His Texas Bride Deb Kastner Ëèòàãåíò HarperCollins EUR It's been years since single father Buck Redmond set foot in his Texas hometown. For good reasons–or so he thinks. He plans to quickly sell his family's ranch and hightail it out with his son. But the Redmond homestead now belongs to his former flame, Ellie McBride.The violet-eyed beauty stirs up all kinds of bittersweet memories–including why Buck left her behind. And she somehow manages to turn his scowling son into a happy, talkative junior cowboy. Soon enough, Buck is reminded of why he loved Ellie. But making her his Texas bride will mean completely opening his heart. “I know you must have been pretty angry with me when I left the way I did.” “Buck, that was twenty years ago,” Ellie reminded him gently, her tone carefully neutral. Why did he want to dig up the past, when there was so much to deal with right now in the present? “Still,” he drawled slowly, “you must want to know what happened back then.” Ellie shrugged. “If you want to tell me, I’ll listen.” Buck stepped back, looking stunned as if she’d slapped his face. “It didn’t matter to you that I left?” Ellie frowned. “Of course it mattered. A lot of people in this town thought—I thought—you and I had a future together.” Buck was silent, and Ellie wondered what he was thinking about. He shook his head but didn’t speak. DEB KASTNER lives and writes in colorful Colorado with the front range of the Rocky Mountains for inspiration. She loves writing for the Steeple Hill Love Inspired line, where she can write about her two favorite things—faith and love. Her characters range from upbeat and humorous to (her favorite) dark and broody heroes. Her plots fall anywhere in between, from a playful romp to the deeply emotional. Deb’s books have been twice nominated for the RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Inspirational Novel of the Year. Deb and her husband share their home with their two youngest daughters. Deb is thrilled about the newest member of the family—her first granddaughter, Isabella. What fun to be a granny! Deb loves to hear from her readers. You can contact her by e-mail at DEBWRTR@aol.com, or on her MySpace or Facebook pages. His Texas Bride Deb Kastner www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. —Matthew 5:23, 24 All my love to my dearest daughter Kimberly. Your strength and courage inspire me. Contents 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 Questions for Discussion Chapter One Mama loved carnations. Buck Redmond gently laid the small, sweetly pungent bouquet of purple and yellow carnations against the headstone carved with his mother’s initials, careful not to disturb the freshly turned earth that framed the graveside. He brushed his suddenly tear-stung eyes with his thumb and forefinger and, for the hundredth time that morning, wished he’d come home even a day sooner. He’d never planned to return home at all. But for his mother’s funeral, he’d had no choice. Despite the rift he’d created between them, Buck loved his mother, and now he’d never be able to tell her just how much. But there was no use thinking about things that could never be. Buck had learned that the hard way. He’d make arrangements to sell his mother’s property and get out of town as fast as he’d had to return. His childhood home, once a horse ranch and now Esther’s House of Crafts, held few good memories for him, anyway. Buck stood and replaced his black Stetson on his head. Then, feeling like he should say a prayer for his mother but not knowing how, he turned away. Right into the arms of Ellie McBride. Ellie. The last person on earth he wanted to see right now. “I thought I’d find you here,” she said softly, placing her palms on his elbows as if to balance him. Buck took an unconscious step backward. If he was going to fall down—and he wasn’t—a small, raven-haired wisp of a woman like Ellie wouldn’t have been able to keep him vertical. Besides, he still felt that little zap of electricity whenever she touched him. It hadn’t gone away, not in twenty years. He was thirty-eight years old now, not an awkward teenager anymore. He and Ellie had both moved on with their lives. He pulled the brim of his hat down low over his eyes. “What do you want?” he asked. His words came out a bit more gruffly than he’d intended, but he didn’t apologize. “I’ve been looking for you,” she said simply. “Why?” “I’m holding a reception for your mother’s passing at my….” She hesitated, stumbling over her words. Buck wondered why, but he didn’t ask. He had no intention of going to any reception in this town, but telling Ellie that without hurting her feelings was another thing entirely. “At…at my ranch house,” she concluded, gushing out the words. “The whole town is there, Buck. They want to pay their respects to you—and your son. Where is Tyler, anyway?” That was exactly what Buck was afraid of, the whole town being there, especially where his son, Tyler, was concerned. He would have left twelve-year-old Tyler with someone—anyone—if there was anyone to leave him with, which there wasn’t. “Tyler is waiting in my truck,” he said, choosing to answer the obvious and avoid the rest for as long as he could. “Oh, good. I didn’t get the chance to meet him at the funeral,” she said, her voice husky as she tried for a light tone but didn’t quite succeed. Ellie reached out and touched Buck’s arm again, this time sliding her hand down his forearm to reach for his palm. Buck had forgotten how tiny her hand felt in his, and he simply stared at their hands as their fingers met. “I couldn’t even get close to you,” she said softly. “You took off right after the funeral this morning without a word to anyone.” That much was true. He simply nodded, unable to speak for the well of emotion in his throat. “I wanted to tell you and Tyler how sorry I am about the loss of Esther,” she continued in her high, lilting voice, unashamed of the tears that coursed down her cheeks. “You know your mother was always like a second mom to me. I will miss her desperately. I can’t imagine how you feel.” Actually, Ellie could imagine just that, Buck thought, if anyone could. Ellie had been close to his mother, ever since Buck and Ellie had first started dating in his junior—her sophomore—year of high school. Ellie’s own mother had died when she was a small child. Perhaps that was the reason Buck’s mother and Ellie had formed such a strong, loving bond. And maybe that was what made it so much harder to imagine returning home at all. Buck didn’t really want to think about that right now. He pulled his fingers from her grasp. “I appreciate the sentiment,” he said roughly, his throat closing around the words, “and I’m sure you went to a lot of trouble for the reception, so I’m sorry to say Tyler and I won’t be able to make it.” He wasn’t sorry, but it seemed like the polite thing to say. But in his years away from Ellie McBride, he’d apparently forgotten one of her more annoying qualities—her stubborn nature. “Of course you’re going to the reception,” she replied in a no-nonsense voice that brooked no argument. “Buck, your mother just passed. You may not care about the people in this town, but they care about you.” Ellie glared at him, daring him to argue with her. When he didn’t speak, she continued her tirade as if she hadn’t even paused. “And they cared about your mother. It would be good of you to allow them to express their grief at her loss.” “I don’t owe the people in this town a thing,” he bit out, shaking his head. He believed his own words. The town he’d been born and raised in had betrayed his trust in everything he’d believed in. They’d sold their souls to the almighty dollar. Ellie. Even his own mother. Why should he care what the town folks of Ferrell thought about him? He should get out of town right now, while the getting was good. “Larry Bowman is there,” Ellie went on, obviously ignoring the fact that Buck had pulled away from her yet again. “I’m sure he’d be willing to talk with you about your mother’s will as soon as the reception is finished.” Buck groaned aloud. With grief shrouding his thoughts, he’d temporarily forgotten he would have to take care of his mother’s estate before leaving town. He wanted to leave now. Grief washed through him once again, shadowing his other feelings. He was his mother’s only child, and no doubt the sole beneficiary of her will. He needed to speak with Larry Bowman, the town lawyer, sooner or later; at the moment, his heart was voting for later rather than sooner. “I don’t know if I can do that,” he said, his voice gruff and low. He pinched his lips together. He hadn’t meant to say the words aloud. