“Ms. Morningstar, you can refuse the terms of your father’s will, which means the courts will get involved and complicate what should be a very simple, straightforward matter. Hell, do yourself a favor. Take it, blow it on a weekend in Reno, give it to charity, bury it in a tin can in the yard.”
She forced herself to calm down, not an easy matter when her emotions were up. “It is very simple and straightforward. I’m not taking his money.” Her head jerked around at the sound of the front door slamming. “My son,” she said, and shot Jared a lethal look. “Don’t you say anything to him about this.”
“Hey, Mom! Connor and me—” He skidded to a halt, a tall, skinny boy with his mother’s eyes and messy black hair crushed under a backward fielder’s cap. He studied Jared with a mix of distrust and curiosity. “Who’s he?”
Manners ran in the family, Jared decided. Lousy ones. “I’m Jared MacKade, a neighbor.”
“You’re Shane’s brother.” The boy walked over, picked up his mother’s lemonade and drank it down in several noisy gulps. “He’s cool. That’s where we were, me and Connor,” he told his mother. “Over at the MacKade farm. This big orange cat had kittens.”
“Again?” Jared muttered. “This time I’m taking her to the vet personally and having her spayed. You were with Connor,” Jared added. “Connor Dolin.”
“Yeah.” Suspicious, the boy watched him over the rim of his glass.
“His mother’s a friend of mine,” Jared said simply.
Savannah’s hand rested briefly, comfortably, on her son’s shoulder. “Bryan, go upstairs and scrape some of the dirt off. I’m going to start dinner.”
“Nice to have met you, Bryan.”
The boy looked surprised, then flashed a quick grin. “Yeah, cool. See you.”
“He looks like you,” Jared commented.
“Yes, he does.” Her mouth softened slightly at the sound of feet clumping up the stairs. “I’m thinking about putting in soundproofing.”
“I’m trying to get a picture of him palling around with Connor.”
The amusement in her eyes fired into temper so quickly it fascinated him. “And you have a problem with that?”
“I’m trying to get a picture,” Jared repeated, “of the live wire that just headed upstairs and the quiet, painfully shy Connor Dolin. Kids as confident as your son don’t usually choose boys like Connor for friends.”
Temper smoothed out. “They just clicked. Bryan hasn’t had a lot of opportunity to keep friends. We’ve moved around a great deal. That’s changing.”
“What brought you here?”
“I was—” She broke off, and her lips curved. “Now you’re trying to be neighborly so that I’ll soften up and take this little problem off your hands. Forget it.” She turned to take a package of chicken breasts out of the refrigerator.
“Seven thousand dollars is a lot of money. If you put it in a college fund now, it would give your son a good start when he’s ready for it.”
“When and if Bryan’s ready for college, I’ll put him through myself.”
“I understand about pride, Ms. Morningstar. That’s why it’s easy for me to see when it’s misplaced.”
She turned again and flipped her braid behind her shoulder. “You must be the patient, by-the-book, polite type, Mr. MacKade.”
The grin that beamed out at her nearly made her blink. She was sure there were states where that kind of weapon was illegal.
“Don’t get to town much, do you?” Jared murmured. “You’d hear different. Ask Connor’s mama about the MacKades sometime, Ms. Morningstar. I’ll leave the papers.” He slipped his sunglasses on again. “You think it over and get back to me. I’m in the book.”
She stayed where she was, a frown on her face and a cold package of raw chicken in her hands. She was still there when his car’s engine roared to life and her son came darting back down the stairs.
Quickly she snatched up the papers and pushed them into the closest drawer.
“What was he here for?” Bryan wanted to know. “How come he was wearing a suit?”
“A lot of men wear suits.” She would evade, but she wouldn’t lie, not to Bryan. “And stay out of the refrigerator. I’m starting dinner.”
With his hand on the door of the fridge, Bryan rolled his eyes. “I’m starving. I can’t wait for dinner.”
Savannah plucked an apple from a bowl and tossed it over her shoulder, smiling to herself when she heard the solid smack of Bryan’s catch.
“Shane said it was okay if we went by after school tomorrow and looked at the kittens some more. The farm’s really cool, Mom. You should see.”
