McKettricks of Texas: Tate
New York Times and USA Today Bestseller
There are barely enough hours for divorced dad Tate McKettrick to run the Silver Spur ranch, do the suit-and-tie thing for his business and run herd on his beloved six-year-old twin daughters. But time stands still at the sight of Libby Remington. When they were high school sweethearts, the wealthy McKettrick couldn’t convince Libby he loved her. But now they’re both back in Blue River, Texas. And cattle rustlers, a manipulative ex-wife and a killer stallion can’t keep him from trying again.
Libby has her hands full taking care of her mother—and running the Perk Up Coffee Shop. Caffeine, she needs. Tate McKettrick, with his blazing blue eyes and black hair? No. Oh, heck—yes. But can they really hope for a second chance?
Silver Spur Ranch
Blue River, Texas
Spring thunder exploded overhead, fit to cleave the roof right down the middle and blow out every window on all three floors.
Tate McKettrick swore under his breath, while rain pelted the venerable walls like machine-gun fire.
Like as not, the creek would be over the road by now, and he’d have to travel overland to get to town. He was running late—again. And Cheryl, his ex-wife, would blister his ears with the usual accusations, for sure.
He didn’t give a damn, she’d say, about their delicate twin daughters, because he’d wanted boys, as rough-and-tumble as he and his brothers had been. That was her favorite dig.
She’d never know—because he wasn’t about to let on—how that particular remark never failed to sear a few layers off his heart. He would literally have died for Audrey and Ava—the twins were the only redeeming features of a marriage that should never have taken place in the first place.
Since one good jab was never enough for Cheryl, she’d most likely go on to say that being late for their daughters’ dance recital was his way of spiting her, their mother. He’d used his own children, she’d insist—he knew she hated it when he was late—yada, yada, yada.
Blah, blah, blah.
Tate didn’t have to “use” the twins to get under Cheryl’s hide—he’d done that in spades after the divorce by forcing her to live in Blue River, so they could share custody. Audrey and Ava alternated between their mother’s place in town and the ranch, a week there, a week here, with the occasional scheduling variation. As soon as he picked them up on the prescribed days, Cheryl was off to some hot spot to hobnob with her fancy friends and all but melt her credit cards.
Tight-jawed with resignation, Tate plunked down on the edge of his bed and reached for the boots he’d polished before shedding his rain-soaked range clothes to take a hasty shower. Clad in stiff new jeans and the requisite long-sleeved white Western shirt, the cowboy version of a tux, he listened with half an ear to the rodeo announcer’s voice, a laconic drone spilling from the speakers of the big flat-screen TV mounted on the wall above the fireplace.
He was reaching for the remote to shut it off when he caught his brother’s name.
The hairs on Tate’s nape bristled, and something coiled in the pit of his stomach, snakelike, fixing to spring.
“…Austin McKettrick up next, riding a bull named Buzzsaw…”
Tate’s gaze—indeed, the whole of his consciousness—swung to the TV screen. Sure enough, there was his kid brother, in high-definition, living color, standing on the catwalk behind the chute, pacing a little, then shifting from one foot to the other, eager for his turn to ride.
The shot couldn’t have lasted more than a second or two—another cowboy had just finished a ride and his score was about to be posted on the mega-screen high overhead—but it was long enough to send a chill down Tate’s spine.
The other cowboy’s score was good, the crowd cheered, and the camera swung back to Austin. He’d always loved cameras, the damn fool, and they’d always loved him right back.
The same went for women, kids, dogs and horses. He crouched on the catwalk, Austin did, while down in the chute, the bull was ominously still, staring out between the rails, biding his time. The calm ones were always the worst, Tate reflected—Buzzsaw was a volcano, waiting to blow, saving all his whup-ass for the arena, where he’d have room to do what he’d been bred to do: wreak havoc.
Break bones, crush vital organs. A former rodeo competitor himself, though his event had been bareback bronc riding, Tate knew this bull wasn’t just mean; it was two-thousand pounds of cowboy misery, ready to bust loose.
Austin had to have picked up on all that and more. He’d begun his career as a mutton-buster when he was three, riding sheep for gold-stamped ribbons at the county fair, progressed to Little Britches Rodeo and stayed with it from then on. He’d taken several championships at the National High School Rodeo Finals and been a star during his college years, too.
It wasn’t as if he didn’t know bulls.
Austin looked more cocky than tense; in any dangerous situation, his mantra was “Bring it on.”
Tate watched as his brother adjusted his hat again, lowered himself onto the bull’s back, looped his hand under the leather rigging and secured it in a “suicide wrap,” essentially tying himself to the animal. A moment later, he nodded to the gate men.
Tate stared, unable to look away. He felt an uncanny sensation like the one he’d experienced the night their mom and dad had been killed. He’d awakened, still thrashing to tear free of the last clammy tendrils of a nightmare, his flesh drenched in an icy sweat, the echo of the crash as real as if he’d witnessed the distant accident in person.
He’d known Jim and Sally McKettrick were both gone long before the call came—and he felt the same soul-numbing combination of shock and dread now.
A single, raspy word scraped past his throat. “No.”
Of course, Austin couldn’t hear him, wouldn’t have paid any heed if he had.
