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Blackbird Lake

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Blackbird Lake
A Lonesome Way Novel

Chapter One

Lonesome Way, Montana

Carly McKinnon’s day had been cruising along just fine -- a perfectly calm, typical, somewhat slow Wednesday in her Main Street quilt shop.

Until late afternoon when she heard the news that Jake Tanner was back in town.

Suddenly, everything seemed to freeze for a full thirty seconds.

Of course she could still see Gloria Cartright, finished with her afternoon shift at the Lickety Split Ice Cream Parlor, thoughtfully fingering some new calico fabric on the shelves at the far side of the shop. She could still hear the sound of light traffic outside on Spring Street, and she could feel her own breath catch hard in her throat at the mention of Jake’s name.

But she couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, couldn’t think – not until the first ice-cold shock of the news had settled into her brain.

“Jake Tanner…are you sure, Laureen?” she finally asked her assistant, struggling to keep her voice calm and her face composed, as if she were talking about the chance of rain tonight or today’s ninety-nine-cent caramel brownie special at A Bun in the Oven bakery.

“Jake Tanner?” Gloria shook her head skeptically. “That man hasn’t been back more than a handful of times in the past dozen years. Not since he first fell in love with rodeo.”

Shoving the bolt of calico back on the shelf, she eyeballed Laureen as if trying to ascertain if the other woman knew what the hell she was talking about.

“Well, I didn’t say I saw him.” Laureen Rowan glanced back and forth between Carly and Gloria, the small paper bag from Benson’s drugstore containing her new red lipstick and a pack of sugarless gum still clutched in her hand. “But Deanna Mueller is positive she did. The second I stepped into Benson’s just now she rushed over in a big hurry to give me the scoop. Deanna was at the gas station filling up her minivan when Jake cruised by in his truck. She said there was a big dog leaning over his lap, its head hanging out the window. I never knew Jake to have a dog before, but Deanna insisted they were headed for Sage Ranch. Turned onto Squirrel Road right quick, she said. Deanna swears it was him. She told me, who else could it be, no one is as handsome as that Jake Tanner.”

Tell me about it, Carly thought. A flush of heat raced through her body.

“Well, duh. That’s for sure.” Gloria nodded knowingly. “That man is smokin’. And he’s all over the TV these days, between the rodeo coverage, and those beer commercials of his.” Her bright little black pepper eyes brimmed with interest. “I know if I was a dozen or so years younger, I wouldn’t think twice about climbing between the sheets with him.”

“Carly?” Laureen moved toward her boss in concern. “Hey. Are you all right?”

It was only then that Carly realized she was biting her lip, her hands were clenched, and her neck felt as tight as a washrag twisted in the clothes dryer.

“Sure. Fine,” she said airily, forcing her lips into a smile, casually pushing a thick strawberry blond curl back from her usually dreamy green eyes.

“Well, you don’t look fine. You look like you’re going to fall down in a dead faint or something.” Laureen studied her carefully, her own round pretty face worried. Forty four and divorced, she was the proud mother of two mutts and three cats, all adopted from Lonesome Way’s overwhelmed shelter.

Laureen didn’t know how to say no to a sad pair of feline or canine eyes. She had a heart as big as Montana and Wyoming combined. With chin length white blond hair and hazel eyes she was still as pretty as she’d been in high school when she’d been named prom queen, but she’d gained twenty pounds since her divorce -- and had convinced herself she was too fat to ever attract the attention of a man again. But still….Tonight she had a date with a rancher from the nearby town of Big Timber.

A blind date that had been set up by her sister-in-law in Butte.

Laureen had been insisting to Carly all week long that this was going to be her very last shot.

No more dates, blind or otherwise. They never panned out, not a single one of ‘em. If this guy didn’t call her back, Laureen was done.

“Maybe you should sit down. I’ll get you a glass of water. There’s a bad flu going around Billings. Could be the bug made its way here and you caught it.”

