But as the next hours slipped by and the sun rose higher in the sky, Tara’s certainty wobbled. She paced, going to the picture window that overlooked the entire property. From here, she could see most of the valley, the herd in the distance, the charred earth that was beginning to return to life with new growth.

The recent rains had done some good, nourishing the abused soil and seeds. Behind her, Juanita kept the TV on, but there was no new footage. No new information, just the same reports, over and over.

Tara had gotten ahold of nearly everyone on her staff. Only Wade wasn’t answering his phone. He didn’t have a cell phone that she knew of, and his home was east, where the damage was the worst. She tried not to worry about that, about the additional fact that her calls to Morgan and Jack hadn’t been returned, either.

Could they even get to town? Should they try? “Maybe we should—” Her words were cut off by the loud rumble of an engine.

Brooke hastily scrambled off the couch. “Daddy!” she cried and ran to the door. She struggled to open it, the heavy wood sticking from all the recent damp. The slam of the screen door was loud as Brooke lunged out of it.

Tara was right behind her. “Brooke, wait!” There was no guarantee it was Morgan. The girl would be so disappointed.

A battered pickup came up the drive, stopping in the middle of the muddy lane. The men streamed out of the barns. And Tara heard footsteps behind her.

Relief nearly tripped her up when Wade climbed out from behind the wheel. He looked tired but in one piece.

The passenger door opened then, and the whole world melted away.

Morgan. He was here. He was safe.

Both he and Wade looked worse for the wear, their clothes rumpled, their eyes tired. But they were both smiling.

“Daddy!” Brooke cried from halfway down the sidewalk, her ponytails streaming behind her as she ran. Morgan was down on his knees in an instant as she flew into his arms. He looked so big, and she so tiny. He seemed to engulf her.

“Oh, Brooke,” he whispered, though the pent-up pain in his voice carried across the entire yard. He kissed her head and ran his big hand over her hair as if making sure she was real.

Tara slowed her step, stopping several feet away. They needed this time, needed space, she was sure, though she ached to touch him, to make sure he was okay. Make sure she wasn’t dreaming.

The purple dragon lay on the worn walk, forgotten, no longer a needed comfort. Tara bent to pick it up, her vision blurred. When she was upright again, she looked at Morgan and Brooke.

With his daughter in his arms, Morgan was staring at her. The intensity of his gaze stole Tara’s breath. Tears filled his eyes, spilling onto his rough cheeks. He rose to his feet then, swinging Brooke up onto his hip, her head on his shoulder and arm around his neck.

His stride was long and sure as he came right up to Tara.

“Thank you,” he said, then pulled her with his free arm to his side. “Thank you,” he repeated as his lips found hers.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

MORGAN FOLLOWED TARA into the comfortable kitchen of the Hawkins ranch with a fair amount of trepidation. Kissing the girl for saving the day had been one of his better ideas. At least in his mind. The dozen sets of eyes staring at him when he’d pulled away from Tara hadn’t been quite as…enthusiastic.

Before he could recover, though, an older woman had come out of the house and called everyone inside. Lunch was ready, and even his unexpected arrival wasn’t about to stop this crew from eating. She bustled around the kitchen, putting huge platters of food on the big wooden table.

“Have a seat.” The woman smiled and waved them toward the table.

Morgan would have liked Tara to sit with them, but she was bustling around, too, not meeting his eye.

“Daddy?” Brooke’s tiny voice broke through the din the same way it broke his heart. He’d never heard a more beautiful sound. He had to fight to swallow the lump in his throat.

“Yeah, baby?” He sat beside Brooke and barely resisted the urge to scoop her up in his arms again. She felt so small against him.

“Don’t go away.”

“No, honey. I’m not going anywhere.”

Brooke snuggled close and held on tight. He could keep her here like this forever. Slowly, she pulled back just a little, so she could look up at him. “Mama said you didn’t want us no more.”

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