Her Favorite Maverick

ISBN: 978-1335894649

In Search of the Long-Lost Maverick

July 2020
He could hold the keys to the past

“You know you’re tempted.”

Men are trouble. And Melanie Driscoll has already had more than her share of trouble. She has come to Bronco seeking only a fresh start; what she finds instead is Gabe Abernathy. The blond, blue-eyed cowboy is temptation enough. The secrets he could be guarding are a whole ‘nother level of irresistible. Peeling the covers back on both might be too much for sweet Mel to handle…

Montana Mavericks: The Search for Beatrix

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Prologue

Melanie Driscoll let out a shriek of dismay as the bride’s bouquet came flying right at her. It hit her in the face. She put up both hands just in time to catch it before it dropped to the grass.

“Lucky girl!” cried a woman right behind her.

“No fair!” whined someone to her left. “I never catch the bouquet.”

“Mel! You go, girl!” shouted her high school friend, Sarah Turner Crawford.

Mel blinked down at the gorgeous creation of sunflowers, asters, cornflowers and delphiniums and wondered what she was doing here at this relentlessly romantic outdoor wedding in Rust Creek Falls Park.

She shouldn’t have come.

But Sarah had insisted. “Come on, Mel,” Sarah had coaxed. “Believe me, I know exactly what you’re going through.” Sarah did know. She’d had some big troubles with men in the past. But now she was happily married to one of the five brothers of the groom. “It’s going to be fun,” Sarah had promised. “And you need to get out.”

Fun. Right. Mel sneered at the bouquet.

“It’s official,” another of Mel’s high school friends announced with a giggle. “You’re next!” Everybody started clapping.

Mel knew she should just roll with it. She should smile and pretend to be thrilled that her “turn” was coming right up.

But it wasn’t coming up. Not a chance. Her life was a mess and a man was to blame. And as for smiling sweetly and pretending to be pleased as everyone applauded and hugged her and patted her on the back?

No way.

Mel tossed the damn thing back over her shoulder. She felt bitter satisfaction at the gasps and shouts of shocked surprise that followed.

Then a childish voice cried, “It’s okay! I got it!”

Mel turned. Wren Crawford, the flower girl and daughter of the groom, came running toward her, ribbon-braided pigtails bouncing, the giant bouquet of flowers clutched between her two small hands and her flower basket swaying on her arm. Wren skidded to a stop in front of Mel. Big blue eyes stared up at her accusingly. “You threw the bouquet away.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Don’t you want to be the next bride?”

No, she did not. But the pretty little girl was only six or seven. Mel couldn’t quite bring herself to say anything that might spoil Wren’s innocent fantasies of love and happily-ever-after. Instead, she gentled her expression and answered softly, “You keep it. I don’t have anyone special in my life right now.”

One of the other single women muttered, “Well, if that kid is next, I’ll be forty before my turn comes around.”

Everybody laughed.

Except Wren and Mel. Frowning, the child continued to gaze up at her. “You came to the ranch with my aunt Sarah last week, didn’t you?” Wren’s branch of the Crawford family had moved to town the summer before. Her uncle Logan was now Sarah’s husband.

“Yep. That was me. I’m your aunt Sarah’s friend and my name’s Mel.”

“Mel, do you really want me to have this bouquet?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Then I have something you are going to need.” Wren turned and headed for a wooden bench several yards away.

Mel couldn’t think of a single thing she might need from the little girl, but she trailed after her anyway—partly to get away from the crowd and partly out of curiosity.

“Sit down.” Wren hopped up on one end of the bench, the organza skirt of her ivory lace dress fanning out around her like the petals of a delicate flower. Mel sat beside her. “Here.” Wren held out the bouquet.

“No, thanks.”

“Just for a minute. Please?”

Reluctantly, Mel took possession of the bouquet again. She watched, intrigued in spite of herself, as Wren folded back the swatch of ivory silk covering her flower basket and pulled out an old book. Of brown leather, it was studded with gemstones and stamped with a giant A on the front cover.

“It’s a diary,” Wren explained. “My uncles found it under a floorboard at the Ambling A.” The Ambling A was the ranch where Wren lived with her dad and now her new stepmom, the bride, along with her grandpa and more than one of her dad’s five brothers and their new brides. “Here.” Wren held out the diary. “It’s for you.”

