Caridad Pi?eiro is a USA TODAY and New York Times bestselling author of twenty novels. In 2007, a year marked by six releases, Caridad was selected as the 2007 Golden Apple Author of the Year by the New York City Romance Writers. Caridad’s novels have been lauded as the Best Short Contemporary Romance of 2001 in the NJ Romance Writers Golden Leaf Contest, Top Fantasy Books of 2005 and 2006 by CATALINA magazine and Top Nocturne of 2006 by Cataromance. Caridad has appeared on various television shows, such as the FOX News Early Edition in New York, and articles featuring her novels have been published in several leading newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Daily News, Latina and the Star Ledger. For more information on Caridad, please visit www.caridad.com or www.thecallingvampirenovels.com.
This book is dedicated to the men and women of the military and their families, without whom we could not have the liberties that make our daily lives possible.
Macy Ward had never imagined that on her wedding day she would be running out of the church instead of walking down the aisle.
But just over a week earlier, she had been drawn out of the church by the sharp crack of gunshots and the harsh squeal of tires followed by the familiar sound of her fianc?’s voice shouting for someone to get his police cruiser.
Her fianc?, Jericho Yates, the town sheriff and her lifelong friend.
“You ready for this, T.J.?”
He pulled out one earbud of his iPod. Tinny, too loud music blared from it. “Did you want something?” T.J. asked.
It was impossible to miss the sullen tones of his voice or the angry set of his jaw.
She had seen a similar irritated expression on the face of T.J.’s biological father, Fisher Yates, as he stood in his Army dress uniform outside the church with his brother—her fianc?. Fisher had looked far more attractive than he should have. As she had raced out into the midst of the bedlam occurring on the steps of the chapel, her gaze had connected with Fisher’s stony glare for just a few seconds.
A few seconds too long.
When she had urged Jericho to go handle the incident and that they could postpone the wedding, she had seen the change in Fisher’s gaze.
She wasn’t sure if it had been relief at first. But the emotion that followed and lingered far longer had been more dangerous.
Now, there was no relief in T.J.’s hard glare. Just anger.
“Are you ready for this?” she repeated calmly, shooting him a glance from the corner of her eye as she drove to the center of town.
The loose black T-shirt T.J. wore barely shifted with his indifferent shrug. “Do I have any choice?”
Choice? Did anyone really have many choices in life? she thought, recalling how she would have chosen not to get pregnant by Fisher. Or lose her husband, Tim, to cancer. Or have a loving and respectful son turn into a troublesome seventeen-year-old hellion.
“You most certainly have choices, T.J. You could have failed your math class or gone to those tutoring sessions. You could have done time in juvie instead of community service. And now—”
“I’ll have to stay out of trouble by working at the ranch since you decided not to marry Jericho.”
It had been Jericho who had persuaded a judge to spare T.J. a juvenile record. The incident in question had resulted in rolls and rolls of toilet paper all over an old teacher’s prized landscaped lawn and a mangled mailbox that had needed to be replaced.
“After postponing the wedding, I realized that I was getting married for all the wrong reasons. So, I chose not to go ahead with the wedding and I’m glad that I did. It gave Jericho the chance to find someone he truly loves,” she said, clasping and unclasping her hands on the wheel as she pulled into a spot in front of the post office.
“I told you before that I don’t need another dad,” he said, but his words were followed by another shrug as T.J.’s head dropped down. “Not that Jericho isn’t a nice guy. He’s just not my dad.”
Macy killed the engine, cradled her son’s chin and applied gentle pressure to urge his head upward. “I know you miss him. I do, too. It’s been six long years without him, but he wouldn’t want you to still be unhappy.”
“And you think working at the ranch with some gnarly surfer dude from California will make me happy?” He jerked away from her touch and wagged one hand in the familiar hang loose surfer sign.
She dropped her hands into her lap and shook her head, biting back tears and her own anger. As a recreational therapist, she understood the kinds of emotions T.J. was venting with his aggressive behavior. Knew how to try to get him to open up about his feelings.
But as a mother, the attitude was frustrating.
“Jewel tells me Joe is a great kid and he’s your age. Maybe you’ll find that you have something in common.”
