Authors: Karen Templeton
“Like memories,” Zach said quietly, frowning at the apple for a moment before taking a bite.
“I suppose so, yes.”
Not looking at her, he chewed for a moment, then nodded, wiping a trickle of juice on his sleeve. “You’re right.” He waved the apple at her. “Perfect.”
“Then please take some home with you, there’s no way we’ll ever eat them all.”
“I might do that. Thanks.” He took another bite, then said, “I should probably go.”
Zach frowned. “What?”
“We talk about why I left my son behind and two minutes later you suddenly need to leave?”
“No,” he said slowly, “it occurred to me we’ve left
rambunctious boys with your mother, who’s probably more than ready to be rescued by now.”
The frown deepened. “You don’t seriously think I’m judging you?”
“I think it’d be weird if you weren’t.”
“Call me weird, then. Mallory...nobody can truly know what they’d do in someone else’s shoes, but it’s obvious you didn’t make that decision lightly. Or that you were only thinking of yourself. You’re only doing the best you can. Same as every other parent in the world. And something else—whether Landon fully understands it or not right now, you’ve set an example of how the best choice isn’t always the easiest. In fact, it rarely is.”
It was several moments before she could speak. “Wow.”
He shrugged. “Something I remember my parents drumming into us. Just thought I’d share.”
Mallory smiled. “My daddy used to say the same thing, actually. So...thanks. But please don’t feel you have to leave on my mother’s account. When she’s had her fill of little boys—” she wagged her phone “—she’ll let me know. Trust me, that woman is in hog heaven right now. And your boys probably are, too. That woman has grandmothering down to a fine art.”
Chuckling, Zach slid down against the tree’s trunk to sit in a patch of mottled sunlight—sending a shudder of silly pleasure through her. She had nothing to offer this man—other than apples and cookies, maybe—and yet he was still here. How long had it been since someone other than her son had wanted to be with her for her own sake? Warmed her right down to her unfeeling toes, it did.
Zach smiled—and oh, my, did he have a nice smile—when Benny appeared, wagging his tail. “Hey, guy...” He ruffled the dog’s head. “Good nap?” Benny sniffed the apple, actually shook his head, then lay down in the dirt at Zach’s feet as he nodded toward the dog runs.
“I seem to remember the previous owners raised purebred Labs. I think Granville may have even gotten one for his daughter. Hey—maybe you should think of fostering, yourself. You certainly have the space for it.”
Mallory stared at the runs, imagining. “Wouldn’t that mean a full-time commitment?”
“Not necessarily. And God knows the local shelter would be grateful for anything you could do. It’s no-kill, so they get overcrowded from time to time.”
“Let me...think about it.”
“Fair enough.” Zach took another bite of apple, rubbing the dog’s rump with the toe of his boot as he chewed, then threw the core into the ravine as her phone pinged—a text from Mama.
“She’s asking if we’d like to join them.”
One side of Zach’s mouth lifted. “Her way of saying she’s reached her limit?”
“Not that she’d ever admit that.”
Chuckling, Zach pushed himself to his feet, brushing off his butt as he walked toward her. “Yeah, it’s all fun and games until somebody slugs somebody. My own mother regularly threatened to put us up for sale. Unfortunately for her, we knew it was a hollow threat.”
They started back toward the house, Zach’s stride comfortably matching her wheelchair’s pace. And right then, in this perfect setting with this incredibly sweet man walking beside her, Mallory felt almost...whole.
A moment to cherish, for sure.
* * *
Zach had just buckled the boys into their car seats when Dorelle came scurrying out to the truck, an enormous plastic container clutched to her chest.
“Cookies,” she said, a little breathlessly, practically shoving the container into his hands.
“For the entire town?”
“I might’ve gotten a little carried away.”
Zach smiled. “Well, thank you. My mother used to bake up a storm until my father had a heart attack—”
“It’s okay, it was some time ago now, and he’s doing great. But things like cookies are pretty much off-limits. And no sense in tempting the poor man, she says. Anyway, there’s a whole bunch of us who have no problem with cookies, so these won’t go to waste, believe me.”
She beamed. “I’m so glad. Enjoy—”
“Can I ask you something?”
The question had popped out completely without his brain’s permission. Except if it hadn’t, it would’ve bugged him like an invisible thorn that hurts like hell even though you can’t see it.