“No, I’m…okay. It’s just….I didn’t get much sleep last night. Emma kept waking up,” Carly lied.

It was only a half lie, though. Her eighteen-month-old daughter had woken up several times after Carly put her to bed, but it had all happened long before Carly went to sleep for the night.

A semi-lie is okay, she assured herself shakily. Especially in extreme circumstances. And Jake Tanner coming home to Lonesome Way – definitely an extreme circumstance.

She felt her heart lurch. Memories burned through her, along with a sprinkling of guilt and a pinch of unease. That thick longish jet black hair. All those rock-hard abs. The slow, sexy kisses trailing down her throat…

The man had returned to his hometown only once since she and Emma had moved here from Boston nearly two years before – and even then he’d hit town for only a day. Which was one of the reasons she’d felt comfortable settling in Lonesome Way in the first place. Because Jake hardly ever came home. He’d told her as much that one night they’d spent together in Houston.

And that’s what everybody always said.

Jake Tanner was a roamer through and through.

But his family was all here. His brothers, Rafe and Travis, along with their wives, Sophie and Mia, and their children.

All of whom were Carly’s friends. Some of the nicest and best people she’d ever met. The last time Jake had come home – when Mia and Travis’s daughter, Zoey, was born a year ago -- Carly had heard in advance that he was coming in for a day to meet his new niece and had made sure she and Emma laid low.

Of course when she’d decided to move to Lonesome Way she’d always known Jake might drop into town on rare occasions for a visit, but most of the time she relegated that possibility into the far recesses of her mind as she savored her own sense of peace and delight with small-town life.

“I bet he’s here for his niece’s birthday party.” Gloria’s dark head bobbed up and down. “Zoey Tanner turns one this weekend. I have it on good authority that Travis was none too happy when Jake said he wasn’t going to be able to make it to her party.”

“You’re probably right,” Laureen said distractedly. She was digging out her new, very red lipstick from the drugstore bag and ripping at the packaging with her nails. “Everyone knows family means everything to the Tanners. Jake must’ve got wind Travis was pissed and changed his mind.”

Panic whipped through Carly. She felt breathless and a little sick to her stomach. She and Emma were invited to Zoey’s party.

If Jake was there, they wouldn’t be able to go.

But that was the least of her problems...

She needed to get home. To hold her daughter. To think.

But it was only four thirty and she didn’t normally close Carly’s Quilts until five. Gloria looked like she wasn’t going anywhere, not while this juicy topic of conversation was on the table. And Laureen – Laureen seemed to have forgotten all the urgency of her big date tonight as she drew a mirror out of her purse and began applying her new lipstick with the careful precision of a surgeon performing a lobotomy.

Time to remind her about that date, Carly decided desperately.

“I know you want to get ready for tonight, maybe get a manicure, wind down, or whatever, so maybe we’ll just close up early,” she began with what she hoped was a breezy smile. Moving briskly across the shop, she began folding bolts of gingham and calico left on the long table beside the shelves and gathering up pattern books the few customers of the day had been browsing through. “I want to go home and check on Emma, too -- what with her getting up so much last night. Just to make sure she’s not coming down with something.”

True enough. Emma had been restless last night. She probably sensed her daddy was headed to town, Carly thought wildly, knowing the thought was totally irrational. Nervousness flowed through her like a chill autumn wind sweeping down from the Crazy Mountains.

Stop it. Pull yourself together. She gulped a couple of breaths and dug deep, searching for the hard-won serenity and sense of peace she’d worked so hard to achieve over the years.

Her own childhood hadn’t exactly been a picnic -- more like an odyssey of lonely confusion, uncertainty, and fear. But now, at thirty, all of that was behind her. She’d built a life here for her and her daughter -- a life that was solid and steady and filled with the warmth of this tight-knit community. Nothing was going to change that.

