Excerpt: Ladd Haven
Book Four: Ladd Springs Series
“So they can’t take a honeymoon?” Seated across from Casey Owens in a red-vinyled booth at Fran’s Diner, Jimmy Sweeney shook his head. Bright light flooded in through the pane of front windows, red-checkered curtains serving to cast his fair complexion in warm shades, accentuating the naturally red highlights in his brunette hair. Casey noted most of the black hair dye had grown out, the dark ends the only visible hint of Jimmy’s Goth stage. He refused to cut his hair short which would have eliminated the color altogether, claiming he wasn’t comfortable with short hair. Too mainstream. At least it was only the tips, Casey mused. The brown hair made him appear semi-normal and not half-bad looking, no longer sullen, brooding and rebellious.
Jimmy was a loner at school, torn between his desire for attention and his debilitating shyness. He couldn’t make the first friend yet it was all he longed for. Friends, people who understood him, accepted him. He was a little on the quirky side, but Casey had come to learn it was due to his extreme intelligence. Jimmy was a brainiac born to a family of dysfunction. His aunt Candi was Casey’s best friend, a thirty-eight-year-old woman who still lived at home. His Uncle Clem was a no-good bum, a man who tried to loot gold from Ladd Springs, land that now belonged to her thanks to her mother’s vigorous battle to prove paternity. A victory Casey had only recently come to appreciate. While she was glad to own part of Ladd Springs, Jeremiah Ladd was a dirt bag. Could anyone expect her to celebrate the fact he was her father?
Her change in attitude was due in large part to Jimmy. He’d convinced her to see the positive in owning half of Ladd Springs, as opposed to the negative. Forget the reason she had the land and focus on what it meant going forward. But that was Jimmy. He was her constant. The guy who’d been there for her when everyone was else was too busy with their own lives. The two struck up conversation one night while rolling silverware after working a shift at the diner. Going through troubles of her own at the time, she’d needed a friend and was willing to chance a conversation with the extremely odd Jimmy Sweeney. Turns out, he wasn’t so weird once you got to talking to him. He was smart, generous, and a good listener. They even had a few things in common. Peering into his dark eyes, eyes that held affection, friendship, she sighed. If it hadn’t been for Jimmy and his friendship, Casey would have lost her mind. Lost her life, really.
“It doesn’t seem right,” Jimmy said. “If I were newly married I’d want one.”
Staring at him, a part of her knew Jimmy wouldn’t mind that marriage to include her. Only she wasn’t interested. “They’re too busy with opening the hotel,” Casey replied, picking at a biscuit on her plate, one of two her Aunt Fran had delivered along with a cheese sandwich, none of which she’d ordered. She didn’t want biscuits or sandwiches or her customary cheeseburger and fries, but if she didn’t eat, Fran would get on her and she wasn’t in the mood for another lecture. Now fill up, sugar, you’re eatin’ for two. Don’t go starvin’ that baby or I’ll report you to your doctor. With the amount of food Fran was trying to pile down her throat, one would think Casey was eating for two hundred! She was pregnant, not vying for an eat-a-thon.
“But no honeymoon?” Jimmy pressed. “I thought that’s what newlyweds were supposed to do.”
“Eventually they will.” Swiping a finger against a thick drip of honey, Casey sucked the sweet substance from her fingertip. “My mom wants to go to Bermuda for her honeymoon.”
Jimmy gaped. “Bermuda?”
Casey nodded. “Says it’s the closest exotic destination she could think of.”
“What—she afraid to go far?”
“She’s not sure about flying.” Annie Owens was almost forty years old and had never been on an airplane. Casey would say that was weird, except she hadn’t been on one either. Growing up in a small town with little money to their name, they never had reason. Now that her mom had married Cal Foster, things were different. He had money—lots of it—and he was more than willing to share, offering to build her a small house of her own on the land her mother had secured for her. Warm feelings washed over her. Mr. Foster was a good man. A loving man. Casey was glad her mother had married him. Better yet, the marriage came with a new step-sister, one she hadn’t met yet. Cal’s daughter, Emily, was eleven and lived in Arizona with her mom. Unable to attend the wedding, Emily was scheduled for a visit next month and Casey couldn’t wait. With no siblings of her own, Casey thought it would be neat to have a kid sister. Cal said if things went well, Emily might be able to spend summers here. Well, if Casey had anything to say about it, Emily’s first trip to Tennessee would be memorable.
Jimmy nodded, as though flying anxiety were completely normal. “Cool.”
Casey smiled. So easygoing. Jimmy accepted life as it came. He was smart, wise. It was Jimmy who was able to convince her of the futility in taking drugs. There’d been a time when she was so unhappy, so miserable, life didn’t seem worth living. But he made her see there was hope over the horizon. Change, freedom. Despite the people around you, life could be enjoyed. And Jimmy knew what he was talking about. His parents fought non-stop. They were loud and obnoxious but refused to get a divorce. His grandparents took him in but they weren’t much better. They were miserable. Yet throughout it all, Jimmy said he never gave up hope. He hid behind a wardrobe of black for a while but said he always believed in himself and his future. Today he lived on his own in a cute apartment downtown, drove a nice car and was taking classes to earn his degree. He didn’t know what he wanted a degree in yet. Only that it would be something that would get him a good job and get him out of this town.
Unfortunately, Jimmy wasn’t her type. He was too tall, too skinny, but he was nice and he was her friend. Casey set a hand on the enormous swell of her stomach. Two things she had come to appreciate after Troy Parker left town. The love of her life, and father of her child, had deserted her. By the time he finally got around to telling her what he’d done, where he’d gone, she’d been so mad she refused to take his calls. He’d moved to Kentucky. Took a job on a ranch there and planned to settle down. Troy didn’t ask her to come with him. He didn’t insist they never spend another night apart. Nope. He up and left and didn’t call her for a week.
