West Coast Happily-Ever-After – Book 6
available by PREORDER; release date: 4/3/2018
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Life can change in an instant. The same amount of time it takes for a bullet to kill.
Ranch foreman Tom Butler loved his ex-wife enough to let her go when ambition and drive lured her to L.A., but he never stopped loving their two daughters. His rustic lifestyle in the Central Valley added light years to the distance between them until the day tragedy struck. Tom may not be the dad his daughters know, but he’ll do anything for his family—even ask for help from a beautiful stranger.
Victims advocate Abby Davis’s life needs a major overhaul–just not the kind her newly single boss has in mind. On the verge of quitting, she meets Angela and Heather Butler–and their father. She can’t turn her back on two brokenhearted children and their beleaguered father, but can she do her job without losing her heart in the process?
That Cowboy’s Forever Family is Book 6 in the West Coast Happily-Ever-After series. If you’re a fan of deeply emotional stories that make you smile through your tears, then you can’t miss Debra Salonen’s cowboy dad, his brave little girls and the woman they were meant to love.
Buy That Cowboy’s Forever Family to escape into a warm, happy place where love thrives.
Abby closed her eyes and inhaled. No smell on earth could be sweeter than a man’s scent mingled with spray starch. Tom’s shoulder beneath his neatly pressed shirt made for the kind of pillow she could lean her head against for the rest of her life, if she let herself – which, of course, she couldn’t.
But, Abby told herself, one night couldn’t hurt.
With tiny, white lights twinkling in the trees surrounding the grass dance floor, Abby felt like Cinderella at the ball. The magic would disappear at midnight and she would go back to being responsible, but for the moment she was free to drink it all in, every splendid moment.
“Look,” he said, directing Abby’s attention to the row of kids perched on the split-rail fence that flanked the band shell. Angel, laughing and pointing with the others, looked happy – quite a change from the petulant youngster Abby had escorted to Fresno on Thursday.
“They think because we’re old we can’t have fun. I’m having fun. What about you?”
“I don’t think fun quite covers it,” she said, looking into his eyes, wishing she could memorize the twinkling humor she saw reflected.
“How much longer, Daddy?” Heather asked plaintively.
Tom Butler stifled a sigh. “Five more minutes, punkin,” he said without consulting his watch.
“That’s what you said five minutes ago,” Angela grumbled, her words muffled by a thick wad of long dark hair.
Tom glanced at her. His twelve-year-old daughter, a spooky mixture of limbs and emotions, sat folded into a tight ball up against the passenger door of his pickup truck. With artistic finesse she winnowed out one ebony strand from the rest of the waist-length tresses and threaded it between sullen lips.
Grazing on hair. One more thing no one had warned me about.
“Don’t worry, Thomas. You’re doing just fine,” Janey Hastings had told him at dinner last night after Angel stormed off in a huff over some imaginary slight. Janey and Ed, who were more surrogate parents to Tom than mere employers, had been his lifeline these past four months, his tether to sanity. Sadly, next Monday the Hastingses would be off fighting demons of their own. Janey’s last mammogram showed a questionable spot, and her doctors had ordered her to Stanford.
“Teenage rebellion is a phase,” Janey had said sagely. “Just love ’em—that’s all that matters. Don’t sweat the small stuff. After all,” she’d said with an understanding smile, “it’s every teenage girl’s goal to drive her father crazy. My granddaughters were the same way. I was sure Peter was going to send them back here to live with me until they were old enough for college.”
Tom knew how much Janey missed her sons—Edward lived on the East Coast, Pete and his family in Colorado. Ed missed them, too, but he had Tom to fill the gap—a surrogate son to run the Standing Arrow H, the ranch and orchard operation that was Ed’s passion.
Angela sat up suddenly and jammed the inch-thick soles of her ugly purple boots against the truck’s already cracked dashboard. “Why do we have to do this, anyway? It’s stupid.”
“Feet down, please.” Tom tried his best to keep his tone level. It had occurred to him more than once these past few months that dealing with a teenager was like breaking in a two-year-old colt—you do everything slow and careful and keep body parts out of kicking range. “It’s what the judge wants, honey, you know that.” They’d been over the issue a dozen times in the past two days.
Her feet didn’t budge. “Well, I ain’t gonna talk to no therapist. I ain’t crazy.”
