Authors: Karen Templeton
“Sure is,” Josh said.
“Ohmigosh, he’s absolutely gorgeous. Isn’t he, honey?”
But Zach was watching Mallory as she wheeled closer to the fence, her grace and determination colliding with what Zach realized was his own sudden awkwardness. As if he didn’t know what he was supposed to think or do or say so he wouldn’t put a foot in it.
Although why he should feel so unsettled, he had no idea. Wasn’t as if he’d never seen anyone in a wheelchair before, for heaven’s sake. But the image of the woman in front of him was such a stark contrast to the photo he’d just seen—
His phone to his ear, Josh signaled that he needed to return to the house. “You go on and get acquainted, I’ll be back in a bit—”
“Oh!” Dorelle signaled, then started after him, lickety-split. “You suppose I could use your restroom?”
“Sure thing, follow me...”
By this time Mallory was all the way up to the fence, leaning forward to clasp the middle slat. Waffles lifted his head, considering.
“Oh, my,” she said on a breath, her hair glistening in the sun. “He’s stunning, isn’t he?”
Still holding Liam, Zach took a couple of steps closer. “He is that.” As if he understood what was going on, Waffles moseyed closer to hang his head over the top rail, his ears twitching. “Come here, boy,” Mallory crooned, angling herself close enough to raise her hand, chuckling when the horse lowered his head further to snuffle her open palm before lifting it again toward the baby. Zach tilted Liam closer and the horse tried to nibble the little guy’s hair, making him giggle.
“He likes me,” Liam said, giggling as he rubbed his slobbery head. Mallory laughed, the warm, gentle sound nudging open barely healed wounds.
“I would say so,” she said, giggling herself when Waffles returned his attention to her. Fearlessly, she grabbed his bridle to tug him closer, touching her lips to the horse’s velvety muzzle. “You’re absolutely perfect, aren’t you?” she said, laughing again when the horse “nodded” his agreement.
“You clearly have a way with horses,” Zach said, hitching Liam higher on his hip.
“My daddy put me on my first one before I could walk,” she said, the irony trembling in the air between them. “I was in my first junior rodeo at ten. But only because Daddy wouldn’t let me compete until then.”
“Barrel racing, mostly.”
She grinned, which is when he caught the dimples. Or they caught him, he wasn’t sure. “Now you know my secret. Used to have the strongest thighs in Texas,” she said, patting the horse’s neck again before wheeling away from the fence. “And, yes—” she looked up at Zach, her face squinched in the sun “—the irony is not lost on me. It’s okay, I know what you’re thinking.”
Zach hesitated, then said, “What I’m thinking, is that I’m not sure if I should say ‘I’m sorry’ or not.”
“You can say whatever you like, I’ve pretty much heard it all. And trust me, ‘I’m sorry’ is the least of it.”
His nephew and his older son came into view again, along with Benny, their old golden retriever, who’d been recuperating on the veranda from the earlier hijinks. Liam wriggled to get down, then ran over to join them. The breeze got going again, rustling the drying leaves, tobacco-colored against the bright blue sky. Mallory looked up, a smile flitting across her lips before she shut her eyes. “Heaven,” she said simply.
His own mouth pulling up at the corners, Zach squatted by her chair, ruffling the dog’s neck when he trotted over, tongue lolling. “I think so. Although I suppose that makes me a rube.”
“Hey.” Opening her eyes, she smiled over at him. “In case you hadn’t noticed, I don’t exactly sound like royalty. Even after nearly twenty years in Hollywood. Not to mention God knows how many speech coaches, many of whom I’m sure I drove to drink.” She looked out toward the other pasture again, her elbows resting on the arms of her chair. “One thing less I have to worry my pretty little head about, I suppose.” One corner of her mouth edged up. “Not that I ever did.”
“How’d you end up there?”
Benny nosed her hand, begging for attention. Mallory obliged. “You know, I honestly figured I’d live out my life right where I grew up. Probably marry a local boy, settle down on his ranch and pop out three or four babies who’d be born wearing cowboy boots. Except one day, there was this notice up at school about a production company needing extras for a movie being shot in the area. And some of us thought it’d be a hoot to go on over, see if we could make the cut. Earn a few bucks. Anything to break the tedium, you know?”
