Kiss Me Hello

Book 3 in the Sweetest Kisses series

MacKenzie Knightley is the best criminal trial attorney in Damson County, but he has no defense against petite, peppery Sidonie Lindstrom, a foster mom who’s moved into the farmhouse where Mack and his brothers grew up.

Sid is grieving the loss of her brother, worried she’s about to lose her foster son, and in no mood for romantic nonsense when Mack drives up the lane. And yet, he’s good with her horses, good with her foster son, and just the sort of solid, trustworthy, guy she might fall for—until she learns that he’s not at all what he appears to be.

Grace is thrilled to bring to readers her first Contemporary Romances, lovingly set in Scotland,

Kiss Me Hello:

Sourcebooks

Series: Sweetest Kisses

ISBN: 978-1402278846

Mar 3, 2015

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Grace's Genres: Contemporary
Chapter One

Compared to MacKenzie Knightley, the new girl was small, scared, and lacked both weapons and defenses. Mac held out a hand to her in a reassuring gesture, but she turned her face away.

An eloquent rejection.

“What’s her name?” Mac asked the groom, who watched from across the barn aisle.

“Luna, short for Lunatic. She doesn’t strike any of us as therapeutic riding material, but Adelia will have her occasional stray.”

Mac suspected Adelia had had his brother James a time or two, when James had been a different kind of stray. Adelia apparently bore James no grudge for wandering away, as strays were wont to do.

“Luna.” Mac said the name softly, and saw no reaction in the mare’s eyes. She looked at him steadily now, her expression showing wary resignation.

Another person, another disappointment. Mac knew the sentiment firsthand. He took a step closer. Luna raised her head a couple of inches, the better to keep him in focus.

“Has she been vetted?”

“What would be the point?”

Neils Haddonfield was the head groom at the Damson County Therapeutic Riding Association’s barn—the barn manager, really. He was big, blond, and quiet, gentle as a lamb with the children and the horses, and hell in a muck truck with whiny parents.

“Let’s see if we can’t make her more comfortable.” Mac took the final step toward the mare and ran a hand down her neck. She gave no sign she felt the caress, so Mac went on a hunt for her sweet spots.

Females were females after all, and some things held true across species.

When his fingers dug into the coarse hair over her withers, she gave a little invisible shudder, one Mac understood, because his hand was listening for it. He settled in, gently, firmly, and the mare’s head dropped a few inches. He added a second hand on the other side of her withers, and she braced her misshapen front feet wider.

“She likes that,” Neils said, frowning.

“You give her any bute?” Mac asked as he moved his hands a few inches up her neck.

“A couple grams after breakfast.”

The medication was helping her stand on the rubber brick surface of the barn aisle. Left to her own devices, she might well be lying flat out in the weak spring sunshine just to get off her neglected feet.

“We could put her in the stocks,” Neils said. “Get it over with more quickly.”

“And give her a horror of the stocks, me, and anybody who helped put her into them. I’m only making a start on those feet today. Getting her reliably sound will take months, if it can be accomplished at all. Can you take over on this side of her neck?”

Neils moved, taking up the slow massaging scratch Mac had started. The mare’s expression registered the shift, but she didn’t raise her head.

Mac pulled his wheeled toolbox over and ran a hand down one of the mare’s legs. She stood for it, though she had to know what came next.

When he lifted her left foreleg, she let out a sigh, because shifting hundreds of pounds of body weight to the three hooves remaining on the ground had to be painful. The phenolbutazone would help, but it wouldn’t eliminate the discomfort entirely.

Working quickly, he nipped off as much of the mare’s overgrown toe as he dared, then set the foot gently back down. He stepped away, signaling to the horse she could take a moment to recover, while Neils kept up the scratching.

“Good girl,” Mac said, extending his hand to her nose again. “You’re a stoic, little Luna, and you have more in common with the riders here than you think. Give it time, and we’ll find you someplace to call home.”

He worked around the horse quickly but quietly, spending a few minutes on each hoof, rather than finishing one before moving on to another. She seemed to understand his method and appreciate it. By the time he ran his hand down her leg to file the final hoof into shape, she’d already shifted her weight in anticipation.

“She’s sensible,” Neils said, patting the shaggy neck. “Who would have thought? But then, they’re all sensible for you, MacKenzie.”

“One beast to another,” Mac said, using his foot to nudge the wheeled toolbox away from the horse. “Do we know anything about this one besides that she’s been badly neglected?”

“Adelia thinks she might have seen her a few years ago on the Howard County circuit, and the arthritis in the feet suggests she might have been worked too long and hard over fences, but that’s only a hunch.”

“What are you feeding her?”

They went on, as only two horsemen can, over every detail of the mare’s care. What she ought to be fed, with whom she might be safely turned out, how soon. Whether grass was a good idea, because spring grass could pack a nutritional wallop.

“I’d hand graze her,” Mac said, eyeing the mare. “She needs every chance we can give her to associate people with good things. To horses, new grass is the mother of all good things.”

Adelia Scoffield sauntered up in riding jeans, chaps, and a short-sleeved T-shirt, though the day was cool. She’d been on one horse or another since Mac had pulled up a couple of hours ago, and her exertions showed in the dark sweaty curls at her temples.

“Have you two listed all the reasons why Luna is a bad idea?” she asked.

“Shame on you, Adelia.” Neils passed the lead rope to Mac. “You will catch your death, running around like that.” He shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over Adelia’s shoulders. Adelia gave the lapel a little sniff, something Luna would have understood, had she not been so nervous.

“We were admiring your new addition,” Mac said. “I’ve done what I can for her feet, but it’s a slow process. She was leery, but she gave me the benefit of the doubt.”

“Poor thing.” Adelia held out her hand to the mare, who took two steps back. Mac moved with the horse to avoid a situation where the mare hit the end of the lead rope and started making the bad decisions common to anxious horses.

“Easy,” Mac crooned, his hand going to the mare’s withers. “It’s just the boss coming to see if Neils and I are behaving. She’s good people, if you overlook her tendency to pick up hopeless cases like Neils.”

“You’re just jealous,” Adelia said. “I came to see if Neils can go on a mission of mercy for me.” When Adelia made no move to come closer, the mare relaxed marginally beside Mac.

“Neils and mercy don’t strike me as the most compatible combination,” Mac said, petting the horse slowly.

“We got a call from Sid Lindstrom.” Adelia took another surreptitious whiff of the coat. “Sid’s the foster parent of one of our new riders, and says there are two behemoth horses on their new property, horses that weren’t there on the day of closing.”

“Behemoth horses aren’t suitable for therapeutic programs,” Neils began, hands going to his hips. “You can’t—”

“I wasn’t going to,” Adelia said gently. Something passed between the small dark-haired woman and the big blond man that suggested to Mac they were a couple, if the routine with the jacket hadn’t confirmed the notion already.

He liked both of them, and respected what they were doing with the therapeutic riding program, though the idea that everybody but MacKenzie Knightley had somebody with whom they could exchange silent looks and warm jackets was tiresome.

“I said we could take over some pony chow, and send somebody to check on the situation,” Adelia went on. “They could be stray pensioners who broke out of the neighbor’s paddock this morning, but it’s spring, Neils. What if somebody’s stallion got loose, and the other horse is a mare in season who’s eloped with him? That’s not a safe situation for greenhorns to manage, and these people know very little about horses.”

“Because their foster kid rides in our program, we’re going to start making house calls?” Neils tried to glower as he put the question to his boss, but the guy was whupped. He stood only a couple of inches shorter than Mac’s six foot four, but Neils had become a whupped puppy the first time Adelia had turned her big brown eyes on him.

“One barn call,” Adelia said. “If they can afford a four-hundred-acre farm free and clear, then they are potential sponsors for the therapeutic riding program.” She reached out to the mare again, but the horse came out of the daze induced by Mac’s petting and scratching, and backed up again.

“Somebody’s a little shy,” Adelia said, dropping her hand. “Will you go, Neils?”

“What’s the address?”

She told him, and Mac’s hand went still on the horse’s neck.

“I’ll go,” Mac said. The mare shrugged, a perfectly normal horsey reminder to resume his scratching.

“You will?” Adelia’s expression was curious, while Neils looked relieved.

“It’s on my way home, and Luna was my last customer here this morning. It’s Saturday, and I have the time.”

“My thanks.” When Neils reached for Luna’s lead rope, the little horse did not flinch or take a step back.

Mac gathered up his tools and loaded his farrier’s truck—not to be confused with his everyday truck. He took a minute to watch a therapeutic riding session getting started in the small indoor arena. A kid with no feeling below her thighs was settling onto the back of a therapy pony, her expression rapt, while the horse stood stock-still and awaited his burden.

The girl had earned this moment, learning parts of the horse, names of the tack and equipment, and doing what she could from her wheelchair to contribute to the care of the horses. Mac had watched week by week as she’d progressed toward this day.

Her name was Lindy, and Mac stood silently at a distance as she sat her mount, her expression radiant. A special moment.

