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Excerpt for Branded by Firelight by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Branded by Firelight

A Sweetheart Brand Romance

Paula Altenburg

 

 

Branded by Firelight

Copyright © 2018 Paula Altenburg

Smashwords Edition

The Tule Publishing Group, LLC

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN: 978-1-948642-08-7

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Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Epilogue

The Sweetheart Brand Series

Excerpt from Her Sweetheart Brand

About the Author

Chapter One

Claire Brand sat in her car in the parking lot of the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch, swilling beer from a bottle and staring at the stars. The panoramic view might be astounding, but October nights in Sweetheart, Montana were cold and her peach-colored, slim-fitting, one-sleeved satin bridesmaid dress hadn’t been crafted with that in mind.

She scrolled idly through the photos on her phone with her thumb, glancing at them only occasionally, and willed herself not to cry. It was her daughter’s first birthday, and while the couple who’d adopted her meant well, the pictures of the adorable, curly-haired tot in the pink dress and ribbons pushed Claire’s composure straight to the edge.

She didn’t think she could stand one more minute of all the happiness oozing from her baby sister’s wedding reception when her own heart was broken. She’d tried to convince Alayna that this wasn’t a good day for a wedding—yes, it was selfish—but short of telling her family and friends the whole sordid story, there wasn’t much else she could have done about it. Her new brother-in-law Patterson had refused to get married before Alayna’s twenty-fifth birthday, and Alayna had refused to wait a single day longer than she had to.

They were such a cute pair.

Claire took another long swig of beer and considered digging her coat out of the trunk before she went hypothermic, but she was too tired to care. It took all of her energy to bolster the floodgates. The only tears she’d shed at her sister’s wedding would be ones of joy, and those weren’t looking hopeful.

The passenger door opened and Patterson’s best man slid into her car, the six-plus feet of him sucking up any extra room in the compact space.

He slammed the door behind him, then looked at the bottle in her hand. One eyebrow arced up. “If I’d known this was BYOB, I’d have brought my drink with me.”

Ben Nichols hadn’t changed much since high school. She’d been a year behind him. He’d thought he was God’s gift to women back then, and he still did today. He’d dated at least three of her friends, but thankfully, she hadn’t been his type—meaning easy. She’d been too studious, intent on getting out of Sweetheart and making something of her life.

Instead, she’d screwed it up. Completely pooched it.

She reached behind the bucket seat and tossed Ben a bottle from the box she’d stowed there for the occasion. She wasn’t driving. Alayna had arranged for her to sleep in the Bar-No’s bunkhouse with the other bridesmaids. But she’d wanted to drink alone, and her car was the only private spot she could find.

Ben stared at the bottle in his hand. The stunned expression on his face was priceless.

“What?” Claire demanded, without any real heat. She was too dead inside to get worked up about his opinion of her. “Do I give the impression I’m too good to drink beer?”

“Kind of.” He cracked the cap and tipped the neck of the bottle her way. “But I’m not here to judge. I was told to find you so that the happy couple can have their first dance. You and I are supposed to join them on the dance floor. Remember?”

The cowboy looked as hot as she’d expected in a tuxedo. Really hot. The broadness of his shoulders stretched the fabric of his fitted jacket. When the jacket came off—she was surprised he still had it on now that the ceremony was over—the fine white linen shirt underneath wouldn’t conceal the layers of muscle he liked to show off. Brown hair, and the warm tone of his skin, hinted at hours spent outdoors, as well as a trace of the Salish and Kootenai tribes she suspected lived in his family tree. His light blue eyes were the startling contradiction.

The past few weeks leading up to the wedding had been rough, and watching him flirt with any woman over fifteen, including a great-aunt of the groom who had to be at least eighty, had provided endless hours of distraction. She wasn’t even depressed by the fact the only woman he hadn’t flirted with was her. She was immune to tall, dark, and anything handsome, anyway.

“I remember,” she said.

Which was another lie. Wrapped up in her own misery, and anxious to escape so she could check her phone messages, she’d completely forgotten about that first dance. “Just let me finish my beer.” She needed one more minute. That was all.

She leaned across him to open the dash and toss her phone, and the photos, inside.

“No big hurry,” Ben said. “They’ll wait for us.”

They drank their beer in silence. For a manho, he at least seemed to know when to mind his own business.

He polished off his beer and then ruined her warming opinion of him. “I’m going to go out on a limb and take a guess that you aren’t enjoying yourself,” he said. “Is it being back in Sweetheart? Is it the wedding? Or is it me?”

Claire cast him a side-eye as she drained her drink. “It’s you.” She took his bottle from him, stashed the two empties in the box behind the seat, then breathed deeply a few times. “Okay. Let’s get this over with. Try not to step on my dress.”

Ben didn’t move. “First, you might want to get rid of whatever bug’s crawling around in your panties,” he advised her, unsmiling. “This is Alayna’s night. She’s happy. Don’t spoil it for her.”

Claire paused with her hand on the door handle, genuinely astounded. “Why on earth would you think I’d do anything to spoil my sister’s wedding?”

“Because she’s been worried about you ever since you came home. She seemed anxious when she asked me to come looking for you.” He eyeballed her with disapproval. “It’s understandable if you’re jealous. I mean, Patterson’s a great guy and he’s my best friend, but the happy vibes they give off are kind of nauseating.”

She got out of the car. Ben exited too. The cold air bit through her thin dress and licked her bare skin. She’d needed a few minutes alone. Was that too much to ask?

“Whatever happened to ‘I’m not here to judge’? For the record—I’m not jealous and I don’t hate Sweetheart. It’s nice to be home and with family. I love Alayna and I’m happy for her and Patterson, who seems to have turned out decent enough.” She wasn’t normally this big a bitch, and he had a valid point about the bug in her panties, so she tried to rein it in. “And you aren’t so bad, although that might be the beer talking. I have PMS. It makes me moody.”

