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The Montana McKennas Prequel, Page 2

Maddie James & Jan Scarbrough

  “Me too.”

  Their easy camaraderie of a few minutes earlier in the bar was suddenly strained. “Well, I guess I’d better be going.”

  He nodded. “Get your truck started. Let it warm up.”

  James held her door open with one hand and leaned against the side of the cab. Watching her every move, he made her nervous. This damn truck better start.

  It didn’t. After letting the ignition grind away a few moments, Liz sighed and sat back. She knew the drill. She’d been told she needed a new starter, but hadn’t had the money.

  Flushed with embarrassment, Liz glanced down at James. “This happens all the time.”

  “Sounds like your starter is shot.”

  “It is.” She smiled, trying to put a positive spin on her problem. “I’ll get Jimmy from the gas station down here tomorrow to give me a tow to his shop.”

  “How do you plan to get home tonight?”

  “Oh, I don’t live far from here. I can walk.”

  “You can’t walk in this rain. Hop into my truck, and I’ll drive you.”

  “Thanks. You don’t have to do this.”

  “I don’t have to, but I want to.”

  Liz’s two-bedroom apartment was a mile away. Not far away, but a long walk in the rainy weather. Inside the cab of the truck, she felt safe and snug. The aroma of James’ aftershave drifted to her, making her think of her father, the only man she had ever trusted, except for maybe Sam, her dad’s best friend.

  “The roads look icy,” she said as she watched the highway through the windshield.

  “They are.”

  “Are you really going to drive home tonight?”

  “Done it before.”

  “Of course.”

  They pulled into her parking lot. He turned off the headlights. They sat quietly. Should she ask him in for a drink? What did she have to offer? Coffee. That was good on a cold night.

  “Would you like to come up to my apartment for a cup of coffee before you head back?”

  He turned in the seat and stared.

  “Well, the place is clean,” she said, disconcerted by his closeness and the steadiness of his gaze. “And for once Brody isn’t home messing it up, leaving his muddy boots on the living room floor or dropping dirty underwear in the bathroom.”

  She looked away, unable to meet his gaze.

  “I’d like that,” he said in his deep, husky voice.

  Liz turned back to gaze at him. “You would?”

  “Yes, I’d like that very much.”

  There was something in his eyes akin to fear. But there was determination in them too. And maybe a little resignation. And certainly hope.

  He extended a large hand toward her and stroked her jawline. “You know, Liz, I haven’t wanted anything as badly as I want that cup of coffee. Not in a long, long time.”

  Chapter Three

  James McKenna

  The next morning, James drove silently toward the McKenna Ranch. Every mile took him further away from Liz, and with each passing mile marker, he ticked off all of the reasons why the last eight hours were a bad idea.

  On one hand, he had too much time on his hands most days, so why wouldn’t an occasional adult evening spent in the company of a beautiful woman be okay? He was way past the age of having to answer to anyone for his actions. He was not married any longer, and Claire, God rest her soul, had even told him to find a woman after she was gone. Not that he wanted any woman to move into the ranch and take her place. He could never see that happening. But an evening out once in while wouldn’t be a bad thing.

  Would it?

  Then on the other hand, what if it turned into more? That’s when things could turn sticky. Callie was a handful now, still missing her mama something awful. What would she do if he brought another woman into the picture?

  And what about Parker? At sixteen, was his moodiness interspersed with outbursts of anger normal, or was there more working on him? What would he think if there was a woman in his old man’s life?

  No. That scenario was out of the picture. Wouldn’t happen.

  He stared ahead through the windshield, watching the sun peek up over the horizon, oranges and yellow mixing with the brown and green of the land. He’d left early. Told Liz he needed to get back to the ranch. And of course, he did. He hoped like hell he could sneak in before anyone else was up. Since it was the weekend, he was counting on the kids, at least, sleeping in. Anyone else he could handle.

