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Authors: Lois Greiman

Finally Home

BOOK: Finally Home
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Also in the Hope Springs series by Lois Greiman
 
 
Finding Home
 
Home Fires
 
 
Published by Kensington Publishing Corp.
F
INALLY
H
OME
L
OIS
G
REIMAN
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
To Christian Greiman, a hero in the making
CHAPTER 1
M
oney can't buy happiness.
Casie Carmichael reminded herself of that comforting little maxim as she smoothed a hand over her newly purchased but slightly battered copy of
A Mano
. The author was a cowboy poet whose work had touched something deep inside Ty Roberts. And as Emily Kane said, she'd give a kidney to see the boy smile. Especially at Christmas.
So hopefully the scholars were correct, and happiness wasn't up for sale, because Casie couldn't even afford a down payment. The Lazy Windmill, the ranch she'd inherited less than a full year ago, was making a comeback, but the upswing was uncertain at best, and she knew enough to keep her expectations humble. Aiming too high brought nothing but trouble. In her mind, Casie called it the hungry horse syndrome: Eat too much and you were certain to come down with a bellyache.
She glanced out the window toward the sculpted white hills that rolled into forever. Her mother had not been a subscriber to any such belief. Kathy Carmichael had been a mover and a shaker. Perhaps others had seen her differently. But to Casie, she had been an undiminished dynamo until the day she died. At age forty-seven, when her only child was still trying to negotiate the slippery trail of her
own
future, Kathy had declared her intentions of returning to the rodeo circuit. Her husband had objected, but she'd merely laughed and paraphrased Calamity Jane: It wasn't too late to become a legend. That was three days before she'd been diagnosed with lymphoma. Perhaps it had also been the inauguration of Casie's hungry horse theory. But whatever the case, a host of events since that moment had done nothing to diminish her belief that asking for too much would destroy—
“No!” The single word rasped through the house, shattering Casie's introspection.
She jerked away from her bedroom window, catastrophe reflexes twitching. “What's wrong?” she called, but there was no answer. Racing through the doorway, she torpedoed downstairs.
“Don't!” Emily's voice was breathy with desperation.
“I'm coming!” Casie skittered down the stairs, stocking feet slipping on every worn tread, heart thundering in her chest. “What's wrong? What—” she began and shot into the family room, sure she would find the baby catatonic or Sophie dead on the floor.
But instead, Baby Bliss was slouched in her cushy swing like a tiny angel, and their intern Sophie was nowhere to be seen. Casie's mind absorbed those little factoids long before her body could adjust to this shocking lack of emergency. Her feet slowed gradually, carrying her farther into the room where Emily Kane, seemingly with all limbs attached and no arterial blood spattering onto the faded wallpaper, was valiantly trying to shoo an unrepentant cowboy back into the kitchen.
“What are you trying to hide?” he asked. Colt Dickenson had that dark, slow timbre to his voice and a steadier-than-earth stance passed down through his Native American roots. The girl tried yet again to shove him out of the room, but he simply leaned into her palms and shifted his diabolical gaze to the right. “Oh, hey, Case. What's going on?”
“What's going on?” Her heart was just now settling into a more sedate pace in her over-taxed chest. “I thought someone was getting murdered. That's what's going on.”
“Nope,” he said. Beneath the shadow of his ubiquitous Stetson, his jaw looked square and rough with a couple days' beard. “Em here's just excited about Christmas.”
“Someone
is
going to get murdered,” Emily said, “if you don't get out of here.”
“Is that any way to talk to your baby's godfather? Hey,” he said, leaning left to peer past Emily, who stood her ground like a small, mixed race soldier. “That looks real nice.” The blue spruce they'd cut from the shelterbelt just a few hours before stood smack-dab in front of the window adjacent to the porch. “A little sparse on the left side and kind of tall for the room, but I could fix that if you'd just let me . . .” He took a step forward, at which time Emily smacked him in the chest with her fist. Her unruly dreadlocks swung with the force of her punch.
“Ouch,” he said, though it seemed unlikely he felt the blow through the insulation of his canvas jacket. “Is that any way for a mother to act in front of her own baby?”
