McFarlane’s Perfect Bride
The doorbell rang just as Tori Jones set the snack tray on the breakfast nook table. “Help yourselves.” She gave her star student, Jerilyn Doolin, a fond smile and sent a nod in the direction of Jerilyn’s new friend, CJ. “There’s juice in the fridge.”
Jerilyn pushed her chair back. “Thanks, Ms. Jones.”
The doorbell chimed again. “I’ll just see who that is.” Tori hurried to answer.
She’d made it halfway through her great room to the small foyer when the pounding started. Hard. On the door. The bell rang again, twice, fast. Followed by more pounding. Alarm jangled through her at the loud, frantic sounds. Was there a fire?
“All right, all right. I’m coming, I’m coming…” She yanked the door wide on a tall, hot-looking guy in designer jeans and high-dollar boots.
Before she could get out a yes-may-I-help you, the guy growled, “That’s my son’s skateboard.” With a stabbing motion of his index finger, he pointed. Tori peered around the door frame at the skateboard that Jerilyn’s friend had left propped against the porch wall. “Do you have my son here?” the stranger demanded.
Have him? Like she’d kidnapped the boy or something? Tori felt her temper rise.
She tamped it down by reminding herself that the angry man in front of her was probably scared to death. And then she spotted the gorgeous, gas-guzzling SUV parked at the curb. Had he been driving up one street and down another looking for a sign of his lost child? Thunder Canyon, Montana wasn’t a big city. But the streets would have to seem endless to a man frantically searching for his missing kid.
“I asked you a question.” The man raked his fingers back through thick, expertly-cut auburn hair.
Tori schooled her voice to a calmness she didn’t feel. “Is your son’s name CJ?”
“That’s right.” The man seemed on the verge of grabbing her and shaking her until she produced the boy. “Is he here?”
“Yes, he is. He’s—” With a startled cry, she jumped back as the guy barged into her house.
“Where?” He snarled the word at her. “Take me to him. Now.”
“Wait a minute. You can’t…”
Oh, but he could. He was already past her, striding boldly into her great room, shouting, “CJ, damn it! CJ!”
Jerilyn and CJ appeared from the kitchen, both wide-eyed. But as soon as CJ caught sight of the furious man, he put on a scowl. “Sheesh, Dad. Chill.”
“What is the matter with you?” Mr. Hotshot stopped where he was and started lecturing his son. “I had no clue where you had gotten off to. You know you are not to leave the house without telling Gerda where you’re going.”
CJ’s face flamed. He stared down at the hardwood floor, his shaggy hair falling forward to cover his red cheeks. “Come on, Dad,” he muttered. “I was only—”
“And what about your phone? You promised me you wouldn’t go off without your phone.”
“Like it even works in the canyon.” The boy was still talking to the floor.
“Speak up,” his father demanded. “I can’t hear you.”
CJ, who had seemed a normal, reasonably friendly teenager before his dad showed up, clamped his mouth shut now. He refused to even look at his father.
Tori realized she’d been standing there speechless for too long. She needed to calm the father down and diffuse the considerable tension. “Listen, why don’t we all go into the kitchen and—”
“No, thanks.” CJ’s dad cut her off with an absent wave of his hand. “We’re going. Come on, CJ. Now.” He turned for the door. The boy followed him out, head low, feet dragging.
Tori longed to stop them, to get them to speak civilly to each other, at least, before they took off. But she knew that was only her inner schoolteacher talking. In the end, she had no right to interfere. CJ seemed embarrassed by his dad, but not the least afraid of him. And she couldn’t see herself getting between father and son unless there was real cause. Overbearing rudeness just wouldn’t cut it as a reason to intervene.
Trailing after his dad, the boy went out into the June sunshine. He pulled the door shut behind him. Tori and Jerilyn hardly moved until they heard the engine of that pricey SUV start up outside and drive away.
Jerilyn broke the echoing silence first. “CJ hates his dad.” She spoke wistfully. “I don’t get that. Yeah, his dad was mad. But at least he cares…”
A low sound of sympathy escaped Tori. Jerilyn’s mom had died of cancer the year before. Since then, her father walked around in a daze, emotionally paralyzed with grief. Butch Doolin used to dote on his only child. But not since he lost his wife. Jerilyn had confided in Tori that lately she wondered if her dad even knew she existed anymore.
