Reduced to lurking behind a tulle-draped pillar. Natalie Wentworth’s stomach did a flip-flop. Where was Hannah? Just a glimpse of her daughter was all she needed. Her first glimpse ever, though Hannah was eighteen months old now.
The early April sunset painted the big Texas sky in purples and pinks above the outdoor reception. A bright-red barn provided background for the bridal party in denim and lace, with cowboys and cowgirls in full gear gathered in clusters laughing and eating. A few couples two-stepped to the twangy music. But no kids.
Wyatt had to be here somewhere. The newspaper said the bride and groom attended that church he’d tried to get her to visit back when she’d first gotten pregnant. And the groom was backup announcer at Cowtown Coliseum, Wyatt’s stomping grounds.
A familiar swagger caught her attention. The dishwater blond cowboy stopped at the dessert table. Wyatt. Her daughter’s father. With a dark-haired woman. Natalie ducked farther behind the pillar. Why wasn’t Hannah with him? Did the new woman in his life not like kids?
“Natalie?” A baritone voice directly behind her sent a shudder through her.
She knew that voice. Her legs threatened to give way. It couldn’t be. Her heart clamored. Her breath stalled as she turned around in slow motion.
Lane Gray. In the flesh. A gentle spring breeze tousled his dark hair. His green eyes turned the deepest parts of her heart into mush and sapped all the moisture from her mouth. Butterflies took flight in her stomach.
As brain-dissolvingly handsome as ever. The first and only guy she’d ever loved. The one who’d broken her heart into tiny jagged pieces.
“What are you doing here?” Their voices blended together.
He flashed a heart-stopping grin. “The bride invited me. You?”
Wedding crashing for a glimpse of my daughter. She shrugged. “I know everyone in Aubrey.”
“You look great.”
Great! Nine years since she’d seen Lane and here she was in a blah dress—navy, high neckline and the hemline barely above her knees—borrowed from her sister to crash a wedding unnoticed. Nothing she’d normally be caught dead in. She felt as if she were dressed more for a funeral than a wedding. Her funeral—if Wyatt caught her here.
She had to get rid of Lane before he drew attention to her.
“So Nat, what have you been up to for the last nine years?”
Fun. With no strings attached. You taught me not to let my heart get involved. “I went to college, got my marketing degree, worked as the publicist for Six Flags Over Texas and just signed on as publicist for the Stockyards.”
She tugged at her sister’s demure pearl necklace. Had a baby—here to see her, not you. And Lane Gray wouldn’t blow it for her. “Don’t let me keep you.”
“Imagine that.” He stepped closer to her. “Both of us back in Aubrey?”
Her breath caught. Aubrey wasn’t big enough for both of them. Maybe the commute from Garland wasn’t so bad, after all. But for the last eighteen months she’d tried to forget Hannah. And her life had disintegrated. She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t focus. She couldn’t function.
If she could just get a glimpse of her little girl, maybe she’d be okay. Maybe she could get on with her life.
A woman carrying a baby, surrounded by toddlers, joined the gathering at the punch table. Clay’s mom—always the designated babysitter. Was one of the children Hannah?
Natalie stepped closer to get a better look.
“Nice seeing you, too.” Sardonic humor laced Lane’s tone.
A redheaded girl—probably Clay and Rayna’s. A boy. Natalie scanned another little girl. Dark hair, blue eyes, heart-shaped face. Just like her own. Hannah. Something in Natalie’s chest exploded. She followed the toddler as if pulled by a magnetic force.
“Natalie.” Wyatt stepped in front of her, blocking her path. “What are you doing here?”
She strained to see around him. Her eyes scalded. “I just wanted to see her.”
“It’s a bit late for that, don’t you think?” His teeth clenched.
Why hadn’t she stayed hidden, stuck with the plan for Wyatt to never know she was there? She’d wanted a glimpse of Hannah, but all other thoughts had flown from her head when she got that glimpse.