Tom leaned across Heather, who seemed to shrink from the cross tone of her sister’s voice, and gently tapped Angela’s shin. “Don’t say ‘ain’t.”’
“Don’t hit me,” she bristled, pulling back.
Tom sighed wearily and gazed out the windshield of his half-ton Ford. Angel’s moods changed faster than the weather. Some days she was Little Miss Homemaker, fixing tuna casseroles or macaroni and cheese on Tom’s two-burner hot plate; some days she sat glued to his small, black-and-white television watching whatever crap the talk shows aired. Tom hadn’t been too pleased with Judge Overman’s edict that Heather and Angel see a counselor, since it meant prolonging the bureaucratic umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, but a therapist might help.
“Daddy, I hav’a go potty,” Heather said in a tiny voice.
His heart lurched painfully. Poor Heather. No mood swings for her. His bright little poppet had changed from a bubbling, fearless five-year-old at Christmas to a shadow person afraid of the wind.
“We’re going right in there, sweetie.” He leaned down and pointed to a low white stucco building with a small, discreet sign beside the door. “I’m sure they have a bathroom. Can you hold it?” She’d been wetting the bed ever since her mother’s death five months earlier.
Heather’s head bobbed tentatively. He put his arm around her and pulled her tiny body close. He’d have given ten years of his life to turn back the hands of time. Maybe if he could have talked Lesley into staying with him, she’d still be alive.
Why, Les? Why didn’t you stay?
He knew the answer. The love they’d shared had been enough to produce two daughters but not strong enough to close the huge gap in their dreams and ambitions.
Despite their divorce, Tom always respected the way Lesley set goals for herself and met them, goals that didn’t include horses, cows and everything else that went along with being a cowboy’s wife. At first, he’d hated her for taking away his children, but she’d made sure Tom always had contact with his daughters. Even after she married Val, she’d invited Tom to spend the holidays with them.
Thank God for that. At least I’m not a stranger to them. Bad enough he was a single parent who didn’t know the first thing about raising little girls, but…
“She’s late,” Angel complained.
Tom checked his Timex. “One minute to go.”
A maroon Honda sedan drove into a parking place two spots away and stopped.
“Maybe that’s her.” Tom fished a scrap of paper out of the pocket of his jeans.
Angela snatched the paper from his fingers. “Abby Davis,” she said, reading the name on it aloud. “Abby. Probably short for Abigail. What a dorky name! Sounds like an old-maid schoolteacher.”
“You’ll hold your tongue, miss, and I mean it,” Tom said, his voice sharp. Beside him, Heather trembled like a wet pup. Tom gave her a comforting squeeze. “She’s a victim’s advocate. She helps people. The judge seems to think we need some help, and I think maybe he’s right.”
Angela’s eyes filled with tears, making Tom instantly contrite. She was a great kid, she just had too damn much on her plate.
“Besides,” he added, trying to lighten the mood, “it’s not her fault about her name. Look what your grandma did to me. Thomas Richard Butler. My dad used to say Mama tried to name me after all her boyfriends—every Tom, Dick and Harry, only Harold wouldn’t fit on the birth certificate.” His mother, the shyest, most self-effacing woman he’d ever known would blush like a schoolgirl when Walt Butler teased her, but Tom knew his parents both enjoyed the banter.
Tom was happy to see his effort earn a weak smile from Angela, but the strand of hair went back into her mouth. He swallowed a sigh. One battlefield at a time.
* * *
“Decisions, decisions,” Abby Davis muttered softly, willing herself to get out of her car when every instinct in her bones told her to put it in reverse and drive.
Abby eyed the unremarkable postwar bungalow that housed VOCAP, the Welton, California, Victims of Crime Advocacy Program. Her home-away-from-home for the past seven years. “Go or stay?”
Without meaning to, Abby took in the large, mud-splattered truck parked nearby. Normally, she might have wondered about its three occupants. It was impossible not to notice the solemn expressions of a family in trouble, but they weren’t her problem, she told herself.
She had enough problems of her own. Like turning thirty and realizing her dreams were withering on the vine.
Daniel had left her with few options.