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” Ellie said in an equally low tone, repeating her earlier sentiment. “I know this is a rough time for you. If it helps, I’ll be at the reading of the will.” Buck’s head jerked up, and he looked Ellie straight in her deep violet eyes for the first time. He was thoroughly shaken by the amount of warmth and compassion he read there—he’d expected more anger, he supposed—but even so, it was her words that unsettled him the most. “Why would you be there?” Ellie shook her head, looking away from his gaze and squeezing her eyes closed for a brief moment. Buck wondered if she had something to hide—something she wasn’t telling him. Not that he would ask. “I just know I’ve been asked to attend,” she said, opening her eyes and once more making eye contact with him. “And I thought it might help if you had a—a friend,” she stammered awkwardly, “by your side through all this.” Buck turned away, unable to meet her gaze any longer. Ellie had been a friend, the best friend he’d ever had. But she had been so much more than that. His first love. Puppy love, some might have called it, but Buck knew better in his heart. Ellie McBride had been his first love—if he were completely honest with himself, his only love. But that was a long time ago, in another lifetime. Too much had happened since then, for them both. He was amazed she would still consider herself to be anything to him, much less call herself his friend. At long last he sighed and turned back to her. “All right,” he said, surrendering to the inevitable. “I’ll go to your reception. But I’m not sure what to do with Tyler. He doesn’t want to be here at all. I don’t think he’ll be keen on meeting the folks of Ferrell, Texas. Especially right now.” Ellie nodded, her beautiful violet eyes gleaming. “I understand. I wouldn’t want to be around a bunch of strangers if I were grieving for my beloved grandmother, either. And twelve is a tough age for a boy.” Buck barely held back his disbelief. What would she know about twelve-year-old boys? Buck’s mother, on her brief visits to see Buck and Tyler on the west side of Texas, had mentioned more than once that Ellie had never married—not that he had asked. But he knew why his mother had persisted in bringing the subject up: always in the hope he would return to Ferrell, something he’d long since vowed never to do. Until now. “Listen, I think I can handle Tyler,” Ellie said, brushing her long, thick, straight black hair back from her forehead with her thumb and middle finger. “Why don’t we head over to the ranch, and I’ll see what I can do?” Buck knew any overtures to Tyler on Ellie’s part would be met with resistance by his surly son. Tyler was a handful, with a chip on his shoulder the size of Texas itself. But what else could Buck do? He nodded and gestured toward the church, where he’d parked his truck. They walked in silence, Ellie obviously lost in her own thoughts and Buck wondering what she was thinking. Maybe he didn’t want to know. Ellie had enough reason to hate Buck for what he’d done to her twenty years ago. For all they’d meant to each other, he’d disappeared out of her life without a single word to her. Her compassion in light of their past together confused him. Perhaps she was doing this only for the sake of his mother. He sensed an unseen wall between them, erected by Ellie’s emotions, one he knew he couldn’t break down even if he wanted to. He’d built that wall with his own two hands. Not that it mattered, he told himself. Buck knocked on the glass on the passenger’s side of his pickup truck, a vehicle that had seen better days. Tyler, dressed in a new pair of blue jeans and a blue denim shirt, had his head back against the seat and his eyes closed, his MP3 player in his hand and earphones in his ears. Buck knew Tyler wasn’t dozing, even when he didn’t so much as open an eyelid to Buck’s persistent knocking. Maybe the boy was playing his music too loud to hear Buck knocking. Choosing to give Tyler the benefit of the doubt, Buck dug his keys from the front left pocket of his black jeans, unlocked the door and opened it. “Wake up, kiddo,” he gently told his son, shaking the boy by the shoulder. He presumed Tyler was intentionally ignoring him, as he had been all through the trip back to Ferrell, and through the funeral service, as well. “I want to introduce you to someone.” That got the boy’s attention. Apparently Tyler’s music wasn’t as loud as Buck had first supposed. Tyler opened his eyes—blue, like his mother’s—and scrubbed a hand through his light blond hair, also a maternal trait, not at all like Buck’s own sandy brown hair and green eyes. Ellie stepped forward, extending her hand. “Hi, Tyler. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Ellie McBride. I was a friend of your grandmother. And your father,” she said, making it sound almost like an afterthought. “I’m truly sorry for your loss.” Tyler squinted down at Ellie’s outstretched hand but ignored it. Instead, he simply shrugged and tipped his head back against the seat, closing his eyes once again. “Miss McBride is having a reception in honor of your grandmother,” Buck said sternly, wishing he’d taught his son better manners, though glancing at Ellie, she didn’t seem to have taken the least offense at Tyler’s breach of etiquette. She was smiling compassionately at the boy. “There are quite a few boys your age,” she offered. “I can introduce you, if you’d like. Maybe you can make a few new friends while you’re in town.” Tyler grunted and shook his head, and Buck began to think he’d raised a Neanderthal. How could he blame the boy, though? Buck knew all about being silent and broody. He’d invented it. “Tyler, get out of the truck. Now,” he stated in a firm, no-nonsense voice. “No,” Tyler and Ellie replied at the same time. Buck didn’t know who to glare at first, so he swept his gaze across both of them. “Really, there’s no need,” Ellie continued. At least she was attempting to explain herself, while Buck’s own son chose to ignore him completely. “My ranch is just north of town, just off Main Street, to the right. McBride’s Christian Therapy Ranch. You can’t miss the sign.” Therapy ranch? That was a mighty fancy name for a tourist trap, Buck thought with an internal scoff. He wanted to cringe in distaste. This was exactly why he’d left Ferrell in the first place. Instead, he kept his thoughts to himself. Forcing himself to be polite, he tipped his hat at Ellie and strode purposefully to the driver’s side of the truck. “We’ll see you there.” Ellie’s meeting with Buck and Tyler hadn’t gone at all as she’d anticipated. Actually, she’d had no idea what to expect—not after twenty years. What she hadn’t expected was how quickly all her feelings came back, flooding into her heart as if someone had opened a gate. Buck still made her stomach weak with butterflies and her heart sing, no matter how she tried to tamp it down. Frankly, Ellie hadn’t expected to feel anything for Buck. Twenty years was a long time. And if she felt anything, it should be anger, she mused. But she’d buried that emotion ages ago, and it hadn’t returned, at least not yet. Not even when she’d first seen Buck at his mother’s graveside. God’s forgiveness was an amazing thing—she knew it wasn’t her own spirit that had healed her heart. Time had healed her heart. That, and a lot of prayer. Still, she continued to surprise herself. Ellie had felt a bit of righteous indignation on Buck’s mother’s behalf, perhaps, but not what she would classify as anger. And as she watched Buck now, standing in the middle of her family room, surrounded by townspeople he’d known all his life, she felt nothing but pity. Buck had once been the most important part of her world. She had moved on, but Buck, Buck looked like a man who’d seen one too many days on the rough side of life. At least he looked more comfortable now than he had at the graveside, having shed his Western jacket and bolo tie. He was still dressed entirely in black, however. His Western shirt was now open at the collar, although, she mused with a touch of amusement, Buck still looked a little like he was choking. It was probably the crowd suffocating him, Ellie thought. One more painful reminder of how much he’d changed. She remembered a time in his high school years when Buck had once loved being the center of attention. Speaking of attention, Ellie realized she hadn’t seen Tyler enter her dwelling with Buck. She felt an instinctive kinship and a sense of responsibility to the boy, who, under different circumstances, might have been her own son. He wasn’t, but that didn’t stop Ellie from a small burst of maternal feeling. Of course, Tyler didn’t want to spend an