Authors: Rebecca Winters
A small smile appeared. “It does kind of remind you of that old fairy tale.”
He parked and turned off the engine. “You don't really want to move to an apartment when you have a home here for the present. Do everyone a favor and stay until after the baby is born. By then we'll have a good idea about Ned's state of mind. It will give you time to find the kind of job you really want.”
“No buts, Cassie. Don't pressure yourself to make a decision you might regret. Who knows? Maybe an apartment won't look good to you once the baby is here. You may want to rent a house for you and your daughter. Promise me you'll think about working for me, at least until Christmas. Then you can reevaluate.”
She didn't answer him. He hoped that was a good sign.
“Come on. Let's go inside with your haul.”
“That's exactly what it is!” Cassie exclaimed.
“Dad won't be staying here so why don't we store everything in his room.”
“But what if he and Ellen want to sleep over one night?”
“All they'll need is the bed.”
Without saying anything, she got out of the car before Trace could help her and reached for one of the sacks in back filled with baby clothes. The wind was blowing harder now.
“You must be tired after volunteering at the sanctuary earlier.”
“I'm not that tired.”
As his father had remarked, Cassie was a hard worker. “How's Giselle by the way?”
“As precious as ever.”
“She probably waits for your visits.”
“I think she's happy when I call to her.”
He smiled. “You only think?”
“Everyone loves her.”
“But I wager you're her favorite. I'll go by there again soon and see if she remembers me. In the meantime if you'll open the front door, I'll bring in all the rest of the things.”
Trace handled the heavier boxes with furniture that had to be put together. After several trips he got everything inside the bedroom. “What did you work on today at the sanctuary?”
“We painted the new fox condo. Paul did the roof and sides while Lindsey and I worked on the legs.”
“The same brown color?”
“Does it have shutters?”
She chuckled. “No.”
“I think you should add two and apply your terrific artwork to brighten things up.”
“I'm afraid it would be a little much.”
“You're so expert at it, we can't let that talent go to waste. If you noticed, I didn't give you a gift at the party. Why don't you open the closet door?”
Cassie stopped emptying the bags and walked over to do his bidding. “Ohâa little wooden toy box.” She leaned over and opened it. “How darling!”
“It's unfinished. I thought you could paint it and decorate it yourself.”
She stood up before her eyes darted to his. “You do too much, Trace.”
He hunched his shoulders. “If you don't want itâ”
“You know I do! I'm just overwhelmed by your thoughtfulness. You're too generous for your own good.”
“And you're too stubborn for yours.” He opened the top dresser drawer. “This is empty. Shall we put the clothes in here?”
Cassie walked over to the bed and lifted a little white bodysuit from the sack. They both chuckled. “Trust Connor to find this eenie-meanie bull outfit. Look at the size of that steer's horns!”
“How about Liz's contribution?” He pulled out the little pink-and-white bodysuit dress with two cowboy boots on the front. “I can't wait to see her in this. Or this.” Trace drew out another bodysuit. “Super cowgirl.”
“That was Mac and Millie's contribution. I never saw so many cute baby clothes in my life.” She started folding them and the receiving blankets in the drawer.
Trace never saw a cuter mother-to-be in his life. While she got busy doing that, he opened the box containing an ivory-colored crib. He had it assembled before she turned to look at him.
“You shouldn't have set that up.”
“Too late. It's done. Don't you want to see what the mobile looks like attached to it? Jarod says Cole is already intrigued by his.”
After a slight hesitation, she opened the box and pulled it out. He knew Cassie couldn't resist. A horse, bear, cowboy boot, dog and bull dangled from a tan cowboy hat. A laugh escaped her lips. “What won't they think up next?” She put it at one end of the crib.
“Every little well-brought-up cowgirl should have one of those.” Trace took the crib mattress out of the other box and fit it inside the crib. “The padding with the cowboy boots is here somewhere.” He found it and set it around. “All this crib needs now is your baby girl.”