“It’s a lack of dinero, Abby,” her boss, Daniel Kimura, had told her over pasta primavera at the upscale downtown restaurant where he’d taken her for a birthday lunch. “You know how much we need you. You’re the heart and soul of VOCAP, but I fully understand your position. You’re intelligent and ambitious, and we’re guilty of exploiting your goodness and humanity without fully compensating you in either money or title. But my hands are tied thanks to those greedy, shortsighted bastards in Sacramento.”
His ebony eyes flashed contempt, making Abby wonder whether the rumors about his own political aspirations were true. Well, why not? A third-generation Asian-American with an admirable record as a district attorney, he had good face. And the camera loved him.
“You deserve better, Abby. It hurts me deeply that I can’t give you what you need.”
“What are you going to do if I quit?”
“Weep.” Whoever called him a cold fish—probably Melina—hadn’t shared garlic cheese bread and two glasses of Chablis with him. By the time they split the obligatory brownie sundae, listened to off-key waiters and several curious diners singing her the birthday song, Abby was almost feeling sorry for him.
Almost. Daniel would return to his desk, a highly polished cherry-wood model dwarfed by the size of his office. Abby, on the other hand, was expected to swallow the party line and return to her closet-size cubicle from which she ran the agency that helped victims of crime rebuild their lives. Her modest salary was capped because she didn’t have her college diploma, which she’d missed by one semester when she’d pitched in to help after her predecessor got pregnant. Her one-semester job of acting supervisor—the title of supervisor being reserved for the fully accredited—turned into a seven-year stint.
Stay or quit? Abby loved her job, but lately she’d begun to feel as if it was taking over her life. Maybe it was time to go back to college and take a stab at law school.
Ruefully acknowledging that any major decision would have to wait until she could take stock of her finances, Abby opened the door and climbed out. Besides, she had a one o’clock appointment. Some guy whose ex-wife had been killed in a robbery five months ago. The file arrived that morning and, although she’d only had time to glance at it, she’d noticed the court-ordered counseling for two minors. Well, maybe she’d assign the case to someone else because it was time for Abby Davis to move on with her life.
“No more Ms. Nice Guy,” she muttered. Lifting her chin, she marched ahead, forgetting about the labyrinth of busted concrete distributed in her path courtesy of a massive root from the shady but messy mulberry tree that was allowed to grow unimpeded in VOCAP’s front lawn. The lawn-service budget was an early casualty.
The heel of her left pump disappeared into a San Andreas–size crevasse; the right one snapped out of sympathy and down she went.
“Damn it all to hell,” Abby said under her breath, dusting off the quarter-size hole in the knee of her panty hose.
Torn between tears and a temper tantrum, she didn’t move until a deep, polite voice asked, “Are you okay, ma’am?”
Abby looked up to see whom fate had designated to share her humiliation. A cowboy. Even if he hadn’t been wearing formfitting jeans, dusty boots and a turquoise and pink canvas shirt, she’d have pegged his profession. Blame it on the slight bow in his legs, the Clint Eastwood squint of his sky-blue eyes shaded by a pearly white hat or the Yosemite Sam handlebars framing tight, serious lips.
“Anything broken?” he drawled. Not a southern drawl, more of a western-music sound. Not that she was all that familiar with either; it was a gut feeling, and it did weird things to her gut.
“Nothing worth suing over. Unfortunately,” she muttered, twisting the heel, which made a 180-degree turn but remained attached to the shoe.
“I’ve been nagging Daniel for months to get this sidewalk fixed,” she said, more to herself than him. “Tight budget, he says.” She snorted. “Tight something else if you ask me.”
His very faint chuckle made a rift of gooseflesh break out on her arms, thankfully hidden by the plum-and-cream plaid suit, which undoubtedly would now show scuff marks on several unbecoming places.
“May I help you up?” That he even asked put him in a class of men Abby had heard of and read about but assumed was extinct: the gentleman.
He didn’t touch bare skin, just the clothed arm below her elbow. It seemed to be enough for him to levitate her to an upright position. Abby was pretty sure she had nothing to do with the process since her knees suddenly had as much substance as the whipped cream on her brownie sundae.
“My heels,” she explained, in case he was inclined to put a different spin on her wobbliness.
He nodded, just a bit. An economical motion that probably made dogs round up whole herds of cattle and women whip up batches of biscuits and gravy.
