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Wyoming Winter: A Small-Town Christmas Romance (Wyoming Men) by Diana Palmer (1)

CHAPTER ONE

COLIE THOMPSON WAS in a mild panic. Her brother, Rodney, was bringing over his friend J.C. Calhoun. J.C. was thirty-two, pretty much at the end of his Army Reserve service—the cutoff age was thirty-two. He and Rodney had met in Iraq, almost four years ago. Both men were with the same Army unit. Rodney was serving his first tour of duty. J.C.’s Army Reserve unit had been called up for limited duty, and he was assigned to the same area as Rodney. In one of those wild coincidences, they started talking and discovered that they lived in the same Wyoming town, J.C. having taken a job with another Catelow resident, Ren Colter, whom he’d met during his first tour of duty. Rodney looked up to J.C., who was a little older. The older man had been a police officer before he went into the Army the first time, almost twelve years earlier.

Rodney left the Army before his tour of duty was officially up, never saying why. He’d been home for several months. After J.C. finished his overseas duty, he came home with him sometimes, although they’d grown apart since Rodney started a new job. They still went around together, but not often. One memorable visit to the Thompson home was on Colie’s birthday, when J.C. had unexpectedly given her a cat. It was the high point of her recent life. She named the huge Siamese cat Big Tom and it slept on her bed every night.

Even though he didn’t come home with Rodney much, Colie often saw J.C. around Catelow, which was a small and very clannish town. There were only a couple of restaurants, and Colie, whose real name was Colleen, worked as a receptionist and typist for a law firm downtown. Inevitably, she saw J.C. from time to time, occasionally with her brother. And since he was single, and handsome, and mostly avoided women, he was the subject of much gossip.

He always made time to talk to Colie if he saw her. He was polite, teasing, friendly. He made her glow inside. Once, when he brought Rod home after his car had quit, J.C. had helped her into her jacket when she was going outside to get the mail. Just the touch of his hands was like an explosion of pleasure. The more she saw of him, the more she wanted him.

Rodney had invited J.C. to come to supper before this, but he’d always had an excuse. This time, he accepted. It had been just after Colie had started walking back to the office, in the snow, and J.C. had stopped and given her a ride the rest of the way. Sitting with him, in the cozy warmth of the big black SUV he drove, she’d been hesitant to get out again. They’d talked about the upcoming presidential election, the state of the country, the beauty of Catelow in the snow. He’d teased her about wearing high heels to work instead of sensible boots, with snow already piling up, and she’d retorted that boots would hardly complement the pretty pantsuit she was wearing. He’d pursed his lips and looked at her, long and hard, and said Colie would look good in anything. She’d gone inside the law office, reluctantly, flushed and beaming after the unexpected pleasure of his company.

J.C. worked full-time locally, but he went back overseas periodically to train troops in Iraq in police procedure. He was supposed to go back in a few months to do it all over again with a new group. J.C. worked as security chief for Ren Colter, who had a huge cattle ranch, Skyhorn, outside Catelow, Wyoming. Ren was ex-military as well, and he had somebody fill in for J.C. while he accommodated a former commander by drilling new recruits.

Giving orders was something J.C. was very good at. He was also gorgeous. He had jet-black hair, cut short, and eyes so pale a gray that they glittered like silver. He was tall and muscular, but not like a bodybuilder. He had the physique of a rodeo cowboy, lithe and powerful. Colie liked to just sit and look at him when she had the opportunity. She’d never known anybody quite like him. He had a unique background, about which he rarely spoke. Rodney had told her that J.C.’s father was a member of the Blackfoot nation up in Canada. His mother had been a little redheaded Irish woman. Quite an uncommon pairing, but it had produced a handsome child. J.C. never spoke of his father, Rodney added.

