A people pleaser through and through, Christy Manning takes off work to drive from Seattle to Cougar Point, Montana, for the birth of her sister’s first child. But when the blessed event arrives early, her brother-in-law is M.I.A. and her sister refuses to leave without him. Things are looking hopeless, until Christy calls Sheriff Cody Franklin. Even before he saves the day, sparks are flying between them. There’s just one problem: She’s reluctantly accepted a proposal from another man.
Cody has been burned before, so when he learns that Christy is engaged, he tries to forget about her. But try as he might, the sheriff can’t stay away. Their intense connection is unlike anything Cody has felt before. No matter what choice Christy makes, she’s going to hurt someone. But at the end of the day, if Christy can’t learn to follow her heart, she’s going to lose out on something—and someone—special.
Published by Debbie Macomber Books
About the Author
Hometown:Port Orchard, Washington
Date of Birth:October 22, 1948
Place of Birth:Yakima, Washington
Education:Graduated from high school in 1966; attended community college
Read an Excerpt
“What do you mean you’re in labor?” Christy Manning asked her sister.
“I didn’t say that . . . exactly,” Taylor Palmer said, her palms flattened against her protruding abdomen. She lowered her eyelashes, taking in a long, slow breath.
“You can’t be in labor! I just got here. My suitcases are still in the trunk of my car.” Christy bolted to her feet and shoved the dark curls away from her face with both hands. She’d been driving for nearly three days to be with her sister for the birth of this baby, but she hadn’t counted on the blessed event happening quite so soon.
“What do you want me to do?” she asked, regaining her composure. In her opinion, there was plenty of reason for alarm. The Lazy P, Russ and Taylor’s cattle ranch, was miles outside Cougar Point, the closest town. And there wasn’t a neighbor in sight.
Taylor’s husband, Russ, was driving his sister, Mandy, over to a friend’s house and doing a couple of errands before heading back to the ranch. At most he’d be gone only an hour, or so he’d claimed.
But a lot could happen in an hour.
“I’m not convinced this is the real thing,” Taylor said in an apparent effort to reassure Christy, but her hands caressed her stomach as she spoke. “I’ve never been in labor before, so I’m not exactly sure what to expect.”
Trying to gather her scattering wits, Christy circled the kitchen table. First and foremost, she needed to keep calm. Mentally she reviewed the recent classes she’d taken through the local library. She knew CPR and enough karate to defend herself. Great. She could knock someone out and then revive him. A lot of good either of those skills was going to do her in this situation.
She swallowed a feeling of impending panic. She wasn’t even supposed to be in Montana. Her mother was the one who’d planned to make the trip, only Elizabeth Manning had taken a fall and broken her leg. She was having trouble getting around and would be little or no help to Taylor. Since Christy had a couple of weeks’ vacation due, she’d volunteered to come and stay with her sister. It wasn’t any sacrifice on her part; Christy and Taylor had always been close.
Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell her she was going to be stuck alone on a cattle ranch with her nine-months-pregnant sister, who was “feeling funny.”
It all seemed unreal. Christy had arrived late the night before. Too late to do more than greet everyone, haul her overnight bag into the guest bedroom, and fall exhausted into bed.
“Stop looking like you expect to deliver this baby on your own,” Taylor said, smiling up at her sister.
“But, Miss Scarlett, I don’t know nothin’ about birthin’ no babies,” Christy wailed in a Southern drawl. She might be teasing, but what she said was the honest-to-goodness truth.
None of this was supposed to be happening—at least not like this. Taylor should be living in Seattle with the rest of her family. Instead, Christy’s older sister had gone to Montana a year earlier and, to everyone’s surprise, married a cattle rancher three months later.
At the time, Christy couldn’t imagine what had possessed her cultured, cosmopolitan sister to marry someone like Russ Palmer. Especially in Reno, without a single family member present.
Their father hadn’t been pleased at being cheated out of the chance to walk his daughter down the aisle, but once he’d met Russ, the rancher had won him over. Russ had reassured everyone in the family without even trying. Taylor and her husband had flown to Seattle at the end of May to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary. It was then that he’d met Christy and her three brothers.
Taylor winced and her eyes drifted shut again. Her display of pain effectively cut off Christy’s thoughts. She held her breath until she saw the tension slowly ease from her sister’s body. “What happened?”
“I felt a funny pain, that’s all. Don’t worry. It wasn’t anything.”
“A funny pain? And you don’t want me to worry?” Christy echoed. She couldn’t keep the panic out of her voice.
“Then why do I have this urge to boil water?”
