After placing her handicapped son in a full- time care facility, Mary Grace Gibson is determined to get her life back on track again. She takes on a substitute-teaching job in her old home town and is more than grateful for the room and board offered at Hearts Crossing Ranch.
The bustling Martin family helps her start trusting again. But the hurt she experienced when her ex abandoned her due to their little boy’s serious disabilities make Mary Grace cautious to trust anyone. Even the handsome cowboy who’s fast stealing her heart.
Cowboy and graphic artist Scott Martin is instantly drawn to the beautiful single mom—his former high school teacher. She’s had some hard luck but never let go of her faith. Their age gap doesn’t fret him, and their kisses ignite his love. But Mary Grace’s lack of trust shatters his feelings. He’s been down that broken trail before.
How can he assure her he’s different from the man who hurt her and neglected her son?
October held enough leftover summer for sweat to bead on Scott Martin’s brow. But take his hand off the reins to wipe his face, nope. Not with Heather atop Peachy. Even though his ma’s cremello mare was the gentlest of all the Hearts Crossing horses, the disabled fourteen-year-old girl had never sat a horse before. She couldn’t speak, but from her mumbles and chuckles, he saw clearly she was enjoying her ride as he led the horse in a slow lap around the corral.
Her ma stood outside the fence, afternoon sun showing the sparkle of tears in her eyes at her daughter’s wish coming true. Space Cowboy, Scott’s dog, rested his head on Mrs. Clark’s feet like he did it every day. Scott’s spirit soared at the sights around him.
“You are, Miss Heather, the prettiest cowgirl I ever did see.” Scott nodded at the mother and winked at the girl.
Mrs. Clark smiled at his words. “I just know she’d rather a wear a cowboy hat on her head than that helmet.”
“Safety reasons, ma’am. But I’ll see what I can do.” He doffed his wide-brimmed hat and plunked it atop the helmet. As Heather’s face split into a bright smile, her ma snapped a picture with her smartphone.
One more lap, slow and easy, and Scott reined in Peachy, started unhooking the safety belt he’d jury-rigged, and waited for Mrs. Clark before lifting Heather down. He wasn’t quite sure the nature of the girl’s disabilities, which were both physical and intellectual, but she couldn’t walk unaided. Her ma helped her every step of the way, so for a flash, he reckoned her riding the horse–even if he’d walked at her side just six inches from her knees—had been a true mark of independence.
Leaning against her mother, Heather groaned a sound that Scott was sure meant thank you. He squeezed the girl’s hand and reclaimed his hat. Next time, if there was one, he’d be sure to have on hand a Stetson big enough to tie around Heather’s helmet. Seeing Space Cowboy, Heather let out a sound of glee, and her ma helped her bend down to give the mutt a hug.
“I can’t thank you enough, Mr. Martin, for today. It’s a dream come true for my daughter. Horses and dogs—just about her two favorite things. How about another ‘lesson’ next Saturday?”
Scott had to hesitate. He sure wasn’t a certified therapy instructor. True, Hearts Crossing Ranch was no stranger at giving riding lessons, did so both privately and in groups to folks of all ages and experience levels, but today marked the ranch’s first time with someone of special needs.
“I looked up some stuff on the internet, but I’m not exactly certified, you know,” he said. Sure he’d enjoyed Heather’s excursion, and Mrs. Clark had signed all the necessary waivers, but he had to be honest.
“I know but…” Mrs. Clark kissed the top of Heather’s head and looked down at her feet. “The closest therapy riding center for disabled children is in Broken Bow. Hearts Crossing is on the way to my folks. I know Heather would love it, wouldn’t you, sweetheart?” She kissed her daughter’s cheek with such true adoration Scott’s heart tugged. “It was Mrs. Martin’s idea, and a wonderful one,” she continued before he could think to respond. “Coming here and trying Heather on a gentle horse. There are so few options for special needs children in Rustic Canyon…”
Of all the Mrs. Martins in his world, Scott knew she referred to his sister-in-law Daisy, who taught at a Christian school about an hour away. Heather and a trained teacher’s aide mainstreamed into Daisy’s seventh grade class a couple hours a day. When Daisy had suggested a therapy ride for Heather, the family had embraced the idea with enthusiasm.