Colie wanted a family of her own, badly. She and Rodney had lost their mother two years previously to bone cancer. It had taken her a long time to die, but even then, she’d been cheerful and upbeat around her children and her husband. Colie’s father was a Methodist minister, a pillar of the community. Everybody loved him, not just his own congregation. They’d loved Colie’s mother, too. The little woman, named Beth Louise but called Ludie, had always been the first to arrive if there was a sick person who needed caring for, or a child who needed a temporary home. She’d even fostered dogs that were picked up by the local no-kill animal shelter while they waited for an adoptive family.

All that had passed, along with her. The house was suddenly empty. Jared Thompson, Colie’s father, had been almost suicidally depressed after his wife’s death, but his faith had pulled him through. It was, he told Colie, not right to mourn someone who had lived such a full life and had gone on to a happier, more wonderful place. Death was not the end for people of faith. They simply had to accept that people died for reasons that were, perhaps, not quite clear to those left behind.

Colie and Rodney had grieved, too. Rodney had been overseas for almost four years, with only brief visits. He couldn’t come home for his mother’s funeral, although he Skyped with his father and sister after the services. He was a sweet, biddable boy until he went into the service. When he came home, he was...different. Colie couldn’t figure out why. He became fixated on fancy cars and designer clothes, neither of which fit in his small budget. He’d obtained a job at the local hardware store when he came home, because it was owned by a friend of the reverend Thompson. Rodney seemed to be a natural salesman. But he complained all the time about getting minimum wage. He wanted more. He was never satisfied with anything for long.

The one thing that bothered Colie most was that her brother wasn’t quite lucid much of the time. He had red-rimmed eyes and sometimes he staggered. She worried that he might have been hurt overseas and wasn’t telling them. She knew it wasn’t from alcohol, because Rodney almost never took a drink. It was puzzling.

During Rodney’s tour of duty in the Middle East, J.C. and Rodney hung out together when Rodney was off duty. Rod didn’t write often, but when he did, he mentioned things he and J.C. had done overseas during the time J.C. was there. They went out on the town when Rodney was on liberty. Odd thing about J.C., Rodney had commented. He never drank hard liquor. He’d have the occasional beer, but he didn’t touch the heavy stuff. Like Rodney. But the brother who used to tease her and bring her wildflowers and watch television with her seemed to have gone away. The man who came back from overseas was someone else. Someone with a darkness inside him, a lust for things, for material things.

He’d been vocal about the old things in the house where he lived with his sister and father. It was primitive, he scoffed.

Colie didn’t find it so. It looked lived-in. The small house was immaculate, Colie thought as she looked at her surroundings. The sofa had a new cover, a pretty burgundy floral pattern, and her father’s puffy armchair had a solid burgundy cover. The spotless wood floors had area rugs, which were beaten clean by Colie on a regular basis. There were no cobwebs anywhere. The marble-topped coffee table that her father had found at an antiques shop graced the living room, where an open fireplace crackled with orange flames and the smell of burning oak.

Colie didn’t look too bad herself, she reflected, glancing in the hall mirror at her wavy collar-length dark brown hair. It never needed curling. It was naturally wavy. She had an oval face, sweet and pleasant, but not beautiful. Her eyes were large and dark green under thick lashes. Her mouth was a perfect bow. She had an hourglass figure, with long legs always clad in denim jeans. She had only a few dresses and a couple of nice pantsuits, which she wore to church and to work at the local attorney’s office where she was a receptionist and typist. Around the house, she wore jeans and boots and pullover sweaters. This one was a nice medium green, long-sleeved and V-necked. It showed off Colie’s small, firm breasts in a nice but flattering way. She never wore low-cut things or suggestive dresses. After all, her father was a minister. She didn’t want to do anything that would embarrass him in front of his congregation. She didn’t even curse.

Rodney did. She was constantly chastising him about it.

Just as she thought it, he walked in the door, stomping snow off his big boots on the front porch as he stood in the open doorway, letting in a flurry. He closed it quickly behind him.

“Damn, it’s cold out!” he swore. “Snowing like a son of a...”

She interrupted him. “Will you stop that? Daddy’s a minister,” she groaned. “Rodney, you’re such a pain!”