Mel’s free hand seemed to open of its own accord. She looked down and the diary was firmly in her possession.

Wren hooked her flower basket over her arm again and held out her hands. “I’ll take my flowers now.” Still puzzled as to how, exactly, she’d allowed the child to give her the diary, Mel passed the flowers back. “Thank you,” the pretty child said.

More than a little bewildered, Mel watched as Wren slid off the bench and started to walk away. “Wait!” She held out the old book. “You forgot your diary!”

Wren only smiled. “It’s yours now.”

“Huh? Wait. No…”

“Yes. It will bring you good luck in love. Just ask one of my uncles. They found the diary and they’re all happily married now and so is my grandpa Max. And now, my daddy is married, too.” Wren beamed, clearly thrilled that her father, Hunter Crawford, had tied the knot with Merry Matthews. “Ask my uncle Wilder,” the little girl suggested. “Uncle Wilder will ’splain everything to you.”

“But I—”

“He’s right over there.” Wren tipped her blond head in the direction of the uncle in question. “’Bye.” And off she went.

Mel jumped up to follow, but then changed her mind and headed for Wilder instead. If the child wouldn’t take the old book, surely her uncle would. It looked like an antique and was probably quite valuable.

But Wilder Crawford shook his head when she tried to hand it over. “Mel, the diary is yours.”

“No, it’s not.”

“You caught the bouquet and I’m thinking that means you’re meant to be the next one to find love. The diary will help you with that.”

Apparently, this branch of the Crawford family was a few screwdrivers short of a tool kit. “Wilder,” she said patiently, “love has not been good to me and I have absolutely no interest in finding any more of it.”

Wilder crossed his lean arms over his broad chest. “Open it.”

“I just want you to—”

“Humor me. The diary. Open it.”

She huffed out a hard breath to show her impatience with him and his adorable niece and the bride and the groom and just generally everyone and everything that had anything to do with love and forever and all that crap. Wilder was not impressed. He simply stood there, waiting for her to do what he’d asked her to.

“Fine.” She opened the diary and Wren’s uncle uncrossed his arms long enough to show her the place in the binding where a letter was hidden. A never-mailed letter, apparently. The wrinkled, dog-eared envelope was addressed to Winona Cobbs at a psychiatric facility in nearby Kalispell.

Mel was stunned. “Our Winona Cobbs?”

Wilder nodded. “Who else could it be? Rust Creek Falls is a very small town.”

Mel knew Winona Cobbs well and was fond of the old woman, who had shown up in town the summer before Mel lost both of her parents in a car accident. Wise and kindly, Winona was in her nineties now. Some considered her a little off in the head. Others believed she was psychic. Pretty much everyone had enjoyed her newspaper column, “Wisdom by Winona.”

“It’s a short letter,” said Wilder. “Go ahead. Read it.”

Mel tucked the diary under her arm, took the letter from the creased envelope and smoothed it out between her suddenly shaky hands.

My dearest Winona, please forgive me. But they say you will never get better. I promise you that your baby daughter is safe. She’s alive! I wanted to raise her myself, but my parents forced me to have her placed for adoption. She is with good people—my parents don’t know, but I have figured out who they are. Someday, I will find a way to bring her back to you.

Yours always,

Josiah

Mel refolded the letter. “Who’s this Josiah person?”

“Josiah Abernathy. He was the son of the original owners of the Ambling A. He wrote the diary.”

She had heard the old stories of the Abernathys. Years and years ago, they’d put the Ambling A up for sale and left town suddenly, never to be heard from again. “I know it seems unlikely that another Winona Cobbs lived in town all those years ago, but really, that has to be the case.”

“Why?”

Mel stuck the letter in the envelope and eased it back into its hiding place in the binding of the old book. “Because our Winona has only lived in the area for the past six years.” Mel held out the old diary for him to take. “I remember when she came to town.” It was only a few months before Mel’s parents died. “I met her that first summer she moved here. And then that fall, when my parents died and I came back from school to bury them, she was right there at my side, helping me any way she could, so kind and understanding and wise and loving. She made it possible for me to get through a very tough time.”

