Hometown Reunion

ISBN: 978-1335724502

Hometown Reunion

March 2023
Once in love with a Bravo…

Only a lucrative contract could get Hunter Bartley back to Medicine Creek, Wyoming, after all these years. That and seeing Jobeth Bravo again. The TV star hadn’t expected to find Jobeth with a baby, single and as beautiful as when he’d broken her heart. But though old feelings were igniting new emotions, Hunter couldn’t forget what had driven them apart. Jobeth was a hometown girl. He was a wanderer. Maybe it would take his long-avoided return for Hunter to realize that everything he'd ever wanted was right here at home…

Bravo Family Ties:
The Next Generation

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Chapter 1

From the second-floor window of her sister’s office at the Medicine Creek Clarion, Jobeth Bravo had an unobstructed view of the entrance to the Statesman Hotel.

As her little girl cooed happily in her arms, Jobeth stared at that entrance and thought of the past and wished she could change it somehow. Change it or let it go—forget it had ever happened. Wake up tomorrow morning, stretch and yawn and smile, and look forward to the coming day without the faintest remembrance of Hunter Bartley in her mind or her heart.

Starr, Jobeth’s sister, glanced up from her desktop monitor. “Get away from that window.” Starr frowned at the monitor again. “Hmm.” Her fingers, swift and sure, went to work at her keyboard. As she typed some more on her next editorial, she muttered, “You are obsessed.”

Jobeth didn’t budge. She cuddled nine-month-old Paisley a little bit closer and continued to stare fixedly at the hotel across the street.

The Statesman was currently filled with reality-TV people from Hollywood. The TV people were in town to film several episodes of the hit home-improvement show Rebuilt by Bartley. No, Jobeth couldn’t see a single one of those TV people right now. But she knew they were in there—not Hunter Bartley, though. The star of the show was bunking elsewhere.

“Da-ga-wa…” Paisley tried to stick a plump finger up Jobeth’s nose.

“No, you don’t.” Jobeth caught her tiny hand. Paisley giggled as Jobeth said glumly, “I don’t think I want to go home. Not for four months at least.” Filming was expected to take that long. Rebuilt by Bartley would be renovating a bunch of different buildings in town. The whole thing was a very big deal, a series-within-the-series called Hunter Comes Home.

Starr beat out another burst of words on her keyboard and then remarked, “Please. It’s not like he’s going to be living in your house with you.”

Jobeth nuzzled Paisley’s dark baby curls and grumbled, “Close enough.”

Due to the Hollywood invasion, as Jobeth chose to think of it, the Statesman Hotel had no vacancies. Also, Cottonwood Grove, the mobile home park at the south end of town, was chockablock with fancy trailers filled with members of the production crew. Still, there were other places to stay in town. Medicine Creek enjoyed a brisk tourist trade in the warmer months. The tourists needed places to stay. There were other hotels and a growing number of Vrbo and Airbnb rentals around town. And yet, her dad had offered to put Hunter up at the ranch and Hunter had said he would love that.

Why would he do that? As the star of the show, wouldn’t he get first pick of available lodging? Why say yes to a bedroom in the Rising Sun Ranch house with a bath down the hall? The questions kept playing on a loop in her head.

Really. Why?

At least Jobeth had her own house—a house she loved that she’d built six years ago. Too bad that house was fifty yards from the main house.

“He’ll be around.” She continued staring out the window as she rocked her baby girl from side to side. “I’ll be running into him. It’s unavoidable.”

The wheels on Starr’s desk chair creaked as Jo’s stunningly beautiful forty-two-year-old sister rose to her feet. “You should have just told Dad no when he asked you if having Hunter around would bother you.” Starr Bravo Tisdale was not only the owner and editor in chief of the Clarion now, but she was also eight months along with her third child, a surprise baby. With a groan, she rubbed at her lower back. And then, her giant belly leading the way, she joined Jobeth and Paisley at the window.

Jobeth shook her head. “It’s been sixteen years. I’ve been married. He’s been married. We were kids. It’s not a big deal. I know this. I told Dad this.”

