Cover of the new book "Caribou Crossing "

Home on the Range:
A Caribou Crossing Romance


Excerpt from “Home on the Range”

Chapter 1

“You’re out of your frigging mind! You want me to go to a dude ranch?” Evan Kincaid glared across the table at the man who had, until two minutes earlier, been his favorite client.

“Calm down, you’re making a scene.” Gianni Vitale, a stocky, middle-aged man, flung out a hand in an extravagant gesture that encompassed the restaurant. Evan’s gaze followed the hand. At one o’clock on a Thursday, Gramercy Tavern was filled with well-dressed people: businessmen like themselves, shoppers pausing for a break, and tourists gawking at the Robert Kushner murals and elegant décor.

The atmosphere was laden with garlic and gossip, and not a single person was staring at them. Why would they? Two typical Manhattan businessmen in suits and ties?

Evan turned back to Gianni and glared again. “I am not making a scene. And no way in hell am I going to a dude ranch.”

“You’re not listening. The Crazy Horse isn’t a working ranch, it’s a resort ranch. You won’t have to play cowboy.”

A ranch was a ranch. “I won’t have to play anything because I’m not going.”

Gianni blew out air. “You’re worse than I was when Elena told me where she’d booked our holiday. But trust me, it’s great. You ride every day and you learn a lot about horses.”

“Ride? No way.” As a boy, growing up in Hicksville, he’d sworn no power in the world would get him up on a horse, and he’d stuck to that vow.

“There’s also a wonderful spa. The facilities and staff are first rate.” Gianni lowered his voice. “The food’s even better than here. You’ll have the time of your life. It’s quite upscale. Upscale rustic.” He took a sip of his dry martini.

“Upscale rustic?” Evan echoed disbelievingly. “Gianni, you don’t have a hope in hell of persuading me.” His client didn’t know Evan had grown up in ranch country and hated it.

Gianni leaned forward, both elbows on the table, and did some glaring of his own. “Evan, you’ve been my investment counselor for five years. When Addison & Carruthers first assigned you to me, I protested—”

Evan’s brows rose. “I didn’t know that.”

“It’s true. But Winston Addison told me you were a rising star, and said your style would suit me. It did. Three years ago, when you left A&C to set up your own business, I was your first client.”

It was true. When Evan’s style had diverged too far from A&C’s traditional one, he’d come to an amicable agreement with the partners. An agreement that allowed him to take a few clients with him in exchange for referring appropriate clients to A&C in the future. “I haven’t lost my memory.”

“You need reminding. I brought you millions of dollars of my own business and added more than a dozen clients to your list.”

“And I’ve done very well for you and your colleagues, despite the recession. You’ve gotten your money’s worth, and then some.” Still, a sense of obligation niggled at Evan’s conscience. There weren’t many billionaires who would have left the security of an established firm like A&C to risk their fortune with an upstart, especially in a shaky economy.

Gianni leaned even closer. “I like to think we have become more than client and counselor. Are we not friends?”

Trust Gianni to play that card. “You’re breaking my heart.” Evan knew his words lacked conviction. Gianni wasn’t exactly a buddy, but their relationship was more than a strictly business one. And that was rare for Evan. Although he’d outgrown his childhood awkwardness, sociability still didn’t come easily. Besides, there was little time for developing friendships when you were on a fast track to the peak of the business world. But who needed friends? He’d had one once, and look how that had ended up.

“And you will break my heart, Evan, if you don’t give this opportunity a fair appraisal.”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t appraise it. Just not on-site. Have this wrangler person e-mail me her financial analysis, her business plan, her projections, and I’ll give them full consideration. Though I have to say, I’m surprised. This is hardly your normal type of investment. What did you call it again? No-frills riding? What does that mean?”