A strange sensation pushed into Casey’s stomach. It wasn’t nausea, it wasn’t a cramp. Pushing back in her seat, she slid a hand over the rise of her belly, rubbing in a circular motion as she allowed the feeling to pass. They seemed to be occurring more often these days, feelings in and around the baby inside her. They were physical sensations, but she was beginning to have emotional ones too. An intuition she never had before. Too bad it didn’t exist before she started dating Troy. Maybe then she would have seen him for the train wreck he was.
Jimmy looked down at her stomach as though it were a ticking time bomb. “Are you all right?”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. Like everyone else, Jimmy was a worry wart when it came to her condition. There was nothing wrong with her. It was just a feeling. Continuing to caress her belly in a rhythmic motion, calming, Casey wondered if it could be indigestion. Staring at the tall glass of half-drunk coke, she wondered if it might be the carbonation unsettling her stomach. Or maybe the biscuit drenched in honey butter. Strange how pregnancy changed things. Not only was she experiencing new sensations and feelings, but her tastes had changed. She used to love French fries, but now they soured her stomach. Too greasy. Same with cheeseburgers. She could no longer eat the two staples of her diet. She glanced around the restaurant, her gaze landing on a waitress carrying a heavily loaded tray of food through the diner. Circling a table, she delivered fried chicken, fried okra, fried tomatoes and cornbread. Casey frowned. Practically everything in the restaurant was fried, which made her cringe. Good thing she only had another two months or so. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could tolerate it!
The front door opened, the clang of bells reverberated in her heart.
“Casey?” Alarm careened into Jimmy’s gaze. “What’s a matter?”
Panic closed her throat. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t move.
Troy Parker, in the flesh, was standing by the hostess stand.
Jimmy whirled around at the same moment Troy spotted them. Removing his black hat as they made eye contact, his familiar brown eyes latched onto Casey like a bee on a blossom. Her heart squeezed, her legs dissolved beneath her. Troy was here.
He hesitated, glanced around tables and booths in the crowded diner. Even from ten yards away, partially concealed beneath those long brown bangs of his, she could see his anger flash hot. Troy clenched his jaw and headed straight for them. Instinctively, she jammed elbows to the table and leaned forward, crossing her arms protectively over her stomach, catching the edge of her plate which toppled, then spun loudly back in place. Casey’s pulse shot wildly out of control—thudding so hard—she feared it would break loose from her chest.
Troy’s long jean-legged strides closed the distance in seconds. Jimmy turned back to face her, the full impact of what was coming gripping his expression steps before Troy made it to their table, arriving in a sweep of tension, emotion churning the air around him. He stared down at the two of them, eyes darting between her and Jimmy, hostility pulsating beneath his surface of calm. Casey gulped. “Casey,” he said tersely.
“Troy,” she returned, scratching out the single word.
Jimmy sat pensive, clearly unsettled by the surprise appearance of her ex-boyfriend, a position he’d been vying for himself of late. Jimmy wanted to give her baby a name. He wanted to support her, be there for her where this man had not. It was a gesture she appreciated but declined. She couldn’t be with Jimmy. She wasn’t interested.
There was only one guy who held her interest and he was standing before her very eyes, glaring at her like she was a traitor or something. He stood bolted in place, looking between the two of them, as if waiting for Casey to fill the void. “I thought you were in Kentucky,” Casey sputtered, even as she battled a chest full of nerves and her heart sang, Troy’s home.
“I’m not,” Troy replied. “I’m here.”
“We can see that,” Jimmy wisecracked, swiping Casey with a sidelong gaze.
Troy’s hand flinched, giving Casey a start. “Why are you here?” she asked quickly, diffusing the powder keg between the two. Troy didn’t care for Jimmy and the feeling was mutual.
Her spirits burst like a balloon. Troy quit. Of course.
It’s what he did.
“It’s not what you think.”
“We don’t have to think,” Jimmy said, surprising Casey with his show of nerve. “It’s what you do. It’s expected.”
Troy turned on him. “Why don’t you hold your tongue before I rip it out of your mouth?”
Casey jumped at the sheer nastiness he was displaying. “Troy!” He could break Jimmy in two and probably love the chance to do just that. “Please!” she cried. A few nearby diners were taking in the trio, but none with any knowledge as to the significance of what was happening.
“Why don’t you get lost?”
Casey stared across the table. This was a side to Jimmy she had yet to see. Usually he preferred to hang on the sidelines, avoid confrontation altogether. He did it the last time he and Troy faced off, did it with their professor at school…
“You first,” Troy spat.
“Stop it,” Casey thrust between them.
Troy tossed a fiery glare her way but quickly extinguished it. “I don’t need him interferin’.”
“Interfering with what?” she asked, annoyed and disconcerted at the same time. Troy was back. He was fighting with Jimmy. Continuing to conceal the round of her stomach, she smacked, “You’re the one who walked up on us, remember?”
Taken aback by the edgy response, he gave her a double-take—which gave Casey a warped pleasure. That’s right, Troy. You’re the one interfering. We don’t want you here. But for some reason Casey couldn’t give voice to the first word. She was too happy to see him.
Troy straightened. He pushed back his muscular shoulders and announced, “I came by to tell you I’m back. For good.”
Casey laughed, but it was strangled, ineffective. What she intended to be hurtful fell short. She couldn’t look at Troy and instead sought refuge in the safety of her friend and supporter, Jimmy Sweeney. His Adam’s apple rose and fell as he accepted her lead. “Sure you are,” she muttered, wishing his return wasn’t on public display. There were so many things she wanted to say, to know. Troy was home. He’d quit. What would he think about the baby?
“I am, Casey.” Appearing to dull the blade of his attack, Troy shifted weight from heel to heel, holding her steadily in his gaze. His eyes were molten with emotion, his surprise discovery of the two of them together surely unsettling. Troy was the jealous type and, worse, had always suspected Jimmy of being interested in more than friendship. To find them together had only underscored that suspicion. “I made you a promise when I left here and I aim to keep it.”