But should there be next times? He knew CPR and first aid, of course, but as yet hadn’t taken any specialized training. In the meantime, Heather’s bright face convinced him.
“Next Saturday should be OK,” he said and meant it, planned to do more research during the week. “We’re glad y’all could make it today.”
“Thanks so much, Mr. Martin.”
“Call me Scott, ma’am. Mr. Martin’s one of my brothers.” He grinned.
Heather smiled again. Scott was unsure whether she understood or not since her lips twisted oddly from her condition. But in her way, she was a beautiful, intriguing child. Pity rose in his gut, as well as affection. What kind of life would she have later on? What kind of life did her mother have now with a child of such punishing dependence and no possibility of growing up and being on her own?
“OK, then. Be seeing you. Um…” Scott hesitated. Mrs. Clark seemed so capable, so in tune with her child, but he felt the need to ask. “Can I help you, you know, back to your van?”
Mrs. Clark smiled. “No. We’ve got our little routine. Heather and I have been on our own since she was knee high. But thanks. For everything.”
For a moment, Scott watched them walk away to a pale blue minivan, escorted by Space Cowboy, and wondered. On our own? Did that mean no husband and father in the picture? Couldn’t be an easy life, not at all. Alone yet.
Definitely time for a cold cola, he hustled up the porch steps into the big ranch house. Hearing voices, Scott wondered if he should intrude. Strong opinions surged from the big front room where most activities originated both family and tourist, ranging from city-slicker wagon trains to destination weddings.
But the strong words now were definitely about his brother Kenn’s day job. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Scott didn’t want to eavesdrop, but he didn’t dare interrupt the eruption either. He hunkered just outside the doorway but with a partial view.
“I can’t miss a week of teaching,” The mild-mannered Kenn all but hollered. “I’ve got kids to tutor before quarter exams. Coursework to review with my classes. Not to mention report cards getting done. Ma, it’s not gonna happen.” Kenn’s good arm pounded the side of an armchair, his bandaged leg stretched on an ottoman. “And get that out of here.” He pointed at the wheelchair in front of the fireplace, and Scott’s heart panged. Before pancreatic cancer had claimed Pa’s life, he’d spent many hours in the thing. “I don’t need a wheelchair.”
“It’s a ‘transport’ chair,” Ma sniffed. “You need to keep your leg elevated. It’ll ease you getting around the house. But school? Not on my watch, not with all those pain meds gurgling through your blood. You got no ramps to your classroom. Besides, you need the ice machine and electrodes for your shoulder and all the other gizmos to get you better.” Ma harrumphed in her own special way. “And with Christy not here, she’s left me in charge.”
At the mention of his wife’s name, Kenn’s face darkened. It had torn them apart, Christy leaving so soon after Kenn’s tumble from a rescued mustang, but she was a keynote speaker at the Landscape Architects National Association’s annual convocation in southern California. In addition, she was the scheduled recipient of the prestigious Tomorrowscape Award for one of her Los Angeles area sustainable landscaping projects. Even with her protests, Kenn had insisted he was in good enough hands for a few days. He’d even encouraged her not to cancel plans to visit relatives and friends before coming home.
Out-patient arthroscopic surgery had fixed up Kenn just fine. And without a doubt, Ma’s promise to hover over his brother had helped convince Christy not to cancel her plans.
“The discussion is over,” Ma declared. “You couldn’t even use crutches with that shoulder. So stop squawking and start healing. And you, Scott.”
His skin crawled. How had she sensed him? He knew well he hadn’t made one single sound as he leaned against the doorway wall. “Scotty? Please tuck that chair away in the study.” She tended to the wires attached to Kenn’s bandages.
“OK, Ma.” He kissed her cheek. Ma was a powerful force of nature in the best of times, but when one of her clutch was in need, her authority never stopped. Thing was, she was usually right.
“And Kenn, even talented as you are, nobody’s indispensible,” Ma said. “This morning Principal Scovell hired somebody who taught for him a while back. Your substitute will be here in a little while to get some lessons plans done. You recall me telling you that, don’t you?”
Kenn nodded, but his tensed jaw let Scott know he was still resisting like crazy.
