Sixteen months since the senseless death of her husband, attorney Rachel Martin fears the future. Cutting back on her law practice and returning to her childhood home at Hearts Crossing Ranch has given her son all the attention he needs, but she wants to heal and strike out on her own. Finding love again is the last thing on her mind...until she meets Brayton Metcalf.
Successful businessman, Brayton Metcalf blames himself for the plane crash that killed his wife and injured his daughter. He was the pilot, after all. When he brings his daughter to Hearts Crossing Ranch for therapy riding lessons, he is drawn to Rachel Martin right away, even as she backs off. She too wrestles with the loss of a spouse.
Brayton finds he must whittle away at her doubts as well as put his own guilt to rest. But can renewed faith and love over come their grief? And can they once again see daylight?
Rachel woke up just this side of a bad dream. Heart pounding, sheets strangling, she reached for something that wasn’t there. Someone.
Nick. Dead sixteen months.
“I love you, Mama. Get up.” Her little boy’s words calmed her soul. Sunshine brushed her face and unbelievably, the usual desolation eased.
“Love you too, Matty. I think it’s going to be a beautiful day.” Scrambling from the blankets, she grabbed his tiny jeans and got him quickly dressed. Then he shrugged away her hug to chase tiny cars across the braided rug of her childhood bedroom.
She stretched, noticed the knots in her neck were gone, and peered out the window. Sunrise bounced from the mountain peaks to glaze the ranch below. Indeed, Hearts Crossing Ranch meant family, life, and love, but it was time. Time for her and Matty to find a place of their own. “Let’s go, kiddo.”
“What do we do today?” His little face bore such a resemblance to his father her heart lurched. But in a good way, finally. What a legacy Nick had left behind.
“Gramma will take care of you. I’m going on a trail ride to Fortress Creek with some ladies.”
After she dressed, they met her brother Scott at the bottom of the stairs, and Matty threw himself into his uncle’s arms.
“You go get some breakfast, bud. I gotta talk to your mama.” Scott tried a charming smile.
Ah, something was up. Rachel knew him well. Matty scampered off.
“Hey, Rache. Could you take my therapy riding lesson? I’ll be taking the bachelorette party out on the trail instead of you.”
“Sure.” Rachel couldn’t help a grin. “If you’ve a mind for flirtin’, remember, you’re a married man with a baby girl on the way. But what’s up with the switcheroo?”
Scott twiddled his fingers. “Aw, at the line dance in town last night, the gals found out about Cheyenne Bluff. How pretty it is in the fall. So, you know.”
Of course she knew. Her heart made a full stop before it hammered against her ribs. Cheyenne Bluff. Where Nick had died.
The day after Scott’s wedding. Her throat tightened, and her hands knotted together. Her heart panged even though Scott’s thoughtfulness touched her. She couldn’t bear taking a happy bride and her entourage to the spot of the accident. Once more grief screamed.
Rachel hoped this woman’s marriage would be happy, yet she knew well how life could turn against you. How God could, too. Unwinding her fingers, she touched his shoulder. “Thanks, Scott. I’ll be right there.”
“No hurry. Get a cup of coffee. Everybody’s still eating.”
At the big kitchen breakfast table, she found Matty snuggling deep into Ma’s neck. The bachelorettes, at the ranch for the weekend, smiled and greeted her over their blueberry muffins. Rachel’s gaze paused on the bride. Under the brim of her straw western hat peeked a tuft of veil. Her face glowed like a bride’s should, and Rachel’s heart tore in half at memories of her own wedding day. Last thing she wanted was food. She pulled her hand back from the tray of muffins.
“Get some coffee at least, Rachel,” her mother ordered, sensing her pain.
“’Morning, everybody.” Rachel grabbed a cup and her control and tried a drawl. “I’ll be taking my brother Scott’s riding lesson this morning. Looks like he’s the cowpoke going to ride the trail with you this morning.” She smiled at their happy faces. “Bear in mind, he’s way off the table.”