“Wyatt, what’s wrong?” The dark-haired woman joined them. Her hair was a shade lighter than Natalie’s and her eyes were a faded blue.
“You need to leave, Natalie. Now,” Wyatt ordered.
“Natalie?” The woman’s jaw dropped.
“Don’t ruin Lacie’s wedding day. You know what she’s been through.” Wyatt grabbed Natalie’s arm.
She tried to pull away. He held fast, but he was gentle. Maybe he had changed.
“Let go of her.” Lane growled from behind her.
“I’m just escorting her out. She wasn’t invited.”
“The newspaper said all friends and family welcome.” Natalie’s gaze stayed riveted on Hannah.
Wyatt’s hand fell to his side. “You’re not in either category and you know it, Natalie. This whole thing is a ploy.”
“Wyatt, please.” The dark-haired woman begged. “Don’t cause a scene.”
“Let me take you home, Nat.” Lane offered her his arm.
“I have my car. And don’t call me Nat.” She spun on her heel and stalked away. Tears blurred her vision, but she held it together.
Go home alone and drown her sorrows in chocolate and tissues? No. She knew the perfect cure. But could she go through with it?
As she neared her car, movement in a pickup truck caught her attention. A girl and a boy in an intense embrace. She averted her gaze, until she heard a door open.
“Don’t be mad, Jeff. I’m not sure.” The girl stood outside the passenger side now.
Natalie ducked behind another truck. She didn’t want to witness this scene or embarrass the teens. She just wanted to get out of here.
The boy got out of his truck and came around to the girl. He rubbed his hands up and down her arms. “Maybe I can convince you.”
“If I leave, what if my mom starts looking for me? And besides, I don’t think I’m ready.”
“Huh?” His hand clamped on the girl’s upper arm. “Listen Brittany, I don’t know what kind of game you’re playing, but you’ve led me on for weeks. And now you don’t wanna play?”
With everything in her, Natalie wanted to stay hidden, to not get involved, but she couldn’t let this brute manhandle the poor girl.
Nonchalantly, she stepped into view as if she hadn’t been hiding. “Let go of her.”
That deer-caught-in-the-headlights look passed over the boy’s face before his Mr. Too Cool mask slipped firmly back into place. “Make me.”
Back at the party, Lane shook his head. Natalie Wentworth. Still gorgeous after all these years. But her eyes were different, her expression pinched as if life in general hurt.
“I guess you know her?”
Did Wyatt really use the emphasis or did he just hear it that way? Lane’s blood boiled. But he couldn’t deny it. He’d been the first to know Natalie. “We went to school together.”
“Watch your back with that one.”
“You know—” Lane clenched his fists “—I never did like guys who dis women. Or grab them, for that matter.”
Wyatt rolled his eyes. “I didn’t hurt her. I just wanted her out of here before she ruined everything for Lacie and Quinn. And me.”
“Come on.” Wyatt’s wife shot him “the look” and grabbed his hand. “This is my sister’s wedding day. I need to see her off and help with the cleanup. We’ll deal with this later.”
Wyatt sighed. “Natalie and I bring out the worst in each other. But you’re right. I had no right to touch her. And I should be praying for her instead of dissing her.”
Lane relaxed his stance. “That’s more like it.”
The couple walked away.
What was that about? Why wasn’t Natalie welcome at the wedding? Why were things so tense between her and Wyatt? A past relationship?
A burst of laughter and shouts rang out behind him. He turned as the bride and groom ran through a shower of birdseed and escaped into Quinn’s waiting pickup. The happy couple smiled and waved as Quinn drove away.
Lane jogged toward his truck. He’d had about enough happily-ever-after for one day. Lacie and Quinn were a nice couple, and they deserved happiness. But these days, weddings drove home everything he didn’t have. Everything he didn’t deserve. He’d hurt so many women in the past, including Natalie. He deserved to be alone.