“Everyone loves Winona,” Wilder said gently. Then he shrugged. “And she could have lived here decades ago, moved away and then returned—and stop pushing that diary at me. It’s yours now.”

“But have you talked to Winona? Did you show her the letter?”

Wilder shoved his fingers in his hair and raked the thick, dark strands back off his forehead. “Look. My brothers and I have gone around and around about whether to approach Winona with this. But you know the situation. Winona’s so old and she’s been sick a lot lately. We just weren’t sure if it was a good idea to go there with her. It could be a big shock and we all agreed that a shock is the last thing she needs right now.”

“What about the psychiatric hospital in Kalispell where Winona was supposedly sent? Did you check with them?”

He nodded. “I did look the hospital up.”

“And?”

“It burned down forty years ago—and I doubt we would have gotten anywhere trying to question the people there, anyway. Patient confidentiality laws would’ve barred them from revealing anything to me or anyone else who came nosing around.”

“Translation: You’ve essentially done nothing.”

Now he seemed kind of sheepish. “Yeah. That’s about the size of it.”

She held out the old book again. “Please. I’m not staying in town. I’m taking a job in Bronco, starting a week from Monday.”

“Doesn’t matter,” said Wilder. “Wren gave you the diary and I’m not taking it back.”

*

Mel ended up bringing the old book home to the too-empty house she’d grown up in.

Todd Spurlock, her cheating ex-fiancé, texted her around ten. He’d been doing that, trying to get her to engage so he could beg her again to come back. She was fed up with that, so she blocked his number. That should do it for Todd.

And then, to distract herself from angry thoughts of the man who had messed up her life on too many levels, she picked up the old diary and started reading. It was pretty absorbing. She didn’t stop until she read it through to its tragic end, using up half a box of Kleenex in the process.

The old book contained the sad story of Josiah Abernathy and his love affair with a woman he called “W.” It was a story as old as time, really. The rich boy and the poor girl, the boy’s disapproving parents. A forbidden love and an unplanned pregnancy—an “out-of-wedlock” pregnancy, as they used to say in whispers so long ago.

What became of the baby? In the diary, Josiah wrote that the child he and “W” named Beatrix had died at birth. And that “W” had suffered a breakdown at the loss. Josiah’s parents had arranged for “W” to be cared for in a Kalispell psychiatric facility.

Late in the night, after she’d studied Josiah’s journal cover to cover, Mel got out the envelope with her dear friend Winona’s name on it and reread the letter that claimed baby Beatrix had lived.

By the time she finally went to sleep, it was nearing daybreak.

*

First thing Monday morning, Mel headed for the Rust Creek Falls Library and the archives of the Rust Creek Falls Gazette. She was looking for evidence that the Winona she knew and admired had been anywhere near Rust Creek Falls all those years ago.

Much to her surprise, she found a picture of a very young Winona waving a flag. Mel felt her throat clutching and a tear trailing down her cheek, just to see the pretty, vibrant woman Winona had once been. The photo was taken on Main Street during the annual Fourth of July Parade more than seventy years ago. The caption read, “Miss Winona Cobbs waves the red, white and blue.”

Mel visited Winona that afternoon. She found the old woman resting on the couch in her small living room. The network of wrinkles on her pale cheeks deepening with her welcoming smile, Winona sat up and reached for a hug. She let Mel brew them both some tea. They sipped and chatted about inconsequential things while Mel tried to find the right moment to bring up the story she’d read the night before.

She’d yet to find a way to broach the strange and difficult subject when Winona set her teacup and saucer aside. She had that look, the one she got when she knew something was bothering Mel.

For a moment, Mel felt eerily certain that her friend was about to announce that she, Winona, was the “W” of the journal, that she’d once loved Josiah Abernathy and ended up in the hospital when her baby was lost to her.

But then, very gently, Winona asked, “How’s Todd?”

And Mel realized that Winona had picked up on the other thing that was bothering her. “You don’t really want to hear.”

“Yes, Mellie. I want to hear.”

“Well, I don’t want to go into detail about all that went wrong.”