“So are we,” a bridesmaid wearing a fringed jacket tossed back. “Charlene, our lovely bride, is the last of us to get hitched.”
“Um, leave me out of it. I’ve got no engagement ring on my ringer yet.” Another woman chimed in. “And unless Travis takes off his jerk-jacket soon, I just might, you know…” Her voice trailed off into a giggle.
“Ah, Cricket.” The group groaned as one.
Still, the last of us? Rachel swallowed. At one time, she had been the first—the first of the eight siblings to get hitched. Then came the long wait before the miracle of conception. Nick’s reserve unit left to serve weeks before Matty’s birth. More than breath itself, she’d wanted him at her side when their baby arrived. She still recalled her panic, her tears, but God had been there then. Promising never to send more than she could bear.
Well, maybe He’d been wrong.
“Rachel, you hurry on to your lesson now,” Ma announced. “I can babysit this sugarplum all day and all night and then some.” Ma’s voice turned tender but it wasn’t toward her grandson. Her mother didn’t miss a thing—knew exactly what she was feeling. Rachel had to get out. Out of the kitchen now. Out of the house.
Her heart hammered with nerves. She’d spun her wheels all these months in the comfort of childhood, but the time had come to be on her own again. Get her own place. But for now, she kissed Ma’s cheek then the top of Matty’s head and poured herself that cup of coffee. With mumbled goodbyes, the bridal gaggle looked up when Scott poked his head back in.
“Rachel, Tiffany’s got Peachy all ready for Adelaide,” he said. “Ladies, we’ll be on our way soon.”
“I’ll be right there.” Rachel set down her cup on a side table in the foyer and quickly grabbed her warm jacket and Stetson from the hall tree. Helping Scott always warmed her heart. He’d done such a great thing, bringing a therapy riding program to Hearts Crossing to assist children with disabilities. Ma’s gentle Cremello mare, Peach Cobbler, had taken to her new role right away. And as for Rachel, concentrating on her certification for equine therapy had gotten her through some terrible times. So far, only she and Scott had gone through the training.
“Tell me about my student.” The steam from her cup all but crackled into the cold morning air as she and Scott walked to the training arena.
“Adelaide Metcalf. You might have heard of her dad. Brayton Metcalf? Big California businessman.” Scott’s words turned white on the air. “He bought the saddlery business in River Ridge a summer ago. Folks got their jobs back. Saved the town.”
“Yeah.” She’d had too much of her own life to deal with that summer. “Saving the saddlery was a good thing.”
“Well, the business is thriving. Brayton decided to move here from Los Angeles. In July, he bought a thirty-acre ranchette in the canyon and some good horseflesh.”
“Quite a change.” She’d heard some gossip about him being the most eligible bachelor for fifty miles, but nothing about a special needs child. Eligible bachelors were of no interest to her. However, children were. “I didn’t know he has a disabled child.”
“Her back was injured in an accident when she was two,” Scott said. “She’s had some surgeries, and she’s doing great. Just needs to work on her balance, strengthen her spine. Mostly build her confidence.”
“OK. I can handle that.” Rachel stood on tiptoe to give her brother a hug. “That’s them?” She nodded toward a car that had just pulled in the parking area.
As Rachel set her mug on the top of a fence post, she watched the Metcalfs emerge from a deep gray BMW twenty yards away, twenty minutes early. A tall cowboy-hatted man waved eagerly before turning to help his daughter, who looked about twelve. She pulled away from him. Aw, girls. Rachel remembered pre-teen moodiness. Her own and her sisters’. And if the girl had health issues as well…
“He’s a real good man, Rachel. A widower.” Scott’s eyebrows rose.
Anger mixed with annoyance, and Rachel turned her back to the newcomers. “If you’re on about what I think you’re on about, Scotman, no thanks. I’m off the table, too.” She ground her teeth. “I need another husband like I need…like I need a rash on my backside during a trail ride.”
