Authors: Victoria Pade
Elk Creek, Wyoming
he sign was the first thing Ally Brooks saw when she stepped off the train onto the platform. She stood in front of a one-room station house that could have come straight out of an old Western movieâwhitewashed, with its gingerbread trim painted a deep hunter green. It was nothing at all like the stately gray stone of Union Station in downtown Denver, where she'd boarded.
And also, unlike Union Station, with its array of porters, clerks and other travelers, there wasn't a soul in sight. Nor was the station even openâthe ticket window was shut tight behind iron bars and a sign that said so.
“Is this it?”
Ally glanced at her eight-year-old daughter, who had just joined her on the platform beside their suitcases. She pointed out the sign. “This is it. Elk Creek.”
Meggie's hazel eyes were so wide she looked like a scared kitten, and, seeing it, Ally had a flash of doubtâmaybe they shouldn't have come.
But she tried to ignore that inner voice and instead wrapped an arm around her daughter. “It's okay. Remember we talked about how a small town would be different from living in Denver? Well, one of the ways is that places in a small town close early. Although actually it isn't early. It's after tenâwe sat nearly three hours while they fixed that problem with the rails or we would have been here a long time ago.”
“But if everything is shut, what are we going to do?”
Ally tightened her arm and hugged her daughter to her side, aching at the sound of worry beyond her years in the little girl's voice. “Not
is closed for the night. Look across the street,” she urged, nodding to what appeared to be a huge refurbished barn. There were probably two hundred cars and trucks parked around it; people and music spilled out the open doors and a banner proclaimed the grand opening of The Buckin' Bronco.
“That looks like The Grizzly Roseâthat place Shag took Grandma to country-dance on Saturday nights. We'll just go over and find out how we can get to the Heller ranch from there.”
Meggie didn't look reassured. But then, in the past three years not much of what Ally had said or done had seemed to help. It was incredibly difficult to convince a child that the worst was not always going to happen when it had happened again and again already.
But Ally had to keep trying.
“Come on, kiddo,” she said with another squeeze. “We'll leave our suitcases here in the shadows where no one can see them, and before you know it we'll be back for them and on our way to our new homeâthat great big ranch house Shag showed us pictures ofâwith all the horses and cows and chickens, and the swimming pool...it's going to be so great and so much fun!”
Meggie nodded but Ally could see that she was just humoring her. There was no enthusiasm in her expression.
Still, she pretended not to notice. She dropped her arm from around Meggie and took her daughter's hand instead. “It's just going to be great,” she repeated with too much zest as she headed for the honky-tonk, praying along the way that it really would be.
* * *
“Hee-yaw! We've kicked this place off with a bang!” Linc Heller shouted.
Jackson Heller laughed at his younger brother's high spirits as Linc brought drinks to their table and did a rebel yell of celebration. No sooner had Linc set the tray down than he planted a huge kiss on his wife, Kansas, until she squealed for air. Then he moved around the table to shake their brother-in-law Ash Blackwolf's hand as if it were a water pump, and rub their sister Beth's extremely pregnant belly as if she were Buddha. He followed up with a quick peck on her cheek.
Then he came around to Jackson.
“Kiss me and you won't live to enjoy this place,” Jackson warned with a grin.
Linc ignored it, yanked him out of his chair and bear hugged him.
Jackson hugged him back but, as if he hadn't, Linc said to the rest, “We gotta loosen this boy up!”
“You're loose enough for the both of us,” Jackson joked when his brother had let him sit back down again.
“No, no, there's somethin' missin' here.” Linc continued talking as he served each person a drink. “I have my beautiful bride, Kansas. And Beth and Ash have each other and that baby that's âbout to pop out any day now. But look at you, sittin' there all by your lonesome.”
Jackson spoke to everyone else. “He's three sheets to the wind.”
“Linc is right, though,” Beth chimed in. “It's about time you found someone nice and started a family of your own to fill that big house. Linc and Danny are all moved in with Kansas now, and Ash and I are in the remodeled bunkhouseâ”
“And I can finally get back to normal,” Jackson finished before she could, taking a gulp of fresh beer after saluting them all with the glass.
