Taking the Long Way Home
He’s determined to crack the hard shell around her heart. She’s just as determined to enforce it. And a pregnancy challenges both! Anything can happen in the latest from New York Times bestselling author Christine Rimmer!
Could one night with the rancher
Lead to a lifetime of love?
Piper Wallace’s unexpected one-night fling with the sexy, much-younger rancher Jason Bravo is unforgettable—and not just because of their mind-blowing chemistry! The widowed librarian is now pregnant with his child. Jason agrees to keep the relationship between himself and the woman he's secretly loved for years as strictly a co-parenting one. Still, when Piper locates her biological father through an online DNA site and plans a road trip to meet him, Jason insists on tagging along. Their connection burns hotter than ever. But can he convince Piper that unlike the unreliable men in her past, he’s playing for keeps?
People always thought of libraries as quiet, even peaceful. But in Piper Wallace’s experience, no way.
The Legos at the Library event was in full swing when four-year-old Bobby Trueblood stuck the plastic spaceman in his mouth and swallowed—or tried to. Piper, newly promoted to the top position of library director, saw him do it.
As Bobby grabbed his throat and attempted to cough, Piper stepped in close, bent down to his height and spoke to him calmly. “Bobby, can you breathe at all?”
Frantic, Bobby shook his head, held his throat with both hands and continued his desperate, soundless effort to cough.
“Okay,” Piper said softly, “I’m going to help you get that spaceman out of there…”
A few feet away, Lacey Beaufort, the children’s librarian, had noticed the problem. “I’m calling 911,” she said in a near whisper and whipped out her phone.
Moving directly behind the little boy, Piper dropped to one knee. “Bobby, I’m just going to put my arm around you now…” She drew his small, heaving body back against her and tried like hell to remember her first aid training.
Slap it out first, right?
Dear God in heaven, she hoped so.
With her fist just above his navel, Piper bent him at the waist. As he continued desperately clutching his throat and struggling to draw even a bit of a breath, she struck him five times between his shoulder blades with the heel of her right hand, being careful with each strike to pound upward in an effort to help him expel the object.
Nothing. Poor Bobby continued to hold his throat and shake his head.
About then, his mother, Maxine Trueblood, turned and saw what was happening.
“Oh, my Lord!” Maxine shouted in horror. “Bobby! Bobby, are you all right?!”
Bobby was most definitely not all right. Lacey had the 911 dispatcher on the phone now. As for Piper, she moved on to perform abdominal thrusts. Wrapping her other arm around the boy, locking her right hand on her left wrist, she squeezed sharply in and up, five times in succession.
The fifth squeeze finally did it. The small plastic figure shot out of the child’s open mouth, hitting seven-year-old Milo Nevins in the chest.
“Holy smokes!” exclaimed Milo as Bobby finally sucked in a long, wheezing breath.
“It’s out,” Lacey reported to the 911 dispatcher. “…Yes, that’s right. The toy is out. And he’s breathing now…Yes. That’s what I said. He’s getting air, breathing normally. The obstruction is out.” She listened for a moment and replied, “I think he’s all right, just really shaken up…Yes. Of course. I’ll tell them…”
About then, Maxine scooped her son up into her arms. The little boy grabbed his mom around the neck and started crying.
Piper rose to her feet. “He’ll be okay,” she reassured the terrified Maxine. She asked Lacey, “Are they sending an ambulance?”
“Since he seems fine, no. But he should go straight up to the hospital in Sheridan so that they can look him over.”
Maxine nodded. “Yes, okay. We’ll go right now.” She was crying by then, too. Her other child, a little girl, clung to her coat and sobbed right along with her mom and her brother. In the meantime, two other mothers had moved in close. One offered a travel packet of tissues as they both patted Maxine’s back and whispered reassurances. “Thank you,” sobbed Maxine, holding Bobby on one arm while swiping at her own tears with her free hand. And then she spoke directly to Piper. “Thank you so much!”
“Of course,” Piper replied. “Bobby is going to be fine.” She said that at full volume, for everyone to hear. Then she turned to Lacey. “I’m going to walk them out to the car…”
The other moms stepped out of the way and Piper moved in. With a light hand at Maxine’s back, she guided the sniffling mom forward.
