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Jared Holt never thought he deserved either—until he found both in the arms of Aly Moore. How can he allow himself the very happiness he once destroyed? To live a life worthy of Aly, Jared knows he has to stop running and finally put his past to rest. But when he decides to face his demons head on, he encounters more than he bargained for: When those intentions threaten Aly, Jared loses all control, giving into the rage that earned him his bad boy reputation years before.

Lee married Janice a few years out of high school, but the two of them were killed several months back in an auto accident.

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I was granted custody of Jim, Scotty, and Beth Ann. I need a wife and these children need a mother. I work hard and play just as hard. I enjoy a game of poker with the men, but rarely play more than once or twice a month. I kinda hate to give that up. Each of the children have a question. Morning Comes Softly 43 As you might have guessed, I sincerely lack any domestic talents. A picture would be appreciated. Sincerely, Travis J. She read it so many times in the next few hours that the top edges of the pages started to curl.

A thousand times she regretted the wording. She should have said this, deleted that. The instant she heard from Travis, all her doubt evaporated. She was thrilled. She answered him that very night. Dear Travis: I lost a brother, too. Clinton died four years ago in a small plane crash. Guilty because everything changes afterward. Everyone changes. You your- 44 Debbie Macomber self change, although you struggle against that very thing. At least I did, and the battle tired me so. It was as if both paths crossed each other so often that one blended into the other.

I apologize. All he need do is let me know his favorites. I know my way around a sewing machine just as well as I do a kitchen. The woman standing with me is my best friend, Georgeanne McKay. Warmest wishes, Mary Warner Mary was on tenterhooks until she heard from Travis again. Within a few days there was another letter waiting for her.

Dear Mary, What can you expect? First and foremost is commitment. Your problems will be my problems. Your needs, my needs. I promise to be faithful to you, to work toward making this ranch as prosperous as possible, so when the time comes we can enjoy the fruits of our labors together.

My home will be your home. Instead of keeping us waiting for your letter, please phone with your response at the number listed below. I look forward to hearing from you. Affectionately, Travis J. For no reason whatsoever, sitting at the front desk, Mary burst into giggles. She glanced around guiltily and then moved on to some other section of the building only to laugh again. The retired nurse had stopped short and frowned at her through narrowed eyes above thick wire-rim glasses.

I suggest you visit Dr. Hanley without delay. Tall and as slender as a young poplar tree, Georgeanne had married a month after graduating from high school and gone on to live a fairytale existence. Two children and several years of marriage had done little to mar her classic features. Georgeanne had always been popular and outgoing, and Mary felt uplifted just being around her.

Analyzing their friendship, Mary realized her friend was a pleasant contrast to her own dull existence. The sink was piled high with dirty dishes, and the table crowded with plates and an empty milk carton.

The salt shaker had spilled, and white granules had been scattered across the tabletop. Here, sit down and let me get you something cold to drink. When she turned around, Georgeanne was standing with two tall glasses of iced tea. How about the two of us going shopping Saturday? The air was fragrant this evening, she noted, and realized with a pang how much she was going to miss her home. But Montana held something for her that Louisiana never would. A husband, children, and love. Your eyes are fairly twinkling.

The one I planned to make with the lace overlay and the satin ribbon woven in at the yoke. Are you thinking of sewing it up? I thought you said you were saving it for something special. She, who had given up the hope of meeting that someone special, of ever being loved or of loving a man. I hardly know what to say. It was as though Mary had announced she were marrying an alien from outer space. She might as well explain everything at once, she thought with a muted sigh.

Drawing in a calming breath, Mary forced herself to continue. The facts, stark and chilling. It hurt to admit it, but she was safe telling her friend, the person in Petite who knew her best. When Georgeanne continued to stare at her as though she were from Mars, Mary peeled the pages from the envelope and handed them to her friend as proof. Perhaps Mary had been foolish to blurt it out this way, but she expected Georgeanne to share a small portion of her enthusiasm.

Her lifelong friend was the single living soul she trusted enough to believe such a madcap scheme could be made to work. No one else would understand. Mary fully envisioned being called a fool, cau- Morning Comes Softly 53 tioned, and chastised by most everyone, but not by Georgeanne. Not her best friend.

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The man was granted custody of the children? Then again, maybe they were. A man, a good, honest man, wants me for his wife.

How could you even consider anything this crazy? Surely this idea of yours. At least not yet. What would I do without you? You always have. Hearing herself explain out loud what she was doing made it suddenly seem preposterous.