Taylor, forever calm and serene in a crisis, grinned. “Don’t worry. I’ve been having these pains off and on for the past week, but . . .”
“But what?” Christy asked.
“But these feel . . . different. I don’t know how to explain it.” She rose haltingly to her feet. “I think it might be a good idea if I got dressed.”
“Right,” Christy said, as if the idea was a stroke of genius. “Me, too.” With her arm around what remained of Taylor’s waist, Christy led her sister down the hallway that went to the master bedroom. “Do you need any help?”
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Almost before the words had left her lips, Taylor let out a cry and pressed one shoulder to the wall while clutching her stomach.
Christy was instantly alarmed. “What is it?”
“Oh . . . my.” Wide-eyed, Taylor turned toward Christy. “Hurry and get some towels. My water just broke.”
“Your water broke,” Christy repeated in a stupor. She threw her hands toward the ceiling. “Her water just broke.”
Rushing into the bathroom, she returned with enough towels to soak up a flood.
Taylor was still leaning against the wall, breathing deeply, her eyes closed. Christy dropped the towels onto the floor, far more concerned about Taylor than she was about a little water. “Are you all right?”
Her sister answered with a nod that said otherwise.
“I’m calling the doctor,” Christy told her. “Don’t you dare move. Understand?” The panic was stronger than ever, but Christy managed to swallow it. Taylor needed her; there wasn’t time to be concerned with her own fears.
Taylor’s doctor was in Miles City, sixty miles away, and the hospital was there, too. As far as she could tell, they were an hour or more from help. Christy spoke to Dr. Donovan briefly, and when she explained what had happened, the doctor suggested Taylor come to the hospital immediately.
“I’m not going without Russ,” Taylor insisted when Christy relayed her conversation. “Russ will be back any minute.”
Christy started to balk. It wasn’t her fault that Taylor’s husband had such a bad sense of timing.
“You don’t know Russ the way I do,” Taylor said, even before Christy had a chance to reason with her. “If he came home and found us gone—”
“I’ll send him a text. He’ll understand. Then as soon as he’s back, he can join us.” Cell coverage was weak at best in the area. But texts worked.
Christy had heard that tone of voice often enough to realize there was no way she could budge that stubborn streak of Taylor’s. “We can’t just sit here and wait,” Christy moaned.
“Of course we can. Now relax!”
“Me, relax? You’re the one having the baby.”
“I’m fine. Baby Palmer and mother are both calm and prepared.”
Baby Palmer. Her only sister was about to become a mother. This wasn’t new information, but until this moment Taylor’s pregnancy had seemed abstract. Yet here they were alone together, and suddenly this baby was very real. This tiny life depended on Christy, and the thought was terrifying. Yet nothing she said would convince Taylor to leave for the hospital without Russ.
The next thirty minutes felt like thirty years. Christy changed into jeans and a sweatshirt, forced down another cup of coffee, and looked out the kitchen window every three seconds.
Outwardly, Taylor still seemed calm, but Christy could tell from the pain that flashed on her sister’s face that the intensity of the contractions was increasing.
“Maybe you should call the feed store. If Russ isn’t there, then contact Cody.”
“Great idea!” Christy leaped at the possibility of bringing someone else into the picture. The sooner the better.
“Just a minute,” she said. “Who’s Cody?”
“Cody Franklin . . . he’s the newly elected sheriff and a good friend. I don’t know what his schedule is, so try the office first. If he’s not at work, his cell number’s written in the front of the phone book.”
Calling anyone, including the National Guard, sounded like an excellent plan to Christy. She found the impossibly thin phone book in the drawer. Good grief, she’d ordered from menus thicker than this.
Christy phoned the feed store first. The lady who answered said Russ had left a half hour earlier, and she hadn’t a clue where he’d gone. Christy accepted this with a shrug. At the rate things were developing, she was about to take an advanced course in childbirth.
Christy found the sheriff’s number right where Taylor said it would be. She punched it in and waited impatiently for someone, anyone, to answer.
“Hello,” a groggy voice muttered on the fourth ring.
“Hi, oh, thank God you answered.” Christy was so relieved, she wanted to weep. She gulped in one giant breath and rushed to explain. “You don’t know me. I’m Christy Manning, Taylor Palmer’s sister, and Russ left an hour ago and promised he’d be back but he isn’t and Taylor’s water broke and she’s in labor. She keeps insisting she won’t leave for the hospital until Russ comes home, but he isn’t here, and I don’t know anything about delivering babies.”
A short silence followed. “Taylor’s in labor?”