The bull went eerily still, primal forces gathering within it like a storm, but as the chute gate swung open, the animal erupted from confinement like a rocket from a launchpad, headed skyward.
Buzzsaw dove and then spun, elemental violence unleashed.
Austin stayed with him, spurring with the heels of his boots, right hand high in the air, looking as cool as if he were idling in the old tire-swing that dangled over the deepest part of the swimming hole. Four long seconds passed before he even lost his hat.
Tate wanted to close his eyes, but the message still wasn’t making it from his brain to the tiny muscles created for that purpose. He’d had differences with his youngest brother—and some of them were serious—but none of that mattered now.
The clock on the screen seemed to move in slow motion; eight seconds, as all cowboys know, can be an eternity. For Tate, the scene unfolded frame by frame, in a hollow, echoing void, as though taking place one dimension removed.
Finally, the bull made his move and arched above the ground like a trout springing from a lake and then rolling as if determined to turn his belly to the ceiling of that arena, and sent Austin hurtling to one side, but not clear.
The pickup men moved in, ready to cut Austin free, but that bull was a hurricane with hooves, spinning and kicking in all directions.
The bullfighters—referred to as clowns in the old days—were normally called on to distract a bull or a horse, lead it away from the cowboy so he’d have time to get to the fence and scramble over it, to safety.
Under these circumstances, there wasn’t much anybody could do.
Austin bounced off one side of that bull and then the other, still bound to it, his body limp. Possibly lifeless.
Fear slashed at Tate’s insides.
Finally, one of the pickup men got close enough to cut Austin free of the rigging, curve an arm around him before he fell, and wrench him off the bull. Austin didn’t move as the pickup man rode away from Buzzsaw, while the bullfighters and several riders drove the animal out of the arena.
Tate’s cell phone, tucked into the pocket of the sodden denim jacket he’d worn to work cattle on the range that day, jangled. He ignored its shrill insistence.
Paramedics were waiting to lower Austin onto a stretcher. The announcer murmured something, but Tate didn’t hear what it was because of the blood pounding in his ears.
The TV cameras covered the place in dizzying sweeps. In the stands, the fans were on their feet, pale and worried, and most of the men took their hats off, held them to their chests, the way they did for the Stars and Stripes.
Or when a hearse rolled by.
Behind the chutes, other cowboys watched intently, a few lowering their heads, their lips moving in private prayer.
Tate stood stock-still in the middle of his bedroom floor, bile scalding the back of his throat. His heart had surged up into his windpipe and swollen there, beating hard, fit to choke him.
Both phones were ringing now—the cell and the extension on the table beside his bed.
He endured the tangle of sound, the way it scraped at his nerves, but made no move to answer.
Onscreen, the rodeo faded away, almost instantly replaced by a commercial for aftershave.
That broke Tate’s paralysis; he turned, picked up his discarded jacket off the floor, ferreted through its several pockets for his briefly silent cell phone. It rang in his hand, and he flipped it open.
“Tate McKettrick,” he said automatically.
“Holy Christ,” his brother Garrett shot back, “I thought you’d never answer! Listen, Austin just tangled with a bull, and it looks to me like he’s hurt bad—”
“I know,” Tate ground out, trying in vain to recall what city Austin had been competing in that week. “I was watching.”
“Meet me at the airstrip,” Garrett ordered. “I have to make some calls. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
“Garrett, the weather—”
“Screw the weather,” Garrett snapped. In the Navy, he’d flown missions from the deck of an aircraft carrier; once, he’d had to eject and wait six hours in shark-infested waters for rescue, keeping his unconscious copilot faceup the whole time. Nothing scared him—except commitment to one woman. “If you’re too chicken-shit to go up in a piss-ant rainstorm like this one, just say so right now and save me a trip to the Spur, okay? I’m going to find out where they’re taking our kid brother and get there any way I have to, because, goddamn it, this might be goodbye. Do you get that, cowboy?”
“I get it,” Tate said, after unlocking his jawbones. “I’ll be waiting when you hit the tarmac, Top Gun.”
Garrett, calling on a landline, had the advantage of hanging up with a crash. Tate retrieved his wallet from the dresser top and his battered leather bomber jacket from the walk-in closet, shrugging into it as he headed for the double doors separating the suite from the broad corridor beyond.
With generations of McKettricks adding wings to the house as the family fortune doubled and redoubled, the place was ridiculously large, over eighteen thousand square feet.
Tate descended one of the three main staircases trisecting the house, the heels of his dress boots making no sound on the hand-loomed runner, probably fashioned for some sultan before the first McKettrick ever set foot in the New World.
Hitting the marble-floored entryway, he cast a glance at the antique grandfather’s clock—he hadn’t worn a watch since his job with McKettrickCo had evaporated in the wake of the IPO of the century—and shook his head when he saw the time.
Audrey and Ava’s dance recital had started half an hour ago.
Striding along a glassed-in gallery edging the Olympic-sized pool, with its retractable roof and floating bar, he opened his cell phone again and speed-dialed Cheryl.