afternoon surrounded by people he didn’t know offering him condolences on his grandmother’s passing. Buck’s mother, whom Ellie had called Mama Esther for as long as she could remember, had been especially close to Tyler. Ellie knew from Mama Esther’s recounting how difficult a time Tyler had had adjusting to his mother’s abandonment when he was only two years old. And now, at age twelve, poor Tyler had lost his beloved grandmother. Ellie excused herself from her hostess duties and slipped into the homey, aromatic kitchen and out the back door. Pausing for a moment to push her hair out of her face, she made her way to the front of the house, where Buck’s truck was parked amid the rest of the town’s vehicles. Cupping her hand over her forehead against the sun’s incessant glare, she peeked inside the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tyler. The truck was empty. Ellie was surprised. She’d been certain she’d find the young man locked in the truck with his MP3 player blasting in his ears, as he’d been earlier. It was what she would have done were she the one in Tyler’s place. But, she realized with sudden insight, it wasn’t what Buck would have done given the same circumstances. And suddenly she knew exactly where to look for Tyler. Turning on her heel, she strode away from the truck, but not the way she’d come. Not back to the house. Instead, she turned down the trail to her stable. Somehow, in the deepest part of her heart, she was certain she’d find Tyler there. Buck looked around for Ellie, but she had disappeared. He admitted to being a little surprised, actually, when he’d entered Ellie’s ranch house and had seen all the people milling around, eating and chatting. Every word Ellie had said was true. The whole town was there, and his old friends and neighbors had quickly surrounded him to voice their condolences over the loss of his mother. Buck had known his mother was well loved in Ferrell, but he believed himself to be as equally—and understandably—despised and couldn’t have imagined the magnitude of compassion and acceptance he was experiencing with people he’d long since put out of his heart and his life. He’d clearly underestimated them. All of them. It occurred to him that this might have been the case all along. Whatever changes had happened in Ferrell, it was obviously still a small town at heart. People here really cared. He hadn’t given them enough credit for that. He’d thought they’d turn fancy and snobbish once the highway was built and tourist money started lining their pockets. That he was wrong surprised and discomfited him. And the food! Everyone had brought their best dishes to share for the occasion. Buck was used to bunkhouse fare, and the layout of food here at Ellie’s was better than at any of the church potlucks he remembered attending as a child here in Ferrell. His stomach was soon as heavy as his heart was light. It seemed only minutes had passed when Larry Bowman clapped Buck on the back of his shoulder. “The crowd is starting to disperse,” he said in a kind, gentle tone. Larry had been the town lawyer for as long as Buck could remember. “We can get down to business anytime you’re ready.” “Sure,” Buck choked out, struggling for a breath. Why did he feel like he was being ambushed? Try as he might, he couldn’t shake it. “Just give me a few minutes, will you? I need to check on my son.” Larry nodded in agreement and quickly moved back toward the nearest group of neighbors, giving Buck the space he so desperately needed. Find his son? What Buck needed to do was find Ellie. He realized he hadn’t seen her in an hour. Ellie was a social being. Buck had expected her to be flitting around like a butterfly as hostess of this party, or at least that was how she’d been twenty years ago. He realized, with a pang of some emotion he refused to identify, that he really knew nothing of the woman she’d become. Despite that fact, though, he had a less-than-altruistic reason for finding Ellie—the reading of the will. His tough veneer was a sham, and he knew it. And if he wasn’t careful, everyone else would know it, as well. Where was she? Buck asked around, but no one had seen her in a while. And then Buck remembered something Ellie had said earlier, when they were at the gravesite together. She’d said she would handle Tyler, once they’d agreed to come to the reception at her ranch. Was that where she was? With Tyler? Ellie was in for trouble if she had any notion of pulling Tyler out of his shell. The boy was so angry and bitter, he rarely talked to Buck anymore, much less some strange woman from a town his father rarely spoke of, and only then with an animosity he knew he could not hide. He wouldn’t be too keen on anything Ellie offered, especially meeting new friends. Tyler had always been a bit of a loner. Like Buck. Even so, Buck’s gut was telling him he was on the right track with that line of reasoning, that he would find Tyler wherever Ellie was lurking. Ellie had always been a stubborn woman, and Buck doubted that had changed in twenty years. She would be a formidable opponent, even for Tyler, though Buck wasn’t the least bit certain who would win any quarrel between them. Buck hoped there was no quarrel. Spinning on his heels, he clamped his black Stetson down on his head and moved slowly and awkwardly toward the front door, having to explain several times that, no, he was not leaving so soon, but rather that he was trying to find his son so he could introduce Tyler around. If Buck could get the boy out of the truck. And if Ellie’s feelings weren’t too hurt by his son’s sharp tongue and broody disposition. The scenario in Buck’s mind was looking worse by the minute. Tyler biting into Ellie in suppressed grief over the death of his beloved grandmother. Ellie forcing Tyler to meet kids his own age, when all that would do was make the boy even more uncomfortable than he already was. Buck couldn’t get to his truck fast enough—only to find it empty when he arrived. Chapter Two Ellie’s theory had been right on the mark. Once she’d remembered whose son Tyler was, she’d known just where to look for him—in the stable, with the horses. Where Buck would have hidden given the same set of circumstances. The boy obviously shared the same love for horses as his father, because as soon as Ellie entered the stable, she knew Tyler was present. She could hear Tyler making the same soft crooning sounds his father had always used—quite effectively, she clearly remembered—with his own horses. “Tyler?” she called cheerfully, but her only answer was a sudden deafening silence in the stable. “Tyler Redmond? It’s Ellie McBride. We met earlier.” Still no sound, but Ellie was no less certain Tyler was somewhere in the stable, and that he was no doubt straining his ears for any sound she might make. She moved noisily from stall to stall, speaking to each of her beloved horses as she went and thus giving Tyler plenty of warning—wherever he was. It was only when she peeked over the last door, the one to the birthing stall, that she found Tyler. One of her quarter horse broodmares, Sophie, was due to deliver soon, so the sorrel-colored mare had been recently confined to the roomy birthing stall, filled with fresh straw to welcome the newborn foal whenever he or she came. Ellie thought it would be soon. To Ellie’s alarm, Sophie was lying on her side, her breath coming in heaving snorts. Tyler was there with the sorrel, on his knees, hunkered over the mare, rubbing her down with his own bandana and murmuring encouragement to her. Ellie noted vaguely that Tyler’s denim shirt was now untucked, and the boy had obviously given no thought to dirtying his crisp new blue jeans as he knelt before the laboring mare. “Tyler?” Ellie said again. “What is it? What’s wrong with Sophie?” She realized belatedly she had no idea why she was asking a twelve-year-old boy such a question, but she opened the stall door and slipped inside, sliding to her knees next to the horse’s head and running her hand down Sophie’s sweat-stained withers, then rapidly across her stomach, mentally assessing how far into labor Sophie might be. Her adrenaline surged as she realized help for the birth was not readily available. Doc Stevens, the local vet, wasn’t inside the ranch house with the rest of the community. Just after Esther’s funeral, the vet had been unexpectedly called away for an emergency at a nearby farm. Ellie toyed with the idea of having Tyler run and ask someone at the house to fetch Doc Stevens immediately. Still, she waited patiently for the boy’s answer to her query, allowing Tyler the opportunity to voice his own opinion, as he’d been with the mare longer. Tyler looked