The Cowboy’s Secret Baby

Chapter 1

“We’re leaving in fifteen minutes.”

Ty Hanson pulled the covers over his head and rolled over. It was a juvenile thing to do, of course. And it wouldn’t get him out of going to church. Never had. Maybe he was twenty-eight years old and the highest paid forward in the NHL, but his mother didn’t relax her rules just because he was famous. If you were in her house on Sunday morning, you went to church with the family.

Ty snorted as he threw the covers off and pulled his feet from where they hung over the end of the too-small bed, setting them firmly on the floor. It wouldn’t take him that long to get ready. His appearance, anyway. He’d probably never be fully ready to show his face at the Sweet Water Baptist Church again.

A knock sounded on his door. “Did you hear me?” his mother asked.

“I’m up. I don’t have any dress clothes.”

“What you wore to the reception will be fine.”

A wave of heat followed by a chill washed over him. He wasn’t going to think about the wedding.

Actually, it had probably been a nice wedding. Simple. Quick. Lots of good food. Didn’t get much better than that. He’d shown up late, though, and arrived after the ceremony. That’s when the problem occurred, while he was holding his plate and mingling with townsfolk that he hadn’t seen in years. He caught a glimpse of the skeleton in his closet.

She was beautiful.

She was with someone. Someone who probably suited her much better than he ever had. Ty could have easily broken that man apart with his bare hands. The fellow was skinny. His glasses perched on the end of his nose, and his suit didn’t quite fit. Strands of gray ran through his slightly balding head, and the entire time Ty watched, the guy didn’t shut up.

Louise Olson had hung on his every word. Like she’d hung on Ty’s, one summer long ago.

Ty yanked the covers up, making the bed in one sweep, and pulled his jeans off the chair he’d hung them on the day before when he’d come in from another hard day of work. Depressed.

It served him right. He’d left her. And he hadn’t come back.

He had the plaid button-down on and tucked in before he walked out through the living room and into the small kitchen. In North Dakota, the winters were long and cold, and a small house was easier to heat. His parents had raised three kids in this tiny place. Despite the cold, they hadn’t spent much time in the house anyway. There was always work to do on the ranch, and once it got cold enough, he and his older brother, Ford, spent all their free time ice-skating on the pond behind the barn.

Georgia, their sister, had tagged along too. He’d seen Georgia at the wedding, but Ford hadn’t come. Unsurprisingly. If he wanted to see Ford, he’d need to drive out to the ranch Ford bought a few years ago. If Ford had left the ranch once he moved in, Ty didn’t know about it.

There were a lot of things that Ty didn’t know.

Like who the man was that Louise had been with. And why he even cared, since he hadn’t seen her in almost nine years.

“Good morning,” his mother greeted him from the kitchen table where she sat with a half-eaten piece of toast on her plate and a steaming mug of coffee in front of her.

“’Morning, Mom. You make two cups?” he asked, nodding at her coffee.

“Of course.” She gave him a gentle smile.

Why hadn’t he come home? The thought ran through his mind until he opened the cupboard and saw his dad’s old coffee cup perched on the edge. It’d been almost a decade since the funeral and a stupid coffee cup could still make his chest hurt and his throat tighten.

In order to not have to touch it, he picked up the pink one on the second shelf. His sister’s old cup. His was probably in there somewhere, but he wasn’t moving his dad’s to look for it.

“You’re not limping as bad today.” His mother’s hair had turned gray years ago, but her blue eyes were still sparkling and young. She could have remarried.

“It’s not hurting as bad.”

“It’s funny how rough those hockey games look on TV, yet you get injured jogging in the park.”

“Yeah.” He didn’t want to talk about tearing the ligaments in his leg. They’d be healed by the time the season started. It’s what the surgeon had said anyway. His agent was the one that demanded he go home.