Dorelle forehead puckered. But only slightly. “Yes?”
“Any reason why Mallory hasn’t ridden recently? Plenty of paraplegics ride,” he said when her mother’s brows lifted. “Seems to me, as much as she obviously loved it—”
“Don’t you need to get the boys home?”
Zach propped a hand on the truck’s roof, glancing inside to check on the kids, both of whom had conked out. So much for getting them to bed on time tonight. “I’ve got a minute,” he said, returning his gaze to the brunette, who sighed.
“To be honest, she hadn’t ridden in years, anyway. Not since she left Texas. Oh, wait, that’s not entirely true—she did have to ride some for one of her movies. But for pleasure? No. And of course, since her accident...” She shook her head.
Something like frustration knotted in his chest. “Somehow Mallory doesn’t strike me as the type to let much get in the way of whatever she wants to do.”
After a moment, Dorelle pushed out a tiny laugh. “That child was the most headstrong little girl you ever saw, I swear. A trait that only got worse the older she got. Used to drive her daddy and me nuts. If not to drink, on occasion. But that’s what made
driven, too. Made her such a fierce competitor, because she demanded so much of herself.” A sad smile curved her lips. “Of
. So when she took up with Russell Eames, took off for Hollywood at eighteen, not only did we know there was nothing we could say to dissuade her, but deep down we knew she’d be fine. Because like you said, she wasn’t one to let anything, or anybody, get in her way. And as headstrong as she was, at least she wasn’t foolhardy.”
She stuffed her hands in the pockets of her long sweater. “And after the accident—once the initial shock wore off, at least—she was the most determined human being you’d ever hope to see. At first, anyway. Let me tell you, she surprised the pants off of everyone in the rehab facility. But anymore...”
“You think she’s given up?”
“I think maybe on top of everything else the divorce hit her harder than she wants to admit.”
“She said the marriage hadn’t been working for a while.”
“Not sure it ever really did, to be honest. Still. Aside from being the director on that first picture she did, when she was an extra, not to mention being the one who took her under his wing and got her career off the ground, Russell was her first love. Her only love, for all that. Or close enough to it to count. But whatever’s clogging up the works, I’ve definitely seen a change in her. One I doubt she even sees in herself.” She smirked. “Except you know how unlikely it is for a child to listen to their parent. Especially a long-since-grown child. Besides which she’ll only insist she’s fine, that I’m overreacting.”
The worry in her eyes touched something deep inside him. A worry he’d seen before, in his own mother’s eyes. About all four of her sons, for one reason or another. And not for nothing, had she worried. “You’re very trusting,” he said, “sharing all this with a stranger.”
“Except you don’t feel like a stranger, Dr. Talbot. Don’t know why, but you never have.” She paused. “But thank you for letting me share. I really don’t have anyone to do that with anymore. Oh, there’s one sister in Idaho, but we haven’t really talked in years. And of course I’ve been focused on taking care of Mallory recently. Not that I’m complaining,” she hurriedly added. “And I know I could’ve gone out and made friends in LA if I’d wanted. I just didn’t.”
He smiled. “Then we’ll have to make sure you find friends here. My mother, for one. Annie, the owner of Annie’s Place in town. But as far as your daughter goes...” He glanced toward the mountains, then back at Dorelle. “If it’s any consolation, I get the feeling that headstrong little girl is still in there somewhere.”
“Well, honey, if you could somehow help me find her,” Dorelle said, smiling, “I’d be more than grateful. And you know what? I think she’d be grateful, too. But you did not hear that from me. Enjoy the cookies,” she said, then headed back toward the house, her arms tightly wrapped around her waist against the evening chill and leaving Zach wondering what the hell he’d gotten himself into.
He got into the truck, his heart turning over in his chest at the sight of his sleeping sons behind him. Hell, he could barely find himself these days, let alone anyone else.
Yeah, well, maybe you should try harder
, whispered a voice inside his head.
Clenching his jaw, Zach rammed the truck into Reverse and backed out of Mallory’s drive, that voice hanging on tighter than a prizewinning rider on a really pissed-off bull.
week later, that conversation about why she’d bought property up here still bounced around underneath Mallory’s skull, all nice and tangled up with images of the man she’d had the conversation with.