Absurd and foolish. She was trying to think clearly, weigh her decision with a logical mind, and examine the pros and cons without emotion. It was either a mistake to have come to Georgeanne or the best thing she could have done. She reached for her iced tea and took a sip. Her heart ached, throbbing with a need so strong it was all she could do not to burst into tears.

There were children involved, young, grieving children who needed her. Okay, Mary was willing to admit marrying a stranger did sound like the action of someone desperate and hopeless. She was sick of pretending otherwise. Sick of denying the lack and all that went with it.

For all I know your cowboy may be. I mean, he could be a mental patient or have a criminal record or any number of things that you should know about.

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Now her friend seemed to be questioning her ability to judge character. Georgeanne looked all the more concerned. She took a sip, then set it back down on the glass-top table with a thud. Did you ever stop to think the only reason he wants a wife is because of those children? Georgeanne had used her, too, as a sounding board, to help her with the children when they were younger, to sew her clothes.

They need me, and it feels so wonderfully good to be needed. What do you expect in return? She sincerely doubted that she ever would be again. The ad had been the pivotal point of her life. It had forced her to take an honest look at her existence. Pretending to be happy. Imagining so much that was never there and never would be unless she took action. Think through every detail of this before contacting him. Will you do it? For me?

He paused, his expression dour. By his calculations, Mary had received his letter a full seven days earlier. Seven days. She should have been able to make up her mind in that amount of time. Travis swore the kid had better hearing than some bats. Travis saw more of Lee in Scotty than the other two kids. At times it was almost painful watching the lad, and at others. Of the three, Jim was the cynic, the pessimist. Travis tried to be patient with Morning Comes Softly 61 the boy, but frankly he was getting sick of dealing with his sour, critical moods.

Travis had managed to comb her hair into pigtails, and although they were lopsided he was downright proud of his efforts.

Morgan comes to visit us again? The old lady continued to drive out and visit every week. Several women from town had wanted to smother him with advice 62 Debbie Macomber and drown him in their charity.

Four months had altered his opinion. No one came, however, with the exception of Clara Morgan. The phone rang, and all three kids turned bright eyes toward Travis.

He should never have said anything about asking Mary to phone. He regretted that now. His own disappointment was keen enough without having to deal with theirs. You asked me to phone.

There were plenty of other letters to sort through. Even a few worth considering. He could almost hear her smile, which was nonsensical. The tension had broken, and for that, at least, Travis could be grateful. He silenced them with a look. It was generally accepted that he was good-looking.

A painful silence fell between them. It was all Travis could do not to blurt out the question once more. That is, if you still want me? The weight of ten years was lifted from his shoulders in that moment. Is Saturday convenient? The children and I are eager to meet you.

Why, it could take weeks. Not with him ruining every pot and pan in the house. He needed a wife, and he needed her now. Three pairs of anxious eyes turned to him. Either take it or leave it. Mary hesitated, and then her voice dipped slightly. Four Mousy. It was the only word Travis could think to describe Mary Warner when she stepped off the plane.

His heart sank and took a moment to rally itself. Minnie Mouse. All right, he was willing to admit, he was being unfair. The top of her head barely reached his shoulders.

Travis 68 Debbie Macomber doubted that Mary Warner had much if any stamina. She was wearing a pale lavender dress, and the soft color enhanced her features, which were—he hated to say it—ordinary.

Not even a little blush or lip gloss. Her glasses were the huge horn-rimmed variety that took up nearly all of her face. Her classic navy blue coat was left unbuttoned, and she wore sensible black shoes. A book was tucked in her arm, and he glanced down to note it was one on child rearing. They were certainly going to be great parents, he told himself sarcastically. In any other circumstances Travis was convinced he would have passed her by without even giving her a second glance.

Damn, but she was small. The entire scrutiny took all of two seconds before he gave himself a mental shake, removed the Stetson from his head, and stepped forward. She had lovely eyes. She stood absolutely still as they stared at each Morning Comes Softly 69 other. A Mary Poppins sort of smile. Beth Ann, at least, was going to get her wish.

As for him, there was no hope. He should have looked closer. And those eyes. He was so much larger than Mary had envisioned. Six three had never seemed so formidable. His Morning Comes Softly 71 size was downright threatening. His hair was brown and untamed and needed to be cut.

