There were times in life you either had to go big, or go broke.
Jen's fingers paused on the pen, the cool tube turning
warm and slippery in her hand as the room suddenly seemed
hot and stifling. The loan papers sat before her and the
numbers swirled in front of her eyes.
She looked up from the papers, her lightweight sweater
cloying, the yellow silk scarf strangling her as her breath
shallowed. It was such a lot of money, after all.
The new bank manager's face frowned a little at her
She took a breath, looked down, and signed her name— once,
twice, three times.
She clicked the pen closed, feeling at once a euphoric blend
of fear and excitement. Risk-taking was not her specialty.
But over the years she'd learned it was a necessary evil
at times. She'd run the numbers until she could cite
them by rote. Everything she'd done told her this was a
good move. A necessary move.
But seeing it in black and white, knowing that what
she'd built so far could be swept away with one
failure…it was enough to take a girl's breath away.
She would not hyperventilate. She would not.
She rose, shook the manager's hand. Not the same man
who'd given her the first loan for Snickerdoodles;
he'd been a friend of her father's and had retired
last year. This man was in his late thirties, still exuding
that air of big city rather than small town. It wasn't
the same. It didn't give her the sense of security that
she could really use right now.
Snickerdoodles Bakery was about to be transformed into
Snickerdoodles Café and Catering, and if she'd
miscalculated she'd lose it all.
"Congratulations, Ms. O'Keefe."
"Thanks." She smiled thinly, extricating her hand
from his clasp. Watched as he slid her copy of the papers
into a portfolio, handing it to her with a smile.
"Let us know if you need anything at all," he
suggested, and she picked up her bag.
Need anything? There were enough zeroes on the dotted line
that she hoped she wouldn't need a single thing more… ever.
She was nearly to the glass doors when the nerves hit full
She'd done it. She'd just remortgaged everything she
had— including her house—to finance a complete refurbishment
of her bakery.
She had to be crazy.
She scrambled to get outside, into some fresh air that might
hold off the rising panic attack. If she could just get to
one of the park benches lining Main Avenue she'd sit and
put her head between her knees.
She pushed frantically through the doors, the vision of a
bench swimming deliciously before her eyes. Except that
halfway there her shoulder encountered a solid wall that
took every last bit of oxygen from her lungs. The contact
sent her staggering, the portfolio sliding out of her hands
and skidding down the concrete sidewalk before coming to
rest against a half-height barrel newly filled with
petunias, lobelia, and some sort of trailing plant.
Warm, strong hands gripped her biceps, keeping her from
falling on her rump in the middle of noon foot-traffic. She
looked up, opened her mouth to speak, but instead fought to
inhale now that the wind had been completely knocked out of
her. Her mouth gaped and flapped as she fought for air to
rush it back into her lungs. And if the jolt hadn't
stolen her breath, the man attached to the hands definitely
Finally blessed oxygen rushed in and she gasped. Her head
tipped back as she looked way up into a too-familiar face.
She saw the shock and confusion firing in his hazel eyes for
just a moment, wondered if the same emotions were mirrored
in her own. It seemed as if years of memories raced between
them, though only a few seconds passed. His eyes cleared,
cooled. Setting her firmly on her feet, he let her go
briefly to retrieve her folder of papers and brought them
back to her, holding them out as she fought to calm the
hammering of her heart.
Somehow her hand slid out to take the folder from him, while
the warm, slightly rough sound of his voice sank deep into
her consciousness. His hands were gone from her arms now,
and her skin felt cold in their absence, even though it was
the first time he'd touched her in many, many years.
The moment she said it she felt the blush creeping up her
neck, hoped that her scarf camouflaged her flushed skin.
She'd been the only one ever to call him Drew. Everyone
else had called him by his full name… Andrew. Not Andy, or
any other shortened version. Drew had been saved just for
her. They both knew it. And Jen saying it now had suddenly
transported them to a place deep in the past. Somewhere she
hadn't ever wanted to go again. Self-conscious, she
raised one trembling hand to smooth the tendrils of hair
that were escaping what had been her attempt at a
sophisticated twist. When she realized what she was doing,
she dropped her hand abruptly. She didn't need to preen
for Andrew Laramie.