“There are dude ranches where guests play cowboy, and resort ranches like the Crazy Horse, where Elena and I went. TJ Cousins wants to open a riding camp that focuses completely on horses and Western riding, with no distractions. Riding lessons every day, trail rides, horse care, communication with horses, and—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Evan broke in as an image sprang into his mind. A girl with chestnut hair pulled back in a ponytail sitting across from him in the high school cafeteria. Jess Bly. Animated, lunch forgotten, telling him her latest horse-crazy dream.

As always when he thought of Jess, he felt a flood of conflicting emotions. Predominant was a sense of loss. He felt that poignant emotion every time something major happened in his life and his first instinct—bizarrely—was to tell a girl he hadn’t seen in ten years.

Annoyance with himself and his client put an edge in his voice. “God, Gianni, this reminds me of a girl I knew when I was growing up. She and your TJ Cousins sound like two peas from the same pod. And let me tell you, the pod might well have come from outer space.”

It wasn’t fair to tar the unknown TJ with a Jess Bly brush, but this no-frills horse stuff sounded like just the kind of kooky scheme his old pal would have dreamed up. Jess had been the sweetest, kindest girl—any happiness he’d experienced in his childhood was due to her—but she’d definitely not been the most practical person.

When she was eight, she’d wanted to breed racehorses, ride them herself, and win the Triple Crown. She’d just read National Velvet. When she was ten, it was a riding school that would make its students learn both English and Western style. When she was twelve—

Oh, what did it matter? Jess Bly was a part of his past. A part he tried not to think about. He had messed up badly, in so many ways. And paid the price, all these years. He’d lost his best friend. True, he hadn’t deserved forgiveness after acting like such a shit, but all the same he’d have thought those years of childhood friendship would count for more than a cool e-mail dismissal from seventeen-year-old Jess. She’d said they should make a clean break, forget the past.

Forget? He wondered if Jess had managed to do that. For him, though he rarely thought of Caribou Crossing or his parents, it had proved impossible to forget Jess.

Gianni reached across the table and snapped his fingers, demanding Evan’s attention. “I didn’t write out a check; I came to you. The ideas are exciting, the woman is impressive, and I need you to tell me if it’s a realistic investment. I don’t need a huge return, but I want a reasonable prospect of success.”

Putting aside his guilt trip down memory lane, Evan focused on his client. “How much money are you talking?”

“Investing between three and four million, I’d guess. She already has the property. We’d want to get things started with a few cabins, a lodge, a training ring, and of course great horses. It would expand from there. Also, TJ’s idea is to have a sliding scale on the pricing, basically so guests pay what they can afford.”

Evan snorted. Oh yeah, that was as businesslike as one of Jess’s old schemes. Had Gianni left his brain back at the Crazy Horse? “As I said, have Ms. Cousins forward me the information.”

Gianni shook his head emphatically. “You have to go there.”

“That’s absurd.” Evan shoved away his unfinished black bass entrée. Delicious though it was, he’d lost his appetite.

Gianni pointed an accusing finger. “You don’t get it. And you won’t get it, not here in Manhattan. I wouldn’t have gotten it myself if Elena hadn’t dragged me to the Crazy Horse. You must talk to TJ in person and see her work with the horses. Her method draws strongly on Monty Roberts’s techniques and—”

“Spare me the details.” It was too much like talking to Jess, back when they were kids with big dreams. He remembered the hundreds of hours they’d spent together while she enthused over her horsy dreams and he expounded on how he was going to become king of the hill in the Big Apple. They had loved and supported each other. She’d been the only good thing about Hicksville. She’d been his first— Damn! Evan put the brakes on that train of thought.

“Let me get this straight,” he said. “Ms. Cousins works for the Crazy Horse and she’s soliciting guests to invest in a competing business?”

“No, no.” Gianni shook his head vigorously. “Not competing. The two operations will be complementary, like your firm and A&C. Her concept would appeal to the more serious riders. And no, she’s not soliciting guests, we just happened to get talking one day.”

Yeah, sure. After this Cousins person had Googled Gianni and figured out how rich he was.