“Too late. You already broke it.” Uttering the words broke her heart all over again. On their last night together, the most beautiful of her life, Troy had promised they’d be together forever. He was talking future and family. Her heart pinched at the memory. Stupidly, she’d believed him. Tearing her gaze from his face, she sought the safety and security of Jimmy.
“I didn’t break anything,” Troy countered. “I quit drinking, I’m on a better road…”
But the fight had left him. From the corner of her eye, she could see him waver. Troy wasn’t sure what to do. She understood his instinct was to stay and argue, but her voicing her position in no uncertain terms seemed to undermine him. He wasn’t sure how to proceed.
From across the table, she could feel Jimmy’s displeasure. He was mad—at her, at Troy—at the whole situation. He’d been warning her about this day, warning her that Troy might come back and try to convince her to give him another chance. As if she’d forgotten, Jimmy constantly reminded her how Troy had run around with Jeremiah Ladd’s girlfriend, flirted with Jillian Devane, all while professing he cared for Casey. Then dumped her, ran off and left her pregnant.
Casey didn’t need reminding. She lived with the pain every day of her life. At the moment, it was dulled in comparison to Troy realizing she was pregnant. That conversation was sure to stir up a hornet’s nest of trouble. Glaring at Jimmy, she needed Troy to be gone. She could only sit hunched over the table for so long before it became awkward and he saw the size of her stomach beneath the flimsy cotton dress.
“I’m finished with it all,” Troy said. “No more.”
“Yeah,” Jimmy replied snidely, “until the next eighteen-wheeler pulls into the lot with a case of Jack Daniels.”
Troy glowered. “Why don’t you shut your mouth before I knock your skull into next week?”
“It’s the truth,” Jimmy continued, angling his shoulders to face Troy. “You’re a waste of breath.”
Ignoring him, Troy thrust angrily to Casey, “We need to talk. This isn’t over ‘til we do.”
“What isn’t over?” Jimmy asked. “You already dumped her. What more do you have in store?”
Troy stood rigid, his wrath aimed squarely at Jimmy. “This ain’t none of your business.”
“It is my business when you’re standing here talking to my girlfriend.”
Casey gasped. Troy froze. He locked onto Jimmy. “What did you say?”
“You heard me,” Jimmy repeated.
Gawking at Jimmy, Casey was met by a challenge. Tell him the truth. Fastening his gaze to hers as though daring her to say otherwise Jimmy hitched his chin toward Troy. Go ahead. Tell him you’re pregnant.
Casey freaked. Did he think he was helping? Did he think taunting Troy with a statement like that was going to settle the matter?
Troy pounced on her, his brown eyes searching. “Is this true? Is what he said true? You two are dating?”
Fear zipped up and down her spine as she evaded his question. No—it wasn’t true—but maybe Jimmy was right. Judging by Troy’s reaction, maybe this was exactly what he needed to hear to get a taste of how it felt to be dumped—flat on his face.
“I don’t answer to you,” Casey defied. Drawing strength from Jimmy’s presence, Troy’s anger, she flipped her gaze up to meet his and nearly fell out of her seat. Instead of angry, the upheaval in Troy’s gaze undid her. He wasn’t angry. He was crushed. Guilt washed over her in a flood of surprise. But if he was here because he quit, he sure as heck wouldn’t be happy to hear she was pregnant with his child!
Nerves pushed in at her stomach. Uncertainty flapped in her breast. Pregnancy changed everything. Things were different. She couldn’t dash out on a last minute picnic or hike along the river’s edge. They couldn’t lie around in a field late at night, stargazing until the wee hours of morning. Pregnancy meant bills, diapers, a screaming baby… It meant responsibility. Stability. Troy couldn’t quit work on a whim or get fired for impulse decisions. Being a father meant a whole new lifestyle, one that didn’t suit Troy’s temperament. No matter what he promised that night, that beautiful, wonderful night, reality would prove different. Casey struggled against tears. It was her reality now. Something he was going to have to get used to. “When you left me, Troy, you gave up your right to have a say over what I do, or don’t do.”
“I never left you!”
The outburst drew curious stares as Jimmy retorted, “Could’ave fooled us.”
Troy plastered his hat onto his head. Without making a move for the door, he stared at Casey for the longest minute. It was a look that erased people and time, months and doubt, and replaced it with longing. There was so much left to say, so many questions, feelings, but neither uttered the first one. Too much needed to be said. Jimmy was wedged between them. It was awkward. Troy turned on his heel and strode out of the diner, dragging Casey’s heart behind him. Her gaze trailed him as he shoved open the door and disappeared from her sight. He was gone. It was over. In a rush of rage, she turned on Jimmy, smacking a hand to the table. Silverware bounced as she demanded, “What the heck was that about?”
“What?” he asked dully.
“You telling him we’re boyfriend and girlfriend!”
“Well, we should be,” Jimmy mumbled.
“But we aren’t, Jimmy! Now he thinks we are!”
Met by a vacant stare, Casey could kill him. With one stupid statement Jimmy ruined her opportunity to understand what had happened. Why did Troy leave? Why was he back home? What happened between them? Was it her fault? His? At this rate she’d be lucky to ever see him again, let alone speak to him.
“What am I going to do?” she wondered aloud.
“I thought you said he was a thing of your past.” Dark brown eyes grew still. “Sounds to me like you want to pick up where you left off.”
About to tell him exactly what she thought, Casey stopped herself. It was clear how she felt—to Jimmy, herself—to everyone but Troy. A ripple of spasm crawled slowly across the side of her belly, reminding Casey of someone else who didn’t know, might never know, especially now that she had just run him off. Troy was probably gone for good this time. Knowing his obstinate temper as she did, he wouldn’t give her a chance to explain about Jimmy. He hated the guy. Troy would assume it was true and cut her from his life.
“I was only trying to help you,” Jimmy said. Sliding his glass of coke to him, he pulled a long sip from his straw. He didn’t look at her. He drank. Purposefully, mindfully, he ignored her.
