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Caribou Crossing Romance #8
Zebra
October 2016
On Sale: September 27, 2016
Featuring: Maribeth Scott; Mo Kincaid
384 pages
ISBN: 1420140280
EAN: 9781420140286
Kindle: B01A4ANVKQ
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It’s Christmas in the cozy Western town of Caribou Crossing, the season for homecoming, forgiveness, and— just maybe—the gift of a fresh start…

As the holidays approach, the air is filled with the festive sounds of bells chiming and carolers singing. Maribeth Scott loves Christmas, but she’s pretty sure that after years of waiting, Santa isn’t finally going to gift her with Mr. Right. In fact, the only thing she truly wants for Christmas is a baby to love. At thirty-nine, she’s determined to become a mother and she will make it happen, even if she has to do it on her own.

When Mo Kincaid returns to the rustic town after almost twenty years away, he’s seeking redemption from his checkered past. The last thing on his mind is romance, and he’s certain he doesn’t deserve it. But now there’s irresistible Maribeth, showing him the true spirit of Christmas and winning his heart. For the first time in Mo’s life, the future looks bright. Only one thing stands between them: Maribeth’s deep desire for a child and Mo's conviction that he's too flawed to be a father. Is his world-weary heart ready to take the ultimate leap of faith?

Excerpt

Outside the window of the bus, Mo Kincaid saw a sign with a stylized caribou and the message WELCOME TO CARIBOU CROSSING. It was a fancier sign than the faded one he had walked past when he left almost twenty years ago. Seemed the town had changed. Well, so had he.

He figured he’d be about as welcome here as a dead car battery in the middle of a mid-January snowstorm, but here he was all the same. Compelled, driven, maybe obsessed. Selfish or honorable? Hell if he knew.

Unable to sit still now, he rose, grabbed the battered backpack that contained all his worldly goods, and made his way up front. “Can you let me off here?” he asked the stocky, middle-aged female driver.

“Don’t want to go all the way downtown?”

“No, ma’am.” Not quite yet. He’d left Caribou Crossing on foot, his thumb out, hoping for a ride. Somehow it felt right to reenter town striding along the dusty shoulder of the road, one purposeful step at a time.

“It’s against the rules to make an unscheduled stop.” She cocked a bushy brown eyebrow, waiting to see if he’d try to persuade her.

He gave her the lazy smile that women seemed to like. “Aw now, what’s the fun in always following the rules?” He’d never had much time for rules. When he was younger, there’d been plenty of women willing to break theirs for him, and he guessed not much had changed because the driver’s foot shifted over to the brake.

She grinned, the mirth in it lending her face an unexpected beauty. “Good point, mister.” With a wink, she added, “Promise you won’t tell on me.”

“I surely won’t. Much obliged.” He tipped his head to her and went down the steps.

When both feet were planted on the ground, he stood there as the driver waved and drove away. The bus disappeared and still Mo stood, alone on a nondescript country road in the middle of British Columbia, wondering if he was a damn fool. He could cross the narrow two lanes, stick out his thumb. No one would know that he’d almost come to town, but had turned around before getting anywhere near his ex-wife or his son.

Mo would know, and he’d beat himself up for it. He’d already debated this trip for a good two years before quitting a decent job in Regina, shoving his belongings in his pack, and heading to the bus depot. Real men were supposed to be decisive, but then real men didn’t let booze get the best of them; they controlled their anger; they didn’t hit women or kids. It had been a very long time since he’d done any of those bad things, but they still weighed on his conscience. The doing, and the weighing, those were the reasons he would not cross that road. He couldn’t change the past, but he could, at long last, stop running from it and try to make amends.

He buttoned his heavy denim jacket against the chilly, early November air, hoisted his pack, and set out along the broad shoulder of the road into town. A sullen gray sky threatened snow, but so far the ground was clear. Beyond a wooden fence lay ranch land scattered with grazing cattle. After a passing glance, Mo’s focus wasn’t on the scenery but on his thoughts.

He’d never liked Caribou Crossing. Never liked any of the dusty dots on the map that he and Brooke and Evan had lived in back in the old days. But then he hadn’t liked much of anything. He’d been too damned pissed off at the world and at how his life had turned out.

He had fumed every step of the way out of town until he’d hit the highway and a trucker picked him up. It was one thing to skip town as a matter of choice. But when the police had showed up at his and Brooke’s door that day, he’d figured he had no choice but to leave.

Mo hated the man he’d been back then. An asshole who, when he was pissed off, got drunk and riled up. There were no excuses for the things he’d done. It didn’t matter that his young, pretty wife drank too much herself and ragged on him for ruining her life. It didn’t matter that she spent much of her time either partying herself senseless at the Gold Nugget Saloon, or holed up in bed with the covers over her head, or engaged in screaming matches with him.

Whatever the folks around him did, a man was responsible for his own actions. Way too late in life, Mo had come to that realization.