Mac turned away, climbed into his truck, and drove off. Once en route, he checked his messages to see if any of his paying clients had gotten locked up Friday night—an attorney who specialized in criminal defense often racked up messages over the weekend—but, oh happy day, his mailbox was empty.

Which left him free to wonder why Luna was uncomfortable around women, or whether she’d merely been reacting to MacKenzie Knightley’s own unease with the fairer sex.

He pulled up the lane of the address Adelia had given him, which was, indeed, a four-hundred-acre farm. Four hundred three and a quarter acres, to be exact.

Fences were starting to sag, and boards had warped their nails out of the posts. A spring growth of weeds had yet to be whacked down from the driveway’s center, and the most recent crop of winter potholes hadn’t yet been filled in with gravel. The white paint on the north side of the loafing shed was peeling, and the stone barn itself needed some pointing and parging near the foundation.

All in all, a damned depressing sight for a man who’d had as happy a childhood on a farm as a boy could.

Which was to say, very happy.

“Hello, the house!”

No response, which wasn’t a good sign. Farms were busy places, full of activity. Even if humans weren’t in evidence, then the dogs, cats, and chickens usually were. But this farm had no dogs, no sheep, no cows, no visible animal life of any species.

“Over here!”

The shout came from the far side of the hill, where the land rolled down to a draw that Mac would bet still sported a pond and a fine fishing stream, but the tone of voice had been tense, frightened maybe.

He didn’t run. If a horse were cast against a fence, or two horses were taking a dislike to each other, then tearing onto the scene wouldn’t help.

“Coming,” he yelled back. “Coming over the hill.” He rummaged in his truck, extracting two lead ropes and two worn leather halters, as well as a half-empty box of sugar cubes.

When he crested the hill, the sight that met his eyes was so unexpected he stopped in his tracks, and had to remind himself to resume breathing.

They were not horses, they were equine barges, munching grass and twitching their tails in a slow progress across the field where Sid had discovered them. They shifted along, first one foot, a pause to munch grass, then the other foot, all with the ominous inexorability of equine glaciers, leaving Sid to wonder how in the hell anybody controlled them.

If anybody could control them.

What would it feel like if one of those massive horse feet descended on a human toe? How many hours would elapse before the beast would deign to shuffle its foot off the bloody remains, to lip grass on some other blighted part of the earth?

How did animals that large mate, for God’s sake? Surely the earth would shake, and the female’s back would break, and giving birth to even the smallest member of the species would be excruciating.

This litany of horror was interrupted by a shout from back over the rise in the direction of the house and barn. The voice was mature male, which meant it wasn’t Luis.

Help, then, from the therapeutic riding program.

“Over here!” Sid yelled back.

The animals twitched their ears, which had Sid grabbing for the only weapon the house had had to offer, useless though it likely was. Something as big as these horses could run over anything in its path and not notice an obstacle as insignificant as a human.

“You planning on sweeping them out of your pasture?”

A man stood a few feet away, a man built on the same scale as the damned horses, but leaner—meaner?

“Sidonie Lindstrom,” she said, clambering down off the granite outcropping she’d been perched on. “You’re from the therapeutic riding place?”

“I’m their farrier.” His voice was peat smoke and island single malt, and his eyes were sky blue beneath long, dark lashes. Which was of absolutely no moment, and neither was the arrestingly masculine cast of his features.

“What’s a farrier?”

“Horseshoer.” He wasn’t smiling, but something in his blue eyes suggested she amused him.

“Blacksmith? Like Vulcan or Saturn?”

“Close enough. You say you didn’t notice these two were on the property when you took possession?”

“I didn’t say.” Sid took a minute to study her guest—she supposed he was a guest of some sort—while his gaze went to the two big red horses yards away. Enormous, huge, flatulent horses.

“Do they do that a lot?” she asked, wincing as a sulfurous breeze came to her nose. God above, was this how the cavalry mowed down its enemies?

“When they’re on good grass, yes.” Absolutely deadpan. “Daisy!”

The nearest beast lifted its great head and eyed the man.

“You two are acquainted?”

“There aren’t many pairs like this around anymore. Buttercup!” The second animal lifted its head, and worse, shuffled a foot in the direction of the humans.

“What are you doing, mister?” Sid scrambled up on the rocks, shamelessly using the blacksmith’s meaty shoulder for leverage.

“You’re afraid of them?” he asked, not budging an inch.

“Anybody in their right damned mind would be afraid of them,” Sid shot back. “They could sit on you and not even notice.”

“They’d notice. They notice a single fly landing on them. They’d notice even a little thing like you. Come here, ladies.” He took a box of sugar cubes from his jacket pocket and shook it, which caused both animals to incrementally speed up in their approach. They were walking, but walking quickly, and Sid could swear she felt seismic vibrations.

“You’re supposed to help here, you know, not provoke them.” Her voice didn’t shake, but her body was beginning to send out the flight-or-flight-or-flight! signals.

She’d gotten mighty good at the flight response.

“Calm down,” Mr. Sugar Cubes said. “If you’re upset, they’ll pick up on it.”

“Smart ladies, then, because I’m beyond upset. These are not fixtures, and they should not convey with the property. A washing machine or a dryer I could overlook, but these—crap on a croissant, they could bite you, mister.”

He was holding out his hand—and a sizable paw it was too—with one sugar cube balanced on his palm. The first horse to reach him stuck out its big nose and wiggled its horsey lips over his hand, and then the sugar cube was gone.

“You too, Buttercup.” He put a second sugar cube on his hand, and the other horse repeated the disappearing act. “Good girls.” He moved to stand between the horses, letting one sniff his pocket while he scratched the neck of the other. “You need some good tucker, ladies, and your feet are a disgrace. But, my, it is good to see you.”

Red hair was falling like a fine blizzard from where he scratched the horse’s shoulders, and the mare was craning its neck as the man talked and scratched some more.

“Not to interrupt your class reunion, but what am I supposed to do with your girlfriends?”

“They aren’t mine, though they might well be yours. Come meet them.”

He turned, and in a lithe, one-armed move, scooped Sid from the safety of her rocky perch and set her on her feet between him and the horses.

“Mister, if you ever handle me like that again—”

“You’ll do what?”

“You won’t like where it hurts. How do you tell them apart?”

They were peering at her, the big, hairy pair of them, probably thinking of having a Sidonie Salad, and Sid took a step back, only to bump into a hard wall of muscular male chest.

“Look at their faces,” he said. “Buttercup has a blaze, and Daisy has a snip and a star.”

Sid was pressed so tightly against him she could feel him speak. She could also feel he wasn’t in the least tense or worried, which suggested the man was in want of brains.

What he called faces were noses about a yard long, with big, pointed hairy ears at one end, nostrils and teeth at the other, and eyes high up in between. Still, those eyes were regarding Sid with something like intelligence, with a patient curiosity, like old people or small children viewed newcomers.

“How do you know them?” she asked, hands at her sides.

“Thirteen years ago, they were the state champs. They’re elderly now, for their breed, and it looks to me like they wintered none too well. You going to pet them or stare them into submission?”

“Pet…!?”

Before she could rephrase what had come out as only a squeak, Vulcan had taken her hand in his much larger one and laid it on the neck of the nearest horse.

“Scratch. They thrive on a little special treatment, same as the rest of us.”

Sid had no choice but to oblige him, because his hand covered hers as it rested on the horse’s neck. Over the scent of horse and chilly spring day, Sid got a whiff of cloves and cinnamon underlaid with notes that suggested not a bakery, but a faraway meadow where the sunshine fell differently and clothes would be superfluous.

The hand that wasn’t covering Sid’s rested on her shoulder, preventing her from ducking and running.

“Talk to them,” he said. “They’re working draft animals, and they’re used to people communicating with them.”

“What do I say?”

“Introduce yourself. Compliment them, welcome them. The words don’t matter so much as the tone of the voice.” He seemed serious, and the horse was lowering its head closer to the ground the longer Sid scratched her neck.

“Like that, don’t you, girl? I’m Sid, and don’t get too comfortable here, because I am no kind of farmer, and neither is Luis.”

The horse let loose another sibilant, odoriferous fart.

“Pleased to meet you too. There, I talked to her, and she responded. Can I call the SPCA now?”

“No, you may not. Daisy will get jealous if you neglect her.”

“And bitch slap me with her tail?”

“At least.”

Sid could see that happening, so she dropped her hand, then held it out to the other horse.

“You too? I’m changing your names to Subzero and Kenmore, because you’re the size of industrial freezers.” The horse sighed as Sid began scratching the second hairy neck, and Sid hid a smile. “Where’s your dignity, horse? There’s a man present, of sorts.”

“You want me to leave?”

“Yes, particularly if you’re going to take these two with you.”