“I’ve seen farms before.”
“Yeah, but this one’s neat. He’s got two dogs. Fred and Ethel.”
“Fred and—” She broke off into laughter. “Maybe I will have to see that.”
“And from the hayloft you can see clear into town. Connor says part of the battle was fought right there on the fields. Probably dead guys everywhere.”
“Now that sounds really enticing.”
“And I was thinking—” Bryan crunched into his apple, tried to sound casual “—you’d maybe want to come over and look at the kittens.”
“Oh, would I?”
“Well, yeah. Connor said maybe Shane would give some away when they were weaned. You might want one.”
She set a lid on the chicken she was sautéing. “I would?”
“Sure, yeah, for, like, company when I’m in school.” He smiled winningly. “So you wouldn’t get lonely.”
Savannah shifted her weight onto her hip and studied him owlishly. “That’s a good one, Bry. Really smooth.”
That was what he’d been counting on. “So can I?”
She would have given him the world, not just one small kitten. “Sure.” Her laughter rolled free when he launched himself into her arms.
With the meal over, the dishes done, the homework that terrified her finished and the child who was her life tucked into bed with his ball cap, Savannah sat on the front-porch swing and watched the woods.
She enjoyed the way night always deepened there first, as if it had a primary claim. Later there might be the hoot of an owl, or the rumbling low of Shane MacKade’s cattle. Sometimes, if it was very quiet, or there’d been rain, she could hear the bubble of creek over rocks.
It was too early in the spring yet for the flash and shimmer of fireflies. She looked forward to them, and hoped Bryan wasn’t yet beyond the stage where he would chase them. She wanted to watch him run in his own yard in the starlight on a warm summer night when the flowers were blooming, the air was thick with their perfume, and the woods were a dense curtain closing them off from everyone and everything.
She wanted him to have a kitten to play with, friends to call his own, a childhood filled with moments that lasted forever.
A childhood that would be everything hers had never been.
Setting the swing into motion, she leaned back and drank in the absolute quiet of a country night.
It had taken her ten long, hard years to get here, on this swing, on this porch, in this house. There wasn’t a moment of it she regretted. Not the sacrifice, the pain, the worry, the risk. Because to regret one was to regret all. To regret one was to regret Bryan. And that was impossible.
She had exactly what she had strived for now, and she had earned it herself, despite odds brutally stacked against her.
She was exactly where she wanted to be, who she wanted to be, and no ghost from the past would spoil it for her.
How dare he offer her money, when all she’d ever wanted was his love?
So Jim Morningstar was dead. The hard-drinking, hard-living, hardheaded son of a bitch had ridden his last bronco, roped his last bull. Now she was supposed to grieve. Now she was supposed to be grateful that, at the end, he’d thought of her. He’d thought of the grandchild he’d never wanted, never even seen.
He’d chosen his pride over his daughter, a
nd the tiny flicker of life that had been inside her. Now, after all this time, he’d thought to make up for that with just under eight thousand dollars.
The hell with him, Savannah thought wearily, and closed her eyes. Eight million couldn’t make her forget, and it sure as hell couldn’t buy her forgiveness. And no lawyer in a fancy suit with killer eyes and a silver tongue was going to change her mind.
Jared MacKade could go to hell right along with Jim Morningstar.
He’d had no business coming onto her land as if he belonged there, standing in her kitchen sipping lemonade, talking about college funds, smiling so sweetly at her boy. He’d had no right to aim that smile at her—not so outrageously—and stir up all those juices that she’d deliberately let go flat and dry.
Well, she wasn’t dead, after all, she thought with a heartfelt sigh. Some men seemed to have been created to stir a woman’s juices.
She didn’t want to sit here on this beautiful spring night and think about how long it had been since she’d held a man, or been held. She really didn’t want to think at all, but he’d walked across her lawn and shaken her laboriously constructed world in less time than it took to blink.
Her father was dead, and she was very much alive. Lawyer MacKade had made those two facts perfectly clear in one short visit.
However much she wanted to avoid it, she was going to have to deal with both those facts. Eventually she would have to face Jared again. If she didn’t seek him out, she was certain, he’d be back. He had that bull dog look about him, pretty suit and tie or not.