As they left the children’s section, Lacey continued to assure the crowd that Bobby was all right. Faintly, when Piper, Maxine and the two children went through the reception atrium toward the main entrance, Piper heard Lacey announce the next group of entries. She kept moving forward, guiding the shell-shocked mom and her kids out the wide glass doors into the stormy mid-April afternoon.
It was cold out there and pouring down rain. At least Maxine, Bobby and the little girl were wearing hooded coats. Piper hadn’t stopped for hers. “Would you like me to go with you?” she asked as they reached Maxine’s battered Subaru.
Maxine drew a slow breath. “We’ll be all right. I can manage.”
“Yes. He’s okay now. We’ll be fine—and I don’t know how to thank you. If you hadn’t known what to do…”
“Happy to help.” Piper pulled Maxine into a quick side hug. “Now, let’s get you guys out of the rain, huh?”
Maxine blinked and looked Piper up and down. “But what about you? You’re dripping wet.”
“I’m fine.” Piper lifted the little girl up into her car seat and buckled her in as Maxine did the same for Bobby.
Two minutes later, Piper stood shivering in the downpour watching the Subaru leave the library parking lot. Once the car disappeared from sight, she whirled and ran for the shelter of the building.
Inside, she ducked into her office to grab her purse and the change of clothes she kept in the closet there just in case. Because you just never knew at the Medicine Creek Library.
A couple of years ago, Tootie Gracely, technical services librarian, had bumped into Piper in the staff room and spilled half a strawberry smoothie down the front of Piper’s sky blue silk dress. Another time someone had left an enormous wad of bubble gum on the chair at the reference desk. Piper’s tan pencil skirt had not survived the incident.
Which was why she was always prepared for a wardrobe disaster.
Today, after ten minutes in the restroom, she looked—well, better than she had any right to expect, given the circumstances. She’d changed into slim gray pants, a white shirt, a gray jacket and black pumps. She’d also mopped up her smeared mascara, put on fresh lip gloss and smoothed her wet hair up into a ponytail. As for the green wool dress she’d worn out into the rain, she left it in her office to deal with later.
Drawing her shoulders back and aiming her chin high, Piper reentered the children’s section just as Lacey announced a new group of winners.
Half an hour after that, Legos at the Library wrapped up. Everyone declared the event a big success, even if little Bobby Trueblood had gotten a plastic spaceman temporarily stuck in his throat.
The really great news was that Maxine had called from the hospital and left Piper a message full of thanks and relief. Bobby was fine. The doctor in the ER had examined him, delivered a gentle lecture about what not to put in his mouth—and sent the Truebloods home.
Potential tragedy averted. Bobby Trueblood had come through his ordeal in good shape. And hey, it was Friday. Piper had the weekend off.
Tonight of all nights, she wanted to blow off a little steam. She wanted some happy-hour good cheer, to enjoy a drink at Arlington’s Steakhouse bar in the company of friends and colleagues.
And if she couldn’t get a group together on the spur of the moment, no problem. Just one friend or colleague would do it. Because if happy-hour good cheer wasn’t happening, someone to confide in would be great.
That morning, she’d received a second invitation to share information from one of her 23andMe DNA matches—and this was no second-or-third-cousin kind of match. This was someone she’d given up on years ago.
Way back in her teens, she’d put all that hope and heartbreak behind her. So much so that, when the match was miraculously made, she couldn’t bring herself to deal with it. A few days after the notice from 23andMe, the match himself had reached out for the first time.
How hard could it have been to respond to the guy?
Harder than she’d ever imagined, definitely. Her mother had been on her case about it way too much the past month or so. So far, she’d backed her mom off.
But now she was at the point where she would love to have a friend to talk to about the situation. Tonight, a drink and a long conversation with someone she trusted, well, that would be even better than going out with a group to celebrate Bobby Trueblood’s continued good health.