He had her dark green eyes, but his hair was straight and thick and a shade lighter than hers. He was tall, with perfect teeth and a rakish smile. No choirboy, Rodney, he was always in trouble throughout high school. Presumably, he’d been better behaved in the military, since he was discharged early.

“Daddy can curse,” he retorted. “Haven’t you heard him?”

“Yes, Rodney, he says ‘chicken feathers!’ That’s how he curses.” She glowered at him. “That’s not what you’re saying when you lose your temper.” He lost it a lot lately, too.

He shrugged her off. “I have issues,” he said easily. “I’m working on it. You have to remember that I’ve been around soldiers for several years, and in combat.”

“I try to take that into account,” she said. “But couldn’t you tone it down, just a little bit? For Daddy’s sake?”

He made a face at her. “God, you’re hard to live up to, do you know that?” He sighed, exasperated. “You’ve never put a foot out of line. Never had a parking ticket, never had a speeding ticket, never even jaywalked! What a paragon to try to live up to!”

She grimaced. “I just behave the way Mama taught me.” The thought made her sad. “Don’t you miss her?”

He nodded. “She was the kindest woman I’ve ever known. Well, besides you.” He chuckled and hugged her, and just for a minute, he was the big brother she’d adored. “You’re just the best, sis.”

She hugged him back. “I love you, too.” She sniffed and her nose wrinkled as she drew back. “Rodney, what’s that smell?” she asked, frowning as she sniffed him again. “It’s like tobacco, but not.”

He let her go and averted his eyes. “Just cigarette smoke. Some of that imported stuff. I have a friend who gets them.”

“Not J.C. He doesn’t smoke,” she said, curious.

“Not J.C.,” he agreed. “This is a guy I know from Jackson Hole. He and I pal around sometimes.”

“Oh.” She smiled. “Sorry. I thought it was marijuana.”

He raised both eyebrows. “If I smoked marijuana in this house, Daddy would call Sheriff Cody Banks and have him lock me up in the county detention center in a heartbeat! You know that!”

“Well, yes, I do.” She didn’t add that plenty of men did smoke that awful stuff, and managed to keep their parents from suspecting. She’d had a girlfriend in high school who even bragged about it.

Colie had never used drugs of any sort, especially not any kind that had to be smoked. She had weak lungs. She didn’t smoke, period.

“Didn’t you say J.C. was coming to supper?” she asked after a minute, trying not to sound as excited as she felt.

“He is,” Rodney said, pursing his lips as he saw the excitement she was trying so hard to hide. She was an open book, especially about his best friend. “He’ll be here in a few minutes. He had to run an errand for Ren.”

“Oh. Okay. I’ve still got leftover turkey from Thanksgiving that we have to eat, and mashed potatoes and a green salad, with apple pie for dessert. He does like turkey, doesn’t he?” she added worriedly.

“He’s not fussy about food,” he said, smiling down at her. “Actually, he said snake wasn’t bad if you had enough pepper...”

“Yuck!” she burst out.

“He was spec ops, back when he was in the Army,” he laughed. “Those guys can eat anything, and have, when they’re out on a mission. Bugs, snakes, whatever they can catch. There was this guy attached to his and Ren’s unit overseas, years ago, who cooked an old cat for them when they couldn’t find anything else.”

“Oh, that’s heartless,” she said, wincing.

“It was a very old cat,” he replied. “They were starving.” He hesitated. “He said it tasted awful, and they got sick.”

“Good!” she returned enthusiastically.

He laughed and hugged her again. “You softy,” he mused. “You’re just like Mama. She loved her cats.” He frowned, looking around. “Where’s Big Tom?”

“Out back, chasing rabbits,” she said. The big seal point Siamese cat loved the outdoors. He slept inside at night, because there were predators all around, including bears and foxes and wolves. The Thompsons’ home was outside Catelow, nestled in a forest of lodgepole pines, with no really close neighbors except Ren Colter. Ren’s ranch ran right up to the Thompson property line, but he didn’t run cattle close enough to worry any of the residents.

