Dr. Colton's High-Stakes Fiancée
“You forgot, didn’t you?” Carly accused.
“No, no, I’ll see you at three. But right now I have to go back to the hardware store and get more parts for my toilet.”
“Hoping to see your favorite Colton brother again?”
“When they’re having snowball fights in hell,” she retorted. She slammed the phone down on Carly’s laughter and snatched up her car keys in high irritation.
Finn threw his car keys down in high irritation. He remembered now why he hated Honey Creek so damned much.
His older brother, Damien, finished off his sandwich and commented, “Funny how you can want worse than anything in the world to get back home. And then you get here, and in under a week, you’d do anything to get away.”
Finn rolled his eyes. Nothing like being compared to a recent ex-con and the analogy working. Especially since he’d been working like crazy for the last fifteen years to recover the family reputation from Damien’s murder conviction. He dropped a brown paper bag from the hardware store onto the kitchen table. “Here are your fence fasteners. Need some help installing ‘em?”
Damien shrugged. “Sure. If you don’t mind getting those lily-white doctor hands dirty.”
Finn scowled. “I grew up working a ranch. I didn’t go completely soft in medical school.”
An hour later, Finn was forced to admit that compared to his massively muscled brother, he qualified as a bonified sissy. But the sweat felt good. They were restringing the barbed wire along the south pasture fence. His hands were probably going to be blistered and torn tonight, but he wasn’t about to complain after the lily-white doctor-hand crack.
Seeing Rachel Grant again had rattled him bad. He needed to get out and do something physical. Something strenuous that would distract him from memories of her. He’d loved her once upon a time. Been dead sure she was the one for him. And then she’d up and—
“Hey! Watch it!” Damien exclaimed.
Finn pulled up short, swearing. He’d almost whacked off his brother’s hand with the sledgehammer.
“How ‘bout I take that?” Damien suggested warily. “In fact, why don’t we take a break and go get a bite to eat? Maisie made chili this morning.”
As a bribe, it was good one. His oldest sibling might be nosy and overbearing, but the woman made a pot of chili that could put hair on a guy’s chest. He stomped into the mud room of the main house a few minutes later. The warmth inside felt good after the hint of winter in the air outside.
“Hey, boys,” Maisie called. “Pull up a chair.”
Damien led the way into the enormous gourmet kitchen. “Watch out for him—” he hooked a thumb in Finn’s direction “—Honey Creek’s already getting on his nerves.”
Maisie commented slyly, “The way I hear it, it’s someone in Honey Creek who’s getting on his nerves.”
Finn’s head jerked up. How did she do that? That woman knew more gossip faster than anyone he’d ever met. And she wasn’t afraid to use it to get exactly what she wanted. Or to manipulate and hurt the people around her. She saw herself as the real matriarch of the clan in lieu of their reclusive and withdrawn mother and, as such, responsible for shaping and controlling the lives of everyone named Colton in Honey Creek. Maisie had been one of the reasons he’d bailed out of town as soon as he could after high school.
He moved over to the stove and served up two bowls of steaming chili. He plunked one down on the table in front of Damien and sat down beside his brother to dig into the other bowl.
He heard arguing somewhere nearby and looked up. Damien’s twin brother, Duke, and their father, Darius, were going at it about something to do with the sale of this year’s beef steers. Those two seemed to be arguing a lot since he’d gotten back two days before. Not that he had any intention of getting involved, but Duke seemed to have the right of it most of the time. But then, Darius always had been a dyed-in-the-wool bastard. A hard man taming a hard land.
Maisie sat down across from him. “So tell me. How’d your meeting with that Jezebel go?”
No need to ask who she was talking about. Maisie always had called Rachel “that Jezebel.” He also knew Maisie would badger him until he told her exactly what she wanted to know.
He answered irritably, “We didn’t have a meeting. I bumped into her in the hardware store.” Amusement flashed through his gut at the recollection of her crawling for the door as fast as she could go. Her pert little derriere had been wiggling tantalizingly, and her wheat-blond hair had been falling down all around her face. Which was maybe just as well; it had partially hidden the sexy blush staining her cheeks.
“Come on. You know I’ll find out everything anyway,” Maisie said.
He sighed. Like it or not, she was right. “That’s all there was to it. I saw Rachel, she saw me, she walked out. I bought Damien’s fasteners and came home.”
“You men. No sense of a good story. I swear, we’ll never get on The Dr. Sophie Show unless I do all the work.” She scowled and pressed, “What was she wearing? How did she look at you? Did she throw herself at you? Did she look like she’s still scheming to land herself a Colton?”
