also writing as
Clash of Hearts
Why Ella Clearwater moved to Heart Lake...
HEART LAKE #9
Two months earlier
I still can’t believe I let my brothers talk me into doing this!
Ella Clearwater trudged through the ankle-deep snow with a small suitcase in each hand, blinking past the fat, icy flakes blowing against her cheeks and eyelashes. Her faded blue Volvo was backed up to the side entrance of her apartment complex with the trunk lid open.
Her car was already jam-packed, but here she was trying to cram two more pieces of luggage into it. With any luck, the added weight would do more than raise her gas mileage. She was seriously hoping it would help her sedan track better in this icy weather, because she and her son were heading all the way to Texas for Christmas.
And we’re not coming back.
Sending up a whispered prayer that she was doing the right thing by leaving South Dakota, she placed the two last suitcases in the trunk. Leaning forward on her hands, she gave a few hops to throw her body weight into shoving them far enough in to allow her to close the lid.
Her in-laws had given her a fit about her decision to leave the state for good, claiming she had no right to take their only grandson away from them like that. Maybe they were right. She hoped they weren’t.
Now that Jack was gone, there was nothing left for her here but sad memories. Everywhere she looked reminded her of her late husband. His empty side of the bed. His flannel shirts hanging in the closet and his work boots by the back door that she’d been unable to bring herself to get rid of.
She spun around to trudge back through the snow to her apartment to do her final walk-through with the site manager. It hurt her heart to know that she’d made her in-laws angry all over again right before leaving town, but it couldn’t be helped. She’d given most of Jack’s clothing to a local mechanic a few days ago in exchange for putting top-of-the-line snow tires on her car. Plus, he’d given it a full tune up and topped off all the fluids. There was no other way she could’ve afforded such detailed service.
Her three brothers had insisted it was the only way to make her car road ready. Her oldest brother, Jace, had offered to wire her the funds, but she’d refused. She’d never before accepted charity — not even from her own family — and she wasn’t going to start now.
Pulling open the side door, she stepped back inside the building, shivering and running her hands up and down her arms. She and Jack had always lived humbly on his auto mechanic wages, but they’d survived. Just as she was going to continue to survive.
That was the plan, at least — her very shaky plan that consisted of driving hundreds of miles southwest with a five-year-old kid, one expensive sewing machine, a few suitcases full of clothing and necessities, and as many toys as she could squeeze into every remaining available space in the car. Nothing else she owned was worth carting that far. Every stick of furniture she’d been using for the past six years was either a shabby hand-me-down or something she’d collected off the side of the road — the stuff other people threw out.
She let out a sigh as she glanced out the window toward the apartment dumpsters. Every bit of what she couldn’t fit in her Volvo was now inside the dumpsters or neatly stacked beside it. She sincerely hoped someone would claim them and give them a new home.
Jogging up the stairs to her second-story apartment, she was alarmed to find the door wide open.
“Jacob!” she gasped, sprinting toward it.
“Right here, Mom!” He stood just inside the living room, holding the door open for her.
“Jake, honey.” She bent to give him a quick squeeze hug of relief. “What did I say about opening the door?”
He rolled his eyes. “Ta never open it for strangers, and I didn’t. I saw you out the window coming back inside. Then I heard you jog up the stairs.”
She shook her head at him, still not happy about the open door. However, she wasn’t in the mood to punish him. “You heard me on the stairs, huh?” She tweaked his nose before straightening.
“Yup!” He gave a little bounce in his sneakers before slamming the door shut.
She winced at the sound, wondering if he’d ever learn how to shut the door quietly. But she let that go, too. “How did you know it was me on the stairs?” She arched her eyebrows challengingly.
“Because nobody sounds the exact same way when they walk. I got good ears,” he informed her proudly. For emphasis, he reached up to pull them out and away from his head like Ernie from Sesame Street. “I can hear as good as a coyote,” he bragged.
Though she knew that wasn’t likely, far be it from her to say anything to discourage the kid. He was ridiculously proud of the Macawi blood running through his veins. That had been her maiden name. After telling him a bedtime story about a year ago, that included what Macawi meant in the Sioux language, he’d been a mega fan of coyotes ever since.
Reaching over, she ruffled his dark, wavy hair. “Just be sure you never open the door to strangers, okay?”
He bobbed his head up and down, only stopping when a knock sounded on the front door.
Sending his mother a beseeching look, he begged, “Lift me up so I can be the one to look through the tiny window please, please, puleeeeeeease!”
