Authors: Karen Templeton
Somewhere where she could truly start over. Some
she’d avoided doing until now, even if she hadn’t fully realized that. And some
starting over really did mean starting from scratch. From nothing—
And good Lord, she’d wandered off again, hadn’t she?
“You know how much your brother’s asking for... What’s the horse’s name, anyway?”
That got a low, rumbly chuckle. “Waffles.”
“You’re kidding? That’s adorable.”
“That’s one way of looking at it. And Josh usually only asks for enough to cover his costs. We’re not talking prize stud here or anything. The two of you can hash that out, if you decide to take him.” Another chuckle. “The horse, I mean.”
“Would tomorrow work?” Mallory pushed out of her mouth, surprised how hard her heart was beating. “I know it’s Sunday, but—”
“No, tomorrow would be fine,” Dr. Talbot said, sounding a little surprised himself. “I’ll probably have my kids with me, though.”
“Not a problem.” Then she smiled, even as her heart twanged with missing Landon. “Boys? Girls?”
“Boys. Two of them. Loud. Constantly moving. Fight every five minutes. You’ve been warned.”
At that, a laugh burst from Mallory’s chest. “How about early afternoon, if that works for you?”
“One-thirty? That’ll give us time to get home from church, get them fed.”
Church. Sunday dinners. An ordinary life she dimly remembered. Missed more than she’d realized. “Sounds good.”
“Buzz at the gate, somebody’ll let you in.”
“Will do,” she said, then ended the call, holding the phone to her chest as she heard the front door open. If she wasn’t mistaken, that weird, tingly feeling in her chest was...excitement. Lord, she was in a worse way than she thought. Because damned if she wasn’t looking forward to meeting this forthright-to-a-fault dude with the low, rumbly voice.
“Hey, honeybunch,” her mother called out. “We’re home!”
And no way on God’s green earth was she sharing that tidbit with her mother.
Edgar’s little nails scritched across the tile as he scurried over to Mallory, then stood on his hind legs so she could scoop him into her lap. Because she loved the scrawny little bugger beyond all reason. Mama followed shortly, fluffing her hair and wearing that look in her eyes that Mallory wished she could figure out how to banish once and for all. Not that she had anything against her mother’s chronic optimism—heaven knows she wouldn’t have made it this far without it—but all that cheerfulness did get tiring.
“So your Dr. Talbot called,” she said, and Mama—who’d been unloading grocery bags onto the city-block-sized quartz counter in the kitchen—jerked up her head. Surprised, maybe, but not in the least bit guilty.
“My goodness, he works fast,” she said, grabbing two jars of peanut butter and carting them over to the pantry. “I didn’t expect to hear from him so soon.” Shoving up her sweater sleeves, she returned to the counter, scooped up a half dozen boxes of pasta. “I assume he was calling about the horse?”
“He was. And thanks for cluing me in, by the way.”
Mama gave her a look. “It wasn’t anything I planned, for goodness’ sake. But I was there, you know, with Edgar, and the thought popped into my head. Like these things do. I really didn’t mean to go behind your back—” Her face fell as she clutched the boxes to her chest. “You didn’t go and say something dumb, did you?”
Mallory stuck out her tongue, then sighed. “No, you’ll be glad to know I managed to act like a civilized human being.”
“Well, that’s a load off my mind. So what’d he say?”
“That his brother has a rescue that might work.”
“He does? How wonderful! Isn’t Dr. Talbot the nicest man? And, oh, he has two of
little boys. So what did
Mallory steered her chair into the kitchen and snagged an apple out of the bowl on the counter, polishing it against her jeans’ leg before biting into it. Honestly, trying to follow her mother’s train of thought was like playing pinball. Blindfolded.
“We have a date,” she said, chewing, smiling slightly at her mother’s gasp. “To see the
, Mama. And you seriously need to give it a rest.”
“Not a chance, missy. Not after what Russell did to you—”
anything to me. Which we’ve been over a million times. It just didn’t work out. These things happen.” Her mother made an if-that’s-what-you-want-to-tell-yourself face. “It was for the best, Mama,” she said gently. “You’ve got to let this go. I have.”
Tears welled in her mother’s eyes. “You really think this is for the best for Lannie?”