“Now, you be polite.”
With a groan, Kenn used his good arm to toss a throw pillow across the room. Then Scott moved the “transport chair” out of sight.
“How’d it go with the little girl?” Kenn asked, eyelids moving slow, when Scott returned. The pain meds were apparently working.
“Not so little. Fourteen.” Scott perched on a chair next to his brother. Ma sat silently, but bright eyes full of interest. “She enjoyed it. Tragic girl. Crippled and all but mute. Her ma tries to keep her gussied up cute, though.”
Ma harrumphed again. “Of course her ma does. That girl is the beautiful child of her heart, no matter what. And ever a child of God.”
“Her ma wants her back next Saturday. I said OK although I think we better find out some more about therapy riding.”
“Let Kenn research it while he’s housebound.” Ma ordered. “You’ve got to get the holiday inventory catalogued for the gift shop, and get the Christmas collection up on the online store.”
“All right.” Scott shrugged, a tad offended. He knew well what all his duties were, never shirked them to begin with. With the October cattle market now over and Hearts Crossing’s summer activities quiet until next year, he had time to catch up and even expand his own web-design business. In addition, a local romance writer had hired him to design promotional book trailers for her upcoming releases. He stood up, recalling his need for a soda.
“Get you anything, Kenn?” He headed toward the kitchen just as the doorbell rang. During the busy tourist months, the front door was never locked and guests went in and out at will, but off season, the ranch house had returned to a private home again. “I’ll get it.”
He opened the door, and his breath stopped. Heart pounded against his ribs before falling to his feet. Mary Grace Wesley? Well, Mary Grace Gibson now. Her big blue eyes widened like moons.
Grabbing tight to his self control, Scott’s brain insisted she’d grown more beautiful since the Fourth of July. After running into each other at the reunion picnic, they’d spent the whole day together. She’d even looped her arm through his when he took her around to chat with people she hadn’t seen in years.
“Hi, Scott.” As she moved her head, the sides of her blonde bob swung against the high bones of her cheeks and hid the rising blush.
Words strangled in his throat as mortification rose one more time. After that wonderful summer day, she’d refused his request for a date. A simple hamburger at the Butterbean Café. Nothing serious. Definitely nothing matrimonial considering Miss Wesley had been his art teacher in high school. That was a long time ago, what? Ten, eleven years? Him twenty-seven, her about thirty-three or four, they were contemporaries now.
Here she was, a laptop in one hand, a briefcase in another.
Kenn’s substitute. Getting ready to go back to Mountain Cove High School.
Mary Grace’s nightmare had come true. Of all the many Martin siblings who could have answered the door, it had to be Scott Martin, the one she never wanted to see again.
Mostly because she wanted to see him again. The lean kid she’d vaguely remembered from her art class long ago had grown up and filled out into one handsome cowboy. Meeting him again at the All-American Reunion Picnic had stolen her breath. Stirred her interest in him both as a graphic artist and as a man. Caused her four months of dreams that could never come true. Let him think the age difference was the reason. But the real reason was Creighton.
“How’ve you been?” The best deal was acting casual, normal. So she’d refused his date. Age difference worked. Or the weird little fact she’d once been his teacher.
Whatever. She just couldn’t risk losing her heart. “I’m here to talk with Kenn,” she went on. Despite her goal to sound casual, her voice shook. “I’ll be taking over his classes while he recovers. How’s he doing?”
“So you’re his sub.” Scott didn’t sound rude, just shocked. Then, as if he suddenly remembered his manners, he ushered her into the rustic, rambling ranch house.
“Yes, I am.” She pretended great interest in the invalid waving from a big leather chair. “Hello, Kenn? I’m Mary Grace Gibson. I’ll be helping you out for a week or two.”
“Howdy.” His smile was less grumpy than she would have thought. “I know you were on the faculty there, but just before my time, I guess. This is my mother, Elaine Martin.”
Mrs. Martin held out a hand for Mary Grace to shake.
“Happy to meet you. Yes, it’s been a while since my days at Mountain Cove High.” She had to flash Scott a smile. “I even remember teaching art to your kid brother. But no worries. I minored in English and American studies. I’ll be fine.” She hurried to Kenn and gently took his left hand, careful of the injured right shoulder. Indeed, Mountain Cove High had been another lifetime ago. Before pro football star Grant Gibson had promised her the world, married her, and took her far away. Then left her in the lurch when things got tough.