She reminded herself that Jake didn’t know about Emma. He had no clue that he even had a daughter. Much less that she and Carly were living in Lonesome Way.

He probably doesn’t even remember me, she thought, drawing a breath.

Jake Tanner had women falling all over him in every town from here to Alaska. But he was the last man to ever want any ties, any family of his own, any kind of commitment -- except to the rodeo life.

He’d made all that very clear the one and only night they’d made love.

What am I talking about? We didn’t make love. We had sex. Intense, incredible, rock-the-world and light-up-the-night-with-fireworks sex.

It was the lone one-night stand of Carly’s entire life. She’d acted completely out of character. But then she’d already downed two glasses of wine at the bar of that hotel in Houston and was sipping a third, trying to expunge her lying, psycho ex-boyfriend from her head, when she spotted him.

Jake Tanner. In all his hot cowboy ruggedness. He’d seemed like the ideal candidate to eject Kevin Boyd from her brain for good.

So when Jake glanced over from across the lobby, cocked an eyebrow, and grinned that sexy cowboy grin, she’d made the first impulsive move of her life.

She’d downed the third glass of wine and gone for it.

The next ten hours had been momentous in every way. But then, of course, there had been nothing. Zip. No phone call from him a day or two later, no maybe I’ll see you again sometime. Just nothing. Slam, bam, and….

Of course, she’d known that’s exactly how it would be. She’d counted on it, even. He’d made it clear over dinner in the hotel restaurant that he wasn’t the kind of man who was into long-term relationships or commitments or anything remotely hinting at permanence.

And we both wanted it that way, she reminded herself, trying to thrust Jake Tanner and his sexy smile, lean, powerful body, and impossibly hunky muscles from her mind.

That one night they’d spent together in his cushy Houston hotel suite had been, for her, all about rebound sex, pure and simple. They’d made crazed, incredible love all night long. And every bit of it had helped her to forget just a little more about her scumbag ex.

She’d discovered only four months earlier that Kevin Boyd had lied to her. Not just once or twice, but the entire time they were together. It turned out Mr. Fancy Schmancy genius architect wasn’t divorced after all. And he wasn’t a good, upstanding guy, searching for a serious, stable relationship as he’d claimed.

Just the opposite. He was married. With children! Three children, to be exact, one of them a two-month-old infant.

Carly had gone numb with shock when she discovered the truth. Kevin was a player. A liar. An elegantly good-looking blond jerk with a high IQ and a talent for hiding his wedding ring.

It had taken her long enough, but she’d finally started to grow suspicious and followed him one day when he left her apartment.

She actually caught him with his family, after he’d told her he was headed to the airport and an out-of-town consultation with a new client.

Watching in horror, her knees had sagged as Kevin hugged twin little boys who looked to be about eight or nine, scooped a pink-clad baby girl into his arms, and embraced a woman in a stunning Chanel suit. She’d grabbed onto a brick storefront for support as she watched them all bundle into an elevator in an exclusive doorman building that was not the place she’d thought was his home.

It was definitely not the apartment where she’d spent countless nights in his king-sized bed, where dozens of designer suits, pairs of slacks, shirts and polos hung in the walk-in closet. An apartment always stocked with gourmet food and wine and an extensive collection of antique clocks and timepieces, where expensive works of art hung on all the walls.

And in that last huge fight with Kevin at her apartment in Boston she’d glimpsed a side of him she’d never seen before.

The angry, snarling, bordering-on-violent side.

Mr. Genius Architect didn’t even think what he’d done was wrong! Even when she’d forced him to admit to his lies, to admit he’d told his wife he was traveling on business all those days or nights he spent with Carly, he’d shouted at her, and then snatched up the crystal ballerina sculpture her college friend Sydney had given her for her birthday. Even as Carly screamed, “Don’t!” he hurled it at the brick wall behind the fireplace, shattering the exquisite dancer into a thousand shards.