He poured coffee in the cup and carried it to the table. His mother eyed the pink but didn’t say anything, although a tiny worry line appeared between her brows. She’d kept her mouth closed over the years, never pressuring him to come home. Occasionally she’d hinted around, digging for info about any relationships. Maybe she’d read rumors about him. There were plenty of those.

“It was the closest one.” He lifted the pink cup.

His mother, with her white skin that flushed easily, ice-blue eyes, and hair that had been blond before it turned gray, was Norwegian through and through. Hardworking, thrifty, and stoic. Just like their ancestors who had settled this land and made a living in a country that was so like their homeland.

Still, he couldn’t miss her concern. But she didn’t have to worry; he would never disappoint his mother that way. “Honest, Mom. The pink cup was closest, and I’m going to make you late.”

She smiled a little, still beautiful in her fifties. “I’m thrilled that you’re here.”

He hid his own smile. This was about as thrilled as her Norwegian ancestry would allow her to be, calmly sitting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee while her son who’d barely been home for more than a day at a time in nine years sat down with her. Even in Pittsburgh, where he lived, the German and English with their stiff upper lips couldn’t compare to the emotionless Norwegians of his childhood.

“I’m thrilled to be here,” he said, allowing his lips to turn up.

His mother saw, and her own face brightened some. “Still making fun of me.”

“Mom, when someone is ‘thrilled,’ they do more than sip their coffee.”

“I would have cooked you breakfast if you’d come down earlier. There’s not time, now.”

He laughed outright. The guys he played with might not be entirely in touch with their emotional side, but they knew how to do “thrilled” with shouts and slaps and fist pumps. Not a tiny smile and a sip of coffee and an offer to cook breakfast.

Sometimes still waters ran deep.

Louise had blue eyes too, a shade lighter even than his mom’s. Her studious exterior had hidden a wealth of emotion, hot and powerful.

He shook the image. That ship had sailed, even if she was still the standard by which he judged every single female that came into his orbit.

“I don’t eat in the morning, anyway.”

“Your father never did either. Not until the stock was fed.”

He clenched his jaw, determined she not see that he’d never gotten over his dad’s death. Probably because of the way they’d ended.

“I know. I was with him.” All through his childhood, Ford and he were his dad’s shadows.

Her expression was benevolent, and he was sure she was remembering the happier days when his dad was alive. Back when they were the perfect ranching family. Before Ford’s accident when he and his brother were high school sports stars that spent their spare time on the farm, working and playing. He couldn’t have had a better childhood. Then Ford got hurt. And not long after that, he and his dad had had the first fight of their lives.

That night, his dad had died.

He hadn’t been home to help on the worst night of his mom’s life. Hadn’t gotten to apologize to his dad or race him to the hospital.

He’d been with Louise.

The drive to church wasn’t long. Only about twenty minutes to the east. His mom rode in the passenger seat of his rented car, her gelatin salad held on her lap, the hot dish on the seat in the back. He wished they could have driven separately, because she would want to stay and eat and talk, and he didn’t, not after the trouble he’d had at the wedding. It wasn’t because of people recognizing him and wanting his autograph, although they had, to some extent, but Sweet Water was just as Norwegian as his mother, and they’d been very polite about it.

No, the trouble had been when he’d seen Louise.

He pulled into the gravel lot, beside the small, white church of his childhood, the August heat making the car’s AC feel necessary. The lot was already full, and they parked way back.

“I’ll carry these things in,” he said as he got out. He hadn’t seen Louise in the week since the wedding. Of course, he’d been at the house a lot, since he’d been doing a lot of repair work for his mother who was hoping to sell the ranch. This week, she’d be away at a craft fair, and he’d be getting out more.

“You’ll have to put the salad in the fridge. The Acapulco Chicken should be fine. It’s insulated.”

“Okay.” He headed toward the back door, while his mother went in the front. The service would be starting soon. It was funny that he didn’t hear any music. He’d always enjoyed the simple piano music and hymns in his home church.