“If PMS makes you this moody, I’d hate to see you pregnant,” Ben muttered under his breath.

His words came at her from out of left field and hit her so hard the pain had her gasping out loud. Her hand flew to her belly—her flat, non-gravid belly—bringing it home once again that a whole year had gone by.

He took a few forward steps as if about to come around the front of the car to her aid, then seemed to think better of it. “What’s wrong?”

“Cramps,” she bit out, waving him off. “Women get them this time of the month.”

“No worries, then,” he said easily, not at all unsettled by a feminine complaint. “I can dance the first dance with Hannah or Mary Beth. I’ll tell Alayna you’re drunk and passed out in one of the barns.”

“Thanks. You’re a real prince.”

But she appreciated his attempt at humor. She straightened, pulling herself back together. She was shivering in earnest now, which helped clear up the alcohol buzz—something she didn’t want—and she wrapped her arms around herself to try and warm up. God, Montana was cold. When she’d left Redmond, Washington a week ago, they’d been having a heat wave.

The ranch’s well-lit, paved parking lot faced the smooth, black-mirrored waters of Flathead Lake. Behind her, the mountains of the Mission Range cut a backdrop against the velvety, star-studded sky. Music and laughter drifted from one of the barns. The wedding reception was in full swing. She sucked in a few lungsful of crisp mountain air. Montana might be cold, but Sweetheart was beautiful enough that she didn’t mind. She was home. She never wanted to leave here again and it was going to be hard when she did.

“I think I can make it through one dance,” she said. She would never, not in a million years, ruin her baby sister’s big day. “I’ll see what I can do to dial the PMS bitchiness back a few notches, too.”

“Much appreciated. For what it’s worth, weddings don’t bring out the best in me either.” Ben shucked out of his tuxedo jacket and draped it around her shoulders. It was warm and held the faint scent of his cologne. “Now let’s see how fast you can hustle in those fancy shoes. I didn’t spend a month taking dance lessons to see them go to waste.”

Ben was no stranger to women and their periods, and while PMS might well be part of Claire’s problem, it was by no means the whole of it.

Whatever was wrong, however, they didn’t know each other well enough for him to get nosy. He’d been friends with her brother Damon for years, but that friendship was casual, so he only had a vague recollection of her from when they were growing up. Claire had been a geek, but not the shy kind. He conjured up an image of a girl in long braids and low rise jeans who was always in charge of the special events at school.

He’d never met two sisters who, personality-wise, were less alike. Alayna, the youngest in the Brand family, was tall and strikingly beautiful, but she had an unassuming sweetness and warmth about her that drew a man in. Claire wasn’t as tall as Alayna, and while only a shade less striking—although granted, that might be personal preference talking—the vibe she gave off was definitely look but don’t touch.

Whatever her problem was, Claire knew her own worth—and tonight, she looked like a million bucks. Her shoulder-length, brownish-blond hair had been pinned up in a pile of loose, cascading curls that Ben particularly liked. Tiny white flowers had been woven throughout. The slim-fitting cut of her dress showed off a great pair of legs when she moved, and the color—a pale cross between orange and pink—brought out the cornflower blue of her eyes.

Claire was too thin, though. And a few times over the past week he’d caught a haunted expression in her eyes when she thought no one was looking that was none of his business.

He planned to keep it that way. He was so done with women with issues.

The solar-illuminated walkway leading from the parking lot to the barn housing the reception was lined with gravel. Claire wobbled slightly on her high heels. The male in Ben warned him to keep his hands to himself or he might lose a few fingers. The inner gentleman said to quit being a pussy and help a girl out. He compromised and held out his arm for her to take hold of, if she so desired. The decision was hers.

Slender fingers settled into the crook of his elbow and her shoulder bumped his. The Brand women were tall. The three-inch heels put her at eye level with him, and he was six one.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone where you found me,” she said. “My mother thinks I drink too much.”

It was possible her mother had a right to be concerned. “Do you?”

Her fingers dug into his sleeve. “No. I rarely drink.”

Interesting. And yet she’d brought a twelve-pack of beer to a wedding reception as if preparing to tie one on, country-style. In the parking lot. Alone.

Mind your own business, my friend.

The wide doors on one of the empty barns had been thrown back. Inside, thousands of glittering string lights crisscrossed between the rafters, creating a low, artificial ceiling of stars. A dance floor had been cleared of the white-clothed tables from the formal dinner earlier. Light and noise spilled into the night.

Ben had to hand it to Georgia Campbell, Patterson’s mother. She knew how to do things up right. This wasn’t the first wedding the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch had hosted, but it was the one most important to her—Patterson was her only son. Alayna was going to be smother-in-lawed.

And Ben really was envious of his best friend, but in a happy for him, sorry for me kind of way. Much, he suspected, as Claire was feeling right now, despite her refusal to admit it. Patterson had a beautiful new bride and two parents who loved him, as well as an established business he was the sole heir to. Life wasn’t always fair, but at least good things really did happen to good people, and Patterson and Alayna were two of the best.

The beautiful new bride in question caught sight of them as they entered the room. She pivoted and started toward them, a vision of leggy loveliness in a white dress cut similar to Claire’s, but Patterson waylaid her by grabbing her hand. He signaled to the band to start up the music.

Claire slipped off Ben’s jacket and passed it to him. He tossed it over the back of the nearest empty chair. The men in the wedding party had a surprise planned for the bride and her attendants, and he wouldn’t need it.

First, however, they had to get the formalities out of the way. Alayna had chosen a country tune for the first dance. He waited for his cue as best man. As soon as Patterson’s dad cut in, and Patterson asked the bride’s mother to join him, Ben slid an arm around Claire’s slender waist.