“Get out!” she insisted, then turned narrowed eyes toward Casie. “Tell him to mind his own business.” But Casie's heart was still working on returning to its pre-emergency rhythm.
“Holy Hannah,” she said, exhaling finally. “You scared about twenty years off my life expectancy.”
“Oh.” Emily's cheeks reddened a little. Eight months earlier, when she'd first arrived at the ranch, homeless and pregnant, Casie would have sworn the girl didn't know how to blush, but motherhood or some other form of ineffable magic had changed that and a host of other things. “Sorry,” she said. “But he can't come in.”
“I just want to see my goddaughter,” Colt said. His eyes gleamed with mischief and something Casie didn't dare consider. She and Colt had known each other since grade school, when he had tormented her to distraction. During high school the torments had morphed into something closer to titillation. But only a fool would forget the wild-eyed boy's penchant for stuffing grasshoppers into chocolate milk cartons. “I'd better come in and make sure her momma's screaming didn't scare her.”
“Your goddaughter is fine,” Emily said. “You're the one who's going to need attention if you don't shape up.”
“What's going on?” Casie asked and stepped cautiously into the breach. It was probably a mistake. Being close to Colt Dickenson was always fraught with a dozen dangers she could neither catalog nor fully understand. His tilted grin, for instance, made her intestines twist in an unacceptable manner. But a girl would have to be brain-dead to forget about sodden grasshoppers, or the adult equivalent, which she wasn't entirely sure she was capable of identifying at this juncture.
“I'm wrapping his gift,” Emily said, nodding vaguely toward a box half enclosed in environmentally responsible newspaper. “And he's trying to peek.”
“I'm not!” Colt said. He sounded genuinely offended, but despite the fact that he had spent a good deal of every day on the Lazy over the past several months, Casie wasn't positive he was genuinely
anything
. He
was
male, after all. And a rodeo cowboy. And inexplicably fond of insects. None of which suggested constancy.
“You just want to know what I got you,” Emily insisted.
“Are you accusing me of lying?” he asked, and spread brown fingers over the place on his chest where a normal person's heart would reside. Colt Dickenson was not a normal person. Casie had decided that twenty years earlier, upon the discovery of a wood frog in the pocket of her denim jacket.
“Yes!” Emily said.
“How can you wound me like that?” Colt asked, eyes tragic. “I'm little Bliss's—”
“Seriously,” Casie said, seeing no end to the drama in sight. “I thought the roof was coming down when you yelled.”
“I know it. She's so loud,” Colt chided, shaking his head at the little mother. “You've probably upset the baby. I'd better check on her.”
“The baby's fine. It's you—” she began, but just then little Bliss woke with a bleat of despair. One tiny hand had escaped her swaddling and waved abruptly in the air. Emily glanced toward her with that wild expression reserved for new mothers and prey animals. “You stay out,” she ordered, and went to console her infant.
Colt watched her go, then leaned one canvas-clad shoulder against the doorjamb as she lifted Bliss from her swing. His eyes, Casie noticed, were soft and warm now, and though his smile had ramped down from mischievous demon to happy sprite, it rarely disappeared completely. Maybe that was why it was so pathetically difficult to think like a rational person when he was near. But maybe there were other reasons. Reasons she was far too wise to explore, she thought, and turned away, but his next words stopped her.
“Hey, you're not expecting any new lambs, are you, Case?”
“What?” She pivoted back toward him, already on the alert for trouble. The ancient thermometer above the bunkhouse door hovered just above zero. She scowled. “No. No one should lamb for a couple of months yet.” The thought of bringing new life into such inhospitable temperatures made her blood run cold. Literally. “Why do you ask?”
He shrugged, a slow movement of his left shoulder. A small hole punctuated his jacket's clay-colored sleeve, and the brown corduroy collar was beginning to fray. She had no idea why those foolish details drew her attention.
“It was pretty dark in the barn. I probably imagined it,” he said and turned back toward the kitchen. “I'll do one more check before I head home.”
“Home?” Emily asked and glanced over Bliss's silky head at him. “What are you talking about? Supper's almost ready.”
“You don't have to check,” Casie said and felt guilt twist in her stomach. Tending sheep wasn't Colt Dickenson's job. Then again, neither were any of the other tasks he undertook on a daily basis. “I'll take care of it.”