up at her with the same serious, low-browed gaze Buck often wore, shadowed by a camel-colored felt cowboy hat pushed low over his eyes. The boy reminded Ellie of his father in so many ways, it made her heart turn over and emotions clog in her throat. “She’s in labor,” Tyler said, his voice at once soft and gruff, with the high-pitched twinge of a young man entering puberty. “It’s been an hour, maybe?” Ellie smiled inwardly. She might have pointed out that she had already assessed that much just by looking at the situation, but she didn’t. Instead, she nodded briskly and allowed the boy to continue. “And?” “Well, I found her this way,” Tyler explained, shrugging his shoulders. “I know mares lie down to give birth, but it seems to me she’s struggling awfully hard. I think the foal might be in the wrong position.” That was exactly what Ellie was thinking. She smiled encouragement to the boy and then frowned as she thought through the implications of this situation. “Our town vet couldn’t make it to the reception,” she explained hastily. “Some kind of emergency at a neighboring ranch. I may need you to find your dad and have him drive you out to find Doc Stevens, the vet.” The boy scowled for a moment, then nodded briskly. Obviously the idea of dashing into a house of strangers to find his dad was not high on Tyler’s list of things to do, much less jaunt all over town, looking for a veterinarian he didn’t even know. The boy surprised her. Despite his obvious discomfort, Tyler tipped his cowboy hat with his fingers and answered her politely, if not willingly. “Yes, ma’am,” he replied. At that moment the mare made a horrible groaning sound, almost a scream. Ellie and Tyler at once turned their attention back to Sophie. Ellie had been breeding horses long enough to realize that Sophie shouldn’t be experiencing the kind of pain she was obviously in. As Tyler had gravely noted, something was definitely wrong. A gush of liquid from the mare sealed it for Ellie. There wasn’t time to go for help. “I’ve changed my mind, Tyler. I need you with me. Do you think you can give me a hand? Sophie is obviously delivering this foal now.” “Yes, ma’am,” Tyler answered, his brilliant blue eyes shining delightedly at this new opportunity. Once again Tyler reminded Ellie of his father. Ellie was surprised at the quiet respect the young man showed her. He’d appeared so bitter and broody earlier. But like his father, Ellie guessed, Tyler had a special bond with horses—apparently enough of a connection to allow the boy to set his other concerns aside. “There is a box of supplies in the corner. I need you to grab the tape and wrap Sophie’s tail for me.” Without a word, Tyler went to work, efficiently wrapping the mare’s tail while Ellie held it up for him. “You’ve done this before,” Ellie stated. “Yes, ma’am. A few times.” “Good. I can use your experience.” Tyler looked up at her, surprise—and maybe a little pride—evident in his expression. One corner of his mouth tipped up ever so slightly. Ellie thought that might be the closest thing to a smile she’d seen from the boy. “Now what?” he asked softly. “Dad and I usually let our mares do the work themselves.” Ellie nodded. “And that’s what we’ll do, as well. This isn’t Sophie’s first foal, so she knows what she’s doing. We’ll just stand back and watch God’s miracle of birth. Hopefully that’s all it will take and Sophie will manage this just fine on her own, but just in case, we’d better stick around and be ready to lend a hand if it becomes necessary.” Tyler moved to the side of the stall and leaned a somewhat brawny shoulder against the wall. He maintained some of the gangly awkwardness of puberty, but he was a handsome boy, Ellie thought—just as his father had been. Clearly farm life kept Tyler in good physical shape. He looked a good deal stronger than most boys his age. Ellie remembered that Buck had been much the same way at age twelve. She remembered far more about Buck Redmond than she ought to, she thought, frowning inwardly. She had let that part of her life go—at least she thought she had, until he’d shown up again, twenty years later. Hopefully, Ellie thought, she was twenty years wiser. As for her heart, well, she couldn’t vouch for that. “Look!” Tyler exclaimed, moving to hunch beside the mare. “I can see the foal’s legs!” Ellie leaned over Tyler to view the foal’s progress. She, too, saw the legs, which normally appeared first. But she immediately recognized the problem. “It’s a breech birth,” she explained to Tyler as she bent in to take a closer look. “See, the hooves are pointed upward, toward the top of the mare. With a normal birth the hooves point down.” Tyler frowned. “I’ve never seen a breech birth,” he admitted. “What does that mean? Should I run and fetch the vet now?” His voice was a mixture of alarm and concern. Ellie was pleased that the young boy was suddenly so willing to do a task he had not been so eager to perform earlier, but she shook her head. “No need. Breech births don’t generally require a vet’s presence. Let’s just wait and see what happens.” The boy nodded, his gaze full of compassion as he shifted slightly so he could run his hand down the mare’s withers. “Easy there, girl,” he murmured in the same rich tone his father used with horses. Ellie smiled softly. Tyler was like his father in so many ways, not just physically. She wished, with a moment’s flash of melancholy, she could see Tyler grow up. But that was not meant to be, and there was no use brooding about it. The unlikely pair, Ellie and Tyler, waited patiently while the horse strained to birth her foal. After several silent minutes, Ellie knelt down by the mare, on the opposite side of Tyler. “I think she’s going to need a little help,” she said softly so as not to disturb Sophie. “Yeah?” Tyler still sounded concerned for the animal, but there was now excitement in his voice, as well. “Yes,” Ellie agreed, smiling at Tyler. “And I’m glad I have a strong young man like you here to help me. We need to put a little pressure on the foal’s legs.” Tyler’s eyes were bright for a moment, and then he frowned. “How do you mean?” Ellie threw him a towel, which he absently tossed across his shoulder. “Use the towel to get a good grip on the foal’s legs,” she instructed him. “Then gently pull them upward, toward the mare’s back.” Tyler didn’t speak as he followed Ellie’s instructions. Sweat broke out on his brow as he gritted his teeth and strained to dislodge the backward-facing foal. “You’re doing a perfect job, son,” Ellie encouraged as the foal’s legs, still covered by a thick membrane, became more visible. “The hips are the hardest part of a breech birth. As you apply pressure, you’re helping Sophie get the foal in the right position to deliver as easily as possible.” Tyler pinched his lips together in the shadow of a smile. “Yes, ma’am. I can feel the movement. I think she—” The young man didn’t finish his sentence as the back half of the foal slid from his mother, followed quickly by the head. Tyler whooped in excitement. “Good going, Sophie.” Ellie broke the sac around the foal’s head and then stood up and took a couple steps backward. “It’s time to let Sophie take over,” she told Tyler. Tyler grinned, really grinned, this time. “I’ve seen this part before. Never get tired of it, though.” His voice was full of excitement and pride. “Can you tell if it’s a boy or a girl?” Ellie asked, her own excitement and pride washing through her as she watched the gentle miracle of a mare tending her newborn foal. Tyler, who had also risen to his feet, leaned over the foal, then took off his tan felt cowboy hat and clapped it against his thigh. “It’s a boy, ma’am. You have a fine colt here.” “Thank God for a healthy birth,” Ellie whispered and then paused, considering her words carefully. “You know, I’m so glad you were here with me today. I couldn’t have made it without you, Tyler. Sophie and I appreciate what you did.” Tyler’s face flushed with color, and he returned his hat to his head, low over his eyes, just as his father wore his hat most of the time. “Yes, ma’am,” was all he said, but despite Tyler’s attempt to shade his features with his hat, Ellie saw a glimpse of his gleaming blue eyes, bright with pride and joy. “Tyler James Redmond, just what do you think you’re doing out here?” Buck’s voice obviously startled the boy, making Tyler jump from where he’d been crouching in the stable, staring down at something Buck couldn’t see from his vantage point. “He was helping me,” came Ellie’s voice from behind Buck, making him jump. Just like a woman to sneak up on a man. Buck whirled around to face her, lifting one eyebrow as he stared down into her gorgeous face. Time had been good to Ellie. She looked just as stunning as she had when she was seventeen—even more beautiful, if that were possible. “If you’d take a good look over the stable door, you’d see what,” she said, sounding annoyed. “Tyler and I have been busy.” Ellie made it sound like she and his son were old friends, and Tyler was beaming back at Ellie as if the sun rose and set at her presence. What had she done to his boy? This was the same sulky teenager who refused to utter two sentences straight to his own father and never, ever smiled, at least that Buck could remember. Tyler’s constant scowl was a mirror of Buck’s own image, he knew. But this was something different. Way different. Ellie opened the stall door and gestured for Buck to go inside ahead of her. Tyler’s smile changed to a scowl as Buck strode in, but Buck ignored it for the moment. Buck removed his hat and tucked it under his arm. “So what’s the story?” he asked gruffly. