“Sierra Daniels. Please stand.”
She stood. So did Gavin.
“Would you like to say anything before we discuss your case?”
Gavin glanced at the members of teen court and then at the magistrate. “Permission to speak on Sierra’s behalf, your honor?”
The magistrate’s hard gaze zoomed to him. “And you are?”
“Gavin Daniels, your honor. Sierra’s father.”
“Permission granted. What’s on your mind, Mr. Daniels?”
“I understand that a community service sentence is often handed down in a case like this. I agree that it would be a good lesson for my daughter. But I respectfully request you consider an alternative.”
Holy shit. Dismissive wasn’t a reaction Ben usually got, especially not in here. And that intrigued the hell out of him. Casually, he said to Murphy, “Introduce me to her.”
“And why is that, Mr. Daniels?”
“Because we will be moving out of state next week.” Gavin shot Sierra a harsh look when she opened her mouth.
“Next week?” the magistrate asked skeptically.
“Yes, your honor. The day of my daughter’s arrest last month I was meeting with Judge O’Connor and he granted me sole custody of Sierra at her mother’s request. Since I’m no longer legally bound to live in Arizona, we’ll be moving closer to family.”
A pause. “Where will that be?”
From the corner of his eye he saw Sierra gaping at him, but Gavin kept his attention on the magistrate.
“In light of this being your first offense, your guilty plea, and the security guard recovering the stolen item, I will dismiss the charge—provided you have no contact with the store and you have no subsequent incidents in the next six months. Then this infraction will be expunged from your juvenile record.”
The magistrate looked at Sierra. “And to be honest…your father forcing you to move to Wyoming is punishment enough.”
* * * *
“I hate you and I’m never ever ever going to forgive you for this! Why are you ruining my life?”
Choking silence filled the air.
“You done?” he asked coolly.
“Will you change your mind about making me move to Bumfuck, Wyoming?”
“Not on your life, sweetheart.”
“Don’t call me that!” She stomped off.
He listened to her footsteps fading on the tiled floor, counting out the seconds.
Wait for it… Wait for it…
Yep. There it was. God knows her tantrum wouldn’t be complete without a house-shaking door slam.
“I don’t like the gleam in your eye,” Murphy half-snarled.
Gavin loaded his lowball glass with ice, then filled it with Crown XR. He knocked back half the whiskey in one swallow.
Damn kid was driving him to drink—something even her psychotic mother hadn’t been able to do. Wasn’t the first time Sierra had professed her hatred for him—nor would it be the last.
His announcement in teen court today had come as quite a shock to her. But her arrest had been the last straw, especially after his ex-wife had called shoplifting “a teenage rite of passage” and excused Sierra’s bad behavior.
Problem was, bad behavior had been the norm for Sierra since the beginning of her freshman year. She broke curfew without explanation or apology. She lied about her plans. Her grades had slipped. She’d become surly and defiant with an air of entitlement—much like her mother.
Sharing joint custody with his ex-wife meant his attempts at keeping their daughter on the right path were largely ignored whenever Sierra stayed at Mommy Dearest’s house. So Gavin considered it a sign, an omen, hell, a blessing, when Ellen suddenly announced she was moving to Paris with her boyfriend du jour.
After years of custody battles, she signed over full custody of her only child for one year. Evidently Ellen didn’t want parental responsibilities spoiling a good time in gay Paree.
His self-centered ex hadn’t considered how her actions would affect Sierra. Once again he’d been left holding the bag, standing helplessly outside her bedroom door, listening to his daughter cry.
That’s when he’d known they both needed a drastic change.
He’d called Rielle, he’d called Charlie and Vi, and he’d called a moving van.
By this time next week they’d be living in Sundance.
If they didn’t kill each other on the eighteen-hour drive to Wyoming first.
“I can’t believe the man is kicking you out of your own bedroom. What an asshole.”
Rielle ignored Rory’s comment and lugged the box of yarn downstairs into the last bedroom on the main level.
Rory followed her. “Mom. Seriously, you don’t have to stay here. My cabin will be empty next week when I’m back at college in Laramie.”
“I appreciate the offer, but this is fine. And it’s not like Gavin is throwing me out—” her eyes narrowed on her daughter, “—which he has every right to do because he owns this house.”
“I know that. But you have to admit you never thought he’d move here permanently and take over ownership.”
