About the Author
Laura Marie Altom of Tulsa, Oklahoma, is the bestselling, award-winning author of over forty books. Her works have made several appearances on bestseller lists, and she has over a million books in print worldwide. This former teacher and mother of twins has spoken on numerous occasions at both regional and national conferences, and has been married to her college sweetheart for twenty-six years.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
In eleven years, his derriere hadn't changed much. Lean hips and a tight butt hugged by work-faded Wrangler blue jeans. And, apparently, the view still managed to take her breath away. Which was unfortunate because she'd come home believing he couldn't affect her anymorenot even a little bit. She had been 110 percent confident that Hunter was out of her system. She was so wrong.
Her hands tightened on the tray she held and her lungs emptied as a memory of the way that rear felt under her hands
She sighed, completely trapped.
This was not the reaction she'd expected after so long. Or the way she wanted to see him again. It it pissed her off.
This isn't fair.
"Need some help with that, Josie?" Her father's voice made her wince.
She was hiding, clutching a tray of her dad's famous German breakfast kolaches and Danish, and crouching behind the display counter. Why was shea rational, professional womanducking behind a bakery counter? Because he'd walked in and thrown her confidence in her facea face whose forehead was currently streaked with flour and sugar and who knew what else.
There was no doubt her father's amused question had made all eyes in Pop's Bakery turn toward her. All eyes, even the very dazzling blue-green ones she was trying so desperately to avoid. There wasn't much to do about it now.
She shot her father a look as she said, "Nope, thanks, Dad. I've got it."
Her father winked, looking downright giddy. He'd known exactly what he was doing, and, knowing him, he could hardly wait to see what happened next.
Taking a deep breath, she stood slowly and slid the tray of breakfast goods into the display cabinet with intentional care. She refused to look at anything except the pastries. Or the stuffed deer head over the front door. That always made her smilenot that she was a fan of taxidermy. But her father insisted on decorating it for the seasons. It wore a red Santa hat. Ornaments dangled off its antlers, which were finished off with some tinsel and blinking twinkly Christmas lights. Only in Stonewall Crossing, Texas.
"I couldn't tell," her father continued. "You were all bent over, trying to balance that tray."
Josie's cheeks felt warm, but she wasn't about to admit she'd been hiding. "All good."
"Josie? Josie Stephens?" a high-pitched voice asked. "Oh, my God, look at you. Why, you haven't changed since high school."
Josie glanced over the display case at the woman speaking. Josie couldn't place her, so she smiled and said, "Thanks. You, too."
That's when her gaze wandered to Hunter. He was waiting. And, from the look on his face, he knew Josie had no idea who the woman was. Which irritated her. Him, standing there, looking like that, irritated her.
This morning gets better and better.
First one of the ovens died, then she'd argued with her dad over which pills he was supposed to take, her dad's dog, Sprinkles, had buried one of her shoes somewhere in the backyard and now this. Hunter Boone, gorgeous and tall and manly and still too-perfect, looking at her. The front view is just as goodbadas the back.
He smiledbright blue-green eyes sparkling, damn dimple peaking in full force. She swallowed the huge lump in her throat. Not that she could have said anything if she'd wanted to.
"So it's true?" the woman continued. "Your dad said you were coming to help him, but I couldn't imagine you back here. We all know how much you hated Stonewall Crossing." Her speech pattern, the snide condescension, the narrowed eyes. Josie remembered her then. Winnie. Winnie Michaels. "What did you call it, redneck hellright?"
Josie watched Hunter frown at Winnie's question, the slight shake of his head. It was all so familiar, unsettling, confusing. She blinked, turning her attention to the deer head and its flashing holiday cheer.
"Guess hell froze over." Winnie kept going, teasingbut with a definite edge.
"Kind of hard to say no when your dad needs you,"
Josie answered, forcing herself not to snap. Instead, she smiled. "I'm here."
"She wasn't about to let her old man try to run this place on his own." Her father jumped to her defense. "No matter how busy her life might be."
Busy didn't come close to describing her mess of a life, but her dad didn't need more stress right now.
Her father dropped his arm around her shoulders and squeezed. "She's always been a daddy's girl."
She arched an eyebrow and shot him a look. "Are you complaining?"
Her father laughed. "Nope."
"I didn't think so." She kissed his cheek. "Now go sit down."
He shouldn't be up, but she knew better than to think he'd stay in his chair or use a walker. That was why she'd flown home from Washington, to take care of him. And because she needed someplace quiet to think things over.
"You know that's not going to happen, Jo." Same voice, same smile, same butt, same irritating nickname that only he used.
"That's why I'm here." Josie was thrilled she sounded completely cool, calm and collected. Her heart, on the other hand, was beating like crazy.