Dropping her gaze to the table, Casey was torn. She couldn’t be mad at him. Jimmy was only acting based on what she’d told him. She never wanted to see Troy again. Never wanted to hear his name. She’d never expected to see him again, especially not making statements like he had. I made you a promise when I left here and I aim to keep it. Did he mean it?
Visions of him storming out tumbled through her. Angry, hurt, Troy wasn’t interested in explanation. Consumed with thoughts of him, she tried to convince herself it was for the best. Men disappeared when they heard their girlfriend was pregnant. It meant obligation, commitment, two important traits Troy lacked. I quit.
He couldn’t even hold down a job. How was he going to support a family?
At a quiet slurp, Casey’s thoughts reverted back to Jimmy. Unlike him. He worked two jobs to pay for his apartment and college classes, plus the occasional money he slid to his mother on the sly because his dad was a bum. Jimmy didn’t run from responsibility. Casey’s spirits slumped. He begged for it.
Troy thundered into his parent’s home, anger and jealousy tearing through his heart. Jimmy and Casey? How could she? And with him of all people? Stomping up the stairs, he headed straight for his bedroom, his mind warring for reason. The guy was nothing but a weasel—a slimy, slithering, no good snake. He had no right to be with her. She was his woman, not Jimmy’s.
But despite Troy’s every protest, the pain of reality continued to slice him with every step he took. Jimmy and Casey seemed real cozy tucked away in that booth in Fran’s Diner. The homecoming that he expected to be rocky turned out to be a dad gummed bald-faced cliff hurling him over the edge. How could she have moved on so easily? How could she have forgotten their night together?
It was the most beautiful night of his life…better than any they shared before. Casey had run away to be with him in Murfreesboro, but it wasn’t the same. The night in the field beneath the stars had been special because she’d forgiven him. She’d forgiven him, when even he knew there was no reason she should. It was a grace he didn’t deserve but one she had given whole-heartedly. That night had meant more to Troy than anything in his life. Casey Owens was the only person in this world who believed in him and him alone, willing to overlook his stupidity. Could she really have changed so drastically?
When you left me, Troy, you gave up your right to have a say over what I do or don’t do. The scene at the diner felt unreal, like he was walking through a nightmare. Didn’t their love mean anything to her? Was it so easy for her to forget the words they said, the promises they made?
When you left me, Troy…
Anger surged through him. Why did she say that? He didn’t leave her. He told her he needed to get a job and make something of himself, prove to everyone he wasn’t a loser. Just because he was doing it in another town didn’t mean he’d left her. He couldn’t. He could never leave her. The night they shared together and everything it meant lived and breathed in him, every hour, every second. It gave reason to his days, gave comfort to his nights. It was his reason to stay sober, to keep out of trouble and on target with his job. Casey had forgiven him and he wasn’t going to let her down—ever.
Troy’s heart wrenched as he envisioned Casey lying in Jimmy’s arms. He could see her pale white skin, her delicate curves, her tender smile—could recall the scent of her with painful accuracy—and she had revealed it all to Jimmy. Busting into his bedroom, he slammed a fist on the dresser. “Dammit!”
Visions of Jimmy Sweeney sitting across from his woman roused a hatred that unnerved Troy. He’d wanted to lash out and punch the kid in the face. Flatten him. It was probably his fault Casey didn’t return any of his calls. Originally Troy had blamed Casey’s lack of response on her mother but now…
Thoughts of Jimmy and Casey together swirled in a sickening mix of disbelief and jealously the likes of which he’d never felt before. It had probably been Jimmy who convinced her not to talk to him. Troy knew the guy had been waiting to get his hands on her. Probably snuck in the second he left town to grab his opportunity.
But Casey was Troy’s woman and only his. She told him so. Promised it would always be that way. She couldn’t love Jimmy. She couldn’t get over him that quick—it was impossible.
Had been impossible for him. Every day on the job became harder and harder, his mind split between thoughts of Casey and the horse he was working. He couldn’t focus and the animal knew it, fought him every step of the way. The head rancher thought he was a loser. Thought his talk of training and experience was nothing but bull. It wasn’t. Mr. Foster had backed him up with a phone call. But in the end it didn’t matter. Troy couldn’t focus, couldn’t perform his duties. He couldn’t do anything without Casey.
Raking a hand through his hair, he pulled his bangs tight. Sending his gaze fitfully about his room, his bed untouched, his suitcase unpacked, he wondered what next? Should he leave town? Should he give up and move on, accept that Casey had done the same? Settling on her vision, remembering blue eyes that cradled him with more love than he had ever known, a heart that encouraged him with a voice more certain about his future than even his own, Troy knew he couldn’t leave. He couldn’t give up. As sure as he was standin’ here, his gut clenched tighter than a dog on a bone, he couldn’t leave. Not until he was sure. Not until Casey told him to get out of town pointblank would he leave.
He’d stay. He’d stay and wait her out. Maybe she’d realize what a mistake she was making by choosing Jimmy. Maybe after she had time to think about it, she’d change her mind and come back to him. His heart sank into his boots. She had to. No other girl but Casey would do.
Travis Parker appeared in the doorway to his bathroom. “Whoa, brother. What’s got you so riled up?”
“None of your damn business,” Troy fumed, hardly able to manage the rage and suffering streaming through his veins without the presence of his self-righteous brother. Travis always acted like he knew better than Troy. Like he was superior. Well, he wasn’t. Even dressed in his uppity jeans and designer T-shirt or with his first year of college behind him, his twin brother was no better than Troy.
Travis smiled, his eyes dripping with self-importance. “Sure doesn’t look like nothing to me.”
“Well, it is.”
Travis leaned against the doorframe, his gaze matching the smug smirk on his lips as he crossed arms over his chest. “Get turned down?”
Troy wanted to rip that smile right off his mouth. Instead, he yanked the hat from his head and tossed it to his bed. Pulling the wallet from his back pocket, he chucked it to the bureau. It slid into a picture of his parents, sending the frame crashing to the ground.
Travis chuckled as though he knew exactly what was going on. “Shouldn’t have left her in the first place.”