Tori went to her and smoothed her thick black hair. “How ‘bout some cheese, whole wheat crackers and fresh fruit?”
Jerilyn’s wistful expression faded. She giggled. “Ms. Jones, did you ever serve a snack that wasn’t healthy?”
“Not a chance.” She took the girl by the shoulders and turned her toward the kitchen.
As they sipped organic cranberry juice and nibbled on sliced apples and rennet-free white cheddar, Jerilyn talked about CJ. “I’ve seen him a couple of times before in the past week, riding his skateboard around Heritage Park. I never thought he’d notice me. But today, he stopped and we started talking….” A dreamy look made her dark eyes shine. “It was so strange, the way we connected, you know? It seemed like we could instantly tell each other everything. I felt so…comfortable with him. And yeah, he dresses like a skater and he wears his hair long and all, but he’s very smart. He’s fifteen, same as me. He skipped fourth grade, just like I did.”
It was good to hear a little bit about the boy. Tori’d had no time to ask the pertinent questions before the furious father arrived. She sipped her juice. “You really like him.”
Jerilyn smiled shyly. “I hope maybe I’ll see him again. He’s going to some expensive boarding school back east in the fall. But even if he stayed here in Thunder Canyon for school, he’d probably end up hanging with the rich, popular kids….”
Tori slid her glass across the table and clinked it with Jerilyn’s. “Uh-uh. Don’t go there. You have no reason to start beating yourself up. You’re every bit as good—and twice as pretty—as any girl at Thunder Canyon High.”
Jerilyn wrinkled her nose. “You say that ‘cause I’m smart and I understand Moby Dick better than most college students.”
“I say it ‘cause it’s true. Your being smart is a bonus.” She ate a strawberry. “I have to admit, though. I can’t help but love a student who stays on top of the reading list and writes a better essay than I can—and though we didn’t get much chance to talk, it definitely seemed to me that CJ liked you.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
“Jerilyn.” Tori spoke sternly.
“Yes, Ms. Jones?”
“If I say it, I mean it.”
“Yes, Ms. Jones.” Jerilyn sighed. “You really think he likes me?”
“I do. I really do. And he seemed like a nice boy.”
“I’m so glad you liked him.” Jerilyn beamed.
Too bad his dad’s such a complete jerk, Tori thought, but didn’t say.
“Tall, good-looking, auburn-haired, buttoned-down. Obviously rich. Pushy. And rude?” asked Allaire Traub, who was Tori’s dearest friend.
Tori took the fruit and cheese tray from earlier that day out of the fridge and pulled off the plastic wrap. “That’s him.”
Allaire’s two-year-old, Alex, who sat on her lap, started chanting in a sing-song. “Rude, rude, rude, rude…”
“Shh,” Allaire chided. She kissed his dark-brown baby curls. Tori set the tray on the table and Allaire gave Alex a slice of apple.
“Apple. Yum,” said the little boy.
Tori slid into the chair opposite her friend. “So…you know him?”
“Well, I know of him.” Allaire rescued Alex’s sippy cup just as he was about to knock it to the floor. She kissed his cheek and commanded adoringly, “Eat your apple and sit still.”
“Apple, apple, apple, apple.” The little boy giggled. And then he stuck the slice of apple in his mouth. He was quiet. For the moment.
Tori prompted, “And his name is…?”
Allaire frowned. “Who?”
“Mr. buttoned-down, pushy and rude?”
“Oh. Right. He’s Connor McFarlane, Melanie Chilton’s brother.”
Tori put her hands to her cheeks. “Of course. I should have known.” Melanie McFarlane had come to town three years ago determined to prove herself to her rich, snobby family. She’d ended up opening a guest ranch and marrying a local rancher, Russ Chilton. “Connor McFarlane. He runs the family empire, right?”
Allaire nodded. “McFarlane House Hotels.” She passed her son an orange wedge. “He’s here for the summer, with his son, Connor Jr.”