Yep. She was too thin. For some reason, that bugged him. What was it with women and their weight? What was wrong with a few curves?

“Showtime,” he said.

Once they were out on the floor, he took her into his arms. She’d only had the one beer—he’d taken a casual count of the bottles—but he was fairly certain she hadn’t touched much of her dinner to counteract it, so she was a little unsteady. The heels she wore didn’t help. That was no problem. He was somewhat of an expert at navigating girls who’d had a few drinks around a dance floor.

He put his hands on the slinky material covering Claire’s hips and drew her closer. In response, her hands went to his shoulders and she tried to pry a few inches between them. Two finely-arched eyebrows went up. Pretty, pink-tinted lips pinched together.

Cool blue eyes challenged his. “You took dance lessons for this?”

“You don’t teach these stellar moves,” he replied, neatly dodging another couple and averting a head-on collision. “This is pure, natural talent.”

She rolled those big, baby blues at him, but the pinched lips loosened into what might, given the source, possibly pass for a smile. She followed his lead with an easy grace and sure footing, but had nothing more to say to him for the rest of the song. Brr.

The last bars of music drifted away. The band, rather than swing right into the next number, seemed to be waiting for something. Dallas Tucker, one of the groomsmen, strode to the front of the floor, facing the lead singer. He stripped off his jacket, swung it over his head, and after launching it onto the stage, he spread his legs wide, then shot a smoldering glance over one shoulder.

That was the signal.

Ben touched Claire’s arm. “Don’t go anywhere. You won’t want to miss this.”

He joined the rest of the groomsmen behind Dallas. The band’s lead singer took the mike. As word spread through the guests that something was about to go down, the floor started to empty.

Dallas was a local family doctor, but he’d worked his way through college as a dance instructor and part-time stripper, and he’d choreographed Patterson’s surprise for Alayna. Ben tapped one foot to the beginning beat of the music, enjoying himself. Patterson and Ben, team roping partners, were both showmen who liked to perform. Alayna and Claire’s two brothers, Damon and Blaise, had been the hardest sell, but they loved their sisters and would do anything for them. Getting Damon to keep a secret from his wife Jess had been the biggest challenge in pulling this off. Those two crazy lovebirds were joined at the hip.

Casey Tucker, Dallas’s teenaged brother who worked summers on the ranch, had been charged with keeping the bridesmaids in a group at the edge of the dance floor. Georgia Campbell—the only woman in on the secret because she would have killed them if something went wrong—had commandeered a chair for Alayna and gotten her into prime viewing position. Georgia was also responsible for the ladies’ dresses. Patterson said Alayna had protested over the revealing design, but his mother knew she and her bridesmaids had to be able to move, so he’d backed her up.

Ben clapped his hands to opposite sides of his chest, wagged his booty with gusto, then threw himself on his knees and skidded across the waxed floor with the others. The men finished their routine to wild applause from the crowd.

That was the end of phase one. Next up was line dancing, something the men had agreed the women could manage without any prior rehearsal. All they had to do was follow Dallas’s lead. Ben ran over to take Claire by the hand and bring her out on the floor with the rest of the wedding party. He worried for a split second that she might not cooperate—she was in a mood of some sort—but she’d said she had no intention of spoiling Alayna’s wedding and he was holding her to it. Dallas grabbed Hannah, the third of the Brand sisters, while Damon rounded up Jess. Even Blaise, who could be a dark cloud sometimes, entered into the spirit of the occasion and partnered up with Mary Beth, the fourth bridesmaid and a friend of Alayna’s from high school.

Claire was laughing as she fell into line beside him, her eyes sparkling so that Ben almost missed a step from surprise.

“Those were the most stellar moves I’ve ever seen,” she congratulated him, shouting to be heard over the band having a blast of their own behind them. “Were they thanks to those dance lessons you spoke of, or more of that pure, natural talent?”

“A little of both,” Ben shouted back.

He swung his left foot behind him and slapped his heel with his right hand. Claire followed suit with impeccable timing and more enthusiasm than he would have credited her for. Despite her years in a city, she still had some country in her. People had their phones out, recording, and he had no doubt that four beautiful ladies line dancing in those slinky dresses was about to go viral online.

The song ended and the live entertainment part of the evening was over. The other guests joined the wedding party on the floor. For his part, he was warm and could use a drink. He wasn’t, however, about to let Claire return to the parking lot and spend the rest of the evening drinking alone. Whatever was troubling her, she could dwell on it tomorrow.

Tonight was about everyone having a good time.

Chapter Two

Claire woke up early in the Bar-No’s bunkhouse with a clear head, even though granted, she’d had plenty to drink.

Not, however, alone in her car as she’d planned. Every time she’d made a move for the door, Ben intercepted her. Then he’d kept her glass full—although at some point, he’d switched her to punch.

And they said chivalry was dead.

She didn’t like that he’d appointed himself her nanny, though. It meant he suspected something was up and she didn’t need to be hiding secrets from him too. As it was, she could barely face her family without guilt sideswiping her that she’d given up their granddaughter and niece without allowing them any say in the matter. Confessing how she’d gotten pregnant by a married man who’d bailed the second she told him wasn’t high on her agenda either. They thought she was smarter than that. Turned out she wasn’t.

I’m pregnant.

I’m married.

They’d both gotten the shock of their lives.

She’d had no idea that medication could interfere with birth control. Hers had turned out to be less of a match for two rounds of antibiotics than a persistent lung infection had been. Still, it hadn’t seemed like the end of the world. Not at first. She and Dennis had talked about marriage and children. He’d said he loved kids.

Of course he did. He and his wife already had three, she’d found out too late.