"It's kinda weird to see the two of you standing here." Winnie glanced back and forth between Josie and Hunter. "I mean, without having your tongues down each other's throats and all."
"Well" Josie stared at the woman, then Hunter. He wasn't smiling anymore. His jaw was rigid, the muscles knotted. Interesting. "It's kind of hard with the display case in the way," she teased.
Hunter was quick. "I could jump over."
Josie shrugged, but her heart was on the verge of exploding. It was all too easy imagining him sliding across the glass-top counter, pulling her into his strong arms andNot going there. "Nah. You don't want to break Dad's case."
"I don't mind," her father murmured, for her ears only, as he retreated to his chair.
Hunter shook his head. "I think we'll have to wait for now." He cocked his head, eyes still pinned on Josie. "I've gotta get these kolaches to the boys."
Josie saw him take the huge box by the register. A swift kick of disappointment prompted her to blurt out, "Too bad, Hunter. If I remember it correctly, you knew how to kiss a girl."
He smiled again, shaking his head. "If you remember? Ouch. Guess I've had some competition the last few years." His eyes swept her face, lingering on her lips just long enough to make her cheeks feel hot.
She knew better but didn't say a word.
Hunter inclined his head ever so slightly. "Thanks, Carl. I'll see you later on. Have fun while you're back in hell, Jo. I'll see you around."
That would be a bad idea.
Josie watched him leave. His backand buttdisappeared as he climbed into the driver's side of a huge dark blue one-ton extended cab truck. She saw him wink at her then and shook her head, a familiar ache pressing in on her. Time doesn't heal all wounds. How many hours had she spent wishing she hadn't pushed him away? That she hadn't set him up for failure, because she had No point in rehashing it again.
She turned back to the display counter to arrange the pastries she'd made at four-thirty this morning. Dad's fall had shaken them both. He was the last stable thing she had left. He needed herthat was the only reason she'd come home. The last thing she wanted was to be back exactly where she'd been eleven years ago, working in her father's bakery in a town she couldn't wait to escape. Yes, she'd hoped coming back would dispel some of her fantasies about Hunter Boone. And, if she was really lucky, she could finally get her heart back. After seeing Hunter again, one thing was certain. As soon as her dad didn't need her, she was gone.
Hunter put the truck in Reverse and blew out a slow breath as he craned his head to check his blind spot.
"Was that her?" Eli asked, his voice and eyes cold.
Hunter glanced at his son but wasn't up for an argument. "That's Jo."
"She's not that pretty," Eli grumbled.
"No? I think she is." His voice was neutral. Pretty didn't come close to describing Jo Stephens. Silver-gray eyes, wild curly hair, with curves to drive a man to drink. She was beautiful. There wasn't a man alive who wouldn't admit that. Except his son. "And she's funny. Really funny."
"Huh." Eli wasn't impressed.
Hunter knew Eli's blue-green eyeseyes his boy got from himwere watching him. He could feel Eli's angerover Jo. But there wasn't much to say.
Amy, Eli's mom, had done too good a job of trashing Jo. And as much as he'd like Eli to believe that Jo had nothing to do with the bitter end of his marriage to Amy, he knew better. Jo Stephens had held his heart since he was sixteen. And he didn't mind too much. Seeing her this morning was like downing a pot of coffee
"Did you get enough for everyone?" Eli interrupted.
Hunter smiled at his son. "I don't know. But I got a lot."
Eli grinned. "We're growing boys, Dad."
"I know, kid." Hunter looked at Eli, taking in the slight sharpening of his features. His son was growing up. There were still traces of roundness on his ten-year-old body. In no time, his son would be all arms and legs, big feet and teenage awkwardness.
He was a good-looking boy. And in the years ahead, Eli Boone was going to be a good-looking man. More important, he was smart and kind and had solid common sense. Hunter was proud of that.
He'd done the best he could by his son. The two of them took care of each other with little complaining. Balancing his son, the ranch and teaching at the university veterinary hospital was hard work, but it was worth it. No matter what, he made sure Eli suffered through every school trip to the opera, the museums or anywhere else that broadened his son's horizons. He knew there was a big world out there, and he wanted Eli to know it, too. He wouldn't have his mistakes cause his son to miss out on anything.
"Uncle Fisher gonna make it to this one?" Eli asked.
"He said he'd be there." Hunter nodded. And his brothers always kept their word.
Eli nodded, too, then said, "Dara thinks she's gonna get a one."
"She can dream, can't she?" he teased gently. Dara Greer had joined the local Future Farmers of America club this year. Her family had moved from the city and her folks wanted her to "fit in." Problem was she was nervous around animals and uncomfortable in the show ring.