“Thank you,” she said formally. “I’m not usually this clumsy but it’s my birthday.” Aargh, how lame is that? “I had wine at lunch.” Nice, Abby. Now he’ll think you have a dependency problem. “With my boss.” Shut up, already.
Her hero was saved from trying to make a polite response to any of her ramblings when a young voice asked, “Are you Abby Davis?”
Abby fought the blush that engulfed her. It was one thing to be a klutz anonymously, but now her humiliation was public. “That’s me.” Under her breath, she added, “Unfortunately.”
The cowboy apparently was blessed with better than average hearing since the hanging-down parts of his mustache twitched.
“My dad’s here to see you, and my sister needs to use your bathroom.”
For the first time, Abby noticed the two little girls standing in front of the pickup truck. The older child’s coloring was darker than her father’s, almost Mediterranean, but the family resemblance was borne out in the eyes—old beyond her years. Abby guessed her to be eleven or twelve; she would be a beauty some day soon—probably too soon to suit her father. The younger girl, maybe five or six, was a miniature angel with a halo of white-blond hair and big blue eyes that looked everywhere but at Abby.
Abby’s embarrassment evaporated. Children in need were her special weakness.
“Then let’s go.” She turned and took a wobbly step forward. “Our rest room has green and purple fish on the walls.” She waited until the children caught up with her then she bent down to the younger girl’s height and whispered, “With orange lips.”
The child looked up at her father, who scooped her into his arms like a feather on a breeze. “Let’s go see,” he said in a gentle voice that made Abby’s heart flutter as if touched by the same breeze.
Abby led the way. After three toddling steps, she kicked off her shoes. The shredded panty hose would be next. “If you know my name, I should know yours, but I’m at a loss,” she said over her shoulder.
“I’m Angela Butler. My dad’s Tom Butler,” the older girl said, joining her at the lead. “He has an appointment with you at one o’clock. Some old-fart judge ordered it.”
Aah. The name from the file.
“Is your real name Abigail?” the girl asked with a challenging look at her father.
“Nope. Abner,” Abby joked, sensing some under-current between the two.
“What?” the girl squawked, nearly losing her balance on a hunk of sidewalk.
With youthful nimbleness, she regained her equilibrium before Abby could grab her arm. “Just kidding. That’s what Gabe Calloway called me in fifth grade until I popped him in the nose.” She caught the sudden movement of Tom Butler’s mustache—a frown, she assumed, and tried to make amends. “Not that I condone violence, of course, but in this case, he, um, well, anyway, to answer your question, my father wanted to name me Abigail after his grandmother, but my mother said that sounded too much like an old-maid schoolteacher, so they settled on Abby, instead.”
The older girl flashed her father a smug look that left Abby baffled, but she pushed the matter aside when they reached the building’s metal-reinforced door. No matter how many times she walked through this portal, she always shivered, remembering one very close call two years earlier.
“Are you cold?” the little girl asked, catching what few adults ever saw.
At eye level in her father’s arms, Abby could see the remarkable blue of her eyes and the sadness that left smudge prints under each eye. Poor baby, Abby thought, but she smiled reassuringly and opened the door wide enough for the family to file past. “No, sweetie, but thank you for asking. This door just gives me the willies. It used to be a pretty glass door, but one day a very angry man came and broke it.”
Tom Butler’s mustache quivered again. Another frown, she sensed. He waited politely for her to enter.
Yep, a gentleman.
Abby scooted past him and paused in the small foyer beside Angela. The original foyer had been twice as big, with a picture window and two couches that gave it a homey look, but added security measures, including video cameras and electronic passkeys, meant less room for the people they were supposed to serve.
“Why’d he do that?” Angela asked. “I thought you helped people.”
Abby stifled a sigh. A big part of VOCAP’s focus was helping victims of domestic abuse. The man who took out their door—and very nearly Abby’s head—wanted his wife and family back. When Abby wouldn’t give him either, he took his anger out on her. She’d managed to get away and call the police. The door wasn’t so lucky.
“We do. But sometimes people aren’t ready to be helped.” That her chipper tone, meant to shore up her own flagging morale as much as reassure her new clients, came off sounding like a cheerleader on the Mickey Mouse Club was confirmed by the girl’s look of scorn.
She won’t be easy, Abby thought, but who could blame her? Trust isn’t easily given by someone whose world’s been shattered by violence.
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