Without waiting for his reply, she grabbed her purse and rushed out of the car, crossed the street and made a beeline for the door to Miss Sue’s. She had promised her boss, Jewel Mayfair, that she would stop by the restaurant to pick up some of its famous sticky buns for the kids currently residing at the Hopechest Ranch.
When she reached the door, however, she realized he was there.
Decorated soldier, Jericho’s older brother and unknown to him or anyone else in town, T.J.’s biological father. Only her husband, Tim, had known, and he had kept the secret to his grave.
The morning that had started out so-so due to T.J.’s moodiness just went to bad. She would have no choice but to acknowledge Fisher on her way to the take-out counter in the back of the restaurant. Especially since he looked up and noticed her standing there. His green-eyed gaze narrowed as he did so and his full lips tightened into a grim line.
He really should loosen up and smile some more, she thought, recalling the Fisher of her youth who had always had a grin ready for her, Tim and Jericho.
Although she couldn’t blame him for his seeming reticence around her. She had done her best to avoid him during the entire time leading up to the wedding. Had somehow handled being around him during all the last-minute preparations, being polite but indifferent whenever he was around. It was the only way to protect herself against the emotions which lingered about Fisher.
In the week or so since she and Jericho had parted ways, it had been easier since she hadn’t seen Fisher around town and knew it was just a matter of time before he was back on duty and her secret would be safe again.
She ignored the niggle of guilt that Fisher didn’t know about T.J. Or that as a soldier, he risked his life with each mission and might not ever know that he had a son. Over the years she had told herself it had been the right decision to make not just for herself, but for Fisher as well. Jericho had told her more than once over the years how happy his older brother was in the Army. How it had been the perfect choice for him.
As much as the guilt weighed heavily on her at times, she could not risk any more problems with her son by revealing such a truth now. T.J. had experienced enough upset lately and he was the single most important thing in her life. She would do anything to protect him. To see him smile once again.
Which included staying away from Fisher Yates no matter how much she wanted to make things right between them.
Fisher was just finishing up a plate of Miss Sue’s famous buckwheat pancakes when he looked up and glimpsed Macy Ward at the door to the caf?.
She seemed to hesitate for a moment when she spied him and he wondered why.
Did she feel guilty about avoiding him the whole time he’d been home or was her contriteness all about her change of mind at the altar where she had left his brother? Not that it had been the wrong thing to do. From the moment his kid brother Jericho had told him about his decision to marry Macy, Fisher had believed it was a mistake.
Not that he was any kind of expert on marriage, having avoided it throughout his thirty-seven years of life, but it struck him as wrong to be in a loveless marriage. Jericho should have known that given the experience of his own parents.
Their alcoholic mother had walked out on the Yates men when he was nine and old enough to realize that if there had been any love between his mother and father, drink had driven it away a long time before.
Macy finally pushed through the door and as she passed him, she dipped her head in greeting and said, “Mornin’.”
“Mornin’,” he replied, and glanced surreptitiously at her as she passed.
At thirty-five years of age, Macy Ward was a fine-looking woman. Trim but with curves in all the right places.
Fisher remembered those curves well. Remembered the strength and tenderness in her toned arms and legs as she had held him. Remembered the passion of their one night which was just another reason why he had known it was wrong for his brother and Macy to marry.
He couldn’t imagine being married to a woman like Macy and having the relationship be platonic. Hell, if it were him, he’d have her in bed at every conceivable moment.
Well, at every moment that he could given the presence of her seventeen-year-old son T.J.
Which made him wonder where the boy was until he peered through the windows of Miss Sue’s and spotted him sitting in Macy’s car. His mop of nearly-black hair, much darker than Macy’s light brown, hung down in front of his face, obscuring anything above his tight-lipped mouth.
Fisher wondered if T.J. was angry about the aborted wedding. To hear Jericho talk, the teenager had been none too happy with the announcement, but to hear his father talk, there wasn’t much that T.J. had been happy with since T.J.’s father’s death from cancer six years earlier.
Not that he blamed the boy. It had taken him a long time to get over his own mother’s abandonment. Some might say he never had given his wandering life as a soldier and his inability to commit to any woman.
From behind him he heard the soft scuff of boots across the gleaming tile floor and almost instinctively knew it was Macy on her way back. Funny in how only just a couple of weeks he could identify her step and the smell of her.
She always smelled like roses.
