Man from montana, p.1

Man From Montana, page 1

 part  #17 of  Single Father Series

 

Man From Montana
 


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Man From Montana


  “Are you busy tonight?”

  “Thanks,” Kara said, “but really, I don’t go to bars.” Not anymore.

  “So you said. But it’s not like it’s a rowdy honky-tonk—well, not from six to eight, anyway.” Derrick smiled. “I think the wildest person in the dinner crowd is usually Lily Tate. She loves the all-you-can-eat ribs, and if the cook runs out, she gets hostile.”

  Kara laughed. Lily Tate was a regular customer at the bank, still feisty at seventy-eight. “Well, when you put it like that…I suppose I could come for a little while.”

  “Great.”

  Kara reached to set her glass on the table, and Derrick’s gaze fell on her wedding band.

  He looked as if someone had knocked the air out of him.

  “That is,” he added, “if your husband won’t mind.”

  Dear Reader,

  Where would I be without you? I truly appreciate each and every one of you who reads the books I write. Oftentimes the characters I create pull me into the story so deeply, I feel as though they’re real people. This was definitely the case with Kara and Derrick.

  As a huge fan of country music, I had a lot of fun writing a hero who plays the guitar and sings country love songs. And the fact that he’s just an average guy next door made me fall in love with Derrick. (I hope you will, too!) Of course, Kara is exactly the sort of person I’d like to have for a best friend, especially since she loves horses and dogs.

  Friendship is all Kara can afford when Derrick first knocks on her door. But she’s soon caught up in an inner battle—trying to move forward but afraid to let go of her past. Derrick faces a similar dilemma except, like a lot of men, he hides from his problems. He soon finds out that “ignore it and it’ll go away” doesn’t apply here.

  I hope you enjoy Derrick and Kara’s story as they travel a rocky road in their search for happiness.

  Please come visit my Web pages at smrw.org or superauthors.com or e-mail me at BrendaMott@hotmail.com. I love hearing from my readers.

  Brenda Mott

  MAN FROM MONTANA

  Brenda Mott

  ABOUT THE AUTHOR

  When Brenda isn’t writing or rescuing animals—she has about thirty dogs at any given time—she enjoys curling up with a good book (naturally!), riding her horses or walking the German shepherds along the riverbank. Brenda can trace her family roots back to the Cherokees who walked the Trail of Tears, and her ranch, deep in the Tennessee woods, is located on part of what used to be the Cherokee Nation.

  Books by Brenda Mott

  HARLEQUIN SUPERROMANCE

  1037—SARAH’S LEGACY

  1127—COWGIRL, SAY YES

  1211—THE NEW BABY

  1257—THE CHOSEN CHILD

  1286—TO PROTECT HIS OWN

  This book is dedicated to my Cherokee family,

  especially my dad’s great-great-grandma Dancer,

  who was brave enough and tough enough to walk from

  the Eastern Cherokee Nation all the way to Oklahoma.

  *Nv-wa-do-hi-ya-dv, e-ni-si. Peace, Grandmother.

  We got ten acres back.

  CONTENTS

  PROLOGUE

  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

  EPILOGUE

  PROLOGUE

  Summer 1993

  DERRICK WAS IN THE MOOD TO PLAY. He pulled his ’68 Gran Torino to a halt at the only stoplight in town. Beside him, Nick Taylor smirked and revved the engine of his Chevelle.

  “Hey, loser!” Nick challenged through the car’s open window. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”

  From the Chevelle’s passenger seat, Jason Fremont sneered at him. “Your Torino sucks, Mertz, you drop-out hick!”

  Nick and Jason had graduated last year and gone on to college, while he’d stayed right here in Sage Bend, Montana. Being the father of a two-year-old and holding down a full-time job didn’t leave much time for anything else.

  But tonight Derrick felt like the boy he used to be—the boy he sometimes wished he still was. Just a guy out celebrating his nineteenth birthday. Even if Shelly had tried to ruin it by dropping Connor off on his doorstep unannounced. It wasn’t his weekend to take care of their son. He had planned to party with his friends, and she’d known that.

  Derrick glanced into the back seat where his son sat strapped into the car seat. The little guy loved riding in the Gran Torino. They’d make their own fun.

  The thud against his car door made Derrick’s head snap around. He saw raw egg running down the side of the Torino and choked back a curse.

  Nick and Jason howled with laughter, then took off with a squeal of tires as the light turned green.

  Assholes!

  Derrick put the Torino in gear. “What do you think, Connor? Want to show those jerks what for?”

  “What for!” Connor replied, his dimpled cheeks reflected in the rearview mirror as he giggled.

  Derrick let out the clutch, and the Gran Torino leapt forward like a big cat on the run. He’d gotten the car from his grandfather, and while it didn’t look like much on the outside, he and Grandpa Mertz had made everything under the hood purr.

  No way could that piece of crap Chevelle outrun him.

  Rapidly shifting gears, he caught up with Nick and Jason, passing them by a half length as they sped away from town out onto the county road. Country music blared through his stereo speakers—a song about fast cars and faster women—as Derrick watched his speedometer needle arc higher.