"I know." Eli grew thoughtful. "But she's sweet. And she's trying really hard. You know?"
Hunter looked at his son with a new sense of understanding. "Oh?"
Eli nodded, red streaking up his neck and coloring his face. "Y-yeah." He pushed his dad on the shoulder, laughing.
Hunter turned back to driving. He knew. Boy, did he know.
Jo had been a lot like Dara when she'd moved to town. She was this guarded, thoughtful type whose gaze seemed to search his soul. Every attempt he made to get her attention had earned him an eye roll or a shake of her curly-haired head. She'd hated his "boot-wearing, deer-shooting ass." He'd teased her for her Hunting is Murder T-shirts. And her lightning-fast comebacks had driven him crazy. They'd fought, long and loud, refusing to admit the other might have a point or a right to their own perspective.
But when he'd grabbed her in the high school agriculture barn, her kiss had set his blood on fire. He was done for even if she was still hesitant. He didn't know then that Jo didn't believe in love, romance or commitment. Mostly because she'd never seen it. Her mom had changed husbands more often than most women had their hair done. Moving in with her dad, to Stonewall Crossing, was a way to get away from the drama and uncertainty she'd grown to hate.
It had taken him a long time to get her to trust him, for her to believe he was hers. Sure, they'd still argued, all the time, but they'd been just as quick to make up.
Some things were just too big to forgive.
When she'd left, when she'd had to leave, half of his heart had gone with her. The other half had gone to Eli.
Josie ran to the phone, slipping once on the water her hair was sprinkling all over the tile floor. Only her dad would still have one house phone, with a cord no less, placed in the middle of the hallway. Sprinkles sat, staring at the phone, barking and howling.
"Hush, Sprinkles." She answered the phone. "Hello?"
"Jo?" Of course he would call her while she was in the shower.
Sprinkles kept yapping. "Shh." She took a deep breath. "Um, hi, Hunter."
"You okay? You sound kinda out of breath?"
"I'm in I was in the shower." She laughed airily. "I'm making a puddle on Dad's floor as we speak." Why was she sharing that information with him?
He chuckled. "Want me to call you back?"
Sprinkles jumped up.
"I'm out now." The dog howled. "Sprinkles!" Sprinkles sat, staring at her. She ignored Hunter's laugh. "What's up?" Not that she wanted to know why he'd called.
"I was wondering how long you were going to be here." He sounded hesitant.
"At least through Christmas Then see how Dad is. Why?"
"Well, the FFA chapter here always builds a Christmas float and some of the parents thought it might be nice to build one around your books."
"Oh." She didn't know what to say.
"I'm in my truck right now" He paused. "And I'm about to go by your place. Can I come in and show you what they came up with?"
"Oh, um " I'm just wrapped in a towel and dripping wet. "Well."
"Okay. See you in a sec." And he hung up.
"Damn it." She glared at the handset. "Damn it, damn it."
"Joselyn Marie Stephens," her father chastised her from the living room.
"Really, Dad?" She peered around the corner to find her father sitting in his recliner. "You're right there and you couldn't get the phone? And I'm almost thirty. I can say damn it. I could even say"
There was a knock on the door. Sprinkles started barking like mad.
"Someone stopping by?" he asked.
"Shit," she squealed, then almost tripped over Sprinkles and ran back into the bathroom.
"Come in," she heard her dad call out. Or go home. She pulled her thick robe on and picked through her brown curls quickly. She rolled her eyes at her reflection. Chill. Relax. She straightened her shoulders and opened the door.
There was no help for it. She'd have to walk past the living room to get to her bedroom. Which meant Hunter would be treated to a view of her wrapped in her fluffy black-and-blue bathrobe. She could almost hear her mother scolding her. A single woman must always look her best when keeping company with a handsome man. Josie sighed, grabbed an extra towel and started drying up her watery path from the bathroom to the hall.
"Oh, hey." Hunter laughed. "You really were in the shower."
She turned, one eyebrow arched, all sarcasm. "What makes you say that?" A boy peered around Hunter then. And Josie felt her irritation slip.
This was him Hunter's son. She felt pain. Pain she thought she'd worked through years ago. She stared at the boy.
The boy stared back. He had Hunter's intense gaze and startling eyes.
She held up a finger. "Let me get dressed."
"We're not going to stay long." Hunter's voice was soft.
She pulled her gaze from the boy, her toes curling into the area rug beneath her feet. "Well, you're going to have to give me a second because I refuse to have a conversation with someone while I'm wearing a robe. Okay?" And she needed a minute to get a grip. She half ran to her room, almost tripped over Sprinkles again and closed the door without a sound. "Shit," she murmured with feeling.