But it still hurt, especially after seeing her again.
Natalie propped her hands on her hips as an engine started up on the other end of the parking area. “Sounds like the wedding’s over and several dozen cowboys are headed this way. Within screaming distance. I said, let go of her.”
“Gladly,” the boy growled. He let go of the girl and stomped back to the driver’s side. “She ain’t worth it anyhow.” The truck door slammed and the engine rumbled to life. The boy gunned it, spewing gravel in his wake as he careened down the drive.
The girl rubbed her arms and nodded. “You’re Mrs. Wentworth’s daughter.”
Natalie scanned the girl’s down-turned face. “Brittany Miller?”
The girl nodded again.
The last time Natalie had seen her, Brittany had been about six. In her mother’s Sunday school class.
“Did you come with that guy?”
“No. My mom’s the wedding planner. I invited Jeff so we could hang out. But he wanted me to leave with him and...”
Gravel crunched. Rapid footsteps. Natalie looked up and caught a glimpse of Lane headed in their direction.
She grabbed Brittany’s arm and pulled her behind a pickup truck. “Shhh.” She pressed a finger to her lips.
Brittany frowned, but kept quiet.
Lane’s footfalls neared. Way too close. Pulling Brittany with her, she inched around the truck and closed her eyes like she used to during Hide and Seek.
She opened her eyes to meet Lane’s scowl. Her face heated.
“I hope you’re not trying to sneak back in.”
“No. I, um...I was just leaving.”
“Really?” His left eyebrow cocked.
“Yes, after Brittany and I finish talking. I thought you might be Wyatt.”
“Wedding’s over. Won’t be long before he heads this way. Probably best if you’re gone.”
“Right.” But this was important. Wyatt would have to deal with it. “Let’s talk in my car. Come on, Brittany.” She turned to her bright-blue Challenger, forcing her gaze away from Lane.
Brittany crawled in beside her. “Who was that? And why were we hiding from him?”
“Just someone I’d like to avoid.”
Lane got into the truck they’d hidden behind.
Out of all the vehicles in the parking lot, she’d chosen his.
His engine started, and he backed out. Once his truck was out of sight, she started breathing again.
“You sure ask a lot of questions. Just someone else I’d like to avoid.” She glanced at Brittany. “My turn. So you’re dating that guy?”
“For two months.”
“How old is he?”
It was none of Natalie’s business, but the question buzzed in her head. “Is he pressuring you for sex?”
Brittany turned toward her. “How did you know that?”
“Been there, done that.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready.”
“Then you’re probably not. How old are you?”
“Sixteen. And a half.”
“Have you ever?”
Brittany’s gaze flitted away. “All the girls are doing it.”
“Not all of them. Only the stupid ones.”
“I know you don’t really know me, Brittany. But I’ve been where you are. If you haven’t had sex yet—don’t. Especially with Jeff. And if you’ve had sex with someone, stop now. You’re too young. It’s actually illegal at your age.”
Brittany rolled her eyes. “Jeff is a nice guy.”
“Yeah, I can tell.” Sarcasm laced her tone.
“He was mad.”
“If he cared about you, he wouldn’t have gotten mad at you. Maybe frustrated, but he wouldn’t have pressured you in the first place—if he cared about you.”
“Listen, Brittany. I know you think it’s none of my business. But when I was your age, my boyfriend pressured me until our dates weren’t even fun anymore.” A boulder sank to the pit of her stomach. “Instead of resisting, I gave in. I thought if I gave him what he wanted once, he’d leave me alone and we could have fun again. But it only made him want more until that’s all our relationship was about. And then he broke up with me.”
“What did you do?”
“I dated someone else, but he knew I’d slept with my ex-boyfriend, so he said I had to prove I loved him by sleeping with him, too. So it went on and on.” She glanced at Brittany again. “Don’t set yourself up for going to a wedding and having to avoid half the men there because you’ve...”
