Authors: Rebecca Winters
His father slowly turned to him. In the semidarkness he looked older than he had earlier in the evening. “This ranch is your legacy, son.”
Here Trace went again, stabbing his father in the heart once more. “Not when I won't be able to live here. Since you have health issues and can't work the ranch anymore, the only sensible thing to do is sell it. Maybe one of Ellen's married children would like to buy it.”
His dad's body had gone still as a statue. “You know what? It's getting late. I don't want Ellen to worry, so I'm going to leave. I've already said good-night to Cassie. But you tell her again how much I appreciated dinner.”
He started for the porch steps. Trace walked with him to his truck. After he got in the cab, he lowered the window. “Didn't she do a great job on those shutters?”
The question only added to Trace's pain because he knew the renovations had been done expressly for Trace's homecoming. “They're exquisitely done.”
His father nodded. “Come on over to the condo anytime. Don't be a stranger.”
This wasn't the way their reunion was supposed to go. “What are you talking about? I'll see you tomorrow at the clinic. Love you, Dad.”
“Love you. Always.”
In agony, Trace watched his father drive away. If it weren't late, he'd head over to the Bannock ranch to look up Connor or Jarod. They'd understand his impossible position. Letting out a groan, he went back in the house for his wallet and keys. A restlessness had come over him. He'd never be able to sleep.
Cassie had already disappeared to her room for the night. Not wanting to disturb her, he left a note on the kitchen table that he was going into town and probably wouldn't be back till late. He supposed he didn't need to say anything, but it seemed the courteous thing to do. She'd gone the extra mile to make Trace comfortable today. No one had fussed over him like this in years and he appreciated it.
The Golden Spur Bar in White Lodge didn't close till one in the morning. He needed the canned country music, a lot of noise plus a beer to drown the condemning voice in his head. Too bad the laser's damage hadn't burned the guilt out of him at the same time.
He found a parking spot around the corner. Summer brought the tourists in droves and the place was crowded. Trace made his way through to the bar. After a five-minute wait he grabbed a vacated stool and signaled the bartender.
“Trace Rafferty?” The man on his left had spoken to him. When he turned, the guy said, “It
you. You're the F-16 pilot. What do you know about that.”
“Sorry. Have we met before?”
“Yeah, but it was a long time ago and I'm the forgettable type according to my ex-wife. The name's Owen Pearson.”
It rang a bell, but Trace couldn't place him. Between the empty whiskey glass and his self-pity, Trace could see Owen was getting wasted fast. The bartender asked Trace what he wanted. “A beer please.”
Owen raised his empty glass. “Another one of these while you're at it.” Then his gaze swerved back to Trace. “You in town on leave?”
“Something like that.” It was no one else's business.
“Haven't figured it out yet, have you?”
“You remember Ned Bannock. He and I have been buddies for years.”
At the mention of the name, the hackles went up on the back of Trace's neck. It all came back to him. Owen Pearson was the one who lent Ned the truck that had bashed Jarod's truck years ago almost killing him. “Your dad's ranch is right next door to the Bannock's.”
The conversation with Cassie was still fresh in Trace's mind. His teeth snapped together. “That's right.” Ned and Cassie's parents lived on the Bannock property owned by Ralph and Tyson Bannock, the two brothers who raised their families side by side.
“Then you'd know all about the shooting.”
“My father filled me in. Did you go to the funeral?”
“Hell, no. Logan Dorney was a no-account. Ned's dad fired him when he found out he'd been doing Ned's sister on the sly. I'm surprised your dad hired them.”
Sickness started to rise in Trace's throat. “That's my father's business surely.”
“The Doc didn't know Logan the way Ned did.”
Trace let the remark pass. “Any idea who shot him?”
Yup. “How is Ned these days? I haven't seen him in years.”
“He had some family problems for a while. His sister was nothing but trouble for him. But he's doing much better now and will be home before long. We're going to go into business together soon.”
“Is that right? What kind?”
“A stud farm for feral horses.”
That was the business Connor had been building with Liz. “Where?”
“My dad's ranch.”
The conversation robbed Trace of any interest in his beer. It was still sitting there untouched. He put some money on the counter and got to his feet.
“Heyâyou haven't drunk your beer.”
“I discovered I'm not thirsty. It's all yours. So long.”
In a different frame of mind than before, Trace drove back to the ranch. After he reached the house, he tore up the note in the kitchen and wrote another one. She'd see it first thing in the morning.
I've gone to Billings and will be in and out of the house at odd hours for the rest of the week. Dad and I agree your food is out of this world, but please don't do any more cooking for me since I don't have a schedule you can count on.
* * *
twenty-second came around, Cassie kept her afternoon appointment with her OB. Dr. Raynard did an ultrasound and handed her the picture of the sonogram. “Your little girl has a healthy heart and measures the right size. So far everything looks fine.”
Tears streamed down her cheeks. “I can't believe that's my baby. Oh, I wish Logan were here.”
“Of course you do.”
“You're sure she's all right?”
“Yes, but to make certain she stays that way, I'm going to insist you stop your horseback riding altogether.”
“Since my last appointment I've stopped riding Masala, but Buttercup is gentle. I love riding so much.”
“At twenty weeks, you're too far along to take any chances. That isn't a great deal to give up. Go on walks instead.”
“Okay. I haven't felt the baby move yet. How come?”
“It's been moving for a long time, but too small for you to notice. I imagine you'll feel it within the next couple of weeks.”
“I hope so.”
“And I hope you mind me. I know you're an expert rider, but a horse can do the unexpected. Do you hear what I'm saying? This is for your own good. If your husband were alive, he wouldn't want you to ride now.”
He smiled. “I'll see you in a month. That'll make it Friday, July 22. Remember to go easy on salt and caffeine, and put your legs up for a few minutes every day.”
