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Authors: Janet Tronstad

Small-Town Brides (16 page)

BOOK: Small-Town Brides
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She didn't waste time leaving, tossing gravel as she wheeled the old clunker she drove out of the driveway. He snatched off his hat and slapped it against his knee. “That wasn't what I meant at all,” he said out loud, mystified as he watched her taillights disappear into the night.

Chapter Nine

“I
need to check fence lines in the back section of the land. I want you and Zoey to ride along with me. It's a real pretty ride and it'd give me a little more time with Zoey,” Trace said the next day.

Paisley had arrived at work that morning fully expecting to answer for her behavior of the night before. But Trace had been in a rush to leave and had barely stopped long enough to tell her that Zoey had a good night's sleep.

She'd had mixed feelings about his unexpected departure. It had been a relief of sorts not to have to face questions. But she'd expected questions when he came home that evening. Instead here he was telling her they were taking Zoey on a field trip.

“It sounds like a great idea,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to keep the edge out of her voice.

“Great!” he exclaimed, swooping Zoey into his strong arms and heading toward the truck.

His behavior baffled her. She wanted to tell him that she was angry at him for causing almost everyone at the diner to speculate that something was happening between them.

She knew she'd entered dangerous territory where he was concerned, and no matter how many times she told herself there could never be anything between them, she was having a hard time keeping her heart from falling for the man. She certainly didn't need outside speculation, and this little excursion wasn't going to help her situation either.

She climbed into the truck while he buckled Zoey into the car seat. He was telling her all about the adventure they were about to have. Listening to him, Paisley almost smiled—it was maddening the way he got to her. She reached for her seatbelt and resolved not to weaken.

“I'd have opened the door if you'd waited a minute,” he said, hopping in beside her and cranking the engine.

“I can open my own door.”

“I never said you couldn't. You are formidable.” He gave her a teasing grin.

“Oh, that's just what every woman likes to hear.”

“Hey, I meant it as a compliment. You are capable of doing everything,” he said. “But what I meant was that, for as young as you are you know a lot about kids. How did that happen?”

She glanced at him sidelong. “You do ask the strangest questions.” The man baffled her completely.

He shrugged. “I'm a strange guy, I guess. But really, how do you know so much?”

“I babysat a lot growing up.” She almost added that most people knew as much about kids as she did, but that would only have made him feel worse about how little he thought he knew.

“I bet you were a natural from the beginning,” he said, turning the truck onto a dirt road. Glancing at her he pushed
the button, letting the windows roll down. Zoey squealed with delight as the fresh air rushed inside, blowing her curls across her little forehead.

Paisley reached back and jiggled the tyke's foot, making her giggle. “I've always enjoyed children.”

“So that's why you chose to become a teacher?”

Okay, so it was get-to-know-Paisley day. Not good. “Yes. Plus it was a career that would give me flexibility around my future children's schedules. A family of my own is all-important to me. And to Rene also.” She might as well lay it all on the table if that was what he wanted. “Rene and I had it planned out that we would have houses beside each other one day and we would raise our kids close, like we were. We even have a beautiful veil to share, passed down from our grandmother.” Paisley's throat tightened. “We've just always been close like that.”

Out of the corner of her eye she saw his forehead crease below his hat and his lips flattened into a hard line. She wondered what he was thinking.

“And I came along and messed that up for you.” He pulled the truck to a stop beside a low-slung barn.

Regret clearly filled his voice and she found no joy in having brought the subject up again. “But, Rene is extremely happy now,” she offered and thought about sharing that they'd discussed her moving to Dry Creek—but that was too personal. She didn't want to talk about that right now, and not with him.

“So what's next?” she asked instead, glancing at the barn.

He climbed out and went after Zoey. “Now we have some fun.”

Fun wasn't what she needed to have with Trace, she thought, as she followed him into the barn a few moments
later. A tractor and a four-wheeler sat in the center of the metal building. Trace walked over to the utility vehicle and threw a leg over like he was climbing into the saddle of his horse. “Hop on,” he said, settling Zoey in front of him.

“We're all going on that?”

He grinned over his shoulder and his eyes twinkled mischievously. “Yup.”

This was not good. “But, is it safe?”

“Oh, see how much I need you. I almost forgot. Hold onto the kiddo for me,” he said as he slid off the seat.