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he saw the answer to his own question wriggling on the soft straw of the stall floor. “Your son just delivered a foal,” Ellie said, sounding as proud as if she were speaking of her own child. “A breech birth. You should be proud of him, Buck.” Buck was proud, but he’d never known how to express it, so he just shrugged. Tyler stared at Buck for a long moment, his eyes narrowing with each second, until finally he muttered something under his breath and turned away. “What did you say?” Buck demanded of his son. “If you heard me, why do you have to ask?” Tyler replied sarcastically, then strode from the stall and out the stable door before Buck could say another word. Buck looked at Ellie, who was staring at him as if he’d grown a third arm. “What did I say?” he queried defensively. Ellie vehemently shook her head. “This was a special moment for Tyler, Buck,” she snapped, staring off the way Tyler had gone. “The least you could have done would have been to say something nice, something to let him know you are proud of your only son. Was that too much to ask?” “Give me a break, Ellie. I was caught off guard. I couldn’t think of anything to tell the boy. You know I’m not good at saying things out loud.” Ellie scoffed. “That I do remember.” Buck had the distinct impression the subject had changed, though he’d always had difficulty following the train of a woman’s thoughts—especially Ellie McBride’s. But he wasn’t that oblivious. She was obviously talking about him leaving town without a word all those years ago, for which he owed her an apology, or at least an explanation. He cleared his throat. Ellie was still looking off the way Tyler had left in a teenage huff. Buck was used to his son’s behavior by now, but he imagined it was new to Ellie. “I’m sorry about Tyler,” he began, then paused when Ellie’s wide-eyed gaze flashed to him, her eyebrow raised as if to ask him a question. “He’s been through a lot.” Her voice was soft and gentle when she talked about Tyler. “And I’m sorry I didn’t handle things better,” Buck continued gruffly. “You’ve been through a lot, too.” Buck sighed loudly. “Will you please stop making excuses for me? I’m trying to say I’m sorry.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Apology accepted,” she said simply. Buck didn’t remember Ellie being so erratic with her emotions. One second she was ripping him to shreds about his behavior; the next second she was blowing it off as nothing. Even as a teenager, she’d been extraordinarily levelheaded, a characteristic Buck especially admired in her. At least until it had come to the building of the new highway, the Texas government’s bright idea to make a shortcut, a straight link between Dallas and Houston, which had caused what had once been a small, quiet ranching town to brim over with tourists. With that stupid highway forced on them, Ellie’s pragmatism had gotten the best of her, not that, in Buck’s estimation, the government program had done considerably much to improve Ellie’s lot in life. Therapy Ranch, indeed. “Look,” he began tentatively. “It’s good I caught you alone for a few minutes. I believe I owe you an…” Here he hesitated. The first word that sprang to his lips had been apology, the word Ellie had just used when he’d said he was sorry, but that wasn’t what he wanted to say. “An explanation.” Ellie looked at him calmly, her arms relaxed down at her sides. “For?” she inquired lightly. Ellie already knew what this was about. It was obvious to her that Buck was carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and she suspected coming back to Ferrell hadn’t helped matters any. As the old saying went, it was like putting salt in a wound, though admittedly Ellie wasn’t certain exactly which wounds had carried Buck from Ferrell so quickly all those years ago. Nor did she care. She was way past that, she told herself again. But she did want to offer her old friend comfort, especially in his time of need. “Go on,” she encouraged, rustling up a smile for him. “I know you must have been pretty angry with me when I left the way I did.” Buck jammed his fingers into his sandy brown hair, making it stand on end. “Buck, that was twenty years ago,” she reminded him gently, her tone carefully neutral. Why did he want to dig up the past when there was so much to deal with right now, in the present? “Still,” he drawled slowly. “You must want to know what happened back then.” Ellie shrugged. “If you want to tell me, I’ll listen. But, Buck, the truth is, what happened all those years ago doesn’t really matter to me anymore.” Buck stepped back, looking stunned, as if she’d slapped his face, not simply spoken a few quiet words. “What?” she asked, thoroughly confused by his unusual behavior. Wasn’t Buck relieved to find she hadn’t been carrying a grudge all these years? “It didn’t matter to you that I left?” He arched a questioning eyebrow at her. Ellie frowned. “Of course it mattered. A lot of people in this town thought—I thought—you and I had a future together. I realize now, of course, looking back on it, that it was just a teenage romance.” “Was that all it was for you?” Buck cringed. Ellie thought he looked like he wanted to yell. Or punch his fist right through the wall of the stable. He shook his head but didn’t speak right away. “I couldn’t stay in Ferrell,” he said at last. “Because?” “Because of the development, the highway. I knew this town was a goner. It was sure to turn into a tourist trap. And it has,” he said, sounding pleased with his own conclusions. “I noticed it the moment I returned. The town has changed, if not the people. Even my own mother sold out. She would never have turned our ranch into a craft store if it wasn’t for the new tourist trade.” “So what, Buck? The neighbors are thriving, and business is good. I think the highway was the best thing that ever happened to this little town.” “Exactly,” Buck replied quickly in a rush of breath, forcefully planting his hat back on his head. “Let me see if I have this straight,” Ellie said, moving to the door of the nearest stall and sliding down into the fresh straw, wrapping her arms around her knees. She wasn’t sure her shaky legs could hold her much longer. Buck didn’t follow suit but rather stood over her, almost as if he meant to intimidate her. Well, if he did, it wasn’t going to work. She wasn’t going to back down to a sullen Buck Redmond just because he’d finally decided to come home. “You left because you didn’t want the town to grow and change with the development,” she stated, keeping her voice in a low, careful monotone. Buck tipped his hat in response. “Look around you, Buck. You have to see how good it’s been for everyone.” He shrugged. “If that’s what they want, then I’m happy for them.” “But it isn’t what you wanted,” Ellie mused aloud. “Which is why you left.” Buck nodded. “That pretty much sums it up,” he agreed fervently. “At least that was part of the reason. I was really angry when my mom sold off all the stock on our ranch. I think that was what made me snap.” Ellie didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. She’d imagined a million reasons why Buck had left the way he had, and 9,999 of those reasons involved her, specifically. Despite the fact that she believed she’d put those feelings in the past, where they belonged, she could not help the joyful rush of relief she felt in finding out that Buck’s leaving had had nothing to do with her. But it did leave one question. “Why didn’t you just tell me how you felt? Back then, I mean,” she asked softly, her gaze dropping to her knees. Her feelings were a little hurt now, and she didn’t want that. “Because I already knew how you