“That’s right.” Allaire gave Alex his sippy cup—then took it away when he started to pound it on the edge of the table.
“I thought Melanie and her brother didn’t get along.”
“Rumor is, they’re trying, you know? Connor’s been taken down a peg, since the economy dipped. The way I heard it, McFarlane House had to pull back. A serious retrenchment. They closed a few hotels. The company is holding strong now, but not growing the way it was. And Connor’s personal fortune took a serious hit, though I understand he’s still a long way from the poorhouse. His wife dumped him. And CJ, formerly the perfect son, has been acting out. Melanie suggested that her brother and CJ come to Montana for the summer. Connor’s renting one of those big houses in New Town that all the newcomers built—and then tried to unload when the bottom fell out.”
In spite of herself, Tori felt sympathy rising. “His wife divorced him?”
Allaire nodded. “Pretty much out of nowhere, apparently. Story goes that she met someone richer.”
Tori shook her head. “How do you know all this stuff?”
Allaire lifted a delicate gold-dusted eyebrow. “To many, I may seem merely a deceptively fragile-looking uber-talented art teacher and loving wife and mother. But I also have my finger on the pulse of Thunder Canyon.”
“Because you’re married to DJ,” Tori said with a chuckle.
Allaire shrugged. “You know my husband. He makes it his business to keep an eye on the movers and shakers. Even if they’re supposedly only visiting for the summer.”
DJ Traub ran a successful chain of mid-priced restaurants with locations all over the western states. When he returned to town to stay a few years ago, he’d opened a DJ’s Rib Shack on-site at the sprawling, upscale Thunder Canyon Resort, which covered most of nearby Thunder Mountain. The resort gave Vail and Aspen a run for the money—or it had until the financial downturn. DJ knew everybody and what they were up to.
Alex waved his chewed orange rind. “DJ, DJ, that’s my daddy!”
“Oh, yes he is.” Allaire hugged him close and said to Tori, “You are coming to the barbecue up at the resort Saturday, right?”
“Wouldn’t miss it. I thought I’d bring Jerilyn.”
“Great. She’ll like that. It’s really good of you to look out for her.”
“It’s no hardship. She’s a joy to have around.”
Allaire gazed at Tori fondly. “She reminds you of yourself.”
“A little, maybe.” Tori had lost her mom when she was thirteen. Her dad had been really out of it for a while, trying to deal with the loss.
“And your dad got better, eventually.”
“Yes, he did.” Now, she had a stepmother she loved and three half-brothers ages ten, six and three.
“So there’s hope that Butch Doolin will pull it together.”
Tori was trying to think of something positive to say about Jerilyn’s dad when Alex started pounding his little fist in the table. “More juice,” the toddler commanded. Allaire put the cup in his chubby hand. That time, he actually drank from it. “Here, Mommy.” He gave the cup back. “I tired.” He set his orange rind on the table and snuggled back into his mother’s arms. In seconds, he was fast asleep.
“Amazing,” said Tori with a doting smile.
Allaire made a tender sound of agreement as she smoothed his springy curls. Softly, so as not to wake him, she spoke of the small family reunion she and DJ were hosting out at their ranch that weekend. A couple of Traub cousins, wealthy ones, were coming up from Texas for the event. They would all be at the Rib Shack for the barbecue Saturday.
Tori still had Connor McFarlane on her mind. She asked in a near-whisper, “What do you mean, Connor’s ‘supposedly’ only visiting for the summer?”
Allaire set the sippy cup on the table. “Well, DJ says Connor’s been at the resort a lot. Chatting people up, nosing around. And Grant told DJ that Connor’s had dinner with Caleb Douglas out at the Douglas Ranch.” Caleb Douglas was co-owner of the resort. Grant Clifton managed the place, with help from Riley Douglas, Caleb’s son.
Tori frowned. “A takeover? I knew the resort was struggling lately. But would Caleb do that? The resort is his pride and joy.”
“Money’s short. Even the Douglases need to tighten their belts.”
“But I mean, would Caleb really sell?”
Allaire made a noncommittal noise in her throat. “Can’t say for sure. But something’s going on.”