As it turned out, none of her coworkers could join her tonight. And when she called a few friends, she got regretful refusals, which didn’t really surprise her. Most of her friends were in their late thirties to early forties. They had spouses, kids of varying ages and jobs, too. They juggled hectic schedules as best they could. That night, no one could get away.
Piper put on her red raincoat, grabbed her soggy green dress and hurried out to her Volkswagen Tiguan. Behind the wheel, she turned the car toward home.
But halfway there, she changed her mind.
She wanted to go out. And why shouldn’t she? Widowed four years ago with no children, Piper had zero reason to rush home. Plus, she made it a point to be open to first-time experiences. Really, tonight was as good a night as any to try happy hour solo.
Five minutes later, she was parking on the street outside Arlington’s Steakhouse. Inside, she refused the host’s offer of a small table to herself and claimed an empty stool at the bar, where she ordered a cosmo.
As she slowly sipped her drink, the fiftyish cowboy to her left mounted a halfhearted attempt to pick her up. She answered politely but took care to give the man zero encouragement. After a few minutes of awkward conversation, he gave up and left her alone.
She turned around on her stool. Every table in the bar area was occupied. She waved and smiled at a few people she knew. They waved back, but none of them approached her or signaled her over.
Which was fine.
Except, well, she did feel a little uncomfortable. Everybody else seemed to be on a date or out with friends.
Sipping a cosmo alone? It felt kind of sad now she was doing it.
Fair enough, she thought, and sat up straighter. She would finish her drink and be on her way—and in the meantime, she would people-watch.
For the next few minutes, she casually observed a couple at a two-top not far from the bar. They were adorable, kind of shy but obviously crushing on each other. Pretty young, too. They looked barely old enough to order a real drink.
She turned her powers of observation on another couple at the next table over from the shy lovebirds. No flirty, excited glances were zipping back and forth there. Those two hardly looked at each other, let alone spoke.
The cowboy she’d discouraged a few minutes before got up from his stool. “Have a nice night.” He tipped his hat to her.
She gave him a smile. “You, too.” He headed for the door. Piper resumed her people watching.
“Hey, Mrs.…er, Piper. How are you?”
Hiding a grin at the way he’d stumbled over what to call her, she smiled at the young man who stood behind the stool the older cowboy had vacated. Piper had known Jason Bravo for fourteen years. She’d met him when she first came to work at the library.
Jason was in middle school then, wasn’t he?
Back then, he used to check out books on things like woodworking and saddle making. She’d been twenty-six at that time, a librarian for two years and absolutely thrilled to have snagged a position in her hometown library.
Jason had been a good kid, one who’d grown into a fine, handsome man—and thoughtful, too, stepping up now to check on her, to make sure she was okay on her own.
“Piper?” He watched her face expectantly.
She realized she’d failed to respond to his greeting. “Uh, hi, Jason. Good to see you. And yeah, I’m…fine.”
He gave her the kind of smile that should probably come with a warning label. “You don’t sound so sure about that.”
“Sorry, just thinking back.”
“My first year at the library. You were in middle school then, right?”
“Eighth grade,” he replied without even having to think about it. For a moment, they just looked at each other. Finally, he asked, “Want some company?”
Why not? “Have a seat.”
He claimed the empty stool, signaled the bartender and asked Piper, “Another drink?”
The bartender poured Jason a beer and quickly whipped up a second cosmo for Piper.
Jason took off his hat, hung it from one of the hooks under the bar and then raised his glass. “Are you waiting for someone?”
She tapped her drink to his. “No, I’m on my own.”
“You like drinking alone?”
“Not exactly. But tonight, all my friends had somewhere else to be. I almost went home, but then I had this idea that I…” She shrugged. “It doesn’t really matter.”
“Sure, it does—come on. Tell me.” He had thick, dark hair and blue-gray eyes. And that smile of his made all her menopause-adjacent hormones sit up and take notice.
Don’t be ridiculous, she reminded herself. He’s a nice boy just trying to look out for you. “I, uh, do my best to be open to new experiences, that’s all. Tonight, I decided to try drinking alone at a bar.”
He laughed then. The rich, deep sound tugged on something forbidden down inside her. “And how’d that work out for you?”