Rielle moved a stack of bedding off the dresser. “It’s my own fault since I’ve been dragging my feet on getting West Construction to start on my building plans.”
“I still say it’s lucky that you’ve stayed on as caretaker and he shouldn’t expect you to just move everything at a moment’s notice.”
“He’s lucky? I’ll remind you that I’m lucky and I wouldn’t even be living here if it wasn’t for Gavin saving me from financial ruin.”
“Financial ruin,” Rory scoffed. “He only bought the land and buildings to one-up the McKays—which is ironic since he is a McKay.”
“Gavin’s last name is Daniels.”
Rory waved off her comment. “Semantics. If it looks like a McKay, acts like a McKay…then it is a McKay.”
Pointless to argue with her headstrong daughter when it came to her opinions on the McKay family—opinions that she herself often shared.
“When do they get here?” Rory asked.
“They left Scottsdale today, but Gavin said they’re taking a couple extra days to play tourist. Sierra starts school in a week, so I’m assuming they’ll be somewhat settled in by then.”
“Have you ever met the precocious and precious only child Sierra?”
Rielle used a decorative pillow to whap Rory’s arm. “Watch it, Aurora Rose Wetzler. Lots of folks around here said the same thing about you when you were sixteen.”
“Huh-uh, mamacita, that argument ain’t gonna fly. You rode herd on me from the time I was a little tyke. I never had the chance to get into trouble.”
“And look where me cracking the whip got you—a graduate assistantship at UWYO as you’re working on your Master’s.” Rielle stood in front of Rory and tucked a strand of her wild blonde hair behind her ear, like she’d done a hundred times. She still experienced that same overwhelming burst of love as she had the first time she’d cradled the squalling baby in her arms twenty-four years ago. “I’m so damn proud of you, Rory.”
“I know you are, Mom.” Rory hugged her. “But stop this mushy stuff or we’re both start crying. There’ll be plenty of tears when I leave.”
“Don’t remind me.” She clutched her a little tighter. At six foot one, Rory towered over her by eight inches—making her daughter a supersized version of her instead of a mini-me. Rory’s green eyes—identical to her own—contained a devilish twinkle. “What?”
“Let’s get this shit done because I have a surprise for you later. And no groaning ’cause it’s gonna be awesomely fun.”
“I’m almost afraid to ask.”
They cleared out both the bigger bedrooms upstairs. Rielle opted to leave the existing furniture in the great room downstairs. If Gavin wanted to replace it with his furniture, fine, but somehow she doubted his home furnishings from Arizona would mesh with the western décor.
She propped her shoulder against the doorjamb, letting her gaze wander. She’d spent months decorating this main room, scouring auctions, secondhand stores and yard sales for funky western pieces. Using a little imagination and a lot of elbow grease, she’d repurposed everything—from rusty tractor parts and old wooden household implements to rodeo memorabilia.
The room reflected her personality and life philosophy; quirky, bohemian, old items interspersed with new. Some pieces were high-end, some were low-rent. Vibrant colors and random fabric patterns and textures. Organic mixed with luxurious. Her heart told her to clear this space because everything in it was personal, but her practical side warned that Gavin might see an empty room as a hostile move.
But dammit, she did feel like her house was being invaded.
Rory poked her head out the swinging door separating the kitchen from the great room. “Your martini is ready.”
Entering the kitchen reinforced Rielle’s melancholy mood; the house teemed with life with Rory in residence. Music drifted from her iPod speakers and she danced around the island, singing to country tunes.
Plates of appetizers were arranged across the eat-in service bar. Rory shook the cocktail shaker vigorously and filled martini glasses with pale yellow liquid.
Rielle squinted at the three glasses. “You expecting someone else?”
“Yep. And there she is, right on time.”
The door swung open and Ainsley Hamilton meandered in. She ditched her high heels first thing. “I hope you made those drinks strong, Rory, because I’ve had a bitch of a day.” Ainsley grinned at Rielle. “Heya, neighbor. You ready for this?”
“Ready for what?”
Rory mimed zipping her lip. Then she said brightly, “Belly up to the bar, ladies and sample my latest concoction. A lemon-drop martini with an Asian twist.”
“Sounds heavenly,” Ainsley said. “What’s the twist?”
“Candied ginger and lemongrass.”