Knowing he was referring to the keyhole, she gave him a boost up.
“Yup. It’s the mean old lady,” he affirmed. It’s what he’d called their stern-faced apartment manager, who made all too frequent trips to their door to inform them that the neighbor below them was complaining about his jumping and running. Again. And again. And again.
For once, the grandmotherly creature didn’t look so stern. She only gave their tiny four-room space a cursory glance to make sure there was nothing broken. No doubt she was glad to see them go.
“If you’ll just sign here,” she said quietly, lifting her clipboard and pen to Ella. She was more dressed up than usual. Her fuzzy white hair had been freshly styled in tight little curls against her head, and her plump frame had been stuffed into a red polyester pantsuit.
Ella, who’d been holding her breath, slowly let it out as she affirmed there were no additional charges listed on the form. After how many times she’d been scolded by the woman standing in front of her, she couldn’t believe she was letting her off this easy.
She hastily scrawled her signature and handed back the clipboard before the manager could change her mind.
The manager tucked it beneath her arm. “One last thing. Here’s your security deposit.”
Ella drew a sharp breath. “You’re actually giving it back?” she squeaked, unable to believe what she was hearing and seeing. The amount on the check was over four hundred dollars! The numbers wavered a little as grateful tears filled her eyes and started rolling down her cheeks.
“Merry Christmas, Ella, and safe travels.” There was a world of sympathy in the manager’s voice as she backed out the door.
“Omigosh!” A wave of dizziness forced Ella to take a knee.
“What’s wrong, Mom?” Jacob’s anxious voice surrounded her, bringing her back to her senses.
“Nothing, kid,” she assured him shakily. Swiping the dampness from her cheeks with the backs of both hands, she held out her arms to him. “These are happy tears.”
“Oh! Because it’s almost Christmas, right? And we’re about to go see my favorite uncles!”
She smiled at his words, knowing her brothers were also his only uncles. “Yes, sweetie.” And for the first time in a long time, she tasted hope.
With a crow of excitement, he launched himself into her arms. “Can we go get in the car now?”
“We sure can, champ!” Giving him a tight hug, she turned him around and gave him a nudge toward the bathroom. “Right after you make one last pit stop.”
In less than five minutes, they were rolling out of the apartment parking lot. Skidding might have been the better word for it, since no one had gotten around to clearing the latest few inches of snow from the pavement. Fortunately, the main road was clear. Mostly.
She crawled across the streets of town, carefully feathering her brakes at each stoplight. Then she turned onto the interstate and picked up speed.
“Here we go,” she said softly. A single mom and out-of-work seamstress, her five-year-old son, and a Volvo that she hoped would get her all the way to Heart Lake, Texas. Though her situation sounded like the first verse of a bad country song, she was excited, truly excited, about joining her brothers for Christmas.
They’d offered to let her and Jake crash in the upstairs loft over their autobody shop until she had a chance to get back on her feet. For once, she’d said yes. Nobody was using the place, and she’d make up for it by bringing them lunch in the shop and keeping their clothing mended.
“So, what does Texas look like?” Jake gave a bounce in his car seat that she’d wedged between a pile of plastic bins and the back right passenger door.
She winked at him through the rearview mirror. “I’m about to show you, kid.”
Meanwhile in Heart Lake, Texas
Chanel Remington couldn’t believe her ears. “You?” she asked in a carefully modulated voice. Inside, she was seething over Decker Kingston’s nonchalant attitude. “You’re going to run for the city council?” Though the hot-headed security firm owner was acting like it was no big deal, no non-founding family member had ever before been elected to serve in Town Hall. She doubted he stood a chance. Knowing him, he was only saying it to get under her skin, something he was very good at doing.
She attempted to give the broad-shouldered, blonde cowboy a withering once-over, but the gesture had the unintended side effect of making her heart race. He looked way too good standing on the other side of the serving table, arms folded — probably to intimidate her. Either that, or to show off his bulging biceps that his long-sleeved white chef’s jacket did nothing to hide. He was pulling double duty tonight, serving as both wait staff and a security guard. Otherwise, he probably wouldn’t be in attendance at the annual Heart Lake Christmas party. He didn’t impress her as the kind of guy who enjoyed formal gatherings.
“Why not?” He jutted his chin at her. “There are two openings.”
She sputtered out something nonsensical about the founding family issue that made his expression turn bored.