“Awph!” Paisley leaned toward her aunt, chubby arms outstretched.

Starr caught her and gathered her close. “Then why are you so completely freaked out right now?”

Jo glared out the window. “I’m fully aware that I’m being ridiculous.”

Starr responded gently, “I didn’t say that.”

“Of course, you didn’t. I did. I really thought I could handle this.” Hunter Bartley and the entire cast and crew of his popular show had arrived in town yesterday. “It’s just that all of a sudden it’s actually happening and I truly do not want to face him. He’ll be at the ranch and I’m bound to run into him.”

“It will be all right.”

“No, it won’t.”

“Come on, Jo. It’s just that you haven’t seen him yet. Once you get past that first sight of him again you’ll realize it’s no big deal.”

“Yeah?” Jobeth didn’t say it, but she was thinking of Beau, Starr’s husband. Starr had known Beau before he got sentenced to a couple of years at the state honor farm way back when. Beau had broken Starr’s heart and seeing him again after he got out had been a very big deal for her. All that was decades ago. Now, Starr’s heart was fully mended…by the man who’d once broken it. But Starr had to remember how it had felt to see his face again after the way he’d hurt her before.

“Okay.” Starr shifted Paisley to one arm so that she could wrap the other around Jo. “I might be sugarcoating the situation just a little…”

“You think?”

“I’m only saying, you will be fine. You feel what you feel, Jo. Remember to breathe and don’t beat yourself up.”

“All these years…” Jobeth looked out the window at the brick facade of the old hotel. A fit-looking guy with a high-dollar haircut wearing tight jeans, dress boots and a leather jacket emerged from beneath the striped awning that framed the hotel entrance. Not Hunter, she thought as the stranger set off down Main Street. Not Hunter, but obviously someone who works on the show. She rubbed at the back of her neck in an effort to ease the tension that had gathered there.

Paisley let out another string of nonsense syllables and Starr chuckled at the sound.

Jobeth hardly heard them. She watched until the guy in the leather jacket disappeared from sight. “I never tried to find out how Hunter was, what he might be doing. Anytime I was the least bit tempted, I reminded myself to move on, let it go, leave the past alone.” With a sigh, she confessed, “But now? Starr, I’m losing it.” She met her sister’s eyes. “The past few weeks, I’ve started stalking him online. What is wrong with me?”

“Nothing, Jo. Nothing is wrong with you…”

“So why do I feel like such a hopeless fool?”

“Come here.” Starr pulled Jobeth closer, into an awkward hug that included both Starr’s giant stomach and a giggling Paisley cradled between them. “You loved him, really loved him,” Starr whispered. “Love is not a crime.”

“Maybe not. But still, I feel like I did everything wrong and I’m about to come face-to-face with all the ways I messed up.”

*

The morning cloud cover had cleared a couple of hours ago. The sky was baby blue. The day’s high promised to reach a downright balmy sixty degrees.

Feeling pretty damn good about everything, Hunter Bartley drove his leased Ram 2500 into town with the windows down.

The pine-scented air blew in around him and the truck sailed over the rutted ranch road, hardly bouncing at all. On his way to a series of last-minute preproduction meetings in town, Hunter had the Bighorn Mountains in the rearview mirror and his hometown of Medicine Creek up ahead.

So far, being back where he came from wasn’t half-bad, which thoroughly surprised him. Sixteen years ago, when he’d loaded his tools and the rest of his worldly possessions into his battered Ford Maverick and headed south, he couldn’t wait to get the hell away from here. He’d needed to leave Medicine Creek behind and find a bigger life, one where he wouldn’t forever be the poor, motherless kid with the loser father.

A low laugh escaped him. The past was just that. Gone.

These days, life was good. The rented truck had a great sound system and Chris Stapleton was currently singing “Starting Over” in that whiskey-and-gun-smoke voice of his. Hunter liked that song, so he ordered his Google assistant to turn up the volume. On the low, grassy hills to either side of the road, Rising Sun cattle lifted their heads to stare as he went by, his windows wide open, the music blaring good and loud.