She found that somewhat endearing. His eyebrows were bushy and bleached nearly blond from too many hours in the sun. They were an odd shade of brown—uncommon, really, a cross between brown and green—and when he smiled, which was rare, she noted, their color resembled Kentucky whiskey.

His face was nearly bronzed, weathered and beaten. The contours were angled and abrupt. There was nothing soft in this man, nothing delicate or subdued, she noted.

He made no apologies for who or what he was, nor did he make any attempt to hide it. A cowboy from a hundred years past, wearing faded denims, a blanket-lined jean jacket, scuffed boots, and a black hat.

One thing did concern her, however. Having him touch her, even lightly at the elbow, unnerved her. Once they were outside, the wind cut through her like a hunting knife. Travis had warned her winter was setting in. It had gone without saying that the mild weather in Petite would be nothing like the bitter cold of Montana. Travis set her two large suitcases in the back of a dilapidated pickup. The rest of her things were being shipped. After helping her inside, Travis joined her.

He started the engine, which roared to life with surprising energy as though to prove her wrong. She ran her hand along the tattered cushion in unspo- Morning Comes Softly 73 ken apology for having judged the truck harshly, and perhaps the man, too. The ride into Grandview took nearly two hours. Neither of them spoke much, although they both made a single attempt at polite conversation.

Travis inquired about her trip and she asked about the children, and after that there seemed nothing more to say. The landscape as they rode along was as Mary had envisioned from the beginning. Stark and barren. They drove for miles on end, traveling up one rock-strewn hill and down another in what seemed to be an endless stretch of monotony broken by tumbleweeds that scooted across the road, carried by the howling wind.

Only there was no grass and there was no sun. Curious, Mary wondered how anything sustained life in such desolation. You can sleep there until the waiting period is over. The road was hardly one at all. The ride was so jarring that she clung to the cushion in an effort to keep from being tossed about. Travis slowed as they reached the house and immense yard. What she saw caused her heart to sink several notches.

What she found could best be described as a hodgepodge of dead and dying vehicles and neglected buildings. The house was there all right, but it was small and dingy looking. The wood had been exposed for so many years that whatever paint had been there had long since faded. The outbuildings, of which there were several, looked in even worse condition. A few were leaning slightly to one side Morning Comes Softly 75 as if all it would take was a brisk wind for them to collapse altogether.

She counted four rusting cars and doubted that a single one of them was drivable. He studied her as if waiting for her to announce the whole thing was off and that she refused to marry him. If that was the case, Travis Thompson was going to be disappointed. Her imagination had run away with her, that was all, but she could accept reality. The back door opened and three children crowded on the porch when Travis helped her out of the truck. Mary paused, and her tender heart warmed at the sight of them.

They were exactly as Travis had described them in their two brief conversations following her phone call. Stair steps. All three were ogling her, their expressions blank except for their eyes, which were incredibly round and wide.

After viewing the outside of the house, 76 Debbie Macomber Mary thought she was braced for what she would discover inside. A surprise awaited her as she scanned the large room. There was even a microwave oven. The walls were a cheery shade of yellow, but then Travis had mentioned having painted recently. Wordlessly the children followed her from the porch, gathering around her, looking as though they expected her to say or do something.

If she was disappointed in Travis and the ranch, then these precious children more than made up for it. The youngest smiled back shyly.

Was I supposed to? He was nearly as tall as his brother, with two front teeth growing awkwardly into place. A dash of cinnamon-colored freckles garnished his nose. The youngster stuck out his hand. Mary shook it, then framed his face between her hands and smiled at him. All three of the children were watching him, waiting for his response.

Because they did, Mary did, too. She noted that his jaw tightened as he crumpled the note and tossed it in the garbage. Morgan sent her congratulations and said something about the ladies group at the Grange holding a reception for us after the wedding. Morgan got so busy cleaning up for Mary that she forgot about dinner. The children turned to cast pleading looks toward Mary.

In all her life no one had ever needed Mary the way these four did. The warm sensation it created within her was like slipping into a tub of hot water on a winter day. It felt good all the way to the marrow of her bones.

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A thin blanket covered the window, tacked to the frame with large nails. Each and every room was wallpapered, Mary noted, but the paper was badly yellowed with age, lending a dingy, dark feeling to the house.

The master bedroom gave her pause. The living room was the largest room of the house, and she hesitated when she noted that Travis had arranged the long sofa so that it blocked off the front door.

