Haylee Dennis had never run from a problem in her life—before now. She knew what she was running from. She just didn’t know what she was running to. Or how rural Wyoming had become the destination for a city girl to start over. Or hide out, which was what her younger sister had accused her of doing.
Regardless, there she was, sitting next to her aunt Paula as her aunt drove her SUV through the large puddles left by that morning’s soaking rain, down a long gravel drive on the very slim chance she’d find a job on some stranger’s ranch, of all places. Since she had nothing—no job, no home, no husband, no money, nothing—why not?
Strange how everything could come crashing down, how her world could change so dramatically in one happenstance moment, and how her sense of who she was could be so irretrievably shredded.
One benefit from the whole fiasco was that it was much easier to take risks now that she had nothing left to lose, but it was also much more dangerous to fail.
“So where’s the wife?” Haylee asked.
“As far as I know, he didn’t marry the mother. He’s never said a word about her either.” Aunt Paula drove onto a patch of dry grass, shifted to park, and shut off the motor. “And I didn’t ask. You let me do the talking. He’s not the most approachable son of a gun, but deep down he’s a good man. Just takes more digging to find it.”
Her aunt Paula was a take-charge individual, as were all the Flannery women, including Haylee’s mom.
“I’ll take your word for it.” As long as he didn’t lie, cover up, or manipulate. Those sins had recently risen to the top of her bad-guy list. “But how do you know he’ll be here?”
“Men have to eat lunch. If we are going to catch him, it would be now.”
Aunt Paula, dressed in her uniform of denim and chambray, hopped out of the car in one quick movement. For an older heavyset woman, she was pretty nimble.
Haylee emerged from the passenger side, her digital single-lens reflex camera hanging from the strap around her neck. She crinkled her nose at the smell of manure, which salted the freshly washed air. It was a ranch, after all.
She surveyed the small white-framed house with a swing set in the side yard, the weathered barn before them, and the beat-up truck parked haphazardly nearby. Acres of grassed plains rolled beyond to the gray shadows of distant mountains stretching to touch the thin clouds that striped the blue sky.
Though the grounds looked well tended with neat fence lines and a decent layer of gravel marking the drive, none of it looked particularly prosperous.
Well, that could also mean he wasn’t doing anything he shouldn’t be doing. A thought that, until recently, would have never crossed her mind.
The setting certainly looked authentic. A real working ranch stripped of romanticism.
She snapped a few pictures, careful to get the framing right and to adjust for the bright sunlight heating the air. Stepping beside her aunt, Haylee’s white sandals slipped on the muddied footpath.
“There he is.” Aunt Paula pointed to a shirtless figure in the shadow of the barn, with his back to them.
A tall, slender male with broad shoulders and muscled arms was dousing water on a beautiful chestnut-colored horse with a black tail and mane. He paid particular attention to the horse’s legs.
He reached for the faucet, laid the hose down, and picked up the black Stetson sitting on the fence. Haylee’s mouth went dry as the bare-chested cowboy, with dirt-spattered jeans that hugged lean thighs, boots caked with mud, and a muscled chest that he’d clearly gotten from honest work instead of a gym membership, emerged from the shadows.
Lordy. This was her aunt’s neighbor? The man who was supposed to hire her? The man she’d be working for? She brushed her sweaty palms down the front of her white capris.
With his weathered, ruggedly handsome face shadowed by the brim of his hat, he could have starred in an Old West movie. All that was missing was a gun at his side…at least she hoped it was missing, considering the way he was frowning. A barking border collie followed the rancher, apparently eager to round up the intruders. But one word from the man and the barking stopped. Focused on their unexpected company, bare-chested cowboy and excited dog continued toward them without breaking stride.
She was sorely tempted to raise her camera and start snapping, but her future depended on making a good impression, and she was well aware that some people didn’t like to have their pictures taken.