She sighed. “Well, it’s not something I’m going to be doing on a regular basis. Honestly, it’s lonely and it made me a little bit sad. But I needed to get out, you know? It was a rough afternoon at the library.”
His gaze stayed locked on her face. “What happened?”
“Well, today was our Legos at the Library event. Everything was going great. Until Bobby Trueblood tried to swallow a plastic astronaut…”
“That’s scary. Is he okay?”
“He’s fine now, but I had to perform the Heimlich maneuver. And I was terrified while it was happening…”
“Of course you were.” Jason leaned a fraction closer. His big shoulder brushed hers and a little shiver vibrated through her. He raised his beer again. “To you, Piper. You saved the day.”
“I wouldn’t go that far.”
“I would. And I’ll bet Bobby would, too.”
“He’s okay. That’s what matters—and the sheer relief that he came through it just fine had me wanting to get out with friends, to uh, celebrate life and all that. And then when no one could come out with me, I decided to try the whole being-alone-at-a-bar experience.”
He chuckled. “Being-alone-at-a-bar. That’s a thing?”
She gave a silly little snort-laugh and felt comfortable enough with him right then that she wasn’t even embarrassed. “It’s not a thing to anyone but me and as I said, it’s not fun in the least. I am never choosing to be alone at a bar again—I mean unless I desperately need a drink for some reason. I kind of settled on people-watching, trying to make the time go faster.” She tipped her head at the couple who looked like they wanted to be anywhere but together and whispered, “I believe they’re fighting.”
He watched them for a moment. “Never seen them before. But you’re right. They don’t look happy.”
“You think maybe he cheated?”
“Hmm.” Jason took a moment to consider the possibilities. “Nah. She probably wants to go to counseling to work on their issues and he’s one of those guys who doesn’t believe in that crap.”
“Harsh,” she said with a grin.
“Hey, it was just a guess.” He tipped his head at another couple and then leaned close again to ask, “That blonde and the guy with the mullet. What about them?”
Piper gave a half shrug and whispered, “She loves him despite his unfortunate grooming choices.”
“What? You’re judging a man’s mullet?”
She assumed a remorseful expression. “You’re right. That was over the line.”
Jason looked at her as if… Well, as if he found her fascinating. Was he actually flirting with her?
And that second cosmo? It made her bold. “Jason Bravo, are you flirting with me?” The words were out of her mouth before she could think how silly they might sound. “Um, I mean, you wouldn’t, right?” Shutting her eyes, she drew a slow, calming breath and muttered, “Just shoot me now…”
He leaned close again. “Of course I’m flirting with you.”
“But…why?” she asked because tonight she couldn’t seem to keep all the uncool things from popping out of her mouth.
“You’re a very pretty woman and flirting is fun.”
How did he do that? Every time she put her foot in it, he managed to make it all okay. It was lovely of him. “You have salvaged this evening for me. Thank you.”
“Any time.” Those dusky blue eyes seemed to suggest things she knew she shouldn’t take seriously. He asked, “How’s your mom? Haven’t seen her in a week or two.”
“Same as always.” Piper’s mom, Emmaline Stokely, was opinionated, outspoken, lively and fun. An artist, Emmaline painted psychedelic landscapes and made boho jewelry. She also took surveys and babysat other people’s pets among other things, all in the interest of making ends meet in her own special, creative way. “I think she’s deep into a new series of landscapes. When she’s lost in her work, even I don’t see much of her.”
“She’s remarkable.” Jason was an artist, too. He not only ran the family ranch alongside his mom and dad and younger brother, but he was also a talented chain saw carver. Piper’s mom always spoke highly of his work.
Piper made a noise of agreement to the wonderfulness that was Emmaline. “She’s one of a kind, all right.”
“That she is.” One side of his fine mouth quirked up. “She told me once that for the first nine years of your life, the two of you lived on the road in a Volkswagen bus.”
“It’s true. She homeschooled me in that bus. I met a whole bunch of interesting people, very few of whom were anywhere near my age. Then my grandfather died, and we came home to help out my grandmother.”
“And you stayed?”