“Smaller draft horses than these won’t fit in a conventional horse trailer. The halters I brought with me won’t fit them either, though I’ll be happy to clear out if you’re—”

“No! That’s not what I—” Sid fell silent. What did she expect him to do, if he wasn’t going to take the horses with him? “Will the SPCA come get them, or animal control?”

“You want them put down?”

That deep voice held a chill, one that had Sid twisting around to peer at him over her shoulder. “Put down to what?”

“Euthanized, put to sleep. Killed for your convenience.”

His tone was positively arctic, though he was standing so close to Sid she could feel his body heat through her clothes.

“Don’t be an ass. They’ve wandered off from somebody’s property. They’re merely stray, and need to be taken home.”

“I’m not so sure of that, but let’s find them somewhere to put up overnight, and we can argue the details where Daisy and Buttercup can’t hear us. Come along.”

He took Sid by the wrist, and began leading her away from the horses.

Sid trundled along with him—beside him seemed the safest place to be—but glanced warily over her shoulder.

“We’re being followed.”

He dropped her wrist and turned so quickly Sid barely had time to step back.

“Scat!” He waved his hands and charged at the nearest horse, who shied and then stood her ground a few feet off. “Scram, Daisy! Shoo!”

The horse stood very tall, then lowered her head, and ponderously scampered a few feet before standing very tall again. The second horse gave a big shrug of her neck and hopped sideways.

“You get them all wound up,” Sid said, edging toward the gate, “I am burying you where you fall, mister, and the grave will be shallow, because there’s a lot of you to bury.”

“They want to play. Head for the barn. This won’t take long.”

Sid did not need to be told twice. She shamelessly hustled for the gate, stopping to watch what happened in the field behind her only when she’d climbed to the highest fence board.

A two-ton version of tag-you’re-it seemed to be going on, with the horses galumphing up to the man, then veering away only to stop, wheel, and charge him again. He dodged easily, and swatted at them on the neck and shoulders and rump when they went by. When they were a few steps past him, the horses would kick up their back legs or buck, and by God, the ground did shake.

The guy was grinning now, his face transformed from forbiddingly handsome to stunningly attractive. He called to each horse, good naturedly taunting first one then the other, until by some unspoken consent, both mares approached him with their heads down.

Sid couldn’t hear what he said to them, but she saw the way he touched them, the way he fiddled with those big ears, and gave each horse one last scratch. The mares watched him walk back toward the barn, and Sid could have sworn their expressions were forlorn.

“You’re old friends with them,” she said as he climbed over the fence. She tried to turn on the top board, only to find herself plucked straight up into the air, then set gently on her feet. “For the love of meadow muffins, mister, are you trying to get your face slapped?”

His lips quirked, but he did not smile. “No.”

“What am I supposed to do about your lady friends?”

“Nothing for right now. Who’s the kid?”

“What kid?” Sid followed the blacksmith’s gaze to the front porch of their new house. Their new old house.

“The kid who’s going to tear me into little, bitty pieces if you don’t let him know I’m your new best friend.”

“Never had a best friend before,” Sid said, but the man had a point. Luis was looking daggers at the blacksmith, the boy’s shirt luffing against his skinny body, showing tension in every bone and sinew. “Come on, I’ll introduce you. Or I would if you’d told me your name.”

“Everybody calls me Mac.”

She eyed him up and down as they started for the house. “Like the truck? Don’t they have a plant around here somewhere?”

“Hagerstown, but it’s Volvo now, and no, not like the truck. Like MacKenzie.”

“Pleased to meet you, Mr. MacKenzie. I’d be more pleased if you’d take those free-to-good-homes along with you.”

“No, it’s MacKenzie, as in MacKenzie Knightley. I’m fairly certain the horses are yours.”

“You’ve said that twice now, and while I’m a woman slow to anger”—he snorted beside her—“it’s only fair to warn you the notion of me owning those mastodons will sour my mood considerably. Luis!” Sid’s voice caught the boy as he was slouching away from the porch post to duck into the house. “He’s shy.”

“Right.”

“He is, and you’d be too if you’d been in eight foster homes in less than three years. Be nice.”

“Or you’ll beat me up.”

“I’ll tell your horses on you, and they will be very disappointed in you.”

They reached the porch, and Luis was back to holding up a porch post, his hands tucked into his armpits, because at almost sixteen, he was too macho to wear a damned jacket.

“Luis, this is Mac. He’s come to tell us what to do with the horses.”

“Luis.” Mac surprised her by holding out one of those big hands, and Sid said a quick prayer her son would not embarrass her. “Pleased to meet you.”

Her foster son, but that was splitting hairs.

Luis looked at Mac’s hand, which the man continued to hold out, while his gaze held the boy’s. Slowly, Luis offered his hand.

“MacKenzie Knightley, my friends call me Mac.”

“Luis Martineau.”

“You know anything about horses, Luis?”

“Only what I’ve learned from Neils and Adelia,” Luis said. “Horses are to be respected.”

The slight emphasis on the last word had Sid’s heart catching. Luis had taken to his riding lessons like nothing else she’d thrown at him, likely because of the people as much as the horses.

“They are to be respected,” Mac said, “and cared for. Those two mares are in the beginning stages of neglect, and somebody will have to look after them.”

Sid took up a lean on another porch post. “I wish you all the luck in the world with that, Mr. Knightley, because that somebody will not be me or Luis. Now, having settled that, may I offer you a cup of coffee?”

“I’m a tea drinker, actually.”

“You’re in luck,” she said, heading for the door. “The only room we’ve unpacked is the kitchen, and the only thing we’ve stocked is the fridge.”

 

Chapter Two

Mac did not watch Sid Lindstrom’s saucy little butt disappear through the door before him, mostly because the kid would take it amiss.

But it was an effort not to. A surprising, intriguing, vaguely resented effort.

Mac’s two younger brothers, Trent and James, shared the mistaken belief that Mac was indifferent to women. Or maybe they thought he preferred men, though that was patently not true.

Eighty percent of Mac’s criminal clients were men, and of the remaining twenty, women were much more likely to write bad checks than blow someone away in a drug deal gone bad.

Mac liked women, often admired them for their courage, stamina, and grace under pressure, and was as prone to appreciating their physical attributes as the next man—perhaps more prone, given that his appreciation was invariably silent.

He’d grown used to looking and not touching, and with Sid Lindstrom, the unprecedented urge to touch, to taste, to gather her scent and learn the feel and sound and details of her, was interesting.

Though if she’d take on two tons of stray horse with a broom, a mere man had best watch himself around her.

“What kind of tea?” she asked him, opening a cupboard. Just for the pleasure of sniffing the flowery scent of her hair, he stood right behind her.

“This’ll do.” He reached over her shoulder and plucked a box of generic, bagged decaf.

“And you no doubt take it plain. Luis, are you joining us?”

The boy’s dark gaze went from Mac to Sid, back to Mac. He scrubbed a hand through unruly dark red hair, then shook his head.

“I’ll finish setting up my room.”

“Let me know if you need any help. I’ll be making the pizza run around four o’clock.”

Luis ghosted out of the kitchen. Maybe he’d learned to move quietly in his eight different foster homes, or maybe he’d learned it on the street.

“He must like you,” Sid said, putting a fancy stainless steel teakettle on the stove.

“How on earth would you conclude that? I thought he was trying to visually slice my throat.” Mac opened another cupboard and found some mugs decorated in bright paisley rainbows.

“He would not have left you alone with me if he’d been the least bit worried. Spoons are in the drawer.”

Mac took out one spoon and dropped it into the smaller of the two mugs. Outside, sitting on her rock, his first impression of Sidonie had been of isolation and stillness.

And he’d been surprised—he hadn’t been expecting Sid Lindstrom to sport a lovely set of female curves, big green eyes, and a wide, full mouth. Her hair was blond with hints of auburn, and was tucked into a braid that hung down the inside of her jacket.

How long was that braid, and what would it look like loose against the naked skin of her back?

“Are you smiling at that mug?” She stood, arms crossed, by the stove. “I have to ask, because you seem so disinclined to the expression generally.”

“What will you do with those horses?”

She blinked at his deflection of the question—he had been smiling—shrugged out of her jacket, and hung it on a peg beside the door.

“I don’t know the first thing about horses.” She took the steaming kettle off the stove. “Don’t know the first thing about farms, except you can sell them for a lot of money. The horses need a new home in any case, because I’m only out here to catch my breath. Damson Valley is supposed to be pretty, safe, friendly, and cheap. I don’t intend to be here for long.”

Well, of course she didn’t. The first woman Mac had noticed in any significant sense, and she wouldn’t let the grass grow under her feet. Probably for the best, even if that fat braid did hang right down to the top of her fanny.

“A pair like that can’t go just anywhere. Draft animals are literally a breed apart from the typical pleasure horse, or even the typical show horse.”

“They’re bigger, that’s for damned sure. You going to stand there or be sociable and join me at the table?” She didn’t wait for him to answer, but took both mugs to the table.

Mac moved instinctively to hold her chair, but this resulted in a little wrestling match over the chair.