“I’ve never asked you for a personal favor,” his client said.

Damn again. Gianni was pulling out all the stops.

“You’re overworked, Evan. You need a holiday. I’ll give you a paid one.”

Now that was complete bull. “Cynthia and I were in Paris last month and Tokyo the month before.”

“Those were work trips. Your estimable girlfriend doesn’t take real holidays. Nor do you.”

Evan shrugged. He hadn’t thought of it that way, but what Gianni said was true. Every trip was business for at least one of them and often both. Her work as a corporate finance lawyer and his as an investment counselor often took them in the same direction. In fact, they’d met at a conference in Geneva.

Yes, they usually did plan their trips with an extra day or two to shop and visit museums and galleries, but they’d never taken a true holiday.

A holiday. For a moment, the idea was tempting. Oh, not to go to some idiotic dude ranch that reminded him of his crappy childhood, but perhaps to lie on a beach in the south of France. No, what was he thinking? He’d be bored out of his mind. He thrived on work. Sure, maybe he did get the occasional stress headache, but a good workout at the fitness club dealt with that. His personal trainer had even given him a set of stretches to do at the office, to ease out the kinks.

Hell, Gianni ought to be the first person to understand that holidays had no place on the fast track to success.

“When’s the last time you had a vacation in the country?” his client asked.

“Never.” When he’d lived in Caribou Crossing, it had been anything but a vacation. “It sounds like sheer hell. Where is this Crazy Horse? Texas?”

“Canada. The interior of British Columbia. They call it the Cariboo. You fly into Williams Lake, then it’s an hour or two drive.”

Evan’s heart jerked to a stop. Caribou Crossing—Hicksville, as he’d called it—was an hour or so from Williams Lake.

Dimly he was aware of Gianni waving at their waiter, and in a moment two martinis arrived. The waiter removed Gianni’s empty glass. Evan didn’t drink alcohol in the middle of the day, but his hand reached out automatically. Caribou Crossing, damn it. Miles and miles of open countryside, horses, Jess Bly. His mother.

His hand jerked back from the martini glass. His mother—and his abusive, runaway dad—were the reason he was so careful with alcohol.

Hell! He didn’t need these memories.

And he sure as hell didn’t need a holiday. He worked hard, yes, but he wasn’t overworked or stressed out. He’d achieved his childhood dream and he relished it, building his business bigger and better—and not just making his clients more money but helping many support worthwhile charities. He and Cynthia led a jet-setting life. They had acquaintances to dine with in Paris and Rome, Hong Kong and Tokyo, London and Sydney. He lived in New York, the best city in the world, the boldest and bravest, the one place that had always drawn him, that still enthralled and impressed him on a daily basis. He was living his dream. No way was he going back to the hellhole where sheer misery had spawned that dream.

“Afraid you’ll fall off a horse?” Gianni asked with pseudoinnocence.

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Elena’s strongly in favor of the investment. She says I’m a new man since our holiday. Part of the deal with TJ is that we’d have a free cabin for a month a year, a place to unwind and to ride. To smell the roses, as they say at the Crazy Horse.”

Evan recognized a threat when he heard one. “You’re saying that if I don’t go and meet this wrangler woman and analyze her proposal, you’ll let Elena convince you to throw away several million dollars?”

Gianni grinned hugely and stretched his diamond-ringed hand across the table. “Good, you will go. Thank you, Evan, I knew you would protect my money.”

“Wait a minute.”

Gianni withdrew the hand and scowled.

“Where exactly is this place?” There’d been no Crazy Horse resort ranch anywhere near Caribou Crossing when he’d lived there.

A shrug. “I never looked at a map. What’s the difference?”