Baffled, she watched him jog to the back of the truck and pulled out two helmets, one of them a small pink one. He'd thought of everything! The helmets also meant this had been a very premeditated excursion. One didn't just pick up a pink safety helmet in Mule Hollow.

“Don't look so shocked. I didn't want to take any chances,” he said as he jogged back to them. “One for Zoey and one for you if you want it.”

She was dumbfounded. “And you think you're not good father material.”

He looked pleased. “I have a good teacher.”

Suddenly a feeling of wild anticipation came over her. She took the tiny helmet from him and smiled as Zoey blinked up at her while she set it on her head. “You have to wear this. We want to take good care of you, young lady,” she explained, quickly tightening the strap.

“But you'll have fun, I promise,” Trace said. “Do you want to have fun?” he asked from over Paisley's shoulder, her stomach dipping at his nearness. Zoey nodded, grabbed the handle bars and started making motor noises.

“Sounds like the kid is ready,” Trace said, and giving her
a grin he swung a leg over the seat and settled in for the ride. “Hop on and let's get this party started.”

“Party started!” Zoey mimicked. Trace gave her his goosepimple smile and his gaze challenged her.

She eyed the small space behind him and noted that she would have to not only sit close to him but hold on to him. A mixture of exhilaration and exclamation came over her. What was she to do? Taking a deep breath she did the only thing she wanted to do—she climbed on behind Trace and wrapped her arms around his lean waist.

Just for now, she wouldn't think about all the reasons why she shouldn't.

Within seconds they were moving across the pasture at an easy speed. Zoey was laughing into the breeze and Paisley felt like laughing herself.

“How are you doing back there?” Trace asked, glancing over his shoulder.

“Great,” she said. “This is fun!”

He winked. “I like it myself,” he said, watching the path in front of them again before adding. “You just keep those arms wrapped around me nice and tight and don't let go.”

Paisley did as she was told, giving into the moment without protest.

“Bunny!” Zoey squealed, and just as quickly Trace cut the wheels to the right and took chase after the gray rabbit bounding across the field. Zoey laughed and Paisley held on a little tighter as Trace zigged and zagged the vehicle over the rough terrain. She found it disturbingly easy to forget everything but the moment.

“You must do this often,” she said. He was driving them down an incline and her chin kept bumping him in the shoulder.

“I do but I usually don't detour like we're doing now.”

The rabbit had disappeared into some underbrush, but he kept on going along a dry creek bed. When he came to a fork he brought the ride to a stop.

“I bet I know a little girl who would enjoy putting her feet into the trickle of water over there,” he said.

Zoey agreed, so Paisley dismounted and watched Trace do the same. She could almost let herself imagine this was them having a good time as a family. Her arms itched to wrap around him again, her heart wished for the right to do so—what am I thinking? Getting her heart to cooperate seemed impossible as she followed Trace and Zoey toward the stream.

“Off with the shoes,” Trace said, setting Zoey on a flat white rock. Zoey squealed, plopped down on her belly and reached to touch the water. Trace's laugh wrapped around Paisley, seeping into her soul as if it belonged.

No!

Her fingers were shaking as she slipped out of her loafers. She closed her eyes and prayed for the Lord to help her. To please keep her from wanting something she couldn't have.

Trace didn't make the task easy as he removed his boots and socks, rolled up his jeans and then, taking Zoey's hand, led her squealing and splashing into the ankle-deep water.

Instead of following them, Paisley sank onto the rock and dangled her feet in the water.

“Come walk with us,” Trace called, holding his hand out.

He looked so appealing that her toes curled beneath the stream's surface. She shook her head. “I'll watch. This time is for you and Zoey,” she said. But it was more of a reminder to
herself
that this was all about Trace and Zoey.
This was not about her. She loved Rene too much—how many times was she going to have to repeat that to herself.

Trace, with his rolled-up jeans and Zoey barely reaching his knees, made a beautiful picture standing in the stream. Paisley's heart felt as if it would die from oxygen deprivation as she held her breath and refused to let it have its way. Trace's bright, expectant expression shadowed and she knew he could see she was struggling. She just couldn't let him know what she was struggling with.

“Play wif me,” Zoey said, tugging at his hand, looking up at him.

Bless her. “Play with her,” Paisley repeated. Trace's jaw muscle tightened as his bottomless eyes dug deep into hers.