He was singing along, beating out rhythm on the steering wheel, thinking about Jobeth, about all the years between then and now, wondering when he would finally see her again. Sooner or later, it would happen. For the next few months he would be spending his nights on the ranch where she lived.

As he topped the next rise, he spotted a cow in the center of the dirt road, directly in his path. “What the…?”

He stomped the brake. Tires spit up a rain of dust and gravel, and he jerked to a stop several yards from the animal.

You’d think the truck barreling toward her would have encouraged her to get out of the way. No such luck. “Google, turn the music down.” Chris Stapleton faded to a low, husky rumble and Hunter stuck his head out his open window. “Git along, now! Go!”

The big red cow was not impressed. She stared and chewed.

He put the pickup in gear again and rolled forward nice and slow, figuring that would get her moving.

Nope. Tail flicking, she held her ground. He honked. She didn’t budge, not unless you counted her tail and her left ear—the one with the tag on it. Both were twitching.

He laid on the horn.

The ear kept flicking and the cow kept chewing. Slowly, she turned her head his way. Now her big brown eyes were locked with his through the windshield.

Alrighty, then. A little extra encouragement was called for. After putting the pickup in Park, he climbed out and approached the cow. Stubborn to a fault, she remained in the center of the road.

At least she seemed like a calm one—maybe too calm. She let him get up close and personal without budging an inch.

She didn’t even move when he caught her ear and peered at the tag. “So, RS-241, you are quite the rebel, I see.” The bulging eyes regarded him with the wisdom of the ages. “Got nothing to say for yourself?”

Apparently not. He was about to give her a slap on the rump in hopes that would finally get her off the road when a second crew cab rolled to a stop on the far side of the cow. A woman in old jeans and a plaid shirt got out.

It took his stunned brain several seconds to register that the woman was Jobeth.

Damn, she looked good—slim and strong as ever, with that straight taffy-colored hair pulled back in a low ponytail. Those blue eyes were wide and solemn.

Older, yeah. But still the same Jo, with sweet, pale freckles sprinkled across the bridge of her nose and over both cheeks. The same Jo…

He had no doubt she still lived to get up before dawn on a frigid spring morning and go searching for newborn calves that had failed to get upright and latch on. Once or twice, back when they were together, he’d ridden out with her. She’d let him drive…

He remembered those times like they’d happened last week.

When she found a dying calf, she would hoist it into the cab on the passenger side and turn the heater on full blast to start warming the animal up. He would drive her and the calf to one of the barns, where she’d put the poor thing under a heat lamp. Once it came to life and struggled to its feet, they would load it in the pickup all over again and return it to where the bewildered mama waited.

“Hello, Hunter.” She regarded him solemnly across the red back of the unmoving cow.

So weird. Otherworldly, even. This close in the early afternoon sun, he could see the faint beginnings of laugh lines bracketing her soft mouth and the first hint of crow’s feet around those unforgettable aquamarine eyes. The signs of the passing years were barely discernable, but still, they kind of broke his heart all over again.

Because damn. It had been way too long.

He tipped the brim of his Dodgers cap. “Jobeth. Good to see you.” And it was. Very good.

Her gaze scanned his face. “Got a problem?”

“Well, RS-241 here won’t get out of the road.”

She pulled a phone from her pocket and made a quick call. “Hi. It’s me.” She explained about the red cow and rattled off their approximate location. “Send one of the hands for her? Great. Thanks.” As she stuck the phone back in her pocket, she turned to him again. “I’ll just get her off the road and you can be on your way.”

Completely enthralled, he watched her retreating backside as she jogged to her pickup. Returning with a length of rope, she fashioned a lead and slipped it over the cow’s head. The cow followed without resistance as she led the animal to the shoulder, where she tied her to a fence post.

About then, Hunter started to worry she would simply climb back in her truck, swing around him and his vehicle and drive away. He jogged to meet her as she left the tied-up cow.