"Are you okay?"
She looked up into his mossy-gold eyes again, tucked the
portfolio under an arm and resisted the urge to straighten
her white sweater and matching skirt. What are you doing
here? Why are you back? How long are you staying? All
those questions raced through her mind, but she would not
ask any of them—not after the way he'd treated her the
last time he'd been home. The rebuff still stung. The
answers shouldn't matter anyway. It was a public street.
He had as much a right to be in Larch Valley as anyone. He
owned half of the Lazy L Ranch, and everyone knew it. Just
as they knew the place had been abandoned for the better
part of a year.
"I'm fine, thank you." She brushed a hand down
her skirt, simply to be doing something other than gawping
at his too-handsome face.
"You're pale. Are you feeling all right?" He
peered closer, his eyes clouded with concern.
The question erased the panicky thoughts about her bakery
and a flash of annoyance flickered through her. What right
did he have to worry about her now? None!
"I'm not one of your horses you can doctor,
Andrew." This time she made sure she used his full first
name. She adopted the most aloof expression she could and
stepped back, adjusting the strap of her bag on her
shoulder. "What are you doing here, anyway?
Shouldn't you be getting ready for the Derby or
something? I'd think the racing season'd be keeping
you mighty busy."
She knew she sounded obnoxious and wished she could take
back the words. It was petty and not her style. After all
this time she shouldn't let him rattle her.
It was no secret in Larch Valley that Andrew Laramie had
gone on to a sparkling career in veterinary medicine,
working in the racing industry south of the border. His dad,
for all their falling out, had been proud of him. He'd
said so every time she'd gone to visit him. It was a low
blow to throw it back at Andrew now, but she couldn't
seem to help it now that she was face to face with him. Just
seeing him, in the middle of town on a busy Monday
afternoon, put her on the defensive.
Maybe when he'd been home for the funeral they might
have talked, put things to rest. But he'd spurned any
sort of conversation, deliberately ignoring her when
she'd reached out to him, put her hand on his arm in
sympathy. She had only wanted to help, but he'd barely
acknowledged her presence, brushing by her after the final
prayer with only a sidelong glance. It had confirmed the
fact that she needed to stop making herself available for
him to hurt her. Once had been more than enough. She tended
to learn her lessons.
"I'm not working in Virginia any more."
That wasn't current news, and she struggled to hide her
surprise. "Greener pastures?"
His gaze landed on her, the censure in it heavy, and she
lifted her chin in response.
"The Jen I remember never copped an attitude."
"The Jen you remember was a long time ago." She said
it quickly, doubting he knew how much she'd truly loved
him back then.
His eyes softened, and he seemed almost resigned as he
agreed. "Yes, she was. I'm sorry for that."
It was as if he knew exactly what she was thinking—he'd
always had an uncanny knack for it, and the last thing she
wanted from him was understanding. Not now. What was he
sorry for? His remark? Or a whole lot more? The fact that
she wanted to know was frightening enough, and sent up a
warning siren. No. She had to get out of here.
Whatever had brought him to Larch Valley, she was sure
something more important would take him right back out
again. He was probably out to sell the ranch. Goodness knows
he didn't need it or want it. He never had. She'd
seen how his determination to stay away had hurt his father;
it had hurt her, knowing he had turned his back on
all of them. Now he could pocket all his lovely money and
keep on with his oh-so-important career.
"I should get back. I have work to do," she said,
aiming for polite civility. She should just go her own way
and get on with things, as she'd been doing for several
"Me too," he replied, but his gaze still held hers
trapped within it. He lifted his hand and she froze as one
long finger tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear.
Goosebumps erupted down her arms, shivering against the cool
early spring air.
Then he stood back, tucking his hands into his jeans
pockets. "I'll see you around, Jen."