“Yeah, that happens around here a lot, too. Especially over the last few years. Movies shooting in the area, I mean.”
“You ever do it?”
“Me? Oh, hell, no. I hardly ever see films, let alone have any desire to be in them.”
“Which is why you had no idea who I was.”
Despite the teasing in her voice, Zach felt his face warm. “Before my brother clued me in? No. Sorry.”
“Are you kidding? It’s a relief, frankly. And if I’d known then what I do now...” A sigh pushed from her lips. “But I didn’t. And the bug bit. Hard. Even though being an extra is excruciatingly boring, suddenly the idea of becoming a ranch wife seemed even worse.” She paused, not looking at him. “Or perhaps it was more that the ranch
suddenly made my eyes glaze over.”
She shrugged. “I wasn’t even eighteen, for pity’s sake. And woefully sheltered. Even so, all it should have been was a few days’ diversion. But due to a series of completely unforeseen events that started with that call for extras, I ended up with a one-in-a-million career.” A funny smile tilted her lips as she watched the boys once more chasing each other around the field. “And a son I love more than life itself. What is it they say, about life being that thing that happens while you’re busy making other plans?”
“Tell me about it,” Zach said, and her eyes lifted to his, then scooted away again.
“Mama told me about your wife. I’m so sorry.”
One side of Zach’s mouth lifted. “Thanks. But you don’t even know us.”
“But I do know what it feels to have your life dumped on its butt,” she said quietly, then snorted. “Literally, in my case.” She nodded toward the boys. “How’re they doing?”
Zach regarded her for a moment, wondering how she’d so effortlessly sucked him into a conversation he wasn’t inclined to have with people he’d known all his life, let alone with someone he’d only just met. Wondering even harder why he’d let her. And yet...
“Liam—the little one—was too young when it happened to remember his mother. Jeremy was five, though. It was rough going there for a while.”
“I can imagine.” The dog laid his head on Mallory’s knee, begging for attention. Smiling, she obliged. “After my accident, all I wanted was to make sure Landon knew everything was going to be okay. That we’d get back to normal again, even if it was a new normal.” She paused. “Whether I ever did or not.”
Grinning, she tilted her face to Zach. “Only a few weeks until he comes out to visit. I can hardly wait.”
As obviously close to her son as she was, Zach was curious why he wasn’t with her. The thought of not being with his boys made his blood run cold. But her reasons for leaving her son behind had nothing to do with him, did they?
Footsteps and chatter made him turn to see his brother and Dorelle returning. “I got a quick tour of the house,” she said, smiling. “Met the owner, too. Between us we came to an agreement about the horse. He’s yours, baby.”
Mallory frowned. “What are you talking about? I thought we agreed—”
“We agreed it’d be nice to get Landon a horse. I don’t recall any mention of who was supposed to buy him. And anyway, it’s his birthday coming up.
can get him another video game this time.”
“And I don’t suppose you’re gonna tell me what you paid.”
“You got that right. And, yes, I made them promise to take the horse back if he doesn’t live up to our expectations.”
Josh rolled his eyes. “Like that wouldn’t’ve been part of the deal, anyway.”
Mallory looked to Zach. “You see what I have to put up with?” Except then she lifted her arms and her mother bent over to get her daughter’s hug, even as Zach heard her whisper, “You’re a pain in the butt, you know that? And what would I do without you?”
“Starve, most likely,” Dorelle said, straightening up.
“It’s true,” Mallory said, looking from Josh to Zach, her eyes sparkling. “I hate to cook. Always have. Heck, I’d live on Cheese Whiz and crackers if I could. Love that stuff. Especially squirted right in my mouth. Because I’m all about efficiency.”
Dorelle wagged her head. “Lord,
are you my daughter?”
A few minutes later, Mallory and Josh had worked out the details regarding the horse, who’d stay on the ranch until they had a chance to get Mallory’s apparently neglected stable in order, and the women left. Watching the SUV disappear down the Vista’s drive, Zach heard his brother chuckle behind him. He turned, feeling his forehead pinch.
“Oh, nothing. Except you’ve got one helluva weird look on your face.”