“Okay,” he said. “But later, you and I are taking some time to talk.”

So
now
the man wanted to talk!

“Fish!” Zoey exclaimed…and Paisley was momentarily saved as Trace was jerked into a hot pursuit of a passing perch.

The fish got away but it at least put Trace's focus back on Zoey. He seemed content to let Paisley remain on her rock, watching as hand in hand they waded up and down the stream in search of treasures. Paisley watched, feeling depressed.

Each time Zoey spotted a uniquely shaped rock, she squealed and brought it proudly to Paisley. One rock was shaped almost like a heart, and Paisley couldn't help slipping the small stone into her pocket as a keepsake of the wonderful afternoon.

On the way back to the barn, Trace drove with one hand and held a sleepy Zoey tucked against him. Paisley held on to him. She didn't have to, they were going so slow, but she did anyway. They traveled in silence. Paisley's head
was too crowded with battling emotions to speak, and Trace seemed preoccupied also.

When he finally drove back into the barn, she hopped off the back of the four-wheeler knowing she needed distance. Distance would help her think straight.

It had been one month since he'd shown up at her house asking her to help him. One month!

No way could she feel anything for him other than infatuation—and respect, for the way he was handling his life. No way.

That was what her rational mind kept repeating. But she'd stopped thinking rationally when it came to Trace and she knew it.

She loved him.

As clear as the big, beautiful Texas sky they'd ridden beneath all afternoon, she knew it.

And she wanted to cry. Paisley had always thought that when she fell in love it would be a wonderful, peacefully exquisite feeling. That all in the world would seem right.

As she hurried to the truck, climbing inside she felt no peace. Her foot thumped against the floorboard as she watched Trace follow her out of the barn with a sleeping Zoey draped over his chest. Her little face was snuggled up against his neck, one tiny arm draped over his shoulder.

Paisley put her hand to her knee, silencing the thumping of her foot, but she couldn't silence the pounding of her heart. Nor could she help herself.

She'd fallen in love with the man who'd broken her cousin's heart.

Chapter Ten

P
aisley slipped out of the house while Trace was laying Zoey down in her bed. She hadn't wanted another confrontation like the one they'd had the night before, but she also knew she couldn't talk to him.

She was heartsick. She'd cried all the way home. How had she let this happen?

She paced her kitchen floor, which reminded her of Trace, and she'd found herself wondering if he were home pacing too.

When she finally went to bed she didn't think she would sleep, but somehow she had in the early morning hours. When her alarm awakened her less than two hours later she dragged herself out of bed with determined force.

She had a job to do. And she would do it.

Today she would get her relationship with Trace back on track.

“Mornin',” Trace said, when she walked into the kitchen.

Paisley swallowed hard and tried to calm her nerves.
Trace was leaning against the counter with his arms crossed. His gray eyes, so dark they seemed almost black, were full of questions as he watched her set her purse on table.

The air crackled with strain.

“Did Zoey have a good night?” she asked.

“Slept like a rock. Look, Paisley—” he started but stopped, frustration played across his features. “What are we doing?”

Paisley's nerve wavered. “Getting you permanent custody of Zoey,” she said, struggling to put them back on track.

“And the other?”

“There is no other, Trace,” she said, keeping her voice level, impersonal. Feeling a stab of guilt at the surprise her words brought into his eyes.

“I see.” He pushed away from the counter and headed toward the door. She could tell he was angry. “I have a long day ahead of me,” he said, taking his hat from its peg and meeting her gaze.

She could see the rise and fall of his chest. It matched the tempo of her heartbeat. “I'll hold supper for you,” she managed to say and tried to hold her course.

An awkward silence hung between them…but the questions were there, unspoken.

He spun on his heel and settled his hat on his head, but instead of walking out the door he just stood there. Paisley saw the tension of his shoulders bunch beneath his shirt, saw the strain in his rigid stance. She willed him to leave, knowing that him walking out that door was the safest thing. But his hand stilled on the screen.

Paisley's breath caught in her throat as suddenly he swung around and stormed toward her.