He’d screamed that everything he’d done had been for them -- so they could be together without the financial messiness of a divorce.

In shock, Carly had stared at the man she’d thought she knew. Listened to him try to gloss over his lies – all the things he’d said and done to make her believe that he was working tons of overtime at the office or conducting out-of-town meetings with clients.

When all along he’d been home with his wife and kids.

It was devastating to discover what an idiot she’d been. A naïve, gullible fool who’d swallowed hook, line and sinker all his crap about the stresses of being an overworked, in-demand architect. She’d believed him when he claimed he couldn’t have dinner with her regularly or attend her friends’ parties -- or even leave town for a romantic weekend getaway -- because of a killer schedule, and his boss being a demanding pain in the ass. She’d nearly thrown up when she learned there was a Mrs. Boyd -- and a young family to boot.

At first Carly had been sickened, but that had quickly turned to fury. Fury not just with Kevin but with herself. She’d concluded that either she was as dumb as a brick or she’d inherited her mother’s knack for picking losers. That making stupid romantic choices must run in her family, like allergies or cancer or freckles in other families.

Bad romantic karma was in her genes.

And she’d figured out one other thing – she wouldn’t have a chance of finding peace again until she found a way to exorcise that entire fiasco with Kevin from her head.

So when she’d flown to Houston on business several months later and ran smack dab into Jake – tough, drop-dead sexy, rodeo champion, Jake -- whom she’d met briefly years before when they were both kids – she’d suddenly lost every single one of her brain cells and had done something stupid, something crazy, something she’d never done before in her life.

One night stands were so not her thing.

Caution. Good sense. Those were her things.

But that night….that one amazing night…

There should have been no consequences, she’d thought faintly several weeks later when she stared at the results of her home pregnancy test.

True, she’d gone off her birth control pills after the fiasco with Kevin, swearing she’d never get seriously involved with another man again -- but she and Jake had used condoms that night.

And yet….

A baby had been growing inside her. Emma.

Now a vivacious little blue-eyed charmer, eighteen months old -- Emma was bright, active, and more precious to Carly than all the stars in the sky.

From the instant she first saw her daughter, Carly had never, ever thought of Emma as anything but the most treasured gift in the world.

So pull it together, she ordered herself again as she caught Gloria staring at her, while Laureen scooped up coffee cups from around the homey quilt shop with its walls of buttery warm yellow and its floors of burnished wood. If you don’t, the moment you get home, Madison might see something is wrong. And Emma could sense it.

Emma’s daytime babysitter, Madison Hodge, was a smart, down-to-earth twenty year old who adored Emma just as much as Emma loved her. Carly didn’t know how she’d ever get by without Madison. A former pageant princess, this girl worked harder than anyone Carly knew. When she wasn’t babysitting Emma four days a week, she was working toward her online degree in childhood education and playing keyboard in a local country band at night.

“Closing up early works great for me,” Laureen was drawling. “I can use the extra time. Maybe I can fit in a really intense workout and lose twenty five pounds before eight o’clock. Ya think?”

She headed toward the sink in the back of the shop, the cups hooked on her fingers. “This isn’t going to turn into anything, you know,” she called over her shoulder. “After tonight, I’m never going to hear from this guy again. He’s probably expecting a skinny girl. A size two. Or four. You watch, when he sees me, he’ll run fleeing into the night.”

“Stop.” Carly managed to drag her thoughts from her own worries. “Don’t talk that way. You’re beautiful, Laureen. You’re stunning. And smart. And amazing.”

“You’re my friend. You have to say that.”

“Well, I think you could stand to lose a few pounds,” Gloria chimed in, sauntering toward the shop door. A grandmother of three teenagers, she was small and as skinny as a scrap of tree bark, and her bright orange sweater, the color of a ripe pumpkin, hung loosely on her wiry frame. “But some men think more pounds is just more to love. So you need to think positive. And hope this date of yours likes red lipstick, because that one you bought is awfully red. I’m just sayin.’”

