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Authors: Janet Tronstad

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BOOK: Small-Town Brides
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“Perfect,” the other woman gushed. “I'll leave here knowing I've left Zoey in capable hands.”

“You can be sure of that,” Paisley assured her and marched toward the house.

She could hear a baffled Mrs. Reynolds asking Trace if he was okay. Paisley couldn't hear his reply as she mounted the steps and opened the screen, but she would…he could count on that.

The man had
frozen.

On one hand she was furious with him, but on the other she knew she'd seen real emotion in his eyes and knew he cared. There was more here than she'd realized when she took on this job, but you could bet the bank that she was going to get to the heart of the matter.

Chapter Five

T
race watched Mrs. Reynolds' car disappear out of sight. What was wrong with him! He'd just stood there. He was a real piece of work, standing there like an oaf.

But when he'd looked at her, holding her bunny…he'd seen
Steph.
It had been a slam in the gut, and all the air had gone out of him and he just hadn't been able to get it back. Zoey looked just like her mother had when she'd been that age. And not only had seeing the resemblance caused his trepidation to be all the more painfully present—it was as if he was looking at a fresh canvas. Perfect. Unflawed…like Steph had been when their life had fallen apart. He'd seen firsthand that when it came to his sister the portrait hadn't ended up pretty. He pushed the depressing thoughts away and trudged up the steps to ease open the door.

All his life he'd felt like he'd failed his big sister, and the fact that she'd kept Zoey from him said she thought he would fail her daughter, too. For months now the knowledge had been eating at him but it hadn't actually hit him until he saw Zoey. Steph may have known exactly
what she was doing when she'd not told anyone about him—had felt like she was protecting Zoey from a similar upbringing as she'd had? Or could it simply have been for spite?

The questions plagued him as he set Zoey's suitcase in the hall and headed slowly toward the kitchen and the sound of Paisley's voice.

The one thing he knew for certain at the moment, the thing he had absolutely no questions about was that he owed Norma Sue, Adela and Esther Mae hugs of gratitude the next time he saw them! They had made the right call when they'd talked him into asking Paisley for help. Without her, a few minutes ago he'd have been doomed.

Pausing at the door, he took a deep breath to steady his nerves. For goodness' sake, his insides were more torn up than they'd been after being tromped on three years ago by an angry bull. That bull had crushed ribs, torn ligaments and bruised his spleen—it had been so bad Trace decided his bull riding days were over…and now to think a tiny tot could rival all of that. But it was true.

He stood in the hall and listened to what was being said in the next room as he tried to get himself ready to start this new life. Ready or not it was here.

“I like to dip mine,” Paisley was saying.

There was no reply, but Paisley chuckled. The sound was pure and lovely and his heart lurched in his chest when it was answered by a very small giggle from Zoey. Trace grinned automatically at the sound. He thanked God again, sure that Paisley was not only going to save the day but save the entire situation. She gave him a sense of hope.

“Let's dip another one while we wait for your Uncle Trace. I
know
he's around here somewhere very close.”

She was onto him. He took a breath and squared his shoulders—and prayed for help. God had sent him Paisley. Now if He would just send Trace wisdom and a voice of his own.

“There he is,” Paisley said brightly, giving him a questioning glare as he rounded the corner—it brought him up short for a second. She might have saved the day, but he knew his reckoning was coming.

He crossed to the table and tried to smile, but his face felt stiff and his throat was about as dry as a dirt arena in August. But he would speak this time.

“Hi, Zoey,” he said past the log lodged in his throat. She looked up at him from her chair and he felt like he was a giant looking down into her wide eyes. Paisley was sitting, too. He did what he'd seen Paisley do outside and dropped to one knee in front of Zoey. His arms ached to hug her, he felt so unworthy and she stared at him.

“Trace, guess what,” Paisley said, cheerfully, drawing him to look at her.

“What?” he asked, seeing questions in her eyes.

“Zoey really likes hugs. She told me Friend does, too. How about you? Do you like hugs?”

He nodded, glancing at Zoey. In that instant, by the shy smile of a tiny little girl, he lost his heart irrevocably—which made his shortcomings all the more unbearable.

“I like hugs very much,” he managed, but his voice cracked. This was his niece. His sister's child. His flesh and blood. “Can I hug you?” he asked, and Zoey held out her arms. Friend was dangling from one hand. Feeling like he'd never felt before, Trace leaned in and gently hugged her close. She smelled like chocolate chip cookies and milk mixed with the sweet scent of baby shampoo. Her curls tickled his
nose as over her head he met Paisley's steadfast gaze. Her eyes were bright with unshed tears as he mouthed the words “thank you.”