One moment she wanted to run and the next she was in his arms. Shamefully, she closed her eyes as he lowered
his lips to hers. His hands came up and intertwined in her hair, and she wrapped her arms around his neck as if she couldn't get close enough to him. His muscles bunched beneath her fingertips and the feel of his lips sent her world spinning out of control. Tenderness and emotion mixed and there seemed to be no air left in the room. Paisley's heart felt as if it would fly…and break at the same time.

This could not happen and she knew it. Pushing slightly against his shoulders she pulled away from him.

Looking as dazed as she felt, he released her. His hat had fallen to the floor and he reached to pick it up. Paisley saw his hand tremble as he grasped it.

“I hope I didn't just make the mistake of my life,” he said, before she could speak. “We have to talk when I get home. And I mean it, Paisley.” He touched her cheek and walked out the door.

She jumped when the screen door slapped closed. Shaken, she stood in the center of the kitchen until the sound of his truck disappeared in the distance. A plan. The thought came to her as her heart settled down. She'd walked in the door with a plan and this…this made it more important than ever to get herself back on track.

Grabbing up the cup of coffee, she took a long drink of the hot liquid and hoped it burned some sense back into her.

Trace Crawford had kissed her.

And she'd kissed him back.

But that didn't change anything. Didn't change her plan.

A plan she put into action an hour later as she drove her car into town. Pete, the owner of the feedstore, was standing out front of his daffodil-yellow store in deep conversation with Applegate and Stanley. The two resident
checker players must have run out of sunflower seeds and come for a refill—which was perfect for Paisley.

“Hey, guys,” she called as she hopped from the car and reached in the back seat for Zoey. “Pete, I've come to buy you out of all your plants!”

“What ya need all his plants fer?” Applegate asked, his wrinkled face scrunching in question.

“Zoey, tell Mr. Thornton why we want a flower garden.”

Zoey bobbed her curly head as her eyes widened. “Flowu'rs are boo'tiful.”

Stanley grinned, his plump cheeks lifting. “Yup.” He tweaked Zoey's toe. “But they ain't no whar' near as purdy as you, young lady.”

That won him a big smile from Zoey.

Not to be beat out of a smile, Pete snapped a rose from the potted bush sitting on the sidewalk beside him and handed it to Zoey. “Here ya go, darlin',” he said, grinning when she awarded him with a dazzler of a smile. “Don't that smell good?” he asked.

“'mell
goood!
” Zoey cooed and buried her nose in the pink bloom.

Everyone chuckled and Paisley realized Zoey was going to have this entire town wrapped around her little finger before long. “I want to create a place for Zoey to explore and be able to watch butterflies and hummingbirds play.”

“Sounds like a good idea,” Applegate said, fiddling with his hearing aid and adjusting his voice at the same time. “You ain't got much room in that car, though.”

“I know y'all are probably wanting to get over to Sam's to play checkers, but do you think you could help me carry the flowers and other supplies home first?”

“Shor we can,” Stanley said. “I thank a flower garden is jest what the doc ordered.”

App nodded agreement, studying Paisley with disturbingly astute eyes. “It's romantic, too.”

“Hey, I got a wooden bench out back,” Pete said. “And I even got a birdbath back yonder. You want that, too?”

Paisley didn't need the romance part. She was having enough trouble as it was, but the bench and birdbath would be great for Zoey and Trace. “I'll take them.”

“I'll back my truck up and we'll load'er up,” App said. “Heck, we kin even do some diggin' fer ya.”

Paisley's heart lightened. “Thank you,” she said. “Now, let's see what you've got, Pete.”

 

Trace had spent all day thinking about coming home. He hadn't meant to kiss Paisley that morning, but after spending most of the night thinking about her and the future they could have together it had just happened.

If he hadn't just run her off.

Finding Paisley in the front yard with a shovel in her hands standing in the middle of a newly shaped flower bed that stretched across the front of his porch was not what he'd expected to find at all.

Leave it to Paisley to decide to make a change and to make it in a big way. He really loved that about her.

“What's this?” he asked, swinging a dirt-covered Zoey into his arms when she raced to meet him.

Paisley was standing to the side. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail and she had a streak of dirt on one cheek, and her knees were dusty from kneeling.

“You've been one busy bee,” he said, resisting the urge
to touch her as Zoey squirmed out of his grasp and ran to the marigolds.

“I thought you and Zoey would enjoy picking flowers and watching butterflies and hummingbirds.”

