Peggy Nicholson.

Kelton's Rules






Abby could use some cheering up, so dont hurry this job, okay? I need a little time.

Huh. Old Whitey leaned over to spit his tobacco in the grass. Thought she wanted her vehicle repaired so she could lay tracks out of Trueheart. Said something about gettin to Sedona.

Things have changed, Jack muttered. Dont make me say what, old man.

What?

Great. Jack rubbed the back of his neck. WellAbby would be smart to settle here for the winter. Jack forged on, feeling as if he were trudging head down into a dust storm. Shes never built anything and she thinks shell build an adobe by the fall? Aint gonna happen.

Gals pretty spunky.

Yep, but take it from a divorce lawyer, shes smack-dab in the middle of the Divorce Crazies. Shell change her mind ten times in the next ten months. Meanwhile, till shes over this phase, Truehearts a safer, saner town to raise her son than Sedonall ever be. Last thing Abby needs is to get lost in a power vortex.

Hmm. Whitey chewed thoughtfully, then said, Sure you know which end of the branding iron youre grabbing?

Jack cocked his head. Meaning?

Meanin if anybody gets burned around here, it might not be Abby.

Dear Reader,

In this fifth story in my series about the town of Trueheart, Colorado, Abby Lake is a woman caught up in that wonderful/terrifying phase of life I call the Divorce Crazies. I hope youve never experienced it yourself, but if you have, you know its a time of extreme vulnerability and extreme creativity.

Since (through no fault of her own) her last effort at making a good life failed, Abbys determined to get it right this time for herself and her young son, Skyler. Shes changing everythingher job, her home, her attitude toward men, love and marriage. She means to grab life and happiness with both hands before they slip away.

To Abbys wary new neighbor, lawyer Jack Kelton, it seems that Abby hasnt a clue what she wantsbut shell be flying off in all four directions at once, looking for it.

Jack may have a point. I remember the first year of my own divorce: buying a handymans-special house on the East Coast one week (I wasnt that handy), then flying to California the next to learn if a man I hadnt seen for fifteen years might be The One. (He wasnt.) Darting back to my new house to buy forty of everything (paper towels! canned beans! flashlight batteries!) as if I could build a wall with all those supplies between me and the cold scary world.

And so forth for the rest of that crazy year, till at last I met someone who taught me to calm down and smile again. So here I give you Abby Lake, on her way to learning how to smile again in the town of Trueheart, Colorado. As always, hope you enjoy!

Peggy Nicholson

Keltons Rules
Peggy Nicholson

www.millsandboon.co.uk

To Ron, for all the times

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER ONE

MO-O-OM, WE SHOULD GO back! Perched on the bench seat behind his mother, Skyler smacked the Colorado road map.

Sweetie, I know I took a wrong turn, but see what a gorgeous place weve found.

Can you believe those mountains? Abby Lake took one hand off the school bus steering wheel and waved to the right where distant peaks caught the late-afternoon sun. Just wonderful, huh?

Framed in her rearview mirror, Skyler was pink-faced and scowling. He pushed his glasses up his short nose and glared straight ahead at the two-lane country road. You shouldve asked me before you turned. Im the navigator.

You and DC looked so comfy back there, I didnt have the heart to wake you. Buckled in behind her on the one bench seat remaining in the stripped-out bus, Skyler had drifted off. Hed been smiling in his sleep, hugging DC-3, the enormous white tomcat that lay cradled against his chest.

Abby hadnt seen her son smile like that in two months or more. Shed drunk in the sight, feeling like a wanderer in the desert whod stumbled upon a stream at lastand knelt to scoop cool, clear water with both hands. Because maybe that smile meant the worst was behind them. Skyler would find his happiness again. And then, please God, hed forgive her.

Stealing glimpse after glimpse in her mirror, memorizing the tender curve of her childs mouth, the shape of the cats ear and the spray of his whiskersshe planned to sketch this scene tonight, once they stoppedsomehow shed missed her road, somewhere west of Durango.

We should go back!

Its sort of difficult to turn this beast. Used to a compact car, Abby was still amazed by the huge turning radius of the ancient half-size bus. And it must be leaking power-steering fluida tight turn elicited a screeching protest that set her teeth on edge. Never shouldve bought this thing. Besides, I think were coming to a town up aheadTrueheart, if were where I hope we Where I believe we are. If so, we can angle southwest again toward Cortez. She reached behind her to pat his map someplace in the vicinity of the tiny dot with the charming name of Trueheart. So we havent lost too many miles.

I mean we should go back to New Jersey. We should go home. This is stupid. I hate this place!