“That’s what I just finished saying. The second and equally important factor is that Russ, the father of this about-to-be-born baby, isn’t here. He said he’d only be gone an hour, but he’s late, and Taylor really should be leaving for the hospital.”
“Where did he say he was going?”
“The feed store. But he left there thirty minutes ago and . . . and disappeared. I’m afraid he turned off his phone, too.” That might be an exaggeration, but the situation called for a minor stretching of the truth, although she realized she’d made it sound as if he’d been abducted by aliens.
“I’ll find him and be there as soon as I can.”
The relief that washed over Christy felt like a cool evening rain after the hottest day of summer. Taylor needed her, and the last thing Christy wanted to do was reveal how much this situation frightened her. She’d made this trip to help Taylor with the baby. As in diaper, hold, burp. Not deliver.
She coaxed Taylor into the living room and had her lie down on the sofa. The ease with which Christy was able to convince her revealed a great deal about Taylor’s condition. Although she struggled to disguise it, her dauntless older sister was scared. The pains were obviously far stronger than Taylor was willing to admit.
A whole lifetime seemed to pass before Christy heard a car barreling down the driveway. Taylor sighed audibly and relaxed against the pillows Christy had placed behind her back. “That’s Russ now.”
Christy hurried to the back door. She didn’t recognize the car as Russ’s, but that was the least of her worries. The four-wheel-drive Cherokee hadn’t even come to a stop before her brother-in-law leaped out of the front seat.
He raced up the steps. “Where’s Taylor?” he demanded.
Numb with relief, Christy sagged against the doorjamb and pointed toward the living room. She was about to follow her brother-in-law when a second man climbed out of the driver’s seat.
Christy couldn’t pull her eyes away from this tall, long-limbed stranger. It was all she could do not to throw her arms around him in thanks. “You must be Cody.”
He touched the rim of his Stetson. “At your service. You must be Taylor’s sister,” he said, sauntering toward her.
“Christy Manning,” she said in an authoritative voice, as if she had the situation completely under control and frequently delivered babies while vacationing. She stepped forward to offer the sheriff of Custer County her hand. In truth she was so grateful he’d found Russ that she was close to tears.
A few seconds later, Russ came out, carrying Taylor. “You ready?” he asked his friend.
“Russ, put me down,” Taylor insisted. “I’m too heavy.”
“We’ll argue later, but at the moment you’re about to give birth to my son,” Russ reminded her with a worried frown.
“Our baby could very well be a girl,” Taylor began. “You’re still so pigheaded you refuse to—”
“I swear you’re the only woman on God’s green earth who’d argue with me at a time like this.”
“I’d think you’d be used to it by now,” Taylor mumbled, but her voice faded as a fresh contraction overtook her. She closed her eyes, pressed her hands to her belly and breathed deeply.
Russ’s distraught gaze connected with Christy’s.
“I’ll get her suitcase,” Christy said as she rushed into the master bedroom. When she reappeared, Cody took the single bag from her hands and put it inside the car. Taylor and Russ were already situated in the backseat, and the passenger door was open for Christy. Without another word, she climbed inside and snapped the seat belt in place.
The ride to the hospital took a full hour. Christy didn’t need to look at the speedometer to know Cody was traveling well above the speed limit. If anything, she had to stop herself from pleading with him to go even faster.
Taylor did an admirable job of disguising the extent of her discomfort, but it was apparent to all that the sooner she was under medical supervision the better. Russ was calm and collected.
It turned out that the carburetor in Russ’s truck had started acting up, and he’d pulled over to the side of the road. Cody had found him bent over the engine, trying to fix it so he could make it back to the ranch.
Christy held herself tense until they reached the outskirts of Miles City. Only then did she feel herself start to relax.
Within ten minutes of their arrival at the hospital, Taylor was in the labor room with Russ at her side. Cody and Christy were relegated to the waiting room, where they leafed through six-month-old issues of Time magazine.
Soon bored with those, Christy found her gaze wandering to Cody. Fine lines fanned out from the corners of his dark eyes, and sharply cut grooves bracketed his mouth. He was tanned, his skin weathered by the sun and wind. He had the kind of rich bronze coloring that others strived to achieve under a sunlamp. His hair was thick and as dark as his eyes and cut military short. He wasn’t handsome or stunning or anything else she could easily put a name to, but he was beyond a doubt the most uncompromisingly masculine man she’d ever seen. Immediately she experienced a faint stirring of guilt.
James. Dear, sweet James. Always so patient and understanding. She shouldn’t even be looking at another man, not when she had James.