In typical Gloria fashion, she yanked open the door and was gone.

For a moment there was dead silence. Laureen and Carly stared at each other.

“Can you believe her?” Laureen finally gasped.

“Don’t you dare pay any attention to a word she says,” Carly ordered.

“Tell me the truth. Do you think the lipstick’s too red?” Laureen’s hazel eyes locked on Carly. The lipstick she’d carefully applied was full-on, red-carpet red, a lush, richly voluptuous color that looked bright and prettily vivid with her fair hair and creamy complexion.

“No way. It’s perfect. Gloria’s just being Gloria. Go home. Primp. I mean it, Laureen. Drink a glass of wine, and have fun tonight. I’ll expect a full report tomorrow.”

“No way. You go home.” Setting the cups down with a clatter on the countertop at the rear of the shop, Laureen hustled up to the front where Carly was putting away the toys scattered around the small children’s play area.

“I’ll close up.” Her red mouth was firmly set. “You check on Emma -- that’s a whole lot more important. My date isn’t until eight, so go. Go see your daughter.”

Straightening, Carly took another deep breath. “You sure? You don’t mind?”

Laureen grabbed the stuffed Big Bird from her. “Get outta here, boss.”

Carly didn’t have to think twice. Grabbing her purse from beneath the front counter, she managed a quick, grateful grin. “That does it. You’re officially employee of the month.”

“Last I heard, I was the only employee, this month or any other.”

“That makes you the best. Every month. ” It was all she could do not to sprint to the door. “This guy better treat you right tonight or he’ll answer to me,” she called over her shoulder.

“Yeah, what are you going to do? Stitch him to death?” Laureen gave a small huff of laughter before the door of Carly’s Quilts clicked shut behind its owner.

Then Carly was bolting across Spring Street toward her Jeep, her tan wedges tapping the pavement. A cool September wind nipped down from the mountains, tousling her thick, curly mane of strawberry blond hair, making her shiver in her sea green cotton sweater and jeans.

I’m not going to have a panic attack, I’m not, she told herself, taking deep breaths, repeating the mantra over and over, trying to turn her mind from every disastrous thought.

It was hard to get in enough air, though, and she felt a little lightheaded. But she hadn’t had an attack in years, hadn’t even had one when she found out about Kevin being married, or when she discovered she was pregnant. She certainly wasn’t going to have one now….she couldn’t let herself have one now, not after all this time…

She had nearly reached her Jeep when she heard Martha Davies’ voice call out from behind her.

“Yoo hoo. Carly! Where’s the fire?”

Can’t get away with a thing in this town. Carly’s stomach clenched. Turning, she managed a smile for her foster mother Annie’s cousin, the eighty-something owner of the Cuttin’ Loose beauty salon, waiting as Martha bore down upon her, beaming. A long purple knit skirt swished around the older woman’s legs and a turquoise crocheted sweater covered her tall, spare frame. Not a smidgen of gray showed in her chin-length hair. It was freshly dyed a light blondish auburn and gleamed with reddish highlights in the autumn sunshine.

Martha was famous in Lonesome Way for changing her hair color the same way some women changed shoes. But her heart was as steady as a rock. She was Emma’s godmother, and, now that Annie was gone, the closest person to family Carly had left in the world.

If not for all the times she’d accompanied Annie on visits to see Martha in Lonesome Way over the years, Carly might never have discovered the town that had become her home.

“I was just on my way to find you,” Martha went on briskly before Carly could respond. “Closing up a little early, honey, aren’t you?”

“I wanted to squeeze in some extra time with Emma.” Leaning forward, Carly gave the older woman a quick kiss on the cheek. She hoped Martha couldn’t sense the tension flowing through her. Martha might be in her eighties, but she still ran her business with a firm hand and was sharp as a toothpick. “It was a slow day; you know how it goes.”