Having transformed himself into the consummate New Yorker, Evan wasn’t about to claim the Cariboo as his boyhood home. He shrugged. “Just curious.” He drew in a breath and let it out. TJ Cousins . . . There’d been a bunch of Cousinses in the Caribou Crossing area—he’d gone to school with three of them, including Dave, the basketball star and class president—but there hadn’t been a TJ. Chances were, this Crazy Horse was nowhere near Caribou Crossing. Even if it was, he’d never have to track down Jess. Or visit his mother.

Gianni really was his best client, and the closest thing he had—other than Cynthia—to a friend. He couldn’t let the man throw away millions on some crazy scheme just because his wife, a normally sane woman, had developed a temporary passion for riding horses and smelling roses. “Okay,” he said grudgingly, “you’re on.” This time he stretched his hand across the table. Gianni grasped it and pumped enthusiastically as Evan wondered what he’d gotten himself into.

“Free up your calendar for two weeks,” Gianni ordered.

Evan snorted. “Two days.”

“No, you’ll need the full time to learn all you need to know. I don’t want you going in as my investment counselor and grilling TJ. You’ll go undercover, yes? As a regular guest. Take it slowly, get a feel for her and her methods. You can’t understand the no-frills riding camp idea without understanding the context, the ambiance, the person behind it.”

Evan frowned. Much as he hated to admit it, Gianni had a valid point. The success or failure of a new venture hinged not only on the business plan, but on the person behind it. His own company was a prime example. But a few days, a week max, should be sufficient.

“Have Angelica call me for the details,” Gianni said. “Go as soon as possible, because Elena and I are anxious to get started on this, provided you approve it. The riding package starts on a Sunday, runs two weeks, and you return on a Saturday. The day after, you’ll come to our apartment for Sunday brunch, thank me for the holiday, and tell us what you think of TJ and her plans.”

Evan clenched his jaw. He wasn’t used to surrendering control.

“Oh, by the way.” His client’s dark eyes sparkled.

He studied Gianni suspiciously.

[continued at top of right column]





[con't from bottom left column]

“Take Cynthia if you want.”

Chic Cynthia, at the Crazy Horse ranch. Evan’s jaw unclenched and his laughter joined Gianni’s rich chuckle.

The two of them left the restaurant together, then parted. After a short, brisk walk, Evan arrived at his sleek, modern office. He asked his assistant, Angelica, to phone Gianni and then call the Crazy Horse to see if it was possible to make reservations for a week. With any luck, the damned place would be booked up for the rest of the summer.

Toward the end of the afternoon, Angelica clicked across his marble-tiled floor. “You’re in luck. There was a cancellation for next week at the . . . Crazy Horse.”

Evan’s lips twitched as the efficient Angelica’s own lips—colored a bizarre purple that he assumed must be the height of fashion—hesitated over the name. It was clear his assistant thought “crazy” was a fitting term to apply to him. He couldn’t wait to see Cynthia’s reaction when he told her at dinner tonight. Maybe he’d even pass along Gianni’s suggestion that she join him, just to see her horrified expression.

“I booked you for two weeks.”

“I said one.”

Angelica held up a hand. “The Crazy Horse only books in two-week blocks. You can always find an excuse for leaving early. Like fall off a horse and break a leg?” She said it straight-faced, but he thought he saw a twinkle in her eye.

“You’re a big help,” he grumbled.

“Mr. Vitale told me to bill everything to your card and he’ll reimburse you. He didn’t want anything put in his name, since you’re going undercover, as he termed it.”

She handed over a file folder. “Here’s your e-ticket and your confirmation number at the Crazy Horse. The price there is all-inclusive. At six thousand US dollars for a week, one would certainly hope so. I gather it’s a world-famous, exclusive spot. I got you a few hundred dollars in Canadian money in case you want to do some shopping, though I can’t imagine there’s much to spend money on there.” Her eyes were wide, and it wasn’t with envy.

“Nor can I.”

“The Crazy Horse e-mailed me their brochure and I printed it out for you. You should know . . .” She gave a little cough and he thought she might be stifling a giggle. It was a startling thought, because he’d never heard the all-business Angelica giggle. “Uh, with regard to clothing, you have to have . . .” She choked and this time he knew it was a giggle.