By the time he had the food situated and crept up the stairs to the back of the sanctuary, Pastor Houpe was talking. Still no music. Odd.

Their family’s pew was clear at the front, and he went up the side aisle as inconspicuously as a guy as big as he was could before slipping in beside his mother. He’d have sat in the back, but she was alone at the front. He’d never considered that she might sit by herself on Sunday mornings. Ford and Georgia weren’t that far away. Forty-five minutes. Maybe they went to a different church.

He settled in the seat, resting his arm on the back of the pew behind his mother.

The preacher’s next words were, “We’re happy to have Titus Hanson here today.”

Figures. He was used to attention, and it didn’t really bother him.

“Not as happy as Mrs. Hanson, I’m sure,” Pastor Houpe continued.

His mother clutched her Bible. She wasn’t used to the attention, and he was sure it did bother her.

“How long is he here for, Mrs. Hanson?” the pastor asked.

Ty had forgotten how relaxed the services in his small country church actually were. This would never happen in Pittsburgh.

“A month,” his mother said in a confident tone. She didn’t like the attention, but his mother never backed down from anything. Pride stirred in his chest.

“That’s great. We look forward to getting to know you again, Ty.”

Ty nodded in acknowledgement, and the pastor spoke again. “Let’s move on to the morning’s announcements. Our pianist is home with her daughter who is under the weather. We’ll put her on the prayer list. In the meantime, we’ll sing without a piano today.” He shuffled the papers on the pulpit. “Ladies’ Missionary Group meets Thursday night.” He looked out over the congregation. “See Patty back there in the last row for the location and time.” People shifted as they looked around at Patty.

Ty was pretty sure she was the daughter of Claudette who used to own the diner that was now called Patty’s Diner. It was still open. He’d noticed that when they’d driven down the street. The C Store was still there, too, as well as the hardware store and the butcher shop. There were still two bars, but it looked like the third one had been turned into a gym. The one right across the street from Patty’s Diner. He hadn’t known, but it would save him a lot of time driving to the next town over for his workouts.

“Palmer and Ames gave me this to read to you.” The pastor waved a card in the air before holding it in front of his face and reading. “‘We appreciate everyone who came to our wedding and especially those who helped out. We’ll be back next week to open gifts. Love, Palmer and Ames Hanson.’”

The pastor looked up. “It was a nice wedding. ’Course, they’re back from their honeymoon now and with us this morning.”

Ty had to agree that the wedding had been nice. Simple and quick. Not formal. Just a down-home feel where everyone had a great time.

“Thanks,” a deep voice said from behind him. He didn’t twist all the way around, but he assumed it was Palmer. He’d known both Palmer and Ames from high school. They’d all gotten along fine. Of course, Palmer might have a few choice things to say to him if he knew that Ty had been meeting his sister down by the river the summer before he left. Actually, he probably wouldn’t mind the meeting. It was the other things they’d done that would land him in a fistfight with Louise’s brother.

“The men’s prayer breakfast is on Saturday morning. We’ll meet out at the pavilion at seven. And…” The pastor gathered all the papers and tapped them on the pulpit. “We need volunteers for the Harvest Fest committee.”

The church was silent.

“I volunteer the pianist,” a voice said from the other side of the room.

Titters sounded from the pews. The pastor grinned with good nature. “I guess if you don’t want to be volunteered, you need to show up and say so.”

“She’ll do it,” an older lady said from somewhere close behind Ty. Again, he didn’t turn around.

“Thanks, Grandma Gene. I’ll put her down.” The pastor wrote a note on the papers. “I need a co-chair.”

Silence reigned again.

His mother’s hand landed softly, like a butterfly, on his leg. Ty knew the question she was asking. He waited another five beats of silence, hoping someone else would speak up. He’d be heading back to Pittsburgh and training camp about that time.

“What all does it entail?” a nasally voice asked from across the aisle. Ty turned his head, his height making it easy to see over the heads between. He recognized the man who’d been talking to Louise at the wedding.