Rielle slid onto the barstool. Even if the cocktail tasted like crap, she’d get an A for presentation. Sugar-rimmed glasses, a slice of lemon, pieces of lemongrass twined around a cocktail pick weighted at the bottom with a chunk of amber-colored candied ginger.
Ainsley raised her glass. “To the support of good friends.”
They clinked glasses and knocked back a swallow.
“Wow, Rory, this has got to be your best drink ever,” Rielle said, sucking down another taste.
“Thank you, but I can’t take full credit. I tweaked the recipe from a guy who bartends at the hipster joint in Laramie.”
“It’s fantastic. Damn potent, so I’ll only have one.” Ainsley tipped back another swallow. “Unless you’re driving us into town?”
Rielle frowned. “Who’s going into town?”
“We all are. See, Rory and I got to chatting…about our discussion at your fortieth birthday party last week.”
“I cannot be held responsible for anything I said since you all got me drunk.” Her head had pounded so horrifically the next morning she’d literally taken a dirt nap in her garden.
“This spilled out when you were sober, darlin’,” Ainsley reminded her.
“You sound more like Ben every day with darlin’ this and darlin’ that,” Rielle retorted.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” She preened. “But it is what my loving—but clueless—husband said that caused your distress, so I feel the need to fix it.”
Rielle drained her drink, hating the reminder of Ben’s comment when he’d jokingly guessed her age as fifty, not forty. “You’re not responsible for the dumb shit Ben says any more than you are responsible for the dumb shit all men say.”
Rory refilled Rielle’s glass and sent Ainsley an insolent look. “I knew you’d take the wrong tack.” She set her elbows on the counter. “Mom. You’re not old. And we’re gonna deal with your claim that you look like a crone, because it’s a seriously fucked-up self-image.”
Her cheeks heated, but her tongue sharpened. “So where is your other cohort in crime, Doc Monroe? Has she set up an appointment with a plastic surgeon as her part of this embarrassing intervention?”
“Joely planned to be here but she had to deliver a baby.” Ainsley got right in Rielle’s face. “Dial down the animosity, sister, and listen up.”
“You still wearing your large-and-in-charge big-girl panties, Miz Bank Prez?”
“At least until I get home and Bennett makes me strip them off.” She grinned cheekily. “And here’s the mushy, gushy stuff that makes you squirm…unless you’ve been knocking back tequila shooters. You’ve become one of my best friends since I moved in with Ben. You’re a wonderful person, funny, sweet, thoughtful and you work harder than anyone I know. You’re beautiful inside and out. I see it. Rory sees it. It’s a pity you don’t. We thought maybe if we helped you change your outer appearance, then you’d see it as well as feel it.”
Rielle remained quiet and traced the sugared rim of her martini glass. Upbeat Ainsley didn’t pull any punches—and to think that was why she hadn’t initially liked the woman. They’d started out on the wrong foot when Ainsley had been sneaking around with Ben McKay. But after Ainsley stood up for Ben and bitch-slapped her for the shitty way she’d treated him, Rielle realized she’d wronged them both.
It’d taken a couple months for Rielle to swallow her pride and apologize. Luckily Ben and Ainsley were ready to let bygones be bygones. Now she and Ainsley were tight—much tighter than Rielle had ever been with Ben.
“Mom? Are you crying?” Rory asked with an edge of fear.
“No.” She raised her head. “Just feeling idiotic for opening my mouth. It sucks dealing with this stupid female pride and age thing.”
“But see, you don’t have to deal with it alone.” Ainsley snagged a section of Rielle’s baby-fine long blond hair. “Rory. How long as your mom worn her hair this way?”
“As long as I can remember.”
“That’s because it’s an easy style,” Rielle protested.
“No, it’s a dated style,” Ainsley corrected.
“Well, forgive me but I don’t have time to fuss with a fancy hairdo when I spend my days digging in the dirt or sweating in the kitchen.”
“Which is exactly why you need a smart cut. Not every style is high-maintenance.” Ainsley held onto Rielle’s chin, turning her face to the left and right. “You have amazing bone structure. You hide it instead of highlight it. We need to fix that.”
“And how would we do that?”
Rory grinned. “By placing yourself in Nikki’s hands tonight.”
“Nikki?” Rielle knew her eyes grew comically wide. “Isn’t that your friend who sported a purple and lime green Mohawk in tenth grade?”
“She’s toned down the shock factor. We’ve already discussed this and she’s come up with a cool cut for you. She swears this style is easy to manage and it’ll take ten years off your face.”
