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The Montana McKennas Prequel, Page 3

Maddie James & Jan Scarbrough

  That’s how she knew Sam Chambers. He’d been her dad’s friend. Besides that and being a wrangler for James McKenna, Sam was also one of the best fly fishing guides she knew. She’d been trying to convince him to quit his job and come work for her outfitters. He never would. Sam was loyal. That’s one reason she’d agreed to the blind date. She’d wanted to meet the man who Sam looked up to.

  “Dad’s here!” Brody’s happy cry broke the stillness.

  Liz came out of the kitchen, drying her hands on a dishtowel. She stood in the center of their small living room area. Subconsciously before Brody threw open the door, she girded herself for battle—squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin.

  Nate blew into the room with the cold night air. He had a cocky grin on his face. Glancing a moment at her, he clapped Brody’s shoulders, and exclaimed, “You’ve grown two inches, son!”

  “Have not,” Brody said with a pout. He knew when his dad was lying. “You were just here three weeks ago. I can’t grow that fast.”

  “You look it. That’s all I know.” Nate glanced up, taking in Liz and the apron around her waist. “How’s your pretty mama?”

  They made eye contact. Liz expelled a breath and said, “How are you, Nate?”

  “Fine. Couldn’t be better.”

  His gaze traveled over her. Damn! Don’t unclothe me. He was sizing up her silk white blouse she’d chosen to wear for James and her tight black slacks. He knew she was entertaining tonight. Liz saw it in the sudden twinkle in his eyes and the smirk on his lips.

  “Guess your mama is glad I’m taking you to Bozeman with me for the night,” Nate said.

  “Bozeman!” Brody exploded with excitement in his eyes. Then he turned to Liz. “You didn’t tell me that!”

  “I didn’t want you disappointed if your father couldn’t make it.”

  Nate looked down at his son. “Run and get your pajamas and tooth brush. Hurry up now.”

  Brody scooted out of the room, and Nate raised his eyes and took a step toward Liz. “I have someone I want Brody to meet,” he said, his look challenging.

  “Don’t you break his heart, Nate Caldera,” Liz snapped. Her body tensed with anger. Her ex was simply bating her.

  “I can say the same about you, can’t I, darling?” He glanced around the room. “Got company coming, I see.”

  “That’s none of your business.” Liz struggled to control her response. Sometimes she felt so angry she wanted to slap his handsome face. Instead, she knotted her hands by her sides.

  “Just be careful, darling,” Nate said with a sneer as Brody returned to the room. “You’re old enough now to know what can happen when you entertain.”

  “Back at ya, Nate Caldera,” Liz said. It took two to tango, and she remembered Nate being just as responsible for Brody as she’d been.

  “Bye, Mom,” Brody said as he hugged her waist.

  He seemed a bit reluctant to leave her now that it was time. She gave him a big squeeze. “You do what your father tells you and behave yourself.” How many mothers over how many generations had said the same thing to their sons?

  Brody uncoupled himself and scurried out the door following his dad.

  “Be careful,” she admonished, watching them trample down the steps to the parking lot.

  Just as they climbed into the cab of Nate’s pickup, Liz saw James pull up in his truck.

  Perfect timing.

  She shut the door and hurried to remove her apron and smooth her hair. She stood by the door in time to swing it open as soon as James pushed the doorbell.

  He stood there in the yellow porch light with a bottle of wine in one hand and a bouquet of roses in the other.

  “Oh my!” Liz felt her face flush with pleasure. Men didn’t bring her roses. Never. She stepped aside. “Please, please come in!”

  James entered the room and his presence filled it in a good way, different from the negative, hurtful way Nate’s presence had been just minutes earlier. James stood awkwardly, as if not knowing what to say. They stared at each other a moment. Then Liz giggled self-consciously and shut the door.

  “Here, let me take those flowers.” She rushed to remove them from his hand. “They’re gorgeous, James. Thank you very much.”

  Thankfully, the roses were in their own glass vase. Liz set the vase on a side table, then reached for the bottle of wine to put on the dining table in the corner of the living room.