“For God’s sake don’t let him hear you call him that. And would you rather he live in a house where nobody was happy? Really?” Her appetite gone, Mallory wheeled over to dump the apple core in the under-counter garbage can. “Also, there’s a new Mrs. Eames, as you may recall. So, onward and all that.”
Mama’s eyes brightened. “So does that mean—”
“No,” Mallory said, knowing exactly what her mother meant.
“What am I ever going to do with you?” Mama said with a dramatic sigh, only to come over and plant a kiss on top of Mallory’s head before collecting her dog and sashaying out of the room, leaving a trail of Giorgio in her wake.
Mallory smiled, only to release a sigh of her own. Because that was the question of the century, wasn’t it? Not so much what Mama was going to do with her, as what she was going to do with herself. Since frankly she wasn’t all that keen about spending the rest of her life without male companionship. Without love and affection and, okay, sex. True, things didn’t work the same way they had, but they still worked. She definitely still...yearned, as Mama might say. But she wasn’t so much of a fool as to think all she had to do was join an online dating service and—bam!—she’d be swarmed by seventy billion takers.
And not only because her legs were basically useless. There was also that whole who-she-used-to-be-before thing to take into account.
But to admit that she yearned—or dreamed, or wished, or whatever you wanted to call it—would a) make her sound as though she felt sorry for herself, which,
, and b) give her mother ammunition. Which,
Still. What was the harm in indulging a few tingles? A curiosity about the supposedly gorgeous man attached to the sexy-as-sin voice? A man with a sense of humor? And kids? Boys, no less? What was the worst that could happen? She’d get to spend an hour outside, on a beautiful fall day, with a decent guy. And she might even end up with a horse for her son out of the deal. Could be worse, right?
Heh. Maybe she didn’t want to know the answer to that.
faint whiff of fireplace smoke tainted the cool, still air, mixing pleasantly with the smell of horse and dirt—the scents of his childhood, Zach thought. His life. What
“I can’t believe you don’t know who Mallory Keyes is,” his brother Josh said as they stood in front of the fenced pasture where several of the horses grazed while they still could. In a few weeks the grass would be frozen, gone, and the horses would be on hay. Waffles was one of them, the early afternoon sun glinting off his pale gold coat. Yes, like syrup glistening over waffles. Behind them kids—and one ancient golden retriever—cavorted, as Josh’s four-year-old boy, Austin, gave Zach’s two a run for their money.
These days most of the fences were strung wire, of course. But this one, closest to the house, was still old-fashioned post-and-rail. A pain to keep in working order, but Granville Blake, whose family had owned this ranch in its various permutations for generations, wouldn’t have it any other way. His nod to tradition, Zach supposed. Now, his forearms propped on the chewed-up top rail, Zach looked over at his smirking younger brother, Josh’s choppy brown hair barely visible underneath his tan cowboy hat.
“So sue me. You know I don’t keep up with that stuff.”
“Except for a while there you couldn’t go online for five minutes without seeing something about her.”
“You couldn’t, maybe.”
“I’m serious. She was quite the hot ticket in Hollywood a few years ago. Well, more than a few years ago, I guess now.” Josh paused. “You remember those Transmutant movies, when we were kids? When I was a kid, anyway, I guess you were a teenager by then. But I know you saw the first one, because the whole family went one Christmas. Anyway, she was The Girl. You know, the redhead with the big—”
“Josh.” Zach’s gaze darted behind them. “Kids.”
“But you know who I’m talking about, right?”
“Sure you do. Here...” He dug his smartphone out of his denim jacket’s pocket, clicked a few buttons, then turned the screen toward Zach. His eyes twinkled. “Nobody forgets a...
Zach remembered, although he didn’t think he’d ever known her name. Even when she hadn’t been wearing her superchick costume, she was majestic, with all that red hair and legs that did not quit—
“Ring any bells?” Josh said, and Zach snorted. Chuckling, Josh slipped his phone back in his pocket. “Anyway, I think she went on to do more serious stuff afterwards. Maybe married a director or something? Even got nominated for an Oscar, I think. Not sure if she won, though. Mom would know. But she was hurt in a skiing accident a few years back. Right up there, in fact,” Josh said, nodding toward the ski resort, tucked up into the mountains about twenty miles outside of town. “As in, career-ending hurt.”