But then again, observing such things was a necessary part of his military training. An essential skill for keeping his men alive.
His men, he thought and picked up the mug of steaming coffee, sweet with fresh cream from one of the small local ranches. In a couple of weeks, he would either be heading back for another tour of duty in the Middle East or accepting an assignment back in the States as an instructor at West Point.
Although he understood the prestige of being assigned to the military academy, he wasn’t sure he was up for settling down in one place.
Since the day eighteen years ago when Macy had walked down the aisle with Tim, he had become a traveling man and he liked it that way. No ties or connections other than to his dad, younger brother and his men. People he could count on, he thought as the door closed on Macy’s firm butt encased in soft faded denim.
A butt his hands itched to touch along with assorted other parts of her.
With a mumbled curse, he took a sip of the coffee, wincing at its heat. Reminded himself that he was only in town for a short period of time.
Too little time to waste wondering over someone who probably hadn’t given him a second thought in nearly twenty years.
What made the drive to the Hopechest Ranch better wasn’t just that it was shorter, Macy thought.
She loved the look of the open countryside and how it grew even more empty the farther they got away from Esperanza. The exact opposite of how it had been in the many years that she had made the drive to the San Antonio hospital where she had once worked.
Out here in the rugged Texas countryside, she experienced a sense of balance and homecoming. When Jewel Mayfair and the California side of the Colton family had bought the acres adjacent to the Bar None in order to open the Hopechest Ranch, Macy had decided she had wanted to work there. Luckily, she and Jewel had hit it off during her interview.
It wasn’t just that they had similar ideas about dealing with the children at the ranch or that tragedy had touched both their lives. They were both no-nonsense rational women with a strong sense of family, honor and responsibility.
They had bonded immediately and their friendship had grown over the months of working together, so much so that she had asked Jewel to be her maid of honor.
Because she was a friend and understood her all too well, Jewel hadn’t pressed her since the day she had canceled the wedding, aware of Macy’s concerns about marrying Jericho and her turmoil over the actions of her son.
Macy was grateful for that as well as Jewel’s offer to hire T.J. to work during the summer months at the ranch.
At seventeen, he was too old for after school programs, not to mention that for the many years she had worked in San Antonio, she had felt guilty about having him in such programs. Before Tim’s death, T.J. used to go home and spend time with his father, who had been a teacher at one of the local schools.
She pulled up in front of the Spanish-style ranch house, which was the main building at the Hopechest Ranch. The Coltons had spared no expense in building the sprawling ranch house that rose up out of the flat Texas plains. Attention to detail was evident in every element of the house from the carefully maintained landscaping to the ornate hand-carved wooden double doors at the entrance.
Macy was well aware, however, that the Hopechest Ranch wasn’t special because of the money the Coltons lavished on the house and grounds. It was the love the Coltons put into what they did with the kids within. She mumbled a small prayer that the summer spent here might help her work a change in T.J.’s attitude.
She parked off to one side of the driveway, shut off the engine and they both stepped out of the car.
One of the dark wooden doors opened immediately.
Ana Morales stepped outside beneath the covered portico by the doors, her rounded belly seeming even larger today than it had the day before. The beautiful young Mexican woman laid a hand on one of the columns of the portico as she waited for them.
Ana had taken refuge at the Hopechest Ranch like many of the others within, although the main thrust of the program at the ranch involved working with troubled children. Despite that, the young woman had been a welcome addition, possessing infinite patience with the younger children.
Sticky bun box in hand, Macy smiled and embraced Ana when she reached the door. “How are you today, amiga?”
“Just fine, Macy,” Ana said, her expressive brown eyes welcoming. She shot a look over Macy’s shoulder at T.J. “This is your son, no?”
She gestured to him. “T.J., meet Ms. Morales.”
“Ana, por favor,” she quickly corrected. “He’s very handsome and strong.”
“Miss Ana,” T.J. said, removing his hat and ducking his head down in embarrassment.
As they stepped within the foyer of the ranch, the noises of activity filtered in from the great rooms near the back of the ranch house and drew them to the large family room/-kitchen area. In the bright open space, half a dozen children of various ages and ethnicities moved back and forth between the kitchen, where Jewel and one of the Hopechest Ranch’s housekeepers were busy serving up family-style platters of breakfast offerings.