The young girl kept her head down, but a blush swept up her cheeks.
Natalie reached over and patted her hand. “Don’t get into that cycle. You don’t even know what love is yet. And guys that age wouldn’t recognize love if it bit `em in the backside. All they want is sex—from whoever will give it up.”
“I need to go find my mom before she realizes I’m gone.” Brittany opened the car door.
“I hope you’ll think about what I said.”
“If you won’t tell my parents about Jeff.”
“If you’ll promise to think about what I said.”
With a nod, Brittany hopped out and hurried back toward the barn.
Natalie started her engine. She should take her own advice and go home. But she’d done her good deed for the day. And it had been too long since she’d had any cowboy comfort. At this point in her life, cowboy comfort was the only thing that kept Natalie going.
Country twang, neon lights and drunken dancing couples. The perfect blond, buff and bronze cowboy sat in the booth beside Natalie. The perfect cure for what ailed her.
She closed her eyes and tried to lose herself.
A rough hand clamped on her bare knee. “Hey babe, let’s get this party started. Your place or mine?”
Bile rose in her throat. She swallowed and picked up the untouched strawberry daiquiri he’d bought her. The whiff of alcohol brought the bitter taste into her mouth. She set the glass down.
Her words of wisdom for Brittany haunted her. Stop the cycle. Was it too late for her? Her chin trembled.
“Uh.” He scrubbed his fingers over his stubbly beard. “You gonna cry or something? I’m not looking for anything heavy. Just a little fun.”
Fun. Exactly what she needed. To forget her cares and worries in this guy’s arms. But she couldn’t do it.
“I’m sorry. I can’t.” She shivered and slid out of the booth.
The man followed, grabbed her and pulled her against him. “Maybe I can warm you up.”
She pushed away from him. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Does it matter?”
“I’ve changed my mind.”
“It’s a bit late for that.” His hand clamped on her wrist, his fingers biting into her skin.
“I’m feeling sick. I have to go.”
His grip on her wrist tightened, and then he flung her away from him.
She stumbled, her stiletto turned. Sharp pain shot through her ankle, but she caught herself.
“You best watch who you mess with, lady,” the cowboy growled. “You could get yourself in a heap of trouble toying with the wrong man.”
“Is this guy bothering you?” A deep voice thundered over her left shoulder.
“No. I was just leaving.” Natalie turned to see her would-be rescuer.
Mitch Warren. Her sister’s high school sweetheart.
“Natalie?” His eyebrows rose.
“Hi, Mitch.” Straight-and-narrow Mitch. Texas Ranger Mitch. “What are you doing here?”
The cowboy stalked back to the booth they’d abandoned.
“Let’s just say—” he lowered his voice “—I’m on duty.”
“Listen Natalie, this isn’t the kind of place you should hang out in. I’ve made a lot of arrests here.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Need a ride home?”
“No, I’ve got my car, but thanks.”
“I’ll at least walk you out and make sure Marlboro Man doesn’t follow.” Mitch stared into her eyes. “You haven’t been drinking, have you?”
“Not a drop. Scout’s honor.” She blew in his face.
A smile cracked his cop mode and he offered his arm. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Mitch hustled her outside to her car. She unlocked it, slid in and lowered the window.
“Make sure it starts okay.”
She turned the key and the engine caught.
Mitch leaned his elbows in her open window. “How’s Caitlyn?”
“Okay. Her two clothing stores keep her busy.”
He nodded. His mouth tightened. “Tell her I said hi.”
“And Natalie, don’t let me see you around here again. It’s beneath you.” He patted the car and stood watch as she pulled away.
Mitch had tried to do for her what she’d tried to do for Brittany.
The headlights of her lone car illuminated the abandoned streets of Aubrey, but Natalie didn’t remember driving here. Had she stopped at red lights? Stop signs?
What was wrong with her? Was she going crazy? She’d left the cowboy at the bar.