She didn’t say “Hello.” She said, “Where the hell are you, Tate? Audrey and Ava’s big number is next, and they keep peeking around the curtain, hoping to see you in the audience and—”
“Austin’s been hurt,” Tate broke in, aching as he imagined his daughters in their sequins and tutus, watching for his arrival. “I can’t make it tonight.”
“But it’s your week and I have plans . . .”
“Cheryl,” Tate bit out, “did you hear what I said? Austin’s hurt.”
He could just see her, curling her lip, arching one perfectly plucked raven eyebrow.
“So help me God, Tate, if this is an excuse—”
“It’s no excuse. Tell the kids there’s been an emergency, and I’ll call them as soon as I can. Don’t mention Austin, though. I don’t want them worrying.”
“Austin is hurt?” For a lawyer, Cheryl could be pretty slow on the uptake at times. “What happened?”
Tate reached the kitchen, with its miles of glistening granite counters and multiple glass-fronted refrigerators. Cheryl’s question speared him in a vital place, and not just because he wasn’t sure he’d ever see Austin alive again.
Suppose it was too late to straighten things out?
What if, when he and Garrett flew back from wherever their crazy brother was, he was riding in the cargo hold, in a box?
Tate’s eyes burned like acid as he jerked open the door leading to the ten-car garage.
“He drew a bad bull,” he finally said, forcing the words out, as spiky-sharp as a rusty coil of barbed wire.
Cheryl drew in a breath. “Oh, my God,” she whispered. “He isn’t going to—to die?”
“I don’t know,” Tate said.
Austin’s beat-up red truck, one of several vehicles with his name on the title, was parked in its usual place, next to the black Porsche Garrett drove when he was home. The sight gave Tate a pang as he jerked open the door of his mud-splattered, extended-cab Silverado and climbed behind the wheel, then pushed the button to roll up the garage door behind him.
“Call when you know anything,” Cheryl urged. “Anything at all.”
Tate ground the keys in the ignition, and backed out into the rain with such speed that he nearly collided with one of the ranch work-trucks parked broadside behind him.
The elderly cowpuncher at the wheel got out of the way, pronto.
Tate didn’t stop to explain.
“I’ll call,” he told Cheryl, cranking the steering wheel. He begrudged her that promise, but he couldn’t reach his daughters except through his ex-wife.
Cheryl was crying. “Okay,” she said. “Don’t forget.”
Tate shut the phone without saying goodbye.
At the airstrip, he waited forty-five agonizing minutes in his truck, watching torrents of rain wash down the windshield, remembering his kid brother at every stage of his life—the new baby he and Garrett had soon wanted to put up for adoption, the mutton-buster, the high school and college heartthrob.
The man Cheryl swore had seduced her one night in Vegas, when she was legally still Tate’s wife.
When the jet, a former member of the McKettrickCo fleet, landed, he waited for it to come to a stop before shoving open the truck’s door and making a run for the airplane.
Garrett stood in the open doorway, having lowered the steps with a hydraulic whir.
“He’s in Houston,” he said. “They’re going to operate as soon as he’s stable.”
Tate pushed past him, dripping rainwater. “What’s his condition?”
Garrett raised the steps again, shouldered the door shut and set the latch. “Critical,” he said. “According to the surgeon I spoke to, his chances aren’t too good.”
Tate moved toward the cockpit, using the time his back was turned to Garrett to rub his burning eyes with a thumb and forefinger. “Let’s go.”
Minutes later, they were in the air, the plane bucking stormy air currents as it fought for every foot of altitude. Lightning flashed, seeming to pass within inches of the wings, the nose, the tail.
Eventually, though, the skies cleared.
When they landed at a private field outside of Houston, an SUV Garrett had rented before leaving the capital waited on the hot, dry asphalt. The key was in the ignition; Garrett took the wheel, and they raced into the city.
They were all too familiar with the route to the best private hospital in Texas. Their parents had died there, a decade before, after an eighteen-wheeler jumped the median and crashed head-on into their car.
A nurse and two administrators met Tate and Garrett in the lobby, all unwilling to meet their eyes, let alone answer their questions.
When they reached the surgical unit, they found Austin lying on a gurney outside a state-of-the-art operating suite, surrounded by a sea of people clad in green scrubs.
Tate and Garrett pushed their way through, then stood on either side of their brother.
Austin’s face was so swollen and discolored they wouldn’t have recognized him if he hadn’t crooked up one side of his mouth in a grin that could only have belonged to him.
“That was one bad-ass bull,” he said.
“You’re going to be all right,” Garrett told Austin, his face grim.
“Hell, yes, I’m going to be all right,” Austin croaked out. His eyes, sunken behind folds of purple flesh, arched to Tate. “Just in case, though, there’s one thing I need you to know for sure, big brother,” he added laboriously, his voice so low that Tate had to bend down to hear him. “I never slept with your wife.”
Three months later
Cheryl’s relatively small backyard was festooned with streamers and balloons and crowded with yelling kids. Portable tables sagged under custom-made cakes and piles of brightly wrapped presents, while two clowns and a slightly ratty Cinderella mingled with miniature guests, all of them sugar-jazzed. Austin’s childhood pony, Bamboozle, trucked in from the Silver Spur especially for the birthday party, provided rides with saintlike equanimity.