“That’s all right, too. I just want you to know I’m here and ready to listen if you need to talk it over.”

“Thank you. The downstroke is that Todd and I are over. I moved out of his house and I’m never going back to him.”

“Where are you living?” Winona frowned. “Somehow, I don’t see you moving back home to stay…”

Mel had lived in Bozeman for the past eight years, coming home in the summers and for holidays the first two years when her parents were still alive and less frequently after that. “No, I’m just in town for a few days. I’ve left Bozeman behind for good, though. In fact, I’ve got a temporary job waiting for me in Bronco. I start next week.”

“Bronco,” Winona echoed teasingly. “Aren’t you the fancy one?”

In the heart of Montana, Bronco was a five-hour drive southeast from Rust Creek Falls. The town was well known as home to some of the wealthiest people in the state. “I’ll be managing a new restaurant for DJ Traub.”

“DJ Traub of DJ’s Rib Shacks?”

“That’s him.”

“You worked in a Bozeman Rib Shack all through college, didn’t you?”

“I did, yes. The Bronco DJ’s is more upscale, though. It’s called DJ’s Deluxe and it’s in Bronco Heights.”

“Where all those rich people live.”

“Yes, Winona,” Mel said with a grin. “In the posh part of town.”

“And you said the job in Bronco is temporary?”

“That’s right. At the end of the year, I’m moving to Austin. I’ve already got something good lined up there. A company that tried to hire me more than once while I was in Bozeman is expanding into Texas. I’ll be their finance and insurance manager. I have to tell you, I’m more than ready for a real change.”

“You are such a go-getter.” Winona gave her that strange little smile—the one that always had Mel thinking the old woman knew a lot more than she was saying. “But as for your move to Texas, we’ll see, won’t we?”

“It’s happening, Winona. I’ll be back now and then to visit you, and to look after the house.” Though she had no plans to live in her hometown again, Mel had never been able to bring herself to sell her parents’ house, so she rented it. Her last tenant had moved out a month ago—which meant it had been waiting for her when she’d left Todd. The property manager she used had a new tenant moving in on August 1st. In the meantime, Mel had scheduled painters to freshen up a couple of the rooms and a handyman to take care of a couple of necessary repairs over the next few weeks.

“You won’t move back to Rust Creek Falls and I understand that. I can see you’re ready for something new. But Montana is your home,” Winona insisted with a challenging gleam in her eyes. “I don’t really believe Texas is where you’re meant to be.”

There was little point in arguing with Winona when she’d made up her mind. Mel settled for giving her friend a noncommittal smile. “As you said, we’ll see…”

“You belong here in Big Sky Country, dear,” Winona said gently. “You’ll figure that out, I think.” And then she seemed to sag a little. “Oh, I do get tired these days.”

“Lie down, then. Get comfortable.”

With a weary little sigh, Winona slipped off her shoes again and slowly stretched out. Mel got up and settled the afghan over her. As she leaned close, Winona reached out and brushed a hand, light as a moth’s wing, against Mel’s cheek. “You’re a sweet girl, Mellie.”

The diary, Mel thought. She still hadn’t managed to bring it up to Winona—but really, where to even begin? So many questions had backed themselves up in her throat.

And Winona looked so frail. If the story Josiah Abernathy had written in the journal was true and Winona was his beloved “W,” how would she respond to the startling news that the baby she’d believed had died so long ago might have lived, after all?

Wilder Crawford was probably right. Dumping something like that on a weakened woman in her nineties could cause a stroke or a heart attack.

And what good, really, would dredging up a tragic past do for Winona now?

*

Mel left Winona’s little house without revealing what she knew.

First thing the next morning, she packed up her Audi Q7. The U-Haul she’d rented in Bozeman was already full of the few pieces of furniture and necessary household goods she’d taken from the house she’d shared with Todd. By 9:00 a.m., she was on her way to Bronco, where her interim job at DJ Traub’s new restaurant was waiting, along with a studio apartment in a great building in Bronco Heights.

She took the old journal and its hidden letter with her—and no, she had no plans to pursue the mystery of Winona and Josiah and the lost baby Beatrix any further. But Wilder Crawford wouldn’t take it back, so what else could she do?