Make that…when Creighton had been born with a rare, incurable syndrome called Angelman. So much for better, worse. sickness, health. No matter. Her boy was her life.
“I recall you left us to get married. Football player, right?” Kenn asked.
When Mary Grace didn’t say anything, Scott spoke. “Yep. Grant Gibson.”
“Wow. Hall of Famer? What on earth brings you back here?”
After settling in the chair across from Kenn, she laid her laptop and briefcase on the floor, and considered what to say. Bad memories washed over her, but no reason to bare her soul. She’d only taught at Mountain Cove High one year, and although her marriage had seemed quite a coup at the time, she wondered if the locals even remembered. As for Creighton, well. She was proud as punch about him, but her private nature didn’t permit her go into detail about her son’s disabilities. Mostly to hold off the sympathy, well-meaning or not. She didn’t explain that Creighton was in the process of assimilating into a group home for full-time care. The separation stabbed her heart at times, but in the long run, she and his doctors had determined this was best.
“Ah well. Some fairytales don’t come true.” She had to keep things light. “Grant and I aren’t together anymore. But we have a son who’s almost ten. My dad’s not in good health, so last summer, we moved back from Michigan. When I heard about the reunion picnic, well, I couldn’t resist.”
There. That was true and informative and noncommittal. She’d watched Scott’s fingers clench when she talked about the reunion, though. That day at the picnic, she had told him she was single, had quietly mentioned Grant and having a son. Scott’s asking her out after learning about such baggage had more than flattered her. It had thrilled her. But it didn’t matter, not then. Not now. Her own husband hadn’t wanted an imperfect son. Why would any other man?
“Oh,” Kenn offered an apologetic smile. “Sorry to bring that up. I didn’t think before I spoke.”
Let him think it was the divorce that made her sad and not worry about her son. Over the years, she’d “dated” two men quite seriously, and each had quickly said adios upon meeting Creighton for the first time. Never would she bring a man into her son’s life again. Because none of them ever stuck around.
It was simply better this way.
“I’ll make y’all some coffee.” Kenn’s mother stood. “Then you and Kenn can get to work. And Scott can get to his computer. Your pa live around here, Mary Grace? I don’t recall him.”
At mention of Scott, Mary Grace’s skin grew warm, and she hoped her cheeks didn’t flame. Oh, it would have been nice. Just a simple burger with a hunky cowboy. But… “No. My folks live in Lost Canyon.”
“Lost Canyon?” Elaine Martin halted mid-stride, hands on ample hips. “You intend making that drive back and forth every day, for a week or more? We’re due for an early snow.”
Both Scott and Kenn wore worried foreheads. “That is one monster drive, Mary Grace.” Kenn used a stern schoolteacher tone.
“It’s not so bad.” She steeled herself. Like a treacherous drive would keep her from the job. She needed the job.
Mrs. Martin wasn’t going to let it go, however. Her lips pursed tight, and her fingers fiddling with the zipper of the turquoise jacket that matched her pants. “That pass at Eagle Ridge isn’t a good place even in the best of times.”
Mary Grace held off a shiver. She knew all this; her folks did, too. But God had sent her this job. About that she had no doubts or qualms at all. She’d prayed and this was the answer.
“I need the job,” she said simply. Not just for money. She also needed to build up her résumé. She hadn’t taught one single day since leaving Mountain Cove to marry Grant. After he left, well, the pre-nup hadn’t been generous, especially when Creighton’s experimental treatments had taken the two of them to clinics all over Europe and Asia. These days, every cent of child support went toward insurance payments and residential therapy. Simply put, Creighton was big for his age, and her folks didn’t have the stamina to handle him physically. They’d realized it during the summer months. And now with Creighton in good hands, Mary Grace needed to resurrect her career, to fill her days with something she was good at. To prepare for a future on her own.
Grief still tore at her even though the decision was a sound one. She might sob into her pillow each night at the painful separation, but Sosa’s Souls, the group home outside Denver, was proving to be the answer to prayer.
