The Long Road Home, Book 4
As he rounded the last curve toward home, Parker McKenna noticed a dozen cars or more lined up in his parking lot and circling the barn. Turning onto the dirt road leading up to the house, he attempted to settle the quiver of anticipation in his abdomen. He wasn’t looking forward to dealing with people right now, even though they came to pay their respects to his father. Most everyone in the surrounding area, plus those they knew real well from Livingston, would likely be there.
Why had he insisted this reception be at his house and not Liz’s? Well, he’d had his reasons, and he didn’t want to think of those at this moment.
Parker was not one for crowds, especially crowds in his living room and kitchen.
He was a private man. He didn’t like to be on display, and he never wanted to be the center of attention. That’s why ranch life suited him to a T. He could go about his business on a daily basis without seeing a soul, or only those people who really mattered. That’s why working on the dude ranch, or in a hotel, or in any other damn hospitality industry would be torture for him. Not an option.
Couldn’t Liz see that?
Couldn’t Liz see that?
He pushed all of that aside. Not going there. Not now.
Glancing in his rearview mirror, he watched the dust trail billow up behind him. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes… This day was too surreal.
He made his way toward the barn and pulled around behind it. He had half a notion to steal away on his horse and take an hour or two up on the mountain. Alone. To think. Reflect. He wouldn’t though. The community was here. And he’d do his part.
He knew Mercer and Callie likely had everything under control. They were in charge of the food brought in from, what seemed like, every corner of the state of Montana. He supposed the only thing to do, except eat, was sit around and talk pleasant to the guests.
Of course, they were all coming to support the family, pay their respects. He understood that. But that didn’t mean he wouldn’t be ready for them to leave as soon as possible.
There was a small group on the back porch, and he nodded with minimal eye contact as he threaded his way through. Once inside the kitchen, he realized quite unexpectedly it was empty. He breathed a deep sigh of relief. Spotting the half-full coffee carafe still sitting in the coffee maker, he poured himself a large mug, stuck it in the microwave and nuked it for two minutes.
He waited, watching the cup turn round and round on the carousel. It was a mindless act, and a welcome one. He didn’t want to think right now. Finally, the machine binged and he retrieved his coffee.
He turned to find a woman standing behind the butcher-block island, tearing a head of lettuce into pieces and tossing them into a bowl.
She stared back at him. Was she there when he came in?
“They never bring salad,” she said.
Parker leaned into the counter and lifted the cup to his lips. Hot. “Who never brings salad?”
“People. When someone dies and people bring food, they never think about bringing salad.” He watched her reach into a grocery bag and pull out two ripe tomatoes. She rinsed them in the sink to her left and then started chopping them up there on the counter. “I mean, they bring lasagna, and meatloaf, and hash brown casseroles, and ham, and baked beans, and desserts—but they never think to bring salad.”
“Oh,” Parker said.
“That’s why I always bring salad. People need vegetables at a time like this.”
“I see.” He tried the coffee again, semi-amused at this little diversion. “And you are?”
“Oh! I am sorry. I should have introduced myself.” She wiped her hands on a dishtowel, rounded the island, and thrust out her hand. “I’m Reba Morris. I bought the Crandall place over the hill. It’s small, but it’s home. I never met James McKenna but I’ve heard so much about him and the family, so I thought I would pay my respects and see how I could help out, being a new neighbor, and all.”
The Crandall cabin. He wondered who had bought that. If he’d had the money, he would have snatched up that 120 acres for himself. But like the rest of the ranchers around here, including the Crandalls, times were a little tough. That’s why they were selling off their smaller parcels of land.
He took her hand. Soft. But her handshake was firm. “I’m Parker McKenna.”
Her eyes grew wide. “Oh, I am so sorry, Mr. McKenna. I didn’t mean to rattle on like that. I’m sure this is a horrible day for you and I am so sorry for your loss….”
“Parker. Call me Parker.”
She nodded. “Of course.”
He dropped his gaze slightly. “Thank you, ma’am, for your kind words. And thank you for the salad. I’m sure we are all going to appreciate it.”
Hell, he offended her. “I didn’t mean….”
“Just call me Reba,” she said.
He almost chuckled. “Sure. Thank you, Reba, for…” he glanced about, “for the vegetables.”
She smiled. “I should probably get back to it. There are a lot of hungry people in there. If you don’t mind.”
“Not at all. I hope you don’t mind if I stand here and drink my coffee.” And watch you. Where did that thought come from? She was pleasant to watch, however. Probably his age, perhaps a little older. Thin and tall, with auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail, and really black eye lashes. Why he noticed that, he wasn’t sure. Perhaps it was the way she blinked them when she talked in run-on sentences, in that soft southern drawl. He didn’t think she as from around here.
She went back to her vegetables. “Long day?”
“You could say that.”