Keeping one eye on the horse and the other on his daughters, six years old as of 7:52 that sunny June morning, Tate counted himself a lucky man, for all the rocky roads he’d traveled. Born almost two months before full term, the babies had weighed less than six pounds put together, and their survival had been by no means a sure thing. Although the twins were fraternal, they looked so much alike that strangers usually thought they were identical. Both had the striking blue eyes that ran in the McKettrick bloodline, and their long glossy hair was nearly black, like Cheryl’s and his own. His girls were healthy now, thank God, but Tate still worried plenty about them, on general principle. They seemed so fragile to him, too thin, with their long, skinny legs, and Ava wore glasses and a hearing aid that was all but invisible.
Cheryl startled Tate out of his reflections by jabbing him in the ribs with a clipboard. Today, her waist-length hair was wound into a braided knot at the back of her neck. “Sign this,” she ordered, sotto voce.
Tate had promised himself he’d be civil to his ex-wife, for the twins’ sake. Looking down into Cheryl’s green eyes—she’d been a beauty queen in her day—he wondered what he’d been drinking the night they met.
Gorgeous as Cheryl was, she flat-out wasn’t his type, and she never had been.
He glanced at the paper affixed to the clipboard and frowned, then gave all the legalese a second look. It was basically a permission slip, allowing Audrey and Ava to participate in something called the Pixie Pageant, to be held around the time school started, out at the Blue River Country Club. Under the terms of their custody agreement, Cheryl needed his approval for any extracurricular activity the children took part in. It had cost him plenty to get her to sign off on that one.
“No,” he said succinctly, tucking the clipboard under one arm, since Cheryl didn’t look like she intended to take it back.
The former Mrs. McKettrick, once again using her maiden name, Darbrey, rolled her eyes, patted her sleek and elegant hair. “Oh, for God’s sake,” she complained, though he had to give her points for keeping her voice down. “It’s just a harmless little pageant, to raise money for the new tennis court at the community center—”
Tate’s mind flashed on the disturbing film clips he’d seen of kids dolled up in false eyelashes, blusher and lipstick, like Las Vegas showgirls, prancing around some stage. He leaned in, matching his tone to hers. “They’re six, Cheryl,” he reminded her. “Let them be little girls while they can.”
His former wife folded her tanned, gym-toned arms. She looked good in her expensive daffodil-yellow sundress, but the mean glint in her eyes spoiled the effect. “I was in pageants from the time I was five,” she pointed out tersely, “and I turned out okay.” Realizing too late that she’d opened an emotional pothole and then stepped right into it, she made a slight huffing sound.
“Debatable,” Tate drawled, plastering a smile onto his mouth because some of the moms and nannies were looking in their direction, and they’d stirred up enough gossip as it was.
Cheryl flushed, toyed with one tasteful gold earring. “Bastard,” she whispered, peevish. “Why do you have to be so damn pigheaded about things like this?”
He laughed. Hooked his thumbs through the belt loops of his jeans. Dug in his heels a little—both literally and figuratively. “If other people want to let their kids play Miss This-That-and-the-Other-Thing, that’s their business. It’s probably harmless fun, but mine aren’t going to—not before they’re old enough to make the choice on their own, anyhow. By that time, I hope Audrey and Ava will have more in their heads than makeup tips and the cosmetic uses of duct tape.”
Eyes flashing, Cheryl looked as though she wanted to put out both hands and shove him backward into the koi pond—or jerk the clipboard from under his arm and bash him over the head with it. She did neither of those things—she didn’t want a scene any more than he did, though her reasons were different. Tate cared about one thing and one thing only: that his daughters had a good time at their birthday party. Cheryl, on the other hand, knew a public dustup would make the rounds of the country club and the Junior League before sundown.
She had her image to consider.
Tate, by contrast, didn’t give a rat’s ass what anybody thought—except for his daughters, that is, and a few close friends.
So they glared at each other, he and this woman he’d married years ago, squaring off like two gunfighters on a dusty street. And then Ava slipped between them.
“Don’t fight, okay?” she pleaded anxiously, the hot Texas sunlight glinting on the smudged lenses of her glasses. “It’s our birthday, remember?”
Tate felt his neck pulse with the singular heat of shame. So much for keeping the ongoing hostilities between Mommy and Daddy under wraps.
Cheryl smiled wickedly and rested a manicured hand on Ava’s shoulder, left all but bare by the spaghetti strap holding up her dress—a miniature version of her mother’s outfit. Audrey’s getup was the same, except blue.
“Your daddy,” Cheryl told the child sweetly, “doesn’t want you and Audrey to compete in the Pixie Pageant. I was trying to change his mind.”
Good luck with that, Tate thought, forcibly relaxing the muscles in his jaws. He tried for a smile, for Ava’s sake, but the effort was a bust.
“That stuff is dumb anyway,” Ava said.
Audrey appeared on the scene, as though magnetized by an opinion at variance with her own. “No, it isn’t,” she protested, with her customary spirit. “Pageants are good for building self-confidence and making friends, and if you win, you get a banner and a trophy and a tiara.”
“I see you’ve been coaching them to take the partyline,” Tate told Cheryl.