Even then, as a software tester with a few steady contracts and a cozy home office, she should have been able to manage alone. But she’d never come up against a true narcissist before. Dennis, confident she wouldn’t make any noise that might damage her professional reputation, had quietly canceled her bread-winning contract with his company in an attempt to run her out of town.

He hadn’t understood her any better than she’d gotten him, although he emerged the clear winner, since she’d refused to out him to his wife as her outraged doctor had privately urged her to do. The woman had three children to think of, and Claire couldn’t bring herself to ruin four more people’s lives.

But poor little Tabitha…

All Claire could think of was how hard her mother had found raising children alone. Then she’d thought about how hard Damon had worked to keep the Brand family together. How he’d put his life on hold. She’d had so many conflicting emotions, the biggest one fear. What if she turned out to be more like her mother? What if she couldn’t cope on her own?

What if she couldn’t love her baby the way a child deserved to be loved?

Damon was finally starting to build his own life. She’d refused to turn to him for support. And she’d discovered how insecure her income could be, and how vulnerable she was, so she’d done what she believed best. Thank God for good friends, private adoptions, and decent human beings. Tabitha’s new parents were perfect. A county judge and a lawyer, they’d protect her from Dennis if he ever decided to go looking for her.

But while in practical terms Claire truly believed she was doing—had done—what was best for her baby, she hadn’t anticipated how emotionally devastating giving her daughter away would prove to be. Only a kind nurse who knew the drill, and the joy on the adoptive parents’ faces, had pried the newborn out of her arms.

The year since that awful day was a blur. She’d concentrated on rebuilding her career. Decent money had begun rolling in only because she’d worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week, to claw her way back to financial stability. This wedding had been the first real break in her schedule, and as tempting as it was to burrow under the blankets for a little while longer, she had to keep moving forward.

She’d survived her daughter’s first birthday and she’d had a good time.

She could do this.

The bunkhouse had four bunk beds that faced each other, three of which were currently in use. Hannah, the sister between Claire and Alayna, was a motionless lump in the other lower bed. Hannah’s dress lay in a crumpled peach puddle on the hardwood floor. A snarl of baby’s breath and hair poking out of the blankets was all that could be seen of her. A steady rise and fall of the quilted bedspread reassured Claire that her sister was alive and breathing.

Mary Beth Layton, a childhood friend of Alayna’s, was already awake and sitting at the small table in front of the window facing the mountains with a book in her hand while she ate a bowl of cereal. She was a graduate student who’d driven home for the wedding, and she planned to leave right after breakfast.

Claire sat up and pulled a strand of flowers from her hair. She’d hung her dress up before going to bed, but other than that, hadn’t bothered to do more than pull on a pair of pajamas and brush her teeth. Her bare feet hit the cold floor. She smelled coffee and she desperately needed a cup.

“Rise and shine,” she said to Hannah, leaning over her sister’s bunk and giving her shoulder a shake.

On closer inspection, there was more than just baby’s breath tangled in Hannah’s hair. Claire picked out a few pieces of hay and decided she wouldn’t ask. Hannah was twenty-seven and didn’t need her big sister’s lectures anymore.

“Get lost,” Hannah snarled from the depths of her cocoon. She’d never been much of a morning person to start with, and a hangover didn’t appear to improve her disposition.

Claire shook her again. “We’re due at Mom’s for family brunch in less than an hour, Blaise will be here any minute, and Mary Beth’s leaving soon. Move it.”

Hannah dragged one arm from the blankets and waved a hand in the air. “Drive safe, Mary Beth.” Then she pried open one bleary, unfocused eye and aimed it in Claire’s general direction. “Wake me when you’ve got the car warmed up. Better yet, go without me and tell Mom I died. Alayna can dig my frozen body out of bed in the spring.”

It was just as well that Ben had played nanny last night. Hannah was right where Claire had assumed she’d be this morning, and it didn’t look great. “Before you make any final decisions regarding burial, let me get you a coffee.”

Claire had her coffee first, then poured one for her sister and insisted she drink it. She helped Mary Beth carry her bags to the parking lot, because it occurred to her that it might be best if she moved the beer from the backseat of her car before one of her siblings spotted it and asked too many questions.

Ben was working a pretty little bay mare on a lunge line in the riding ring next to the parked cars.

Claire had never been especially interested in horses, but she couldn’t call herself a true Montanan if she didn’t appreciate them, and this one was well bred. Ben didn’t look too bad either. She wasn’t interested—neither was he—but that didn’t mean she couldn’t admire what amounted to a fine piece of masculine art. The morning was chilly and he was wearing a zipper-collared, chocolate wool sweater that matched his eyes over a pair of blue jeans with a tear in one thigh, and quilted-back, buckled brown combat boots sturdy enough for his feet to survive getting stepped on by a horse.

He waved to them, but his attention was clearly all on the mare.

A few minutes later, Mary Beth’s ancient car chugged down the lane and through the ranch gates onto the highway. Claire dragged the case of beer out of the backseat of her car, set it on the ground, then reached for the lever to pop open the trunk.

“A little early for that, don’t you think?”

She looked over her shoulder. Ben was closing the short distance between the riding ring and her car. She straightened, thrusting her hands in her jacket pockets, unsure of what to do. Mornings-after could be so awkward. While they hadn’t shared a sexual encounter, he’d seen her at a low point in an intensely intimate moment and the result was the same.

She hadn’t expected to bump into anyone, so she hadn’t dressed to impress. She’d grabbed an old jacket of Alayna’s she’d found in the back of a closet at their mother’s and a pair of jeans that were too loose at the hips. She’d lost more than baby weight in the past year, but her mother, who loved feeding people, was working on that. She’d removed the flowers and combed her hair, but it felt stiff from the multiple layers of hairspray the stylist had used. She itched to wash it. And as for her makeup? What she hadn’t scrubbed off before falling into bed currently adorned her pillow.