Cody glanced up from his magazine, and their eyes met. Christy managed to fake a smile. He returned it with a smile of his own and went back to reading. Christy made a pretense of doing the same thing. Despite her best efforts, her gaze wandered back to the sheriff again and again. It was somewhat embarrassing to realize that she wasn’t studying him as a representative of law and order but as a man. Cody Franklin was incredibly male.
Incredibly . . . incredible. Everything about him spoke of strength and purpose: his walk, the square set of his jaw, even the way he sat with his ankle resting over his knee. Disturbed by her unintended focus on the sheriff, she flipped through the pages of a two-year-old issue of People. Something was definitely wrong with her. No doubt it had to do with Taylor and the baby. Babies were said to stir up lots of feelings and buried emotions. What astonished her was that she should find this man so attractive.
More determined than ever, Christy reached for another magazine and gazed unseeing at its pages.
“I take it you just arrived in Cougar Point?” Cody surprised her by asking.
“Last night,” Christy said, setting aside the dog-eared issue of People. “Actually, it was early this morning when I went to bed. Russ left the house about the time I came down for coffee, and the next thing I knew, Taylor was telling me she was having these ‘funny’ pains, only I wasn’t laughing, and neither was she.”
“How long after that did you call me?”
“Too long,” Christy said vehemently. “Taylor claimed the pains were nothing to worry about. I knew I shouldn’t have listened to her. Good grief, what does she know?”
Cody smiled, and her eyes were immediately drawn to his full, sensual mouth. Frustrated with herself, she quickly looked away.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. You handled the situation exactly the way you should have.” He turned back to the periodical. Christy picked up another one herself, but when she glanced up, she saw Cody studying her. “I don’t mean to stare,” he apologized, “but I can’t get over how much you and Taylor resemble each other.”
That was almost worth a laugh. She’d hardly been able to keep her eyes off Cody Franklin from the moment they got to the hospital, and he was apologizing for staring at her! As for the part about the two sisters looking alike, Christy took that as a compliment. Taylor was stunning. In fact, Christy couldn’t remember a time when her sister had been more beautiful than she was right now. Taylor was the beauty, not Christy. She didn’t mean to sell herself short; she knew she was reasonably attractive. Perhaps the biggest difference was that Taylor had spunk. Her older sister had always displayed such tenacity, such mettle. When it came to dealing with their headstrong father, Taylor had more courage than the rest of the family put together.
Anyone looking at the two sisters would know they were related; Christy was willing to grant the sheriff that much. Their deep blue eyes were a distinct family trait, also shared by their three older brothers, as was the slightly upturned nose.
The two sisters styled their hair differently. Taylor kept her thick chestnut hair long, whereas Christy preferred hers short in a breezy wash-and-wear style.
Christy was about to make some comment along the lines of what a peaceful community Cougar Point seemed to be when they saw Russ.
Cody and Christy stood as Russ approached, his eyes slightly dazed.
“Taylor’s ready to go into the delivery room.”
“So soon?” Christy’s heart was in her throat. “We just got here.” She paused long enough to check her watch—and restrain her panic. “We’ve only been here twenty minutes. How could she possibly be ready for the delivery room?”
“I don’t know. . . . The nurse told me the baby’s coming now.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be this soon.”
Russ wiped a hand down his face. “You’re telling me? If Cody hadn’t found me when he did . . .” He left the rest unsaid, but the implication was obvious.
Christy slumped back into the chair, her knees about to buckle. From everything she’d read and heard, babies were supposed to take their time, especially the first one. What about those twenty-hour labors her friends had described in minute detail? What about all the talk of first labors dragging on and on? Apparently, Taylor hadn’t been listening.
Russ returned to the double doors, then looked back into the waiting room. He swallowed hard, and Christy realized that if she’d been shaken by the news, it had affected Russ far more profoundly.
“Are you all right?” Cody asked her.
“Of course,” she lied. “I’m not the one who’s having a baby minutes after I arrive at the hospital.” A fact for which Christy was eternally grateful. She wasn’t nearly as courageous as Taylor; in fact, when it came right down to it, she considered herself a watered-down version of her older sister. All her life Christy had admired Taylor, wanting to be more like her. Instead, she was complacent and congenial, never causing her parents a moment’s concern. Their father once claimed he owed every gray hair on his head to Taylor and every laugh line to Christy. His two daughters were the joy of his life, he often said.
“You look like you’re going to faint,” Cody said, watching her closely.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped, then instantly regretted her sharp tongue. She darted Cody an apologetic smile.