  His brain quieted for several minutes as he rolled on. By the time he pulled onto the dirt road at McKenna Ranch, he was ready to get on with the day. Then, like a bolt of lightning, Liz’s face burst into his mind’s eye. Guilt and pleasure ripped across his chest and lower as he remembered her soft features, her open eyes gazing up at him. He’d not been with another woman since he’d met Claire, and they’d been together for years. His need to bore deeper into Liz and satisfy his physical urges, conflicted greatly with the pleasure in his loins and the remorse hammering at his heart.

  Her soft tears afterward were his undoing.

  “Dammit.” James pounded the steering wheel. Where did this leave him now? Them?

  The leaving had been awkward. She slept curled against him and he’d woke with the scent of her shampoo in his nostrils. She’d slipped out of bed, pulling the sheet with her and padding off to the bathroom without a backward glance. He’d dressed quickly while she was in there. When she’d come out a few minutes later, wrapping her robe around her, they’d both found it difficult to make eye contact.

  He’d approached and given her a quick kiss on the forehead, mumbling a few words about needing to go. She’d nodded and he didn’t look back as he left her place.

  A kiss on the forehead. He felt like a damned heel.

  His gaze settled on a black diesel pick-up truck parked in front of the house.

  “Shit.” The word whistled through his teeth.


  “About time you showed your face this morning, old man. We were beginning to worry about you.”

  James exhaled and pushed through the back door. He did a quick assessment of the kitchen to determine if he needed to be on the defensive, or not. Only one person there that he could see, anyway.

  “Mornin’ Tom.” He put his coat on a peg by the door and his hat on the shelf above it. “What in the world are you doing here this morning?” He glanced to the stove. “And cooking breakfast, no less.”

  A woman’s voice called out from the pantry. “Oh, hell, James. You know Tom. He got a wild hair last night and decided to drive up for a visit.” Sally Parker, Tom’s wife, bustled out of the adjoining room with a bag of flour and a carton of baking powder. She sidled up next to James and leaned up for a quick kiss on the cheek. “Don’t be mad,” she added, “you ought to know by now that he never calls first.”

  He did know that. Claire’s brother, Tom, carved his own way in life. Made his own rules. Most of the people around here did that though, although Tom was definitely a man not to be reckoned with. The Parker men rivaled the McKennas in stubbornness. There were times James wondered how Claire and Sally had put up with them all these years.

  Sally sat the products down on the kitchen island, fiddled with the bag and flour, and filled a canister. “By the way, we sent Sam back home. Stef stayed the night with Callie.”

  He nodded. “That’s fine. I’m sure Sam was glad for an evening to himself. Thanks.” James pulled out a chair and sat. “And of course I’m not mad. Surprised though. Everything okay?”

  Tom’s ranch was a couple of hours due east, toward Billings. The Parker family had owned two large tracks of Montana land. When Claire and Tom’s parents were killed in a car accident fifteen years earlier, Tom ended up with the Billings area ranch, and Claire inherited the western tract, near Yellowstone, now The McKenna Ranch.

  He and Tom were closer than most brothers-in-law, although they didn’t see each other nearly enough. He thought of him more as a blood relative, than by marr

  Sally nodded. “Oh, we’re fine. Gage wanted to see Parker and it’s been a while since we’ve been up, so we just took a ride.”

  Curious, James asked, “Did you see Savannah? Just wondering about Murphy. I know Gage likes to see his brother when he can.”

  Sally set a bag of flour on the island. Her head shook. “We can’t find her, James, or Murphy. I worry about that boy. I wish she had let us adopt him, too.”

  James agreed. “Yes. I know.” He fiddled with an empty coffee cup on the table, thinking. “You got here last night?”

  She nodded, ripping open the top of the bag of flour, and then pouring it into a canister. “You’ve not been doing much cooking, have you, James?”

  “Can’t say that I have.”

  She angled her body and looked back at him. “You doing okay?”

  He dropped his chin in a slow nod. “I’m hanging in there.”

  Sally turned back to her task. He saw her glance up at Tom, who turned back to the pan. A few silent moments passed.