Zach opened his mouth, only to clamp it shut again. Because his brother was probably right. Not that he was about to give Josh the satisfaction. Especially since he wasn’t sure he could explain what was going on inside his head.
So all he did was mutter, “You’re nuts,” before calling over his sons and dog and herding them toward, then inside, his truck.
But it was true, his head was buzzing. Even more than usual with the kids yammering behind him. And it kept buzzing for the rest of the afternoon and on into the night, even until after the boys were asleep and Zach was sitting out on his tiny back porch in the chilled night air, listening to the wind rustle the dying leaves and the dog snoring on the porch floor beside him.
The thing was, while Zach wasn’t a people person like Josh or his mother—both of whom he swore fed off other humans like vampires sucked blood—he generally liked them well enough. Enough, at least, to deal with them on a daily basis in his practice. But he could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times he’d found somebody interesting enough to actually think about once he no longer had to interact with them. The one exception to that, of course, had been Heidi. Because, well, she’d been
That he couldn’t get Mallory Keyes out of his head now... What the hell? They’d barely even had what you could call a real conversation. Certainly nothing to provoke this crazy reaction.
The thought made Zach actually jump. Oh, sure, she was pretty and all, but him noticing that wasn’t unusual, even for him. He hadn’t lost his ability to appreciate a good-looking woman, even if he no longer had any inclination to act on it.
And that was it, in a nutshell: because there’d never again be anyone like Heidi, someone who got him in a way nobody else ever had. The moment they’d met in school, even, the click had been almost audible. That kind of connection—what were the odds of that happening twice in one lifetime? Hell, even once? That his
had been ripped away from him like that...
His eyes stinging, Zach scrubbed a palm over his face. Sometimes he wondered if he’d ever stop missing her. Or at least if it would ever stop hurting so damn much. Not that he talked about it to anyone. What would be the point? Wasn’t as if that would change anything, or bring her back, or make the hurting stop. And God knew he didn’t need to dump his pain on anyone else. Especially his boys.
What Mallory’d said, about finding a new normal, especially for her son? Much to admire in that, actually. Just as there was a lot to admire in the woman. A
. Come to think of it, maybe her strength was what he found so appealing. Well, that and her sense of humor. Had to admit, he was a sucker for a woman who could laugh at herself, who didn’t take life too seriously—
Zach sighed so loudly he made the dog jump. Absolutely, he wanted nothing more than for his kids to have a normal life. To be
, for God’s sake, as kids are supposed to be. To have the kind of childhood he and his brothers had. As much as his boys could, anyway, with only one parent. But for him,
died with his wife. That was just the way it was, nothing he could do to change it.
Just as he knew he’d never fall in love again. Because his
And not being able to get Mallory Keyes out of his head wasn’t going to change that, either.
* * *
“Honey,” Mama called from the other room, “have you seen my sunglasses?”
Wrapped up in a fluffy throw on a wicker couch—she refused to spend all her waking hours in the frickin’ wheelchair—out in the glassed-in porch, Mallory called back, “Sorry, no.”
“Shoot,” Mama said, her ballet flats slapping against the brick pavers when she joined Mallory. “I know I had ’em when we drove out to the ranch, I must’ve left ’em in the powder room. And is there some reason you’re sitting out here in the dark?”
Mallory felt a tight smile tug at her mouth. “Just thinkin’.”
“About?” Enough light spilled through the great room’s double door to see Edgar cradled against her mother’s chest as she balanced a mug of something in her other hand.
She could, she supposed, refuse to answer. Or lie. Knowing her mother, both choices would be pointless. “How sad that poor man is.”
Mama lowered herself into the padded rocker across from the couch. “I take it you’re referring to our friendly neighborhood vet?”
Mallory smirked. “You know what’s strange? Ever since this—” she gestured toward her lap “—I have a much harder time seeing other people unhappy. Almost like...”
“You can feel their pain?”
“That’s hardly surprising,” Mama said, rearranging the spoiled rotten dog in her lap before reaching over to turn on a small lamp on the table next to her. Mallory winced. “Considering how hard you’ve worked to regain your own equilibrium, it’s no wonder you’re more empathetic. Now maybe you understand why I wanted the two of you to meet each other.”