“Funny,” Rodney mused, thinking about Big Tom.

“What is?”

“J.C. giving you a cat,” he remarked.

It had touched Colie, that unusual gift from J.C. It had been a birthday present, the cat he’d found wandering around near his cabin. He’d had the vet clean him up and give him his shots, and he’d brought him over to Colie, who was a sucker for stray animals. Big Tom turned out to be housebroken and he never used his claws on the furniture. He was a lot of company for Colie while her father was visiting his congregation, which he did often. Rodney had been away in the military, so there was just Colie in the small house. Well, Colie and Big Tom.

“He’s a very nice cat,” she remarked.

Rodney laughed. “J.C.’s not big on animals, although he likes them. He’s good with cattle. Even Willis’s wolf will let him pet him. That’s an accomplishment, believe me,” he added with a huff. “Damned thing nearly took my hand off when I tried it...”

“Rodney!”

He ground his teeth. “Oh, hell.”

“Rodney!”

He let out a breath. “Set up a jar,” he said with resignation, “and I’ll put a nickel in it every time I forget.”

“If I do that, we can have a Tahiti vacation in a month,” she accused.

He laughed. “Not nice.”

“I’ll find a big jar,” she returned. “And you’ll put a quarter in. Every time.”

He drew in a long breath and just smiled. “Okay, Joan of Arc.”

She chuckled and walked back to the kitchen to check on her apple pie in the oven.

* * *

J.C. LOOKED INCREDIBLY handsome in a shepherd’s coat, jeans and boots, with snow dusting his thick, black, uncovered hair.

“You never wear a hat,” Colie mused, trying not to let her hands tremble as she took the coat to hang up for him. He was so tall that she had to stand on her tiptoes to pull it back off his shoulders.

“I hate hats,” he remarked. He glanced at her as she put the coat on the rack in the hall, his pale gray eyes narrow and appraising on her slender, sexy body. She dressed like a lady, but he knew all about women who put on their best behavior around company. She was just out of school; college, he was certain, because she had to be at least twenty-two or twenty-three. Catelow had several thousand people, and J.C. didn’t mix with them. He only knew what Rodney told him about his sister. And that wasn’t much.

“I noticed,” Colie said as she turned, smiling.

His eyes flickered down to her pert breasts and he fought down a raging hunger that he hadn’t felt in a long time. He had women, but this one stirred him in a different way. He couldn’t explain how, exactly. It irritated him and he scowled.

“It wasn’t a complaint,” Colie added quickly, not understanding the scowl.

He shrugged. “No problem. What are we eating?”

“Leftover turkey with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, salad and apple pie.” She hesitated, insecure. “Is that okay?”

He smiled, his perfect white teeth visible under chiseled, sensuous lips. “It’s great. I love turkey.” He chuckled. “I like chicken, too, although I usually get mine in a bucket.”

Her eyes widened. “You put it in a pail, like you milk cows with?” she asked, shocked.

He glowered at her. “There’s this chicken place. They sell you chicken and biscuits and sides...”

She went red as fire. “Oh, gosh, sorry, wasn’t thinking,” she stammered. “Let’s go in! Daddy’s already at the table.”

Rodney went ahead, but J.C. slid a long finger inside the back of Colie’s sweater and gently stopped her. He moved forward, so that she could feel the heat and power of him at her back in a way that made her heart run wild, her knees shiver. “I was teasing,” he whispered right next to her ear. His lips brushed it.

Her intake of breath was visible. Her whole body felt shaky.

His big hands caught her shoulders and held her there while his lips traveled down the side of her throat in a lazy, whispery caress that caused her to melt inside.

“Do you like movies?” he whispered.

“Well, yes...”

“There’s a new comedy at the theater Saturday. Go with me. We’ll have supper at the fish place on the way.”

She turned, shocked. “You...you want to go out with me?” she asked, her green eyes wide and full of delight.

He smiled slowly. “Yes. I want to go out with you.”