“Aw, Rache. I’m not saying get married again.” He scooped carrot stubs from a Styrofoam cooler into a blue plastic bucket. “But it couldn’t hurt to keep company with a nice guy once in a while.”
Rachel swallowed hard. She hadn’t been on a date for a decade or more.
“No.” She said, heart tweaking. “Matty’s the only man in my life. The only one I need.” Affection transposed irritation, and she tussled Scott’s unruly hair. “You’re a good guy. Mary Grace is lucky to have you. But I’m OK. I really am.”
Scott frowned, but didn’t say anything else. Rachel understood. Her seven siblings wanted her safe and secure with somebody nice. All but she and baby sister, Chelsea, were married and settled. But...
“Come on.” She took Scott’s hand and led him to the Metcalfs, the girl stiff and sullen at her dad’s side. “Introduce me before you go off with the bachelorettes.”
With Brayton close up, Rachel admitted the gossip about his looks were true. She had to hang on to her breath as well as Scott’s arm. If she’d been in a better place in life and time, her heart would have trilled at such a handsome man. Beneath the brim of a well-worn Stetson, his gray eyes sparkled like sunshine on a rain puddle. Jeans hugged his long legs just right to show off well-shaped thighs. Face still tan from summer, shoulders wide enough to make a woman feel safe. And that dark hair brushing his shoulders. A normal widow would have ached to drag her fingers through it.
“Howdy, Brayton. Meet my sister Rachel… Martin.” Scott hesitated over her name. She understood why. Professionally, she’d been Rachel Martin, Esquire, since starting her law practice and Mrs. Vasquez in her private life. Now without Nick, without the man who had promised a lifetime with her, she felt little need to include his name.
“Pleased to meet you, that’s for sure. Brayton Metcalf.” With a wide grin, he held out a hand, strong and callused, what she expected from a rancher and not from a city man.
“Happy to meet you. And this, of course, is Adelaide. Howdy.” Rachel addressed the grumpy girl. “I’m Rachel.”
“How do you do,” the girl replied in a fairly polite way before sniping. “I hate that name. It’s old fashioned. He”—she threw her dad a dirty look—“named me for his grandmother.”
Brayton shrugged, sun-browned cheekbones turning copper in embarrassment. “Gram Adelaide raised me.” Then he glared at his daughter. “Mind your manners, young lady.”
Rachel felt for him, keen to soothe the moment. “It’s a nice name. My Grim-Gram was named Frieda Louise.” She grinned.
For a second, the girl’s lips twitched. “Well, I like Addie better.”
“I like it, too. You have a choice then, classic or modern.”
Scott handed Adelaide the blue bucket of carrots. “Peachy’s waiting for a snack. I’ll see y’all later.”
With a two-finger tip of his hat, Scott left for the bridesmaids, and Addie took off to the corral, crooning to Peachy and holding out a flat palm studded with carrots. Rachel couldn’t help noticing that Addie’s posture appeared perfect, her gait secure, her back strong, and her feet sure as she scrambled away from her dad.
“Sorry about that.” Brayton’s color had returned to normal, but his jaw tensed. “She and I don’t get along very well. And it’s been worse lately. We moved here last summer, and she wasn’t crazy about leaving California.”
“It’s OK.” Rachel laid a hand on his arm. “My mother raised three girls and five boys. Says if you don’t get a girl at some point, you really haven’t experienced parenthood.”
Brayton barked out a short laugh.
“And pre-teenage angst can be pretty bad. I dished out plenty in my day. Just ask Ma.” Rachel wanted to ease Brayton’s embarrassment, but he raised bleak eyes to her. The toes of his boots rustled up some dust as his feet moved restlessly.
His jaw clenched. “It’s more than that. She misses having a mother, and she blames me for the loss.”
“Why would she do that?”
“Her mother died in a plane crash. I was the pilot.”