What woman in her right mind would get involved with an Oklahoma farmer with six kids? And for sure Carly Stewart, a former ballerina who’s just passing through Haven with her recently bereaved father, isn’t applying for the job! But something about the gentle, soft-spoken widower who seems to see straight through her bad-ass facade – not to mention his only daughter, a fifteen-year-old who is so not Daddy’s little girl anymore – gets to her. No matter, however, because Carly would rather stick a sharp stick in her eye than live in tiny Haven. Or mother all those kids. But when her strictly-by-the-rulebook father falls in love with the town’s resident hippie midwife. . .well, what’s a girl to do but to stick around to make sure Dad doesn’t end up with a broken heart?
4 1/2 hearts — "entertaining and moving.
. .one terrific romance novel. . ."
Romance Readers Connection
The squawk of a floorboard was Carly’s first clue that she wasn’t alone on the back porch. She flinched, turning her head in the direction of the noise, willing her eyes to adjust after the bright lights of the kitchen.
“Didn’t mean to scare you,” came Sam’s low, soft voice out of the darkness.
“You didn’t. Exactly.” She rubbed her arms through her sweater, against the chill of the evening, against the warmth of Sam’s chuckle. “Thought farmers all went to bed by nine.”
The floor groaned again; she could now almost make him out, sitting in a rocking chair with one foot parked up on the porch railing.
“I’ve never needed more than five or six hours sleep, for some reason. Long as I’m in bed by eleven, I’m up by five, no problem.”
“Hell, I’m not sure I’m even breathing at that hour.”
Another low laugh drifted across the porch. Then: “Where’s your dad?”
“I take it you don’t?”
Her eyes had adjusted to the dim light enough to see him shake his head. “Don’t have much use for it, to tell you the truth. If I’m looking for entertainment, I like to read.”
“Oh, yeah?” Another rocker sat expectantly a few feet from Sam’s. Close enough for conversation, far enough away to still be in the safety zone. “Like what?” she said, lowering herself into the chair.
“Pretty much anything I can get my hands on. History, biographies, mysteries. The classics, sometimes. Hemingway, Dickens.”
“Tell me you’re one of the two people on the planet who’s actually read War and Peace?”
“It’s next on my list, as a matter of fact.”
“You are one sick puppy,” she said, and he laughed. Then she said, “Gotta admit, it’s nice out here. Listening to the quiet.” Well, quiet if you didn’t count the late crickets and the constant bang! bang! bang! of the pig feeder.
“Yep,” Sam said. “That’s why I come out here almost every night, even in the dead of winter. Gives me a chance to collect my thoughts, think on everything I’ve got to be grateful for.”
A definite fall breeze whisked across the porch, making her shiver. She tucked her arms around her middle and said, “This can’t be an easy life, though. It certainly wasn’t for my grandparents, even though I know they loved it, too.”
“Guess that makes me a man who likes challenges,” Sam said, and Carly smiled. “So. . .your grandparents were farmers?”
“My dad’s folks, in Iowa. They had a dairy farm. I used to spend summers there as a kid.”
“And you hated every minute.”
“Actually, no. I had a blast. Just couldn’t see doing it twenty-four/seven for the rest of my life.”
“I can understand that. Farming’s definitely not for everybody. It’s either in your blood or it isn’t.” He leaned back in his chair, looking out into the darkness. “This land’s been in our family for four generations. But my daddy didn’t want to split it between my brother Josh and me, so he bought the farmstead next door before he passed, when Josh and I were still in our early twenties. Unfortunately, he had no idea my brother wasn’t the least bit interested in being a farmer.”
“So what happened?”
“With my brother, you mean? He took off for Seattle and eventually became an architect. His place has been up for sale ever since. Well, actually, he had one taker, about five years ago, an artist from back East who’d gotten halfway through re-doing the barn – apparently he wanted to live in it and tear down the old farmhouse – when he ran out of money.”
“Oh. . .that must be the place Dad and I saw when we were out.” She scanned the dark horizon, trying to get her bearings, then pointed east. “Over. . .there?”
“Yep. That’s it. I’ve been working about half the acreage until we find a buyer. House needs a lot of work, though. Place is structurally sound, just badly neglected. You warm enough over there?”