They had more than a love for these children in common. They were gathered at the Grange for their weekly game of pinochle. She hated having to wear them, to admit she was getting too old to play cards without them. She sorted the cards in her hand and then glanced upward. What folks said about hell having no fury like a woman scorned was true. Travis had been a troublesome youth, Clara recalled. His reputation as a rabble-rouser and a troublemaker had preceded him from grade school.

By the time he was in high school, Travis had been brought before the courts for any number of minor offenses. No one had much good to say about the boy, not that his deeds were unforgivable.

Come to Me Softly by A.L. Jackson

It was his attitude, the belligerence, hostility, and disrespect, that people remembered. Morning Comes Softly 83 A girlfriend might have helped, but Travis never dated much, as she recalled.

Plenty of girls would have welcomed his attention, despite what their parents would have said, but Travis never showed much interest.

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Like everyone else in town, Clara had heaved a sigh of relief when Travis enlisted in the marines. It would do him good. Make a man of him. He kept mostly to himself these days, and few, if any, of the good people of Grandview had forgotten his past. Clara had never defended Travis, how could she? She had the advantage of knowing Travis a little better than the rest. He was acting like an injured bear. The pain of losing Lee had him snapping at everyone and everything around him.

Her peers would have found out soon enough without any help from her. Travis drove into Miles City to pick her up at the airport. The venom in those words jarred Clara. She rose awkwardly out of the chair and straightened to her full height.

A militant light came into her eyes, and she struggled to keep her voice even. It seems to me that we, as his neighbors, would be generous enough to do everything we can to help him. The news had been as much of a shock to Clara as it was to the ladies at the Grange. Slowly she shook her head from side to side, silently declaring she would have nothing to do with the project.

Darkness closed around him as he lay in the middle of the double bed, his hands supporting his head as he stared up at the ceiling. For one thing, she was so dainty and delicate. Not the way a man should love his woman. The two of them were as different as anything he could imagine. His size alone must terrify her. Sex was only a small part of marriage, Travis Morning Comes Softly 87 reasoned, but damn it all, it was too important to gloss over lightly.

When the time was right, he wanted to initiate her to the pleasures their bodies could bring each other without her shying away from him. By all that was right he should send her packing. Mary must have been exhausted. Beth Ann had been mesmerized by the tale of Sleeping Beauty. Soon Jim and Scotty had crawled up on the sofa to join their sister. It took one hell of a lot to hold the attention of those three, but Mary had managed without hardly seeming to try.

Travis rolled onto his side, and the bed creaked. He expelled his breath and bunched the thick goosedown pillow under his head. If he went ahead and married her, then he might as well accept the fact it would take a good long while before anything physical could develop between them.

If ever. That thought was downright discouraging. Of course, he could go on doing what he had been for the last several years, satisfying his carnal needs with Carla whenever he was traveling. But the thought left a bitter taste in his mouth. Travis must have tossed and turned for another Morning Comes Softly 89 hour before he heard a noise coming from the direction of the kitchen. He held himself still and listened again. The sound was so faint he had to strain to hear it.

Throwing back the covers, he came off the bed and reached for his jeans. As he suspected, Mary was sitting at the table, silhouetted by the moonlight, staring into the dark. I heard you. She looked so vulnerable, sitting there in the moonlight, holding herself stiff.

Watching her was oddly painful for him. He had been having exactly those thoughts, but not for the reasons she assumed. She understood the ache that consumed his soul. Damn little, he decided. He half rose from his chair, convinced her silence was all the answer he needed.

Damn sure. What in tarnation was taking so damn long?

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He hated this whole wedding business but considered it a necessary evil. If it had been up to him, they would have quietly visited the justice of the peace and been done with it. He should have known better than to give Mary a free hand.

Wearing a suit was torture enough. His tie felt like a noose stretched around his neck, and he eased the starched collar from his throat in order to swallow more comfortably. Within a matter of days she had the place looking better than he could ever remember.

Jim and Scotty joined him, sagging onto the sofa cushions.

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It was best they learned early that there were certain things in life a man had to accept in order to placate women. Occasionally donning church clothes was one of those things. As soon as the ceremony was over, he fully intended on having a talk with Mary.

He was willing to give in to her wishes over this wedding business, simply because he wanted their marriage to get started on the proverbial right foot. Weddings were important to women, Travis 94 Debbie Macomber was willing to grant Mary that much, but there was a limit to his endurance. The length of his stride increased. He paused and looked at his watch once more and sighed expressively.