  “Yeah!” He let out a whoop and shifted into high gear. The Torino’s engine no longer purred—it roared.

  Ahead, the paved road curved and narrowed down to dirt and gravel. Derrick gripped the wheel, prepared for the rough transition. Nick’s Chevelle edged up beside him on the curve, crowding him as Nick tried to pass.

  Derrick floored it. “Eat my dust!”

  The Torino gave what he asked, leaping ahead as they came out of the curve. Derrick whooped again and glanced in his rearview mirror. Nick had dropped behind, and Derrick could see him cursing. He wasn’t so smart now.

  Derrick felt on top of the world.

  Not somebody’s father.

  Not somebody’s meal ticket.

  Just a kid in a fast car.

  The Charolais bull came out of nowhere, its off-white coat blending into the gray dusk. It stopped in the middle of the road and turned its head and, for a moment, Derrick looked right into the animal’s eyes.

  “Crap!” He jerked the wheel.

  With a spray of dust and gravel, the Torino skidded onto the shoulder of the road, missing the bull by inches. The car fishtailed, and Derrick cranked the wheel in a desperate attempt to regain control. The right rear tire slid, then the front end whipped around—too far. And everything seemed to move in slow motion.

  Grass and rock scraped the undercarriage. The fender struck a wooden post as the Torino rocketed across the shallow ditch, through a barbed wire fence. And rolled down the incline of the cow pasture.

  Derrick couldn’t get his bearings. Couldn’t even tell which end was up. His head smacked the steering wheel, and his vision swam, then went black.

  He awoke to silence. Disoriented.

  Where was he? He blinked, then looked around as he remembered.
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  Nick’s Chevelle was nowhere in sight. He and Jason had taken off, leaving Derrick in the middle of a pasture? Amazingly, the Torino had landed upright after rolling.

  His prized possession—the car—had meant so much to him. But suddenly it meant nothing at all as the significance of the silence hit him.

  “Connor?”

  His heart leapt in his chest as he twisted around to look into the back.

  Connor sat slumped in the twisted safety seat, a streak of blood darkening his brown curls. Glass from the shattered windshield lay everywhere. It covered Connor’s T-shirt, his jeans….

  Dear God! Derrick fumbled with his seat belt. How could he have been so stupid? The buckle gave, and he clambered over the seat to reach his little boy.

  “Connor? Hey, buddy.” Hands shaking, he touched his son’s neck and felt the faint flutter of a pulse. “Conner, wake up. Please?” He muttered a prayer.

  What had he done?

  He wanted to pull his son into his lap. But should he move him? Why the hell wasn’t anybody coming down the road?

  Frantically, he looked up. He thought he heard an approaching car…. Relief coursed through him when he saw the minivan. Derrick pushed against the door of the car, but it was caved in—jammed shut.

  “Help me!” He beat it with his fist, glass shards cutting his hand. “Somebody help me—help my son!”

  It took him a moment to hear the man. The Good Samaritan who’d rushed from the minivan. “Are you okay, kid?”

  “Yeah—I—” He looked at Connor.

  “I called 911.”

  Three numbers that had meant little to Derrick before now.

  Three numbers that held his only hope that Connor would be all right.

  He stared at Connor and prayed.

  CHAPTER ONE

  May 2005

  KARA WOKE UP IN THE GRIP of a nightmare. Heart racing, she sat up in bed, covered in sweat. She switched on the bedside lamp as she looked at the clock. 3:00 a.m. She pushed her damp hair away from her eyes and swung her feet to the floor. Ever watchful, Lady looked up at Kara with intelligent brown eyes.

  “Hey, Lady. Good girl.” She stroked the collie’s ruff, taking comfort in her presence. In the kitchen, she poured a glass of water and leaned against the sink while she drank. Would the nightmares never stop?

  In her wildest imagination, Kara never would have seen herself as a widow at thirty. In her nightmares, she relived over and over again the knock on her door.

  Every night it was the same. Evan’s best friend and construction partner stood on the porch. Tom looked at her with such agony, she knew something awful had happened before he even spoke. Evan was never coming home again.

  Kara forced herself to go back to bed. But she left the lamp on and tuned the radio to her favorite country station. Grateful it was Saturday, which meant the bank was closed and she didn’t have to work, she slept fitfully. Sunlight woke her the second time. Streaming through the window, it gave the false impression everything was right and wonderful. Like a thousand other times in the past eight months, Kara only wanted to pull the drapes, crawl back in bed and sleep.

  But she got up. She had to. Having Lady helped. The dog depended on her for everything. Kara let her out, then fed her.

  She had quickly learned that exercise was one of the best ways to help lift herself out of depression. So after a shower and a light breakfast, she phoned Danita. No answer. Odd. Weather permitting, Danita rode with her almost every Saturday, even when it wasn’t a Ride Away weekend. No matter; she’d stop at her house on her way to the stable. It was the warmest day this May so far, and she wasn’t about to waste a moment of it.

  From the spare bedroom that served as her tack room, Kara retrieved her saddle and carried it outside. She swung it into the back of the ’78 Ford pickup that had been Evan’s pride and joy, feeling his presence the way she always did…in everything he’d touched…. Lady tagged at her heels, waiting eagerly for Kara to open the passenger door.