“Mr. Knightley, what do you think you’re doing?” She didn’t take her hand off the back of the chair, her expression puzzled.

“Holding your chair for you.”

“Suitez-vous, Vulcan.” She tucked her butt into the chair. “Get the milk, would you?”

He stole another whiff of her hair first, but was pleased to see she drank whole milk, not skim, not that pansy-ass two percent. Worst of all in his estimation were those who drank one percent—a token gesture of fat to prove how gastronomically brave they were, maybe, or how sophisticated. If he ever caught his brothers—

“What did that milk jug do to deserve such a thunderous expression?” She took the gallon jug from him.

“Looking for the expiration date. You can never be too careful.”

He hung his jacket over hers, same peg.

“How are draft horses different, and why can’t I run an ad, free to good home? Put ’em on Craigslist under Equine Dirigibles?” She poured milk into her tea, then capped the jug and set it on the table. “And for pity’s sake, sit. Unless you’re metabolically incapable of sitting? My brother certainly was.”

She pursed her lips, then took a sip of her tea.

Was. Mac heard the past tense. A guy who’d lost both parents in early adulthood couldn’t miss that particular use of it.

“Draft horses are different from other breeds in several regards,” Mac said, taking the chair next to hers. “Conventional tack won’t fit them, conventional trailers won’t haul them, conventional feeding protocols won’t keep them fit, conventional fencing won’t keep them safe.”

“So they’re a lot of trouble. Lovely.”

“Luis isn’t a lot of trouble?”

He’d made her smile. The lady apparently enjoyed verbal sparring, as would any self-respecting lawyer.

“Point taken, but Luis and I chose each other. I am certain Thing One and Thing Two were not here when we did the walk through before settlement.”

“If they were on the far side of the pond, particularly if they were having a prone nap, you wouldn’t have seen them over the lip of the pond.”

“How do you know this property so well?”

Even a lawyer might not have known to lob that verbal grenade.

“I’m from around here,” Mac said, not examining the motives behind his prevarication. “My brothers and I own a business in town, and we all live a few miles from here in one direction or another.”

“Are they blacksmiths too?”

“It’s not that kind of business. If you’re simply going to sell this place, why take up residence here?”

Some sort of thumpa-thumpa rock music started up on the floor above. Sid’s gaze drifted to the ceiling, and Mac saw for the first time what had been lurking behind the off-hand, dukes-up manner. She was worried and sad. Then too, she’d used the past tense regarding her brother.

The loss of a brother…

“You moved out here for the boy?” he asked, mostly to cut off such bleak thoughts.

“You ever lived in Baltimore or DC?” she shot back.

“I went to school at the University of Maryland, so I’ve spent plenty of time in DC and Baltimore both.”

“Probably not the parts of town where Luis grew up. It’s a damned swamp. Just running to the corner store for an overpriced loaf of white bread, a kid has a thousand opportunities to go astray or be the victim of somebody gone astray. The compulsory school day is a gauntlet you and I cannot imagine. Weekends are just as bad.”

“You lived in those neighborhoods?”

She set her rainbow mug down on the table and cradled it between her two hands. Pretty hand, plain nails, clean and blunt. No rings.

“That’s the thing about cities. You think they’re large, sprawling, and complicated, but when trouble wants to find a kid, trouble is a just a few bus stops away. I’m pretty sure Luis wasn’t a gang member, but he was the next thing.”

Not good, but understandable. A gang was a family, of sorts. “You said he’s been in foster care for three years? He would have had to have been a child…”

“Not by urban standards. He was the man of the house, with two younger sisters and a mama to look after. He was doing a fine job too.”

So proud of the kid. “By selling drugs, muling them, maybe by selling himself outside the gay bars?”

She hunched forward, as if the temperature in the kitchen had just dropped twenty degrees.

“We have crime out here too, Sidonie Lindstrom, and we have children. My sister-in-law Hannah grew up in foster care, and some of the things she suffered in the care of the state would break your heart.”

“You have kids?”

The question took him aback. He needed to ogle less and pay attention more. “I do not.”

“Luis isn’t my first foster kid, but I was warned. The other foster parents all said there are kids that get to you. You love them all, or you try to, but a lot of foster kids are simply putting in time while their parents get their act together.”

Mac waited and waited while a clock over the sink ticked softly.

“I want to adopt him,” Sid went on. “Summer’s coming, and summer is another swamp. With all the budget cutbacks, summer school slots are getting harder to come by, and Luis gets great grades. He’s smart. So smart, in some ways, and yet such an idiot. This place seemed safe, seemed like what I was supposed to do next, because nothing and nobody means more to me than that kid.”

Adopt. A difficult, complicated word.

“Farms can be great places for kids.” Mac sounded like an ad from the county extension office, but it was the best he could do. “On a farm, anybody can make a meaningful contribution, no matter how young or old, and a kid with an ounce of imagination will never be bored on a farm.”

“You were raised on a farm?”

“I…was.”

“Then you know what to do with those horses. Why don’t you take them?”

“I don’t have the right fencing.” Fortunately.

“Why can’t I run an ad?”

“Horse slaughter in the United States is subject to periodic bans, but anybody can buy a horse at auction and take him to the boats in Baltimore.”

“Boats?” She hiked her foot up onto the chair. She was that petite, that limber.

“The horse walks on under his own steam on this end, but by the time the boat docks in Europe, he’s packaged in cellophane and ready for human consumption, and the entire operation is outside the purview of any U.S. humane organization, or any regulatory body, to ensure the horse, who is not regarded here as a food source, is safe to eat.”

“Daisy and Buttercup…?”

“Are nice, big animals. At sixty cents a pound live weight, they’d bring a fair price.”

Her hand went to her stomach, and Mac did not feel the least guilty. “Luis would put me on the boat with them if I let that happen to Daisy and Buttercup.”

Good man, Luis. “They’re happy here, and they’d give Luis something to do.”

“Like what?”

“They probably shouldn’t be at grass twenty-four-seven. When spring really gets under way, that can lead to grass colic, so somebody should bring them in at night and turn them out each morning. When it gets hotter, you reverse that schedule, so they don’t have to deal with the worst heat outside, but can loaf in the barn where it’s cooler. They’ll need fresh water every time they’re brought in. Someone should groom them from time to time to make sure they aren’t sporting any scurf or scratches, and when the flies get bad, they’ll need—”

Sid held up a slim, freckled hand. “Stop. You make it sound like they’re a full-time job.”

“They’re a commitment. As to that, the four-board fence you have should probably be reinforced with a strand of electric, but I can get that done in a day or two, if the boy will help.”

“What will that do to my electric bill?”

Not a no. Daisy and Buttercup were counting on Mac being able to dodge Sidonie Lindstrom’s no.

“Won’t cost you anything. We’ll run the fence off a solar cell.”

“Which will cost me how much to purchase?”

She’d crossed her arms and sat back against her chair to glare at him as she fired off her questions.

“Not one damned cent. My brothers and I have all the material on hand. We each own some land, and Trent has a growing herd of horses. Consider it a housewarming present.”

“Do you always offer your presents with such pugnacity?”

“Yes.”

This did not have the intimidating effect Mac intended. Sid’s lips quirked, and then that wide, wicked mouth of hers blossomed into a soft, sweet smile.

“I’m not very good at presents either,” she said, patting his hand. She rose and took their mugs to the sink, affording Mac a much-needed moment to absorb that smile while she rinsed out their dishes.

Sidonie Lindstrom went from tough, hard-nosed, and combative to alluring, in the space of a single smile. Mac had been expecting a nice, rousing little argument—the lady seemed to enjoy a spat—and instead she’d given him a benediction in the form of her smile.

“You’ll need some tack too,” he said, studying the molding over the door. Either water was getting in through some crack, or the staining had been a half-assed job. “I’ll put the word out and see if we can come up with some halters at least. Their feet need a good trim, and you’ll want the vet out for spring shots, and they probably need their teeth floated too.”

“Now we’re talking money,” she said, her frown back in place as she turned and leaned against the sink.

“Money’s a problem?” People who bought big farms generally had at least big borrowing capability.

Her gaze went back to the ceiling. The next floor up boasted at least five bedrooms, one of which was directly above the kitchen. The music had been turned down, though the bass still vibrated gently through the kitchen.

“Money is a problem, and it isn’t,” Sid said. “At the moment, we’re cash poor, though I don’t anticipate that will be the case in a few months.”

Because she was going to flip the place. Mac didn’t like that idea at all.

“The vet and the dentist will leave you a bill. Most of them will work with you if net thirty’s not an option. I can look after the trimming and show Luis what to look for.”

“Why?”

Her smile was nowhere in evidence, but Mac understood the compelling urge to look gift horses in the mouth.

“We’re neighbors. I don’t know what that means where you come from, but out here, it means we help each other when the need arises. Whoever told you Damson Valley is a friendly place was telling the God’s honest truth.”

Though Mac himself wasn’t much given to friendliness—usually.