What to say to her? He had no idea. He just needed to get her to stick around a little longer. He wanted to look at her for a while, to listen to her voice. It seemed like yesterday that he’d left her behind…and yet, like forever, too.

She’d stopped walking as soon as he started toward her. Those eyes of hers, a luminous mix of blue, gray and green, watched him suspiciously.

He opened his mouth to say God knew what…and right then, from back in her pickup, a baby started crying.

What the hell? There was a baby? His gut hollowed out. Her dad had never said a word about a baby—not that Hunter had asked.

But still…shouldn’t he have known if Jo had had a baby?

Okay, yeah. Now and then over the years, he’d gone looking for her online.

In the Facebook profile she rarely updated, he’d learned that she’d married Nick Collerby. She’d even posted their wedding picture. Finding out that she’d married Nick, of all people? That was a shocker. Back in school, she and Nick could hardly stand each other.

They hadn’t made it work. He knew that because four years ago she’d changed her status to single again.

But really, he had no idea what she’d been up to relationship-wise since then. He slid a swift glance downward, at her left hand.

No ring.

Jo laughed. The sound got down inside him, burning, causing an ache that felt too much like yearning. “What are you looking at, Hunter?” she asked.

“Nothing.”

“Right…”

Really, he’d done a bad job of stalking her over the years. He should have at least kept in touch with one old friend from town who might have passed on dependable information about her. But then, he never did have real friends back in the day. Only Jo. Jo had been everything.

And besides, the whole point was not to know. Not ever. Because he hadn’t changed and neither would she, and there was nowhere it could go with them. He’d only trolled for her online in moments of weakness, when he couldn’t stop thinking about what might have been.

The baby was still fussing. Jobeth stepped around him and headed for her pickup. Should he just let her go?

Damn right.

But he couldn’t. In something of a trance, he followed.

She opened the back-seat door, leaned in and came out with a cute baby—a girl, judging by her pink fleece pullover embroidered with little white daisies. The pudgy kid, who had light brown skin and curly black hair pulled up into two short ponytails on either side of her head, stopped crying the minute she was freed from the car seat.

“This is my daughter, Paisley.” Jo’s face was tender, adoring. She cuddled the baby, who blinked her wide dark eyes at Hunter.

Bursting into an adorable smile that showed four tiny front teeth, two up and two down, the baby babbled a few random syllables and held out her little arms to him.

He almost reached back…but Jo gathered the baby closer and kissed her fat cheek. “She’s nine months old. Babies are supposed to be wary of strangers at her age. Not Paisley. She thinks she’s everyone’s best friend. Don’t you, sweet cheeks?”

The kid patted Jo’s cheek. “Maw-maw-maw!”

He shouldn’t ask. But he did. “So you’re married, then?”

“No. I adopted Paisley when she was born.”

Now he had a million questions— Can’t you have children? Who’s the birth mother? What about the dad? When did this happen? Why didn’t I know?

He kept his mouth shut, barely.

And before he could figure out a way to keep her there, Jobeth had put the baby back in the car seat and handed her a big, bright plastic rattle that she instantly tried to put in her mouth.

Jobeth shut the door and turned to face him. “Well, good to see you, Hunter.” Her eyebrows drew together. He realized she was waiting for him to step back, say goodbye. When he didn’t, she added, “I’m heading on home.” And then she was turning away from him, striding around the rear of her pickup to get up behind the wheel.

He remained in the middle of the road staring blankly after her as she drove away.

*

Jobeth’s hands didn’t start shaking until she’d left Hunter and his fancy crew cab behind. She clutched the steering wheel tighter to make the shaking stop and drove on. Her heart lurched against her breastbone, feeling heavy inside her chest, feeling all wrong.

So strange. She’d been calm and self-possessed while he was right there in front of her. But the moment she drove away, her heart had started pounding. A bead of sweat trickled down her temple. She lurched around one bend in the road and then another.

When she felt confident he wasn’t going to turn his truck around and follow her, she pulled to the shoulder, shifted into Park and let her forehead droop against the steering wheel. Sucking in slow, deep breaths, she tried to calm herself down.