Troy whipped a finger toward his brother. “Back off, Travis. This ain’t none of your business and I ain’t in the mood to mess with you.” Troy yanked off his T-shirt and threw it to the floor.
“None of my business? I’d say it’s everybody’s business now.”
“How do you figure?”
“What I do with my girlfriend has nothing to do with you.”
Travis pushed off from the door and walked closer. Spearing him with a spiteful gaze, he said, “It does when you leave me to pick up the pieces of your mess.”
Troy stopped dead center of the room, his bare chest heaving in the heat of anger. Shoulders back, fist clenched, he was ready to lash out if need be. “What the hell are you talking about, ‘pick up the pieces of my mess’?”
“What do I mean?” Travis raised his eyebrows, lines forming across his forehead as he asked, “Isn’t it obvious? Do you need me to spell it out for you?”
Troy honed in on him. “What’s obvious?” Was he trying to rub it in? Did Travis know something he didn’t? A sharp dread stabbed at him. Were Jimmy and Casey more serious than he realized?
“I thought you went to see Casey.”
And she’s hooked up with Jimmy, Troy admitted silently but couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Hooked up with Jimmy. They were words he never thought he’d have to think let alone utter.
Clipped to his jean waistband, Travis’ cell phone rang. He plucked it free and pressed the call button. “Hey, Felicity.”
Hearing her name only added to Troy’s misery. Felicity Wilkins was a childhood friend of the brothers, the three a best-friend trio since grade school. For a time Troy had designs on getting together with Felicity. Seemed Travis did, too. The rivalry stirred up a lot of trouble between them until she made her choice during high school—Travis would be her boyfriend leaving Troy to find his own love. At the time, he’d been hurt. But life was weird that way. If it weren’t for Felicity’s decision, he would never have found Casey.
Turning away from Travis and his happy phone call, Troy felt the blow. Travis and Felicity were happily together, the way he and Casey were supposed to be. Dad gummit—he should never have left! If he’d stayed in Tennessee, none of this would have happened. Tugging his belt buckle loose, he hauled it clear of the belt loops.
Travis chuckled. “You don’t say. He has no idea? Huh,” he replied, shooting Troy a know-it-all smirk. “If you insist, I’ll keep it to myself.” Ending the call, he smiled. “Never mind.”
“Never mind what?”
“It’s a private matter,” Travis replied, barely able to keep a straight face.
Troy couldn’t care less about his and Felicity’s private matters. He only wanted his brother gone so he could take a cold shower and get these rabid thoughts and visions out of his head. When his mind was cooled, he could plan his next step.
Travis re-clipped his phone and gathered himself into a half-serious expression. “Though in all honesty, there’s nothing funny about it.”
Travis stilled. “About you and your lack of judgment.”
“Get out of my room, Travis, before I throw you out.”
At the sudden disgust in his brother’s eyes, Troy wondered what the phone call from Felicity was about. He has no idea? Who has no idea? About what?
Shoving the thoughts from his mind, he growled under his breath. Whatever. His brother was gone and that’s all that mattered. At the moment he had bigger problems to deal with and they didn’t include Travis.
Two hours later, Troy had switched gears from hurt and anger to reason and determination. Jimmy might think Casey was his girlfriend but she wouldn’t stay that way. She was in shock, is all. She didn’t expect him to show up, didn’t know what to say to him when he did. Hell, could he blame her for falling for the guy’s sneaky ploy?
She’d been on the rebound. She was hurt. Obviously, she didn’t understand what he meant when he told her he was going to prove himself, though how she could have misunderstood was beyond him. There was no place around here where he could work to make it up to her. He had to go somewhere else. He had to go where people didn’t have pre-conceived thoughts about him. Around here, no one believed in him. They all thought the worst, except for Mr. Foster. Cal Foster was decent, understanding. He didn’t leap to judgment like everyone else did, painting him into a corner and hanging an “I’m a no-good drunk” sign from his neck. After working with him at his family’s ranch, Mr. Foster said Troy was one of their best ranch hands, ever. Said he was real impressed with Troy’s performance.
Until he blew it by showing up with a hangover. Cal’s daddy, Gerald Foster, had a zero tolerance policy for drinking—on the job and off. Rumor had it was due to the fact his four sons had blown through more bottles of bourbon than a whiskey-soaked river, souring the old man on alcohol use of any kind. Troy should have known better than to go anywhere near the place with a hangover, but he thought he could avoid the old man for the day. The only reason the senior Mr. Foster came by was to pay Troy a visit, commending him for a job well done with the foal delivery. It was a job that ended five minutes later.
Slowing down for the turn to the Wilkins’ place, Troy knew if anyone was going to give him a chance, it’d be Cal Foster. Not that Troy could work for his daddy again. Old man Foster didn’t give second chances. But with Cal in charge as General Manager of the new Hotel Ladd, Troy might have the opportunity to work their stables, maybe train their horses. Hell, at this rate he’d be happy to pick up their crap if that’s what it took to get a paying job with the animals he loved. He would’ve done a good job at the ranch in Kentucky if it hadn’t been for missing Casey. He’d thought he could do it. He thought as long as he told himself it was temporary, he could manage the separation and make a name for himself. Then, he could return home with his head held high and proof behind his claims. He’d quit drinking. He could work with horses. But try as he might, he couldn’t manage. The ache in his heart had been too strong, even the dad gum horses were beginning to feel it!
Rolling over the bridge, sunlight glittering in the river stream below, Troy was astonished by the transformation of Ladd Springs. Slowing, his gaze roamed over buildings and trails, cars and signs. If he didn’t know his way here by heart, he wouldn’t have recognized the place. Ernie Ladd had been the owner before Felicity and Casey, living here until his dying day about a year ago. His dilapidated cabin used to sit along the creek but had been replaced by a custom log cabin. It was a small structure but quality built with its thick log walls and river rock base. It had clean lines, a tin roof and nice patch of grass around it, complete with a wishing well off to one side. Automatically, Troy checked for the original well that used to be here and found it, located off a manufactured path leading up into the mountain. Did that lead to the stables? But they couldn’t have left Miss Delaney’s old stables intact. Delaney Wilkins had lived here as a child and moved back with her daughter ten years ago. The stables had been built years before, about the time Miss Delaney was a kid. If they bulldozed old man Ernie’s house they wouldn’t leave her stables. They were in about the same condition.
