After her husband's financial crimes and suicide, Caffey Matthews leaves behind her wealthy Manhattan life-knowing her husband's enemies are in pursuit. Frightened and alone, Caffey hides her identity and finds succor in the remote California ranch land, which helps her to reclaim faith and trust in God. Believing Caffey is involved in her late husband's misdeeds, cowboy-turned high-priced private investigator Rhee Ryland arrives in Rancho Lorena ready to haul her back to justice. He doesn't expect to fall in love with her. Even more surprising is his return to his childhood Lord.
Caffey smiled at her reflection as she smeared on lip gloss. Pretty pink to match her dress. But the matchy-matchy wasn’t what made her smile. Hair now straight and dark had disguised her successfully for more than a year. She looked nothing like the blonde, perfectly-permed socialite she’d been in Manhattan.
Hide in plain sight. Satisfaction and gratitude for God’s protection rolled over her. She’d found Him again just in time. Central California ranch country intermingled with vineyards was nothing like her girlhood stomping grounds in Montana, but at least she had a horse again, and wide open skies over her head.
Not to mention three thousand miles separating her from New York and the mafia-esque kin who had paid her a not-very-condolence call after Everett’s funeral.
As she reached for the polka dotted stiletto pumps, she shuddered, and the bride noticed. Nikki’s forehead crumpled behind the veil. “Oh, Caff, I know how much you like your boots. I hope those heels don’t kill your feet. And I know they’re frivolous. But…” Nikki wrapped her fingers around a ruffle and said, dreamily. “I just couldn’t resist.”
“No, no, they’re perfect,” Caffey insisted, meaning it, sorry Nikki had seen her displeasure but grateful she didn’t have to explain it. The shoes were a good excuse. The shoes that reminded her too much of the ridiculously expensive footwear required in the Big Apple. She gave Nikki a quick hug, careful of veil and flowers. “No, sweetie. They’re just right. Really.”
And they were. Back in the day, her stylist would have approved mightily of the whole bridesmaid get-up. The nutty shoes. Slim pink one-shoulder silken sheath with a bouquet of black orchids. Her heart pounded, hating that Nikki’s big day reminded her of so much trauma.
Of the day she’d married Everett nine years ago in an elaborate shindig at the Plaza Hotel.
Nothing at all like Nikki’s simple plans at this quiet bed and breakfast inn with a loving minister instead of Everett’s cynical brother and his faux Internet ordination.
Slipping on the shoes, Caffey shoved away bad memories and let joy wash over her. This was Nikki’s day. Zak was a good guy. Even though she and Nikki had only known each other a year—they’d met teaching Sunday School, Caffey felt blessed Nikki considered her a friend close enough to be her maid of honor. Yes, indeed. New York was another lifetime ago.
Nikki took a deep breath and tightened her fingers around her cascade of white orchids. “So…you’ll take care of my babies, right?” Then she blushed. “Oh, I know you will. Dandy and Darlin’ love you. I’m leaving them in good hands, I know. It’s just…I’m…just so nervous. I can’t believe it’s here already.”
Caffey gently touched Nikki’s bare shoulder. “Don’t worry about a thing, sweetie. The pups and I get along great.” And they did. The four-month old Golden retrievers were the bride and groom’s gifts to each other. “And you relax,” Caffey comforted. “You look beautiful, and everything is picture perfect down below.”
Caffey pointed out the window of the pretty guest room to the flower-bedecked scene outside. In rhythm with the string quartet, ushers gently shoved guests into the rows of white chairs, and they moved agreeably. All but one.
Her gaze stuck on something—someone—that stole her breath. Tall, lean. Dark and handsome as the devil, all in black. Not moving despite the gesturing groomsmen. It was the cowboy hat that did it for her. You just never saw such a thing in Manhattan, and these days, she couldn’t get enough. Of course, he wasn’t the only one wearing such a hat in this little Western town today. But he was the only one standing there, deliberate. Taller than most, and mouthwateringly delicious.
“Whoa. Who’s the guy in that Stetson?” She mouthed the word almost reverently although the Western hat might easily be a Larry Mahan or a Resistol.
Nikki waved her bouquet distractedly as she peeked. “Which cowboy? Every guy is wearing his dress Western duds today.”
“That one.” Caffey pointed.
The bride shrugged. “Must be Zak’s side.” As if listening raptly to the string quartet, she tensed, and the innkeeper burst into the room. Nikki’s limited budget couldn’t handle a full-on wedding coordinator and Mrs. Porcelain Pillars Inn was doing her best.