Cassie stood there clutching the crib rail with a pained expression. After such a great evening, his spirits plummeted to see it. “I realize Logan is the one you wished were here doing this with you. I'm so sorry, Cassie.”
He left the bedroom and walked through the house to the back door into the wind. A ride on Masala was what he needed, and he didn't care if it started to rain on him. In practically begging Cassie to stay on at the ranch, he'd added too much pressure by erecting the crib. He should never have done that. It hadn't been on purpose, but he'd been so carried away by the events of the night, he hadn't stopped to think. She had every right to resent him.
Damn and damn
In a few long strides he reached the barn, but the left door was open and banged against the structure with every gust of air. Trace had closed the doors before they'd left for the party. In all the years he'd lived here, he'd never seen the wind blow one of them open. They were heavy.
Whether it had been left open on purpose or not, he was convinced someone had been here.
Walking inside, he turned on the overhead light and headed for the horses' stalls to check on them. Speaking in low tones, he examined them to make certain they were all right. They nickered back and forth while he inspected the other two empty stalls and the tack room. Nothing seemed amiss, but he wasn't convinced a force of nature had been responsible.
Without hesitation he phoned Zane who'd probably gone to bed by now. He picked up on the third ring. “Trace? What's up?”
“After the great party, I'm sorry to bother you, but this couldn't wait.” In the next breath he told him what he'd discovered when he went out to the barn. “If we had an intruder over here, he could have left a fingerprint or two. I haven't touched the handle or the door.”
“I'll be right over.”
While he stood inside the opening to get out of the wind, Cassie came out of the house. “Trace?”
He stepped outside. “I'm right here.”
“What are you doing? Why is the light on?”
“Come inside and I'll tell you. Don't touch anything.”
When she reached him, her hair was in beautiful disarray. “I thought you'd gone out to the front porch.”
“Actually I was going to take a ride on Masala before going to bed, but I found the barn door open the way you see it right now. Before we left tonight, I closed both of them. I could be wrong and it was just the wind, but I think we might have had an intruder while we were at the party. So I phoned Zane. He should be here in a minute to lift any prints he might find besides yours and mine.”
She bit her lip. “The wind wouldn't do that unless the door had already been ajar.”
“I'm inclined to agree.”
Cassie left him long enough to go over to the horses. While she was talking to them, Trace saw headlights in the drive coming toward him. Zane got out of his truck with a bag. Jarod was with him.
“Thanks for coming.”
“I'm going to test for fingerprints. Let's go in the house first so I can get a set of yours and Cassie's. Then I'll test for prints on the front and back door of the house, window frames and the doors of Cassie's truck before we go to the barn.”
“While you do that, I'll take the barn door off the hinges and set it inside,” Jarod offered. “It'll be easier to work on out of the wind.”
“Good idea.” Zane handed him a screwdriver from his bag before Trace and Cassie went in the house.
An hour later everything had been done and the door was put back and shut. “I'll get all this off to the crime lab in Missoula first thing in the morning. It ought to be interesting to see what they come up with. You know what this means if we find what we're looking for.”
Cassie's anxious eyes revealed her fear. “Will it be enough to send him back to the facility for good?”
Jarod hugged her around the shoulders. “No question about it, cousin.”
After they left, Trace walked her back in the house and locked the door. “Cassie?” he said as they reached the kitchen. “Do me a favor? Zane says he'll ask for results ASAP. If I'm right and Ned was bold enough to trespass tonight, he'll do it again once you're in that apartment. Promise me you'll stay here where I can protect you.”
An odd sound came out of her. “You don't have to say anything more, Trace. When I came looking for you earlier, it was to tell you that I'll stay and work here.
“Neither Ralph or your father minced words with me tonight. I'm not going to let my pride make everyone so nervous for me, they lose sleep over it. I've already left a voice mail with the landlord of the apartment that I won't be wanting it after all. I'm sure he'll refund the money.
“Ralph's health has been so much better since Sadie first came back, I don't want to be the one to put him in bed again. He made a promise to my Grandfather Tyson to watch out for me. No one takes responsibility more seriously than he does.”