“I understand. I…” Then she stopped talking. She started chopping and assembling. Parker wondered what she was going to say but let the unfinished sentence hang between them. When she was finished, she lifted her gaze, gathered the salad bowl in her hands, and said to him, “I’m taking this to the dining room. Will you please bring the dressing?” She nodded toward a couple of bottles on the island.
Parker set his coffee cup on the butcher block and said, “Of course. Lead the way.”
A few hours later, Reba Morris put the last foil-wrapped casserole dish in the freezer and had Tupperwared the last of the remaining leftovers to the refrigerator. As she swiped down the counter, thinking it was high time she head over the hill, the two McKenna sisters pushed through the kitchen door.
“Whoa.” The blonde stopped short and glanced about the kitchen. “I was sure this was a disaster in here.”
The other sister, the one with the long brunette hair, did a double take. “Me, too. What the hell?”
Their gazes both landed on Reba. She slowed her swiping, tossed the dishrag in the sink, and then wiped her hands on her borrowed apron. “Well,” she said, approaching the two, “I’m sorry we have to meet like this. I’m your new neighbor. Reba Morris.”
The sisters looked at each other.
“I’m Mercer,” the blonde one said and pushed out her hand.
Reba shook it and then looked to the brunette. “So you must be Callie.”
Callie dropped her head in a quick nod. “I am. And I can’t believe you cleaned all of this up!”
Reba shrugged. “It was the least I could do. You all have enough on your hands right now. We’re neighbors, and that’s what we do. I’m happy to help.”
With that, Mercer moved to the table and sat in a chair with a huge sigh. “I could kiss you. I am so tired.”
Reba figured they both were. Smiling, she said, “Why don’t you both sit and let me tell you what I have done. Can I get you a drink?”
Callie joined Mercer at the table. They both shook their heads. “I’ve drank so much tea this afternoon I think I could float away.” Mercer grimaced.
Reba glanced out the window and continued, “It looks like the last of the visitors are leaving and I should be too.” She stepped to the refrigerator. “There’s iced tea in the refrigerator in the pantry. I made some fresh so it would be good through tomorrow. There were a lot of eggs in the fridge that were almost ready to expire, so I made a breakfast casserole for in the morning.” She opened the refrigerator door and pointed. “It’s right there with the foil on top. Let’s see.” She glanced up. “Someone brought a fruit tray that hasn’t been touched—I would eat that soon before it spoils. These plastic containers are full of food left from what was out this afternoon, probably should eat that stuff first, too. And anything that could be frozen,” she shut the refrigerator door and opened the freezer side, “I packaged up and put it here. Everything is labeled. Wow, you’ve got food for weeks.”
She turned and faced the women, who both had looks of disbelief on their faces.
“Wow is right,” Mercer said.
“Ditto.” Callie blinked. “Can we keep you?”
Reba laughed. “Sorry, ladies, but I’m my own woman.”
“Well, we’re impressed, and obviously, Parker is going to be happy as a clam.”
Reba smiled at the mention of Parker. Their brief encounter earlier had left her wondering about him as she’d worked in the kitchen. He’d not been back in, but she knew he was busy. He was a handsome man, to be sure. Make no mistake about that. And she’d heard he was single.
Of course, she wasn’t interested.
“Then my work here is done. I’m all about making people happy with a good meal.”
She watched the young women exchange a glance. Mercer rose and said, “You are so awesome for doing all of this, Reba. How can we thank you?”
Grinning inwardly, Reba shook her head and turned toward the door, where she plucked her purse and a sweater off a hook. After laying a hand on the doorknob, she turned back to face the two with a big smile. “Just eat and enjoy. That’s thanks enough. Oh, and the big salad bowl is mine. I’ll come back for it in a couple of days.”
“Never mind about that,” a male voice boomed from the other side of the room.
The girls turned and Reba jerked her gaze up. Parker McKenna had entered the kitchen. Larger than life, he commanded such a presence she almost gasped. He had caught her totally off guard this time, more than earlier.
He strolled forward.
Well, hello, tall, dark and cowboy, said the wench in her head.
Stop it! ordered her inner good girl.
Reba opened her mouth to speak but he interrupted.
“No worries about the salad bowl,” he said, “I’ll bring it by when we’re finished. That is, if it’s not an imposition.”
“Oh, I don’t mind coming by,” she told him.
“And your place is on my way into town, so it’s not a bother.”
Reba smiled politely. “I surely do not want to inconvenience you, Parker.”
He took another step closer, one that seemed to suck the air right out of the room. Was it hot in here? Did she forget to turn off an oven? Were her cheeks red?
“I insist, Reba. Of course, like I said, if it’s not an imposition.”
Imposition? Of course it is an imposition! Couldn’t he tell that she didn’t want him at her place?
It was all Reba could do not to stammer her reply. But she fortified herself with every charm school etiquette class scenario she’d ever experienced. “Why no,” she said sweetly, smiling on the outside and tamping down a little uneasiness on the inside. “Not at all. I look forward to your visit.”The hell it wasn’t an imposition, but she did have her manners.
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