“You girls better get downstairs. Nikki, your mom’s getting ready to walk up the aisle.”
The aisle. Caffey couldn’t help a sigh. A pretty pathway lined with pink rose petals to match the flowers the gazebo wore. Oh, it was a beautiful day. She tossed the dark-haired, dark-hatted stranger from her mind and stopped her shaking knees and pounding heart.
Would weddings always do this to her? God willing, Zak and Nikki would fare far better than she and Everett. At least their relationship was grounded on faith in God. She shuddered, recalling how she’d succumbed to Everett’s scoffs and ridicule against her childhood belief. Yet the first few years he’d seemed besotted with her and her ways, been her tender lover. Her best friend. Protector and champion. She’d gone years thinking she could lead him to God.
At least Caffey had found her way. Even though she wasn’t Caffey at all. And no matter Everett’s misdeeds and sacrilege, she didn’t wish suicide or drowning on anybody.
Careful of the slick-bottomed soles and six-inch heels, she ventured down the stairs ahead of the bride. A camera flashed. This was Nikki’s day, and Caffey rejoiced in it. She refused to let her own misguided life intrude on her friend’s joy.
But as she followed the little pink petals to the gazebo positioned in the shade of a live oak tree, she almost tripped because of the shoes. Or not. The Cowboy stared at her from a seat midway on the groom’s side, so tall he could peer over everybody else around him, gaze unobstructed by a brim as his hat had been gentlemanly removed. His eyes, hot and potent, followed her every step of the way, head swiveling as she passed him so his gaze could burn holes in her back.
She grabbed hold of her composure as something wracked her spine. Something she’d never allowed herself to feel even when her marriage turned hopeless and unhappy. Not once during the days of proper widowhood. But something she could feel now. Attraction.
He nodded at her as she slunk up the aisle, totally composed like one would expect from Mrs. Everett Bedford Bradford, trophy wife. Sneaky little vixen. For more than a year, he’d hunted her down, a timetable longer than his usual, and he wasn’t about to forget her wasting his time. Although, he mused, New York’s rich and famous were paying him handsomely to track Bradford’s widow.
Maybe folks hereabouts had accepted her as a good neighbor, a harmless barista at the coffeehouse who taught kids on Sundays, but he knew better. The straight black hair was a good disguise, especially now with her suntanned skin, but he knew full well Caffey Matthews was nobody less than Katherine Morton Bradford, blonde bombshell widow of the chicken-livered genius financier turned arrogant embezzler who had dared anybody to catch him. Well, they dared now, no matter he was dead, and she was all that was left. The rich and famous wanted their money back. Too pathetic to face the music, Bradford had drowned himself fifteen months ago, leaving his pretty little widow behind to hide his ill-gotten gains.
Of course she knew where he’d kept it. Offshore. Caymans no doubt. Maybe Zurich. Why else would she have gone incognito? He guffawed, then turned it into a sneeze as the well-dressed woman next to him glanced in surprise.
“Excuse me,” he muttered, faking it.
“God bless you,” the woman said, likely not meaning it. Didn’t matter. God didn’t have much to do with him on a good day.
He sniffed. Tried to go incognito, he meant. Like anybody could hide from Rhee Ryland. A headache tweaked for a split second, and he rubbed it away, longing for his hat to hold off the sun.
As she walked up the aisle, her eyes misting and blinking rapidly, he relaxed against his chair. Piece of cake. He’d been under far deeper cover than a wedding crasher. All he had to do was avoid a reception line and mutter “groom’s guest” when he caught up with her.
Then he stiffened with a hiss. Blast it. This time the woman next to him shifted sharply away as if she’d had enough. In the last six weddings he’d attended—his pals were dropping like flies into the marriage morass—the girls in lookalike dresses had worn pearl earrings. Classy, simple. It hadn’t taken much to load one with a GPS tracking device, reckoning he’d enact a bait-and-switch some time during the reception. Even if “Caffey” took it off later, she’d be taking a jewelry box along with her wherever she planned to go next. The Caymans. Her folks’ ranch in Montana. New York? Wherever. You might pretend to be somebody else for a while, but you never stayed in the same place forever. Couldn’t. Boredom got to you, loneliness, too, and suspicion, three. Or somebody like him, and he didn’t have another year to waste when she upped and tried her game somewhere else.