His mother’s hand ran smack into his competitive streak. The explosion in his chest was inevitable. He might not be competing for Louise. He’d thrown that right away. She might even be married to the dude for all he knew. She wasn’t beside him. He hadn’t seen her at all the few times he’d looked around.

But she’d been talking to this guy at the reception last Sunday afternoon the short moment he’d seen her. His crazy brain latched onto him as the competition to beat. Never mind that the person who got stuck planning Harvest Fest was actually the loser.

“I’ll do it,” he said, loud and clear before the pastor had a chance to explain what the job entailed.

All eyes shifted to him. He was used to being in the spotlight. On the ice and off it. But it was hard because this was his community and he’d left. Still, so far, they’d not seemed to hold it against him.

The pastor wasted no time. He was writing his name beside the hapless pianist’s before Ty’s mouth was even closed. Ty felt a bit like he’d been hooked. “Okay then. You two will need to get together, but I’ll let you handle that.”

His mom would know who the pianist was. She’d have the number too. Ty pictured himself working with an eighty-year-old woman. Mrs. Hoyt, the pianist of his childhood, had passed to her reward years ago. He remembered his mother telling him. So he wouldn’t know the new one.

It would require no brainpower from him. He’d be the strong legs and back that carried out all her plans. As long as his leg held up, he was good with that. Hopefully she’d be a good cook, because right here, where he came from, old women who could cook usually rewarded the strong legs and back with good food.


Louise watched the dust cloud in the distance. It was almost certainly her family coming home. She stroked Tella’s hair. Her daughter had fallen asleep on the porch swing a while ago. At the ripe old age of eight, she’d decided she was too big to take a nap in the afternoon, no matter that she had a fever.

A little shot of fear went through Louise. Sicknesses were definitely one of the times she wished she had a husband. Should she make the one-hour trip to the clinic in the next town? Or was it just a harmless summer virus that would be gone when Tella woke up from her nap?

Hoping it was the latter, she continued to stroke the soft golden hair. Just like her father’s. She’d inherited his deep blue eyes too. Eyes that looked like the first blueberries of the season kissed with summer dew. Eyes Louise had gotten lost in back when she was young and dumb as dirt.

He’d come home. After nine years, Ty Hanson had come back to Sweet Water. He’d been at Palmer and Ames’s reception last Sunday afternoon, although Louise hadn’t seen him in the church for the actual wedding. Didn’t mean he wasn’t there. She’d been busy.

But he’d been at the reception. No missing him. He was the biggest guy in the churchyard. In height and if one were counting muscle mass, he’d win that contest too. Not that that meant anything to her. It didn’t. She appreciated Paul’s intellectual prowess. He was an IT consultant. He had his own business and did most of his work online. And, yes, he indulged in the occasional Friday night at the bar. Okay.

But, really, what else was there to do in Sweet Water for a middle-aged, unmarried man?

And who else was there for her to make a bargain with? To provide her daughter with the father she was lacking?

Thoughts of the letter she’d received a month ago pushed sharp twinges of anxiety up her spine as they always did. As a single mom, her focus had always been on what was best for her daughter. From giving up college to staying on the ranch she’d grown up on to raise her daughter the same way, to getting a job at the diner. Everything was for Tella.

So why hadn’t she gone through with the deal she’d offered Paul? The letter had said if she got married and settled in North Dakota, anywhere in North Dakota, she’d inherit one billion dollars. As a single mother, with the welfare of her daughter always first and foremost, she should be jumping all over that offer. A father and enough money to buy her own ranch. Perfect.

At first, she’d thought the letter was some kind of joke. Then she found out that her brother Palmer had gotten the same offer. He’d gone to the lawyer who’d sent it and checked it out. The owner of Sweet Water Ranch had indeed left a billion dollars to Palmer. He’d had to get married as well. And he had. Just last Sunday. They’d been gone on their honeymoon, but they’d been able to draw on the money before the actual marriage.