Her cousin, Wheeler, gave a bark of laughter. “If you’re even halfway serious about this, Kingston, I will personally ensure you get nominated.” He ran a hand through his tousled auburn hair, tousling it even more. Not that he cared. Since his wife couldn’t make it to the party, she was surprised he’d thrown on a suit and shown up at all.
“Really?” This time, Decker looked genuinely surprised.
“Really?” Chanel echoed his question, too stunned to say anything else. She tried to send a silent message with her eyes instead.
Catching her cousin’s gaze, she delivered an are-you-out-of-your-mind look, which only made his cocky grin widen. You have got to me kidding me!
Throwing all caution to the wind, she snapped, “Please don’t. He would oppose me on every issue, simply for the sake of opposing me.”
It was Decker’s turn to look incensed. “Just because I can think for myself, Miss Remington, doesn’t mean I don’t have the ability to be fair. Feel free to ask any of the boys I coach.”
Her heart sank at his words, just then realizing how many people he knew across town and how many votes he’d probably get because of it. A security firm owner by day and a high school football coach by night, the guy really got around. She had to hand him that.
Since he was still talking, she reluctantly tuned back in.
“Nobody’s born into their positions on the Heart Lake High football team.” His expression turned grim with determination. “Everybody has to earn their spot.”
“That was unfair,” she retorted, knowing that last barb was aimed at her family. “You’re assuming that I think I’m better than anyone else, simply because of my last name. I don’t. I just work harder than the average person.”
For once, he remained silent. However, his cold expression didn’t change.
Feeling like she’d made her point, she rounded on her cousin just in time to witness him snatch her precious dinner roll from her plate. “Most people would rather cut corners,” she added severely. “And steal other people’s bread rolls instead of waiting in line for their own.”
Decker unfolded his arms and reached for his short silver serving tongs. Before she could ask for one, he’d slapped another roll on her plate.
She spun so quickly in his direction that their hands brushed. His fingers felt so warm that she was unable to quell a shiver.
Looking exasperated, he growled, “Would you please take my jacket?”
Without waiting for an answer, he shrugged out of it, revealing a short-sleeved white t-shirt and sun-kissed arms. Typical coach material. He was one of those guys who looked tan year-round.
As he stomped around the end of the serving table with it, she eyed his jacket with longing, though she shook her head. “It doesn’t match what I’m wearing.”
“Fortunately, you would look stunning in a garbage bag.” Unless she was mistaken, a hint of humor eased the hard set of his features as he draped the jacket around her shoulders.
She tugged the ends of it more tightly around her, burrowing greedily into the fabric that was still toasty warm from his body heat. “Would it kill you to say something nice about my dress?”
He glared back at her. “Not sure what you’re so worked up about. I’ve called you both beautiful and stunning this evening.”
She felt her face turn red. “While at the same time calling my dress a black tent with holes and comparing it to a garbage bag.”
Instead of looking repentant, he looked about ready to laugh, which made her face turn even redder.
Biting her lower lip before she said anything she’d regret later, she winced as Wheeler chortled, “You are so getting my nomination for the ballot, dude. And my other vote.”
“You are not running for office!” The words tore their way out of her before she could pull them back. Tearing off a tiny piece of her bread roll that she fully intended to savor, she added. “God would not be so cruel.”
Again, Decker didn’t answer. She wasn’t sure if he was purposely ignoring her comment or if the next person in line had claimed his attention first. Either way, his attention was no longer on her.
Wheeler stepped closer to loosely sling an arm around her shoulders, still munching on her first dinner roll as he led her away from the serving line.
“You two are exactly what this town needs.” His words were slightly slurred around the food in his mouth.
“I disagree. I can’t imagine any scenario in which Decker Kingston and I could work together in a civil manner.” Not on the city council. Not in this galaxy. The guy was way too stinking argumentative. She shivered again, reveling in the warmth of her borrowed jacket despite how badly she despised its owner.
“Then work together in an uncivil manner. I don’t care. I still think the two of you represent the kind of change this town desperately needs.”
“I agree that Heart Lake is in desperate need of change.” She sighed, scanning the room for the right example. Her gaze landed on Wayne Whitaker’s tall frame and long, black mane of hair. Known as Chief Lighthorse by most folks in town, he ran the adjacent Comanche reservation. “But we need someone more level-headed in office. Someone like Chief Lighthorse, for example.” He was a quiet-spoken man with a lion’s share of diplomacy and class, not to mention a personal friend.
Wheeler smirked at her. “No can do. He’s not a citizen of our town.”