Aunt Paula waved her fleshy arm, as if he hadn’t already spotted them. He pushed up the brim of his hat, and even from a distance, she could see the frown deepen on a handsome face that sported a strong jawline, slightly long nose, and narrowed eyes.
Her aunt had failed to mention that her neighbor was smoking hot.
Not that it should matter. The shock of the last few months would take a long time to wear off. Trust was something she’d never give away so easily again, and without trust there was no relationship. Roy, her ex-husband, may have destroyed her ability to trust anyone ever again. And the irony was, he hadn’t cheated on her, nor was another woman involved—things that usually led to the dissolution of a marriage.
“Bet you’re surprised to see me.” Aunt Paula clearly didn’t care if he was or not.
In unison the man and dog stopped a few feet from Aunt Paula. The dog promptly sat down, as if he’d been given some silent signal. The hot cowboy nodded his greeting. “Mrs. Johnson.” His gaze strayed to Haylee. It was direct and unsparing, as if he was sizing her up…and finding her lacking.
At five foot two she was used to being overlooked and underestimated.
“This is my niece, Haylee Dennis.”
It had taken Haylee two years to get used to her married name, and now she would have to get used to hearing her maiden name again. Her throat constricted. She had taken her marriage vows seriously…until she couldn’t. The man she’d said those vows to was not the same man she’d divorced.
“Ma’am.” The cowboy touched the brim of his hat, drawing her attention away from his chest (had she been gawking?) to a pair of intense hazel eyes flecked with gold. For some reason hazel was not an eye color she associated with a man who looked like he’d stepped out of the pages of American Cowboy. His eyes should have been a deep brown to go with the thick dark hair that escaped the band of his hat when he pushed it up. Or gray to go with his cool demeanor.
And that demeanor, along with those attractive muscles, was giving her second thoughts.
“We are hoping Haylee will live at our house until we sell the place, while we head out to New Mexico. There’s a house come up for rent down there in a community where we have friends, and we want to grab it.”
“You’re selling?” By his flummoxed expression, he clearly hadn’t known, yet Aunt Paula had placed her house and five acres of land on the market three months ago. That it hadn’t sold was likely due, in Haylee’s humble opinion, to the small size of the two-bedroom cabin, the large barn in need of repair, and the homestead’s remote location. A location that suited her needs at the moment.
Aunt Paula placed her hands on her hips. “I told you we were selling months ago.”
His eyebrows arched, as if he couldn’t quite reconcile that statement. “Sorry to see you go.” Despite the cool reception, his remark seemed sincere.
“Mr. J just can’t take another Wyoming winter, what with his arthritis. It’s acting up even now. Haylee needs a place to stay. We need to move.” Aunt Paula glanced Haylee’s way.
Haylee had been working to rebuild her freelance freight-auditing business, but with only one client, and that client brand new, she needed some sort of steady income. Though she was staying with her aunt rent-free, she still needed utilities, gas, food, and general necessities. Her personal savings was small, and she hadn’t asked for anything from her ex-husband, which neither her family nor friends could understand. But how could she take Roy’s money and still look herself in the mirror?
“Hope you know what you’re in for.” His drawl came over as more of a growl, like the dog sitting patiently at his side had spoken for him. “Winters are pretty brutal.”
“I’ve spent several years in Denver already.” And she was originally from Chicago, where winters weren’t exactly mild.
“Uh-huh,” he said, dismissing her and shifting his gaze back to her aunt.
Haylee’s stomach dipped. This wasn’t going to work. For some reason he didn’t seem to like her, and if he didn’t like her, he wasn’t going to pay her to care for his child even if he was desperate, like her aunt had said. Haylee would only have two options: move in with her friend in Cheyenne, though she was likely allergic to Jenna’s cat, or move back to her parents in Chicago, the thought of which caused an ache in the pit of her stomach.
“Mr. J has her all fixed up. Had the generator repaired. She’ll be fine.” Aunt Paula positively beamed. “And we are hoping the place will sell long before winter.”