So much for finding
True, Whispering Pines seemed as good a place as any for a vacation home, for all the reasons she’d given Zach. But she couldn’t deny that most of what had driven her away from LA had followed her here like a bunch of imprinted ducklings. Except not nearly as cute.
Not that she didn’t truly love it here, she thought as she drove into the circular drive fronting the Vista’s main house, then cut the engine to her modified SUV. The landscape was everything she remembered, and more—bold and vast and in your face, the colors so intense they burned. And she couldn’t wait to show Landon around, get his take on the quaint little stuck-in-time town, the sky that went on forever. His room up at the house, which she and Mama had taken great pains to fill with as much New Mexican kitsch as they could fit in a twelve-by-twelve room, right down to the lassoing cowboy wallpaper. She smiled—he’d probably think they’d lost their minds. And he’d be right.
The lightweight wheelchair reassembled and ready to go, Mallory lowered herself into it and shut the car door, then rolled up the gently sloping drive toward the main house. Not that she’d planned on it, but when she’d called Josh earlier about seeing the horse again, he’d mentioned that Granville Blake, the ranch’s owner, had wondered if he might meet her. It would have been ungracious, to say the least, to say no. She’d even “made an effort,” as Mama would say, dragging out her nicer jeans and boots for the occasion, a fave vintage fringed suede jacket, a pair of dangly handmade silver earrings she’d picked up from a local artisan some years back.
A lovely piece of Southwest history squatting in the shadows of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the house was equally breathtakingly magnificent and unpretentious, the earthy stucco dabbled in flickering patches of sunlight filtered through a half dozen huge, yellowing cottonwoods. Sturdily supported by a dozen rough-hewn posts, the clay-tiled overhang sheltered a flagstone porch spanning the entire front of the hacienda. And scattered across it, a mishmash of manly rocking chairs and traditional
—those drumlike curiosities peculiar to northern New Mexico, tanned pigskin seats and backs over wood-latticed bottoms—beckoning a person to sit and enjoy the view. She caught a whiff of woodsmoke—piñon, most likely, the sweet-smoky scent a welcome change from LA smog.
The front door opened right as she hiked the chair’s front wheels to access the porch, which thankfully was nearly level with the paved drive.
“You mus’ be Miss Keyes,” said a beaming older man, his stomach straining against a plaid flannel shirt and nearly obscuring a silver belt buckle the size of a fist.
“I’m Gus, the housekeeper,” he said, standing aside so she could steer through the heavily carved, oversize front door. “Mr. Blake and Josh are in the office, I’ll let them know you’re here. Can I get you anything?”
“No, I’m good. Oh, my,” she said, taking in the enormous living room, anchored by a floor-to-ceiling stone fireplace on one end, while the wall opposite the entryway was basically all glass—a trio of French doors opening onto what appeared to be a courtyard. The furnishings were what she’d call Expensive Macho Casual—lots of leather, wrought iron, Native rugs and artifacts, all precisely placed over Saltillo pavers she guessed had been there forever. “This is beautiful.”
“Thank you,” said a slightly breathless male voice behind her. She turned the chair to face Josh and his employer...also seated in a wheelchair, as it happened. But from illness, she quickly deduced from the sallow skin, the sunken cheeks. The oxygen tubing. Still, underneath a thatch of short, salt-and-pepper hair, the older man’s bright blue eyes sparkled. The motorized chair whirred closer—she got the feeling he wasn’t used to it yet—and he leaned to take her hand in his, his grip stronger than she would have expected, but cool. “Granville Blake.”
“Oh, yes, I know. I’ve seen most of your movies,” Granville said on a slight wheeze. “You’re one talented young lady. Not to mention even prettier in person than on screen.”
Mallory smiled, inwardly blessing him for not speaking of her career in the past tense. “You’re very sweet for saying so. Thank you.” She glanced up at the beamed ceiling punctuated with a pair of iron chandeliers worthy of a hotel lobby. “I’m guessing there’s a history here?”
“There is indeed. My great-granddaddy built the original main house in the 1880s, before New Mexico was even a state. This here’s an add-on, from the twenties. Since then not much has changed, from what I can tell from photos. Only what wore out.” He smiled. “Although we did update the bathrooms from time to time. The ladies are kind of particular about those.”