“Spit it out. This can’t get any worse, can it?”

She let the giggle go and it soared buoyantly between them. “It can,” she choked out. “Cowboy . . . boots. You . . . have to have Western . . . riding boots.” She spluttered for a few moments, then managed to say, “I’ve put together a list of stores in Manhattan that sell them.”

“Thanks, I think.” He studied her, so sleek and chic. “Have you ever been on a horse?”

“I had a boyfriend who rode in Central Park and I went along once. I broke a fingernail and came back with my clothes smelling of horse. Disgusting. How about you?”

“Not once in my life.” Yes, he’d lived ten years in horse country, and his best friend was the horse lover to end all horse lovers, but he’d refused to ever mount a horse. Partly, it was knowing that he, such an unathletic boy, would embarrass himself in front of Jess, but he’d also had a gut-level instinct that to ride would be to surrender. To accept that his life—his utterly miserable life in Hicksville—was all he’d ever know.

Riding. Damn it, this time he’d have to do it. But he was a big boy, and he could deal with it. He sure as hell wasn’t going to turn into a country boy, and even if he didn’t prove to be a skilled rider, there’d be no Jess to taunt him. Besides, he was no longer a klutz, and he would do his homework.

He was about to send Angelica to the bookstore when his brain flashed back to Jess teasing the shit out of him for trying to learn how to skate from a book.

“All right,” he said. “I guess I’m really going.” He glanced at his watch. Almost five o’clock. “First priority for tomorrow is to clear the calendar for next Monday and Tuesday. Maybe Wednesday. That should give me enough time to learn what I need to about Gianni’s proposed investment.” He rose and pulled on his suit jacket.

“You’re leaving now?” She looked stunned.

No wonder. He rarely left the office before seven, after putting in at least a thirteen-hour day. “Going shopping. Have to find those cowboy boots,” he said wryly.

She gave a hoot and departed in giggles.

Evan shook his head. Would wonders never cease? First, Gianni had persuaded him to do something that, had he been asked this morning, he would have said was inconceivable. Then, the ultrapoised Angelica had been reduced to giggles. And finally, Evan Kincaid, the quintessential New Yorker, was heading out to buy cowboy boots and a how-to book on riding horses.

On the way past Angelica’s desk, he asked, “Did anyone mention the nearest town?”

“Let me think. Something to do with deer. Or maybe moose. No, it was caribou. Caribou Crossing. Quaint, isn’t it?”

“Caribou Crossing.” The name had been on his mind ever since Gianni had started talking about horses, yet now it hit him like a sucker punch.

“Is something wrong?”

“No,” he muttered, thinking things couldn’t possibly go any more wrong. Then he squared his shoulders. So the Crazy Horse was near Caribou Crossing. As he’d resolved earlier, there was no reason in the world for him to lay eyes on his mother. Or Jess Bly.

Not unless he wanted to. Which he most certainly did not.

Chapter 2

It was his butt Jess Cousins noticed first.

Monday morning, and the latest group of resort virgins bustled and chattered in her barnyard like a flock of nervous magpies. Amid them this one guy stood still, his back toward her as he studied the row of horses tethered to one of the hitching rails. She took in pleasant impressions of height, ranginess, breadth of shoulder, length of leg, and a truly outstanding butt. Many of the Crazy Horse’s guests were pudgy and a few were scrawny. It was rare to see an admirable physique and even rarer to see a world-class—

Jess snorted under her breath. What the heck was she doing, ogling a guest’s backside? Was it just because she hadn’t had sex in so long she’d almost forgotten what it was like, or was the backside in question really so outstanding? She was dragging her gaze away from the denim-clad object of her admiration just as the man turned around.

“Ev!” His name caught in her throat, emerging as a squeak. He’d changed a lot in ten years, but she recognized him instantly. Despite his pole-axed expression.