Haylee was having a hard time keeping her eyes on his handsome face and not looking at the parts he’d bared to the sun. Was this how men felt when they met an attractive woman in a bikini? She’d never been sympathetic with men who ogled women below the neck…until now.
“What can I help you ladies with today?” The smile he forced looked more like a grimace. “That camera around your neck for something?” He nodded toward Haylee.
“Just a hobby. I’m taking pictures of Aunt Paula’s place and the surrounding area to put in an album for her.” Haylee knew how quickly things could change, and she thought her aunt would appreciate a memory book of the way things had been when she lived on Cottonwood Road.
“Is Delanie here?” Aunt Paula looked around as if the child would pop out of thin air.
“She’s at school.”
“Summer’s coming though. Have you thought about what you’re going to do now that her sitter, Camille, is gone?”
“Her preschool has a camp program. It’s a half-hour drive but…” His voice trailed off.
“We’ll, that’s why we’re here.”
He didn’t say anything, just stared at Paula, with an expression of someone waiting for the dentist to pull his bad tooth.
Her aunt had made it sound like he needed help after the housekeeper he’d hired had quit, ostensibly to care for a sick relative, but Aunt Paula was sure it had something to do with the long drive to get out there and had predicted the woman wouldn’t be back. Being down the road, albeit over a mile down the road, meant that even during the winter months, if she made it that long, Haylee would be within easy reach. And according to Aunt Paula, who had been well aware the child went to school, there would still be plenty of daylight when the little girl would need watching. The fact the child would be going to school or camp for the better part of the day fit well with Haylee’s plans.
“Haylee is looking for part-time work. Thought she’d be able to care for Delanie after school, like Camille did. She’s developing her own business. Something on the internet, but right now she’s looking to pick up some extra money until it gets off the ground. And she’d be right down the road.”
The gaze he swung to Haylee froze her in place, as if a blast of arctic air had enveloped her. A beat passed, causing anxiety to rise along with her blood pressure.
“Her preschool is working out fine,” he said, crossing his arms over his spectacularly bare chest.
For the first time since she and her aunt had discussed the plan, her aunt looked worried. It was as important to Aunt Paula as it was to her that this work out, but seeing who she’d be working for, Haylee knew it wasn’t going to. What was that western saying? No sense beating a dead horse.
“That’s great that she enjoys school. It was very nice meeting you.” Haylee turned on her heel to leave, but her foot stuck in the mud, and she wobbled. Before she knew it, her butt met the damp hard surface of the ground. Mud splattered on her white capri pants, her navy top, her hair, her bare legs and arms, and the camera. Startled from her fall, she sat there in a puddle of mud.
Her aunt’s laughter filled the air as Haylee felt a wet tongue on her cheek and looked into a pair of dark sympathetic doggie eyes. Haylee couldn’t fight the chuckles bubbling in her throat, so she sat covered in mud and petted the soft coat of her new fur friend and let laughter consume her. Life had been so hard lately that being covered in mud seemed as good a reason as any to let go. So much for making a good impression.
But her laughter ceased as strong hands reached under her arms and suddenly she was lifted up and onto her mud-covered feet as if she was nothing more than a bag of feathers. She turned to face her gallant knight.
Trace’s grin was broad, and his hazel eyes sparkled in the sun’s golden light, as if he was actually seeing her, Haylee Dennis, instead of some generic version of irritation. His features, seemingly carved from rock, softened when he smiled, making him seem approachable and even more handsome. She felt a twinge in the area of her heart.
“You okay?” he asked, his grin still wide.
“Fine. My ego is a little bruised though.”
His mouth crooked up, and for that split second, Haylee felt a connection.
Her aunt bustled over. “You know that drive to and from camp is killing you. Haylee could help there. And who watches Delanie when you get back? Taking her out in the pastures with you may be all right in June, but not when you have to harvest hay or move the herd.” Apparently Aunt Paula was not going to let a positive moment go to waste.