felt,” Buck stated plainly, crouching down on his haunches before her and sweeping his hat off his head, brushing his fingers through his thick, unruly mop of sandy brown hair. “But I didn’t know how you felt,” Ellie replied, feeling dangerously close to tears. Why was he bringing this up again? She was happy with her life now. In Ferrell, where she belonged. But there was no denying the attraction she still felt for Buck Redmond, despite everything he’d done. “And I couldn’t tell you,” he answered. “Ellie, you have to admit that you were as gung ho as anyone about the highway coming through.” “What, and you didn’t think I’d see your side of things?” she demanded. “No.” His brief answer sent another stab of pain through Ellie’s insides. Despite what she’d said to Buck earlier about them having a simple teenage romance, Ellie had always believed it had been more than that. Something real, if not lasting. And now Buck was saying he hadn’t trusted her at all. Not with what mattered most to him. Not with his heart. “You know,” she said after a long, painful pause, “I still wish you would have talked to me. You didn’t even try to work out things between us.” Buck frowned and shook his head. “I’ll admit I took the easy way out,” he said slowly, his voice gruff. “I didn’t want to face you and tell you I was leaving. If I had seen you, Ellie, I might not have left at all.” “Would that have been so bad?” Ellie still couldn’t look him in the face. Buck shrugged and shook his head again. “I don’t know the answer to that question, Ellie. I really don’t know.” “Things didn’t turn out quite the way you’d planned.” It was a statement, not a question. “No. They didn’t. But life never does, does it? At least I have Tyler to show for my efforts, even though I haven’t been the greatest dad. And you have your tourist ranch.” Ellie was so surprised, she stood suddenly, knocking Buck off balance and onto his backside in the hay. He didn’t know, did he? About the ranch, and the role he now played in it? Somehow she’d assumed someone had told him why he was here, besides to attend his mother’s funeral. She offered him a hand up, which he willingly took, giving her the crooked grin she’d once found so adorable, and that still did funny things to her insides. What should she say now? Should she be the one to tell him about the ranch? No, she decided suddenly. Let the lawyer do the honors. There was no reason she had to be the one to spring such news on the man. In fact, given the circumstances, she was probably the last one who should be blabbing anything to Buck. “Tyler is a very special kid,” Ellie remarked, smiling gently at Buck. “Just don’t let him hear you call him that. He thinks he was born forty years old. And I suppose my lifestyle hasn’t lent him much in that arena.” Ellie didn’t ask about Buck’s wife, Julie. She knew the story from Mama Esther, heard it during many of the long talks they’d shared. That Julie had abruptly deserted Buck was almost more than Ellie’s mind could comprehend, but that she had likewise abandoned her own two-year-old son—well, that was entirely beyond Ellie’s frame of reference. She still felt angry every time she thought about it. “You’re a good father, Buck,” she stated emphatically. “Anyone who sees you with the boy can tell that.” “He doesn’t think so,” Buck muttered. “And I’m not so sure of that myself. He’s got so much anger built up inside of him. I think he might just explode some day.” “Maybe I can help with that,” Ellie offered. “My ranch is called therapeutic for a reason.” Buck lifted an eyebrow. “It’s kind of you to offer, Ellie,” he said, running a hand down his face, “but we aren’t going to be in town that long.” Ellie nodded, but inside, she knew otherwise. Buck didn’t know it yet, but he was going to stay. She had to make him stay, or everything she’d worked for her whole life would go up in smoke. The ranch. Her ministry. Everything. And she wasn’t about to let that happen. Chapter Three The reception had mostly cleared out by the time Buck and Ellie returned to the ranch house. Larry Bowman, the town lawyer, was waiting for them, helping himself to what was left over from the food folks had prepared. Larry smiled as they entered. “I waited around,” he explained kindly. “If you’re feeling up to it, Buck, I thought it might be best if we tackled the reading of the will now, rather than putting it off for later. I completely understand if you would rather make it another day.” Buck hung his hat on the rack by the door. “No, Larry. Today is fine. Good, actually. I need to settle things up and be on my way as soon as possible.” Buck didn’t miss the surprised look Larry flashed Ellie, but she just blinked a couple of times and then shrugged before the moment was gone. “So, did Mama leave Ellie something in the will? Is that why she’s here?” Buck asked, only mildly curious and not at all begrudging whatever his mother might have left Ellie. He knew the two of them had been close. Larry scratched the stubble on his chin. “Perhaps we’d all better sit down,” he offered, rather than answering the question directly. “Everything is laid out in the will.” “You can skip the formal stuff, Larry,” Buck said confidently. “I already know what the will is going to say, and I likewise know how I’m going to handle the estate. We don’t need to go line by line or anything.” “I see,” Larry answered, not sounding as if he saw anything at all. Buck arched an eyebrow. He couldn’t understand what was so complicated. His mother had been a small-town woman, and she’d lived simply. She didn’t have anything of value except the craft store, and Buck knew he didn’t want to keep that. Shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone, least of all Larry or Ellie. “Why don’t we just cut to the practical stuff and let me tell you what I want to do,” Buck suggested, taking a hard-backed chair and turning it around, straddling the seat and leaning his forearms against the chair’s back. Larry pulled another hard-backed chair opposite Buck and seated himself, his back ramrod straight, and set his briefcase on his lap. Larry almost appeared tense, Buck thought, which was odd for a lawyer. Ellie evidently preferred to stand, for she leaned her hip against the table and crossed her arms, giving Larry a warm, encouraging smile, that Buck wished, for a moment, was for him instead. Wasn’t she here to support him? It looked to Buck like all the support was beaming in Larry’s direction. “So,” Buck said when it appeared everyone was as settled as they were going to get, “Mama left me the ranch, er, the craft store, I mean. That’s probably the main item, right? I’m sure I’ll want to select some personal items to keep, and, Ellie, you feel free to do the same. I know how close you and Mama were.” Tears formed in the corners of Ellie’s eyes, but she didn’t brush them away. The sight of her tears was enough to cause emotion to swell in Buck’s own chest, partly over the loss of his mother and partly in sympathy for what Ellie must be feeling. “Maybe we could go to Mama’s house together,” he suggested, thinking it might be easier on her. He didn’t want to think about the fact that by his words he had disassociated himself from the ranch that had been his childhood home. Instead, Buck forged onward with his thoughts. “That way, Ellie, you can have first dibs at all her little knickknacks and things. I’m sure Mama would be happy to see some of her keepsakes passed down to you.” Larry looked down at the folder in his hand, then adjusted his tie at the neck and cleared his throat. His face was expressionless, but a flush was rising on his cheeks. “Uh, Buck, son, I’m not sure how to tell you this, so I’m just going to come out and state it plain. There is no ranch.” “What?” Buck knew he was squawking, but Larry’s statement had hit him with the force of a semitruck. “What do you mean there is no ranch? My mama lived in that place her whole married life. She might have turned the place into a tourist trap, but she wouldn’t sell it off to some stranger.” Ellie’s arms dropped to her sides, and her fists grasped the edge of the table. She gave an audible huff and glared at Buck. “She did sell the store—the ranch, Buck. Last spring. I know this is going to be hard for you to accept. She wanted to tell you about it in person, but she became ill before she could make a trip out to see you. She didn’t plan it this way.” Buck buried his head in his hands. Could this be any worse? “I don’t get it,” he murmured between his palms. “Why would Mama sell her own home? Was she too frail to run the store by herself anymore?” That didn’t sound like Buck’s mother at all, but he was grasping at