He strode toward her as his mouth formed her own name.

Her muscles locked her in place as he approached, and all her brain could do was repeat, Evan, my God, it’s Evan.

She pulled herself together to demand, “What are you doing here?” just as he spoke the identical words.

He grasped her by one shoulder and herded her away from the group. Dimly she was aware of the milling guests, but it was hard to care about anything other than the fact that this man stood in front of her, his hand burning through the cotton of her embroidered Western shirt. Her heart thudded so fast she could barely breathe and her mind was a jumble of thoughts. For the life of her she couldn’t pull a single one free and form a coherent sentence.

He gazed down at his hand as if only just realizing where it rested. Then he yanked it back as quickly as if he’d reached out to stroke a bull in a bucking chute.

Evan was at the Crazy Horse. Had he discovered her long-held secret? Was he here because he’d found out about Robin? The possibility stole what breath she had left. Finally, she managed to draw air and force out a few cautious words. “I work here.”

“Oh.” He seemed to be weighing the concept more carefully than it deserved. “They said the head wrangler would meet us here. TJ Cousins. That’s . . . not you?”

Her breathing settled a little. He really did seem surprised to see her. No, he couldn’t have known about Robin. And she mustn’t say anything to give away her secret.

She nodded. “I don’t use Jessica for my work. People kept making Man from Snowy River comments and it drove me nuts.”

He shrugged, clearly baffled. “Huh?”

Hadn’t she made him watch the movie, way back then? No, she must’ve had the sense to know Mr. City-bound wouldn’t be interested in a film about horses and cowboys in the Australian Outback. He wouldn’t know that the free-spirited, horse-loving heroine was called Jessica.

Now that she thought about it, they hadn’t watched many movies. When he wasn’t studying and she wasn’t outside with the horses, the two of them spent most of their time talking. Sharing dreams. The dreams they’d always known would take them in opposite directions.

And now he was back on her turf. Looking like a man rather than a boy. A striking man rather than a cute but nerdy kid. A kid she’d believed to be the love of her life, yet known she had to give up.

Robin’s father.

Jess had broken her heart over Evan Kincaid. How dare he come back?

He’d run away, and then—finally—e-mailed a couple of times from Cornell to apologize. E-mailed, didn’t even have the decency to phone! She didn’t remember the exact words she’d typed with such pain and deliberation, but she knew the essence of the message she’d sent: get lost and stay lost.

“Cousins,” he said on a note of revelation. “Dave? You married Dave?”

She lifted her chin. “Yup.” No need to tell him they’d since divorced.

“You were friends in high school, hanging around with that in crowd”—he said it as disparagingly now as he had back then—“but I didn’t think the two of you—” He broke off suddenly and she knew what he was thinking. She and Dave had been friends, but not romantically, or sexually, inclined.

Evan was remembering the night at Zephyr Lake—when she’d had sex with him, not Dave. Even after all these years, she could still read his mind.

No, of course she couldn’t, nor did she want to. But the lake was so obvious. A pink elephant in her barnyard. Would they both tiptoe around it, pretending it didn’t exist?

He cleared his throat. “I never connected TJ with Jessica.”

Yup, Evan was going to tiptoe. Well, that was fine by her because her tongue was hog-tied, bound up good and tight by strands of conflicting emotions. Her bruised heart urged her to rail at him for rejecting her all those years ago, yet if she was going to be fair about it, she had rejected him, too. She’d refused his overture of continued, long-distance friendship. How could she write chatty letters to him while nursing a broken heart and holding back the huge secret of Robin’s existence?

She’d done the right thing, and yet she’d missed him so badly. Even now, a part of her mushy heart yearned to envelope him in a gigantic hug.

But the strongest emotion, by far, was maternal instinct. She had to protect Robin, the product of that night at Zephyr Lake. Jesus, this is Robin’s biological father. She’d thought she’d never see him again, but here he stood, strong and solid and very male.