  James got up, went to the counter, and pulled down a coffee mug. He reached for the carafe. “Thanks for making this. I may need the entire pot this morning.” Then he turned and faced both of them. “So why don’t you tell me why you are really here. Hm?”

  Tom lifted the last piece of bacon out of the pan and laid it on a paper towel. He moved the skillet off the burner and faced James. “We’re just checking in, James. Wondering how you are doing. I know it’s only been a few months and it’s understandable that things are still out of whack. We just wonder if there is any way we can help you out.”

  James sucked in a deep breath and glanced from Tom to Sally. Shaking his head slightly, he leaned back against the counter and took a sip of the hot coffee. After a moment he said, “Some days are rougher than others. Callie’s the most difficult.”

  Sally offered, “I spent some time with her last night. We looked through some of the picture albums and talked about Claire.”

  A lump formed in James’ throat. Why hadn’t he ever thought of doing that? “Thanks, Sally. I’m sure that meant a lot to her.”

  “It meant a lot to me.”

  He nodded. “So what time did you get here last night?”

  “Not long after you left,” Tom said. “Gage and Parker went upstairs to his room to do whatever it is that teenage boys do. Callie and Stef pretty much stuck to Sally’s side.”

  He imagined so. He looked to Sally. “Thank you. I’m sure both girls needed to be with a woman. I swear, sometimes I just don’t know what to do with Callie.”

  Sally stepped forward and took James’ hand. “Look, she’s a pre-teen girl and they can be just awful. Olivia at times, well…” She shook her head.

  James asked, “Where is Olivia? She didn’t come?”

  “No. She’s at a sleepover with a friend from her dance school. All that girl wants to do is dance. I sure hope it pays well one day because she sure isn’t doing good in school, otherwise.” Sally laughed and they both sat at the table. “But back to Callie. James, she needs a woman to talk to now and again. There’s no one on this ranch except for the housecleaner and Stephanie. Why don’t I plan to come up a little more often and maybe she can come and spend some long weekends with us at our ranch. What do you think? It would probably do Olivia good, too.”

  He figured Sally was right. “Might be a good idea. I’m not sure how to thank you.”

  She slapped his hand. “James McKenna, we’re family. It’s what we do. You can thank me by taking Gage off my hands one of these weeks! Now, that boy can be a handful.”

  “Anytime.” He was grateful for the offer.

  Tom cleared his throat. “So, are you going to tell us where you were all night last night?”

  James lifted his gaze to connect directly with his brother-in-law’s. He pondered several responses but then simply said, “No. I’m not.”

  He’d be damned if he’d cheapen what he and Liz shared any further by kissing and telling.


  Later that evening, after Tom and Sally had gone and the kids were in bed, James sat in his bedroom staring at the television set with the sound turned off. He wasn’t really interested in the show and the dialogue was grating on his nerves. But he didn’t want to turn off the picture because, for some crazy reason, the people on the set were some sort of company in the room—even if he couldn’t hear them.

  He’d found it difficult to get Liz off his mind for most of the day. He’d debated calling her. He had her number. Sam had given it to him after he’d arranged the blind date. That day he’d nearly thrown it away, convinced he wasn’t going to go on the date to begin with.

  Now, he fiddled with the piece of paper, flipping it between his fingers. Contemplating.

  Finally, he picked up his landline phone and dialed.

  One ring. Two. Three. “Hello?”

  He cleared his throat. “Hi Liz. This is James McKenna.”

  “I know,” she said. “How are you?”

  “I’m fine.”

  Silence. Awkward.

  James began again. “Liz, I owe you an apology.”

  More silence. “Oh?”

  He continued. “The way I left this morning was inexcusable.”

  “It was just awkward, James. On both sides. Don’t worry about it.”

  “I haven’t been with any woman other than my wife in years. I don’t know what to do in these kinds of situations. Not anymore. And really, I’m sure you don’t think much of me because we’d only just met and I was not much of a gentleman.”

  Her voice softened. “James, you were a perfect gentleman.”

  “A gentleman would have gone home. Resisted the temptation….”

  “I invited you. I wanted you to come in James.”