“Saturday?”

He nodded.

“What time?”

“We’ll leave about five.”

“That would be lovely,” she said, drowning in his eyes, on fire with the joy he’d just kindled in her with the unexpected invitation.

“Lovely,” he murmured, but he was looking at her mouth.

“Colie? Supper?” her father’s amused voice floated out from the dining room.

“Supper.” She was dazed. “Oh. Supper! Yes! Coming!”

J.C. followed close behind her, his smile as smug and arrogant as the look on his face. Colie wanted him. He knew it without a word being spoken.

He seated Colie, to her amazement, and then pulled out a chair for himself.

“Good to have you with us, J.C.,” the reverend said gently. “Say grace, Colie, if you please,” he added.

J.C. felt stunned as the others bowed their heads and Colie mumbled a prayer. He wasn’t much on religion, but he did bow his head. When in Rome...

* * *

IT WAS A pleasant meal. Reverend Thompson seemed shocked at J.C.’s knowledge of biblical history as he mentioned a recent dig in Israel that had turned up some new relics of antiquity, and J.C. remarked on it with some authority.

“My mother was from southern Ireland. Catholic,” he added quietly. “She was forever asking the local priest to loan her books on archaeology. It was a passion of his.”

“She couldn’t get them off the internet?” Rodney queried.

J.C. laughed. “We lived in the Yukon, Rod,” he told him with some amusement. “We didn’t have television or the internet.”

“No TV?” Rodney exclaimed. “What did you do for fun?”

“Hunted, fished, helped chop firewood, learned foreign languages from my neighbors. Read,” he added. “I still don’t watch television. I don’t own one.”

“Do you hear that?” Reverend Thompson interjected, pointing to J.C. “That’s how people become intelligent, not from watching people take off their clothing and use foul language on television!”

“It’s his soapbox,” Rodney said complacently. “He only lets me have satellite because I help pay for it.”

“The world is wicked,” the reverend said heavily. “So much immorality. It’s like fighting a tsunami.”

“There, there, Daddy, you do your part to stop it,” Colie said gently, and smiled.

He smiled back. “You’re my legacy, sweetheart,” he said. “You’re so like your mother. She was a gentle woman. She never went with the crowd.”

“I hate crowds,” Colie said.

“Me, too,” Rodney added.

J.C. just stared into space. “I hate people. The best of them will turn on you, given the opportunity.”

“Son, that’s a very harsh attitude,” the reverend said gently.

J.C. finished his turkey and sipped black coffee. “Sorry. We’re the products of our environment, as much as our genetics.” He glanced at the older man with dead eyes. “I’ve been sold out by the people I loved most. It doesn’t encourage trust.”

“You have to consider that we all have a purpose,” the reverend said solemnly. “I’ve heard it said that people come into our lives when they do, for a reason. Some bring out good qualities in us, some bring out bad. Life is a test.”

“If it is, I’ve sure failed it already.” Rodney sighed. He nodded toward Colie. “She’s got a big jar. Every time I swear, I have to put in a nickel. I’ll be bankrupt in days!” he moaned.

Reverend Thompson laughed wholeheartedly. “Now, that’s creative thinking, my girl!”

“I’d take a bow, but the pie would get cold,” she teased, as she served it up.

She noticed that J.C. seemed to love his. He glanced at her, saw her watching him and grinned. She flushed and fumbled with her fork.

The reverend watched the byplay with amusement and concern. Colie was an innocent. He knew things about J.C., who was vocal about his distaste for family life and children. Colie would want marriage and kids. J.C. wouldn’t. It was a mismatch that could lead to tragedy for his daughter. He saw the danger ahead and wished he could stop it.

They had relatives in Comanche Wells, Texas, a small town in Jacobs County. He could send Colie there. She’d be away from J.C...