“But I don’t think your face is the issue. It’s all this hippie hair.” Ainsley knocked back her drink. “So let’s whisk you off to the beauty shop and transform you from a hippie-chick into a hip-chick.”
“I don’t know if this is such a good idea…”
“Here’s where I’m playing hardball.” Rory loomed over her. “You’ve always told me change is inevitable. Have you been putting expectations on me that you aren’t willing to apply to yourself?”
“No! I have been making changes in my life.” Most were forced, not that she’d admit that.
“Then it shouldn’t be such an ordeal to add this change to the list.”
“You know what?” Ainsley interrupted. “I think your mom is afraid to look hot and have men notice her. Once she’s no longer hidden behind all this scarecrow hair, she’ll hook herself a man. Just you watch.”
“Scarecrow hair?” Rielle repeated. “Really, Ainsley?”
Ainsley’s eyes didn’t contain a bit of malice, just concern. “You need to do this. For you. We’ll be right there, every snip of the way.”
Maybe the drinks bolstered her courage. Heaven knew if the decision was left up to her, she’d never do it. She slid off the barstool. “Fine. But if I end up looking like Carrot Top, there’s gonna be hell to pay.”
Ainsley draped her arm around Rielle’s shoulder. “Darlin’, the truth is, even that might be an improvement.”
Late Saturday afternoon Gavin pulled into the parking area of the former Sage Creek Bed and Breakfast.
The five thousand square foot, two-story structure had large windows stretching along the main and upper floors. This time of day the sun reflected off the sections of glass in tones of amber and rosy-gold. The siding had been crafted out of rough-hewn lumber and applied vertically, horizontally, crossways, creating the impression of depth. A copper-colored tin roof covered a wide-planked porch that spanned the entire length of the front side. The porch supports were notched logs, worn into a smooth vanilla-hued patina in some places and left rough with chunks of bark in others. The concrete work at the base of the house was covered by round, grayish river rock, so the foundation appeared built from cobbled stone. The steps continued the western theme, constructed from old railroad ties, the centers shored up with marbled-looking concrete. Even the split-rail fence separating the parking lot from the porch resembled an old-fashioned hitching post. The overall impression of the place was rustic with western flair. Charming. Welcoming. Homey.
Homey. As Gavin listened to the engine cool, he had to remind himself this was his home. He’d owned it for almost two years, but he’d never cooked a meal in the kitchen. Never washed a load of clothes in the laundry room. Never flopped on the couch and watched a Cardinals football game. He’d always treated this place like a hotel.
He glanced at his daughter, gauging her reaction to their new home. “So, Sierra, what do you think?”
She peered over the top of her pink sunglasses. “It’s bigger than I thought. Rustic, but it works in this setting with the different types of trees as a backdrop. It looks more like an upscale hunting lodge than a single family dwelling.”
The kid knew the lingo after being around the real estate business her whole life.
“Holy crap. Who is that?”
Sierra pointed. “There. By the fence.”
Gavin saw a shapely, jean-clad ass bent over a wheelbarrow. The woman stood and turned to grab the wheelbarrow’s handles, giving him a front-and-center view of her low-cut tank top. The full swells of her cleavage bounced nicely as she started downhill. Her face was hidden beneath the bill of a brown and gold University of Wyoming ball cap.
“You don’t know her?” Sierra asked. “Is she seasonal help or something?”
“Maybe.” Where was Rielle? She always met him on the porch with her pack of dogs.
They climbed out of the Lexus. Gavin continued to stare from behind his sunglasses at the woman heading toward them, showing a lot of sun-kissed skin. When she removed her cap, revealing artfully tousled short blond hair and smiled at him, Gavin’s jaw nearly hit the dirt. “Rielle?”
“You were expecting someone else?” She stepped closer, slipping off her glove before offering her hand. “You must be Sierra. I’m Rielle Wetzler. Your dad has talked about you nonstop.”
“Most of it bad, I’m sure.” Sierra smirked and Gavin held his breath, waiting for the snarky sixteen-year-old to emerge. “I’ll admit Dad said nothing to me about you.”
Gavin was tempted to correct his daughter, but Rielle had already engaged his sometimes-prickly child in conversation.
Sierra started sharing her favorite parts of their tourist excursions. Rather than stand and gawk at this sexier version of Rielle, he returned to his car and began unloading luggage and tried to figure out how they were going to make this situation work.