Again, fear caught her breath. Why was he here? Evan, who had his own investment counseling firm in New York City—and yes, she’d Googled him. Evan, who’d sworn to never set foot in Hicksville again. Had he somehow found out? Come to claim his daughter?

But why on earth would he do that? He’d never wanted children.

She couldn’t stand the uncertainty. “What in holy blue blazes are you doing here?” she demanded, her voice one notch south of a holler.

He shot a glance toward the dudes who chattered nervously as they eyed the horses tied to the hitching rails. She lowered her voice. “You’re not a guest?”

He shrugged uncomfortably. “Actually, yes.”

“Ac-tu-al-ly,” Jess parroted the word, exaggerating the cultivated accent he’d acquired since she last saw him, “you’re the last person I’d have expected. Back in school you couldn’t wait to shake the country dust from—” She paused, snagged on another memory. This one triggered a surge of affection, a response as unexpected as it was undeniable. “From those beautifully polished leather loafers you hitchhiked into Williams Lake to buy, back in grade twelve.”

Suddenly, the mess of unresolved issues flew out of her mind. All she could think of, in that moment, was that this was Ev, the guy who’d for years been her best buddy.

She smiled freely and, after his mouth fell open in surprise, he smiled back. “Good Lord, Jess, it’s actually you. You look”—he eyed her up and down—“just great.”

She read sincerity in his blue-green eyes. And something else, something that made her blood fizz.

Now came the scary memories. The memory of feelings she’d never experienced in the same way with any other man. Not even her ex-husband, Dave. She moistened lips that had gone dry. “You look good, too.”

The package-creased tan denim shirt and well-worn designer jeans hugged a fine body. She’d always found him appealing—a scrawny kid with beautiful eyes and ears too big for his head—but now he was a total hottie. His face was craggy and his eyes were devastating. To her chagrin she remembered those eyes perfectly, the mingled blues and greens of brook water flowing over gray stones, flecked by sparkles of golden sun.

She closed her own eyes briefly, then looked again. He was beyond handsome; he was compelling. And sexy.

An image flashed into her mind. Evan’s gangly young body rising above hers, the moon on his shoulder, as they made love on the lakeshore. She sucked in her breath and, afraid he could read her face, dropped her gaze.

Happily, the new image brought her down to earth. Literally. She saw exquisitely tooled chestnut leather Tony Lama boots. She cleared her throat. “They’re not loafers, but I see you haven’t lost your touch with the shoe polish. Hate to tell you, but the dust is going to stick. And we have far worse than dust to dish up at the Crazy Horse.” She tilted her head and dared to look at his face again.

He glanced down to where his feet were planted in a mixture of dirt and manure. His grimace of distaste was so typically Ev that she gave a snort of laughter.

“Okay, city slicker, enough of the chitchat. I have work to do.” Jess strode toward the other guests, trusting that habit would carry her through.

Evan Kincaid. At the Crazy Horse. This couldn’t really be happening, could it?

He hadn’t mentioned Robin. If he’d come about her, surely he’d have said something by now.

Jess had made the decision not to tell him when she found out that those few rushed minutes at the lake, combined with her too old condom, had resulted in pregnancy. A baby would ruin all his long-held dreams. It wasn’t fair to do that to him, and besides, it wasn’t like things could have worked out for her and Ev. He’d have spent his life resenting her and their child for tying him to the place he’d scornfully called Hicksville.

Her own dreams were more flexible, and could easily, joyfully, bend to incorporate a child. Her and Evan’s child.

No, not Evan’s. Robin’s father—the man who’d raised and loved her—was Dave Cousins.

Evan had never wanted kids. He wouldn’t have wanted to know about Robin all those years ago, and he didn’t deserve her. Not then, and not now. Nor could Jess have her daughter learn that her mom and dad had been lying to her ever since she was born.