In the back seat, Paisley giggled and shook her rattle, oblivious to Jobeth’s messed-up reaction to seeing her high-school boyfriend again.

It took several deep breaths and a lot of silent self-recrimination before Jo pulled herself together.

Okay, then. It had happened. She’d seen Hunter again, at last. The experience had not been pleasant. But he’d been civil and so had she. Next time she saw him, it would be easier. Eventually, she would get so she could smile and wave and walk on by.

Dropping back against the seat, she lifted both hands. They weren’t shaking anymore. So she put the pickup in gear and drove on toward the mountains that were still topped in mist and snow.

Her heart grew lighter as she turned off the ranch road and onto the circular driveway, which took her past the foreman’s cottage and on to the Rising Sun’s two-story main house.

In a classic farmhouse style, the ranch house had been built by her great-grandfather, Ross Bravo, almost seventy years ago now. It had a wide front porch with four tall double-hung windows on the main floor, two on either side of the door. It was a handsome house, she thought with pride.

Jobeth smiled when her mom came out the front door and ran down the steps toward her. Jo poked the button to open the passenger-side window and her mom leaned in.

Tess Bravo had curly dark hair and dark eyes, while Jobeth took after her light-haired blue-eyed birth father, Josh DeMarley, who had died in an oil-rig accident when Jobeth was seven.

After Tess and Zach married, Zach had adopted Jo. They were a true blended family. Her mom and Zach had had two sons together, Jo’s half brothers, Ethan John and Brody. As for Starr, she’d been born to Zach’s first wife.

In the back seat, Paisley threw down her rattle. It bounced on the floor mat as Paisley reached out eager arms to her grandmother. “Ga-ga-maw!”

“Shall I take her?” Tess asked hopefully.

“That’d be great. I want to check in with Dad, see what needs doing and maybe put Moonshine through her paces.” A two-year-old Arabian mare, Moonshine was just adjusting to the saddle.

Her mom already had the door to the rear seat open to get the baby out. She scooped Paisley into her arms but left the big diaper bag there on the seat. Tess had all the baby gear she might need in the main house. She looked after Paisley often.

After shutting the back-seat door, Jo’s mom stepped up to the front passenger window again. “You happen to pass Hunter on your way in?” she asked way too innocently.

Jo kept her expression carefully neutral. “Yes, I did.”

“Everything…okay?”

“He had a little run-in with a cow but I handled the situation.”

Tess blew a raspberry on Paisley’s cheek and the baby snickered. “I was more wondering…” She let her voice trail away, probably in hopes that Jo would finish her sentence for her.

No way. “Wondering what, Mom?”

Tess’s expression was both patient and resigned. “You don’t want to talk about him.”

No, she did not. “Love you, Mom.”

Tess gave her a gentle smile. “Love you, too.”

Jo leaned toward the passenger window and made a show of waving at Paisley. “Bye-bye…”

Paisley waved back and parroted her words. “Bye, bye, bye, bye….”

“I’ll pick her up around five or so.”

“Stay for dinner?”

“We’ll see,” she lied.

No, she would not be eating at the main house tonight. Hunter might show up. Yes, she needed to get used to having him around.

And she would.

Just not tonight.

With another quick wave, she drove on to her own house.

*

In town, Hunter visited the barnlike structure on Mill Street that the show’s production company, Home Restoration Media, had leased as an office and meeting space for Hunter Comes Home. He checked in with his producer and the director, and stuck around for a couple of quick meetings. It was after five when he left the offices.

Before heading back to the Rising Sun, he strolled over to Main Street to visit the Medicine Creek Library. The library, basically a big brick box with multiple windows in front, had been built in the midnineties. It was one of the buildings the show would be taking on. The idea was to make it more open, more welcoming.

As he walked along Main, people waved at him and smiled—friendly smiles, too. They called out, “Hunter! Welcome home!”

He recognized some of them. It surprised him, how happy they all seemed to see him. He’d expected a different reaction, imagined resentful glances, or at least a little attitude, a clear display of their disbelief that good-for-nothing Esau Bartley’s loser son had ended up a TV star.