  “I didn’t know what you liked,” James said, taking off his cowboy hat.

  “This is perfect. I’ve made spaghetti, nothing fancy.” Suddenly her simple meal seemed too simple. Unsophisticated. Was his wife a good cook? If so, she couldn’t compete with her on that level.

  And she shouldn’t try to compete with Claire Parker McKenna in any way. She was her own person. James had to like her for herself. Or not at all.

  Liz gathered his overcoat and hat. She draped the coat over the back of the empty reclining chair and put the hat on top, then turned and gazed at James.

  He gave her a sheepish grin, as if trying to make sense of what was going on between them, the strange fluttering in their stomachs, the tingling awareness of each other.

  “I don’t know why I’m here,” he said.

  “Because I invited you.”

  “I know, but it seems strange.”

  She cocked her head in acknowledgement. “I know. If you hadn’t called me, I would never have gotten up enough nerve to invite you to dinner.”

  “We’re an odd couple, aren’t we?”

  “You’ve had a recent loss, and I’ve had my own disappointments and loss. Maybe we just need a little friendship.”

  James cleared his throat, swallowing as if uncomfortably. But he kept strong eye contact. Liz regarded him with growing warmth.

  “I’d say our relationship started out as a little more than friendship,” he told her.

  “Well, I’m okay with it,” she said, relaxing her shoulders. “I hope you are too.”

  “I’m getting more comfortable with it,” he admitted. “It’s taken me a week, but I’ve come to terms with it.”

  She dropped her gaze and paused, then smiled. “This time I’m prepared,” she divulged, lifting her eyes to meet his again. “I stopped by the drugstore this week just in case.”

  He laughed and the tension seemed to break. “I came prepared too!”

  James McKenna pulled a package from his pocket and held it up.

  “Oh, you dear, sweet man!”

  Liz couldn’t help herself. She crossed the short distance between them and wrapped her arms around his neck, snuggling close. He returned her embrace.

  “Liz,” he whispered into her hair, brushing it with his lips.

  When she lifted her face to gaze up at him, he kissed her, and suddenly Liz’s spaghetti dinner was forgotten.

  Chapter Five

  James McKenna

  October, Three weeks later

  “I don’t care about any stupid hayride. I’m not going.”

  James stood in his daughter’s doorway, knowing he was about to lay down the law. Perhaps he should have done that months ago, but he couldn’t let this go on any longer. His voice raised. “Calandra McKenna! Get up, get dressed, and get downstairs in five minutes. You are going.”

  “I won’t.”

  James’ head ticked to the side. “All right. Then you’ll go as you are.” He stepped into the room, scooped his pajama-clad daughter into his arms, and headed for the hallway. “I’m sure some of your classmates will love to see your new pajamas.”

  Callie shrieked. “Daddy! Put me down. No!”

  He halted at the top of the stair and looked at his daughter. “Callie McKenna, I don’t have time for your shenanigans. Do you hear me? Tonight we are doing this my way.” He set her down on the landing. “Now get back in your room and get dressed. I want you downstairs pronto. No more of this.”

  Callie huffed and rolled her eyes, then trotted off, muttering. “I don’t really wanna meet you
r new girlfriend, Dad.”

  Whoa. “Callie!”

  She halted.

  “What did you say?”

  She rotated back to stare at him. “I only have five minutes to get dressed, Dad.”

  Dad? What happened to ‘Daddy’ all of a sudden? “What did you say?”

  Her shoulders rose and fell, her voice raised. “I said I don’t wanna meet your new girlfriend!” Then she turned and raced into her room, slamming the door behind her.


  This was a bad idea, all the way around. Sam had thought it would be better for Parker and Callie to meet Liz in a group setting. Tom and Sally thought so too. And the community hayride was a great way to do that, he thought. The Carson’s held it every fall over at their ranch, and everyone pitched in with food, drinks, and entertainment. There was pumpkin carving for the children, music for everyone, and the hayride, of course. They’d not missed it in years and James had thought it might be a good place for him to casually introduce the kids to Liz.