Cheryl’s smile was dazzling. He’d spent a fortune on those pearly whites of hers. Through them, she said, “Shut up, Tate.”
Ava, always sensitive to the changing moods of the parental unit, started to cry, making a soft, sniffly sound that tore at Tate’s heart. “We’re only going to be six once,” she said. “And everybody’s looking!”
“Thank heaven we’re only going to be six once,” Audrey interjected sagely, folding her arms Cheryl-style. “I’d rather be forty.”
Tate bent his knees, scooped up Ava in the crook of one arm and tugged lightly at Audrey’s long braid with his free hand. Ava buried her face in his shoulder, bumping her glasses askew. He felt tears and mucus moisten the fabric of his pale-blue shirt.
“Forty?” she said, voice muffled. “Even Daddy isn’t that old!”
“You’re such a baby,” Audrey replied.
“Enough,” Tate told both children, but he was looking at Cheryl as he spoke. “When is this shindig supposed to be over?”
They’d opened presents, devoured everything but the cakes, and competed for prizes a person would expect to see on a TV game show. What else was there to do?
“Why can’t you just stop fighting?” Ava blurted.
“We’re not fighting, darling,” Cheryl pointed out quietly, before turning to sweep her watchful friends and the nannies up in a benign smile. “And stop carrying on, Ava. It isn’t becoming—or ladylike.”
“Can we go out to the ranch, Daddy?” Ava asked him plaintively, ignoring her mother’s comment. “I like it better there, because nobody fights.”
“Me, too,” Tate agreed. It was his turn to take the kids, and he’d been looking forward to it since their last visit. Giving them back was always a wrench.
“Nobody fights at the ranch?” Audrey argued, sounding way too bored and way too sophisticated for a six-year-old. Yeah, she was a prime candidate for the Pixie Pageant, all right, Tate thought bitterly—bring on the mascara and enough hairspray to rip a new hole in the ozone layer, and don’t forget the feather boas and the fishnet stockings.
Audrey drew a breath and went right on talking. “I guess you don’t remember the day Uncle Austin came home from the hospital after that bull hurt him so bad, before he started rehab in Dallas, and how he told Daddy and Uncle Garrett to stay out of his part of the house unless they wanted a belly full of buckshot.”
Cheryl arched one eyebrow, triumphant. For all their land, cattle, oil shares and cold, hard cash, the McKettricks were just a bunch of Texas rednecks, as far as she was concerned. She’d grown up in a Park Avenue high-rise, a cherished only child, after all, her mother an heiress to a legendary but rapidly dwindling fortune, her father a famous novelist, of the literary variety.
But, please, nobody mention that dear old Mom snorted coke and would sleep with anything in pants, and Dad ran through the last of his wife’s money and then his surprisingly modest earnings as the new Ernest Hemingway.
Cheryl had never gotten over the humiliation of having to wait tables and take out student loans to put herself through college and law school.
“I wonder what my attorney would say,” Cheryl intoned, “if I told him the children are exposed to guns, out there on the wild and wooly Silver Spur.”
While Tate couldn’t argue that there weren’t firearms on the ranch—between the snakes and all the other dangers inherent to the land, firepower might well prove to be a necessity at any time—it was a stretch to say the girls were “exposed” to them. Every weapon was locked up in one of several safes, and the combinations changed regularly.
“I wonder what mine would say,” Tate retorted evenly, the fake smile aching on his face, “if he knew about your plans for this week.”
“Stop,” Ava begged.
Tate sighed, kissed his daughter smartly on the forehead, and set her on her feet again. “Sorry, sweetheart,” he said. “Say goodbye and thanks to your friends. The party’s over.”
“They haven’t even sung the song I taught them,” Cheryl said.
Ava leaned against Tate’s hip. “We’re not good singers at all,” she confided.
Somewhat to Tate’s surprise, it was Audrey, the performer in the family, who turned on one sandaled heel, faced the assemblage and announced cheerfully, “You can all go home now—my dad says the party’s over.”
The kids—and the pony—seemed relieved. So did the nannies, though the proper term, according to Cheryl, was au pairs. The mothers, many of whom Tate had known since kindergarten and dated in high school between all-too frequent breakups with Libby Remington, the great love of his youth, if not his entire life, hid bitchy little smiles with varying degrees of success.
“The girls are a little tired,” Cheryl explained, with convincing sincerity. “All this excitement—”
“Can we ride horses when we get to the ranch?” Audrey called, from halfway across the yard. “Can we swim in the pool?”
Tate made damn sure he didn’t smile at this indication of how “tired” his daughters were, but it was hard.
Ava remained at his side, both arms clenched around his waist now.
“Their suitcases,” Cheryl said tightly, “are in the hall.”
“Let’s load Bamboozle in the trailer,” Tate told Ava, gently easing out of her embrace. “Then we’ll get your stuff and head for the ranch.”
Ava peeled herself away from Tate, walked over and took Bamboozle by the bridle strap, patiently waiting to lead the elderly animal to the trailer hitched to the back of Tate’s truck. Audrey had disappeared into the house, on some mission all her own.
“Don’t help,” Cheryl snapped, out of one side of her mouth. “You’ve already done enough, Tate McKettrick.”