“It's a great idea,” he said, unable to stop himself as he lifted his hand and gently dusted her cheek with the pad of his thumb, loving the feel of her soft skin against his. “You know what I'm going to say. Thank you,” he said softly, wanting to kiss her again, but knowing he'd been pushing it this morning and that he had to take this slow. The fact that she'd gone still when he'd touched her cheek made him even more cautious. Her eyes were troubled and had his heart beating with trepidation. What was she thinking? Had he messed up any chance he might have had with her?

She batted a strand of hair out of her face with the back of her garden glove. “No thanks necessary. I'm just doing my job. I've had a blast digging in the dirt all day with Zoey. You're going to have fun, too.”

He took a step toward her. He could hear Applegate telling him he was being plum stupid again. But this was ridiculous.

“Whoa, cowboy,” she said, “Stop right there. And don't even think about a repeat of this morning.”

He looped his thumbs in his back pockets so he wouldn't reach for her. “You know I think you're wonderful, don't you?” He had to change things between them. Had to make her stop pushing him away.

“Stop.”

“Paisley, I'm sorry about kissing you out of the blue. I know I shouldn't have.”

She licked her lips nervously. “Look,” she said, flattening her hand against her stomach. “I misjudged you, Trace. I think you are wonderful…but, this wouldn't work.”

He brought his hands to her shoulders. “It can work.”
If two people love each other.
His head was spinning as he watched her eyes tell him what his heart was telling him—his past foolhardy move had once again come back to haunt him. He knew before she confirmed it.

“No. It can't work. Family means everything to me, Trace.
Everything.
Don't you get it? Rene is my family.”

Dear Lord, he prayed fervently. Please don't let one mistake cost me Paisley's love. “I will do whatever it takes to fix the problem if Rene has one with me. I'll get down on my knees if I have to. Paisley, I love you.”

She gasped and her eyes misted. For an instant he thought he'd changed her mind then, but she looked sad and lifted her hand and touched his cheek tenderly. “I've decided that I'm moving to Dry Creek at the end of the next school year,” she said, and then she moved away from him.

“What? Move?” he said. “Where is this idea coming from?”

She wrapped her arms around her waist, clearly on the defensive. “I miss Rene. She's the closest family I have left and I need to be close to her. I want my children to grow up with her children.”

Trace's temper flared. He'd never thought he was going to have to compete with a childhood dream. “So that's it,” he said, keeping his voice low and turning his back to where Zoey couldn't hear from where she played with her dolls at the far edge of the porch. “So all of this—Zoey, me—all we are really is just a job to you.”

“Of course not. You know I care—”

“You bet I know it,” he snapped, throwing away all caution. “I've seen it in the way you look at Zoey. In the small things you do that don't come in the job description.
You love Zoey. You—” He hung his head then zeroed in on her, and put it all on the table. “You look at me that same way when you let your guard down.” She inhaled sharply. “You love me, Paisley. You have family here. Zoey and I are your family. I love you, Paisley Norton. You can't just throw that away all because I made a mistake.”

She swung away from him and stalked across the yard. He stalked right behind her. “Rene is happy,” he said. “From everything I've heard in town, Rene has married the man of her dreams, so I don't get why you think she has a problem with me. Surely she can look past my worry for Zoey and see that I made a foolish mistake, but that there was no intention on my part to hurt her the way I did.”

Paisley kept her back to him and remained silent.

“Paisley. You can't hold this against me. You have been more than honest with your feelings about all of this up until now, and I've respected you for it. So I don't get this. I don't get it at all.”

She spun and glared at him. “You want the truth. Then here it is. I think you want a family for Zoey so much that you
think
you are in love with me. I think you would think you were in love with any woman you'd hired for this position.”

“What?”

“Don't look at me like I'm crazy. You know it's true. This has all happened too fast. First Rene, then me. You don't think you have what it takes to raise Zoey, so you want a wife. But Trace, you are a wonderful daddy to Zoey and you don't need some woman telling you what to do. You don't have to just marry someone so Zoey can have a mother. It has to be about
you
in that moment.”

“That is
so
wrong,” he said, still dazed that she actually believed what she was saying. “That isn't what this is about.”

“You forget that I've seen terror in your eyes where that baby is concerned.”

“I love you,” he repeated. He raked his hand through his hair. “This is ridiculous. You can't mean this.”

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