She nodded. “I fell in love with Medicine Creek. I wanted to go to a real school and have a ‘normal’ life. Mom seemed to know how much I needed that. So she sold the bus, and we moved in with my grandmother.”
The bartender asked, “Can I get either of you another drink?”
“No more for me.” Piper gave him a smile. “Thank you.”
Jason said. “I’ll have one more.” He asked Piper, “Hungry?”
“Really, I should get going.”
He pinned her with those beautiful eyes of his. “Got a menu?” he asked the bartender.
So they ate sliders and sweet potato fries, and another hour flew by. Her sad, solo evening had magically turned wonderful. Now, she didn’t want the evening to end.
But really, it was time to say good-night to this beautiful, attentive man who was several years too young for her—not that it mattered how young or old he was. Piper wasn’t getting anything going with a man. Not now. Probably never.
Jason put his hand over hers and said, “Don’t.”
Her breath caught. And suddenly her heart was racing.
With the hand he hadn’t captured, she picked up her water glass and drank it down. “What’s going on here?” she whispered, her voice oddly breathless.
He leaned in again and she wondered how in the world any man could smell that good. Like red cedar shavings, saddle soap and…something else. Ferns, maybe, something moist and green and fresh.
Their gazes locked.
And she asked, “Jason, are you trying to pick me up?”
His eyes didn’t waver. “Oh, you bet I am. The question is, will you say yes?”
She should pull her hand away. But she didn’t. “Hmm. This is not the kind of situation I normally find myself in. To be brutally honest, I’m boring.”
He just shook his head. Slowly.
She insisted, “No, really. I am. I always say I’m open to trying new things, but the truth is, I’m a creature of habit. I like my routines.”
“Well, every Thursday, without fail, I eat lunch at Henry’s.” The diner was a Medicine Creek landmark.
“Henry’s is great. Everybody loves Henry’s.”
“But Jason, every Thursday?”
“Absolutely. Why not?” He looked at her so steadily.
She asked in a shaky whisper, “Do you pick up women in bars all the time?”
He laughed then, a low, rueful, oddly tender sound. “No. To tell you the truth, I’m more of a relationship kind of guy.”
For most of her life, Piper had considered herself a relationship kind of girl. She’d grown up wanting what her grandparents had shared—that special someone, her very own soul mate.
But not anymore. Never again. “I hope you find what you’re looking for, Jason.”
“You’re saying you’re not interested?”
“In a relationship…with you?”
“Well, I was thinking more that we might see each other again.”
Was he kidding? He must be. But she answered him honestly. “Nope. Not going there. I’m single and happy that way.”
He drew a slow breath. “So, then, Piper. Do you think you could be interested…just for tonight?”
The question shocked her. She was, what? Thirteen on the day he was born. And the age gap aside, going home just for the night with any man was not, and never had been, her style.
She blurted, “I’ve never done that, had a one-night stand.”
He leaned a fraction closer. “First time for everything.”
The breath had mysteriously fled her lungs. She dragged in air. And shocked herself by admitting in a goofy little squeak, “Okay, I’m intrigued.”
“Good. And right now, I think I should probably up my game a little.” He gave her a slow grin.
She frowned. “What does that mean?”
She gasped as his soft lips touched hers. And then she sighed.
Because Jason Bravo definitely knew how to kiss. So much so that it didn’t even occur to her to pull away.
The bar and everyone around them receded. It was just the two of them sharing a lovely, leisurely kiss. A light kiss—but so sweet. He didn’t touch her, except with those wonderful lips of his.
“Wow,” she whispered when he finally pulled away.
His gaze tracked—from her mouth to her eyes and back to her mouth again. “Piper, come home with me. I’m out at the family ranch, the Double-K. I have my own place there.”
She wanted to say yes. She wanted that so much.
And why shouldn’t she?
They were both grown-ups, after all.
And they were both single…weren’t they? “Got a special girl, Jason?”
His gaze remained steady, focused on her. “Absolutely not.”
She stared at him. He was fun and kind and she knew she could trust him.
Plus, he was one hot cowboy.
“All right,” she said. “I’ll follow you to your place.”