He broke the connection between them and shifted his attention from Haylee to her aunt. “Delanie enjoys spending time around the ranch.”
“So you can’t use any help, Trace Martin?” Aunt Paula demanded.
He shifted his weight from one foot to another. His serious countenance had returned, but he didn’t utter an answer.
“Thank you for your time,” Haylee cut in. Any more and her aunt would sound like she was begging.
“Sorry.” His look was sympathetic.
Haylee didn’t need sympathy—she needed a job. One with enough flexibility to allow her to build her client list, and this had seemed perfect. Considering how much Haylee loved children, if she could get paid to chauffeur Delanie to and from school and watch the child for the few hours after camp, it would have been ideal. Haylee would have most of the morning and afternoon to work on developing her business, and Trace would have someone to watch his daughter when he was still busy with the ranch. Alas, it was not to be.
Even though he didn’t know her, it was clear he didn’t like something about her and wasn’t interested enough to find out more.
While Aunt Paula said goodbye, Haylee patted the head of the dog (at least he seemed to like her). Nothing more to say, she turned, this time with more care, and headed for her aunt’s SUV, brushing what mud she could off her body and clothes.
Unfortunately, she didn’t want either of her plan Bs.
“We just need to work on him, is all,” Aunt Paula said as she put the SUV in gear and headed back down the gravel drive. “Men like him take a little time to get used to an idea.”
“I think his no was pretty final. Men like him also don’t change their minds.” The mud was beginning to dry on her skin, making her feel even more uncomfortable, if that was possible. “You understand, Aunt, that I don’t have a choice. I have to go where I can find work, as much as it pains me.”
“Roy seemed like a decent guy. I can’t believe he left you with nothing or that the courts wouldn’t make him give you something. What kind of lawyer did you have?”
Her aunt didn’t know how mistaken she was about Roy. “I didn’t ask for anything. We were only married two years.” And she hoped that period would be just a footnote in her life and never become the headline.
“What can we do?”
Her aunt’s worried look concerned Haylee.
“Jenna is taking me to a rodeo tomorrow. I’ll see if taking my allergy pills makes any difference with her cat. If I can handle it, I’ll ask her if I can move in with her in Cheyenne, and then I can periodically check on your place.” She’d try anything if it meant she didn’t have to move back in with her parents in Chicago, but having her allergies not kick up would be a miracle. And though Jenna would help her without question, moving in with Jenna without paying her full share of rent would be a difficult pill to swallow for someone who prided herself on being independent. At least with her aunt, Haylee could take care of the place in lieu of paying rent.
But Aunt Paula shook her head. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving our place unattended with so much of our stuff still there. The agent said furnished places sell better, and we need any edge we can get. We just won’t go to New Mexico, is all. I’ll call first thing on Monday and tell them that we can’t rent the place.”
Failure never got easier.
Trace watched from the classroom doorway as his daughter, Delanie, lifted her small pink backpack out of a blue cubby against the far wall, decorated with lots of indecipherable kids’ paintings and scrawls. The smell of disinfectant permeated the air as two teachers wiped down the tables. Other mothers, and a few probable grandmothers, were retrieving their kids. The women slipped by him, the only male, with a furtive glance and no acknowledgment. He preferred it that way.
What had Paula Johnson been thinking, showing up like that? The last time someone had surprised him, it had been Delanie’s mother on his doorstep with a four-year-old child with his eyes and hair color, declaring he had to parent the child or she’d be sent to foster care. He’d taken one look at the tyke, who’d seemed as scared as he’d felt, and his stone-cold heart had melted.
He’d spent the better part of a year forging a bond with his daughter and obtaining sole custody. With the help of a child psychologist, his sister-in-law, and pure persistence, he’d established a functional relationship that still had its bad days, usually after Delanie’s mother called. It had been the hardest, most rewarding thing he’d ever done, but it had taken its toll in pure stress.