He went past her, continuing west on Main Avenue, while she
was left standing in the middle of the concrete sidewalk.
She highly doubted she'd see him again when all was said
She straightened her sweater and squared her shoulders.
Today was one of those freak encounters, nothing more.
Tomorrow she'd still be here, and he'd be gone.
As she pointed her white pumps toward her bakery, a block
away, she reminded herself that leaving was what Andrew did
This time wouldn't be any different.
"Andrew. Gosh, it's good to see you!"
Andrew smiled, and it felt good. But it was impossible not
to smile at the red-haired pregnant woman coming down the
steps toward him. He gave her a hug, and then set her back.
"Damn, you look good, Luce."
"You too. And you remind me of home. Well, the old home
He laughed at her impish expression. He'd met Lucy many
years ago when he'd done some work at Trembling Oak and
she'd barely been out of high school. When he'd been
back late last fall he'd realized she was the one his
good friend Brody had e-mailed about, and that she was a
real, bona-fide princess. He'd nearly fallen off his chair.
But it was good to see she hadn't changed. And it was
great to know Brody was so happy.
"It's good to be back," he said, looking up at
the farmhouse, and he discovered he meant it.
"Come on in. Mrs. Polcyk's made a streusel cake and
there's a pot of coffee on. Brody'll be back soon,
and you can tell us about your plans."
He followed her into the house.
The first thing that greeted him was the scent, and he was
reminded not of his own house, at Lazy L, but the afternoons
he'd spent at the O'Keefes'. Molly O'Keefe
had been a hell of a baker; where Jen inherited it from, he
supposed. He'd always felt more at home there than he
had at his own place, with just his dad and his brother Noah
"Well, Andrew Laramie. If this isn't a touch of the
prodigal coming home."
He struggled not to blush as Betty Polcyk rounded the
cupboard and enfolded him in a hug.
"It's about time you got yourself back here."
"Yes'm." He'd learned long ago that no one
argued with Mrs. Polcyk.
"Sit down. I'll get you some cake and coffee.
Brody's on his way in too."
Slices of cinnamony cake were procured, along with coffee
for Andrew and a large glass of milk for the pregnant Lucy.
He'd taken his first meltworthy bite when the door
slammed and Brody came in.
Andrew rose to meet his old friend and the two shook hands.
Brody hadn't changed. Slightly older than Andrew, but
still with the ready smile Andrew remembered, still big as a
barn door, and still the kind of man who could be counted
on. Andrew hoped he could count on him now.
"Good to see you, Brody."
"You too. Good to have you back." He went to the
sink, washed his hands, and took a chair at the table as
Andrew resumed his seat. "I was nearly thinking about
making an offer on Lazy L if you hadn't shown your face
around here again. But I figured you and Noah'd have to
work it out first."
"I've bought him out."
The words hurt a little. Noah hadn't put up an argument,
and Andrew knew the cash from the sale would be a nice
addition to Noah's wages as a soldier. It was the fact
that it had had to be done that had bothered Andrew. He
hadn't been ready for the old man to go. But there was
no changing it now. The important thing was that Lazy L was his.
"Hadn't heard that part."
"Half a ranch isn't doing him much good when
he's overseas. I'm here to ask for some help."
Brody sipped his coffee while Lucy put down her fork.
"What sort of help?"
"I'm using the land to start up a rescue ranch."
Brody's cup went back to the table and Andrew met his
gaze squarely. He knew it wasn't what Brody had expected
to hear. But Andrew knew it was what he wanted to do. Needed
"There's no money in that, Andrew. How're you
going to live?"
This part, at least, was the part he'd figured out.
"What I've put by will keep things afloat. I'm
taking the front third of the barn and converting it into a
small clinic. There's no mortgage on the place, and
I'll make enough to support myself. I've got a good
reputation as a vet. I'm counting on word getting around
that I'm back in business."
"And the horses you take in… no vet bills will be a
Lucy folded her hands. "Still a lot of work. A lot of
money for upkeep. And a big change for you."