  “I should have waited. But Liz, I have to tell you that—”

  She interrupted him. “It was awesome. Wasn’t it? I mean, it was for me.”

  James closed his eyes and exhaled. “Liz,” he whispered. “It was wonderful. You, were wonderful. I want you to know that I don’t take these things lightly and—”

  She interrupted again. “James, I understand.”

  “You do?”

  “You were my first in a very long time. I want you to know that. And I don’t take it lightly either.”

  All of a sudden, the entire conversation seemed a little surreal. How did this happen?

  Liz spoke again. “Would you like to have dinner at my place again next Saturday night?”

  Another crossroads. Move forward or retreat?

  “Liz. I would love to.”

  Chapter Four

  Liz Mercer Caldera

  Brody stood silently at the window overlooking the apartment complex parking lot. One hand clutched the curtain, pulling it back and holding it as if it was a lifeline to his soul. He was blond, thin, but wiry, and decked out in worn boots, Wranglers, and a Western shirt with “PBR” embroidered on the sleeve that his dad had brought home on his last trip. The boy was cowboy-crazy, eaten up with the Professional Bull Riders, where his dad worked as a “bullfighter” going from city-to-city on the tour and saving bull riders from the horns of unpredictable seventeen hundred pound bulls.

  But Nate Caldera was late.

  As usual.

  In silent sadness, Liz watched her son. She didn’t want Brody disappointed—again. She had no control over her ex-husband and his broken promises.

  Tonight, though, proved especially problematic. James McKenna was coming to dinner at eight.

  Liz bit her lower lip and returned to her galley kitchen. She had an empty feeling in the pit of her stomach. What if Nate didn’t pick up Brody in time? How would she explain the presence of her son to James? It would be awkward, but surely he’d understand.

  As a single mother, she faced this predicament every time she wanted to date. She wasn’t about to bring a man into Brody’s life if there was no chance of long term. Brody didn’t need that. She didn’t need it.

  So mostly, Liz didn’t date. It wasn’t worth the hassle. Besides, not many men wanted anything to do with a woman who had a kid. She didn’t blame them. Not really.

  Liz tossed iceberg lettuce into a bowl and added chopped carrots and celery. She’d made her mother’s recipe for spaghetti sauce. When James arrived she’d drop the long strands of spaghetti into boiling water. Add a slice or two of bread from the bakery and a glass of red wine, and she’d have a good enough meal. She hoped.

  Liz stilled her busy hands and took a deep breath, glancing up at the peeling paint on the wall. She’d hoped for so many things in her life. Things that had not transpired in the way she’d wanted them too.

  Nate Caldera had been a rodeo champ when she’d met him. He’d been charming—a hunk—and good with the ladies, especially her. Liz had fallen for him immediately. She’d convinced herself she loved him, and he loved her. So when he took her to bed that summer night in Bozeman, she felt she was making love.

  Nate had simply been having sex with one of his many buckle bunnies, rodeo groupies. And Nate had plenty of them Liz was soon to find out. She also found out how fertile she was when she realized she was pregnant. Out of wedlock. Pregnant by a guy who had a girl in every city and small town in the West.

  Her mother didn’t scold her. She had looked sorrowfully at Liz, narrowed her eyes, and said with grit in her voice, “That guy is going to marry you.”

  And he did. Liz married Nate Caldera a month later, and they stayed married for eight years—long enough for Brody to grow terribly attached to his father and long enough for Nate’s bull riding career to tank. That’s when he became a bullfighter, a guy who distracted the bull and protected the rider. That’s when these on-again off-again Saturday night visits began.

  She’d cried a lot when the divorce happened. Her mother was gone by then, and she had no one to comfort her. She wasn’t about to turn to an eight-year-old boy.

  Liz covered the salad bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside. She didn’t care what Nate did for a living as long as his child support checks kept coming. She didn’t make much money at Montana West Fly-Fishing Outfitters. Administrative assistants, a nice name for secretary, didn’t garner a big salary. But she loved what she did. And she knew the Greater Yellowstone region like the back of her hand.