the strap of her purse as if he could protect her from what was coming, she paused at the information counter to ask for her father’s room number. Clint waited with her, rode the elevator to the second floor, and matched her pace as she hurried toward her father’s room. But suddenly she wished he’d waited outside or in the reception area downstairs. She dreaded seeing her father ill, and she didn’t want the company of a stranger when she did.

As if reading her thoughts, he touched her arm and halted her progress outside a small waiting room. “I’ll be in here.”

She tried not to show her relief. “Thank you.”

“Just tell me when you’re ready, and I’ll drive you the rest of the way home.”

She didn’t plan on leaving without her mother, but she nodded and he turned away, picking up a magazine from an end table before he sat on the couch.

Strangely reluctant now, she crossed to her father’s room, pushed open the half-closed door, and peered inside. The curtains had been drawn against the night and the only light came from one dim lamp near the bed.

Her father lay there, eyes closed, face pale and drawn, arms stiff at his side. He looked old and sick, thin and shriveled. Not like her father at all. When had this happened? He’d only had the stroke three days ago, not long enough for illness to ravage his body like this.

Her mother sat beside him with an open book on her lap, but she made no pretense of reading. Her eyes were dark-rimmed and blood-shot, her hair startlingly gray. Like Boone, she looked much older than Gail had expected.

Gail took a step toward her. “Mom?”

Dorothy focused on her slowly, then dropped the book to the floor and stood. “Gail, honey. You’re here.” She opened her arms and Gail rushed into them.

“How is he?”

“He’s doing fine, sweetheart.” Her mother released her and smiled down at Boone. “The doctor says we may be able to take him home tomorrow.”

Gail looked at her father’s inert figure, wondering how that could possibly be. Still, the doctors knew best, and going home meant he wasn’t nearly as sick as she’d feared, so she whispered, “Thank God. I hope so,” and watched for a minute longer before asking, “Has he been asleep long?”

“Oh, he’s not asleep, honey. He’s wide awake. Let him know you’re here.” When Gail took a hesitant step toward her father’s bed, her mother scurried around to the other side. “Boone, look who’s here. It’s Gail.”

Boone’s eyelids flickered.

“Daddy?” Gail stepped closer and touched his hand. It felt like ice. “Daddy?”

His eyes opened slowly and recognition dawned immediately. He smiled, but only one side of his mouth lifted; the other half of his face didn’t move. He mumbled something Gail couldn’t understand.

Dorothy seemed to have no trouble. “Yes, Boone. It’s Gail. Come and give your dad a kiss, sweetheart.”

Boone mumbled again and Gail strained to hear, certain she’d missed something the first time. She stepped closer and tried to keep the tears from her eyes as she leaned toward him. He looked so helpless, her heart shattered into a million tiny pieces.

She pressed a kiss to his cheek and he closed his eyes in response. But when he opened them a second later, they’d filled with tears. He tried to speak again, but only a garbled sound emerged.

Horrified, Gail glanced at her mother, but the reality of her father’s illness seemed to have escaped Dorothy’s notice.

“Doesn’t he look good?” Dorothy beamed, her eyes too bright, her smile too broad. “He’s going to be back on his feet in no time.”

Gail stared down at her father, but his eyes closed again as if he was too weary to keep them open. He’d always been her rock. Her strength. He’d understood somehow, without talking, what her unhappy marriage and the subsequent divorce had done to her. He’d known how deeply the pain of her failure as a stepmother had cut her, and he accepted without question her refusal to discuss it. He’d been there for her during every crisis in her life, and now, for the first time she had to face the reality that he wouldn’t be there forever.

She blinked back tears and thanked God she’d come home. If she’d stayed in San Mateo, she might never have seen him again.

She pressed another trembling kiss to his cheek and his eyelids moved again, but he didn’t open them.

Dorothy settled back into her chair and picked up her book. “So, I guess Clint found you all right.”

“Yes, he seems very nice.” Gail had to force herself to speak around the lump in her throat.

Dorothy thumbed through her book, as if looking for her place in it. “He’s been giving your dad a hand around the farm the past few days, did he tell you that?”

Gail nodded, then whispered. “Yes.”