So now here he was, dragging his sorry ass back to the town his wife and kid had called Hicksville, to apologize. Much too little, much too late, and they would probably—and deservedly—want to plant a boot square on his backside and kick him straight back out of town.

If they did, maybe he’d go. But maybe he wouldn’t. He used to walk away when the going got tough. But taking responsibility meant not taking the easy way out.

When the compulsion had hit him to reconnect with Brooke and Evan, he’d wondered if he would even be able to locate them. Caribou Crossing was the only place he’d known to start, and the online Caribou Crossing Gazette had given him the surprising news that both were still in town.

Brooke was married again, to a man named Jake Brannon. When Mo’d seen the guy’s occupation, he’d done a double take. Brannon was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police detachment commander for Caribou Crossing. Did that mean Brooke had stopped drinking and causing a ruckus?

As for Evan, the boy had been smart as a whip and always insisted he was going to go to some fancy college and build a successful career in a high-powered place like New York City. He’d had the dreams, the smarts, the drive, yet now he was a small-town investment counselor. Poor kid; having parents like Mo and Brooke had probably doomed him.

Traffic had increased enough—meaning three or four cars and trucks in succession—to make Mo refocus on his surroundings. He’d reached the outskirts of town. A nicely maintained barn, paddock, and hitching rails belonged to a business called Westward Ho! It advertised trail rides and horse boarding both long term and short. It seemed Caribou Crossing was still all about horses.

Him, he was better with machines than with animals. Not that he didn’t like animals. It was just easier to understand machinery and to fix whatever went wrong. And when it came to people . . . Well, it was ironic that he could repair anything with an engine, but had almost destroyed the lives of the two people he cared about the most.

In an odd counterpoint to his thoughts, a medium-sized light brown animal ran around a corner and headed straight for him. At first he thought it was a fox, but when it pulled up a couple of feet short of him, he saw it was a dog with a broad, wedge-shaped head. It didn’t bare its teeth in a threat nor wag its tail, just stood there watching him.

A dark-haired girl, late teens maybe, burst around the same corner, and then slowed when she saw the dog. Panting for breath, she approached slowly. Above the collar of a puffy green jacket, her cheeks were pink from exertion. “There you are,” she said to the animal.

It edged a foot closer to Mo, making him wonder if the creature had been abused. God knew, Mo had reason to recognize that kind of wariness.

The girl stood back a few feet, tugging a striped toque more securely down over her shoulder-length hair. “I’m from the animal shelter,” she told Mo, “and he’s our resident escape artist.”

“He was abused?”

“We don’t think so. There were no physical signs of it. He’d been well looked after, he’s definitely been trained, and we found him with his leash tied to the railing by the shelter’s door. We figure he was abandoned because he wasn’t the kind of pet the owner wanted.”

Mo glanced again at the dog, which was staring up at him with its ears cocked forward. The whitish face and chest contrasted nicely with the pale reddish-brown coat. The dog’s body was lean and fit, and it had a bushy, longish tail. For some reason, Mo felt defensive on the animal’s behalf. “What’s wrong with him? He looks fine to me.”

“Want to adopt him?” she asked promptly.

He grinned at her. “Nice try. No, thanks. But seriously, why wouldn’t someone want him?”

“He’s a New Guinea singing dog.” The girl inched closer to the animal. “The first one any of us had ever seen. We had to look him up. They’re called singing dogs because they have a unique kind of howl. They’re a lot like the Australian dingo. A wild dog, though the ones that are bred in captivity can be trained.” She glanced at Mo, her expression earnest. “Like, a wild dog would naturally prey on cats, but Caruso’s been trained to leave them alone. All the same, singers aren’t your typical pet dog. They’re, like, total free spirits. Independent. More like cats. If someone wants a dog that fawns all over them, a singing dog isn’t right for them.”

Mo was liking the creature more and more.

The dog had moved to sit on his left, about ten inches from his well-worn work boot. Mo squatted. “Hey, Caruso. I’ve never heard a dog sing. Want to give me a demonstration?”

As he spoke, the girl moved closer. While the dog gazed at Mo, not opening its mouth, she clipped the leash to its collar. Caruso shot both of them a dirty look. Mo tried not to feel guilty.

“Come on, Caruso,” the girl said. “It’s time to go home.”

Home. An animal shelter. Well, at least the creature would have food and be warm and dry. Seemed it didn’t want anything more than that—like affection—anyway. Mo and Caruso did have a lot in common.

“You sure you don’t want to adopt him?” the girl tried again.

Mo shook his head. “I’m a wanderer.”

“So’s Caruso. You’re perfect for each other.”

“Nope. Not happening. I’ve got enough on my plate.”

As she led the dog away, it cast a glance at Mo over its shoulder. Not begging, not hopeful, not even blaming this time. Just a glance.

Mo resumed his own walk, knowing exactly where he was headed. Thanks to the Internet, he knew that Hank Hennessey still ran his vehicle and farm equipment repair shop, and it was still the only one in town. Hank would be getting on now, in his mid-sixties. He must have an assistant or two. Likely he didn’t need Mo’s help—and wouldn’t take him back even if he did—but what the hell, a guy had to start somewhere.