Parking near a line of cars, Troy climbed down from his truck and trekked up a trail toward the hotel. Up the mountain—practically wedged into the rock and trees—was the main building. It wasn’t very big, from what he could tell, but it was damn fine with floor to ceiling windows. Nearing the hotel, he could see massive interior wooden beams, leather furniture and recessed ceiling lights, in addition to a huge metal chandelier, round in shape with candle-shaped lights on it. There was also a fountain inside. Outside, stone steps lead up to the entrance, heavily landscaped with native rhododendron and colorful hydrangea.
Troy let out a low whistle. “Dad gum, this must have cost Mr. Harris a ton of money.” According to his mother, the inside was even nicer than the outside. She was here for the double wedding ceremony between the hotel’s owner Nick Harris and Miss Delaney who got hitched alongside Cal Foster and Casey’s mom, Annie Owens. Afterward, Troy’s mother took a tour of the property, claiming the décor was straight out of a fancy designer home magazine, complete with huge river rock fireplaces and four-poster beds in every guestroom. Troy bet they were charging a bundle for people to stay in that place. He laughed under his breath. To stay in Podunk, Tennessee, no less. Who would have guessed it? While he loved his hometown, Troy never imagined anyone paying top dollar for the chance to hang out around here. Until now, the local two-story hotel downtown was the fanciest thing they had going.
Cal Foster came into view. An elegant man with fair-skinned looks and mild-mannered behavior, Cal appeared every bit the professional in his khaki dress pants and pale green button-down shirt. Pushing out through the entrance, he jogged down the natural stone stairway.
Troy’s heart pitched. Time to call in a favor.
Taking a deep breath, he waited for Mr. Foster to notice him. When he did, his face lit up. “Troy!”
The warm welcome loosened the knot twisting in his chest. “Mr. Foster,” Troy called back and hurried over.
Cal greeted him, hazel eyes dancing as he dove a hand in for a firm handshake, followed by another hand to Troy’s shoulder. He squeezed. “How the heck are you doing?”
Heartened by the familiar tone, he replied, “Fine, sir. Real fine.”
“When did you get back in town?”
“Travis tells me you’ve been working in Kentucky.”
“Yes sir, I have.
“Did you come home for the summer?”
Troy stumbled and replied vaguely, “Taking a break.”
To his relief, Cal didn’t question him further. “Have you seen the new hotel?”
“I haven’t sir, but my momma told me all about it. Said it’s the nicest one she’s ever seen.”
Cal accepted the compliment easily, satisfaction glimmering in his eyes. “Malcolm and Nick do top-notch work, there’s no question. Would you like a look around?”
Standing beneath the shade of trees, Troy removed his hat, brushed the hair from his brow. Malcolm Ward was Nick’s partner in the hotel business. Originally he came to Tennessee to help Mr. Harris get the rights to use the property but stayed on after he met and married Casey’s aunt, Lacy Owens. Troy didn’t know him that well, but he seemed like an allright guy. “Well, I’d like to, but I don’t want to bother you, sir.”
He patted Troy’s shoulder and said, “It’s no bother at all.”
Troy hesitated. He had more pressing issues on his mind than touring the new hotel. “Actually, I’m here to see about a job.”
The hand slipped free from his shoulder. Hesitation entered his friendly gaze. “What kind of job?”
“With horses, sir. I understand you have some mighty fine stables, and I’d like to see if there’s a space for me.”
“Well, actually,” his expression closed a shade, nipping at Troy’s confidence, “Delaney’s in charge of the stables.”
Troy could feel him slipping from his grasp. “Miss Delaney?”
“Yes, but…” Clouds gathered in his gaze. “Have you talked to Casey?”
“Yes, sir. Saw her at Fran’s Diner earlier today.” Cal didn’t say anything, evidently waiting for him to elaborate. When he didn’t, the older man simply nodded, as though turning it over in his mind. Once again, Troy was struck by the nagging sensation there was more to the question. “Well, like I said, I’m here to see about a job.”
Cal looked at him queerly, as if Troy had morphed into some kind of weird creature. It was beginning to grate on him.
Cal Foster shook whatever fog had overcome him and snapped back to his senses. “Well, you’ll have to speak with Delaney about a job in the stables. I don’t have any say over the hiring and firing when it comes to the horses.”
Troy didn’t understand. “But you’re the boss, aren’t ya?”
“Not over Delaney, I’m not. You want a job working the stables, you’ll have to go through her.”
Troy sensed Cal had been trying to crack a joke, but the humor never made it to his eyes. All of a sudden, the man seemed uncomfortable to be around him. His biggest ally in the past was paddling backwards at a hefty pace. Which was strange. Only minutes ago Mr. Foster seemed real pleased to see him. Troy shifted restlessly. “Well, is she here?”
Cal pointed a finger behind him. “That trail over there will take you straight to her. She’s in the stables.
Troy followed his line of sight and saw a trail. Familiar with the property, he knew it led to the original Ladd homestead, the one that existed a hundred years ago. When they were riding horses one day, Felicity had showed it to him and Travis, explaining how it had been home to her great-grandfather. There was nothing to see when they rode through, except for a few piles of old bricks and rotten logs. Troy remembered an eerie feeling as they walked the area, like maybe there were ghosts or something lurking in the woods, watching them. He shook a mild shudder from his body and firmed his resolve. Miss Delaney liked him. If Cal wouldn’t give him a job, she would. “Thank you, sir.” Troy slipped his hat in place. “I’ll go and talk to her right now, if you don’t mind,” he added, inferring that he couldn’t go on that guided tour of the hotel.