“He needs a woman,” Linc decreed.
“He doesn't want one from around here, though,” Beth informed knowledgeably, as if Jackson weren't right there listening. “He says there's nothing but the same old faces he's been looking at his whole life and that would be like marrying me.”
Jackson laughed at the sound of his own words repeated by his sister. Not that they weren't true. He'd meant it when he'd told her he just couldn't be romantically attracted to the single women Elk Creek had to offer. Hell, he'd grown up with them. He knew all their secrets. There weren't any surprises left, not to mention any chemistry.
“Let's see.” Linc's voice broke into his thoughts. “With all the folks here tonight there must be somebody we could fix him up with.”
Jackson shook his head and laughed at his brother's obvious deafness to what Beth had said. “You
everybody here tonightâthere isn't a soul we don't know inside and out.”
“Oh, yeah?” Linc said just then, victory in his voice as he pointed a long index finger in the direction of the front entrance.
Everyone at the table adjusted themselves to see who he was picking out of the crowd.
Everyone except Jackson, who took another swallow of his beer and just shook his head again. He felt sure that even if his brother had spotted someone Linc didn't know, he'd recognize whoever it was. After all, Linc had missed a lot of years in Elk Creek, but Jackson had spent barely a few weeks away his whole life.
“Who is she?” Kansas asked.
Jackson's sister-in-law sounded genuinely curious. And if anybody knew everyone there was to know the way he did, it was Kansas. So Jackson finally glanced up.
At the same time, Linc said, “
a new face for you.”
A pretty one,
was Jackson's initial, answering thought when he spotted the woman standing in the great open doors of what had once been an auctioning barn. She looked to be about thirty, holding the hand of a seven- or eight-year-old little girl.
And Linc was right, Jackson didn't know who they were.
He couldn't help watching as she stepped inside the honky-tonk and looked around with eyes that seemed to sparkle so brightly he could see it even at a distance.
She was a wisp of a womanâprobably not more than five feet three inches, with just enough flesh on her bones to make her unmistakably female. She had curly, curly copper-colored hair that fluffed all around her head and well past her shoulders, framing a face with skin so fair it looked as if the sun had never touched it. Her nose was thin, her cheekbones high and round, and her mouth was so full and pink that if it had been a peach, Jackson would have thought it was ripe for the picking.
“You all really don't know her?” Ash marveled as the group watched her stop a waiter and apparently ask him something.
“Nope,” Linc said. And then a moment later, he added, “But it looks like we're about to meet her. She's headed this way.”
She was, too.
Hanging on tight to the little girl, the woman wove her way through the crowd, her gaze locked on them.
And as she came, Jackson still couldn't seem to tear his eyes away.
But wanting to cover it up, he hooked his thumbs into his pockets, tipped his chair back onto two legs and watched from down his nose as if he were much less interested than he was.
“Excuse me. I'm sorry to barge in,” she began when she reached the table.
Her voice ran over his nerve endings like warm honey even through the noise in the place.
“Are you the Hellers? Shag Heller's family?”
“The whole lot of us,” Linc answered.
She smiled then, but just slightly, tentatively, as if she were unsure of herself. Or of them. And yet even that appearance of uncertainty had Jackson riveted.
Close up she was more than just pretty. She was beautiful. And when she smiled, those sparkling eyes of hersâas green as the seaâseemed to come to life with the most unwitting sensuality he'd ever seen.
“And who might you be?” Linc asked with a wink in his voice.
“My name is Ally Brooks. I don't know if your father told you anything about me, or if my inheriting part of his estate came as much a surprise to you as it did to me, but...well, here I am.” She nodded toward the little girl. “Here
areâMeggie and I. We've come to live at the ranch.”
The two upraised legs of Jackson's chair hit the floor with a loud thud and he raised his fists to the table. “You're Shag's lady friend?” he nearly shouted.
It was Kansas who smoothed the edges of that by saying, “So you're the Ally Brooks we've all been wondering about.”