“You don't know how she looks,” Colt said.
“You didn't get a tag number?” Casie was already hurrying toward the front entry. Worry made her steps quick and her chest tight.
“I don't think she had one.”
She winced. “I meant to get them all numbered last summer.”
“Well . . . you can't rope no steer before you build your loop.”
She glanced at him.
“Ty told me that,” he admitted and grinned.
Tyler Roberts was barely sixteen years of age, but he was chockablock full of cowboy wisdom and proof positive that while hard knocks bowled some people over, they merely made others learn to stand on their feet.
But Casie put Ty out of her mind as she hurried toward the tiny foyer where outerwear was packed in a primitive wardrobe like kosher dills. “How'd she look?” she asked and snagged a pair of insulated overalls from a hook in the back. The floor creaked as she shoved her right foot into the appropriate leg. The foyer had seen some renovations in the past few months; the roof above the tiny alcove had been repaired and the front door replaced, but the floor needed work and a fresh coat of paint would not be amiss.
“Well . . .” Colt watched her as she shoved her second foot into the worn garment. “She was kind of a dirty white with a really short tail and a sassy look about her.”
Casie rolled her eyes. The Lazy was home to two hundred and twelve sheep. Trying to distinguish one from another put finding a needle in the haystack in a far more favorable light.
“I meant . . .” She bent to guide her foot through the tattered fabric at the bottom of the overalls, then turned to see Colt drag his gaze up her body as she straightened. She felt her face flush and her breathing accelerate, but she ignored both. She didn't have time for untamed cowboys and feral hormones. “Why did you think she might be ready to lamb?”
His eyes were bright with nefarious thoughts to which she planned never to be privy. “I thought maybe she was bagging up.”
“Oh no.” Grabbing the end of the sleeve of her South Dakota State hoodie, she crammed her right fist into her overalls, then did the same with her left. “It's way too early for them to be lactating,” she said, and after shimmying into the abused garment, struggled with her zipper. It was stuck again. No big surprise there. Apparently, overalls weren't necessarily meant to be passed from generation to generation like a family heirloom. And truth be told, she wasn't entirely sure to whom this particular article had belonged in the first place. It may well have been her father's. Growing up, his somber standoffishness had made him seem larger than life, but posthumously she realized he hadn't been much taller than her own five feet ten inches.
“Unless some were bred earlier than we intended,” Colt suggested.
She gritted her teeth against such an unfavorable suggestion and pulled harder on the zipper.
“Here,” he said, stepping forward. “Let me do that.”
“I can dress myself,” she said and yanked again, but just then the tab came away in her fingers. She glared at it in frustration and he laughed.
“You're such a bully,” he said and pushed her hands away.
They were standing extremely close.
“I'm not a bully.”
“You have to finesse things a little,” he said, and gripping the garment near her crotch, seized the nub of the zipper in his right hand.
She stood absolutely still. Her face felt warm and her body fidgety. “I can get my own zipper.” Her words were little more than an irritable mumble.
“I know you can.” His voice was soft and deep as he tugged the tab effortlessly along her abdomen and over her chest. His index finger brushed her chin. His eyes were laughing as he lowered his voice. “Which makes me wonder if you secretly
want
my help.”
“I don't—” she began, but he was already raising his voice to address the girl in the living room.
“Hey, Em, do you need me to lock the chickens up or anything?”
“I didn't let them out today.” Her feet rapped quietly against the kitchen's old linoleum, coming closer. “Too cold.”
“All right.” He lowered his gleaming gaze to Casie's. She shifted hers away, feeling foolish. “We'll be back in a few.”
“No hurry,” Emily said and appeared in the doorway with Bliss hugged snug and content against her shoulder. She smiled, first at Colt, then at Casie, who refrained from rolling her eyes like a disgusted teenager. If the girl's matchmaking schemes were any more obvious, she'd lock them in the tack room together until their firstborn arrived. “The stew'll keep.”
BOOK: Finally Home
13.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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