“You’re going,” Connor said flatly. “And we’re late.”
CJ didn’t spare him so much as a glance. He was busy working the black controller of his XBOX 360 Elite, wearing a headset so he could talk to whoever he was playing with online—and also shut his father out. On the flatscreen that took up half a wall of his bedroom, soldiers in WWII Army gear battled the Germans somewhere in a burned-out city in France. A tank lurched over rubble and belched fire as a building exploded and a couple of hapless Germans went flying in the air, faces contorted with fear.
Connor stood by the bed. His blood pressure had to be spiking. He wanted to shout, What the hell have you done with my son? He hardly knew this shaggy-looking, angry, sulky kid. The CJ he knew gazed at him with worshipful eyes and only wanted a chance to spend a little time with his busy, successful dad.
I will not shout. I will not rip those headphones off of his head.
Connor fisted his hands and counted to ten. And then he grabbed the TV remote off the bed and pointed it at the flatscreen.
The screen went black.
CJ slanted him a venomous look. “Turn it back on. Now.”
Connor did nothing of the sort. With a calmness he didn’t feel, he reached out and gently the pulled headphones from CJ’s ears. “I told you we were going to the big summer kickoff barbecue.” The barbecue, at DJ’s Rib Shack, up at the resort, presented a useful opportunity to get more face time with people he needed to know better—family and otherwise. “Your Aunt Melanie and Uncle Russ are going. Ryan, too.” Ryan Chilton, Russ’s son by his first marriage, was thirteen.
CJ groaned and tossed the controller aside. “I’m not babysitting Ryan.”
“No one said anything about babysitting. You will, however, behave in a civilized manner and treat your aunt and her family with respect.”
“I hate that kind of crap. ‘Big summer kick-off barbecue.’” He chanted the words in an angry singsong. “Big whoop.”
Again, Connor reminded himself that shouting and threats had so far gotten him nowhere. He spoke with deadly mildness. “Fine. Stay home if you like. Stay home all summer. In this room. With no electronics.”
CJ blinked. “You would ground me forever for missing some dumb barbecue?”
CJ glared at him. Connor stared steadily back.
And then, at last, CJ put down the remote. “Fine. Let’s go.” He jumped to his feet and headed for the door in his sloppy skater gear, which included skinny, ripped-out, sagging jeans, a wrinkled plaid shirt over a t-shirt that had seen better days. And dirty old-school tennis shoes with the laces undone.
Connor reminded himself that the barbecue was casual and he didn’t have time for a wardrobe battle.
CJ stopped in the doorway and turned with a glare. “Well? You coming or not?”
Connor straightened his sport jacket and gave a brisk nod. “Absolutely. I am right behind you.”
The resort was packed. People spilled out of the Rib Shack and filled up the huge central lobby of the main clubhouse.
Connor spotted Melanie, Russ and Ryan over by the lobby’s natural-stone fireplace, which was on a grand scale, like the rest of the clubhouse. Big enough to roast a couple of steers inside and still have room for an elk—or three.
He hooked an arm around CJ’s shoulders to keep him from slipping off and worked his way through the crowd, spreading greetings as he went. Melanie saw him just before he reached her. She smiled and waved, her sleek red hair shining in the afternoon sun that beamed down from the skylights three stories overhead and flooded in the soaring wall of windows with its amazing view of the white-capped peak of Thunder Mountain.
She was a fine woman, his sister. And forgiving. All those years, he’d looked down on her. And still, she welcomed him to her new hometown and seemed to want only to let bygones be bygones. She made him feel humble, an emotion with which he’d had no relationship until recently.
Russ gave him a cool nod. Ryan’s face split in a happy grin at the sight of his older cousin.
CJ squirmed a little under Connor’s firm grip and said, loudly, “Well, we’re here. Can we eat?”
Ryan nodded eagerly. “In the Rib Sack. Come on, I’ll show you…”
Connor hesitated to let go of his son. “Stay in the building.”
“Sheesh, Dad. Awright, awright.”
“Stay with Ryan.”
“I will, I will.”
Melanie caught his eye. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
Russ spoke to Ryan. “Get us a table if you can.”