“Listen, Troy. I don’t know if she’ll give you a job, but if she does, make her see what I see.” Surprised by the seriousness in his voice, Troy idled in place as Mr. Foster added, “Don’t let her down.”
A little more than insulted, Troy rebuffed, “I don’t intend to, sir.”
“I know you don’t,” Cal replied quietly. “But you have a lot riding on this. Don’t blow it. You know I’ll give her my best recommendation if she asks, but it’s up to you to prove your case.”
“Yes, sir. I understand.” Troy assumed he was referring to the drinking episode, yet he couldn’t shake the feeling there was something else at play. Something deeper was ground into the brown-eyed gaze staring back at him.
Cal placed a hand to his shoulder and squeezed. “I hope you do. For all our sakes.”
Troy straightened, pulling himself a little taller. “Mr. Foster, I’m good with horses. I know I’ve made mistakes in the past but I don’t aim to repeat them. I’ll make Miss Delaney the finest ranch hand she’s ever seen.”
“You’re preaching to the pastor, Troy. I believe in you.” His gaze softened. “I’m glad to see you still do, too.”
Troy took the trail as instructed, hiking the newly graded terrain in the direction of the stables. Gone were the uneven rocks and roots, the hard clay smoothed for easier passage and lined by a sparse covering of meadow grass. Overhead, trees provided a canopy of shade, the air temperature several degrees cooler than in the open sunshine. It was a tranquil walk, but Troy couldn’t shake the sudden change in Mr. Foster’s demeanor. He said he believed in him, enough to give him a second chance if the choice were his. Said he’d give Miss Delaney a good recommendation if she asked. Why so many ifs? It was the uncertainty that was driving him crazy. First Casey, then Travis and now Mr. Foster. It was like the world had flipped upside down and people had lost their marbles. Like their brain cells had dribbled out of their heads into a sea of nothing. Everybody started off normal enough and then switched, like a light bulb had been turned off—or on—Troy couldn’t figure out which. They acted weird, like they didn’t know if they were coming or going or if they even should.
Troy shook his head. No matter. Miss Delaney wasn’t like that. She was a straight shooter. Damn accurate, too. If something was going on, she’d tell him straight up. As the trail opened up into pasture, Troy looked uphill, struck by the sight of brand new stables he took a step back. Whoa. He surveyed the wide open space of rolling green, the brand new fencing that led up to a distant line of stables. He tipped his hat back and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Stables as nice as any he’d seen. Murfreesboro had been a top notch operation, the group out of Kentucky a step above most, but this? Seemed Miss Delaney had a top of the line establishment on her hands. He could only imagine what it looked like up close.
Avoiding further thoughts of Casey and Jimmy creeping into his mind, Troy hiked up the hill. He couldn’t stand to even consider the two of them as a possibility. It was probably all the talk about the recent double wedding. His parents had gone and it was all his momma could talk about, other than lecturing him on his decision to return home. She’d never once mentioned Casey. After Jimmy delivered the news, he could see why. His momma might not be happy about him skipping college to work with horses, but she sure as heck wasn’t gonna upset him with the news his girlfriend had hooked up with another guy.
Halfway up, Troy wondered how the guests were going to manage the trip. For him this walk was nothin’ but for folks that weren’t used to hiking, he could see it as an issue. Horses grazed to either side of him, their lazy swish of tail a sign of contentment. The hotel probably had some horse and buggy lined up to transport them. From what Felicity said, Mr. Harris had tons of money and built expensive hotels all around the world. He was leasing Ladd Springs land for his hotel. He didn’t own it. Felicity did—a fact that still seemed incredible to Troy. Nineteen-years-old and Felicity Wilkins was earning thousands of dollars, maybe hundreds of thousands. Troy didn’t know any of the details. All he knew was after Ernie Ladd died and willed the property to Felicity, she was free and clear to make a deal with Mr. Harris and allow his hotel to be built. Didn’t hurt that her mother was engaged to the man.
Casey owned the other half. Thanks to the fact her mother slept with Jeremiah Ladd eighteen years ago. The man was a no-good dog, but as Ernie Ladd’s son he and his heirs had rights to the property. Or so Casey’s mom believed. She was the one who fought for Casey’s rights and won. Right after Felicity received title to Ladd Springs, Miss Delaney signed over half of it to Casey. Not only a straight shooter, but she was a fair woman with a big heart.
Nearing the stables, Troy slowed his pace. Beyond the stables were three pens and a huge granddaddy of a barn, everything brand-spanking new. So new, it looked more like a picture ad than a working horse operation. Venturing inside, Troy was hit by the thick scent of sweet feed and freshly oiled leather. A tack room sat to his right, a line of saddles set out front of it. Down a wide center aisle there was a dual line of stalls. He didn’t see any animals. Were there any horses?
“Hello?” he called out, looking for signs of Delaney as he continued in. But there had to be. He could smell them. He walked over to a corner and peered through a plate glass window. There was a desk, cabinets, several pictures on the wall but no Delaney. Continuing toward the stall corridor, he glanced overhead, admiring the tongue and groove ceiling, the exposed wooden rafters. Troy figured it must have cost some serious dough to build this place. Coming upon an oversized stall, large by anyone’s standards, he deemed it to be a foaling stall. Instantly he recalled the foal he helped Mr. Foster deliver a little black beauty named Vegas. Looking back, that had been one of the best days of his life. Not only had he taken part in saving the life of an animal, but he earned the recognition from someone other than his father. Troy’s heart skipped at a low whinny from a horse. Drawn to the sound, he looked into the adjacent stall and saw a beautiful chocolate brown Arabian.