Zach frowned. “How do you know all this?”
Facing the boys, his brother shoved a hand in his denim jacket’s pocket. “The question is, how come you don’t? Seeing as we do share a mother. And anyway, it was big news here. Her accident, I mean—”
Liam took a tumble. Much wailing followed. Zach held out his arms as the three-year-old lurched toward him, bawling. “Now that you mention it,” he said, hauling up the little guy, “it does sound familiar. But I guess I didn’t pay attention to who it was. I was a little busy, getting the practice up and running, being a new father...”
Softly shushing his youngest’s cries, Zach let the sentence fade away, unable to voice the rest of it: that he’d been so tangled up in love with his wife, his
, that the rest of the world basically didn’t exist. Nor had he cared that it hadn’t. Between those two little houses—his home and the clinic—he’d had everything he needed. And wanted. Getting caught up in pop culture was for people who had nothing better to do.
Except then Heidi was gone, and Zach was doing well simply to hold it together for his sons, his clients. By the time the boys were in bed he’d fall into his own in a dead sleep...until someone woke up, anyway. Extracurricular interests? Let alone activities? As if.
Josh’s mouth twitched. “We really need to fix you up.”
“You really don’t. And you sound like Mom. Which is not a point in your favor.”
“Whatever. There’s this new waitress over at Chico’s—”
“All yours, buddy.”
His brother chuckled again. As well he should, considering he was every bit as much a target for the town’s matchmakers as Zach. “So anyway. Yeah. This Mallory Keyes was a big deal at one time. Real shame, what happened to her. Funny that she’d decide to buy a place here. So close to where her accident happened, I mean. But people sometimes do weird things. How old you say her boy was?”
“Then Waffles really should be perfect for him. Although I hope to heck they change the poor thing’s name. Waffles? Honestly. Oh, that must be her... I guess Gus buzzed her in.”
They turned in time to see the dusty-clouded approach of a high-end SUV, steel-blue with tinted windows. As Jeremy and Austin scampered off toward the house, Josh waved the car over; a few seconds later, it pulled up alongside the pasture and the window rolled down...and Zach nearly lost his breath. Especially when Mallory removed her sunglasses. And smiled. Now he remembered her, although his image was of a much younger version. A much less
version. Mallory Keyes had what their mother would call good bones, all sharp angles softened by a full mouth, deep-set gray eyes and that hair. Holy hell, that
Dorelle leaned over her daughter, grinning. “Hey, there, Doc. I take it this handsome young man is your brother?”
“Sure am,” Josh said with a grin of his own as he walked over to open the driver’s-side door. Dorelle apparently muttered something to her daughter that earned her an eyeroll and a “Really, Mama?” before Mallory extended her hand and they all finished with the introductions. Then, on a little gasp, she lowered her sunglasses. “Ohmigosh,” she said to Zach, “is that your little boy?”
“One of ’em, yes. Liam.”
“Well, hey there, sweetie,” she said, her soft Texas twang curling right up inside Zach’s chest. Then those dove-colored eyes lifted to his. “My mother said they were cute, but...wow. She did not—” her gaze shifted to his face “—exaggerate.”
Now, Zach probably imagined it—because of that curling-inside-his-chest thing—but he could have sworn Mallory looked at him a trifle longer than necessary. Especially when her eyes seemed to jerk back to Josh. “Good to meet you both. Now if you’ll give me a minute...”
Contorting her upper body to reach behind her, she retrieved a small, collapsible wheelchair from the back, deftly popping it open as she set it on the ground in front of her. “As you can see, I have mobility issues. So I hope I’ll be able to get around in this?”
“Not a problem,” Josh said without missing a beat. “The owner’s wife was in a wheelchair for a while. The property’s more accessible than you might think—”
By this time Mallory had maneuvered herself out of the car and into the chair. The car door shut behind her, she tented her hand over her eyes as Dorelle walked up to the fence, her floaty, lightweight sweater billowing behind her in the slight breeze.
“Is that him?” Dorelle asked, pointing. “The one who looks like a sunbeam?