straws to come up with any reasonable explanation for Esther’s actions. “She was lonely,” Ellie said sadly, but her gaze shot fierce daggers at Buck, leaving him no doubt where she placed the blame for his mother’s circumstances. “That was a big old house for her to live in all by herself. She ran her business single-handedly until the day she sold out to a neighbor, but it wasn’t because she was too frail, as you put it.” Buck frowned. Ellie just had to rub it in that he hadn’t had a close relationship with his own mother. He felt guilty enough without her adding her opinion on the matter. “It was only when she became ill,” Ellie continued, “that Mama Esther needed special care.” “She couldn’t be out on her own,” Larry added in a businesslike monotone, that Buck thought might have carried just a hint of a judgmental quality to it. What was it with everyone today? They couldn’t just mind their own business? “Why didn’t I know about any of this?” Buck demanded, feeling repeated sharp-edged stabs of guilt with every word Ellie and Larry said. “Again, Buck, your mother wanted to tell you in person,” Ellie reiterated. “And everything happened so fast, with the illness and all. We were all completely focused on Mama Esther. Everything else had to wait.” “Someone should have called me,” Buck ground out through clenched teeth. “I should have known.” “You’re right,” Ellie agreed softly, though still with an edge to her tone. “Someone should have called you. I should have called you. But it was against Mama Esther’s wishes for me to do so, and I simply couldn’t bring myself to deceive her in any way, not even for you.” Buck groaned. From the clipped way she spoke, barely holding back her emotions, he knew she meant especially not for him. “No property, then.” The money Mama had received from the sale of the assets had no doubt gone to cover her medical expenses—maybe even a Christian charity or two, knowing his mother. Buck saw his dream of owning a horse ranch floating right out the window, but he was more heartbroken by the fact that he hadn’t been there for his mother when she needed him. She hadn’t even told him she was ill. And all because of his pride. “Actually,” Larry interceded, breaking into Buck’s thoughts, “that isn’t precisely true. You do own property, Buck, just not the ranch you grew up on.” “What?” Buck thought he might be squawking again, but he couldn’t help it. He’d never been more bewildered in his life, and on top of the roiling emotions he was feeling, the mental turmoil was almost more than one man could endure. Guilt piled on guilt for the way he had treated his mother. For the way he had treated Ellie. “Your mother used the money from the sale of your childhood home to invest in another property—a working ranch,” Larry explained. A working ranch? Buck straightened a little at that news. He was the owner of a working ranch? Except that it didn’t make any sense. Keeping Buck’s childhood home a working ranch had been the subject of his argument with his mother twenty years ago. If Mama had yielded, wouldn’t it have been for her own son? Although after the way he’d acted, he guessed he wouldn’t blame his mother for writing him off. Still. The pieces didn’t fit together to make any kind of clear picture. “My mother wasn’t interested in working our ranch, and she certainly wouldn’t have been capable of working a new one.” Larry nodded gravely. “That is true. Your mother never worked the new holdings herself. At the moment, the ranch is, er, being leased out to another party.” “I see,” Buck said, a plan beginning to form in his mind. This wasn’t so bad. Having tenants currently leasing the ranch wouldn’t make his dream impossible—just a little bit more of a hassle. The end result would be no different than his original plan—sell the ranch, take the money and run. “So there are people renting my place,” Buck asked, fighting hard to keep the excitement from showing, not wanting to look callous in front of Ellie. “In effect,” Larry answered, flashing a brief, troubled glance at Ellie, which Buck did not miss. What were they were keeping between themselves? Whatever it was, it was clearly deeply bothering both of them, and neither of them would make eye contact with Buck, though he switched his questioning gaze back and forth between the two of them several times. Ellie pushed herself off the table and began pacing in back of Buck’s chair. “So I’ll just give the renters a realistic notice, or offer to sell to them, if they want. In any case, I can sell that property,” said Buck. “I don’t want to be unreasonable about it, but I have things I need to do elsewhere. How quickly do you think you can wrap this up, Larry?” “Well, there’s the matter of contacting Ferrell’s real estate firm, if you want to sell,” Larry hedged, his gaze noticeably shifting away from Buck’s. “What do you mean, if I want to sell?” Buck demanded, leaning forward on his arms until the back of the chair bit into his skin. “I just told you that’s exactly what I want to do. Do you have a problem with that?” “Yes. Er, no. There are…” Larry hesitated, once again glancing in Ellie’s direction. “Extenuating circumstances that may affect your decision to sell.” Buck could not imagine an extenuating circumstance that would make him change his mind on this, but he shrugged and nodded for Larry to continue. Larry blew out a breath and rushed on, his words falling on top of each other in his haste to spit the sentence out. “What you need to understand, Buck, is that you are currently sitting on the property in question. Quite literally.” It took Buck a moment to absorb Larry’s meaning, but then his eyes widened and he whistled his surprise, just before his racing heart took a nosedive into his stomach. “Mama bought this ranch? Ellie’s ranch?” Ellie cleared her throat and went back to leaning on the table, where she’d been earlier. She brushed a nervous hand over her long black hair, and her gaze darted randomly around the room. She looked everywhere but straight at Buck and took her time before speaking. “Technically, Buck, it’s your ranch.” Buck needed a minute to ingest all the information that had just been thrown at him. Mama had sold his childhood home to buy Ellie’s ranch. But why? Nothing made sense anymore. And where had his mother lived after the sale of their family home? Buck decided that was the first and most important question to be answered, so he stammered out an inquiry. “Wh-where did Mama live, then?” “Why, with me, of course,” Ellie answered immediately, her smile wavering as her gaze got distant and her eyes luminescent with moisture. “Ellie was the one who cared for your mother during her last days,” Larry added gently. Buck rubbed a hand against his jaw, which was starting to prickle with a day’s growth of beard. “I don’t know what to say.” He shook his head. “I—I guess thank you would be in order,” he said, nodding his head in Ellie’s direction. “I really had no idea. None at all.” “Of course you didn’t,” Ellie snapped and then took a deep breath in an apparent attempt to calm herself, though, from the flush on her face, Buck didn’t think it was working. “No one expected you to, Buck,” Ellie continued. “As we already indicated, Mama Esther wanted it to be this way. I’m sure she had her reasons.” Buck’s mind was racing. Ellie rented this ranch—this Christian therapy ranch, which Buck had personally thought was just a fancy term for a tourist trap—from his mother. And Mama had lived with Ellie. Ellie, not Buck, had been the one to care for his mother during her illness. Here. Right where he was sitting. He looked around, narrowing his gaze as he realized—now that he was paying attention to such things—that he did recognize some of the furniture and knickknacks as his mother’s. He blew out a breath. He really must have had his head in the clouds, shadowed by grief, to have missed such an obvious conclusion. His guilt and shame at the loss of his mother were obscuring his judgment much more than he had realized. Ellie watched the mix of emotions crossing Buck’s face as he took in all this new information—hurt, anger, grief and confusion warring for prominence. She said a silent prayer for the man she’d once loved with her whole heart. “You don’t have to make any decisions today,” Larry informed Buck. Larry stood and gave Buck’s shoulder a conciliatory pat. “Take as much time as you need.” Buck flashed Ellie an apprehensive look, his pupils dilated and foggy, lending a grayish tenor to his eyes. He nodded slowly. “I guess I do need a little time,” he murmured, his voice ragged. Despite the feelings warring inside her, Ellie wanted to move to Buck’s side, to hug him. Just