Inside the library, with its tired gray carpeting, packed shelves and cramped seating areas, the first person he ran into was the head librarian, Mrs. Copely. She’d looked at least eighty sixteen years ago and hadn’t changed a bit.

“Hunter Bartley!” she exclaimed in a whisper-shout, her wrinkled lips spreading in a pleased smile. “Look at you. Handsome as ever. It’s so good to see you.”

Had he somehow slipped into another dimension—one where Mrs. Copely treated him like visiting royalty? Should he have expected this? Maybe. But he hadn’t.

Apparently, people became downright adoring when you planned to spiff up their run-down public buildings.

Mrs. Copely put her hand over her name tag and actually pantomimed a beating heart. “So proud,” she said. “You’ve done so well, and now you’re here in town to work your magic on our own Medicine Creek Library and our chamber of commerce, too.” She babbled on in a thrilled whisper about how his “people” had worked a miracle, raising funding for the two community projects.

Hunter and his team, along with local construction crews, would also be rebuilding the bunkhouse out at the Rising Sun. They would renovate a gift shop and fix up Crystal Creek Lodge and Cabins at the foot of the Bighorn Mountains, just west of town. For those three private projects, the show and the owners would split the cost, fifty-fifty.

Mrs. Copely kept up her excited whispering. He didn’t have to say a word. The woman told him how wonderful he was for ten minutes straight.

Hunter listened, baffled and bemused, as she went on about how she’d always known he would make a success of himself. “Always. And I always wanted to tell you so. But Hunter, you were such a guarded, wary boy. Back then, I never felt I would get through to you. I’ve always known I should have tried harder to reach out, though. I should have encouraged you not to let the difficulties of your childhood hold you back.” She scoffed. “But who am I kidding? You hardly needed my encouragement. Because you didn’t let your early troubles run your life, now did you? You have done so well—spectacularly, even.”

In the end, before she let him go, she grabbed him in a hug. He breathed in her powdery, floral perfume and said how great it was to see her again, which wasn’t exactly a lie. Who wouldn’t find it gratifying to discover the librarian you’d always thought despised you hadn’t hated you, after all?

A little dazed from all that admiration, he wandered down the street to another of the buildings slated for renovation—the gift shop, Amestoy’s Treasure Trove.

At the sight of him, Carmen Amestoy stepped out from behind the counter and hugged him, same as Mrs. Copely had. She said she remembered how he’d kept his dad’s business going when his dad was “under the weather.”

Hunter hid a smile at her choice of words. Drunk on his ass as usual, that was his dad.

“You were just a boy,” she said and patted him on the cheek. “But always mature beyond your years. We all hoped you would marry Jobeth—you two were always so devoted, after all…”

Devoted.

He supposed they had been. But not devoted enough to make it last.

By the time he left the gift shop, he’d started feeling as though he’d stepped into some alternate-universe Medicine Creek. A place that looked like his hometown but wasn’t. A place where the past had been rewritten to make him a hero-in-training rather than a sullen kid whose mother had died when he was four—a kid who couldn’t wait to get out of town.

If only his reunion with Jobeth had gone as well as his library visit and his conversation with Carmen Amestoy.

He drove back to the ranch thinking of Jobeth.

She hadn’t seemed the least bit happy to see him that afternoon. And the minute she’d handled the issue with the cow, she’d jumped back in her truck and raced away, leaving him no opening to get her talking, no chance to suggest they maybe get a coffee in town or take a walk down by Crystal Creek, which ran in a lazy meander across the broad expanse of Rising Sun land.

And what about that baby? He still wanted to know what made a single woman decide to adopt a kid on her own.

Yeah. He really did want to spend a little time with her, to talk some more—not that it was a huge deal or anything. But they did have a lot of catching up to do.

No, he had no illusion that they would ever get back together. The break had been too painful. Too much time had passed. They were two different people now with completely different lives.

And yet, he did feel drawn to her.

Why shouldn’t they take full advantage of this chance to get to know each other a little again?