“Then you know how I feel because my father put me under the same mandate where you're concerned.”
“I'm sorry, Trace.”
“For what exactly?”
“For being a liability. And for the heartache you must be feeling because your marriage plans didn't go through. While you were putting the crib together, all I could think of was you, wishing this baby was yours and Nicoletta's.”
what had put the pain in her eyes? Not the memory of Logan?
wishing your baby was mine, Cassie,” he whispered. “Yours and mine.”
Her green eyes widened.
“I found myself envying your husband. If you remember a certain conversation before I left for Italy, I challenged you to stay with me, unless you had designs on me and were reticent. That was my way of teasing you. But even as a tease, you let me know in a hurry that nothing could be further from the truth. A love like yours doesn't come along every day. You left your family to be with Logan. As I've told you before. He was a lucky man.”
“If Nicoletta couldn't leave her family, I can't blame her, not when she comes from such a different world. But it ruins your dreams of a family with her.”
“Once the injury happened, I believe it brought both our dreams to an end. In truth, I don't think I was ever in love with her enough, or I would have done what she'd wanted and live there.” He'd loved Nicci. If things had worked out differently, he might have married her and then regretted it because deep down he'd always longed for home. It would have caught up with him.
“With hindsight I can see that if you don't love someone with every fiber of your being, then how can you expect to make it through the difficult times of marriage? You and Logan had that kind of tenacity.”
“It wasn't perfect. Deep inside he was insecure because he'd been orphaned. When Ned put him down to Dad, it did a lot of damage though he didn't show it in front of other people. I had to beg him to let us try for a baby. Without a role model, he was convinced he'd make a terrible parent.”
She nodded. “He'd been in half a dozen foster homes before he turned eighteen and could be on his own. I told him it didn't matter that he didn't know his father. It was in the doing of being a father himself that he'd find out how to be a great father. We'd learn together. But it wasn't meant to be.”
“Are you the one that found him in the forest?” he whispered. Trace had wanted to know the details, but had never dared ask until tonight.
“No. When he didn't come home for dinner and it got later and later, I called your father in alarm. He in turn called my cousins and Zane. They all went out with flashlights and found him facedown near one of the streams. I told you about the dead marten that lay nearby.”
“I don't know how you lived through that.”
“I don't either,” she laughed sadly. “Those first few weeks are a complete blank to me. Avery and the girls took turns staying with me. When I discovered I was pregnant, it was like I'd been brought back to reality and had something to live for again.”
“His little girl...” He took a deep breath. “Was Logan Dorney his birth name?”
“He never knew. It was the one given to him at the orphanage in Dillon. He never did find out if they just assigned him that name, or if it was the name of one of his birth parents.”
“Well he may not have known his parents, but he was married to a wonderful woman.”
Tears filled her eyes. “But that so-called wonderful woman had a brother who wouldn't leave him alone.” Trace saw her hands tighten into fists. “He jeered him and mocked him andâ” But she couldn't go on and broke down.
Not immune to her pain, Trace pulled her into his arms and rocked her while she poured out her grief. Cassie had been holding all this in for such a long time, she had difficulty quieting down. It was past time for her to let it out. Trace was fiercely glad he was the one she'd turned to. They had a connection that was growing stronger.
When she eventually eased away from him and lifted her tear-ravaged face, it was all he could do not to protest. “The front of your shirt is wet. I'm so sorry to do that to you.”
“Heyâyou're pregnant and have the right to fall apart anytime you want.”
Cassie laughed. A good sign that she didn't resent him. When he'd gone out to the barn earlier, he'd been convinced he'd blown it with her.
“Just call me water works. I exhibit every pregnant hormone-filled symptom in the book. I'll probably have momnesia after the baby's born, too.”
She nodded. “Pregnancy brain. They say there's forty times more progesterone and estrogen marinating in my brain right now affecting the circuits. The IQ doesn't change, but priorities do. Something about so many shelves in the brain and the top three are filled with baby preoccupation.”