“I will. Thanks so much.”
Cassie left the White Lodge Clinic where Dr. Raynard practiced and did a little shopping. She couldn't hide her pregnancy any longer. She needed to buy another couple of pairs of maternity pants and a few more tops she could layer. Now that she knew she was having a daughter, she would pick up a few things for the baby at the same time.
When Logan was killed, Cassie hadn't known she was pregnant. Later she became ill and went to see the doctor because she'd thought she'd come down with the flu. The news that she was pregnant had sent her into shock again, but a wonderful kind. A part of Logan was growing inside her.
To know she had their baby to live for pulled her out of the dark depression she'd been in. The doctor gave her medicine to help with the morning sickness. Since that stage had passed, she'd never felt better.
Later tonight she would drive over to Zane's ranch and show Avery the new things she'd bought for the baby while they talked. Avery was the closest thing she had to a sister. Her cousin was the only one who knew she was pregnant, but Cassie wouldn't be able to keep it a secret from now on.
When she returned to the ranch, there was still no sign of Trace. No doubt he was spending a lot of time with his father in town. She hurried inside to change into her new clothes that gave her more room to breathe. After grabbing a sandwich, she went out to the barn to take the horses for a late afternoon walk, mindful of her doctor's advice.
“Come on, Buttercup. You first.”
If her horse thought it strange Cassie didn't mount her, Cassie would never know. She walked her as far as the stream, then left her to graze in the paddock. It was Masala's turn next. He was used to trailing behind her. When they returned to the paddock, Masala joined Buttercup. To Cassie's amusement, her horse moved her head against his neck.
“I think you two like each other!” she exclaimed. “Liz said it could happen, but I can't believe it!”
“So I wasn't wrong,” spoke a deep male voice right behind her. She spun around in surprise and discovered Trace's blue eyes eyeing her as if he could see right through her. A rush of warmth enveloped her.
“I didn't know you were home,” she said, out of breath for no good reason. She'd begun to think he was never coming back. It surprised her how much pleasure she felt at seeing him.
“I got here a little while ago.”
“You've been making yourself scarce.”
“I'm back for the weekend. When I looked out the kitchen window and saw that you weren't riding Buttercup, I wondered if my first suspicions about you were correct. Now I know.”
Her heart fluttered like the wings of a darning needle she could see flitting around. “First suspicions about what?”
“That you're pregnant. When you told me Masala wasn't your horse, I wondered if pregnancy was the reason you wouldn't ride him. You've hidden your pregnancy so well, no one would suspect.”
did, though,” she remarked.
“Well, that's because we went riding on Tuesday and I was close enough to you to notice. Does my dad know?”
She averted her eyes. “No one does except my doctor and Avery. But your dad is a doctor who has delivered a lot of foals. He has probably guessed. I'm quite sure it's the reason he's let me stay on here without saying anything. He's such an understanding man. You can't hide much from him.”
His eyes smiled. “Nope.” He cocked his head. “I don't mean to pry, but why have you kept it a secret?”
“Because I'm trying to make my way on my own. My parents never forgave me for marrying Logan. Once they find out I'm having his babyâand they willâthey'll write my child off completely, too.”
“But you're carrying their grandchild!”
“They don't want one from a lowlife like Logan. That's what Ned called my husband because Logan was an orphan. In my family, if you don't have a pedigree dating back to the turn of the last century, you're not acceptable.”
A grimace marred his handsome features. “Your brother's a sick man.”
“I know. Ned had no idea how much I loved Logan. Neither did my parents. It's their loss now.” She was all fired up at this point. “I intend to prove that I'm independent and will make a good mother even if it kills meâ”
“I'm already convinced nothing could do that.”
She let out a laugh. “Sorry I got so heated.”
“It's understandable. When are you due?”
“You must be about five months along. Do you know the gender?”
Cassie nodded. “I found out today.”
His lips twitched. “Are you planning to keep me in suspense?”
“I'm going to have a girl. I bought some baby clothes for her in town after my doctor's appointment. He gave me a picture of the sonogram.”
“I've never seen one. You'll have to show it to me.”
“As it happens, I have it right here because I can't stop looking at it.” She reached in her jeans pocket and pulled it out. He moved next to her so they could look at it together.
“That's incredible,” he said in a husky voice.
“I know. While he took the picture, her heartbeat was so strong and loud, it made everything real for the first time.”
“Did you and Logan pick out names for the baby before he died?”
Cassie put the picture back in her pocket. “I didn't learn I was pregnant until a few weeks after his death.”
“That's tough. I'm sorry,” he murmured. “You really are doing this on your own.”
“It's all right. Finding out I was pregnant gave me a whole new lease on life.”
“You're a remarkable woman, Cassie.”
Her eyes met his searching gaze. “Say that to me when I'm old and have raised a terrific daughter, and I'll believe you.” Surprised they'd spent this long talking she said, “I've got to go in and finish putting up the strawberries I picked this morning.” She would prepare a meatloaf and potatoes to go in the oven at the same time.
“While you do that, I'll take the horses back to the barn and settle them in.”
They weren't his responsibility, but there was no point in fighting him on it. “That would be great. Thank you.”
Much as she appreciated Trace's help, she felt guilty. Now that he knew she was pregnant, it changed everything. Cassie could tell he had a protective streak in him like his father. She didn't want him treating her any differently, but it was too late because he'd already figured it out just by looking at her blossoming figure.
Trying not to think about how excited he'd sounded when he'd looked at the baby picture, she prepared the dinner, then continued to make jam. Her raspberries would be coming into season soon. White Lodge had a fair in the fall. She could sell her wares and hopefully make enough money to buy a crib and the basic items she'd need for the baby.