“We will, Dad. Come on, CJ.” He bounded off through the crowd, headed for the Rib Shack. CJ followed, kind of shuffling along. Watching them go, Connor actually found himself envying Russ his happy, upbeat son.
Russ was watching the boys, too. “Job’s still open,” he said in that cryptic way he had.
The job in question was for CJ. Russ and Melanie had offered to hire him part-time for the summer, to work at Melanie’s guest ranch, the Hopping H. Russ thought a few hours a day mucking out stables or doing dishes in the ranch house would be good for him.
When Russ had made the initial offer, Connor had turned him down flat. The McFarlane offspring did not do dishes or clean up horse manure. Plus, at that point, Connor had still nurtured the fond hope that CJ might spend his summer catching up on his school work. Just weeks before, the boy had almost been booted out of his expensive New York boarding school due to his suddenly plummeting grades.
However, in the eleven days they’d been in Thunder Canyon, Connor had not seen his son so much as pick up a book. CJ rode his skateboard around town, disappearing for hours at a time, worrying Connor half out of his mind. When he wasn’t vanishing into thin air, he sat in his room and played video games.
Connor had started to wonder if he should reconsider Russ’s job offer. He asked, ruefully, “Mind if I think it over a little?”
Russ and Melanie shared a glance. And Russ answered in a neutral tone. “Take your time. The job will be there if you want him to have it.”
A big hand clapped Connor on the back. “Glad you came. Good to see you.”
He turned and greeted Caleb Douglas and his wife, Adele. Silver-haired with cool green eyes, Caleb had suffered poor health in recent years. He still had a booming voice and a hearty manner, but Connor could see the weariness in his face, the deep lines around his eyes. He was half-owner of the resort, which meant he would feel duty-bound to show up for big events like this one.
But his heart wasn’t in it anymore. And times were tougher than they had been. Caleb could be convinced to sell. And Connor’s extensive research into the matter had led him to believe that Caleb’s silent partner would go along with whatever Caleb decided.
Yeah, Caleb would sell. Hopefully, before the summer was out.
And for a very reasonable price.
Caleb made small talk for a minute or two, then stepped in close to Connor while his wife, Adele, chatted up Melanie and Russ.
The older man spoke low, so only Connor could hear.
“Come on out to the ranch again. We’ll…talk some more.”
“I’d like that.” Connor smiled.
“Excellent—but next week’s no good. Adele’s dragging me to Hawaii.” Caleb grunted. “Lately, Adele’s got some idea that we should travel more. But how about a week from Monday? Dinner, seven-thirty?”
“I’ll be there, thanks.”
A minute or two later, Caleb and his wife moved on.
Next, Grant Clifton appeared with his pretty wife Stephanie and a Clifton cousin, Beauregard, who was known as Bo.
Bo was good-looking and talkative, a rancher by trade—and a salesman by nature. “I think we need some fresh ideas in this old town. And that’s why I’m running for mayor.”
Grant laughed. “Come on, Bo. Against Arthur?”
“Arthur Swinton is a staunch conservative,” Melanie explained for Connor’s benefit.
Russ said, “Been in town politics for years.”
Grant added, “Arthur’s on the city council and he’s running for mayor. It’s pretty much a given he’s going to win.”
Bo laughed. “Nothing’s a given, cousin.”
Russ suggested dryly, “Don’t forget death and taxes.”
“You’re right,” agreed Bo. “And for the sales tax we pay around here, we should get more for our money.” Bo went on to explain—in detail—all the projects he planned to fight for when he won the election.
When Grant and Stephanie finally dragged Bo away, Melanie suggested they start moving in the general direction of the Rib Shack. Connor turned for the wide arch that led through to the restaurant—and almost ran into the woman standing behind him.
Slim, with short, wispy strawberry blond hair, the woman wore a snug summer dress splashed with vivid pink flowers. He couldn’t see her face. She was turned the other way.
“Tori, hey,” said Melanie, who apparently knew her.
The woman turned to smile at his sister. But the smile faded when she saw him. She gazed up at him warily, through big, bright hazel eyes.
He stifled a groan of embarrassment as he remembered where he’d seen her before.
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