Suddenly Linc let out a hoot and holler loud enough to be heard in every corner of the honky-tonk, ending in an uproarious laugh as he slapped Jackson on the back and said to her, “This is the man you want to see, right here.”
But Jackson didn't find anything amusing in the revelation of who this woman was and why she'd come.
In fact, it made him all-fired, spitting mad.
lly pulled down the covers on the bed in one of the guest rooms at the Heller ranch house an hour later. She and Meggie were there alone, and since her daughter had just gone into the bathroom to change into her pajamas and brush her teeth, Ally let herself fall back over the bed like a newly cut tree to wait for her.
As she did, the full impact of where she was struck her. Not only where she was logisticallyâin Wyoming, on a ranch, of all things; away from the city she'd grown up in; away from all her friends and familyâbut also where she was in her life.
Divorced, a single parent, struggling miserably for the past three years, and now a part owner of a ranch, a house, other buildings, land, cattle, horses, oil and mineral rights to wells and mines that were apparently high producers. Not to mention the share of cash, stocks and bonds Shag had left her.
None of it was what she'd ever envisioned for herselfânot that anyone grew up with a desire to fail at marriage and be left struggling to raise a child alone. But equally shocking was the good turn things had taken. That part was like winning the lottery, just when she'd needed to.
Only there had had to be a death for it to happen, which tarnished the good. And on the other end were three people who shouldn't have had to share with a perfect stranger a full and equal portion of what their father had bequeathed themâthat fact didn't polish it up bright and beautiful, either.
Although Linc and Beth hadn't seemed to care, she reminded herself as she heard the water go on in the bathroom.
Linc had found something about Ally and Meggie being there very funny and he'd welcomed them like long-lost family.
Beth had been warm, friendly, gracious. Shortly after Ally had introduced herself and Meggie, she'd claimed to be tired and ready for the evening to endâsomething Ally didn't doubt, seeing how far along in her pregnancy Beth was. She'd offered to bring Ally and Meggie home, show them around and get them settled for the night, and through all of it, Shag's daughter hadn't shown so much as a hint of hard feelings.
But Jackson Heller? He was another story.
Cornflower blue eyes had bored into her as if she were the devil incarnate.
Two of the most beautiful cornflower blue eyes she'd ever seen...
Not that the color of his eyes made any difference. What did matter was that he'd either hated her at first sight or hated that she'd inherited a full quarter of what rightfully belonged to him, his brother and sister.
The second possibility seemed the most likely.
And Ally understood it. She'd been astounded herself to learn what was in Shag's will. And whether or not he'd warned Linc or Beth or Jackson of what he was going to do, they had every right to resent it. To resent her. No matter that the inheritance had saved her and Meggie from financial doom.
Maybe we shouldn't have come,
Ally thought for the hundredth time since setting foot in Elk Creek.
But just then Meggie opened the bathroom door.
Ally sat up in a hurry and hid her own doubts behind a smile.
Dressed in a summer nightgown, her daughter looked thin. Too thin. Too sad.
One look at the little girl reminded her why she'd moved here.
Since Meggie's father had left, she'd watched Meggie go from being a gregarious, happy, energetic child to one so depressed over their broken family and Doug's complete neglect of her that Ally had had to take her for counseling.
And even that hadn't helped.
But something had to. It just
to. And Ally would do absolutely anything to find what it was. To bring back her sweet, smiling child.
So here we are.
It was for Meggie's sake they'd come. For Meggie's sake that Ally had turned down the offer Jackson Heller had made to buy out her share of the actual property in Wyoming.
Small-town life. Open countryside. Fresh air. Animals. Ally was counting on it all to heal her daughter's broken heart.
And maybe her own in the process.
Whether Jackson Heller liked it or not.
“Do you think this will be my room?” Meggie asked as she climbed into bed and arranged a dozen dolls and stuffed animals all around her body like a cushion from shoulders to anklesâa practice she'd taken up since the divorce.
“I don't know. Would you like this to be your room?” Ally pulled the sheet up and tucked it in around Meggie and the menagerie and then sat on the edge of the mattress, being careful not to disturb anything.
