Dixon Bell left his hometown of New Skye thirteen years ago with only a broken heart and a guitar to his name. He turned that heartache into a successful songwriting career, but he never forgot the girl he left behind Kate Bowdrey. So when he learns that Kate is single again, he moves back home to make her his.
But his dream of romancing Kate isn't so easily accomplished. Her soon-to-be ex, L. T. LaRue, is one of the most powerful men in town, and he's making both of their lives miserable. Kate's kids are still fragile, and her parents are urging Kate to reconcile with her ex. But Dixon's greatest challenge to a future with Kate may be Kate herself.
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"You making time with your sweetheart again, Dixie?"
"That ain't his sweetheart. That's his baby girl. Right, Dixie?"
Dixon Bell just grinned at the cowboys' teasing and kept walking at a slow, easy pace toward the three unbroken horses poised along one curve of the corral. The buckskin and the pinto danced away as he got close. The black quarter-horse mare knew him, though, and had come to trust him a little. Ears twitching, tail flicking, she watched him approach. She was nervous, sure. But willing to give him a chance.
"Hey, there, gorgeous," he crooned, coming to a stop by her shoulder. He put a hand on the smooth, warm skin of her neck. "Thanks for waiting for me. How's it going?"
She turned her head toward him, nosed his arm and chest, then jerked away as the buckskin came near again. Ears drawn flat against her head, eyes wide, the mare warned the other horse off.
"No need to be jealous, sweetheart." Dixon chuckled as he stroked his palm along her back. "I've only got eyes for you."
Talking quietly, he ran his hands over her ribs, her flanks, her chest, combed his fingers through her jet-black mane. As she calmed, he bent to stroke her legs, lifting each foot in turn, all the time praising her for standing still, for letting him have his way.
Then he straightened up and allowed the halter he'd hooked over his shoulder to drop down to his hand. "Remember this?" He held it under her nose, watched her sniff. "We got this on yesterday. Let's try again."
She wasn't happy about it, but did finally let him slip the soft halter over her nose and ears. Left to run wild in the Colorado hills since her birth two years ago, she hadn't been trained to accept human restraints. Though she balked when he hooked the lead rope to the halter, the mare eventually consented to be led around the corral without too much fuss as long as the buckskin kept her distance. This quarter horse wasn't interested in sharing her man with anybody else.
"She'll make a good mount," the ranch foreman commented when Dixon left the corral. "You're sure taking your time, though. There's easier, quicker ways to break a horse."
"I'm not interested in easier and quicker," Dixon told him. "usually that means some kind of pain for the animal. I'm content to take things slow, exercise a little patience."
"Next thing we know, you'll be hugging trees." The foreman gave him a friendly punch in the arm as they parted ways. Dixon returned the halter to the barn and headed to the bunkhouse to wash up for dinner. The aroma of grilled meat hung in the dry mountain air, teasing him with visions of steak and potatoes. He'd been up at dawn, heading out to round up cows and calves, and the only food he'd managed all day was a quick sandwich at lunch. Hungry wasn't a big enough word for the emptiness inside him tonight.
A stop at the mailbox on his way in rewarded him with a letter from home. Dixon delayed the pleasure until he'd changed into a clean shirt and jeans and washed his hands. Then he sat on his bunk to read what his grandmother, Miss Daisy Crawford, had to say.
She wrote, on lavender-scented paper in an old-fashioned, flowing script, of her friends, her neighbors, the civic meetings she went to, the goings-on at church. One of her cats had been sick, some kind of kidney problem, but the vet prescribed a new diet which seemed to be working. The weather had been strange this yearvariably cold and hotso she never knew what to wear when she went out.
Finally, I thought you might want to know that we've had something of a scandal here recently. L. T. LaRuewhom I would designate a scalawag, if there were still such a thingup and left his family a few weeks ago. Moved out of their house and into a love nest with his office secretary, declaring to the world his intention to get a divorce and marry this girl young enough to be his daughter. I taught her in Sunday School just a few years ago; I can't imagine what could have happened to bring her to such a state. This domestic tragedy leaves Kate LaRueshe was Kate Bowdrey, as I'm sure you recallalone to take care of two teenagers. Poor Kate, she's struggled to put up with that man these ten years, even adopted his children, and look what he's gone and done to her. Some men just are not to be relied upon.
Dixon read those next-to-last paragraphs several times, then sat staring at his grandmother's pale-blue stationery without seeing the words written there. His brain had latched onto one important pointKate Bowdrey LaRue was getting a divorce. That meant she wouldn't be married anymore. As in single. Unattached. Available.
And that meant the time had come for him to go home.
New Skye, North Carolina
With a clap of thunder, the sky broke open. Raindrops pelted the pavement and windows like bullets. Caught unprotected as she locked her car door, Kate LaRue shrieked and dashed for the nearest cover, which happened to be the green-and-white striped awning of Drew's Coffee Shop.
She was drenched when she got there, of course, her thin linen top completely soaked, her skirt hanging heavy around her waist. Water squished between her sandals and the soles of her feet.
"What a mess," she muttered. Around her, the smell of wet pavement blended with the pungent scent of coffee brewing inside the cafe. "I'll have to go back home and change."
"Beautiful day, don't you think?" The voice, strangely familiar, came from behind. "There's nothing like a southern rainstorm to clear the dust out of the air."
Kate turned to look at the tall, lean man standing with a shoulder propped against the brick wall that framed Drew's window. "You're joking, right?"
He had a wide, white grin in a tanned face. "Not at all. After a few years of eating dirt in the west Texas oil fields, I appreciate a good rain."
"You don't sound like you're from Texas." In fact, he sounded as if he'd lived right here in New Skye, North Carolina, his whole life. She should know him, Kate was sure. But good manners forbade that she just out and ask him what his name was.