She’d bet she didn’t look too good to drink beer straight from a bottle this morning.

“I’m hiding the evidence,” she admitted, figuring she was already caught in the act so there was no point in lying. “I’m the designated driver this morning and Blaise is a lot judgier than you.”

“The same Blaise who used to get drunk at high school dances and pick fights with the seniors?”

Claire bristled up in defense of her brother. He’d never tolerated peer pressure well, and the bloody noses, bruised ribs, and black eyes were hard to forget. Their mother hadn’t been able to control him. The day he turned eighteen Damon drove him to the recruitment office and let him sign up, but the request to enlist had come from Blaise. “He doesn’t have anger issues anymore, and he no longer drinks. The navy changed him.”

Kindness softened Ben’s eyes. “I wasn’t criticizing him, Claire. It’s not like I can cast stones.”

She’d forgotten that Ben’s teenage self had run wild too, especially since he’d been the voice of reason last night. When had she become so prickly and bitter, taking offense where none was intended?

Anxiety dug icy fingers into her lungs. She didn’t know who she was anymore. At some point over the past one year, seven months, and thirteen hours, when she’d realized she was completely alone, she’d become lost.

She indicated the case of beer on the cold ground at her feet. “I don’t think I should cast any stones, either.”

The light blue of his eyes deepened around the pupils, creating a mesmerizing, kaleidoscope effect. “There’s no need to go joining the navy just yet. Not unless picking fistfights with people twice your size runs in the family.” He reached into his back pocket and pulled out his phone. “I have something I want to show you.”

She crowded closer to him to get a better look at the screen. It was a video of the wedding party’s line dance on YouTube. Patterson and Alayna looked so happy together—two tall, beautiful people who only had eyes for each other—and everyone looked like they were having a lot of fun. Including her. She was trying to keep up with Ben, who was deliberately trying to throw her off step, and she was laughing.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed.

But the best part of the video had to be Hannah. She clung to Dallas with one hand while hiking her skirt out of the way with the other, and thanks to the long slit up one side of her dress, her pink thong made several brief, but very public, appearances. The way Dallas watched her said he liked what he saw. Claire guessed that explained the bits of hay she’d found in her sister’s hair this morning. Hannah had broken up with a longstanding boyfriend the family hated, so whatever had happened last night, Claire hoped it put the punctuation mark on the end of that toxic relationship.

“Thirty thousand hits already?” The number astounded her. “It’s not even nine o’clock on a Sunday morning. Most people are either on their way to church, or they haven’t had breakfast yet.”

“Someone must have shown old Nate Starr how to use his smartphone,” Ben said. “Jess probably posted it online for him. Carrie’s too nice.”

Carrie was Jess’s cousin, and the official photographer for the wedding. Nathan Starr was their grandfather. He and his sons owned the majority of cherry orchards in the area, and the town of Sweetheart was named for the variety of cherries they grew.

“Damon’s going to kill her,” Claire said.

“Oh, that’s not the video he’s going to kill her for,” Ben disagreed cheerfully. “The groomsmen’s dance has gotten over seventy-five thousand hits so far. Every time I refresh my screen, it jumps a thousand or so. You ladies are eating our dust, even with the unfair advantage of Hannah flashing her panties.” He slipped his arm around Claire’s shoulders, bringing their heads closer together, and tapped the phone a few times with the tip of his finger. He angled the screen out of the glare from the sun. “See?”

Claire stared, unable to believe her own eyes. Nathan had gotten excellent footage. Last night she’d been paying more attention to Ben, so she hadn’t noticed the way her staid, unassuming older brother had thrown himself into the performance. Damon was shimmying his pelvis Mick Jagger-style, with his hands on his hips and his head thrown back, totally into the music. The comments—some of them lewd—deemed him a hottie. She looked closer. One of those comments came from Jess.

“My whole family needs to cut back on the drinking.” She pushed the case of beer in front of Ben with the toe of her boot. The bottles rattled against each other. “On that note, I have a present for you.”

“You keep your bad habits to yourself.” He stooped, picked up the box, and plunked it inside the trunk of her car before closing the lid. He brushed his hands together as if dusting them off. “Why do I feel like I’ve just disposed of a body?”

Twin laugh lines marked by two dimples embraced his smile, and she could literally feel the heat sizzling from him. She got why women found him so irresistible. It wasn’t because he was good-looking—which he was—but more in the way he knew how to put a girl at ease with his sense of humor.

He could keep all that charm to himself. She might find him entertaining, and surprisingly easy to talk to, but she was no longer susceptible to smooth-talking men who knew what a woman wanted to hear. The jolt of lust was an instinctive reaction.

“Rookie,” she sniffed. “The trunk is step one.” Speaking of bodies, it was time she returned to the bunkhouse and dragged Hannah’s dead weight out of bed or they were going to be late. “Thanks for giving me a heads-up about the videos. I’m having brunch with my family and this will give our mother something to lecture us on.”

“And I’d better get back to Molly.” The mare was waiting in the ring for him, stamping at the dirt and tossing her head with growing impatience. “I’m training her as a header for a friend.”

Ben and Patterson were team roping partners. Ben headed, meaning he roped the calf, while Patterson heeled, which involved snagging and then tying the calf by its hind legs. That much, Claire knew—mostly because Alayna couldn’t stop bragging about how great they were.

Neither one of them moved. Things were becoming awkward again, at least on her part, because she liked him a lot better than she’d expected to, given his propensity to flirt. He didn’t ask nosy questions and he made her laugh. He was what he was. He didn’t pretend to be anything else.

He’d never hide a wife and three children from the women he dated.