The circumstances were unconventional, but his buyout offer hadn’t exactly been normal either. After they’d hashed out an agreement, he’d asked her to stay on the premises as a caretaker, although she refused payment for the position. His property manager called her every other month to check in. Gavin and Rielle were friendly, but he didn’t know her. He hadn’t seen Rielle beyond her role as his personal chef, maid and property custodian. And because of that line—she’d essentially worked for him—he’d never noticed such a hot woman existed beneath the tie-dyed clothes and Marcia Brady hair.
You’re a superficial asshole.
Maybe, but it didn’t change the facts. Gavin hauled luggage to the porch, his depraved brain compiling a list of Rielle’s overlooked attributes. When he turned around Rielle and Sierra were staring at him. “What?”
“Dad. I said I’d help you like three times. Didn’t you hear me?”
“No, sweetheart, I didn’t. Thinking about too many things, I guess.” R-rated things about the scantily clad and surprisingly hot Rielle that he couldn’t share with his daughter. “Let’s leave this stuff here and do a quick tour.” He faced Rielle. “Is that okay?”
She shrugged. “It’s your house.”
He detected tension in that answer and knew they needed to discuss specific living arrangements tonight.
“Besides, I’ll be in the garden until dark.”
“We’ll catch up with you later. Charlie and Vi invited us over for dinner.”
“The food oughta be good since Vi’s a great cook.” She grabbed three balls of dirt from the wheelbarrow and set them on the railing. “Take her some of these golden beets. They’re her favorite.”
“Plastic bags are under the sink. See you.” Rielle lifted the wheelbarrow handles and Gavin had the urge to offer his help. But by the looks of the toned muscles in her arms, shoulders, back, ass, thighs and calves, she didn’t need help. He glanced at Sierra after Rielle disappeared around the side of the house. She wore an odd look. Shit. Had she caught him checking Rielle out? “What?”
“This will be weird, having someone else live with us.”
“I know. But we’ll figure out a way to make it work.” He set his hand on her shoulder. “Let’s check out our new digs.”
“Dad. No one says digs. You are such a dork.”
“I didn’t think anyone said dork anymore either,” he teased.
After Sierra’s initial outburst about their sudden departure from Arizona, she’d come to a grudging acceptance that something had to change. He suspected she was secretly relieved for the chance to start fresh and she had acted enthusiastic when she’d told her mother about the move. Gavin didn’t kid himself it was genuine, but a way for Sierra to show her mother she’d be too busy with her new adventure to miss her, but he hoped in time she would embrace this new life in Wyoming.
“This place has a lot of personality,” Sierra commented on the great room. “Is the furniture and stuff in here ours?”
“No, it’s Rielle’s.”
“Where is our furniture?”
Hell if I know. “Why?”
Sierra whirled around. “I hope it ended up lost or in the Dumpster.”
His gaze sharpened. “Why would you say that?”
“Because it was ugly and boring. Like you walked into a discount furniture store, saw a perfectly put together living room set, and said, I’ll take that crap.”
That’s exactly what he’d done. “And that’s bad…how?”
She pointed to a chair comprised of half cowhide, half distressed leather with braided piping on the front and animal hooves as the feet. “This is a seriously awesome piece. It says a lot about Rielle. She’s picked pieces that are unique, yet funky. I’ll bet she even made some of them.” Then Sierra poked him in the chest. “You could learn a lot from her.”
“Meaning… We’re starting over, right? We need to shitcan that ugly furniture we’ve had forever. What bad taste demon possessed you to buy it in the first place?”
Gavin suppressed a grin. It boded well Sierra had bounced back to her annoyingly sweet and pushy self after clearing out of Arizona. “Because I spent damn near six months searching for furniture with your mother right after we got married. I hated everything she picked. So after the divorce when I moved into the condo, I chose big, comfy pieces, without damn flowers or checks or stripes. Plus, the furniture had to be stain resistant, because you, dear daughter, have a tendency to spill ice cream, cereal and pizza.” He kissed her forehead.
Sierra twined her arms around him and sighed. “Dad. I’m not six anymore.”
“Sometimes I wish you were.”
“I know. But promise you’ll let me help when we pick out new stuff for our place, okay?”
He hugged her tightly. This was the daughter he’d missed in the last year when the teenager from hell had inhabited her body. “Okay.”