  “You wanna ride shotgun, hey, girl?” Kara laughed and let the collie in.

  As she neared Danita’s house on the corner, Kara spotted her best friend in the backyard, by the barbecue grill. She waved, but Danita didn’t respond; didn’t even seem to see her. Kara rounded the corner and parked in the driveway.

  “Hey, you,” she called as she opened the backyard gate. “What’s up?” Then Danita turned and Kara realized her eyes were red-rimmed, her expression furious.

  “I’m having a ritual burning, that’s what.” She flung lighter fluid in a wild arc, soaking a pile of photographs and the torn remains of an album, then lit a match. Flames shot up with a whoosh.

  Kara gasped. “Danita—my God, those are your wedding photos! What are you doing?” She laid a hand on her friend’s arm.

  “I’m burning every last trace of that cheating bastard out of my life, that’s what,” Danita said with a sniff. She tossed another stack of photos onto the fire.

  “What?” She couldn’t have heard right. Childhood sweethearts, Danita and Phillip had been happily married for twenty-two years. They had a grown daughter…a beautiful home. But then, she knew all too well that change and tragedy struck without warning. Kara tugged on Danita’s arm. “Come sit down and tell me what happened.”

  The older woman allowed herself to be led to the patio table, where the two sat on her cushioned, wrought-iron chairs. “I caught him red-handed,” Danita said without preamble. “I came home from work early last night because I wasn’t feeling well. And there he was—in our bed, damn it! With one of his clients. Guess he took the massage therapy thing to a whole new level.” Danita’s dark eyes flooded and she blinked back tears, then blew her nose into a tissue. “Happy frickin’ anniversary to me, huh?” She sniffed loudly. “We were supposed to go out to dinner this weekend to celebrate. How could that bastard do this?” She slammed her fist onto the table, causing the terra-cotta flowerpot to jump on its plate.

  Kara tried not to let her mouth gape. “I don’t even know what to say. My God! You should have called me. You could’ve stayed the night at my place.” She shook her head. “I never, ever would’ve thought Phillip would cheat on you.”

  “That makes two of us.” Danita honked into the tissue again. “What a fool I was. All those late evenings at work and the hang-up calls…I didn’t think a thing about them. How stupid could I be?”

  “You’re not stupid.” Kara squeezed Danita’s hand. “You’re a loving, trusting wife, and Phillip ought to be horsewhipped. As a matter of fact, I’ll do it for you. Where is the slimeball?”

  Danita managed a small laugh. “I kicked his ass to the curb. He’s probably with the bimbo as we speak. The puta!”

  Kara opened her mouth to add a snappy comment, but froze. “Oh, hell! Your porch—it’s on fire!”

  “What?” Danita spun in her chair, then stood so fast it tipped over. “Oh my God!”

  The barbecue grill stood a short distance from the old-fashioned, shingle-roofed porch, and the breeze had caught the flames, sending them skyward. From there, they must’ve enveloped a hanging wicker flower basket suspended from the porch beam before the beam itself caught fire.

  Kara dived for the water faucet, turning the handle on full blast as Danita pointed the hose at the porch. But the charcoal fluid must’ve splashed the porch. The accelerant gave the fire enough of a boost to quickly climb the beam toward the shingles. And like that, the roof was on fire.

  “Call 911!” Danita shouted.

  Kara was already scrambling for the cell phone in her purse.

  The volunteer fire department arrived within minutes. Siren blaring, the old-but-still-reliable truck ground to a halt at the curb. Kara stood out of the way with Danita, and watched the men battle the flames. Local police officers arrived to help keep the crowding neighbors back. And because there generally wasn’t a lot of excitement in Sage Bend, population eight hundred seventy-five, it took five officers arriving in three police cars to do t
he job.

  The fire chief, Shawn Rutherford, came over to speak with Danita and Kara, and take down a report of what had happened. Tall, with thick hair that was more black than silver, Shawn had the sexiest dark eyes Kara had ever seen. And those eyes seemed fastened on Danita.

  When he walked away, Kara nudged Danita in the ribs. “Hey, I think he likes you.” She grinned, wanting to take her friend’s mind off her troubles. “He couldn’t take his eyes off you.”

  “Don’t be ridiculous,” Danita scoffed. “He was only looking at me because we were talking.”

  “Mmm-hmm. He talked to me, too, but he didn’t look at me like that.”

  “After what my swine of a husband did, a man is the last person I want near me—ever again.” Danita clutched her hair with both hands and stared at the smoldering porch roof. “Argh! Thank you, Phillip, for turning me into an arsonist!”

  Kara draped her arm around her friend’s shoulders. “When Phillip sees you out on the town with a hot fireman on your arm, he’ll wish he’d never cheated on you.”

  Danita snorted. “Sorry to disappoint you, girlfriend, but Chief Rutherford stands a better chance of putting out the fires of Hades than he does of getting me out on a date.” She crossed her arms. “And may Phillip rot in hell while he tries.”

 
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