“Oh, honey, you bet I do.” Martha’s dangling jet earrings swung as she shook her head in annoyance. “Wouldn’t you know, Georgia Timmons canceled her tint at the last minute and now I have twenty minutes to kill before my next client comes in for a manicure and cut. What am I supposed to do, twiddle my thumbs?”

She stopped grimacing suddenly and stared at Carly with sharply narrowing eyes. “You know, you look sort of tense, honey. Everything all right? Emma isn’t sick, is she?”

“Emma’s great. She blew me about fifty kisses when I left this morning. I’m just tired.” Carly hated lying but she could hardly tell Martha that Emma’s daddy had breezed into town. Even Martha didn’t know that Jake Tanner was Emma’s father. No one knew. And Carly intended to keep it that way.

“Can I give you a call later?” She edged toward the Jeep. “Madison needs to study for an exam, plus she has a gig tonight. I want to let her leave as early as possible --”

“That’s exactly what I want to talk to you about – Madison! Can I switch days with her and watch Emma tomorrow instead of Friday? I’ll be shorthanded Friday and have a full day of appointments booked, including two perms and three manicures. But I don’t want to miss out on any time with my little miss.”

Ever since Emma turned one, Martha had insisted on having Emma spend the day with her at least once a week and then sleep over that night at her apartment. She’d even bought a crib that fit into a corner of her small living room and had sewn a gorgeous quilt for her goddaughter. Emma always squealed in excitement at the sight of “MaWa” – and not just because each time she slept over at MaWa’s apartment there was a new toy or doll waiting for her.

“No problem -- or we could skip this week if it would be easier for you-- ”

“Not a chance.” Martha waved her hand, an amethyst and jet bracelet jangling cheerfully on her wrist. “I look forward every week to having my time with her. And -- I bought her a little something new. I can’t wait to give it to her.”

“You don’t have to buy her things all the time, Martha.” A mixture of emotions rose in Carly, an overwhelming combination of guilt, love, and tenderness for this woman who had taken her and her daughter so deeply into her heart and had woven their lives into hers. “Emma loves you for you, not because you give her--”

“Shoot, don’t you think I know that, honey? I like buying things for her. Gives me a kick to see her face light up. Never had a little granddaughter of my own. And it’s my business if I want to spoil her, isn’t it? I think Annie would want me to do just that. Remember, it’s your unpleasant job to say no to her now and then -- not mine.” Chuckling, she turned back toward the Cuttin’ Loose. “You go ahead now. But don’t forget to tell Madison,” she instructed over her shoulder.

“I won’t.”

For a moment Carly watched the older woman saunter back toward her shop. There was a lump in her throat as she studied the tall, retreating figure. Martha had always been so kind to her, so kind to Emma.

Just as this town had been...

Drawing yet another long breath that was supposed to be calming, she climbed into her Jeep, snapped her seat belt, and roared out of her parking space a lot faster than she’d intended.

She couldn’t believe any of this. That Jake Tanner was here, that this was really happening. But the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach brought reality vividly home.

Only an hour before, the biggest problem in her life had been the charity dating auction coming up next week. Ava Louise Todd, Sophie Tanner’s tiny, silver-haired grandmother, had roped her into being part of it. The dating auction was the first installment of the town’s big Thanksgiving fundraiser to build a new animal shelter. Carly had volunteered months earlier to donate gift certificates, fabric, and quilting lessons as her contribution – and to sew a square for a community quilt.

But that hadn’t been enough for Ava.

Oh, no.

That petite little old lady might be as sweet and beautiful as the cinnamon buns sold by the dozens at A Bun in the Oven, but she also had a spine of industrial-strength steel.

It was not in Ava Louise Todd’s nature to ever take no for an answer.

“All we’re asking you to do is go on one tiny little date,” she’d pleaded with a gleam in her eyes. “And you need only spend a couple of hours with whichever man casts the winning bid. Where’s the harm in that, dear?”