And today, right before Paula’s surprise visit, he’d learned he could be facing a custody battle, when he thought everything had been settled. Life sure threw curve balls, and today he’d been pitched a humdinger. Surely, though, he had right on his side.
“Are we going riding when we get home?” Delanie looked up at him, her hazel eyes brimming with excitement.
Good thing his daughter had taken to ranch life like a pig to mud. Delanie was thriving on the ranch, and he was pretty sure that was the sole reason she tolerated his presence. He’d gotten Moose, a sweet, energetic border collie, largely for her, although the dog had turned out to be a first-class herder. He’d added an older, calm horse to his herd of four, in anticipation of Delanie riding by herself in a few years. He’d also bought a T-ball set, a swing set, and recently, a two-wheeler bike with training wheels. So far, she wasn’t a natural at riding it, but Trace knew it would come. Didn’t all kids learn eventually?
“ Have to see about the herd when we get back.” The morning storm meant he hadn’t had time to complete his check on damaged fencing or riled-up cattle.
Good thing he’d hired a young high school kid to help after school and during the summer months. Corey was eager, but with only two weeks on the job, Trace was still evaluating his capabilities. Right before he’d left to pick up Delanie, Trace had sent Corey to ride fence. Hopefully, Corey was out there now. Trace glanced at his phone. No calls from the kid. That was a good sign.
“We riding Buck?” Buck was destined to be Delanie’s in the near future.
She looked up at him with such excitement, his heart was about ready to burst. If only she wasn’t so reserved around him. He understood why. Didn’t make it any easier.
“Not this time. Too difficult for the horse in this mud. Probably take the pickup.” He plucked the backpack from her outstretched hand and ignored her pout. “You have fun today?”
She shrugged. “It was okay. Melinda cried a lot.”
Apparently Melinda was prone to crying.
“Sometimes people just feel sad, Delanie.” He’d learned that the hard way. The less people knew what you were feeling, the less power they had over you. But he guessed it was different when you were five years old. Because then, presumably, people would be there to help you. Presumably.
“No. She just wants attention.”
That too. “Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Let’s assume she had a reason to cry that was heartfelt.”
“You cry.” Like every time her mother called.
Now his baby looked mad. He’d said the wrong thing. Sometimes raising Delanie was like walking on eggshells. Not that he would trade a minute of it. But it was hard. Especially for someone like him.
“Let’s go. Daylight’s a wastin’.” A change of subject and scenery might save him.
She moved through the hallway and out the door on fast feet.
There might be something to having someone help with Delanie again. Camille, the former housekeeper, had been an older, grandmotherly type who had the right combination of concern and discipline, and Delanie had liked her. During calving season, Camille had cared for Delanie so he didn’t have to take the child in all sorts of weather to see things that were bound to cause a lot of questions. When the woman had said she couldn’t work for him for a while, it had been tough…tough on Delanie. Loss was something the child felt deeply. Considering her circumstances, that was understandable.
And that was why he hadn’t entertained the prospect of a woman looking for a short-term assignment. And the fact Haylee Dennis seemed around his age, had crazy curly blond hair, big blue eyes, and nice curves in a cute little package didn’t help matters. The last thing he needed was to be distracted by a woman who wore white pants and sandals to a cattle ranch. Having someone as pretty as Haylee Dennis around would be real torture for a man who had been living like a monk for the last year—real torture.
He threw the backpack into the backseat of the truck, settled Delanie into her car seat, set the sippy cup of water he’d brought with him into the cup holder, and closed the rear truck door. Climbing into the driver’s seat, he adjusted his sunglasses and started the engine. It roared to life despite being over ten years old. Paid to be handy with engines.
He drove onto the highway and dialed up some country music, placing the volume on low. If things went according to plan, Delanie would be snoozing on the half-hour trip back and ready to head out after he gave her a snack at home.
Life had finally settled into a routine, though he had to admit, it would be nice if he didn’t have to pick her up every day. The hour-plus round trip put a serious dent in his time running the ranch, and the ranch wasn’t on the firmest footing.