Even as he thought it, he realized how impractical it was. Colie had a good job. She loved Catelow. And if her continual sighing over J.C. Calhoun was any indication, she was already halfway in love. She’d never dated much, except for an occasional double date with an older girlfriend who’d later married and moved to Billings. She didn’t go out these days. She worked and cooked and cleaned and read books. Even the reverend realized it wasn’t much of a life for a young woman, who should be out learning about life.

It was just that she was going to learn things that he disapproved of. He looked at J.C., saw the way the man was watching Colie, and something inside him tightened like a rope around his throat. He averted his eyes. He didn’t know what to do. He only knew that Colie was headed for disaster.

* * *

COLIE WALKED J.C. out onto the porch, where a small light burned overhead. Snow was falling softly.

“They say we’re looking at six inches of snow,” she remarked with a long sigh.

He smiled. “I can drive in six feet of snow,” he mused. “If the theater is open, we’ll get there. If it isn’t, you can come home with me and I’ll teach you how to play chess.”

Her lips parted on a rush of excitement. He really wanted to be with her. He wasn’t teasing. She looked up into narrow, pale silver eyes and wanted nothing more in the world than to be in his arms.

He saw the look. It amused him. She had her act down pat. Playing innocent, showing all the right sort of excitement for a woman headed for her first love affair. He didn’t believe what he was seeing. He’d had too many experienced women tease him with displays of innocence, only to become wildcats once he had them in bed. It was a trust issue, he supposed. He didn’t trust women. He had good reason not to.

But he was willing to play along. In fact, he knew tricks that Colie might not know. He moved closer, taking her gently by the waist and holding her away from him just a little.

“You’ll get cold,” he whispered, bending his head so that his mouth was just above hers, not touching, but taunting.

“It’s not that cold,” she whispered back, her voice unsteady as she looked up at his mouth, focused on it with all the pent-up hunger she’d been saving for the right man, the right time, the right place.

“Isn’t it?” His voice was deep, dark velvet. He brushed his nose against hers, while his big hands smoothed up and down her rib cage, almost brushing her taut breasts—but not touching.

Her lips parted. They felt swollen. She felt swollen all over. She didn’t know enough about men to understand what he was doing to her. It was a game. A very old game. Tease and retreat, to make a woman hungry for more.

“I have to go,” he whispered, his breath mingling with hers, he was so close.

“Do you?” She was standing on her tiptoes now, almost begging for the hard, chiseled mouth so close to hers. She could almost taste the coffee on it.

“I do.” He brushed his nose against hers again, teased her mouth without touching it, and suddenly put her away from him. “Don’t stay out here. You’ll catch cold.”

“O...kay,” she said. She was disappointed, frustrated.

He saw that. It delighted him. He smiled at her. “I’ll see you Saturday. Five sharp.”

She nodded. “Five sharp.”

“Good night, Colie.”

He went down the steps before she could reply and back to his black SUV. He got in, started the engine, backed out and drove away. He didn’t look back. Not once.

* * *

COLIE WENT BACK INSIDE, frustrated and cold. Why hadn’t he kissed her? She knew he wanted to. His eyes had been hungry as they stared at her parted lips. But he’d pushed her away. Why?

She wished she had a really close girlfriend, somebody she could trust, to talk to about men and their reactions. Well, there was Lucy, at work, the closest thing she had to a friend. But she’d be too embarrassed to ask Lucy, who was married, questions about men and sensual techniques. Lucy would know why she wanted to know, and she’d tease Colie, who was too shy to invite the attention. Still, she wondered why J.C. had been so hesitant to kiss her, when she knew he wanted to. Muffled gossip, movies and explicit television shows hadn’t really educated her about how men felt and why they behaved in odd ways.

She started clearing the dining room table.

“J.C. get off all right?” her father asked.

She nodded and smiled. “It’s snowing again.”

“I noticed.” He was still sitting at the table, with his second cup of black coffee. He took a breath. “Colie, I know how you feel about J.C.,” he said unexpectedly. “But you have to remember that he’s not a marrying man.”

She stopped what she was doing and looked at him. Her expression made him wince.