Carly had tried to explain that she had zero interest in dating, that she was done with men – done with a capital D – and that the thought of parading across a makeshift stage at the Double Cross Bar and Grill before a roomful of shouting, stamping, whistling cowboys was as enticing to her as a night out on the Crazy Mountains, stark naked, in the midst of a February blizzard.

But Ava had merely chuckled, and waved a hand at all of her objections.

“Now, don’t be silly, it’s going to be fun. You know Tansy Noble who works over at the post office, don’t you? Well, she’s up for our charity dating auction, and she’s been through three divorces, poor thing. And your own babysitter, Madison Hodge, volunteered, too, and that young woman is about as eager to parade across that stage as a gazelle would be to step into a lion’s den, especially after everything her mama put her through with all those beauty pageants she signed the girl up for – why, she got poor Madison started when she was only six! So if those two can brave it, something tells me you can, too. Especially for such a worthy cause. Only think about those poor needy animals!”

So Carly had. She’d thought about the animals, the strays, hungry, neglected, or abused – all of them needing a new shelter. Her heart went out to them. She’d been pretty much a stray herself, growing up in the homes of reluctant relatives who’d shuttled her off somewhere else whenever they got tired of having another mouth to feed.

A toss-away child, she remembered a caseworker saying once, in an undervoice. But Carly had overheard.

She knew all too well how it felt to be unwanted.

To have no place that was home.

And so, in the end, she’d caved. She’d agreed to put herself up for auction. It was a big icy plunge for someone who had dreaded standing before her third grade class to give a book report.

But now, at this moment, driving home toward Blue Bell Drive, knowing that Jake Tanner was here in Lonesome Way, the charity dating auction suddenly shrank to an insignificant blip on her emotional radar. No bigger than an ant at a picnic. A moth on the moon. Nothing compared to the fact that her daughter’s father was here in his hometown and it was almost inevitable that he’d run into them.

He can’t find out about Emma, she told herself, her chest tightening with fear.

It would change everything. If his family learned the truth, they wouldn’t understand why she hadn’t told him -- or them -- that Emma was part of their family.

She’d only wanted her daughter to be close to them…to know them, and for them to know her, even if they didn’t know who she really was…

She’d almost told Jake she was pregnant way back then. She’d debated with herself for weeks and finally had tracked him down at a rodeo in Prescott, Arizona, fully intending to tell him.

But when she’d spotted him, he was surrounded by a bevy of beautiful young women, all clamoring for his autograph. He’d had his arm around one dainty, laughing brunette as he signed. And she’d suddenly changed her mind. Backing away, she’d melted deliberately into the throng of people attending the rodeo before Jake ever spotted her.

She had no regrets about that, she told herself now. None.

Because it would have been a disaster. They’d only spent that one night together but it was clear as a glass of spring water that Jake Tanner hadn’t the least desire to be a father. Or a husband. Or a boyfriend. He was a cowboy, a roamer.

A tumbleweed.

Jake didn’t even want a permanent address, much less a family!

Carly had strong feelings about men who left the women in their lives. Who didn’t do well with commitment. Her own father had abandoned her and her mother when Carly was only three. She barely remembered him – his face was merely a square-jawed shadow in the darkest recesses of her memory. She couldn’t recall his voice, his smell. She hadn’t seen or heard from him since the day he left. There had never been a phone call or a letter.

Even after her mother died, her father hadn’t come back for her. She’d waited, telling herself every night before she fell asleep that he’d know somehow that she needed him, that he’d call or come. That he’d take care of her, hold her hand, tell her he was sorry for ever leaving her. He’d sweep her away from her aunt’s noisy jumbled house, or her cousin’s crowded trailer, and find a new place for them to live, a place where it would be quiet and happy and safe, with just the two of them.

She waited and waited.

But Les McKinnon never came back to rescue her.