He owed her a debt of gratitude that he could never repay, and this was only the beginning. As he let go of Zoey and took the seat beside her he wondered what he was going to owe Paisley by the end of the summer.

The old fears crowded at the back of his mind like a herd of cattle trying to get through a closed gate. But he held fast and concentrated on the moment.

“Would you like your Uncle Trace to show you your room?” Paisley asked.

Zoey nodded and gave him a heart-melting smile.

He stood and lifted her out of the chair and set her on her sandal-clad feet. He thought about carrying her but decided not to. When she slipped her tiny hand into his and looked up at him with all the trust in the world his throat clogged up again and he felt like he'd just been kicked in the gut.

“Do you like to play with dolls?” he forced himself to ask but felt his forehead dampen. She nodded but didn't speak as they left the kitchen.

Paisley followed them down the hall, but halfway along he moved to the side. “You go in first,” he told her. If the payoff for all her hard work was seeing the expression on Zoey's face when she walked into the room she'd created for Zoey, then he wanted Paisley to reap that reward. She certainly deserved it.

And he needed a second to get his bearings. He could do this. He was doing this. Paisley was here, helping, coaxing.

She smiled like she understood and swept past them. “Oh, thank you,” she said, dramatically. “I can't
wait
to play!”

“Me, too,” Zoey said with animation lighting her pixy face. She led the way into the room but stopped just inside the door and her eyes grew wider than pancakes. A gasp escaped her lips. He knew the feeling, he'd experienced it the night he'd come home and walked in after Paisley had worked all day decorating it. The curtains were pink and fluffy, the bedspread on the miniature bed was some kind of soft inviting fabric with sparkling threads running through it. The lamp Paisley had almost risked life and limb to buy was on the bedside, making little stars on the ceiling—how it did that in the daylight was a mystery to him, but they were there. And while all of this was wonderful, it was the corner of the room that held Zoey's attention. That was where the tent of shimmering material had been erected, and inside the large tented area were the dolls and all the things a doll could ask for.

Paisley's hand went to her heart as she saw the look of awe on Zoey's face.

Without hesitation Zoey walked inside the tent, laid her bunny in the tiny baby bed and fixed the covers around him. Then she sat down in front of the dolls, picking one up and then another.

Moving to stand beside Paisley, Trace couldn't stop himself from slipping his arm around her waist and squeezing—he needed the contact himself and hoped she wouldn't kick him. “I think she likes it,” he said softly.

She looked up at him with misty eyes that took his breath. Suddenly a spark of challenge vaporized the moisture and she grinned mischievously. “Thanks,” she said, slipping out of her sandals. “Now take your boots off, buster. It's time to play.”

“Play?” he said in surprise.

She grasped his hand and pulled him toward the tent and asked, “You do know how to play, right?”

“With dolls?”

She nodded. “You have to play with dolls if you're going to be a daddy to a little girl.”

Daddy.
His feet planted themselves on the hardwood. “I don't know about playing dolls!”

“But you will,” Paisley laughed. “Don't look so serious. This is going to be fun.”

He was sweating bullets and seriously in fear that he was going to pass out, and she was telling him this was
fun.
“Fun,” he croaked and swiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve.

Paisley's brows dipped and she slipped her arm in his. “Men!” she said and yanked him forward. “Relax, macho man, you might enjoy it.”

Chapter Six

“Y
ou hold,” Zoey said, pushing a doll into Trace's hands the second he sat down inside the tent.

He clumsily took the fat, rubber baby doll and the bottle Zoey thrust into his hands. When the child stood back and blinked big eyes at him, he looked so adorably lost—well…lost certainly. He was scared stiff.

Paisley had thought that giving him a few minutes to get his act together would help, and it had—for about a second. She felt as if she were running hurdles where he was concerned—she'd get over one hurdle and then another would be waiting.

“Put the bottle in its mouth,” she instructed him. “Now
rock
the baby.” Looking more like a father who'd just been handed his newborn infant than one handed a doll, he did as he was told.

Zoey watched as Trace put the bottle in the doll's mouth and gave her his best smile—that in itself was a plus. But Zoey didn't return the smile. Instead she gave him a crisp nod of satisfaction, turned to another doll and thrust that at Paisley, with a tiny baby blanket. Again she watched expectantly.

Paisley, hoping to reassure her, gently wrapped the doll in the blanket then cradled it close. “What a sweet baby you are,” she said, rocking gently.

Zoey's lips curled up slightly at the ends and then, satisfied that her babies were taken care of, she scanned the other things inside the canopy. Spotting the tiny red rocking chair, she daintily sat down and proceeded to watch them with serious eyes.