Still, he didn’t even know if Haylee Dennis had experience with kids. The fact Moose had liked her didn’t count. The fact he had liked her, especially after she’d fallen in the mud and laughed it off, counted more against her than for her. And what was she doing way out here when she was clearly a city girl, from her open-toed sandals to her pale skin?
Something didn’t add up.
He checked his rearview mirror. Delanie’s head had rolled to one side, her eyes closed. Yup, they had settled into a routine, and he didn’t need anyone to fiddle with it. Even if the woman seemed desperate for the job. Especially if the woman seemed desperate for the job.
He spent the half-hour ride contemplating the list of things he still needed to complete before he could call it a day. As he drove down the potholed gravel driveway, a look in his rearview mirror revealed Delanie was stirring. He was happy not to have to wake her out of a deep sleep. Some milk with pudding left over from last night’s dessert would make for a quick snack.
As he got closer to the house, the sight of Corey sitting on top of one of Trace’s horses, waiting for him, started his stomach churning. That only meant one thing…and it wasn’t good.
An hour later he was mending the gate a bull had butted off its hinges during the storm. Delanie groaned from the seat of the pickup about how hungry she was.
He was fooling himself about having a routine. He was a rancher. There was no routine.
Haylee knocked on the door of her friend’s apartment located on the outskirts of Cheyenne, and listened for footsteps. Jenna Thompson’s apartment was on the second floor of the two-story building and accessible through an open stairway without much to block it from Wyoming’s winter cold and wind. Right then the dry summer breeze felt good, and Haylee had full view of the busy two-lane street that bordered the front of the building. It was a better situation than the crowded skyscrapers and noise of Chicago or Denver, but definitely not as picturesque as her aunt’s cozy cabin nestled among the cottonwoods.
The door opened, and Jenna stood there holding a tabby-colored cat. With long black hair, a tanned complexion, and a willowy body clothed in a jean skirt, cowgirl boots, and a sleeveless blouse, Jenna, who hailed from Wyoming, looked every bit the cowgirl Haylee wasn’t.
The cat took one look at Haylee and hissed.
Not a good start.
“Mimi, be good,” Jenna cooed to the cat that looked like she was interested in anything but being good. Jenna waved Haylee in. “She just gets stressed when she first encounters people. Best to give her some time to get to know you before you pet her. She’s got trust issues.”
Haylee could relate. She stepped into the apartment and looked around. She hadn’t been in Jenna’s new apartment nor met the newest addition, Mimi, but she recognized several pieces of cottage-type furniture that Jenna had in their old college apartment in Denver. A television was planted on the painted-white bookcase on the near wall that still housed accounting textbooks. Across on the far wall was a familiar red sofa, Jenna’s favorite color, with various shapes of white pillows resting on it. The floors were builder-beige wall-to-wall carpet, and the walls were painted off-white. The room housed both the living area, small kitchenette to the left side, and dining table separating the two. It looked large enough for two people to share.
“I remember these.” Haylee pointed to two low stools that had also been painted white and covered by a white board to serve as a coffee table.
“I’m the queen of repurposing.” Jenna set Mimi down, and the cat ran toward the hallway that Haylee guessed led toward the bedrooms.
At least if the cat was not in the same room, Haylee’s allergy medicine would have a fighting chance. Hopefully, it was just her imagination, but her eyes felt itchy.
“Want some coffee before we head out to the rodeo?”
Haylee nodded. “And to use your bathroom. It was a bit of a haul from my aunt’s.”
Jenna pointed down the hall. “First door to your left. The room across from it is the spare room.”
Haylee scurried to the bathroom and, when she was finished using it, glanced into the spare room. It was a decent size with a full bed and more of the painted furniture Jenna favored. The rose-covered quilt on the bed and fake roses in a small vase on the nightstand that looked like it had once been a magazine rack in another life, gave the room a decidedly feminine charm.