As he covered the few blocks, Mo noted changes. When he’d lived here, the town had a used-up feel. Way back in the 1860s, the gold rush had made it a boomtown. After a few years, the gold ran out and the place almost became a ghost town, but a few ranchers kept it going and it slowly grew into a little community. Back in Mo’s day, it was a backwoods off the main highway that meandered the interior of British Columbia in a rough vertical line.

Since then, Caribou Crossing had obviously gone through a revival. Even on a chilly, gray Monday afternoon, people bustled around looking cheerful. Businesses and homes were spruced up and old buildings had been restored. There were picturesque touches like bright awnings, planters full of bronze and yellow chrysanthemums, and stylized wire-frame animals that he figured were supposed to be caribou.

Hennessey Auto Repair, when he reached it, looked much the same. There wasn’t a lot you could do to make an automotive repair shop look picturesque. As usual, the parking area held a motley assortment of cars, trucks, and farm equipment. One of the doors to the service bays was partially open. The whirr of a drill sounded from inside, competing with Johnny Cash on the radio singing “Folsom Prison Blues.” Nope, not much had changed here.

Mo followed the whine of the drill to find a stocky, overall-clad back bent over a workbench. No one else appeared to be around. The drill shut off. Johnny Cash finished up the song, wishing for a train whistle to rid him of his blues.

Mo said, “Mr. Hennessey?”

The man turned, shoving protective goggles up over thin gray hair. “Yeah?”

“Wondered if—”

“Mo Kincaid?” Hank asked, stepping toward him and narrowing his eyes. “That really you?”

“You recognize me?” He’d worked for Hank for not much more than a year and it had been a long time ago. But Mo’s looks were distinctive, his blue-green eyes a contrast to his brownish skin and black hair. His birth name was Mohinder McKeen, the first part coming from his South Asian mother and the second from his Irish-American dad.

“You were a good mechanic.” The shorter man studied Mo’s face.

“You fired me.” After Mo showed up late for work, hungover, one too many times.

I’m a businessman.”

“I know.” Hank had been a fair employer and a decent man. While Mo had faced some small-town racism, there’d never been a hint of that from Hank. “And that means you don’t likely want to give me another chance,” Mo continued. He’d known this was a long shot, but he’d worked out what he wanted to say to this man.

“You’re looking for a job?” Hank asked disbelievingly.

“I am. I used to be a good mechanic, and I’m better now. And I’m a changed man, Mr. Hennessey. I can’t promise I’ll stay for long because my plans are, uh, a little uncertain. But as long as I’m in town, I’ll work hard and I’ll show up on time. You don’t have to pay me much, only enough to cover rent and groceries.” Mo had saved money over the years, and this was less about earning a salary than about his desire to keep regular work hours and do something useful with his time.

The older man’s blue eyes were faded, but still piercing as he kept them on Mo’s face.

Mo went on. “I used to have a drinking problem, but that’s a long ways in the past.” At one point, he’d gone to some A.A. meetings. He’d realized he wasn’t an alcoholic, but at those meetings he’d figured out that he was a bitter, angry man who was weak enough to seek solace in alcohol. He’d seen that booze never offered a solution; as with the alcoholics, drinking made his problems worse. Blaming fate or other people wasn’t constructive, and he’d managed to let go of his anger and make peace with the world he lived in. He’d also decided that, even if he wasn’t an alcoholic, it was safest to stay away from booze. “I haven’t had a drink in years. For the last five years, I managed an auto repair business in Regina. I can give you a phone number and you can check with them.”

“Uh-huh. Well, I just fired an assistant last month. Idiot couldn’t be bothered with diagnostics, just threw parts at the problem.” Hank’s gaze remained steady on Mo’s face. “You say your plans are uncertain. Mind sharing those plans?”

Mo swallowed. He wasn’t a guy who opened up to anyone about his personal shit. But it was a fair question, given how he was asking Hank to take a chance on him. “I hope to see my ex-wife and my son. I know I can’t make things right, but I owe them an apology.”

“Yeah, you do. But they’ve built good lives for themselves. What if they don’t want to see you?”

And there it was. The worry that kept Mo awake at night.

Was he here for Brooke and Evan, as the honorable, responsible thing to do, or was he being selfish? He kept telling himself he had to own up to his sins, offer a sincere apology, and see if there was any way he could make amends. But he had no right to mess up their lives just because he wanted to make peace with himself and feel a little less of a shit. “I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. Maybe this is a bad idea.”

“But?”

“But for the past two or three years, I’ve had this compulsion. I can’t ignore it any longer.”

“Your gut talking to you,” Hank said.

More like his conscience, but he’d said enough already.

“My gut talks to me,” the other man went on. “Now it’s telling me to hire you.” He held out his hand. “Don’t make me regret listening to it.”



Start Reading HOLIDAY IN YOUR HEART Now

A Caribou Crossing Romance



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