“I only said someone like him,” she stressed, growing irritated all over again by her cousin’s stubborn support of the one guy in the room who made her want to pull her hair out. “He’s a born leader, super smart, and crazy good looking.”
Wheeler’s expression turned sly. “Good looking, eh? Now that’s something you see on every job requirement…not.”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “I was referring to his image. He’s got a great professional image.” Unlike the maddening cowboy whose jacket she was wearing. In comparison, Decker was all rough and rugged, less polished, too countrified.
Wheeler leaned closer. “You got something to tell me about the Chief, cousin?”
She stared at him for a moment, not sure what he was talking about. Then it dawned on her. “Really? You think I have the hots for Chief Lighthorse?”
Wheeler shrugged. “In my experience, any woman raving about a guy the way you’re raving about him…” He let the sentence hang unfinished between them.
“We’re friends.” She shook her head firmly. “Just friends.” Though she could find no fault with the tall, dark, and ridiculously handsome chief, he was a little too serious for her. A guy who rarely smiled, he completely rocked that whole stoic Native look.
Though she’d rather die than admit it to anyone, her taste in men ran more along the lines of buff, broad-shouldered cowboys. The rugged type, despite how much she outwardly criticized them. Right this very second, she was imagining Decker Bullheaded Kingston in something besides jeans, a t-shirt, and cowboy boots.
What she wouldn’t give to drag the stubborn man into her clothing boutique and throw him into something business casual — like a pale blue button-up shirt and a pair of Italian silk trousers the color of copper pennies. The mental image that surfaced made her catch her breath.
He'd clean up good. She wasn’t sure how she knew it, only that she did. Forcing that thought out of her mind, she changed the subject.
Adopting a teasing voice, she inquired, “Have you decided what you’re getting me for Christmas?”
“Nope.” He gave her shoulders a light squeeze. “What do you want?”
Her thoughts raced over all the things that were nearest and dearest to her heart. Things like true love and happily-ever-afters. However, she didn’t expect to find those sorts of things in such a small town, so she settled for the next biggest item on her wish list.
“I would do just about anything to acquire a more skilled seamstress.” Her sales had really picked up at the clothing boutique during the holiday season. It was all she could do to keep up with the alterations on the orders. “I mean…” She searched for the right words. “Yes, there are ladies with sewing machines, but I’m talking about someone with real panache, if you know what I mean.” She’d trained with a world-renowned clothing designer in Italy, so her standards were sky high.
“I might just know of somebody.”
“Really?” She swiveled her head his way in surprise, hoping he wasn’t joking, which he usually was.
“You doubt me?”
“You’re Wheeler Remington. Of course, I doubt you.” She snickered.
“Fine. Just for that, I’m keeping the details a secret until Christmas morning.”
Her eyes widened. “You mean you actually have a real person in mind?”
He grinned. “She’s on her way to Heart Lake as we speak. Her brothers told me about her this morning. They’ve talked her into moving here. If everything works out, you’ve got yourself a new employee if you want one.”
Her heartbeat sped in excitement at his revelation that someone new was on their way into town. “Who?” she demanded eagerly, unable to place a face or a name from his sparse details.
“Huh-uh.” He shook his head again. “This is one gift you can’t shake, rattle, or peek at. I doubt you even knew she existed, so don’t bother trying to guess who it is.”
Her gaze narrowed on his cocky expression. “How did you find out about her?”
“That’s for me to know and you to find out Christmas morning, cousin dear.”
She blew out a breath and took another tiny bite of her dinner roll. “I hate to break it to you, but you’re as irritating as Decker Kingston sometimes.” Her gaze inevitably returned to the man standing at the end of the serving line, doling out dinner rolls. “No wonder you want to nominate him. You’re like two peas in a pod.”
Without warning, Decker glanced up and caught her gaze, and everything else faded. As much as he’d goaded her only minutes earlier, his honey-gold eyes contained nothing but hooded male admiration now.
And a surprising note of possession that made her bite her lower lip again. Was it because she was still wearing his jacket? Or was there another reason?
She was suddenly and inexplicably afraid it had nothing whatsoever to do with his jacket.
I’m in so much trouble if you run for office! She tried to pull her gaze away from his and failed. So much trouble!
If one look from him could make her feel this way, she couldn’t imagine what it was going to be like facing him for the next few months on the campaign trail.
Face him she would, though. She’d never before backed down from a challenge, and Decker Kingston was turning out to be the biggest challenge she’d faced yet.
My heart is in so, so, so much trouble!