“Well, it’s nice to have neighbors to help out in rough times, that’s what I say. Your dad’ll probably insist on going over to Hal’s to help out when he’s up and around. You know how he is.” Dorothy found an acceptable page and propped the book open on her lap again.

“Where have you been staying, Mom?”

Dorothy looked surprised. “Why, right here.”

“The whole time?”

“Of course.”

“But you are coming home with me tonight…”

Dorothy narrowed her eyes and pulled her head back slightly. “It’s silly for me to drive forty miles home just to turn around and come right back. You go on with Clint.”

“If you’re staying, so am I,” Gail insisted.

“Honey, I’m fine, but I’m not leaving your father.”

But she wasn’t fine. She obviously needed rest and food. She needed to get out of this hospital, if even for one night.

“Mom—” Gail heard the pleading tone in her voice and tried to change it. “Have you been sleeping much?”

Dorothy shrugged. “What I can get while I’m sitting here. When we go home tomorrow, I’ll catch up.”

For the first time in several minutes, Boone’s eyes opened again. He looked from Gail to Dorothy and back again, then made a strangled sound.

Dorothy patted the hand nearest her. “Yes, dear. Gail’s here.”§§But this time, Gail thought she’d understood him. She leaned closer. “What did you say, Daddy?”

He focused on her and smiled his half-smile again, then struggled to form the word, “Home.”

Clint followed Dorothy Knight’s station wagon down the narrow two-lane highway and wondered what Gail had done to pry Dorothy away from Boone’s bedside. Hal had tried. Phyllis had pleaded. Clint had even put in a word himself. But Dorothy had refused to listen to any of them.

Well, whatever Gail had done, it worked. And he was relieved that it had.

Dorothy’s appearance tonight had been a shock to him. She’d grown old overnight, and she’d walked like an elderly woman when she and Gail came out of Boone’s room. Instinctively, Clint had wanted to help her, but her eyes had snapped at him the second he took a step toward her, so he’d followed them out of the hospital, feeling useless.

By the glare of his headlights he could make out their silhouettes in the car. Dorothy in the passenger seat. Gail behind the wheel.

Gail was a beautiful woman. Certainly more beautiful than the picture Dorothy had shown him when she’d asked him to meet her. Her nearly-black hair hung to the middle of her back and her eyes were deep and wide and darker than the night.

During the drive to the hospital, he’d felt something fragile about her. But as soon as they’d arrived, the fragility had disappeared and a backbone of steel had emerged. He had no doubt she could handle herself in almost any situation.

Still, dealing with her father’s stroke wouldn’t be easy on her. She’d have her hands full trying to see that her mother got some rest now and then, and the farm and house needed full-time attention.

Well, Clint could stay on a few days longer. He wouldn’t mind. In fact, he enjoyed working Boone’s farm on his own. He liked the challenge of evaluating new situations, deciding on a course of action, and putting his decisions to the test. He’d been training for a position like that all these years, but he’d never imagined the opportunity would pop up in the middle of a corn field.

When Clint’s father approached him about spending the year helping Uncle Hal, Clint had balked at the idea. Later, he’d agreed, and as the months passed he’d actually started enjoying the experience. But the year was drawing to a close and he’d be back in Chicago in a little over two months. Back at Garrity & Garr. Back with Leslie.

At the thought of Leslie, Clint drew his eyes away from Gail’s silhouette. Clint had a solid relationship with Leslie. She was a fine woman, devoted to her career, devoted to him. She went all the right places and knew all the right people. They’d talked often about marriage, and he’d decided to propose when he went to Chicago in two weeks for the birthday party she’d been planning for him over the past three months.

But Leslie had never made him feel the way Gail had the first moment he set eyes on her. She’d never made him intuitively want to protect and comfort her. He laughed a little at the turn his thoughts had taken. Gail certainly didn’t need his protection. And if she wanted comfort, she wouldn’t turn to him for it.

Pushing his hat back on his head, he cranked the dial on the radio and the melody of a George Strait song filled the cab of the truck. He rolled down his window the rest of the way and leaned his elbow on the door as he whistled along. Aware of the picture he made in his hat and jeans and driving an old pickup, he grinned. And he wondered what Leslie would think if she could see him now.

(copyrighted material)


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