“You’ve never really been exposed to anybody like him,” her father continued quietly. “Most of the boys you dated were like you, innocent and out of touch with the modern world. J.C. has seen the elephant, as the old-time cowboys used to say. He’s well-traveled and he’s lived among violent men...”

“I know all that, Daddy,” she said softly. “It’s just that...” She bit her lower lip. “I’ve never felt like this.”

“You’re nineteen,” he replied. “Such feelings are natural. But you should also remember that despite what you see in social media, people of faith live by certain rules. Ours teaches that we get married, then we have children. We don’t encourage intimacy outside marriage.”

“I remember.”

“It’s natural to feel such things. We’re human, after all. But just because a lot of people do something immoral, that doesn’t make it right. Any man who truly loves you will want to marry you, Colie, have kids with you, go to church with you. If you interact with a man who has no faith, you risk falling into the same trap that many young women do. I’ve seen the result of broken relationships where illegitimate children were involved. It is not something I want my daughter to experience.”

She wanted to mention that there was such a thing as birth control, but she bit her lip. Her father, like many of his congregation, saw things in a different light than the rest of the world. He was out of touch with what was natural for young women today.

She wanted J.C. Why was it so wrong to sleep with someone you loved? It was as natural as breathing. At least, she imagined it was. She’d never been intimate with anyone. One date had fumbled under her blouse, but his efforts to undress her had been interrupted and Colie hadn’t been sorry. She was curious, but the boy hadn’t stirred her with his kisses.

J.C., on the other hand, made her wild for something she’d never had. She wanted him. Her body burned, for the first time. He felt the same thing for her, she was sure of it. Except she didn’t understand why he’d drawn back so suddenly, why he hadn’t kissed her. It was disturbing.

“Think of your mother,” the reverend added, when he saw that his arguments were having no effect.

She lifted her eyes. “Mama?”

“She was the most moral human being I ever knew,” he said. “She waited for marriage. So did I, Colie,” he added surprisingly. “I loved her almost beyond bearing.” He lowered his eyes. “Life without her would be empty, except for my faith and my work. I carry on, because that’s what she’d want me to do.” He looked up. “She’d expect you to live a moral life.”

Yes, she would, Colie agreed silently. But perhaps her mother hadn’t been as hungry as Colie was, as much in love. Her parents had been together in a different time, when things were less permissive in small towns. Goodness, half the young people in town were in relationships. Few of them actually married.

“If you live with someone, you get to know them and you find out if you’re suited enough to get married,” she ventured without looking at him.

He drew in a slow breath and sipped his coffee. “It’s your life, Colie,” he said gently. “You’re a grown woman. I can’t tell you how to live. I can only tell you that many people who live in an open relationship don’t eventually marry. There’s no real commitment. Not like there is in marriage, where you bring children into the world and raise them. J.C. doesn’t want children.”

“He could change his mind,” she said.

“He could. But I doubt he will. He’s how old, thirty-two? If he still feels that way, at his age, he’s unlikely to change. There’s something else,” he added quietly. “You can’t involve yourself with someone with the idea that you can change things about them that you don’t like. People don’t change. Bad habits only grow worse.”

“Not liking children,” she began, moving silverware around on an empty plate. “That might change, if he had a child.”

He closed his eyes and winced.

Colie saw that. It wounded her. “Daddy, I can’t help how I feel,” she ground out. “I’m crazy about him!”

He drew in a long breath. “I know.” He looked up at her and saw her stubborn resolve. He finished his coffee and got to his feet. He brushed a kiss against her cheek. “I’ll always be here for you. Always. No matter what you do. I’m your father. I will always love you.”

Tears sprang to her eyes. She put down the plates and hugged him, tears bleeding from her eyes.

He patted her on the back and kissed her hair, as he had when she was very small, and hurt, and she ran to him for comfort. It had always been like that. She loved her mother very much, but she was Daddy’s girl.

“It will all work out,” he said, trying to reassure both of them.

“Of course it will,” she replied, fighting more tears.

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