Palmer didn’t know about her letter, and she hadn’t told him. Her grandparents who lived with them didn’t know either. Maybe some people would tell everyone, but Louise kept the information close. Her family would never want her to marry for money. Yet the chances of her falling in love again were zero. She’d given her heart once. Ty hadn’t taken very good care of it.

The one billion dollars Palmer would get was more than enough to pay the medical bills from Pap’s stroke and get him top-of-the-line medical care. So the ranch was out of financial trouble and on the way to being a profitable family venture again.

Unfortunately, as nice as Ames was, Louise had started to feel like a third leg on a chicken. Palmer and Ames had only been back from their short honeymoon for a few days—they were taking a longer honeymoon later in the fall when the harvest was over—and Ames had been nothing but kindness and sweetness to Louise and Tella. But it had to be awkward stepping over her sister-in-law and her daughter every day.

The big, old farmhouse had been built with no concern about heat on a cold winter day, so there was plenty of room. And Gram and Pap lived downstairs, anyway.

Palmer would never think of leaving, and Ames probably wouldn’t ask. So it was up to Louise to move out.

Not that she wanted to. She loved ranch life. Cooking and baking and canning. Feeding the animals and riding the fence line. Tella had her own horse and free range of the wide outdoors.

Tella stirred on the swing. Louise put her hand on her forehead. Still warm. But not hot. Thankfully. Tella sighed and sat up slowly, looking around, trying to get her bearings.

“You fell asleep on the swing.”

“I never sleep during the day,” Tella said groggily. Her daughter might be eight, but she had so many adults in her life that she acted and spoke more like a miniature adult than a child.

“You did today.”

Tella, one side of her face streaked red where it had lain on Louise’s lap, gave her a sour look. “I didn’t want to sleep.”

“Sometimes your body needs rest to heal. You’re not as hot as you were.”

“I feel better. Will you take me swimming?”

Louise wanted to laugh and roll her eyes at the same time. A father would keep her from being the bad guy all the time, too. Ideally. “No. I want to make sure you’re completely better before we go swimming.”

“But you were busy with the ranch this past week and didn’t have time. And next week, you’ll be working again. Then school starts.”

Louise pressed her lips together and watched as the car parked. Palmer drove with Ames beside him. Gram and Pap were in the back.

She had been busy this past week with Palmer gone most of it, even though she’d taken a vacation from her waitressing job at the diner.

She didn’t do any fieldwork, but she’d taken care of all of the stock plus tried to keep up with the garden and canning. Truth be told, she’d been a little happy Tella was sick. She hated seeing her daughter ill, but she was exhausted and appreciated the break from church.

Okay, she was a coward. She didn’t know how long Ty would be in town, but she didn’t want to see him, either. She’d dreaded the idea that she might run into him today. His mother didn’t recognize the dark blue eyes and light brown hair of her grandchild or the telling cleft in her chin. It was so much like Ty’s it pulled a reaction out of Louise’s gut every time she looked at her daughter’s face. But Ty’s mother, Donna, hadn’t ever seemed to notice. Would Ty?

Louise assumed Donna would have no reason to look at Louise’s child and wonder if it were Ty’s. Louise and Ty had never even been friends, let alone a couple. All their meetings that summer had been clandestine ones by the river. But Ty would know. Or maybe, with his sports star life and puck bunny bedmates, he’d not remember.

As much as the last idea pained her heart, drat the stupid thing anyway, it would be for the best if he didn’t remember. She had never told anyone who Tella’s father was. Partly because she was embarrassed of her own stupidity, and she didn’t need the whole town laughing at her too, but partly because she didn’t want anyone pulling Ty out of his college scholarship and demanding he quit hockey to support a daughter he didn’t want. Or worse, demanding he marry her.

She bit her lip and pushed her thoughts away. Rising from the swing, she walked down the steps and walk and took Gram’s arm as she got out of the car. Palmer and Ames walked on either side of Pap.