“Fine, then how can I help you?”

He wasn’t expecting that. Her question earned his respect—a little more of his respect. “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t think too long.” She pulled a towel from the handle of the refrigerator—more bright colors, chickens and flowers this time—and dried their mugs.

“Because you’re selling this place?” He rose and studied the line of her back, trying not to be mesmerized by the way that thick coppery-blond braid kept brushing the top of her backside over faded, comfortably worn jeans.

“Because I do not like to be beholden to anybody, Mr. Knightley. What do I owe you for coming by here today?” She kept her back to him, and Mac had the sense she was steeling herself for the answer.

Cash poor, indeed.

“A couple slices of pizza will do. Maybe three, provided nobody orders any anchovies. But first, Luis and I will have to get some stalls cleaned out in the barn and scare up something to use as halters. We’ll need buckets and bedding too.”

She dried the second mug and set it up in the cupboard, then turned back around. “Luis can be difficult.”

“Then we should get along, because I can be outright impossible.”

“Yes.” The smile bloomed again, that blessed, beautiful, soul-warming smile. “I can see this about you, MacKenzie Knightley. Outright impossible.”

Damned if she wasn’t giving him the impression she liked that just fine.

Sid sent Luis grumbling out to the barn. From the looks of his room, he’d been napping, not setting his personal space to rights.

To have both males out of the house was a relief. Men had a noisy, biological presence, and not the kind of noise Sid enjoyed. The noise she liked was suburban or urban. Varied, impersonal, too complicated to attribute to any one person or source.

“You miss it too, don’t you?” she asked a fat, long-haired marmalade cat reclining on Luis’s bed.

The beast squeezed its eyes shut in answer, and began to rumble when Sid scratched its neck. What if horses could purr? The racket from those two red monsters would resemble jet engines. Sid scooped up the cat and went to the window, the better to watch Luis shuffling across the yard to the barn.

He hadn’t wanted to move out here either, but where else were they to go?

For the thousand millionth time, the thought “if Tony hadn’t died” tried to take root in Sid’s mind, a useless, stupid thought. She pushed it aside, and brought the cat with her down the hall to her bedroom.

Sid hadn’t chosen the largest bedroom in the house, but rather, had taken the one at the back, with a high ceiling, a private balcony, and a view out over the fields and pastures that comprised her property.

“I will learn to appreciate it,” she informed the cat. “I may not like it, but for now, it’s home.” She put the cat down on her bed, a big fluffy four-poster that went well with the room, and sat beside him.

To close her eyes would feel heavenly. To enjoy for a moment the quiet of the house without male feet—teenage or otherwise—stomping through it, to know somebody else had an eye on Luis for even a little while.

Sid lay down, the cat curling up against her side, and let herself drift.

“How long you been taking lessons with Adelia?”

Mac posed what he hoped was a neutral question. With teenagers, anything, anything could become grist for the drama mill. He recalled his younger brothers’ adolescent moodiness as if it were yesterday, and gave thanks they’d all weathered those storms without irreparable injury.

“I’ve been taking lessons for a few weeks. Before we moved here, Sid brought me out on weekends once she signed me up with them.”

Nothing more, no polite overtures, no small talk. Maybe they’d get along after all.

“You muck your horse’s stall at the riding school?”

“And scrub the water buckets, groom my horse, throw hay, and clean my tack.”

“Then you’re just the man these ponies have been looking for.” Mac walked into the barn’s understory. The good news was the structure was built of chestnut beams and fieldstone and likely to last forever with minor maintenance.

The bad news was the minor maintenance probably hadn’t been done for ten years. Cobwebs hung everywhere, dust accumulated in sedimentary layers on every surface, and little light came through windows larded with fly specking and dirt.

“Water’s back here,” Mac said, going to the sidewall of the barn. The frost-free spigot was barely discernible in the gloom, a bucket festooned with cobwebs still hanging from the hook. “Say a prayer it works.”

He spoke in Spanish, a little to keep Luis’s attention, a little to practice. A criminal defense attorney with some bilingual ability had an advantage, both in garnering business and in earning trust with Hispanic clients. Then too, Spanish was easy and pretty.

“People who live beyond civilization’s borders can’t be expected to speak civilized languages.”

Mac looked up from the rusty water gushing into the old bucket, because Luis had spoken in the soft, lilting French of the islands.

“People who are new to a territory ought to do more listening than judging,” Mac replied in the same language, and he went on in French, because the look on Luis’s face was positively comical. “I dated a girl from Toronto in high school, and she helped me with what I’d learned in class. I also spent a couple summers crewing on a sailboat in the Caribbean. Dump this, would you? I’ll find us some brushes and rags.”

Luis took the bucket without another word and disappeared out into the sunshine.

Mac rummaged in the old dairy, which had been made over into a tack room of sorts, and came up with more buckets, muck forks, old toweling, and a bucket brush.

“Let’s focus on the run-in stall,” he said—in English—when Luis came back. “The rest of this barn needs a crew and some serious cleaning equipment.”

“May we speak French?” Luis asked, using what was apparently his native language. “I seldom hear it, and I don’t want—I prefer it.”

Luis didn’t want to forget his mother tongue, and Social Services had not thought to place him with a family who spoke it—if they’d had one to offer him.

“If you’re not too proud to ask,” Mac said, “I’m not too proud to stumble around, provided you correct my errors.”

A glint came into Luis’s eyes, humor perhaps, or guile. “I will correct you.”

“I will correct you as well.” Mac tossed an old towel at him. “Refill the bucket and start on those windows. You’ll need the brush too.”

“While you do what?”

“Muck the hell out of the run-in.”

They worked mostly in silence, which was fine with Mac. Luis worked hard, like a person his age could, with single-minded determination to do the job right. The windows didn’t exactly sparkle when he was done—the old single-pane glass needed newspaper and vinegar for a real shine—but they let in light.

“It looks better,” Luis said. “But that’s only one corner of the barn.”

“It’s a start. We’d better knock off now, or the feed store will close before we can get to it.”

Uneasiness crossed the kid’s features before his expression went blank. “Sidonie will prefer I remain here.”

“Then she can come with me, or you both can, or I’ll leave you directions to the feed store so you know where it is.” Getting into a truck with a strange man was apparently on Luis’s don’t-even list. Mac did not speculate about why. “We’ll need to clean up some before we’re seen in public, in any case, but, Luis?”

The boy stopped a few steps up the barn aisle.

“You put up the muck forks and buckets and so forth every time, because if a horse gets loose, he can tangle himself up in them, destroy them, or do harm to himself.”

Luis retrieved the muck fork from where he’d propped it near the water spigot. Mac gathered up the rest of the forks, buckets, towels, and brushes and followed Luis back to the dairy/tack room.

“How do you know the horses?” Luis asked as they turned for the house. “Sid says you know their names.”

“Buttercup has the blaze. Daisy has the star and the snip. I grew up around here, and those two were the state champs at one point.”

“They’re champions?”

“They were, years ago. Does Sid speak French?”

“She tries, but she is too proud. She has to be the mother.”

This last was said with a sweet smile as they walked back to the house. When this boy filled out, he would turn heads and break hearts—provided he stayed out of jail.

“Lost my dad when I was not much older than you are now,” Mac said. “A mother is a fine thing to have.”

Luis’s head came up. “My mother’s in jail. Twenty years for CDS distribution, and a lot of other bullshit.”

“You ever get to see her?” Controlled Dangerous Substances, a.k.a. street drugs.

“She’s in Jessup.”

Not an answer. Jessup was a lot closer to Baltimore, though, and moving out here would make visits to the prison harder to arrange.

“I’ve visited Jessup. The facilities aren’t bad, for a jail.”

Luis snorted and preceded Mac into the kitchen.

Mac tried to picture his own late mother in jail. A criminal defense attorney saw people go to jail almost daily. Bad people, good people, some of them even innocent good people.

But his own mother?

He followed Luis into the house and wondered what would make a woman like Sidonie Lindstrom—a pretty, unmarried city girl who probably read more magazines than books and loved the smell of car exhaust—take on the challenge of a kid like Luis.

 

Chapter Three

Sid was dreaming of an expedition to White Flint Mall down in the thriving suburb of Rockville. To the bargain rack at Lord and Taylor, where the slickest Little Black Dress hung in just her size. Finished silk, a plunging neckline, the hemline at exactly mid-thigh, with floral aubergine embroidery on the hem and neckline. Modest, but with the potential to tease, particularly when matched with onyx and gold jewelry, and three-inch spikes. The dress would feel lovely against her skin, and make her want to move around in it simply for the caress of the fabric on her bare—

Something—the cat’s tail?—brushed her nose.

“Wakey, wakey, princess.”

That gravelly baritone had no place in either her dreams or her realities. Sid opened her eyes.

MacKenzie Knightley sat on the white frothy duvet covering her bed, looking perfectly at ease for all his size and dark coloring.

“I was resting my eyes.”