Oh, Sky, sweetie, Abby murmured helplessly. Beyond the bug-spattered windshield, the road wavered and blurred. She blinked it clear again. We cant go back. They had no back to return to. The divorce settlement had given her the suburban trophy house that Steve had insisted they buy two years ago when hed left navy aviation to become a commercial pilot. But on a single income, she couldnt possibly afford to keep a five-bedroom minimansion. Didnt want it anyway.

Last week shed sold it for a profit of twenty-thousand dollars, which would be their grubstake for a fresh start. A new life out west.

A life her ten-year-old son hated already.

We could! We could be home in four days. Dads gotta be missing us.

Want to bet? With Chelsea the Super Stewardessoh, pardon me, flight attendantto fly? And a new family on the way? He hasnt spared us a thought. Of course he misses you, sweetheart. But he can come visit you anywhere theres an airport.

Theres no airport around here! Nothing but cows andand cow poop and grass. It stinks!

Also a sky like a vast, inverted bowl of blue bird feathers. Cerulean. Indigo. Turquoise at the edges. Mountains turning to blazing lumps of coal as the sun rolled down toward a jagged purple horizon. Breathtakingly beautiful country, if her son would only look. Okay, but Truehearts not where well be living, you know. Once we make it to Sedona

Ill hate that, too!

Abby sighed, reached back to touch his knee, then grimaced as he flinched away. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that he was glaring out his side window, mouth quivering. Dont cry, sweetie, oh, dont! If Id had any choice in this

Shed do it all again. Not even for Sky could she have stayed married to Steven Lake once shed realized the extent of his cheating. What a blind, trusting fool I was! She shouldve seen it coming. Any woman with two eyes in her headthe kind of woman who didnt muddle her maps and end up blithely wandering off into the wilderness with the sun going down

But Abby had never been that kind of womana woman who paid attention. She was always marveling over a pebble, or a dandelion, or a cloud, when she shouldve been turning out her husbands pockets every time he returned from a cross-country flight.

And I hate this stupid ol wreck of a bus! The radiators boiling over again. Didnt you look at the heat gauge?

Abby lookedyelpedand took a foot off the gas. Youre right! Theyd filled the radiator only this morning and also the day before around noon. The mysterious leak seemed to be gaining on them with every passing mile.

Coasting to a stopshe hadnt seen another car for ten minutes or moreAbby pulled over to the ragged shoulder of the road and blew out a breath. Wonderful Okay, wheres the water jug? Theyd used more water than gasoline, it seemed, these past two days.

Its back Skyler unbuckled himself and scrambled into the rear of the bus, which was crammed with boxes and baggage and a washing machine and all the other household essentials they couldnt leave behind. Skylers model airplanes. Abbys books and easel. DCs litter box. Uh-oh

What? Shed stopped on a long, gradual upgrade, so Abby shifted the floor lever carefully into first gear, stepped on the emergency brake pedal, then swung around. Whats the matter?

Sky held up an empty five-gallon jug. The cap came off. Your sketchbooks all wet.

Abby clenched her teeth on a groan and closed her eyes. Her sketchbook! Shed had three or four drawings in this one that she felt sure were keepers. Shed intended to mat and frame them once they reached Sedona, then use them as samples in her search for a gallery to handle her work. You couldnt have found a safer place to put the blasted jug? She managed a shaky smile. Well Okay. No big deal. Now what? Well just have to find some water. Theyd crossed a narrow creek perhaps two miles back, down at the base of this long, long slope. The road had been gradually climbing up from the plains for the last twenty miles.

Im sorry. Sky looked as crushed as she felt.

Plenty more sketches where those came from.

If wed stayed in New Jersey it never wouldve happened.

Well, we didnt! She held out her hand for the jug. We didnt, she repeated, lowering her voice. Were just going to have to make the best of where we are, kiddo. She swung open her door a cautious inch or two, checking underfoot for the cat, who also seemed bound and determined to bolt back east. Want to come along? I think there might be a stream down there. The roadside pasture also sloped gently down toward a distant line of trees.

Uh-uh.

Well, Ill lock this door then. Not that there was anyone within miles to worry about. In fact, the real concern was how theyd find someone to help them if she didnt locate water. How could a country be so big and so deserted? Not a fence, not a telephone pole, not a house in sight. Just enormous rolling slopes, rising in wave after dusty wave toward the far-off mountains. Ill be straight down there, if you change your mind.

SKYLER STOOD, staring at the ruined sketchbook, while her footsteps crunched on gravel, then faded away. Darn. Crap. Oh, booger, DC! He could have found a better place to stow the water. Should have. Had he wanted that to happen, or was he just stupid?