So, she would have to decide what to do. And she would have to tell Bryan. He had a right to know his grandfather was dead. He had a right to know about the legacy.
But just for tonight, she wouldn’t think, she wouldn’t worry, she wouldn’t wonder.
She wasn’t aware for a long time that her cheeks were wet, her shoulders were shaking, the sobs were tearing at her throat. Curling into a ball, she buried her face against her knees.
Jared wasn’t opposed to farm work. He wouldn’t care to make it a living, as Shane did, but he wasn’t opposed to putting in a few hours now and again. Since he’d put his house in town on the market and moved back home, he pitched in whenever he had the time. It was the kind of work you never forgot, the rhythms easy to fall back into—ones your muscles soon remembered. The milking, the feeding, the plowing, the sowing.
Stripped down to a sweaty T-shirt and old jeans, he hauled out hay bales for the dairy stock. The black-and-white cows lumbered for the trough, wide, sturdy bodies bumping, tails swishing. The scent of them was a reminder of youth, of his father most of all.
Buck MacKade had tended his cows well, and had taught his boys to see them as a responsibility, as well as a way of making a living. For him, the farm had been very simply a way of life—and Jared knew the same was true of Shane. He wondered now, as he fell back into the routine of tending, what his father would have thought of his oldest son, the lawyer.
He probably would have been a little baffled by the choice of suit and tie, of paper drafted and filed, of appearances and appointments. But Jared hoped he would have been proud. He needed to believe his father would have been proud.
But this wasn’t such a bad way to spend a Saturday, he mused, after a week of courtrooms and paperwork.
Nearby, Shane whistled a mindless tune and herded the cows in to feed. And looked, Jared realized, very much as their father would have—dusty jeans, dusty shirt loose on a tough, disciplined body, worn cap over hair that needed a barber’s touch.
“What do you think of the new neighbor?” Jared called out.
“The new neighbor,” Jared repeated, and jerked a thumb in the direction of Morningstar land.
“Oh, you mean the goddess.” Shane stepped away from the trough, eyes dreamy. “I need a moment of silence,” he murmured, and crossed his hands over his heart.
Amused, Jared swiped a hand through his hair. “She is impressive.”
“She’s built like… I don’t have words.” Shane gave one of the cows an affectionate slap on the rump. “I’ve only seen her once. Ran into her and her kid going into the market. Talked to her for about two minutes, drooled for the next hour.”
“How did she strike you?”
“Like a bolt of lightning, bro.”
“Think you can keep your head out of your shorts for a minute?”
“I can try.” Shane bent to help break up bales. “Like a woman who can handle herself and isn’t looking for company,” he decided. “Good with the kid. You can tell just by the way they stand together.”
“Yeah, I noticed that.”
Shane’s interest was piqued. “When?”
“I was over there a couple of days ago. Had a little legal business.”
“Oh.” Shane wiggled his eyebrows. “Privileged communication?”
“That’s right.” Jared hauled over another bale and nipped the twine. “What’s the word on her?”
“There isn’t much of anything. From what I get, she was in the Frederick area, saw the ad for the cabin in the paper down there. Then she blew into town, snapped up the property, put her kid in school and closed herself off on her little hill. It’s driving Mrs. Metz crazy.”
“I bet. If Mrs. Metz, queen of the grapevine, can’t get any gossip on her, nobody can.”
“If you’re handling some legal deal for her, you ought to be able to shake something loose.”
“She’s not a client,” Jared said, and left it at that. “The boy comes around here?”
“Now and again. He and Connor.”
“An odd pairing.”
“It’s nice seeing them together. Bry’s a pistol, let me tell you. He’s got a million questions, opinions, arguments.” Shane lifted a brow. “Reminds me of somebody.”
“Dad always said if there were two opinions on one subject, you’d have both of them. The kid’s like that. And he makes Connor laugh. It’s good to hear.”
“The boy hasn’t had enough to laugh about, not with a father like Joe Dolin.”
Shane grunted, gathering up discarded twine. “Well, Dolin’s behind bars and out of the picture.” Shane stepped back, checking over his herd and the land beyond. “He’s not going to be beating up on Cassie anymore, or terrorizing those kids. The divorce going to be final soon?”