“It'd be nice to have my very own bathroom.”
“From what I saw when Shag's daughter gave us the grand tour, all the bedrooms have their own bathrooms.”
“Will Daddy be able to find us here?” Meggie changed the subject without a segue as only an eight-year-old could.
The sound of longing and hurt in her daughter's voice was yet another wrench of Ally's heart. “Sure. Grandma knows where we are and the post office will forward all of our mail. But you knowâ”
“I know.” Meggie cut her off and recited the words Ally had had to say too often. “Don't get my hopes up, just go on about my business and try not to think about Daddy maybe coming back to see me.”
Or phoning or sending so much as a birthday or Christmas card or acknowledging he's a father in any way at all,
Ally added silently.
More than the money Doug Brooks had withheld from Meggieâthe money that had earned him a place on Colorado's list of child-support evadersâwhat Ally could have strangled him for were the love, affection, attention and interest he had also deprived his daughter of. Instead, his efforts all seemed to go into skipping from state to state, not even practicing medicine after all those years of school and training, to avoid being made to meet any responsibilities whatsoever.
It was awful enough to have made a rotten choice in a husband for herself, but it was absolute agony to watch her child suffer for that same rotten choice in a father. Luckily, the inheritance from Shag freed her from the financial disaster divorce and no child support had wreaked, and left her able to concentrate on making it up to Meggie. And hopefully finding a way to help her daughter forget about Doug the way he'd clearly forgotten about her.
It was Ally's turn to change the subject. “Hey, do you believe this place? It's even bigger than Shag let on.”
“If Daddy moved back to Denver, could we, too? So I could see him?” Meggie asked as if Ally hadn't said a word.
“That's one of those things we'd talk about if it ever happened.”
“That means you don't think it will.”
“I don't think you ought to think about it. I think you ought to be thinking about this terrific house and the big-screen television downstairs and having horses and all the fun we'll have making our new beginning.”
“That man with the mustache didn't like us,” Meggie informed flatly, as if it might have escaped her mother's notice.
“Jacksonâthat's Shag's oldest son. And he'll get used to us.”
“He looked mean.”
“Nooo, not mean. He's probably just a little gruff, like Shag was. It'll be fine.”
“Shag said we should move up here, that it'd be good for me. Is that why he leaved you part of his will?”
And he didn't leave me part of his will, he left me part of everything he ownedâthe will was just the paper that said it. And yes, he did it because it was good for us both.”
“So it's okay that we're here? Even though that mustache man might not want us in his house?”
“Yes, it's okay that we're here, because this isn't only
house, it also belongs to us now. But if we don't like living with the mustache man, we'll build our own house.”
“But not where Daddy can't find us.”
“No, not where your daddy can't find you,” Ally assured, sighing to herself and wondering if anything would ever get Meggie's mind off her absent father.
She stood and smoothed away her daughter's burnished curls to kiss her forehead. “It's late. You need to go to sleep. You know where my room is, right?”
“Across the hall.”
“If you need anything, just holler or come in there.” Ally tapped the tip of her daughter's small, turned-up nose. “I love you. Sleep tight.”
“Mom?” Meggie stopped her from leaving. “What are you gonna do here?”
Ally smiled. “I'm not sure. Maybe I'll open a restaurant or a catering business. Or maybe I'll just be a momâShag left us enough money to live even if I don't work.”
“I'd like you to just be a mom,” Meggie said.
“Well, we'll see. But for right now, let's concentrate on getting settled in.”
Meggie wiggled to a comfortable spot amongst her bumper pad of dolls and stuffed animals, and finally closed her eyes. “See you in the morning.”
“See you in the morning.”
Ally slipped out the door, closing it behind her. But she didn't go straight across the hall to the room Beth had suggested she use. Her throat felt full of travel dust and the late August heat seemed to still be with her in spite of the coolness of the house. Something cold to drink was too appealing a thought to resist.
Well, she might have resisted it if Jackson Heller had been there. But since he wasn't, she decided to take Beth's advice to make herself at home.