“How’s Tella?” Gram asked.

“She’s better. Not as warm, but I think she still has a fever.”

“Good. That’s the way those summer viruses usually go.”

“Yeah, I remember her getting them when she was little, but it’s been a few years since she’s been sick in the summer.”

Gram patted her hand where it rested on the inside of her bent elbow. “That’s the way it goes. Life happens, and we forget.”

Unless one happened to be forced to look into dark blue eyes shining out from a face that called her “mommy” every day. Then one couldn’t forget. Even if they wanted to.

“Lou Lou.” Palmer’s voice came behind her with the old nickname he and Sawyer used on her growing up. “Guess what you got volunteered for today?”

She grunted. It couldn’t be any worse than the last time she’d missed church, a year and a half ago at Christmas time. She’d been volunteered to be Mary in the church’s live nativity. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but Paul had been Joseph, and it had been one of the coldest Christmas weeks on record. Paul had flaked out. Louise had ended up by the manger alone, fitting for a single mother, she supposed, dressed in coveralls and three layers of clothes underneath her blue robe. There were probably other “Marys” in North Dakota that year, and other years, too, who wore beanie hats under their head coverings and had gloves and insulated boots on under their robes. But she doubted any of them knelt at the manger alone.

When Palmer had gotten done feeding the stock and come in town, he’d thrown Joseph’s robe on and knelt with her. Bless him. Even if he was annoying.

And still waiting for her to guess what she’d been volunteered for this time.

She kept a good grip on Gram’s arm. “I have no idea. Hopefully they haven’t decided to exhume anyone.”

“Ew. I wouldn’t let them volunteer you for that,” Ames said.

“I would,” Palmer replied, even though no one had asked him.

“I know you would. And Ames can’t watch you every second.” Louise steadied Gram as she took one porch step at a time. There were five steps. Gram and Louise had done this a lot together. Before that, she’d lugged baby carriers, buggies, and then a little girl up and down so many times she had all the dips and creaks memorized. She’d fallen down them once while carrying Tella as a baby. Thankfully she was able to catch herself on knees and elbows—she still had the scars—and Tella had survived unscathed. She hadn’t even woken up.

“I didn’t volunteer you for this, though,” Palmer said from behind her, where Pap was waiting to come up the steps behind them. One of the things Palmer was going to do with his money was install a ramp.

“Who did?”

“Not sure. But I did agree when Pastor laughed and said you wouldn’t mind.”

“Just tell me.” Louise figured it couldn’t be too bad, since he was laughing. Of course, if she’d been volunteered to replace the church roof, Palmer would think that was funny too.

“You’re co-chairing the Harvest Fest committee,” Ames said.

Gram made it to the top, and Tella moved silently to open the door for her. To Louise’s eyes, Tella still moved a little stiffly, but that could be because of sleeping on the swing. There was no cushion.

“That’s fine. I can do that.” She’d never chaired Harvest Fest, but she’d pulled her weight in every single one of the festivals the town had. She could handle doing Harvest Fest, one of the biggest.

“Paul almost volunteered to do it with you.” Gram hobbled through the open door, giving Louise a look she couldn’t decipher. Louise stood at the door and waited for Pap to come up with Ames and Palmer.

“But he didn’t?” Louise asked, hoping the answer was no. Sure, she was considering marrying him, but under a “deal” type of arrangement and only so Tella had a father and for Louise to get money to buy their own ranch. They weren’t pretending to be in love.

“Nope,” Palmer said with a smirk. “Paul was hemming and hawing around about how much work it was going to be and what was involved.”

That totally sounded like Paul. With his IT background, he wanted to gather all the facts and analyze the situation. He was just like Louise in that regard. The one time in her life she’d closed her eyes and jumped, she’d had a crash landing. Tella was the only good thing to rise from the ashes of that big mistake.