Trace looked at Paisley like a lost puppy. One minute she wanted to strangle the man and then she wanted to put her arms around him and tell him everything was going to be all right.

Boy, was that not happening! Not happening at all!

“Zoey is getting used to us, I think,” she said instead, focusing. The little girl's quietness worried her some, but she didn't say that just yet. She honestly didn't think Trace could handle anything but encouragement.

“Don't you want to rock a baby?” she asked, but Zoey shook her head emphatically.

“Then you rock and we'll take care of the babies. Right, Uncle Trace?”

Trace's forehead creased and his jaw tensed more—if that were possible. She nodded at him, willing him as she'd been doing from the first moment to add something encouraging to the conversation. He
had
to participate. He had to loosen up.

“Yeah,” he said finally. “We'll rock them.” He proceeded to rock the doll, causing Paisley to bite back a chuckle. The man needed guidance, and the doll was going to need traction.

She couldn't take it anymore. She needed to talk to Trace and poor Zoey had to be tired, so Paisley decided it
was time for a lullaby and began softly singing. Zoey didn't need much encouragement to fall asleep. Almost instantly she crawled from the chair and snuggled down beside the dolls on the soft blanket. Paisley gently smoothed her hair and patted her back.

The minute her eyes closed, Trace was out of the tent and out of the room.

He didn't even wait for Paisley to get up.

This man…the same man whose pictures in the drawer testified that he rode thousand-pound, rampaging bulls with the finesse and ease of a master! Could he truly be terrified of a little girl coming into his life, or was there more?

It was time for answers.

She found him on the front porch pacing like a high school basketball coach. He was rubbing the back of his neck, like she'd realized he did when he was stressing. The instant she closed the door he swung toward her.

“What was I thinking?” he growled and resumed pacing. “Did you
see
how she was looking at me? She's an innocent little girl—what do I know about raising a little girl? She's going to need special care. She's going to need guidance. She's gonna need things I can't give her! What an idiot—”

“Stop!” Paisley snapped and stepped in front of him. “What is your
problem?
” she asked. “It is terribly obvious something more serious than new-daddy jitters is going on here. Don't you think it's time to clue me in?”

He swallowed hard but instead of opening up he turned deep eggplant and stalked off the porch toward the barn.

“Wait, Trace!” she called, jogging after him. When he kept plowing forward she grabbed his arm, intending to swing him around to face her, but he was so intent that she just ended up being pulled along beside him. “Something
is up with you,” she said, stumbling to hang on to him, determined to get him to talk. “I don't know what it is, but I do believe I deserve an answer. You hired me to help. How can I help if I don't know the score? It's time to come clean to me about why you have been in such a panic since the day you found out you were getting this sweet little girl.”

He stopped at the corral and stared at the mare and newborn colt inside. Tension radiated from every rigid line of his body. Paisley's heart was jumping against her ribs, and without another thought she let go of his arm and placed a hand between his shoulder blades and rubbed soothingly. His muscles bunched beneath her palm and he sucked in a deep breath.

“Talk to me,” she urged.

It was unseasonably hot for the last week of May and the afternoon sun beat down on them. It did nothing to compare to the heat in Trace's eyes when he suddenly swung around to look at her. Raging hot anger glared back at her.

“I
can't
do this,” he gritted out. “What was I thinking?”

Paisley took a step back as if he'd slapped her. The gutless whiner! She'd been feeling sorry for the guy, but this—this wasn't happening. “I don't know what your problem is, buddy, but this pity party you have going on has to stop.”

“Pity party?”
Disbelief rang in his voice. “Is that what you think this is? Believe me, it's not for me but for her. For having to live with me, a man who has no way of giving her the guidance she is going to need to become a good woman. Stephanie was right not to let me know about her daughter. Zoey would have been better off in foster care—”

The last words were barely audible and they tore at Paisley with the earnest honesty of them. He truly believed
he was going to fail Zoey—what was up with that? “I hadn't expected this out of you,” she snapped. “Why do you insist on defeat when you've only just begun?” She wanted to grab him by the collar and shake him, but instead she put her fists on her hips and stared at him.

“Please don't shout. You'll wake Zoey up and I'm not ready,” he said in all seriousness.

“Start talking or I will shout,” she warned, though she really wouldn't have. Zoey didn't need to see him like this, either.

He rubbed his neck and then leaned back, one booted foot propped against the steel pipe rail of the corral. He took another deep breath, as if marshalling his thoughts.

He made a stunning portrait, like the cover of a book or a country western music CD. He was beautiful—in a completely manly way. But the man had to have more inside him than just this appealling outer shell…he had to.