"That's good. I'd hate to be identified by my twang." He straightened up to his full, lanky height. "Would you like to step inside and get a drink? Something to warm you up?"
Holding out his hand, he directed her to the entrance of Drew's, where she was certain he would open the door for her. Suddenly, just from the way he looked at her, she was equally certain he knew exactly who she was. She studied him for a long moment, searching for a clue in the rich, brown waves of his hair, the glint in his dark eyes, the tilt of his head. When the answer swam up from the depths of her memory, she caught her breath at the impossible rightness of it. "Dixon? Dixon Bell?"
His grin widened. "Took you long enough." He put his hands on her shoulders and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "I was beginning to think I'd have to show you my driver's license. How are you, Kate?"
Without thinking, she threw her arms around his neck and hugged him tight. "You've been gone so long. Welcome home!"
She felt his warm hands through the wet cloth on her back. His shoulders were wide and strong. He smelled of starch and soap. And man.
Another bolt of lightning struck, this one inside Kate.
"Oh, my." Drawing a shaky breath, she dropped back on her heels, letting her arms slide from his shoulders as she stepped away. "I still can't believe it's you. How long have you been home?" She pushed her hair off her face, registered how wet it was and knew what a mess she must look.
"Just a few days. I got here at the beginning of the week." Dixon slipped his hands into the pockets of his slacks and glanced at the shops and businesses around them. "Seems like there have been some pretty big changes. Downtown looks great."
"It does, doesn't it? We're not finished, of course. But I think the restoration and renovation projects are going really well, with no small thanks due to your grandmother. I haven't seen her for several weeks. How is she?"
"Hard to handle, as always. She mentioned that she's worked you to death on some of her committees."
Kate chuckled. "Miss Daisy's a pistol, that's for sure. I hope I have half her energy when I'm her age. I think we celebrated her eighty-fourth birthday at the women's club last month, didn't we?"
"That's right. And as far as I can tell, she keeps a cat for each year. I can't find a chair in the whole house that isn't occupied by at least one feline." He hunched his shoulders. "I'm not crazy about cats."
"She didn't have so many when you lived with her?" Dixon's parents had died when he was very young, so he'd grown up in his grandmother's house.
"One or two at a timenot a whole herd. I guess when I wasn't here, she collected cats to keep her company."
"So where have you been all these years? We haven't seen you since the summer after graduation."
He shook his head. "To get that story, Ms. Bow-drey, you have to let me buy you coffee."
She pretended to sigh in resignation, even as she smiled. "If I have to." But as she crossed the threshold, Kate realized she'd better set things straight. "By the way, it's LaRue."
His forehead wrinkled as he stood holding the door open. "I beg your pardon?"
"I'm married." She walked into the shop ahead of him. "My last name is LaRue."
Thunder pealed again and Dixon sucked in his breath. Kate's declaration hit him like a punch to the ribs. Miss Daisy had definitely mentioned a divorce in her letter. They hadn't talked about Kate since he'd been homehe wasn't prepared to let anybody in on his plans yet, not even the lady herself. But surely he hadn't misunderstood. Miss Daisy had said that L. T. LaRue wanted a divorce. Was Kate contesting? Did she intend to stay married to the jerk?
He couldn't ask her outright, of course. Not a mere fifteen minutes after they'd met for the first time in thirteen years.
Not even though he'd thought of Kate Bowdrey LaRue every single day since their high school graduation.
But today, at last, he could do more than just think about her. He followed her into the shop, taking great pleasure in the sight of her slim figure. Her long, coffee-dark hair lay heavy on her shoulders with almost too much weight, it seemed, for her graceful neck to support. She appeared fragile, in need of protection. And yet she'd held her family together in the face of her husband's desertion. His Kate was much stronger than she looked. The thought gave Dixon tremendous satisfaction.
As they sat down at one of the tiny tables with ice-cream-parlor chairs, he glanced around and took in their surroundings. "Drew's Coffee Shop is a real change from the newspaper and cigarette stand holding this space when I left. New Skye must be getting seriously upscale."
"We like to think we're coming into our own," Kate said earnestly, her hazel eyes wide and serious. With her face washed by the rain and her rich curls springing to life around her face, she looked very young, as young as his memories of her. But she was even lovelier than he remembered, which seemed almost impossible. "This hasn't ever really been the hick town it looked like. We're trying to adjust the image to reality."
"I don't know I recall going to class with some real yokel types. Remember that guy Elmer? He wore overalls and plaid shirts and bright-yellow work boots to school every day?"
"Elmer Halliday." Kate nodded. "He sold his daddy's tobacco farm about ten years ago and bought a chain of convenience stores. He's one of the richest men in town these days."
"But does he still wear yellow work boots?"
"No, he wears Italian-knit shirts and custom leather loafers and spends a lot of time on the golf course at the country club."
Mouth agape, Dixon dropped back against his chair. "They let Elmer into the country club?"
"Well, his family can trace their roots in the area to the War Between the States. And all that money " She shrugged. "There's a lot of new blood coming into town. Nobody can afford to be a snob these days."
"Hey, Kate, how are you?" As if to prove the truth of her words, a woman with blue, buzz-cut hair and a row of silver rings curling around the rim of each ear stood beside them. "Nasty storm, isn't it? What can I get you two?"
"Hi, Daphne." Kate tucked the laminated menu into its metal holder. "I'll have a mocha latte with whipped cream and cinnamon."
The waitress didn't have to switch her attention to Dixonshe'd been staring at him since she arrived at the table. "And for you, gorgeous?"
Dixon grinned and gave her a wink. "How about a double regular coffee?"
"I knew you were the strong silent type. Coming up."