  Hell, he didn’t even know Callie knew anything about Liz.


  He stepped forward with a firm rap on Callie’s door.

  “I’m getting dressed,” she yelled out.

  James lowered his hand. “I’ll be right here. Callie, we need to talk.”

  He waited for a least five minutes then she opened the door. James sighed and asked if he could come in. Callie stepped back and he entered his daughter’s room. “Let’s sit.” He grasped Callie’s hand and pulled her along with him and they sat side-by-side on the bed.

  James glanced to his daughter. She’d dressed in jeans, her favorite boots, and a western snap-front shirt. Standard wardrobe. “Thanks for getting dressed,” he told her. “You’ve been up here in your room all day. I want you to eat something before we go. I’m worried about you not eating.”

  Callie exhaled and reached to the top drawer of her bedside table and pulled it open. James spied the contents, then looked to his daughter. She shrugged and grinned back. The drawer was full of half-eaten bags and boxes of snack foods.


  “I ate something.”

  “All right.” He would fight that battle another day. He turned toward her. “But look, we need to talk. Seriously talk, Callie. Look at me.”

  She didn’t immediately but then James lifted her chin with his forefinger to bring her gaze to his. “Okay.”

  “You know I loved your mama more than my own life,” he said. “And you know I love you just as much. None of that is ever going to change.”

  She nodded. “I know that, Daddy.”

  “But we have to move forward, honey. Your mama isn’t here anymore—not her body anyway—but her soul and her memories are all around us. And everything she was for us, and with us, while she was on earth—well, we just need to keep all of that in our hearts every single day. We still have to live our lives, Callie. Your mama would want you to be happy.”

  She sniffed and rubbed a finger underneath her nose. “I know.”

  “Callie, no one, ever, will replace your mama in my heart. Or in yours.”

  She nodded. “But you have a girlfriend.”

  “And how did you hear about that?”


  He arched a brow. “How is that?”

  “She overheard you and her dad talking in the barn and she told me.”

  So that was it. “All right.” He shifted so he could really look into her eyes. “Callie, I’m dating someone. That only means we are going out to dinner once in a while, a movie, having some fun. We enjoy each other’s company. I don’t know if there will be anything else.”

  “Are you going to marry her?”

  “Too soon to tell. I have no plans to marry anyone right now, Callie. All I want to do tonight is let you meet her. Maybe you’ll feel better if you do.”

  She stared ahead. “Maybe.”


  An hour later James found himself watching the dirt road leading back to the Carson’s place for Liz’s truck. He’d managed to get Callie and Parker out of the house—a little later than planned, but at least they were there. He’d even made potato salad that afternoon and baked brownies—and managed to get their contributions to the food tables without incident. Times like this he appreciated Claire, and all she had done over the years getting ready for family outings like this, and get-togethers at the ranch.

  The brownies might not be the best ever made, and he was sure the potato salad had too much mustard, but he’d made a valiant effort and was pleased, enough, with the end products. Callie had even perked up on the ride over, carried the brownies to the dessert table, and of course, then disappeared with Stef and her other friends.

  Good. She’d be fine, he was pretty certain.

  Liz was late. He hoped everything was okay.

  His gaze scanned the crowd again and settled on his son. He smiled as he watched him roughhousing with his friends near the barn and immediately wondered where the years had gone. Seemed only yesterday he was the sixteen-year-old, roughhousing with Tom and their friend, Cody Reynolds. The threesome had been a rowdy group and got into more trouble than he’d like to remember.

  Cody was the wild card. His death hit him and Tom hard. The drunk driver had been Cody, himself, and he took out half a family with him, driving too many miles over the speed limit on a back road, with too many whiskey sours inside him.

  Cody’s leaving his young wife, Savannah, behind—along with their two boys, Gage and Murphy—was tragic. But no more tragic than Savannah resorting to her addictions to support her children over the next few years. That’s when Tom and James stepped in and convinced Savannah to let Tom and Sally adopt Gage. But she just couldn’t give up Murphy, telling them that it would be easier for her to handle one child. She’d disappeared after that, and all everyone could do was pray the boy was safe—and then they found out that Murphy had been removed from Savannah’s home and placed in foster care.