“Look, despite the fact that I don't like you much, somewhere along the way I've started rooting for you. For Zoey's sake,” she amended, so he wouldn't get the wrong idea. “C'mon Trace. Give me something so I can help you.”

His shoulders slumped and he looked like talking was the last thing he wanted to do. “My dad was a rodeo bum.”

The words were flat. Apologetic. As if it was his fault his dad was any kind of bum.

“He left when I was about Zoey's age and my sister was not quite five. Very soon after, my mom drank herself into an early grave and left us to be raised by my mother's widowed father.”

“I'm sorry,” Paisley said. “That must have been hard.”

“Yeah, you could say that. My granddad was a bitter man who didn't have a clue how to raise kids…especially
girls. Poor Steph didn't stand a chance. And I didn't help her much. I'm the last person Zoey needs.”

This revelation gave her a glimpse into his heart, exposing how deep-seated his fear was, and she felt true compassion for him. “I hate that that happened to you, but that doesn't explain why you are acting the way you've been acting. You walked in Zoey's shoes. You know exactly how she feels, but more importantly what she
will
feel as she grows up. Don't you see that you're exactly the right person to help her?”

“Not really. I was two years younger than my sister, and I watched as she rebelled against everything my grandfather did. Why shouldn't she?” he asked, sweeping his hat from his head and setting it on his thigh. “The poor girl was made fun of for years because of her clothes or her hair—what did Granddad know about fixing a little girl's hair up nice? Nothing. He didn't know anything about anything else either. Girls need guidance, understanding…Steph had none of that. In the end she turned to drugs and alcohol and we lost her.”

So he'd been about two years younger than his sister and he'd felt helpless. “You were the younger child. You couldn't make choices for her.”

“But I can for Zoey. I can't let history repeat itself with her.”

He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the top rail of the high corral. Paisley studied the sandy lashes against his tanned skin. His lips were clamped firmly together in resolute worry, and she could hardly stand it—she suddenly wanted to see those lips smile that goosepimple-producing smile of his…crazy inappropriate ideas!

“Trace Crawford,” she snapped, a bit harder than in
tended, fueled by her anger at herself as much as him. “God doesn't make mistakes. He put that little girl into your care.” She flung her arm behind her, pointing toward the house where Zoey slept. “I don't know why you had the childhood that you had. I don't know why your sister had to suffer or choose the path that she chose, nor do I know why your parents chose the path that they took. But what I do know is that when given notice that you had a niece, you didn't hesitate—even with the fear inside of you, you chose to step up to the plate. I really am only now beginning to get to know you, but so far…” she hesitated as the truth hit her. “So far, I admire you for what you've done. Now all you have to do is grab the proverbial bull by the horns and get on with it. Do you get my drift?”

He'd opened grave eyes and was studying her but said nothing as if she hadn't gotten through his thick head.

Paisley scowled. “Don't you get it? That little girl is yours. Period. It's a done deal. There's no going back. She can't help her background and you can't help yours. But you are all each other has, so get used to it.”

He continued to stare at her, and finally the corner of his lip lifted ever so slightly and the smoke in his eyes shifted like sun peeking through gray clouds. “You are one tough cookie, Paisley Norton,” he said, finally. “Do you know that?”

“I work hard at it,” she snapped. He had no idea just how determined she could be.

He laughed unexpectedly. It was a laugh full of tension and release all tangled together. Conflict and hope that there was hope. “So,” he said after the chuckle died a quick death and he turned serious again, “you think I can do this?” The question was quiet.

“With God's help.”

“And yours?”

The way he said the question, the way he looked at her as he asked, caused a warm tightening in her chest. Her heart slowed…then surged unusually. “For a while,” she said, bewildered by the feeling. She swallowed and continued, “But I'll be leaving at the end of the summer and God will still be with you. He's much more important than I am to the success of Zoey's life.”

He straightened to his full height and put his hat back on. She watched, feeling oddly off-kilter, while he seemed calmer, his strain slackened.

“I think you're shooting your role in this way too short, Paisley. If you hadn't been here, I'd have already turned tail and run clean to Mexico.”

Paisley couldn't tear her eyes away from his. “You wouldn't ever turn tail and run from anything. Especially a little girl who adored you the instant she saw you.”

“Do you really believe that?”

She nodded. “Yeah, actually I do.”

“I'm going to need you,” he said quietly holding her gaze.

Her heart was pounding. “I'm right here,” she said. And she was. For her, just like for him, there was no turning back. God had put her here for Zoey…and maybe to change this knucklehead's outlook in the process.

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