Travis shrugged. If today was any indication, he could well spend the rest of his life in a constant state of agitation. The kid was grieving, they all were, and this animosity toward him was the way Jim had chosen to release his pain.

Notwithstanding, he refused to allow Jim to talk about Mary in a derogatory manner. Exhaling sharply, Travis composed himself before turning to face his bride. Mary was as sweet and gentle as a lamb, but it was going to take a whole lot more than a pretty dress and her hair done up all fancy to transform her into a beauty. Her dress was a delicate shade of pink, with lace and other girly stuff.

Every woman deserved to be told she was lovely on her wedding day, Travis reasoned, even if it was an exaggeration. She smiled shyly and steered the two younger children out the door. Beth Ann was wedged in the cab of the pickup between her and Travis while the boys rode in the back. He was trying so hard to make this day special for her. His effort touched her heart far stronger than anything he might have said or done. Within an hour she was about to pledge her life to this man she barely knew and these children who so badly needed her love.

She hoped. It seemed like such a fragile thing to base her future upon. So intangible and frail. In many ways Mary felt as though she were looking to achieve the impossible. Although his words had cut at her pride, she recognized what it had cost him to admit as much.

He was an honest man, hardworking, gruff in some ways, gentle in others. All things considered, she could have done a lot worse. Travis drove the truck into the church asphalt parking lot and cut the engine. For a moment no one moved or spoke. Mary studied the small white church with the tall, spindly steeple and silently approved. This was exactly the sort of picturesque church she would wish for her wedding. He landed solidly on both feet. Jim leaped directly behind him. Travis stood, arms akimbo, feet braced slightly apart, as he stared at the Methodist church.

From his stance, one would think he was facing a gunslinger in the streets. Or something he dreaded. For that matter, so was Travis. This wedding was a major ingredient to melding their lives together, and she refused to be shortchanged.

That they would be married by clergy had been her one and only stipulation, and Travis had agreed. He unfolded his lanky frame from the chair and nodded toward Travis and the boys. This arrangement is highly unusual. The reverend wiped his brow and shifted his weight from one foot to the next. I never intended. They sat in the large circular booth in the corner in her section. Every movement she made was appraised by Doc Anderson. One thing was sure, Doc would never approve of her dating his son.

Her hair was curled in pretty blond ringlets, and she wore a lacy white dress, new from the looks of it. Most men did. Since she was so freely tossing stones, Tilly had to admit women were often guilty of the same thing. Nearly everyone viewed Travis Thompson as a hotheaded troublemaker. Personally, Tilly never had understood why. Tilly wished them all a truckload of happiness. God knew it had been in short supply the last few months.

Most folks frequented the cafe for coffee and idle chatter. Not only did the grandmotherly owner serve the best food in town, but the cafe was like a watering hole for the latest gossip. A rumor, perhaps an innocent comment. Only Logan. Maybe Logan had mentioned her to his father.

Surely he would have said something if he had. The least he could have done was warn her. But the last time she remembered Logan saying anything about his father had been several weeks Debbie Macomber earlier, after he and Doc had had a falling-out over.

Her stomach clenched in painful spasms. Dear God, she should have realized it sooner. It all added up now. Of course, that was it. That was the reason Doc had come. He was here to size her up. Somehow she was able to speak normally. My check. I got busy. He seemed in a hurry to leave. Dear God, why did it have always be like this? Travis, Mary, and the kids all ordered the chicken-fried steak special and left the cafe a half hour later.

Logan knocked at her front door shortly after eight-thirty, then let himself in. Stunned, Logan paused. He stopped into the cafe this afternoon. He knows, and you told him. Why should I care what Dad thinks? Without giving him warning, Tilly rushed to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. Not tonight. I need you. Logan sighed as their tongues mated. Soon their panting breaths echoed each other. Logan broke off with a groan. I could tell.

Not me. It never has. Now that they were man and wife, she was to share his bed. Mary had been left standing in the kitchen, feeling like an unwanted guest. The dinner in town had been a nice touch, and the children had enjoyed the outing. He had taken the necessary measure to correct the problem. Marrying Mary. Little about this marriage would ever be traditional. Except that she was expected to sleep in his bed. She should probably tell Travis she was a virgin. Could she speak of such a thing, even to her husband?

She could hear Travis rumbling around in the kitchen. His back was to her as she entered the room. He was bent in half in front of the refrigerator. He nodded and bit down on a cold, crisp apple. The sound echoed like a sonic boom in the room.