“Right.” He dropped her braid and stood, without cracking a smile—without needing to crack a smile; his amusement was that evident. “You’ve been resting your eyes for a while now, I’m guessing.”

“Why would you guess that?” Sid bounced and slogged her way to the edge of the bed. Big beds were for sleeping in, not for making dignified exits from.

“I’d guess that, because you’ve got a crease on your cheek from the pillows, and because I stood in that doorway there”—he pointed ten feet across the room—“and politely suggested you wake up for about five minutes straight.”

She made it to the edge of the bed, but her brain was having trouble waking up along with her body.

“Where’s Luis?”

“Braiding some baling twine halters to use until we can scare up the real deal. I suggested he and I make an excursion to the feed store and pick up the pizza so you could sleep, but he was reluctant to leave you here alone.”

“Pizza.” Sid’s mind latched onto the image of a big, piping hot, loaded deep-dish with a mug of cold root beer to go with it. “I suppose we can’t get anything delivered here?”

“You suppose right,” he said. “I’ll leave you to get yourself in order while I round up Luis.”

He headed for the stairs, giving Sid a chance to appreciate his departing side. Lithe, like a big cat, and quiet, but not as incongruous in her bedroom as he should have been. The high ceilings, the solid stone construction of the house, the old oaks in the yard, and the open fields beyond suited him.

Maybe she could sell the place to him, except a horseshoer—she forgot the other word he’d used—probably couldn’t afford this much land.

She stopped dead in front of her cheval mirror.

“God in heaven.” She had a crease on her cheek, her hair was a wreck, and her clothes looked like they’d never gotten acquainted with the dryer’s wrinkle-guard feature.

MacKenzie Knightley had seen her like this.

Apparently, country boys didn’t scare easily. Sid set to work with her brush, changed into fresh jeans that fit a little more snugly, and a green silk blouse that complemented her eyes. Brown suede half boots and a denim jacket with green and brown beading on the hems completed the picture.

“You’ll do,” she informed her image. When she sauntered into the kitchen, Luis and MacKenzie were sitting at the table, working lengths of some hairy-looking twine.

“You’ve taken up macramé, Luis?” She tousled his hair, because they had company, and Luis wouldn’t give her sass for it.

“Making halters for the horses. I’m supposed to bring them in at night and turn them out in the morning until the hot weather comes.”

“They might be gone by hot weather,” Sid said, going to the fridge.

Luis set the twine on the table and stood. “Gone where?”

“I’m not sure, but we know next to nothing about caring for livestock, Luis. You know this place isn’t a long-term for us.”

“But you told Social Services—”

“Luis Martineau, what I tell that bunch of officious bi—biddies, or your good-for-nothing lawyer, has nothing to do with reality, any more than they’re really concerned with your best interests. Now what do you want on your pizza?”

She felt MacKenzie Knightley watching them, but what did a horseshoer know about the red tape, posturing, and endless regulations that went along with being a foster parent? What did he know about Luis’s family, much less Sid’s own situation?

And as far as Sid was concerned, “good-for-nothing lawyer” was a redundant term.

“You know how I like my pizza,” Luis said, “and I don’t see why we have to sell the horses when we just moved here.”

Sid was about to tell him that wasn’t his decision, but something in his eyes promised her a knock-down, drag-out, steel cage bout of pouting and sulking if she pulled rank on him in front of their guest.

“We’ll talk about it later.”

“I’ll be the one taking care of them,” Luis said. “If they’re no inconvenience to you, I don’t see why you have to get rid of them.”

Damnably logical, until one of the mastodons stepped on his foot, and Child Protective Services was out here, sniffing around and muttering about lack of supervision.

“They’re not foster children, Luis, and playing the guilt card this early in an argument is a low shot, and bad strategy.”

“They aren’t foster children,” Luis said, his chin coming up. “They don’t have a lawyer. Nobody is required to report when those horses are abandoned or treated badly. Nobody owes them food or shelter. They have nobody and nothing, no rights.”

“I hate to interrupt,” Knightley said, getting to his feet, “but the feed store isn’t open all night. We can continue this over pizza, can’t we?”

“Yes,” Sid said, grudgingly grateful to him for intervening. “As long as you’re willing to look after the horses, Luis, we can take our time about finding them another home.”

“I’d leave it there,” Knightley said to Luis. “You’re too much of a gentleman to fight dirty in front of me, and Sidonie’s too stubborn to back down while I’m here. You’ll make more progress without a peanut gallery.”

“She is stubborn,” Luis said, the corners of his mouth trying to turn up.

“And you.” Knightley took Sid’s jacket down from the wall peg and held it up for her. “Don’t needle him over dinner. Let him spend a few days scrubbing water buckets, trudging in and out from the pasture in the pouring-down rain and wind and mud, spooning honey before and after school every day, and see if his position doesn’t shift closer to center.”

The prospect of Luis seeing reason all on his own prospect cheered Sid, as did the idea that they were only a few miles—only!—from some place that served pizza and Greek fare Knightley swore was worth the drive.

“You two coming with me, or are we going to caravan?” Knightley asked.

His face gave away nothing, not eagerness for their company, not distress at having to share his vehicle. Nothing.

“We’ll follow you.”

“Then we’ll find the pizza place by way of the feed store. You should have a couple bags of senior feed on hand for your ponies, and probably pick up some joint supplement for them as well.”

He climbed into his truck—a big blue thing that looked like it could pull house trailers—and fired it up.

“Diesel,” Luis said, which was proof positive guys had different genes.

“You can tell that from listening to it?”

“You can’t?”

“You want to drive?” Sid asked, rather than admit her ignorance. Knightley’s wheels sounded like a truck. Like a big powerful truck.

She tossed Luis the keys and buckled in. Fortunately, Knightley drove below the posted speed, no doubt making allowances for the fact that they were following. In the waning light, the countryside was pretty enough, with a few fields already bright green, and others not yet planted.

“Do you know what the green stuff is?” Sid asked.

“Winter wheat. There’s fields of it near the high school.”

Where they’d registered him on Friday, because the Department of Social Services frowned on foster children having any time off from school, even when those children pulled straight A’s in merit classes. Sid had pushed it, giving Luis three days off before enrolling him, hoping social workers out here in the country were a more reasonable breed.

Maybe pigs could fly in this fresh rural air too.

“Feed store,” Luis said, dutifully putting on his turn signal and following Knightley into the parking lot of a building sporting a “Damson County Farmers’ Co-op” sign over a front-facing loading dock. “You coming in?”

“Sure, unless you’re paying for this pony chow?”

“I would, if that would make a difference.”

Sid got out and studied Luis over the roof of the car. “You just met these horses, Luis, right?”

He jammed his hands in his pockets, a young man trying to figure out how not to get in trouble for telling the truth, because he would assuredly get in trouble if he lied.

“I saw their tracks in the pasture the day we moved in, and I knew the tracks couldn’t have been there from last year. Mac’s waiting for us.”

Tracks. Oh, right. Litte dude from way down town saw horse tracks. Like she would believe that.

“You knew the horses were there, and you said nothing. This is not good, Luis.”

“They were abandoned,” Luis said again. “Left to starve or die. They don’t deserve that, Sid. They were state champions, and nobody cares what happened to them.”

Spare me from crusading adolescents. “We don’t know what their story is, but we’ll talk more about this later.”

Knightley started walking toward Sid’s little Mustang convertible as if he’d heard his cue. “You might consider getting something with four-wheel drive. Winters can be tricky out here.”

“This thing’s paid off,” Sid said, patting the candy-apple-red hood. “Car payments can be tricky too. Where’s the horse food aisle?”

“It doesn’t work like that,” Knightley said. “Come on inside, and I’ll show you the ropes.”

He held the door for her—for a farm boy, he had polished manners—and explained they ordered the feed at the counter, and the nice man would put it in her car for them. This was good, because the feed came in fifty-pound bags, which meant hefting it out of her car’s trunk would be a job she and Luis shared.

Fifty dollars later, they had two bags of horse food and some fancy fairy dust with joint supplement in it for horses. Luis was listening raptly as Knightley explained the ins and outs of feeding draft horses, as opposed to the school horses Luis had met thus far.

“Are we going to stand here all night,” Sid asked, “or take pity on a starving woman?”

The man and the boy turned to look at her at the same moment, their expressions showing the same consternation.

“Pizza,” she said, enunciating carefully. “Gyros, cheesecake. Nu-tri-tion, such as it can be found out here in the provinces. Ringing any bells?”

“Sid gets cranky when her blood sugar’s low,” Luis said. “And she’s tired.”

“I never would have guessed.” Knightley turned to open his truck door—his unlocked truck door. “The restaurant is right down this road about two miles on the left. You can’t miss it.”

“We’ll meet you there.” Sid hopped into her car and started the engine, lest Luis get Knightley going on some other No Girls Allowed topic. That had happened occasionally with Tony, but not often. Luis had kept his distance from Tony, and Sid hadn’t really known what to do about it.