“Bye,” she said, then felt his eyes on her as she walked the path back to the bunkhouse.

By the time Claire and her two siblings reached their mother’s tidy little bungalow on the far side of town, Damon and Jess were already there. Alayna and Patterson had spent the night at their new house on the ranch, but were leaving for a two-week honeymoon in Hawaii that afternoon so they weren’t expected.

Claire parked her compact behind Damon’s truck.

Blaise unfolded himself from the passenger seat. He’d tormented Hannah mercilessly the whole drive. Or at least, he’d tried to. She’d remained silent in the back seat, ignoring him with a haughty disdain. She wasn’t as hung over as Claire had feared, which was good, but she’d definitely gotten up on the wrong side of the bed.

Wait until she saw the video on YouTube.

“I just put the bacon and the potatoes in the oven,” their mother said when they walked through the kitchen door.

For as long as Claire could remember, the Brand kitchen had been the center of their home life. Tessa liked to feed people, so there was always something on the stove or in the oven. A basket of fresh biscuits and three jars of homemade jam graced the counter. Her happy smile said she was thrilled to have her four oldest children together.

The five Brand siblings all looked like Tessa, but they got their height from their father, who’d died in a boating accident when Claire was twelve. She remembered him as a stern man who’d worked hard for little reward, and as a consequence, he’d never had much of himself left over for his family.

Tessa had been a beauty when she was young, with a helplessness that might once have been appealing, but didn’t translate well into adulthood. She’d had no idea how to take charge of five children alone, so at fifteen, Damon had stepped up. Looking back on it, Claire couldn’t imagine how he’d handled all of that responsibility. Now, at thirty-three, he was married, owned a service station, and was well on his way to becoming a recognized metalworks artist. And he’d done it all on his own.

Claire had also been expected to succeed. Sweetheart was small. She couldn’t take her mother for groceries without being stopped by some old acquaintance and asked about her fancy career, how she liked Seattle, and if she’d ever met Bill Gates.

The bacon crackled and spit as the pan in the oven heated, its smell curling past the stove door to drift on the air. Jess, who’d been sitting quietly at the table, pressed a hand to her lips. Her eyes opened wide and she bolted from the room. A few seconds later, retching could be heard coming from the single bathroom down the hall. Everyone looked at Damon, who beamed.

“We wanted to wait until after the wedding to tell everyone our news, but I guess this is as a good a time as any. We’re having a baby,” he announced.

Later, when she had time to process her reaction, Claire wouldn’t be proud, because the emotion that stuck out past her numbness was envy. She wanted so much to be happy for Damon and Jess, who deserved it, but the best response she could muster right now was to watch her mother and Hannah create a big fuss. Her face and hands were cold and her lips lost all feeling. Great, crushing waves of pain broke over her and her legs started to tremble. She groped for a wooden-backed kitchen chair and dropped heavily into it.

She didn’t need a therapist to tell her that she’d spent an entire year in denial, and how she’d been suppressing her emotions for far too long, but the cojones to deal with them still hadn’t descended. She’d half hoped to come home to Sweetheart and start her life over, but watching Jess’s pregnancy progress was going to be beyond her. She hadn’t reached that stage yet. Sitting here, pretending to be happy for a few hours, would stretch her to the limit. She’d make up an excuse, then leave first thing in the morning.

Blaise was staring at her. She forced a wide smile. “I can’t believe it. I’m going to be an aunt.”

And her baby would have a little cousin she’d never get to play with.

Somehow, Claire made it through brunch. Afterward, she sat on the front steps long after Damon and Jess drove away, hunched into a heavy sweater. The sun was warm, but the wind was cold and smelled of fall and burning leaves. Next door, the neighbors’ young son had a bunch of his friends over and they were shrieking noisily as they played on a backyard trampoline.

Hannah plopped onto the steps beside her.

“Want to talk about it?” she asked.

No. Claire wrapped her arm around her sister’s waist. “I was just thinking we don’t do this often enough.”

“Do what? Get together for weddings and have the sordid details splashed on the Internet for the whole world to see?” Hannah made a face. “If so, it’s all up to you. I’m done with relationships. From now on, men are toys to me. And if you’re waiting for Blaise to find the right woman and settle down…” She rolled her eyes. “I mean, come on. Who in their right mind would have him?”

“Men are toys to you, hmm?” Claire tightened her arm in sympathy. “Things over with Tim for good this time?”

Hannah and Tim had been dating since they were fifteen, and they’d turned into an old couple who were together only because they’d grown used to each other. They didn’t suit. Tim crushed every little bit of fun in her personality that Hannah possessed, and she made endless excuses for him and his bad behavior.

“He cheated on me. Twice.”

Claire heard more outrage than hurt, and now, the bits of hay she’d found in Hannah’s hair that morning made sense. “So you cheated on him right back,” she guessed. “Good for you.”

“Aren’t you going to give me a lecture? Some sound advice? At least try to change my mind?”

At one time she would have. She’d have developed a five-year life plan for her sister. It wouldn’t have included that loser Tim. But Claire had learned logic didn’t trump the human heart. If Hannah chose to give Tim a third chance, that was her business.

Not that Claire planned to stand in his corner. “I like Dallas.”

Hannah’s pretty blue eyes welled with tears. “Don’t tell anyone, please.”

“Never.”

While Claire’s heart ached for her younger sister, deep down she’d needed this reminder that she wasn’t the only person in the world who had problems. Hannah hadn’t answered her question though, and so she didn’t press. Some things took time to sort out. Some took more time than others.

Hannah wiped her eyes. “I didn’t come out here to talk about me.”

Claire braced herself for it. She’d known she should have been more enthusiastic when Damon sprang his news on them.

“Mom found a lump in her breast.”