How quiet the house had become. Beth Ann had been asleep from the moment her head touched the pillow. Morning Comes Softly Mary blinked back her surprise.

On their wedding night? Her irritation with him lay just below the surface as it was. If they were going to make a go of this marriage, some changes needed to be made, and soon. Without thinking she added perfumed salts. Roses scented the air. Before Mary had left Petite, Georgeanne had given her a lovely silk nightgown.

The gift had gone a long way toward mending the rift between them. Without a doubt Georgeanne would know what to do in this awkward situation with Travis. Travis was having trouble hiding his uneasiness the same way she was, Mary decided.

What they needed to do was sit down and talk this out. It was with a sense of relief that she padded out Debbie Macomber of the bathroom in her fuzzy slippers, another gift from Georgeanne, into the small den where Travis was working.

Nor was he in the living room, or the kitchen. Travis had abandoned her on their wedding night. Six Mary was so outraged that she could hardly think. Marching into the bedroom, she slammed the door with an uncharacteristic display of temper. That was just dandy with her. But to leave her, with no explanation. The gall of the man! By all that was right, she should pack her bags and leave.

Let him return to an empty house. It was what he deserved.

She stuffed the gown in the bottom drawer, feeling embarrassed and foolish for ever having donned it. It had been sheer folly to believe a mere nightgown would transform her into a desirable woman. In her present state of mind, even as exhausted as she was, Mary knew it would be impossible for her to sleep. So she tackled the master bedroom with a gusto of unleashed energy. The room was all wrong. She stood in the middle, hands on her hips, and mentally rearranged the furniture.

The bed was close to the hallway door, which made no sense. She much preferred to sleep beneath a window. It took some doing, but she was able to push the double bed up against the wall. Mary refused to wait up for Travis, refused to allow him to believe his actions had disturbed her one iota.

If anyone was to blame in this situation, it was she. But she was wrong. Loneliness was insidious. That was what Mary had attempted to do, bargain with the deep well of pain within her by marrying a man who by his own word would never love her.

Travis had traveled this same stretch of road a hundred or more times in the last several months, sat in this same spot, and mentally reviewed what had happened the night Lee and Janice had died. He was missing something; he had to be, otherwise he would be able to accept the accident and get on with his life. With nowhere else to go, he returned again and again to the accident scene. But there was nothing. That was the way it had started this evening.

It was Mary and the children. Never before had he felt the weight of his responsibilities more. He knew nothing of being a husband. Absolutely nothing. Mary was a stranger to him. She harbored no feelings for him, either. Yet they were bound together by vows he was determined to live up to no matter what price was required of him. He had little else to offer her.

Until they stood before Pastor Kennedy, Travis had looked upon this marriage as a business transaction. He was expected to be a husband now. Even the word felt clumsy in his mind. A husband. He was expected to be tender and kind, considerate and understanding. He was a rancher, Morning Comes Softly not some bleeping Romeo. Travis rarely tasted fear. Death held no terror for him. The only one who would have grieved at his demise was his brother. Those days were gone forever.

He was a husband. He sat in the truck for nearly an hour, staring into the cloudless night. The moon was a crescent shape in the sky, and the stars sparkled in abundant array. He felt crippled with doubts and expectations. Mary was gentle and warm and exactly what the children needed.

But what about his needs? What about his wants? Everything about Mary reeked of it. From the tidy way she wore her mousy brown hair to her sensible black shoes. Failed himself. He exhaled sharply, climbed from the cab of his battered truck, walked the path down the side of the steep, root-tangled hill, and sat on a bolder that jutted out from the side of the incline.

Instead of berating his inadequacies as a husband, he should be counting his blessings. Beth Ann and Scotty had taken to her immediately, and now even Jim was coming around.

Collectively, the four of them had heaved a sigh of relief at her arrival. She cooked, she cleaned, she organized. When it came to domestic chores she was perfect. Nor had she wet the bed. Mary was exactly what the children needed. Something else was equally plain. Heaven help him.

He leaped off the boulder and climbed the steep hill to where the truck was parked. Might Morning Comes Softly as well face the music now and be done with it, he decided. If his luck held, he could slip in undetected. Apparently Mary was asleep. He was exhausted himself and in no mood to talk. It took a moment once he was inside the house for his eyes to adjust to the lack of light. He took off his jacket, set his hat on the post, and slipped out of his boots.

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