But then, Tony hadn’t been trying to be any kind of role model for Luis. He’d regarded the foster children as Sid’s “little experiment.” They came and went, and if Sid wanted to send them birthday and Christmas cards, or go to their graduations, that was her decision.

When she’d told him Luis was different, Luis was a keeper, he’d scoffed.

“They’re all different to you, Sid. You’d keep every one of them if you could get away with it.”

Damn him, even if he was dead, he’d been right.

“How long you been taking lessons with Adelia?”

Mac had made a horrendous mistake, one evident before the food had been brought to the table. Aspidistra’s was getting crowded, because Saturday night was an eat-out night in the local surrounds, and the options were few unless driving forty minutes to Frederick or Hagerstown held some appeal.

Mac lived about four miles away, and the folks politely noticing MacKenzie Knightley sitting down to a public meal with a female-who-wore-no-ring were his neighbors. He’d taken the waitress, Marcella Ebersole, to the junior prom almost twenty years and many dress sizes ago, and had his hand as far up her skirts as nature and the backseat of a restored Super Beetle would allow.

He’d also defended Marcella’s son on shoplifting charges last year and gotten the kid probation before judgment, thus preserving the boy’s shot at some college scholarships.

Two booths down, Mrs. Fletcher, Mac’s old youth choir director, sat with her husband of five decades, beaming at the man, though in her words, he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

At the bar, Mac’s nemesis from middle school wrestling tournaments, Joey Hinlicky Jr., sat nursing a longneck. Joey was referred to as Deuce now, because his son sported the same moniker, as well as dad’s penchant for mischief.

And damned if Joe hadn’t winked at Mac before the pizza was even out of the oven.

Marcella had smirked at him.

Mrs. Fletcher had smiled.

What the hell had he been thinking?

He returned the smiles, nods, and winks with as much civility as he was capable of, which only seemed to amuse the idiots and goons around him. Fortunately, he was with a woman and a boy who took their tucker seriously. Luis matched Mac slice for slice, and Sid held her own as well, even finishing Luis’s piece of cheesecake.

“Never had key lime cheesecake before,” Sid observed. “Is it a local delicacy?”

“I’ve never had a dessert from Vespa Boon’s kitchen that wasn’t delicious,” Mac said. “Though I admit key lime cheesecake is new to me too. If nobody’s ordering seconds though, I’ll be on my way.”

He started to get out his wallet, but Sid reached across the table to circle his wrist with her fingers.

In front of the whole goddamned restaurant, of course.

“Put that away, Mr. Knightley.”

He wanted to, if for no other reason than to get her hands off of him, but she held fast, and her gaze bored into his.

“You came over to help with those horses then spent half your afternoon cleaning up our barn. You said you’d take a couple slices of pizza as your reward, and it’s hardly a reward if you have to pay for it.”

Mac had said that, so he sat back and stuffed his wallet in his pocket. Convicted by his own testimony.

“May I at least get the tip?”

“No, you may not.”

He sat there feeling about two feet tall while Sid rummaged in a paisley green bag and came up with some sort of tie-dyed cloth billfold.

“Then you have my thanks,” Mac said, because his mama had raised him right. “I enjoyed the food and the company.”

Sid tossed a twenty and a ten onto the table. This wasn’t an expensive place to eat—far from it—but letting a woman pay for his meal was—

“You’re too much of a gentleman to argue with her in public,” Luis said, getting to his feet, and now the kid was smirking too.

“I am.” Mac rose and reached for Sid’s jacket, which hung on the coat rack at the corner of their booth. He went on in French, though it was arguably rude. “See that you continue to set a good example for me, lest I forget my upbringing and embarrass us both.”

“I don’t embarrass easily,” Luis said.

Sid watched this exchange but made no comment while Mac held out her jacket for her. She looked like she wanted to argue, or to snatch it from him, but Luis was grinning at them like one of the porpoises at the National Aquarium over in Baltimore. Sid turned her back and slipped her arms into the jacket, then flipped her braid out and draped it over her shoulder.

“Take me home, Luis.” She tossed him the keys. “Maybe in the morning, those equine asteroids will have ridden their bicycles back to whatever planet they came from. Mr. Knightley, thank you for all your help.”

She was dismissing him, and Mac felt more relief than was polite to be parting from her. People would talk, that was inevitable, but Mac had spent most of his adult life making sure they weren’t talking about him.

But then—oh, ye gods and little fishes—Sidonie Lindstrom made sure Mac was all that folks would talk about for at least the next three weeks.

She went up on her toes, put a hand on the back of his neck, and brushed a kiss to his cheek. To make matters infinitely worse, she hesitated for a moment, lingering near, her hand at his nape. She hovered long enough that Mac got a whiff of something fresh and flowery, a hint of lily of the valley over the clean scent of her shampoo. His hand was at her waist to steady her, though he’d not a clue how it ended up there.

“You’re welcome,” he managed.

Sid settled back down on her heels, her fingers brushing at the back of his neck before she withdrew her hand.

No doubt by the time church services were over tomorrow morning, his friends and neighbors would have him married to Sid Lindstrom, living at the farm, and picking out names for their firstborn.

Then his brothers would start in on him, and his misery would be complete.

These thoughts preserved Mac from blushing, but only just.

“Shall we go?” he suggested, shrugging into his own jacket. “Do you know how to get home from here?”

“We’ll manage,” the Kissing Fiend assured him, “but I’ll meet you fellows in the parking lot. I need to make a pit stop before we head back to the Ponderosa.”

She sashayed off toward the ladies’ room, leaving Mac to walk—not run—for the door, with Luis matching him step for step.

“Is everything around here so white-bread?” Luis asked as they gained the chilly night air.

“White-bread and then some. We have a liberal smattering of Mennonite, and even some Amish.”

“Like, ‘Witness,’ and all that?”

“Daisy and Buttercup are genuine Amish plow stock,” Mac said, realizing too late he probably shouldn’t admit he knew their bloodlines. “But you’ll see some diversity at the high school, though it’s all recently acquired.”

“It’s bad enough being dark-skinned and red-haired in the city. I’m going to be the freak of the universe out here.”

“You’ll be different, but then, being six-foot-four before the end of my sophomore year made me different, and in my experience, that can be a good thing. Does Sid always kiss strange men in public?”

“Sid’s Sid.” Luis’s teeth gleamed in the darkness. “But yeah, she’s a kisser. Took me a while to get used to it, but it’s kind of nice too. I figure it’s her way of telling the whole world I’m partly hers.”

Mac considered that. Sure as shit, he was not anybody’s, except perhaps his brothers’. “I’ll hurt her feelings if I ask her not to do it again?”

Luis’s smile disappeared. “I dunno, but it was just a kiss. Big guy like you can’t take a little smoocheroo?”

Mac let the conversation lapse because Sid was churning across the parking lot in her fake cowgirl boots, hugging her decorative denim jacket close against the night breeze.

“Spring, my fat Aunt Fanny,” she said as she approached them. “Luis, don’t spare the horses, as it were. Mr. Knightley, good night.”

Mac found himself holding the car door open for her. On the other side of the car, Luis stopped before climbing in. “You said you could find us some real halters, didn’t you?”

What was it with these people, that they memorized a man’s every blessed word?

“I did say that. I’ll make some calls when I get home tonight.”

Luis wasn’t buying that, the little twerp. “How do we call you if we have questions about the horses?”

“Luis,” Sid broke in, “get in the car before I freeze to death.”

Mac drew out one of his farrier’s cards, and tossed it onto the roof of the car. “Evenings and weekends are the best time to reach me. My thanks again for dinner.” He closed the car door and turned his back on them both.

The kissing female, the smirking, brooding boy, the pair of them.

He climbed in his truck, cranked up the heat, slipped in a disc of Vera Winston playing late Brahms piano solos, and turned on the seat heater for good measure. Shoeing horses was hard on a man’s back, and some days Mac was already half convinced he should put away his tools.

He’d always do his brother’s horses, of course. James was the family mechanic—when he wasn’t mooning after his piano teacher—and Mac was the family horseshoer. Trent’s position was more subtle.

He was the family dad, the middle brother, the glue, the guy who checked on the fraternal chickens, making sure Mac wasn’t too isolated, and James wasn’t socially exhausting himself.

Though their roles had started to change with Trent’s marriage to Hannah earlier in the year. Now James was showing signs of getting Vera Winston into double harness, and that would mean James had at least a stepdaughter to go with Trent and Hannah’s pair of seven-year-olds.

Eight-year-olds, soon.

Mac stabbed at the CD controls, and swapped out Brahms for early Brubeck. Children had been abundantly in evidence at the restaurant—babies, toddlers, tweens, and teens. Children and doting parents, and even grandparents.

He switched the music to Mel Tormé, soothing, bluesy crooning that suited Mac’s out-of-sorts frame of mind. His mood did not improve when he saw lights on at his house, and recalled James was bringing the everyday truck back from its visit to James’s garage.