His dad was always telling him to pay attention. Laughing and calling him Spaceshot when he forgot to do something or when he was clumsy doing it. Sky stooped for the cat. I used to think Spaceshot was good. A name for an astronaut, maybe, or a test pilot. He still remembered how it had stung when the true meaning finally dawned on him.

Comeere, luggums. Arms filled with twenty pounds of cat, he rubbed his face through the thick white fur till a rumbling purr kicked into gear. Like a big ol DC-3 humming along, his dad used to say. Fat thing. He wandered forward to sit in the drivers seat, holding the cat in his lap as he stared out through the windshield.

At nothing. There was nothing out there that mattered. Cept her, he muttered grudgingly, turning DCs head so they both peered down the hill to where his moms yellow T-shirt bent for an instant toward the ground. Picking flowers, when she ought to be looking for water. Or maybe not. Why should he care about her when this was all her fault? If she hadnt gotten so angry at his dad, hed never, ever have left them. Hed told Skyler that. But what can a guy do? Sky muttered, echoing the breezy words hed heard so many times before.

I can drive us home where we belong.

Skyler blinked behind his thick lenses. He could hijack this stupid bus sometime, when his mom was taking a nap on the mattress in the back, as she did when she got too tired to see the road.

Drive all the way back to New Jersey, he gloated, picturing it as he ruffled DCs fur, then smoothed it again. Shed wake up andzowiethere wed be in the driveway. Home. His eyes started to water. Like we never left at all.

If only he could drive.

He leaned over the cat to examine the pedals. Three instead of two like on his dads BMW and his moms old Taurus. Which she never should have sold. Not for this hunk of junk.

And this thing had a floor-mounted stick shift. It looked a lot harder to handle than the gear shift on his dads car, which hed been studying all year, practicing in his mind. Hed planned to ask his dad if hed teach him to drive this summer.

Instead here he sat, in the middle of nowhere. Hundreds and thousands of miles from his dad, his friends at school, his bedroom and his tree house out back. So first you have to shift. He tried it and was surprised at the big levers resistance. Ooofmove, you stupid thing!

DC stood up on his lap, tail swishing in irritation. Sky hooked his left forearm around the cat to steady him. Help me out here, will you? Why wont itoh! Spaceshot. Dummy. Hed forgotten the clutch pedal. You stepped on that, then you shifted. Pedal, then hold it, thenha! The gearshift moved easily, with a soul-satisfying clunk!

Yeah! Sky shifted up, down, then over and up again, the way hed seen his mom do it. Then down again on the other side. And thats fourth gear, when were really rolling. Hey, this was easy! He shifted back to the middle.

Now we have to turn it on.

Did he dare? He stole a glance downhill, but his mom was out of sight in the trees. Shell never hear us if we run it for just a minute, he assured the cat. Resting his chin on DCs round head, he leaned forward to finger the key. She couldnt possibly hear, but still His mom didnt get mad often, but when she did

Ouch! Tired of being squashed, DC dug in his claws and slithered down from his lap. His double-wide tail slapped Skylers glasses, which as usual had slid to the end of his nose. Hey, stupid hairball, watch what youre doing!

Cat and glasses hit the floorboard at once, with a clatter and a weighty thump. If youve broken them Skys mom paid for his first pair of replacement glasses each year, then the rest came out of his allowance. This was pair number three and it was only June. Crap!

He couldnt see very well without them. He wasnt blind as a bug-eyed bat, the way that jerk Timmy Ryder at school was always telling everybody, but things got kind ofblurry when he took them off. Move over, fur brain. Shoving the cat to the left with his foot, Sky squeezed under the steering wheel and cautiously down. Where are they?

He patted under the high-set pedals. Nope. What are you doin, sitting on em? He pulled the cat up onto his knee, ignoring his warning growl. DC was too timid to bite even a mouse.

Or maybeooofkeep still! He twisted around to grope under the seat and Yeah, got em. Unbroken; for once in his life he was lucky. He jammed them on top of his head, let go of the exasperated tom and, reaching up to the dash, caught hold of something, a handle of some kind, and started wriggling up past the steering wheel.

Thock! The handle jumped in his hand. The bus quivered and groaned.

What was that?

No comment from the cat. Ears flattened to his head, DC was doing his best to exit left, wedging his plump body between the drivers seat and the side of the bus in an unsuccessful effort to reach the back. His tail lashed in frustration.

Sky grabbed the wheel to pull himself off the floorboardand it spun hard to the right. Hey! Something felt wrong. The wheel was shuddering in his grasp. Gravel rumbled under the tires. As he squirmed into the drivers seat and pulled his glasses down onto his nose, things swam into focusand streamed away. No, it was the bus that was moving, he realized, as it gave a horrible lurch.