This was so far from what Claire had expected to hear that all she could do was parrot it back in the form of a question. “Mom found a lump in her breast?”

“I overheard the phone call from the doctor on Friday morning. She goes to see the oncologist on Tuesday. She didn’t want anyone to know until after the wedding, but now she’s not going to want to bother Damon and Jess with it either. I can ask for more time off work so I can take her, but she already said no. Since you work from home, I was hoping you could stick around to be here for her. She’ll listen to you.”

If their mother was scheduled to see an oncologist, it meant the first round of tests had been done. The oncologist always got to break the bad news. Bad news didn’t necessarily mean the worst, though. Breast cancer had five stages—zero to four. If the cells were in situ, meaning they hadn’t spread, then it was easily treatable.

But their flighty, incompetent mother, who’d allowed a fifteen-year-old to become the head of the family, had chosen to suffer through this in silence. The significance of that sent shivers through Claire.

“Of course I can stay.”

She’d been feeling sorry for herself for too long. Her daughter was safe, and loved by two people who wanted her. Desperately.

Her mother needed her. Her daughter didn’t.

Chapter Three

Ben hauled his saddle out of the back of his truck.

He’d arrived at Sweetheart Saddlery and Harness ahead of the storm that was rolling in from the mountains. The sky hung gray and heavy with anticipation, and when he’d left the Bar-No Sweetheart Ranch, the wind was whipping the waters of Flathead Lake into gleeful whitecaps. Nothing beat a good storm.

Things were winding down at the ranch now that the wedding was over, and it was time to start taking care of any worn-out or damaged equipment. They’d held the last cattle roundup the first week in October and the beef was on its way to market. The horses they’d used for the tourists would be off to auction in another few days. Each cowhand had his or her own preferred mount, and those ones stayed, but the Bar-No didn’t stable its recreational riding horses over the winter. They bought them fresh from dealers in the spring right before dude season began.

Ben slung the saddle over his shoulder and hurried inside the repair shop. A bell over the door announced his arrival. He loved Sweetheart Saddlery and Harness. It smelled of history and oiled leather. Not much about it had changed since it first opened its doors in the mid-1800s. Even the same family owned it.

A pretty little redhead hustled out of a back room at the sound of the bell. He eased the saddle off his shoulder and onto the counter.

“Hey, Paradise,” he said, favoring her with his best smile.

She favored him right back with one of hers, then placed a hand on the saddle, checking the straps. “What have you broken this time?”

Paradise Brown had been running her daddy’s shop for him since she was seventeen. She knew more about saddles, harnesses, and leatherwork in general than anyone Ben had ever come across on the rodeo circuit. If someone was willing to pay her enough, she’d even make them custom boots—thanks to a fancy course she’d taken a few years ago—but those were well out of Ben’s price range. Besides, he liked the boots he was wearing. She’d re-heeled them for him more than once. That was all he’d gotten out of her after two whole weeks of dating five years ago—and yet, they remained friendly.

They chatted for a few minutes, but she was busy and he was keeping her from her work. Besides, the forecast was calling for rain mixed with snow and he’d like to get home where it was warm and dry. Daisy, the cook, always had a strong pot of coffee going.

As he exited the shop onto the street, and rounded the corner of the building on his return to the parking lot, he spotted a woman standing next to his truck. Her long, peppered hair was tied in a loose braid and tugged back from a smooth-skinned forehead that made her age hard to guess. She was hunched into a sheepskin jacket against the damp cold, with her hands jammed in the pockets, and jeans stuffed into her boots.

He couldn’t breathe. He hadn’t known she was in town.

Blue eyes the exact color of his drank him in as he walked toward her. He didn’t alter his gait or shift direction. There was no hesitation. Not on his part. He might as well get this over with. It was long overdue.

“Hey, Bennie,” she said.

That made him mad. Grace Nichols had given up any right to familiarity when she’d walked out on him and his dad, abandoning a nine-year-old kid with an old man who’d drowned his sorrows in religion and drink. Ben had never been able to figure out why she hadn’t taken him with her. What he might have done wrong. For two whole years he’d held onto the hope she’d come back, and she hadn’t.

Then four years ago, she’d finally called him—about eighteen years too late—and he’d hung up on her. She’d tried once or twice a year after that, and with similar results. This was only the second time he’d seen her in person in twenty-two years, and the last time had been from a distance.

Enough was enough.

“What do you want from me, Grace?” he asked. Now that he was closer, he could see the crow’s feet around her eyes. And yet it jarred him to realize how young she was. He’d never noticed before, even though he’d known she was only sixteen when he was born.

She stood her ground. “You have two brothers I’d like you to meet.”

Damn. Now there was a blow he hadn’t expected. He’d heard she remarried, but no new family had ever been mentioned. It seemed she’d replaced him too, and not just his dad. “They aren’t my brothers. They’re your children. There’s a difference.”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious about them?”

He was. But he wasn’t about to say as much. They had two parents and each other. They didn’t need him in their lives and he sure as hell didn’t need them. He had too much anger for their mother and he didn’t want it to spill over onto them. They were blameless.

It didn’t mean he had to like the fact they existed.

“Not really,” he lied. Inside, he was shaking. She’d dropped a bombshell on him and he needed time to recover. “Have you told them about me?”

“A little. The youngest followed you on the rodeo circuit. He’s seventeen and he looks just like you.”

Ben didn’t want to hear any more. He reached for the door handle of his truck, politely forcing her to step aside without having to be aggressive about it. “I’m sure they’re great kids and I wish them nothing but the best, but I can’t imagine we have much in common.” As he jerked the door open he met her eyes, letting her see how serious he was. “Don’t call me or come near me again.”