Ana immediately went to their assistance as did Macy, walking to the counter and grabbing a large plate for the sticky buns. Motioning with her head, she said, “Go grab yourself a spot at the table, T.J.”
As the children noted that the food was being put out, they shifted to the large table between the family room and kitchen and soon only a few spots were free at the table.
T.J. hovered nervously beyond, uncertain.
Macy was about to urge her son to sit again when a handsome young man entered the room—Joe, she assumed. He had just arrived at the ranch and she hadn’t had a chance to meet him yet.
Almost as tall as T.J., he had the same lanky build, but his hair was a shade darker. His hair was stylishly cut short around his ears, but longer up top framing bright blue eyes that inquisitively shifted over the many occupants of the room.
He walked over to stand beside T.J. and nodded his head, earning a return bop of his head from T.J.
“I’m Joe,” he said and held out his hand.
“Just call me T.J.,” her son answered and shook the other teen’s hand.
“Looks good,” Joe said and gestured to the food on the table. “Dude, I’m hungry. How about you?”
The loud growl from T.J.’s stomach was all the answer needed and Joe nudged him with his shoulder. “Come on, T.J. If you wait too long, the rugrats will get all the good stuff.”
A small smile actually cracked T.J.’s lips before he followed Joe to the table. He hesitated again for a moment as Joe sat, leaving just one empty chair beside a dark-haired teen girl.
The teen, Sara Engelheit, a pretty sixteen-year-old who had come to the ranch recently, looked up shyly at T.J., who mumbled something beneath his breath, but then took the seat.
Macy released the breath she had been holding all that time and as her gaze connected with Jewel’s she noted the calm look on her boss’s face. With a quick incline of her head, it was as if Jewel was saying, “I told you not to worry.”
Jewel walked to the kids’ table, excused herself and snagged one of the sticky buns, earning a raucous round of warnings from the children about eating something healthy.
Grinning, Jewel said, “I promise I’ll go get some fresh juice and fruit.”
Heeding the admonishments of the children, she, Ana and the housekeeper helped themselves to the eggs, oatmeal and other more nutritious offerings and then joined Jewel at a small caf? bar at one side of the great space, a routine they did every day.
Some of the children had rebelled at the routine at first, but they soon fell into the security of the routine. Happiness filled her as she noticed the easy camaraderie of the children around the table.
While they ate, the women discussed the day’s schedule, reviewing what each of them would do as they split the children into age– and need-defined groups before reuniting them all during the day for meals.
When they were done, they turned their attention to their charges. Ana took the younger children to play at the swing set beyond the pool so they could avoid the later heat of the Texas summer day. Macy took the tweens and teens out to the corrals that housed an assortment of small livestock and some chickens. They loved the animals and learning to care for them helped her reinforce patterns of responsibility and teamwork.
As the groups were established, Jewel faced T.J. and Joe who were the eldest of the children present. “I’m going to ask the two of you to go with me today. You’re both new to the ranch and I’d like to show you around. Give you an idea of the chores I expect you to do.”
The boys stood side by side, nodded almost in unison, but as Jewel turned away for a moment, Macy noted the look that passed between them as if to say, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”
In that moment, she knew a bond had been established and only hoped that it would be one for the better given Jewel’s accolades about Joe.
“Hurry up, Mom. I promised Joe I’d get there early so I can show him those XBOX cheat codes before breakfast,” T.J. said and raced out of their house. The door slammed noisily behind him and normally she would have cautioned him about being more careful, but she didn’t have the heart to do it. He seemed so eager to get to the ranch.
Rushing, she hopped on one booted foot, trying to step into the other boot while slipping on her jacket at the same time. Nearly pitching backward onto her ass, she grappled for the deacon’s bench by the front door and chuckled at her own foolishness.
She was just so excited to finally see her son starting to lose some of his surliness. He actually looked forward to something.
She finished dressing with less haste and minutes later, they were on their way to the ranch, T.J. sitting beside her with his iPod running. Unlike his slouched stance of a week ago, he almost leaned forward, as if to urge them to move more quickly toward the ranch.
The countryside flashed beside them as they left the edge of town, the wide open meadows filled with the whites of wild plums, the maroon and yellow of Mexican hat and mountain pink wildflowers. Ahead of them a cloudless sky the color of Texas bluebonnets seemed to go on forever.