And kept on rolling.

Backward.

Swerving with a ponderous, dreadful deliberation off the road, then down across the pasture.

CHAPTER TWO

MARYLOU WONT DO, Jack Kelton told himself, aiming his open Jeep down the road to Durango.

The baby-sitter might be five years older than his daughter, Kat, but she was three jumps behind every time. Missing Kats straight-faced jokes and veiled warnings. Failing to foresee her pranks, or knowing how to handle them once theyd been played. Worst of all, the girl was gullible, taking Kat at her word when she shouldnt. Apparently they werent teaching critical thinking in high school these days, or if they were, Marylou was failing.

And now, shoot me if shes not in love, Jack muttered, scrubbing a hand through his wind-whipped hair as the Jeep topped the hill. A fifteen-year-old in calf-love was useless! Lethally oblivious to the world and her responsibilities.

With Marylou lost in love, Kat would run wild this summer. She was probably contemplating mayhem this very moment, since shed wanted to accompany him into Durango. Shed pulled a major pout when he refused to let her go to a kickboxing movie alone while he met with an after-hours client. Right now, back in Trueheart, Marylou was probably sprawled on Jacks couch, bare feet up on the backrest, spooning the last of their chocolate-chip ice cream out of the carton as she giggled on the phone with the Love of her Life. While forgotten Kat was probably somewhere down the street, hot-wiring somebodys car. Shed pass him any second now with a whoop and a wave and an offer to drag race. Automatically he glanced in his mirror.

Nothing but empty road back there. Still, facts had to be faced. Hed have to find another sitter, and soon. Not that Trueheart had much to offer in the baby-sitting department.

The Jeep crested the next rise and Jack cocked his head. Fifty yards downslope, a bright red, sawed-off school bus was parked by the edge of the road, facing his way. Not from around here; Trueheart school buses were yellow and full-size. Jacks brows drew together as his Jeep closed the distance. Was it?

It was rolling. Backing down the road. Or, no What the devil?

As Jacks foot moved to his brake, the bus curved slowly off the shoulder and trundled out into the field. Some idiot had left it parked without shifting into first! Most likely the emergency brake had let go.

Well, so be it. Whoever the idiot was, he was about to learn his lesson the hard way. The narrow band of brush and cottonwoods at the bottom of the hill screened a twenty-foot drop-off to a nifty little trout stream where Jack sometimes fished. Once the bus had gathered momentum, it would blow right through that fragile barrier.

Hope to God the morons not directly in line below, communing with na Jacks eyes narrowed. He stomped down on the gas, then spun the wheel. The Jeep swerved off into the pasture, bucked over a hummock and roared in pursuit. There was somebody in that bus, a head bobbing above the steering wheel! Step on the brake, bozo! Or could the brakes have failed? Swearing out loud, Jack floored the accelerator.

A race between gravity and distance, speed and time. Eyes sweeping the slope below, gauging probable trajectories and possible outcomes, Jack spotted the woman. Bursting from the trees, a blur of yellow with flailing arms. Pale flapping hair, a mouth open wide in what must be a scream, though he couldnt hear her over his engines roar. Get the hell out of our way, lady! What did she think she could docatch the damn bus like a fly ball? Move it, woman!

Well, shed have to take care of herself. The Jeep closed the last few feet, bounding along drivers side to drivers side, and Jack stared up through the open windowinto a small, wide-eyed face. Jeez, a kid! Step on the brake!

I cant! His voice squeaked with panic. My cats stuck under the He swung back into the bus, yanking desperately at the gearshift.

Jack gritted his teeth at the agonized squawk of stripping gears. So much for the transmission. Step on the brake and damn the cat! Do it now!

The boy shook his head frantically. He w-w-wont move! If I could shift into

The bus mustve been doing twenty by now. Maybe a hundred yards to the treesa hundred and three to the cliff. The woman had vanished behind the bulk of the vehicle. Forget shifting, kid, and listen! Jack yelled, leaning halfway out of the Jeep. Grab the top of your wheelyeah, thats right! Now slo-owlyve-er-ry slowlyturn it toward me!

A calculated risk. If the kid panicked and swung the wheel too fast, the Jeep, running parallel, would smash into the buss left flank. Good! Thats good. Thank God he could take directions.

Now slowly. Turn another inch toward meexcellent! If the bus didnt flip, if they still had room to pull off the maneuver, the kid could steer it in a gentle curve away from the creek, gradually swinging cross-hill till the bus coasted to a halt. Gimme another inchgood!





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