Actually, Rachel had looked pissed. Although he didn’t see why she had any right to be angry. She was the one who’d betrayed him and wrecked what they had between them. He supposed he did have Maisie to thank for finding out the truth about her before he’d gone and done anything dumb like propose to Rachel. How could she have—
He broke off the bitter train of thought. Her betrayal had happened a lifetime ago, when they were both kids. It was time to let it go. Beyond time. He was so over her. And as long as he was home in Honey Creek, he damned well planned to stay over her.
Rachel’s heart wasn’t in shopping today. Not only was she still badly shaken after having seen Finn, but watching Carly spend money when she didn’t have a dime to spare kind of sucked. Edna down at the Goodwill store had spotted a perfect dress for her a few weeks back and had offered to alter it to fit her slender frame, and for that Rachel was grateful. But she didn’t dare dream of a day when she could waltz into a fancy department store like her cousin and buy a nice dress for a party. Not until her mother passed away and the nursing home bills quit coming. And as hard as it was to cover those bills, she dreaded them stopping even worse. Her mother was all she had left.
She felt guilty for secretly counting the days until her mother finally slipped away. But her mom was the only thing holding her in Honey Creek. Ever since they’d found out the summer after Rachel’s sophomore year in high school that her mom had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, she’d been trapped here. Her dad had already had his first heart attack by then, and there was no question of Rachel going away to college. He needed her to stay home to help out with her mom.
Not that she was complaining. Well, not too much, at any rate. She loved her folks. They’d been a close-knit trio, and she’d been willing to set aside her big dreams of seeing the world for her parents. And after Finn had left, taking their dreams of escaping Honey Creek together with him, it had been easier to reconcile herself to sticking around.
But sometimes she imagined what it would have been like to travel. To see Paris and Rome and the Great Pyramids of Egypt. Heck, at this point, she’d be thrilled to see Denver or Las Vegas.
If only she knew why he’d dumped her like he had, so publicly and cruelly. The worst of it was that everyone else in town followed his lead and blamed her for whatever had broken them up. Nobody seemed to know exactly why Finn did such an abrupt one-eighty about her, but she was a girl from the poor side of town, and he was Honey Creek royalty. Clearly the whole thing must have somehow been her fault.
It was no consolation knowing that it wouldn’t be much longer before she was free to leave. Her mother’s health was fragile, and truth be told, her mother was so far gone into Alzheimer’s she usually had no idea who Rachel was. She could probably leave town and go start a new life somewhere else and her mother wouldn’t know the difference. But she’d know. And unlike Finn Colton, she wasn’t the kind of person who turned her back on the people she loved.
“Oh!” Carly exclaimed. “There it is!”
Rachel looked up, startled. Her cousin was making a beeline for the far display case. Must’ve spotted the perfect dress. Carly might be a ditz, but the girl had impeccable taste in clothes. Rachel tagged along behind, wondering if it were the little black number or the dramatic red dress that had caught Carly’s eye.
Another woman was closing in from their right, and Rachel watched in amusement as both Carly and the other woman reached for the black dress at the same time.
“You take it.”
“No, you take it.”
Rachel finally caught up and suggested diplomatically, “Why don’t you both try it on, and whoever it looks best on can have it?”
Laughing, the other two women dragged her into the dressing room to act as judge. Like she’d know fashion if it reached out and bit her. Her whole adult life had been a financial scramble, first to work herself through college online and have enough left over to give her folks a little money, then to help her folks fix up the house and now to pay for her mom’s medical bills. What clothes she didn’t make for herself she picked up at the Goodwill store, mostly. Of course, because she was a volunteer, she got dibs on the best stuff before it went out on the sales floor. Still. Just call her Secondhand Rose.
Carly disappeared into the dressing room first. The other woman turned out to be the chatty type and struck up a conversation. “Do you live here in Bozeman?”
“No. We live in Honey Creek. It’s about twenty miles south of here as the crow flies.”
“Oh!” the woman exclaimed. “I’ve heard of it! One of the doctors at the hospital is from there. I’m a nurse down at Bozemen Regional.”
Rachel’s stomach dropped to her feet. She had an idea she knew exactly which doctor her impromptu companion was talking about. Desperate to distract her, Rachel asked, “So, what’s the special occasion you’re shopping for?”
“A first date. With this cute radiologist. He just divorced his wife and is very lonely, if you catch my drift.”
Rachel smiled. “Sounds like fun.”