When all was said, done, and paid for, Mary Grace needed a way to support herself. She needed to build her life back. Of course she’d let her attorney hit up Grant for additional child support when required, but she was done with him. She’d accept his help with Creighton, but she could take care of herself. And would make it on her own.
“It’ll be all right,” she insisted even as her fingers tightened around the edge of her sweater. “I’m a Colorado girl by birth. I know the ropes.”
She couldn’t resist a little preen, however, at the concern etching Scott’s face. He was still lean as a willow switch, every inch toned with innate strength, dark curls almost black and eyes a mix of brown and green. In a better place and time, they might have had a chance. But no hot young cowboy of twenty seven, maybe twenty eight, needed the complication of romancing a thirty-four-year-old divorcee with a special needs child.
The flirtation at the picnic had been fun at the time, and seemed right. Had piqued her interest, fed her ego, and started her heart purring. But four months later, nothing could be more unwise. Disappointment swamped her, and she turned her face when she realized he’d caught her staring at him.
“Nope. I can’t allow it.” Mrs. Martin stated, her sons silent but giving each other knowing nods.
“Can’t allow what?” Mary Grace had to ask into the continuing quiet.
“I can’t allow you to put yourself in danger just because you’re helping out my son.” She eyed Mary Grace shrewdly. “Your folks capable of tending your boy?”
She gulped. No, but he was already in Broken Bow. “Um, yeah.”
“He’s nine, going on ten? You two ever been apart? Vacations and what not?”
The words had Mary Grace nearly choke. Of course. Hospitals and tests and now, Sosa’s Souls. They’d never had normal togetherness. All she could do was nod.
“All righty then. Scott’s got that computer-stream gizmo, right?” She gestured at her son, then looked back at Mary Grace. “You can be in touch with your boy twice a day, morning and night. Before school and after. So you’ll stay right here at Hearts Crossing.”
“What?” Mary Grace gasped and thought Scott did the same.
“You avoid that horrendous drive, besides which you and Kenn can consult each night about school. Keep him updated.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to leave her boy,” Scott tossed in and Mary Grace read his reluctance at having her anywhere within fifty miles.
Mary Grace bit her lip. Deep down, she knew Mrs. Martin’s invitation had merit. Creighton had already left. Weekly visits were going well; they were building up to more frequent contact. Settling him back to his routine was a struggle for him.
Her heart panged another time. Although best for Creighton, and a decision she hadn’t made lightly nor without many professional recommendations, the situation tore her apart every day.
Kenn smiled at her, brightening her mood. Then he grimaced in pain when he changed positions. “It could work, Mary Grace. If your boy doesn’t mind.”
Creighton wouldn’t mind. Would never even realize it. The goodness of the Martins filled the room, but she had to tease Kenn and keep things light to keep the tears away.
“Aha, I get it,” she said. “Kenn, you just don’t want to chance me not getting here if the weather should turn. But you know...” She smiled at Mrs. Martin. The invitation wasn’t a half-bad idea. “Let me chew on it for a bit, OK?”
“You could stay right here in the house. Our guest bunkhouse is out of bounds right now. Plumbing renovations. But we’ve got plenty of guestrooms upstairs.” Mrs. Martin tapped her finger against her cheek. “The ‘Huckleberry Holliday’ guest suite is just the thing. And Kenn, he’s tied up right here while his wife’s out of town for a few days. It’s the perfect solution.”
Relief flooded Mary Grace as Scott’s mom nodded firmly now. A bonafide domicile meant for guests anyway, Creighton in good hands…How could Mary Grace argue with this plan?
“Of course, I’d pay room and board.” She meant to, really, but Elaine Martin just glared at first, then split a grin.
“Our hospitality is on the house. You’re taking such a load off Kenn’s mind.”
“Oh, I just couldn’t.”
“You could. And you will.”
Scott reached a tanned, callused hand to squeeze the back of his neck, a sure sign of tension. In no way did Mary Grace seek willfully to add to his consternation, but for once, she wanted to think of herself. It wasn’t selfishness at all, was it? To want the best of the situation offered to her? A job. A close-by place to stay? The teacher she was filling in for close at hand for any unforeseen needs?