Emily stepped in instead. “I’d suggest you think about what you say and do next.” Her glare was hard, but it all vanished when she knelt beside Brooke. “Remember how last night we talked about following the rules and making everything right?”

Brooke nodded, still leaning against Tara’s side.

“This is part of that. Now I need to talk to your parents. Is that okay with you?” Emily waited patiently, giving Brooke a sense of control, something he doubted she’d had much of in the last year.

Brooke looked at Morgan, then at Sylvie, then finally, surprisingly, at Tara. Tara nodded, and Brooke pushed away from her side. “Okay.”

“Maybe Juanita can take you to the barns to see the horses while we talk,” Emily suggested. “Would you like that?”

Juanita stepped forward then, crouching beside Emily. Brooke looked at Morgan and the indecision in her eyes was almost too painful to see, but he couldn’t look away. He had to be strong for his daughter.

Brooke was hesitant to go with Juanita—afraid Morgan would leave her. “I’m not going anywhere,” he reassured her. “Not without you.”

How long would it take for her trust to return? Would it ever?

“You got real horses?” Brooke turned to Juanita.

“We do.” Juanita smiled. “And Tyler even has pigs, Pork Chop and Hamlet, down the hill.”

Brooke actually laughed and his heart squeezed. “Those are funny names.”

The tension in the room eased, and Morgan unclenched his fists. “Go with Juanita. I’ll be right here when you come back. I swear.” Letting her go was the hardest thing he’d ever done.

“I’ll be waiting, too.” Sylvie tried to sound sincere. He was being uncharitable, but a year of worry and anger was more than his charity could overcome. Sylvie did a bad job of hiding her need to win Brooke back. She’d never been good at sharing what she believed was hers. Morgan just wished she cared more about what Brooke wanted.

Slowly, Brooke nodded. After she took Juanita’s hand, Tara leaned down. “Why don’t you leave Lanara here? The horses might be scared of a dragon.”

“Oh…okay.” She extended the stuffed animal to Tara. “But only you get her. She likes you.” Tara softly gasped, then slowly nodded. His heart squeezed.

“We’ll be right back,” Juanita said. Brooke looked over her shoulder all the way to the door. The room fell silent after they left.

“Let’s get started,” Emily said, her voice easily filling the room as she resettled behind the desk.

It hurt that his daughter had wanted away from him, that she was having to go through this mess that he and Sylvie had made of their lives.

* * *

TARA WATCHED BROOKE LEAVE, realizing what an amazing daughter Morgan had. She knew how scared Brooke was of her father leaving her, of going back with her mother, but it humbled Tara that Brooke trusted her. She couldn’t let the girl down.

She knew everyone expected Emily to speak, but Tara surprised them by stepping forward, holding up the stuffed dragon. “You all need to see this.”

“I told her to throw that ratty thing away,” Sylvie said. “I didn’t know she still had it.”

“Morgan, turn it over,” Tara whispered, ignoring Sylvie’s outburst.

He did as she asked and she saw the pain flash in his eyes. The pinned-together back of the stuffed animal made it look even more disreputable. The safety pins looked so out of place against the matted fur.

“Why didn’t you fix it for her?” Morgan softly asked Sylvie.

“Duh. You know I can’t sew.”

Poor Brooke had put up with a torn toy because of it. Tara reached past Morgan when he didn’t move. His heat washed over her, and she wanted to put her arms around him and hold on tight. This was going to hurt him. But Emily needed to see this, and he had to know.

“Brooke didn’t want it fixed,” Tara whispered. She opened the pins and pulled the fabric apart.

“What the—?” Morgan looked at Tara, then at what she was doing. She reached inside and pulled out the crumpled photo.

“She’s been carrying this around.” Tara put the photo in the center of the desk. “She had to hide it here from you,” she said to Sylvie, barely controlling the accusation in her voice. “This says a whole lot about what that little girl has wanted for the last year.” She faced Emily.

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