Pulling up to the wooden barrier, he reached a hand through the metal grill of the sliding door. “Aren’t you a beauty? C’mon here, baby.” Ears perked at the sound of his voice and the horse immediately responded. “That’s it.” Troy allowed the horse to nudge him, a velvet-soft muzzle nibbling as the animal checked the stranger out. The horse raised its head and lightly shook its mane but didn’t retreat. Troy took this as the animal’s consent to be touched and stroked the flat expanse of fur between the horse’s eyes. Long lashes blinked, taking him in without concern. Warm feelings spread throughout Troy’s chest. God, but this one was a fine specimen of horse. Did they get him from Mr. Foster? He didn’t remember this fella and Troy remembered every horse. Maybe they had more than one supplier for the hotel.
Startled by the cut of her voice, he whirled, grasping a cold metal bar as he said, “Miss Delaney.”
“Long time no see.”
Standing there in jeans and tank top, her long blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail, Delaney Wilkins looped thumbs from her front pockets. Four inches shorter than him, she stood rigid, as though on the defensive. She didn’t smile, didn’t move. She simply stared with those dark brown eyes of hers. Black brows and butter yellow hair made for a striking combination. Troy always found her to be an attractive older woman, one who didn’t take crap. He considered the gun he knew to be kept in her boot and gulped. A stern tone wasn’t the kind of reception he’d been counting on. “I hope you don’t mind me walking in uninvited, Miss Delaney, but Mr. Foster said I might be able to find you here.”
“You’re looking for me?”
“Yes, ma’am.” Troy removed his hat and advanced toward her. “He told me you were in charge of the stables.”
“I was interested in getting work. He told me to talk to you.”
“Work?” Curiosity sparked her black gaze. “What kind of work?”
“With the horses,” Troy replied. “I can train them, clean them, pick up after them. Whatever you need, I can do it for you.”
She cocked her head and crossed her arms. “Why are you looking for a job, Troy? Felicity told me you were working a ranch in Kentucky.”
“I was…” He dropped his gaze. “But I quit.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, hating the suspicion swirling in her gaze.
“I wanted to come back home.” At this, her features softened a hair, giving him the first hint of the woman he knew growing up, the one who treated Travis and him like her own. “But I need work, Miss Delaney, and horses are what I know. I’d make you a great ranch hand. Ask Mr. Foster—he can vouch for me.”
“Are you drinking?”
Nerves fired at the blunt question. “No, ma’am. No way. Not a drop.”
Delaney expelled a sigh and approached him. Her eyes darted back and forth across his as though she were looking for something, something hidden deep inside him. “Have you talked to Casey?”
Strands of resentment grew taut in his chest. “And she dumped me,” he wanted to spit. She moved on with that loser, Jimmy Sweeney. The thought scraped at his heart, made him bleed fresh and raw. Of all people, why did Casey have to pick him? The skinny dude was half-girl the way he always hung around, quiet, not saying two words most of the time. My girlfriend. Two words Troy could have gone his whole life without hearing come from Jimmy’s mouth. “I saw her at the diner today.”
“And…” he tightened his grip on his hat, “she was with Jimmy Sweeney.”
“So?” Delaney pressed.
“So?” Troy grew angry but held himself in check. Did she need to drill it into him? Did she need to rub his face in it? What the heck—had everybody turned against him?
“Troy, stop playing games. Did you talk with her?”
“Dad gum, Miss Delaney, I saw her at the diner with Jimmy. They were sittin’ in a booth together. They’re datin’ now, I got the message. What else do you want me to say?”
Delaney stared at him mouth agape, like she didn’t understand English or something. What part didn’t she understand? He got it. Casey and Jimmy were dating. Did she expect him to be okay with it?
Because he wasn’t. He wasn’t okay with it and he wasn’t giving up. It wasn’t like Casey was married. Jimmy said girlfriend. That’s all the hope Troy needed.
But first, he needed a job. “Miss Delaney? Can I get a job or not?”
With a dumbstruck glance, she waved him to follow. “C’mon. Let me show you around.” Relief washed over him, the knots of doubt releasing as he did so. “I’m not saying you have a job,” she clarified over her shoulder, “but I’ll show you around just the same. I need to discuss it with Mr. Foster first.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, wondering why. The man said it was her decision but Troy wasn’t about to argue. A chance was a chance and he’d take every one he could get.
After a tour of the stables, Delaney showed him around the barn, the paddocks. There were tractors and wash racks, a feed room and another office. The second one in the barn belonged to the groundskeeper while hers was in the main building. Passing by a pen on their way back, Troy noted the dirt was raked clean. It reminded him of the horse he’d trained for Mr. Foster, the one they said went sour. Did they ever find a home for the animal? He hoped they finished the job of training and hooked the horse up with the right owners. He was a sweet animal. Nothing wrong that a little TLC and rebuilding of trust wouldn’t fix. The black foal instantly came to mind. “How’s that little foal working out for you?”
“The one you got from Mr. Foster. Vegas. Did you take him and his momma?”
She nodded, realization lighting up her eyes. “They’re here.” She pointed back toward the stables. “Fourth one down on the left.”
“Mind if I take a look at him?”
“Actually, Troy, I do.” Surprise cut him in half. Slowing, she stopped. Turning her back to the low rising sun, she cupped a hand over her eyes and said, “I think it’s best if we don’t get your hopes up.”
“My hopes?” he asked, his heart sinking into his boots.
“I need to think about it, discuss it with Mr. Foster.”
Because she didn’t fully trust him. Because he didn’t have a great track record of staying put. Either by his own will or his own stupidity, Troy couldn’t manage to keep a job for more than a few months. “I understand.”
“Do you?” she asked pointedly, the razored-edge of her question catching him off guard.
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m here to fix them.”
“Fix them?” she looked at him queerly. “How so?”
“I know Casey’s with Jimmy Sweeney now, but I’m going to show her that I’m worth a second chance. I can be the man she needs me to be.” Casey had to see. Troy had to prove it to her. She didn’t like that guy. She’d been on the rebound from him and Jimmy took advantage. It was an advantage Troy was gonna wipe clean. “If you’ll give me the chance, I’ll prove it to you, too.”
Delaney ran a palm over her head and blew out a heavy breath. “I believe you will. Unfortunately, I’m not the one who matters.”