“Made yourself at home, I see,” Mac observed as he walked into his own kitchen. James was at the table, doing the crossword puzzle in the local newspaper, while one of Mac’s cats supervised as it sprawled over half the funnies. The kitchen light haloed James’s blond hair. A loaf of homemade bread sat on the classifieds, amid a few crumbs, and a tub of homemade butter at James’s elbow.

“The kettle should still be hot,” James said, not looking up. “What’s a three-letter word for difficulty or trouble?”

Sid. “Dunno. My truck’s done?”

“Rub,” James said, his pencil making neat strokes. “You’re the Shakespeare nut. You should have known that one. Your truck’s done, but I didn’t check your spare.”

“Why should you need to?”

“Because that model has been recalled. Road salt corrodes the spare brace assembly. Take it to the dealer and get it checked, lest your spare go thumping down onto the tarmac without warning. I need four letters for a word that means—” James looked up, his gaze going to the clock. “Where have you been, Mac? I’m almost done with this puzzle, and it’s the Saturday special.”

Prevaricating was pointless. James had a social network that made the online utilities pale by comparison. By this time tomorrow, word of Mac’s dinner out, and the way it had concluded, would be all over the valley.

“I had pizza with my last stop of the day,” Mac said, hanging up his jacket. “Spent the first part of the day with the therapeutic riding ponies. Adelia send her regards.”

James stuck his pencil behind his ear. “She doing OK?”

“She and Neils are doing OK.” Mac added water to the teakettle. James had never been the possessive sort, nor did he tolerate possessiveness in his female acquaintances.

“She deserves to be happy, and Neils is good people. I wasn’t aware you were shoeing horses for anyone but the therapeutic riding program.”

“And our brother, Mr. Many Ponies. These people were connected with the riding program.” Mac put the kettle on the stove, turned on the burner, and wondered why James had hung out here on a Saturday night when he had his own place not two miles away.

“You ever talk to Hannah much about foster care?” Mac asked.

“Some.”

“What does she say?”

He heard James’s chair scraping back, and then his brother was standing beside him at the stove. “She says it was lonely, but not all of it was bad. Why?”

“No reason. You want some tea?”

“Sure.”

James’s tone was casual—James did a virtuosic job with casual—but Mac wasn’t fooled. His youngest brother was studying him, and the guy was brilliant at most anything he turned his hand to, including needling his elders or chasing women.

Except until recently, the women had done the chasing, which was beyond brilliant. Now James was smitten with his Vera, though the course of true love had apparently hit bad footing.

“Cream is in the fridge,” Mac reminded him.

“Why do you use cream? Clogging your arteries can’t be good for an old man like you.”

“You are six years my junior,” Mac said, taking the boiling kettle off. “This means I can still whup your ass on my worst days. Get the agave nectar.”

James rummaged in the cupboard for a squeeze bottle. “Did Trent turn you on to this stuff?”

“Other way around.” Mac took the bottle from him. “I use cream because I enjoy its richness, most flavor compounds being fat soluble, and because dairy fat is good for you. I also use it because you don’t need as much to get the same dairy impact as you would with milk, so you can have your tea hotter than if you’d dosed it with milk. Let’s take this to the study.”

“Why is everything an appellate argument with you?” James asked, trailing after Mac with his own tea.

“You asked me why I used cream. I answered. Did you know the home place has been flipped again?”

James closed the study door. “You told me it was for sale.”

“That was my last call of the day.” James would hear about this too, of course. Luis would go to school, he’d say something about the draft horses being on the property, and the whole story would eventually reach James’s ears.

“That could not have been easy.” James sprawled on one end of the couch. “The place doesn’t look like anybody has kept it up in recent years.”

“The property is still salvageable with hard work and hard cash.” Mac took the rocking chair he’d built to suit his personal dimensions. James was also several inches over six feet, Trent about the same, but they both seemed to wear their height more easily than Mac did.

More gracefully.

“So who bought it?” James asked after a thoughtful sip of Earl Grey. “What kind of horses do they have?”

“A lady with a foster kid bought it, or came by it somehow, and they aren’t horse people, James, but they have Daisy and Buttercup.”

James, the true horseman in the family, came immediately alert. “Our Daisy and our Buttercup?”

“They aren’t ours anymore, James, and haven’t been for a long, long time.”

“How long you been taking lessons with Adelia?”

“I’m telling you, Sid, he knew exactly where everything was.” Luis sat on the kitchen counter, looking like a giant, adolescent, cookie-ingesting vulture.

When had he grown taller than Sid’s own five foot seven inches, and where was he going to stop? And why didn’t anybody warn a woman that old Formica never really came clean?

“So Knightley knows his way around a barn. He’s a farm boy who shoes horses. Why wouldn’t he?” A mighty big farm boy.

“You never believe me,” Luis said, brushing crumbs from his lap onto the floor. “I’m telling you, Sid, he reached up into the rafters and found a hoof pick, like he’d hung it up on his personal nail just yesterday.”

She scrubbed at a brown stain on the counter, knowing she’d get nowhere with it. “What’s a hoof pick?”

“Like the thing in the nail file you use to clean under your fingernails, but for horses.”

“Maybe you always hang those things from the rafters, and as tall as he is, he spotted it up there.”

Which meant he’d probably seen the top of the fridge, which likely hadn’t been scrubbed since the Flood.

“You couldn’t see jack in that barn because the windows were all filthy. Knightley knows this place, and I’m thinking he knew the horses were here.”

“So you’ve convicted him of abandoning and neglecting those equine asteroids, all without benefit of judge or jury?”

When had Sid appointed herself the guy’s public defender? She gave up on the stain and wrung the hell out of the tired rag she’d been using.

“I’m raising questions.” Luis’s tone was maddeningly patient, but then, the defining joy of adolescence was to condescend to slow-witted adults. “Questions you ought to be raising.”

To throw the rag or to be an adult? She ran the rag under the tap and wrung it out again.

“Weese, I am grateful that you’re so protective of me, but I’m the mama. It’s my job to protect you. What I know about Knightley is he showed up here when we needed him, dealt with the horses, spent more time acquainting us with their preferred pony chow, and even joined us for a surprisingly good dinner at the local watering hole. His actions suggest he’s a decent man, if a little low on charm.”

Charm challenged, in fact.

“I didn’t think you liked him,” Luis said, taking still more cookies from the package.

Fortunately, Sid didn’t particularly like peanut butter cookies, for that bunch was doomed to annihilation by morning.

“I don’t know Mr. Knightley well enough to like him or dislike him,” Sid said. “I was grateful he came when needed, and equally grateful that he rode off into the sunset. I’m about to do likewise, and you shouldn’t be up too late either.”

She wrung the rag out again, as hard as she could, and draped it over the spigot.

“I still have to set up my computer,” Luis said around a mouthful of cookie. “How long before we have high speed out here?”

“Yeah. About the high speed.”

Luis rolled up the package of cookies and slipped a rubber band around it.

“I’ll get a job,” he said. “I can pay for the horse food, and help out with the bills, and high speed really only makes a difference for graphics. You don’t need it for email and social stuff.”

Sid would rather he scolded her, even if she was the mama. Dial-up not two hours from the national capital was proof positive of parental incompetence.

“Weese, I am sorry. First thing Monday, I’ll call the estate lawyers and harass the hell out of them. They said it could take a year, but it’s been six months. Something has to break loose sometime soon.”

Though every time she called them, they probably billed the estate for it.

“I’ll get a job.”

Six months was a long time to a teenager, particularly a disillusioned teenager who’d been let down enough for a long lifetime. Six months was a long time when bills were coming due too.

“So you get a job.” Sid swiped the cookies and stashed them in a cupboard. “We only have one car between us, and you don’t have your license yet. How will you get to and from this job? We’ve been over this and over this: your job now is to rack up as many advanced placement courses as you can, Weese. That’s money in the bank; that’s entrée; that’s laps ahead of the pack.”

Also time spent in the company of people his own age, something Luis didn’t appear to care for.

“I can do both.” He hopped down from the counter, lithe as a dancer “You did.”

“I do not recommend it,” she shot back. “By the time Tony took me in, I was a wreck, and I had no friends, and you don’t want to end up like that.”

He gave her a long, sad perusal, then balled up the paper towel he’d been using as napkin and, with the faultless grace of the natural athlete, lobbed it into the contractor bag pressed into service until they found their wastebaskets.

“I’ve got Mac’s card,” Luis said, leaping topics in a display of teenaged tact. “He said he’d find us some halters for our horses.”

“Ours for now,” Sid said tiredly. “They’re only our horses for now.”

End of Excerpt

Kiss Me Hello is available in the following formats:

Sourcebooks

March 3, 2015

Connected Books

Kiss Me Hello is Book 3 in the Sweetest Kisses series. The full series reading order is as follows:

Book 1: A Single Kiss Book 2: The First Kiss Book 3: Kiss Me Hello Novella: A Kiss for Luck