He insisted on picking up the check. At the door, he helped her into her raincoat and offered his arm. She took it, grinning to herself, thinking that the kiss they’d shared back there at the bar might get a few busybodies whispering.
Not that she cared, really. She’d been raised by a single mom who never let the opinions of others dictate her behavior. If Emmaline ever learned that her only child had spent a night with Jason Bravo, her response would be a proud smile and an enthusiastic Good for you, my love.
It was still raining out. Piper pulled up the hood of her raincoat. They were both parked right there on Main. He walked her to her car and then ran through the rain to his big pickup.
When he eased out onto the street, she followed him.
In no time they left the lights of town behind. Overhead, the clouds were a curtain of gray blotting out the stars, obscuring the peaks of the mountains. The rain came down hard enough that the windshield wipers could hardly keep up with it.
Twenty minutes or so from town, they turned off the highway onto a well-tended gravel road. By the time she pulled to a stop behind him at a wide, wooden gate, she was feeling pretty nervous, second-guessing the wisdom of this completely uncharacteristic decision she’d made.
Going home with Jason Bravo? This was not like her at all.
He got out, opened the gate and signaled her through under a big iron sign depicting two K’s back-to-back—two Ks for the Double-K Ranch, which had belonged to his mother, Megan Kane, before she married Nate Bravo. Piper knew this because she enjoyed reading books about Wyoming history—including Brands of the Bighorns by Chester T. Sedgwick, which offered detailed accounts of all the local ranches and their owners over the years.
Once through the gate, she pulled to the side and waited as he drove through, got out of his truck again, shut the gate and then jumped up behind the wheel to lead the way once more.
They passed a Victorian-style house on the left. From there, the road wove through a stand of cottonwoods. When they emerged onto open land again, Jason pulled to a stop in front of a two-story log cabin with a pair of small one-story wings branching off to either side. At the back of the house she could see what looked like an attached barn.
Jason jumped out of his truck and jogged to her side window. She rolled it down. “This is it,” he said, the rain running off his hat, making a stream of water between them. “Pull up beside the deck.”
He stepped back and she drove forward, stopping a few feet to the left of the deck steps. A moment later, he pulled open her door for her.
When she stepped out of the car, he said, “You’ll ruin your shoes.” And then he put one arm at her back, the other under her knees and scooped her high against his broad chest.
She laughed in surprise. Clutching her purse in one hand, she grabbed him around the neck with the other as he carried her up the short run of stairs and under the shelter of the overhang above the door.
Once he reached the doormat, he set her on her feet. She pushed back the hood of her coat and blinked up at him as a sense of complete unreality assailed her. She was about to have a one-night stand with Jason Bravo. Never in her life had she imagined this might happen.
He gazed down at her from under the dripping brim of his hat. “You okay?”
She gave him a big smile. “Yes, I am.”
“Come on in.” He unlocked the door, ushered her ahead of him and flipped a switch on the wall. The rustic chandelier overhead lit up the big living area.
“Your house is beautiful, Jason.”
“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “A couple thousand square feet. Great room in the middle, bedrooms to either side.”
“But what’s with the attached barn?”
“I have my workshop back there.”
“Ah. So that’s where the chain saw art happens?”
“Yeah. You want a tour?”
She did, but getting a tour of his workshop would make tonight feel more like a date. This was not that and boundaries mattered. “Better not.”
He tossed his hat onto a rough-hewn bench by the door and then took her face between his big, wet hands. “Please don’t change your mind.”
She gazed up at him, breathless. “I won’t.”
He seemed relieved. “Good.”
Her poor heart was going a mile a minute. “Do I look terrified?”
One corner of his mouth ticked up. “No way. Not you.”
“Liar,” she said, feeling nothing short of fond of him right at that moment.
“I can’t believe you’re here.”
“I understand. Because neither can I.”
He took her mouth, gently at first. And then more deeply, more…hungrily. His lips went from cool and rain-wet to scorching hot.
She gasped at the wonder of that kiss and let her purse drop to the rug at their feet. Talk about being open to new experiences…
Twining both arms around his neck, she silently vowed to give herself up to him and to the magic of this one special night.