“I live to delight you in every possible way, Cheryl.”
Audrey poked her head out between the French doors standing a little ajar between the living room and the patio. “Can we stop at the Perk Up on the way out of town, Dad?” she wanted to know, as calmly as if the backyard weren’t full of dismissed guests. “Get some of those orange smoothie things, like before?”
Tate grinned. “Sure,” he told his daughter, even though the thought of stopping at Libby’s coffee shop made the pit of his stomach tighten. He’d only gone in there the last time because he’d known Libby was out of town, and her sister, Julie, was running the show.
Which was ridiculous. They’d managed to avoid each other for years now, no mean trick in such a small town, but it was getting to be too damn much work.
“Just what they need—more sugar,” Cheryl muttered, shaking her head as she walked away, her arms still crossed in front of her chest, only more tightly now.
Tate held his tongue. He hadn’t been the one to serve cake and ice cream and fruit punch by the wheelbarrow load all afternoon.
Cheryl kept walking.
Tate and Ava led the pony into the horse trailer, which, along with his truck, took up at least three parking spaces on the shady street in front of Cheryl’s house. He’d bought the place for her as a part—a small part—of their divorce settlement.
“Boozle might get lonely riding in this big trailer all by himself,” Ava fretted, standing beside the pony while he slurped up water from a bucket. “Maybe I should ride back here with him, so he’d have some company.”
“Not a chance,” Tate said affably, dumping a flake of hay into the feeder for the pony to munch on, going home. “Too dangerous.”
Ava adjusted her glasses. “Audrey really wants to be in that Pixie Pageant,” she said, her voice small. “She’s going to nag you three ways from Sunday about it, too.”
Tate bit back a grin. “I think I can handle a little nagging,” he said lightly. “Let’s go get your stuff and hit the road, Shortstop.”
“I probably wouldn’t win anyway,” Ava mused wistfully, stopping her father cold.
“Win what?” Tate asked.
Ava giggled, but it was a strained sound, like she was forcing it. “The Pixie Pageant, Dad. Keep up, will you?”
Tate’s throat went tight, but he managed a chuckle. “Sure, you’d win,” he said. “And that’s another reason I won’t let you enter in the first place. Just think how bad all those other little girls would feel.”
“Audrey could be Miss Pixie,” Ava speculated thoughtfully, a small, light-rimmed shadow standing there in the horse trailer. “She can twirl a baton and everything. I keep on dropping mine.”
“Audrey isn’t entering,” Tate said. Bamboozle was between them; he removed the pony’s saddle and blanket, ran a hand along his sweaty back. “She’ll just have to content herself with being Miss McKettrick, at least for the foreseeable future.”
Ava mulled that over for a few moments, chewing her lower lip. “Do you think I’ll be pretty when I grow up, Dad?”
Tate moved to the back of the trailer, jumped down, turned and held out his arms for Ava, even though she could have walked down the ramp. “No,” he said, as she came within reach. “I think you’ll be beautiful, like you are right now.”
Ava felt feather-light as he swung her to the ground, and it gave him a pang. Was it his fault that the girls had been born too soon? Was there something he could have done to prevent all the struggles they’d faced just getting through infancy?
“You’re only saying that because you’re my dad.”
“I’m saying it because it’s true,” Tate said.
Ava stepped back while he slid the ramp into place under the trailer, then shut and latched the doors. “Mommy says it’s never too soon to think about becoming a woman,” she ventured. “Things we do now could affect our whole, entire lives, you know.”
Tate kept his back to the child, so she wouldn’t see the fury in his face. He spoke in the most normal tone he could summon. “You’ll only be a little girl for a few years,” he answered carefully. “Just concentrate on that for now, okay? Because ‘becoming a woman’ will take care of itself.”
Wasn’t it only yesterday that the twins were newborns, making a peeping sound instead of squalling, like most babies, hooked up to tubes and wires, dwarfed by their incubators at the hospital in Houston? Now, suddenly, they were six. He’d be walking them down the aisle at their weddings before he knew what hit him, he thought bleakly.
He shoved one hand through his hair, longing to get back to the ranch and pull on battered jeans that had never known the heat of an iron. Shed the spiffy shirt, so fresh from the box that the starch in the fabric chafed his sign.
On the ranch, he could breathe, although he’d seriously considered moving out of the mansion, taking up residence in the old bunkhouse or a simple single-wide down by one of the bends in the creek.
Mothers and nannies streamed past, herding grouchy children toward various cars and minivans. A few of the women spoke to Tate, most of them cordial, while a few others wished Ava a happy birthday in subdued tones and ignored him completely.
Tate wasn’t much for chatting, but he was friendly enough. When somebody spoke to him, he spoke back.
A scraping sound alerted him to Audrey, dragging her suitcase down the front walk on its wheels. He went to take the bag from her, stowed it in the front seat, on the passenger side, where his dog, Crockett, used to ride. Crockett had died of old age more than a year before, but Tate still forgot he wasn’t around sometimes and stood with the truck door open, waiting to hoist his sidekick aboard.
“You got your bag packed?” he asked Ava, when she scrambled into the back seat, with Audrey. They both had those special safety rigs, booster chairs with straps and hooks.