She rubbed her eyes. The cat probably claimed this as its room, by the way Haylee was tearing up. She feared the option of moving in with Jenna was going to be sneezed right off the table.
She found Jenna in the kitchen area of the open room, pouring coffee into ceramic cups. The kitchen side had a large window where light streamed in, making it bright and airy despite the dark cabinets and granite counters. “We’ll have our coffee in the living room. Are you hungry? I’ve got some donuts left over from work yesterday.”
Haylee shook her head, grabbed her cup of black coffee, and followed Jenna into the living area. The couch was as comfortable as Haylee remembered, and she sank back against the pillows. “So tell me about the rodeo.”
Jenna had convinced Haylee to go to the rodeo with a free ticket, since Jenna’s boyfriend had bowed out a few days ago. With its crop of real cowboys, Haylee thought the rodeo would provide good photography material, not that she would do anything with it. Photography was a hobby, a passionate hobby that would remain just a hobby since it didn’t pay the bills.
“Not much to tell. There’s pretty much a rodeo somewhere in Wyoming every weekend in the summer. You’ll see.”
Haylee sighed. “I don’t think Wyoming is going to work out.”
“Why not? You’ve got a rent-free place.”
“Turns out my aunt’s neighbor doesn’t think he needs help with his daughter. She’s going to a preschool.”
“And the cowboy can’t be persuaded?”
Haylee shook her head. “Not to mention that I fell in the mud, flat on my butt, in front of him. Not the best first impression.” But he had picked her up and set her to rights. She could still feel the strength of his hands under her arms.
“Were you wearing those?” Jenna nodded toward Haylee’s flip-flops.
She’d dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, and flip-flops had seemed the comfortable option.
“White sandals. Just as bad.”
“Isn’t the audit thing working out?”
“Takes time. The market has changed in two years. My old clients moved on.” But time was something she didn’t have. If she was going to stay at her aunt’s, she needed to earn money immediately.
“It’s been tough since the divorce, huh?”
Haylee nodded, felt the bruises in her heart. “It doesn’t feel good to have failed at marriage.” It felt rock-bottom bad, especially given the reasons. How could she have been so wrong about Roy’s character? The question still haunted her. Because if she was wrong about him, how could she trust her judgment about anyone?
Jenna raised the cup of coffee to her lips, and her eyebrows arched as she looked over the rim of the cup at Haylee. “Failed is a strong word. More like a mistake. You made a mistake. He wasn’t the man you thought he was. It happens.”
Haylee hadn’t confided the details of her reason for breaking up with Roy, other than to say she’d found out some things that made her realize they did not share the same values…and never would. Jenna hadn’t asked for the particulars but had assumed it had something to do with Roy’s business, and she was right. But those details would remain secret because revealing them…well it just wasn’t an option.
“But why didn’t I see it?” The black coffee tasted strong and flavorful, just the way she liked it. Too bad her nose was too clogged to smell its fragrance.
“Do you want me to be sympathetic or honest?”
“Honest, of course.” Haylee braced herself. Honesty might prove brutal but she was all about the truth these days.
“You were playing it safe with Roy. He was older, mature, settled.”
“I thought I loved him.” And he had checked all the boxes. Responsible, hardworking, smart, and, yes, financially secure. Too bad at the time she hadn’t thought to add “had integrity”.
“Honestly I always thought he was more smitten with you than you were with him. It seemed once he’d declared himself, you tried too hard to fit into his world.”
Because once you’re chosen, someone can always un-choose you if you don’t try hard enough. Which, ironically, was exactly what Roy did when she gave him an ultimatum. And exactly her fear…never really belonging anywhere to anyone.
“I think a lot of it goes back to…you know.”
Haylee took a deep breath. “Being adopted?” It wasn’t a subject she talked about much.
“And your parents having Livvy.”
When she was three years old, her parents had announced she was getting a sister. After giving up trying to get pregnant, her parents had been blessed with the birth of their own flesh-and-blood daughter.