“We should have a final decree within sixty days.”
“Can’t be soon enough. I have to see to the hogs. You want to get another bale out of the barn?”
Shane headed over to the pen, prepared to mix feed. At the sight of him, the fat pigs began to stir and snort. “Yeah, Daddy’s here, boys and girls.”
“He talks to them all the time,” Bryan announced from behind them.
“They talk right back.” With a grin, Shane turned, and saw that the boy wasn’t alone.
Savannah stood with one hand on her son’s shoulder and an easy smile. Her hair was loose, falling like black rain over the shoulders of a battered denim jacket. Shane decided the pigs could wait, and leaned on the fence.
“Good morning.” She stepped forward, looked into the pen. “They look hungry.”
“They’re always hungry. That’s why we call them pigs.”
She laughed and propped a foot on the bottom rung of the fence. She was a woman used to the sight, sound and smell of animals. “That one there certainly looks well fed.”
He shifted closer so he could enjoy the scent of her hair. “She’s full of piglets. I’ll have to separate her soon.”
“Spring on the farm,” she murmured. “So, who’s the daddy?”
“That smug-looking hog over there.”
“Ah, the one who’s ignoring her. Typical.” Still smiling, she tossed back her hair. “We’re here on a mission, Mr. MacKade.”
/> “Shane. Rumor is, you’ve got kittens.”
Shane grinned down at Bryan. “Talked her into it, huh?”
All innocence, Bryan shrugged, but his quick, triumphant grin betrayed him. “She needs company when I’m at school.”
“That’s a good one. They’re in the barn. I’ll show you.”
“No.” To stop him, Savannah put a hand on his arm. There was a glint in her eyes that told him she knew exactly where his thoughts were heading. “We won’t interrupt your work. Your pigs are waiting, and I’m sure Bryan knows exactly where to find the kittens.”
“Sure I do. Come on, Mom.” He had her by the hand, tugging. “They’re really cool. Shane’s got all kinds of neat animals,” Bryan told her.
“Mm-hmm…” With a last amused glance, she let herself be hauled away. “Magnificent animals.” And, she thought as she watched Jared stride out of the barn with a bale over his shoulder, here was another one now.
His eyes met hers, held, as he stopped, tossed the bale down. The suit had been deceiving, she realized. Though he hadn’t looked soft in it, he’d looked elegant. There was nothing elegant about the man now.
He was all muscle.
If she’d been a lesser woman, her mouth might have watered.
Instead, she inclined her head and spoke coolly. “Mr. MacKade.”
“Ms. Morningstar.” His tone was just as cool. But it took a focused effort to unknot the tension in his stomach. “Hi, Bryan.”
“I didn’t know you worked here,” Bryan began. “I’ve never seen you working here.”
“Now and again.”
“How come you were wearing a suit?” he asked. “Shane never wears a suit.”
“Not unless you knock him unconscious first.” When the boy grinned, Jared noticed a gap in his teeth that hadn’t been there the day before. “Lose something?”
Proudly Bryan pressed his tongue in the gap. “It came out this morning. It’s good for spitting.”
“I used to hold the record around here. Nine feet, three inches. Without the wind.”
Impressed, and challenged, Bryan worked up saliva in his mouth, concentrated and let it fly. Jared pursed his lips, nodded. “Not bad.”
“I can do better than that.”
“You’re one of the tops in your division, Bry,” Savannah said dryly. “But Mr. MacKade has work to do, and we’re supposed to be looking at kittens.”
“Yeah, they’re right in here.” He took off into the barn at a run. Savannah followed more slowly.
“Nine feet?” she murmured, with a glance over her shoulder.
“And three inches.”
“You surprise me, Mr. MacKade.”
She had a way of sauntering on those long legs, he thought, that gave a man’s eyes a mind of their own. After a quick internal debate, he gave up and went in after her.
“Aren’t they great?” Bryan plopped right down in the hay beside the litter of sleeping kittens and their very bored-looking mama. “They have to stay with her for weeks and weeks.” Very gently, he stroked a fingertip over the downy head of a smoke-gray kitten. “But then we can take one.”