“I’ve got plenty of clothes at the ranch,” Ava responded, with a shake of her head. One of the pink barrettes holding her bangs out of her face had sprung loose, and her braid was coming undone. “Let’s go before Mom makes us come back and sing.”
Tate laughed, rounded the front of the truck and got behind the wheel.
“Beauty-Shop Betsey,” Audrey scoffed. “What possessed Jeffrey’s mom to buy us doll heads with curlers?” She’d been talking like a grown-up since she was two.
“Hey,” Tate said, starting up the engine, waiting for the flock of departing vans and Volvos to thin out a little. God only knew when Blue River, official population 8,472, had last seen a traffic snarl like this. “If somebody goes to all the trouble of buying you a birthday present, you ought to appreciate it.”
“Mom said we could exchange the stuff we don’t want,” Audrey informed him, with a touch of so-there in her tone. “Everybody included gift receipts.”
Tate figured it was high time to change the subject. “How about those orange smoothies?” he asked.
Tate McKettrick, Libby Remington thought, watching as he drew his truck and horse trailer to a stop in front of her shop, got out and strode purposefully toward the door.
It bothered her that after all this time the sight of him still made her heart flutter and her stomach jump. Damn the man, with his dark, longish hair, ink-blue eyes, and that confident, rolling way he moved, as though he’d greased his hip sockets.
Although it was growing, with a population now of almost 9,000, Blue River wasn’t exactly a metropolis, and that meant she and Tate ran into each other from time to time. Whenever they did, they’d nod and quickly headed in separate directions, but they’d never sought each other out.
Poised to turn the “Open” sign to “Closed,” Libby closed her eyes for a moment, hoping he was a mirage. A figment of her fevered imagination.
He wasn’t, of course.
When she looked again, he was standing just on the other side of the glass door, peering through the loop in the P in Perk Up, grinning.
A McKettrick—a pedigree in that part of the country—Tate was used to getting what he wanted, including service on a Sunday afternoon, when the store closed early.
Libby sighed, turned the dead bolt, and opened the door. “Two orange smoothies,” he said, without preamble. “To go.”
Libby looked past him, saw his twin daughters in the back seat of his fancy truck. An old grief rose up within her, one she’d worked hard to lay to rest. From the time she’d fallen for Tate, back in second grade, she’d planned on marrying him when they both grew up, been bone-certain she’d be the one to have his babies.
“Where’s Crockett?” she asked, without intending to.
Sadness moved in Tate’s impossibly blue eyes. “Had to have him put down a while back,” he said. “He was pretty old, and then he got sick.”
“I’m sorry,” Libby said, because she was. For the dog.
“Thanks,” he answered.
She stepped back to let Tate in, against her better judgment. “I’m fostering a couple of mixed breeds, because the shelter is full again. Want one—or, better yet, both?”
Tate shook his head. Light caught in his ebony hair, where the comb ridges still showed. “Just a couple of those smoothie things. Orange. Light on the sugar, if that’s an option.”
Libby stepped behind the counter, more because she wanted to put some kind of solid barrier between herself and Tate than to mix the drinks he’d requested. Her gaze strayed to the kids waiting in the truck again. They both looked like their father. “Will there be anything else?”
“No,” Tate said, taking out his beat-up wallet. “How much?”
Libby told him the price of two orange smoothies, with tax, and he laid the money on the countertop. There were at least three drive-through restaurants on the outskirts of town; he’d pass them coming and going from the Silver Spur. So why had he stopped at her store, on Blue River’s narrow main street, with a horse trailer hitched to his huge phallic symbol of a truck?
“You’re sure you don’t want something for yourself?” she asked lightly, and then wished she’d kept her mouth shut.
Tate’s grin tilted to one side. He smelled of sun-dried laundry and aftershave and pure man. A look of mischief danced in his eyes.
When he spoke, though, he said, “It’s their birthday,” accompanied by a rise and fall of his powerful shoulders. His blue shirt was open at the throat, and she could see too much—and not quite enough—of his chest.
Libby whipped up the drinks, filling two biodegradable cups from a pitcher, attached the lids and set them next to the cash register. “Then maybe you’d like to give them a dog or two,” she replied, with an ease she didn’t feel. Being in such close proximity to Tate rattled her, but it probably didn’t show. “Since it’s their birthday.”
“Their mother would have a fit,” he said, reaching for the cups. His hands were strong, calloused from range work. Despite all that McKettrick money, he wasn’t afraid to wade into a mudhole to free a stuck cow, set fence posts in the ground, buck bales or shovel out stalls.
It was one of the reasons the locals liked him so much, made them willing to overlook the oil wells, now capped, and the ridiculously big house and nearly a hundred thousand acres of prime grassland, complete with springs and creeks and even a small river.
He was one of them.
Of course, the locals hadn’t been dumped because he’d gotten some other woman pregnant just a few months after he’d started law school.
No, that had happened to her.
She realized he was waiting for her to respond to his comment about his ex-wife. Their mother would have a fit.
Can’t have that, Libby thought, tightening her lips. “The ice is melting in those smoothies,” she finally said. Translation: Get out. It hurts to look at you. It hurts to remember how things were between us before you hooked up with somebody you didn’t even love.