“And Ty Hanson, who was sitting with his mother right in front of us, jumped in before Paul could stumble out any more irritating questions and volunteered for the spot.” Palmer laughed like Ty one-upping Paul was funny.

Palmer and Ames were just helping Pap up the last step, so when the screen door banged shut the way no one was allowed to ever let happen, they both looked up with wide eyes.

The porch floor seemed to move under Louise’s feet.

“Are you okay?” Ames asked, the sound of her voice seeming to come from a distance away.

Louise reminded herself to breathe. In and out. In and out.

Ty was here, and he was apparently staying for at least a month or so. Long enough to be here until Harvest Fest. The Harvest Fest that she was going to plan. With him.

There weren’t too many times in Louise’s life where she cried out to the Lord in protest at the unfairness of life. Most of the bad things that had happened to her were clearly her own fault. Or, like her parents not really wanting their children, the bumps in life that one had to weather. But this? After all she’d been through, God was going to make her do this?

She was going to drive in this afternoon and tell Pastor she couldn’t, wouldn’t co-chair with him. She wouldn’t mention his name, but she’d be very clear. She wasn’t doing Harvest Fest with Ty Hanson.

“Mom? Are you getting the door?”

Tella stood beside her, looking up with her brows puckered.

Louise shook herself. “I think I might have a touch of what Tella had earlier. I’m going to go lie down.” Without looking at anyone else, she opened the screen door and walked in.

It wasn’t often that she had been allowed the luxury of pouting in her room all day. She didn’t usually allow herself to mope. What good did it do?

But for several hours on Sunday afternoon, she gave in to her inner child and lay on her bed staring at the ceiling as the sun moved across the sky, the lace pattern shadow of her curtain creeping along the floor.

Memories of a summer long ago slipped through her mind. Good memories. Even the last. Ty had promised to call. He’d sworn he’d visit as much as he could. Maybe every weekend. He’d even offered to take her with him, although how they were going to work that out with her having another year of school, he didn’t say.

Yet, he’d left, and she’d never heard another word. Not one.

Of course, his father had died. He’d stayed long enough for the funeral. He hadn’t gone to the river to meet her, although she’d waited there every night. But she’d understood, or at least thought she did. He had family in and couldn’t get away. Until he left, the day after the funeral, without talking to her again.

She’d been pregnant her whole senior year. Her graduation gown might have hidden her huge belly, but Tella had been born the night Louise was scheduled to give her valedictorian’s speech. It had been a hard year. A lot of judgment in their small, religious town. A lot of disappointment in her family and herself. She persevered. Then she missed the day that was supposed to validate it all: her graduation.

She didn’t know where Ty was, but he hadn’t come home.

Maybe because of her recent grief, maybe because of how her family had splintered, but Ty’s mother, Donna, had attached herself to Tella. Officially, on the birth certificate, her name was Donatella, but no one knew that. Still, Miss Donna had fallen in love with Louise’s baby at church. She’d kept her in the nursery, then she’d offered to watch her when Louise started waitressing at Patty’s.

Louise didn’t have her do it every day, but Miss Donna had almost taken over her rightful role as grandmother. As far as Louise knew, Miss Donna had no idea she was watching her grandchild.

Still, Ty hadn’t come home. At least not to see her.

Why now? People had talked about his poor mother and how she lost her husband and about Ford’s accident and how the whole family had seemed to fall apart, with Ty never coming home on his breaks or even after graduation, Ford becoming a recluse in a town forty-five minutes away, and Georgia moving in to take care of Ford.

Why had he volunteered to co-chair with her? What was going on?

The room had darkened, and she couldn’t dwell on Ty’s motivations. Maybe he volunteered first. She tried to remember exactly what Palmer and Ames had said but couldn’t be sure from her memories whether her name had been suggested first or not.

Her bigger concerns were why did he have to come back and what was she going to do?

Funny, last time he was here, she hadn’t wanted him to disappear forever.

This time, her dearest wish was that he would leave and never come back.