The nearly silent hum of the air conditioner was the only sound in the whole place as she padded down the stairs and across a huge entryway, and stepped into the sunken living room with its three couches in a U around a square coffee table and the biggest television she'd ever seen.
Through the living room, she went into a connecting dining room and around a table large enough to seat a whole summit conference.
Then she pushed open the swinging door that led to the kitchen and stopped short.
Jackson Heller was standing at the refrigerator, one long arm draped over the open door, the other lying across the top as he peered inside. Clearly he hadn't heard her entrance, because he didn't budge.
Until that moment Ally hadn't realized how big a man he was. Six foot three if he was an inch, divided perfectly between long, jean-encased legs and a torso that grew like a symphony from a narrow waist to shoulders a mile wide, filling out a Western-style shirt better than the designer of it would ever have believed possible.
Ally considered sneaking out before he realized she was there, but just as the thought occurred to her, he must have sensed her presence, because he turned his head in her direction and caught her with those blue eyes.
Lord, but he was good-looking! Somehow, even though she'd noticed his eyes in the honky-tonk, she hadn't realized just how good-looking the rest of his face was. But it wasn't only his eyes that were strikingly gorgeous. This guy was drop-dead handsome.
He had thick hair the color of espresso, cropped short on the sides and longer on top. His brow was straight and square, his nose slightly long, slightly narrow, slightly pointedâwhat the romance novels she read called aquiline.
The mustache Meggie had noticed was full and well-groomed, not so much hiding his exquisitely shaped mouth as making it seem all the more intriguing. His cheeks dipped into hollows hammocked between chiseled cheekbones and a jawline sharp enough to slice bread, giving his face a rough-hewn ruggedness. And he had the same cleft in his chin that his father had had, the same one she'd noticed in his brother, only on Jackson Heller it was so sexy that every macho movie star in the world would have killed for it.
But handsome or not, he was no happier to see Ally in his kitchen than he had been to see her in the honky-tonk.
He slammed the refrigerator door closed without having taken anything from inside and faced her.
Showdown at the O.K. Corral Kitchen.
Salad shooters at the ready.
Oh, Lord, it must be late,
I'm getting goofy.
She stood as tall as she could and met him eye to eye. “I came down for something to drink.”
He just went on staring at her, his eyes boring into her like spears. “You sure as hell aren't what we expected,” he finally said. “Never knew old Shag to dabble with a younger one.”
“I just want to know one thing.” He poked his chin toward the ceiling. “Is that little girl up there our half sister?”
“Your half sister?” Ally repeated as what he was alluding to began to dawn on her. “You think Shag and Iâ”
“You were the mysterious lady friend he hightailed it to Denver to be with these last ten years.”
âhe'd referred to her as that earlier, too, but only now did the meaning of it sink in. “No, I wasn't.”
His eyes narrowed at her. “Don't play coy with me. I'm no ignorant country bumpkin. You slept your way into a quarter share of this ranch and I don't appreciate it. I don't give a damn about anything else that old man left you a part ofâspending ten years cozied up with him earned it for you. But Linc and Beth and I paid our dues on this place being worked like dogs by that contrary cuss of a man, and if you think you can sashay in here as if it's some kind of resort where you can lie around the pool all day long while somebody waits on you, you have another think coming.”
“Now hold on,” Ally said, her voice louder than she'd intended it to be, and just as stern and angry as his. “In the first place, Meggie is not your half sister and I didn't sleep my way into anything. Your father's
was my mother and for the last ten years the relationship they shared was nothing as sleazy as you'd like to make it.”
Jackson Heller merely went on goring her with his cornflower blue eyes.
Ally wanted to hit him. But instead she just continued. “As for Shag leaving me an equal share of his estateâI concede that you and your brother and sister have every right not to be thrilled by it. I was hoping you all wouldn't resent it and I'm sorry to find that even one of you does. But Shag's including me in his will was the kindest, most generous thing anyone has ever done for me and it just happens to have come at a time when I couldn't have needed it more, so if you think you're going to scare me into refusing anything, it's
who can think again.”