Tate grinned again, though his eyes looked sad, and then he turned sideways, ready to leave. “Maybe we’ll stop by your place and have a look at those dogs after all,” he said.
“Would tomorrow be good?”
He’d stayed with Cheryl-the-lawyer for less than a year after the twins were born. As soon as the babies began to thrive, he’d moved Cheryl and his infant daughters into the two-story colonial on Oak Street.
The gossip had burned like a brush fire for months.
“That would be fine,” Libby said, back from her mental wanderings. Tate McKettrick might have broken her heart, but he’d loved his ancient, arthritic dog, Davy Crockett. And she needed to find homes for the pair of pups.
Hildie, her adopted black lab, normally the soul of charity, was starting to resent the canine roommates, growling at them when they got too near her food dish, baring her teeth when they tried to join her on the special fluffy rug at the foot of Libby’s bed at night. The newcomers, neither more than a year old, seemed baffled by this reception, wagging their tails uncertainly whenever they ran afoul of Hildie, then launching right back into trouble.
They would be very happy out there on the Silver Spur, with all that room to run, Libby thought.
A rush of hope made the backs of her eyes burn as she watched Tate move toward the door.
“Six?” she said.
Tate, shifting the cups around so he could open the door, looked back at her curiously, as though he’d already forgotten the conversation about the dogs, if not Libby herself.
“I close at six,” Libby said, fanning herself with a plastic-coated price list even though the secondhand swamp cooler in the back was working fine, for once. She didn’t want him thinking the heat in her face had anything to do with him, even though it did. “The shop,” she clarified. “I close the shop at six tomorrow. You could stop by the house and see the dogs then.”
Tate looked regretful for a moment, as though he’d already changed his mind about meeting the potential adoptees. But then he smiled in that way that made her blink. “Okay,” he said. “See you a little after six tomorrow night, then.”
Libby swallowed hard and then nodded.
She hurried to lock the door again, turned the “Closed” sign to the street, and stood there, watching Tate stride toward his truck, so broad-shouldered and strong and confident.
What was it like, Libby wondered, to live as though you owned the whole world?
On the off chance that Tate might glance in her direction again, once he’d finished handing the cups through the window of his truck to the girls, Libby quickly turned away.
She took the day’s profits from the till—such as they were—and tucked the bills and checks into a bank deposit bag. She’d hide them in the usual place at home, and stop by First Cattleman’s in the morning, during one of the increasingly long lulls in business.
The house she’d lived in all her life was just across the alley, and Hildie and the pups were in the backyard when she approached the gate, Hildie lying in the shade of the only tree on the property, the foster dogs playing tug-of-war with Libby’s favorite blouse, which had either fallen or been pulled from the clothesline.
Seeing her, the pups dropped the blouse in the grass—the lawn was in need of mowing, as usual—and yipped in gleefully innocent greeting. Libby didn’t have the heart to scold them, and they wouldn’t have understood anyway.
With a sigh, she retrieved the blouse from the ground and stayed bent long enough to acknowledge each of the happy-eyed renegades with a pat on the head. “You,” she said sweetly, “are very, very bad dogs.”
They were ecstatic at the news. A matched set, they both had golden coats and floppy ears and big feet. While Hildie looked on, nonplussed, they barked with joy and took a frenzied run around the yard, knocking over the recycling bin in the process.
Hildie finally rose from her nest under the oak, stretched and ambled slowly toward her mistress.
Libby leaned to ruffle Hildie’s ears and whisper, “Hang in there, sweet girl. With any luck at all, those two will be living the high life out on the Silver Spur by tomorrow night.”
Hildie’s gaze was liquid with adoration as she looked up at Libby, panting and swinging her plume of a tail.
“Suppertime,” Libby announced, to all and sundry, straightening again. She led the way to the back door, the three dogs trailing along behind her, single file, Hildie in the lead.
The blouse proved unsalvageable. Libby flinched a little, tossing it into the rag bag. The blue fabric had flattered her, accentuating the color of her eyes and giving her golden brown hair some sparkle.
Easy come, easy go, she thought philosophically, although, in truth, nothing in her life had ever been easy.
The litany unrolled in her head.
She’d paid $50 for that blouse, on sale.
The economy had taken a downturn and her business reflected that.
Marva was back, and she was more demanding every day.
And as if all that weren’t enough, Libby had two dogs in dire need of good homes—she simply couldn’t afford to keep them—and she’d already pitched the pair to practically every other suitable candidate in Blue River with no luck.
Jimmy-Roy Holter was eager to take them, but he wanted to name them Killer and Ripper, plus he lived in a camper behind his mother’s house, surrounded by junked cars, and had bred pit bulls to sell out of the back of his truck, along a busy stretch of highway, until an animal protection group in Austin had forced him to close down the operation.
Libby washed her hands at the sink, rubbed her work-chafed hands down the thighs of her blue jeans since she was out of paper towels and all the cloth ones were in the wash.
No, as far as placing the pups in a good home was concerned, Tate McKettrick was her only hope. She’d have to deal with him.
Damn her lousy-assed luck.