“Come on,” Cody suggested, “let’s walk. It’ll help pass the time.”
“Pass what time?” she muttered. “We’ve been here for about twenty minutes, and already Taylor’s being wheeled into the delivery room.”
“Come on, you could do with some activity—get your circulation going.”
Christy merely nodded. Emotions were coming at her from every direction. Her first concern was for Taylor and the baby. The thought of this precious life, created in love, stirred a realm of deep feelings inside Christy. Her stomach started churning, her palms were sweating, and her heart seemed to be doing a jig. She couldn’t have uttered a word had her life depended on it.
They walked the entire length of the hallway and stopped in front of a wall covered with photos of newborns. Christy carefully studied the row of infants swaddled in pink and blue blankets and unexpectedly found tears clouding her eyes. Normally she wasn’t sentimental or weepy. She didn’t dare look over at Cody. He’d assume . . . She hadn’t a clue what he’d assume, but it wouldn’t be good.
“The babies are really beautiful, aren’t they?” she whispered, her gaze on the five infants.
“Yes, they are,” he answered softly. He stood behind her and rested his hands on the curve of her shoulders. His touch was light, but it offered her a steadiness and comfort that had been lacking all morning. He didn’t say anything when she brushed the telltale moisture from her cheeks, and Christy was grateful.
She didn’t know what had come over her in the past few hours. She turned to face Cody, placed her hands on his forearms and stared up at him, her eyes bright with unshed tears.
Nothing seemed real anymore. It was as if she’d been walking around in a dream. A living fantasy was beginning to unfold right before her. Perhaps she’d spent too many hours on the road. Otherwise she wouldn’t be looking into the darkest brown eyes she’d ever seen and thinking the things she was thinking.
Cody was staring back at her with the same wonder and surprise. He seemed about to say something important when the doors at the other end of the hall opened and Russ stepped out, wearing a green surgical gown and a large smile. Seeing him, both Christy and Cody rushed forward.
“It’s a boy,” Russ announced, his eyes shimmering with tears. He let out a wild shout of joy, grabbed a shocked Christy around the waist, and boisterously whirled her around.
“Congratulations,” Cody said, coming forward. The two men exchanged hearty handshakes, then hugged, slapping each other on the back.
Russ didn’t speak for a moment and seemed to be composing himself. “He weighed in at eight pounds, three ounces, and he’s the ugliest little critter you ever saw. Taylor kept saying how beautiful he is, and all I could see was this furious pink face bawling as loud as anything. His legs were pumping like an oil rig. That boy is madder than a wet wasp.”
Christy felt tears in her eyes as she pressed her fingers to her lips. “How’s Taylor?”
“She’s fine . . . more than fine. That woman’s incredible. I don’t know what I ever did to deserve her, but I intend to thank God every day for the rest of my life.” He half turned toward the doors he’d come through. “I’ve got to get back. They’re with Eric now, and the delivery room nurse said I could watch him being washed and dressed. If I have anything to say about it, I’ll do the washing and dressing myself.”
“You’re naming him Eric?” Christy asked as she moved one step forward.
Russ nodded. “Eric Russell, after your father and me. Taylor insists.”
“That sounds like a perfectly wonderful name to me,” Christy whispered, surprised at the emotion that clogged her throat. Her father would be so proud, the buttons would pop right off his shirt.
“If you two walk over to the nursery, you might be able to see him, too,” Russ added excitedly. “Taylor will be out of the delivery room anytime. I know she’ll want to talk to you both, so stick around for a little bit, okay?”
Christy and Cody had already started in that direction when Russ stopped them. “Hey, one last thing. Taylor and I talked it over, and we want the two of you to be Eric’s godparents.”
Christy exchanged a meaningful glance with Cody before they simultaneously nodded.
“We’d be honored,” Cody answered for them.
“Truly honored,” Christy repeated, her throat tightening even more.
In her excitement Christy whirled around to face Cody—except that she hadn’t realized he was quite so close. She flattened her hands against his chest as she smiled up at him, her joy overflowing now that her nephew was safely born.
Cody returned the smile. His dark eyes were alive with emotion.
Slowly, moving as if he were hypnotized, Cody slipped his arms around her waist and raised her from the ground. Her hands clutched his shirt collar as his eyes delved into hers.
“I believe congratulations are in order, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, hugging him, afraid he was going to kiss her, equally afraid he wouldn’t.
How would she ever explain kissing another man to James? How would she rationalize allowing Cody to hold her like this when she’d promised to spend her life loving someone else?