So Carly knew all the way down to her innermost soul that she could only depend on herself. And that it would be far better for Emma to have no father in her life than a reluctant, resentful, or unreliable one. One who might take off at any time, disappear for weeks, a month, a year -- or forever.

Just as hers had.

Jake was a bull-riding, rodeo-following, freaking famous cowboy, after all, with the world at his feet. And no inclination to settle down. He was as tough and independent as he was handsome. He was a risk-taker, who liked to live life on the edge, with no roots, no attachments. A cowboy through and through, with zero desire ever to be tied to one woman or one place, even Lonesome Way.

He’d told her so himself that night over dinner – and in the hotel room in Houston. Laid it all out for her, nicely, lightly, but clearly before he allowed her to tug him toward that sumptuously made-up king-sized bed.

Oh, she’d known what she was getting into before she’d tumbled onto those one- thousand-thread-count sheets with the hottest man she’d ever met.

And she’d also known when she’d backed away from telling him she was pregnant that she didn’t want a reluctant, unhappy, rodeo-following father anywhere near her baby’s life.

Let Jake do his thing, you do yours. Or you’ll all be miserable, she’d told herself when she was six weeks along, alone and throwing up at least twice a day.

She didn’t need him in any way, shape, or form. She would take care of her baby just fine all by herself. Thanks to Annie, her foster mother, the first person in Carly’s life to recognize her math aptitude and intelligence, she’d earned an MBA and had been working for several years as a senior financial consultant for Marjorie Moore’s Home and Hearth -- one of the largest home goods and lifestyle companies in the country.

She had the financial means to raise a child alone.

And more than enough love for two parents.

So much love.

But still, her stomach churned as she left the town behind and hung a right on Coyote Road, heading toward her own small neighborhood. By the time she finally turned onto Blue Bell Drive she was barely keeping panic at bay. She needed desperately to hold Emma. To think this through before she ran into Jake or even Lissie or Sophie or Mia, his sister and sisters-in-law, who, along with Karla McDonald and Laureen, were her closest friends in Lonesome Way.

As she drove past Karla and Denny’s house, two doors down from hers, she saw their son, seven-year-old Austin, shooting baskets in the back yard -- and through an open window caught a glimpse of almost four-year-old Ashley toddling around in dress-up clothes in the living room.

At least everything was normal over there. Blissfully normal. The way it should be. Carly suddenly yearned for normal. For yesterday.

For Jake not to be here.

There was a knot in her stomach as she turned into her own tree-lined driveway where her rambling Victorian house sat amid the row of other rambling Victorian houses. Parking at the top of the driveway, she sat for a moment with her fingers still gripping the steering wheel, staring at her beautiful wraparound porch, at her apple tree, at her neat little flower garden tidied up for fall.

Through the window, she saw Madison in sweat pants and a tee and heard the girl playing her guitar and singing “Old McDonald Had A Farm” for Emma, who stood swaying and clapping, her stuffed dog, Bug, at her feet.

It was all Carly could do not to burst into tears. She felt like everything she had, everything she loved and cherished, was at risk.

Sitting in the Jeep, her throat thickened with unshed tears. She needed to hold Emma in her arms, to hear her soft baby laughter. She needed to feed her daughter supper and read to her. To rock her to sleep tonight as the Montana sky slid from peacock blue to deep, cool purple. While a million stars popped out and the peaceful quiet of home enfolded the two of them like a thick, safe cocoon.

She could only have dreamed of a life like this one when she was a young girl, trying to make herself invisible in corners while the relatives she lived with after her mother’s death argued and screamed, while TVs blared, her rough-neck cousin Phil’s feet pounded up and down hallways, and doors slammed all through the night.

She couldn’t lose this. Lonesome Way. She couldn’t lose any of it.

Stepping down from her Jeep to the sound of a lone bird chirping in her apple tree, Carly prayed for nothing to change as she swallowed the lump in her throat and hurried up the steps of her home.

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