Her head jerked around; she hadn’t even realized she’d shivered again, let alone that he’d noticed. “What? Oh. . .yeah, I’m fine.”
“It gets chilly at night this time of year,” Sam said, shifting in his chair to work out of his jacket. “Here, put this around your shoulders.”
“No, I’m okay, really. . .”
He got up and walked over to her, his footsteps sure against the floorboards, the jacket dangling from one hand. “Lean forward,” he gently commanded. After a second or two, she did, a tingle racing down her spine when the stiff material draped over her back and shoulders. “That better?” he said above her head.
“Yes.” She pulled the jacket more closed; it was impregnated with his body heat, his scent. “Thank you,” she said, even as she steeled herself against the onslaught to her senses.
Sam walked back to his chair and dropped into it. “You’re welcome. I figured, considering you don’t have enough insulation on your bones to keep a flea warm, you had to be cold.”
Now huddled under the jacket – okay, so it did feel pretty good – she glanced over. “Look who’s talking.”
She saw a flash of teeth in the darkness. “Oh, my engine’s always idlin’ on high. I hardly ever feel the cold. Never seem to put on any weight, either.”
“You do realize I may have to kill you for that?”
His laugh warmed her far more than the jacket, and she thought Not good. She also thought, because things were getting far too cozy, Get up, fool, and go back inside. Now. Except then Sam said, “Guess you survived your first supper with my brood okay,” and it would have seemed rude to cut him off.
“If you don’t count the slight ringing in my left ear.”
“Yeah, I guess it does get a little loud when they all get together. But I figure they’ll all scatter soon enough. Until then, I can deal with a little noise.”
A little noise? She’d been to quieter rock concerts. Then she heard herself say, “Did you and your wife actually plan on having six kids?”
“Can’t say as we planned on that many, no.” Amusement tinged his words. “Can’t say as we planned on not having that many, either.”
“Would you have had more?”
“No, I think it’s safe to say we were done.” He gave a low chuckle. “You really do come right out and say whatever’s in your head, don’t you?”
She thought of her conversation with Libby. “No. Not always.”
“You and Libby work out a few things?” he asked, as if he’d read her mind.
“Enough. We. . .talked for a while after dinner.”
“I don’t dare ask what about, do I?”
“I figured as much. But I tell you, she gets those girlfriends of hers over
here and brother – you can hardly hear yourself think for all the yakking.” He was quiet for a moment, then said, “I know she misses her mom. The two of them. . .well. It was really something to see them together.”
“You still miss your wife, too, don’t you?”
Sam took his time before answering. “One day, I realized I’d gotten through a whole hour without thinking about her. And at first I thought something was wrong with me, that somehow, it didn’t seem right not to hurt, not when you loved somebody as much as I’d loved her. Then, when the hour stretched to two, then sometimes even half a day, it finally began to sink in that missing somebody implies a vacuum of some kind, a hole in your life where this person used to be. And I thought, hell – after all those years we’d had together. . .” He shook his head. “All these kids, each one of ‘em reminding me of her in some way. Travis has her eyes, and Frankie’s got this weird way of looking at everything like she did. And Libby gets this set to her mouth that’s Jeannie all over. It was her idea, painting the walls all those bright colors. The snowball bush out front, the lilac over there in front of the kitchen window, the row of cherry trees over there. . .all her doing.”
With a gentle smile, he turned to Carly. “I suppose some people would find all those reminders painful. But I find ‘em a comfort. After all, it’s kinda hard to miss somebody who’s everywhere I look.”
Unable to move, hardly able to catch a breath, Carly sat, staring over the porch railing as the night absorbed Sam’s words. She’d never been particularly religious, but she thought this was what people meant when they talked about “grace” – the ability to not only accept a situation, or even to make the best of it, but to be lifted above it. And without warning, regret swept through her, not that she hadn’t experienced a loss like that, but she’d never loved, or been loved, that completely and deeply and thoroughly.
And she doubted she ever would, if for no other reason than she wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of love if it smacked her in the face.
(c) 2005 Reprinted with permission of Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. All rights reserved.
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