Considering his reaction to her refusal, maybe that was a good thing.
Natalie touched the raw skin on her wrist and shivered despite the seat warmer. But now she’d spend her first night back in Aubrey alone. A cowboy would have been much better than tissues and chocolate.
Not so long ago, it had all been a fun game when she was bored—or lonely. Go to a bar, get drunk, take a nameless cowboy home. But now it turned her stomach.
If Mitch hadn’t shown up, would the cowboy have followed her?
Her engine stuttered. Her gaze flew to the gas gauge. Well below the E.
“No. No. No.” Just what she needed to top off this horrid day. She slammed her open palm against the steering wheel. The sting of the blow throbbed through her hand.
The engine choked and coughed, then died. She blew out a sigh, coasted to the shoulder of the road, and laid her head on the steering wheel. Drawing in a big breath, she flipped on the dome light and dug in her purse for her iPhone. Her hand clamped over the smooth, familiar shape. She jabbed the screen. Nothing. Great. She’d forgotten to charge it. Again.
She opened the door and stepped out into the night air. Though the temperature had been in the seventies today, the evening had cooled to the low fifties. The skimpy little black dress she’d changed into after the wedding didn’t help much.
Stars spangled the big Texas sky. The lights of Aubrey glowed in the distance. No traffic at midnight. She’d walk to the old farm house at the edge of town. It had been empty for a few years, but evidently someone lived there now. Probably someone she or her parents knew. Everybody knew everybody in Aubrey.
Caitlyn would come get her from there. No questions asked between sisters. She’d have to come up with a little white lie to cover where she’d run into Mitch. Or maybe she shouldn’t mention it. Caitlyn was still nursing Mitch-inflicted wounds from ten years ago.
She hugged herself and trudged along the shoulder of the road illuminated only by the moon. At least it was still too cool for rattlesnakes.
The little black dress had done the trick tonight—attracted a cowboy as she’d planned. Why couldn’t she go through with it? Because she was sober?
The smell of alcohol had turned her stomach ever since she’d gotten pregnant. And it couldn’t be that again, she’d lived like a nun since her pregnancy. For too long. She’d needed a cowboy to help her forget. About Hannah. About Wyatt. About Lane.
A dog barked. She froze.
Something scurried through the field to her right. She bolted.
The dog barked again and a cacophony of canines joined in.
She could see the house now and charged toward it.
Her breathing ragged, she cut across the yard, turned her ankle again, and felt her way up the unlit porch steps. A low growl, deep and menacing, stopped her in her tracks.
The dog growled again, then barked from the porch. It sounded big. She backed down the steps. Her heel caught. She gasped and fell back, sprawling in the cool grass.
Light blinded her. She shielded her eyes with one hand.
The door moaned as it opened.
“What is it, Barney?” A gruff voice. A huge man with bulging muscles framed by the open doorway. Wearing a ribbed undershirt and basketball shorts, he ran his hand through sleep-tousled dark waves. The dog growled again.
Natalie shivered. Her eyes adjusted to the porch light. A rottweiler. A huge, backlit man. Had she gone from simmer to inferno?
“Barney, heel.” The baritone less gruff now. “Hey, you okay?”
That voice again. For the second time in one day. Move, feet. Run before he recognizes you. Awkwardly, she tried to stand, but her ankle gave out.
“Natalie, is that you?” Lane opened the screen door.
Too late. It was too much—seeing Lane at the wedding, the confrontation with Wyatt, advising Brittany not to end up like her. Then the cowboy, Mitch’s stern advice, and her ankle. Punctuated with the dogs and Lane again to top off the evening. Tears singed her eyes.
“Hey. Are you hurt?” He took the steps in one leap He knelt beside her and his hands settled on her shoulders.
Lane helped her up and pulled her into his arms.
The arms she’d dreamed of for nine years. She pressed her face into his solid chest. He smelled like Irish Spring soap and sleep.
“Nat, you okay?”