He didn’t look back as he drove out of the small parking lot that had been crushed in between two buildings. His hind wheel bumped over the curb. The first large splatters of rain hit his windshield and the wipers sprang into life. He breathed in and out as he watched them swish back and forth.

No one knew what a mixed-up family he had—not even Patterson. He and his dad had moved to Sweetheart when he was eleven, two years after Grace left. Not everything had been her fault either. Lyle Nichols was a hard man to love. He’d battled off and on with the bottle, alternating between that and bouts of religious zealousness. When Ben was seventeen, his dad had finally settled on the Mormon church as his path to salvation. Ben rarely saw him anymore, but at least he knew his dad wasn’t drinking himself to death.

So no, Ben didn’t blame her for leaving. She’d been young and full of life, and stifled in a marriage with an older man who couldn’t figure himself out.

He blamed her for leaving a nine-year-old child behind.

Ten minutes ago, he’d wanted nothing more than to beat the storm home. Now the thought of spending the afternoon alone, with nothing to do but watch television, held little appeal. He didn’t enjoy solitude at the best of times. He liked having people around him. In the past, when he had too much on his mind, he’d round up Patterson and they’d either go to the gym or take their horses into the Bar-No’s indoor ring. After that, they’d head to the bars to meet girls. With Patterson married, Ben was short a best friend and partner in crime.

And he was restless.

He turned the truck onto Main Street, but rather than head out of town, he found a spot to park in front of the Sweetheart diner. He’d order pie to go with a cup of coffee. Sherry, the waitress, always gave him an extra big slice.

The sky’s fat, sagging belly had turned a deep gray. He zipped up his oiled-canvas jacket and made a run for it. Two feet from the door of the diner and its warm, friendly interior, the heavens split open and dumped their contents on him.

Perfect.

Claire dropped her laptop bag onto the cracked vinyl bench seat and sidled her butt into the booth. She’d needed a place to get some work done—somewhere that didn’t have her mother hovering over her shoulder—and it was either Sweetheart’s main diner or the local library. Since the diner had the best coffee in town, here she was.

The last few days had been trying, but the verdict was good. The lump in Tessa’s breast would have to be removed, but the oncologist had been reassuring. “We’ll need to examine the lump to be sure, but it doesn’t look to have spread.”

Claire wasn’t leaving town until the surgery was over and the tests were complete. But the walls of her old bedroom closed in on her at night. Her mother had saved every medal—every award—she’d ever earned, and she hated staring at them. That Claire, the perfect daughter her mother bragged about to this day, no longer existed. If she didn’t get a few hours to herself, she’d go crazy.

She was unpacking her laptop, her head down and her thoughts already on her work, when someone slid into the empty space across from her.

“Mind if I join you?” Jess asked.

Did Claire ever. She liked her sister-in-law well enough. She simply wasn’t ready to hear details about her pregnancy. Other than the doctor, Claire had had no one to share her own experience with. Besides, morning sickness and Braxton-Hicks contractions had been the least of her worries. She’d endured seven months of terror and heartache, wondering where her next paycheck would come from while she arranged for a private adoption.

But she couldn’t say any of that.

“I’d love the company,” she said.

Jess braced her folded arms on the table. She was delicate—at least in appearance—and very pretty, with long-lashed, hazel eyes and curly blond hair spilling down her back. But Claire had known her in high school, and Jess could be a Sherman tank when she chose. She let nothing stand in her way and didn’t care about anyone’s opinion of her. Other than Damon’s, of course. Her complete and utter devotion to him was what earned her his family’s love and respect.

Claire ordered a coffee. Jess asked for apple juice. Then, they chatted about the wedding. When their drinks arrived, Jess played with her sweating glass. It was obvious she had something big on her mind but was having trouble spitting it out.

“Is something the matter?” Claire asked, hoping to speed her along.

“What if the baby turns out like me?” Jess blurted out.

That question was so loaded with landmines Claire didn’t know where to begin. “I don’t understand why that’s a problem.”

The heavy sky had gotten very dark outside and the overhead lights of the diner were on, even though it was mid-afternoon. Jess had anxiety written all over her. She lowered her voice, despite the diner being mostly empty and the waitress not paying them any attention. “I’m not very smart.”

Again, it might be best not to go there. “Why would you say that?”

“Because I’m dyslexic.”

The revelation shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Claire knew that in school Damon had done a lot of Jess’s homework for her, but she’d always figured Jess was spoiled and lazy. Now Claire felt mean. The possibility of a learning disorder had never occurred to her, although the classic behavioral signs were all there. Jess could deflect attention like nobody’s business. It certainly explained why Claire’s brother, who was always so kind, had shrugged off any criticism of her. He’d known about her learning disability all along and kept it to himself.

“First of all, being dyslexic doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence,” Claire said, amazed she had to point it out. “Your brain takes a different route to get to its destination, that’s all. These days, teachers are better equipped to adapt to different learning styles. And even if the baby’s chances of having dyslexia are higher than average, so what?”

“That’s what Damon keeps saying, and I’m sure he means it, but I wasn’t as positive that the rest of your family would feel the same way.”

“Of course we will. But the important question is how do you feel about it?” Claire asked.

Jess placed a hand on her belly in a fiercely protective gesture Claire knew all too well. “It won’t make a bit of difference to me. This is Damon’s baby. I already love him or her so much you couldn’t begin to imagine.”

What a difference it made to be in love with the father. Claire hadn’t allowed herself to become too attached, but yes, she thought she could imagine just fine.

As she was trying to come up with an answer to that though, the main door of the diner flew open and Ben blew in on a gust of wind and icy rain. He shook the drops from his thick, dark brown hair, then wiped at the sleeves of his coat. He looked around the sparsely-populated room. His eyes lit up when they settled on Claire and Jess.


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