He could stay on her tail around here for a couple of days, but any longer would likely arouse suspicion in a little town where everybody knew everybody else and their business. But his plan was falling to bits. Right now Caffey wore earrings as big as fans that hung to her shoulders. Riled, he smashed the toes of his Lucchese Mad Dog boots against the rung of the chair ahead of him. They were nicely polished as befitting the occasion, but he’d irritated that guest, too.
He hated the waiting. Hated the inaction as the main players slowly performed under the gazebo. His fingers clamped into tight balls, he forced the restlessness of his legs away by compressing his jaw like a vise. Would the preacher-man never shut up?
Well, the reverend didn’t stop until he uttered those magic words, and Rhee clapped like everybody else at the “new Mr. and Mrs. Zak Pender” part. But his gaze was on Caffey, not the happy couple who marched down first to a pretty violin riff. She was sobbing—hard, not the wispy tears unmarried girls did at weddings.
Unmarried? Yeah, right. She’d been married to the best of them. Make that the worst. Still, something in his heart of stone lurched, and after she passed the congregants, she ran into the inn, Rhee Ryland fast on her heels.
In the foyer, face buried in her hands, she leaned against a big round table that held a vase, big as a volcano, with a giant arrangement erupting from the top. The bundle of dark, make that black, orchids she’d carried sat next to it.
“Hey, you all right?” He asked using a soft voice that brought most women to their knees. He held off the darlin’, though. “Can I help?”
He wasn’t being fake. Sure, he needed to get close to Katherine Morton Bradford, but right now, she was a weeping mess called Caffey Matthews, and his heartstrings pulled. So did his arms as he gathered her close.
“It’ll be all right. Shhhh. It will, I promise.” Right then he meant the words, for right then she was Caffey Matthews. He’d take them back when she turned into Katherine Morton again. But at this time, she smelled so good he couldn’t fill his nose fast enough. Her body, regular size and height with curves in all the right places, fit against his like she belonged there.
Well, she didn’t, and he shoved that thought away.
“No, I’m fine. Really.” She nestled in his arms just for one more second before she tried to shuffle out of them. He held tight, though, wanting to ease her shudders before he let go.
“Come on. Maybe a glass of wine will calm you down.” He steered her outside with his right arm while the left one retrieved her flowers. “You sitting at a head table or something.”
She cleared her throat, staying put in his arms. And he liked it. “No. Nikki and Zak have a sweetheart table. I’m sitting with her parents and the best man.”
Best man? He didn’t quite like the sound of that, wishing he had an old-fashioned handkerchief for those tears. But he might use the moment to find out more of her story. Disappointment swelled like a golf ball in his throat. He might as well stop liking her. What if she’d been weeping over Everett? Besides, she was a criminal, after all. Well, not exactly. But not long off. Nobody could stay with Everett Bedford Bradford for a decade and stay innocent. “Your own folks here?” Let’s see what she said.
They stepped outside into the hustle bustle. The violins were still playing.
“No. My folks live…out of state. But I know they’d love to be here.” She stumbled over the words, and he got it. They hadn’t made it to her own wedding for whatever reason. “No wine, thanks, but a glass of something cold would be nice. But I should freshen up a bit for the pictures.” She stepped away from him then, breathing hard from her crying jag.
“All righty then. I’ll meet you right here. I’m Rhee Ryland.” He held out his hand, taking hers. The warm softness almost had him stumble.
“All right, Mr. Rhee Ryland. I’m Caffey Matthews.” The name came easy off her tongue, and her smile almost blinded him. Her eyes weren’t red, and her makeup hadn’t smeared. She deserved an Oscar or something. “I’ll catch up with you in a bit.”
They shared a nod, and she turned to walk back into the inn. Like he had when she walked up the aisle, he watched her moving like music, liking too much what he saw.
His vision blurred for just a flash, making her look like a drawing getting erased. Maybe he ought to start wearing sunglasses.
Q1. What sparks Rhee's recollection of and re-dedication to his childhood faith? Have you ever had a re-affirmation like that?
Q2. What is Caffey's most poignant moment, the moment that most pulled your heartstrings? How is the Lord present at that moment, for the reader?
Q3. What is Rhee's most poignant moment, the momeht that most pulled your heartstrings? What does the reader learn about the Lord's presence in our lives?
Q4. It took a powerful trust mechanism for Caffey to confide her true identity to Zak and Nikki. How is this an example of the Lord's direction in her life? How might her life have turned out differently without giving in to that gut instinct?
Q5. What does Caffey regret most about her past with Everett? Explain in terms of her faith.