to hold him again, let him know he had a friend. But she wasn’t sure how he’d take it, so she didn’t move from where she leaned against the tabletop. She clasped her hands tightly to the table edge to keep from launching herself at him. “I’m going to get out of here and give you two a bit of privacy,” Larry continued, his voice as low and compassionate as always. “I’m sure you have a lot to discuss. Let me know when you’ve reached a definitive decision regarding the ranch, Buck, and we’ll go from there.” Ellie slipped into the chair vacated by Larry, thinking it would be better to be seated directly across from Buck. She wasn’t sure Buck was ready to talk about anything, but as Larry had indicated, she and Buck had a lot to say to each other—providing Buck was willing to listen to the whole story and did not just write her off without an explanation. Ellie felt badly about not informing Buck of his mother’s decisions earlier. In hindsight, she decided it had been wrong not to contact Buck immediately when his mother had become ill. But so much had happened so fast. Ellie hadn’t had the time to think things through. And Mama Esther had asked her to remain silent, wanting to tell Buck herself in her own time. But as it had turned out, Esther hadn’t had that time, and Buck had been hit over the head with what must feel to him like a good-size boulder. “I’m sorry, Buck,” she apologized sympathetically, realizing she’d already said that but not knowing how else to start the conversation. Buck buried his head in his hands with a groan and refused to look at her. “Do you have a headache?” she asked softly, her fingers twitching with the need to reach for him. “I have some aspirin in the medicine cabinet I could get for you.” Buck groaned again, louder this time. “No, thank you. I feel like my head is going to explode, but I don’t think aspirin is going to help.” He looked up at her and almost smiled, the corner of his lip twitching upward just the slightest bit. It gave Ellie hope, even that hint of a smile. She smiled broadly in return, hoping he could grasp the compassion she felt for him. “I don’t think anything will help me right now,” he said with a shake of his head, which then made him wince as if in agony—which he probably was, emotionally, at any rate, Ellie thought. “Do you want to talk about it?” “Do I have a choice?” he grumbled. So much for hope. Ellie’s heart dipped into her stomach, which tightened painfully. “We don’t have to talk right now,” she assured him, keeping her tone soft despite a rising sense of alarm, which was pealing like bells in her head. “Like Larry said, you can take as much time as you need. I’m sure you have a lot to work out in your own mind before you can even remotely consider a decision.” Buck stared at her, his emerald green eyes wide, but said nothing. Ellie clasped her hands in front of her. “Or maybe you’ve already made your decision.” “Ellie,” Buck said slowly, “you know that what Larry told me changes everything.” Ellie lifted an eyebrow. “Oh? In what way?” She’d half expected him to toss her out on her ear and take the ranch over right away. He had the legal right to do just that. There were no formal rental agreements on the ranch. It wasn’t that kind of relationship. Mama Esther had very much been a mother to her, especially these past few years. “Ellie, I’m not going to take your home away from you,” Buck said as if he’d read her mind. “At least not right away, I won’t.” “You must have had plans,” she responded. “For the money, I mean.” “Plans,” Buck repeated. “Yeah. Right. Plans.” He paused and shifted, leaning heavily on the back of the chair. “I really don’t know what to do now.” “It’s entirely your decision, Buck,” Ellie assured him, even if inwardly she felt like begging him to spare her ministry. “This is your ranch now. “I know you said you would consider selling to me, but I’m in no position to buy.” “To be honest, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I’m not positive I want to sell,” he said frankly. “I can’t see myself moving back to Ferrell, but the divorce wiped out my savings. It’s something to think on.” All the more reason Ellie could and would not ask for favors, which left Ellie with nothing except the possibility of Buck coming back into her life on a permanent basis. She didn’t know how to feel about that. Not without him making some serious concessions to her, and she wouldn’t ask him for that. She stared out the west window, where the sun was setting, and suddenly had an idea she thought might help both of them. Maybe, just maybe, she could save her ministry after all. It was worth a shot, anyway. “Do you and Tyler have a place to stay while you’re in town?” she asked. Buck shook his head. “Nope. Planned to stay at the ranch.” He laughed, but it was a bitter sound. “Guess I should be looking for a hotel, huh?” “Absolutely not,” she said emphatically. “You two are most welcome to stay here at McBride’s. It is, after all, your property, Buck.” “I don’t want to impose,” he said gruffly, turning his gaze away from her. “Don’t be silly. There are plenty of guest rooms here. I often have clients stay over for the week.” Buck scoffed. “Like an overglorified bed-and-breakfast?” he guessed. Ellie bristled and clasped her hands tighter. “Not at all like a bed-and-breakfast. Actually, that’s part of the reason I’m asking you to stay.” “And what would that be?” “So I can show you what I do here. I thought maybe if you saw firsthand all the good work I’m doing here, you might….” She stopped herself from completing the sentence. “What am I going to see, Ellie?” Buck demanded, his voice now sounding irritated, if not downright angry. “That you sold out like the rest of the town? That you’re pulling in tourists who want to see what the country life is like for a day?” “You have no idea what I do here,” she snapped back, more offended than she could say. “So tell me,” he said, not sounding as if he was going to listen to her at all. Not really. “What makes you think this ranch is a tourist trap?” she demanded, suddenly defensive. “The whole town is a tourist trap now, isn’t it?” he replied bitterly. “That really bothers you, doesn’t it?” “Yep.” “Enough for you to leave town twenty years ago and never look back.” “Enough for me to leave,” he agreed, his voice not giving away a hint of emotion, other than perhaps irritation. “Even my own mother sold out.” He sighed. “Now tell me about this ranch. I’ve seen horses, chickens, goats, pigs, and I think I even saw a couple llamas out there in the field.” “Alpacas,” she corrected. “What I didn’t see was cattle, or a herd of horses. So what kind of a working ranch would that make this? It doesn’t make any sense.” “It will if you listen to me.” “I’ll listen,” he replied testily. “I’m not going anywhere until I figure this out.” Buck had always been impatient, Ellie remembered, wanting to fix the problem rather than think about it. Ellie had complemented him, balanced his practical logic with her naturally emotional responses. But that was then. And this wasn’t going to be a quick-fix problem. “It’s a therapeutic ranch, Buck,” she said, thinking that should explain a lot. “Hmm. So it says on your sign.” “You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?” “Not a clue,” he admitted, the side of his lip curling up again. It half looked like a grimace, but Ellie knew Buck was trying, in his own way. “I work with children who have had some kind of trauma in their young lives, and some who are physically or mentally disabled in some way. Many times the families board here, as well.” “And you do what exactly with the children?” He arched an eyebrow, daring her without words to explain her work in a way that wouldn’t make him laugh. “Introduce them to the animals. Animals are wonderful therapy, Buck. Didn’t you see what Sophie did with your own son?” Buck scoffed. “That will last all of a half hour. Then he’ll be back to his old surly self.” “Perhaps,” Ellie agreed. “But over time, kids bond with the animals. The goats and pigs and such help calm the children. Some learn to ride the horses. It helps them open up emotionally, connecting with the animals.” Êîíåö îçíàêîìèòåëüíîãî ôðàãìåíòà. Òåêñò ïðåäîñòàâëåí ÎÎÎ «ËèòÐåñ». Ïðî÷èòàéòå ýòó êíèãó öåëèêîì, êóïèâ ïîëíóþ ëåãàëüíóþ âåðñèþ (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39926306&lfrom=390579938) íà ËèòÐåñ. Áåçîïàñíî îïëàòèòü êíèãó ìîæíî áàíêîâñêîé êàðòîé Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, ñî ñ÷åòà ìîáèëüíîãî òåëåôîíà, ñ ïëàòåæíîãî òåðìèíàëà, â ñàëîíå ÌÒÑ èëè Ñâÿçíîé, ÷åðåç PayPal, WebMoney, ßíäåêñ.Äåíüãè, QIWI Êîøåëåê, áîíóñíûìè êàðòàìè èëè äðóãèì óäîáíûì Âàì ñïîñîáîì.