  Where? James had no clue. He wished he knew.

  Movement to his right pulled him out of his contemplation. He smiled as he saw Liz step out of her vehicle, then reach back inside for a dish. Her son, Brody, rounded the truck with a bag of chips in his hands.

  Liz approached him, smiling, and his heart swelled. He moved toward her and took the dish out of her hands as he leaned in to place a quick kiss on her cheek. He pulled back and she looked up into his eyes, and his chest felt full with his ever-expanding heart.

  “You are a sight for sore eyes,” he told her.

  Liz smiled wider and her eyes twinkled. “It’s good to see you, James.”

  “I’m so glad you are here.” And he was. He felt alive, again, for the first time in months. “Let’s get this food over to the table.”

  But before he stepped away, he remembered Brody. Juggling the dish, he put out his hand. “This handsome young man must be Brody,” he said.

  Brody beamed and shook James’ hand. “Yes sir,” he said. “Nice to meet you.”

  “And you too.” James glanced about. “I’m sure glad you came here with your mama. There’s a passel of kids around here, somewhere.”

  His eyes were already moving over the crowd. He turned to his mother. “Mama, I think I see Stef over there. Can I go…?”

  Liz took the chips out of his hand. “Go. Shoo!”

  Then Brody was off, and James turned to Liz and looked deep into her eyes again. “I’ve missed you something awful this week.”

  Her upturned face and happy smile was nearly his undoing. “I don’t think I could have made it through another day, James.”


  The hayride was finished, everyone’s bellies were full, and the evening quieted into dusk with a bonfire and singing. Cowboys and guitars and lonesome, soulful songs of the west filled the night. Liz leaned back into James as they sat on a log near the fire, and he put his arms around her. They were somewhat isolated from the rest of the crowd, and he liked the fact tha
t they were getting a little alone time after this hectic day.


  “No. This is perfect,” she said.

  James let the moment sink in. It had been a wonderful late afternoon and evening. He had enjoyed Liz’s company so much, and she had fallen right in with his friends and their wives. Of course, they only had glimpses of Callie the past few hours, and he had a feeling she was avoiding him. Parker had met Liz earlier and was amiable and polite, if not a little awkward. He supposed that was to be expected.

  The boy was quiet and kept to himself at home, most of the time. Maybe more so since Claire had died. Or, he was out on the ranch on his horse. He sure hoped his quietness wasn’t as much of a red flag as Callie’s rebellion.

  “Seen the kids lately?” Liz asked.

  James cleared his throat. “Parker’s over there with the teenagers. Last I saw of Brody he was tagging along behind with them. Callie? I’m not so sure.”

  “Yes, Brody is idolizing those boys. Of course, they are all into rodeo and you know he’s all about that. His father, and all.”

  “Of course.” James knew about Liz’s ex-husband.

  “I saw Callie just a few minutes ago,” Liz added. “She was at the dessert table with a couple of girls. I did say a quick hello, but she turned and left quickly. And then…” she paused and pointed. “Oh, there she is, sitting on that hay wagon over there.”

  James squinted beyond the fire. Yes, there was his girl, sitting in the middle of a string of girls her age on the wagon, swinging their legs and watching the boys.

  “I do want you to officially meet her before we leave,” he said.

  “I’m looking forward to it, but if it doesn’t happen today, James, let’s not push it.” She turned slightly, so she could look into his face, “I think it’s important that we just meet soon. Nothing more. No expectations. I don’t want her to ever think I’m trying to take her mother’s place….”

  James put his finger on Liz’s lips. “Sh… I understand. I know you would never, but Callie can be unpredictable, I want you to know that.”

  She nodded. “That’s for another time.” She sat up then and turned to face him. “But it is a conversation we’re going to have to have with both of your children at some point. And well, probably with Brody too…”

  She bit her lip and suddenly James felt her mood flip a switch.