She hurried up the walk and wasn’t even surprised when she reached the veranda and Wyatt was holding the screen door open for her.

He didn’t say anything, just looked at her with curiosity and a raised eyebrow.

The house was full, and Tara was surprised Brooke didn’t wake up. Was she okay? She thought about putting her in one of the half dozen spare rooms to sleep, but knew her waking up in a strange place would not be good.

Instead, she went to the couch and sat, Brooke still snuggled close. “Hey, Brooke,” she said softly, pulling away from the girl.

Brooke clung tight, and Tara realized she wasn’t asleep, not really. “It’s okay,” Tara said. “This is a safe place.”

Brooke still didn’t let go, but she turned her head to look at Tara. “Where are we?” she whispered.

“Remember, I told you we were coming to my brother’s house? We’re here.”

“Oh.” Still, Brooke didn’t move.

“This is Wyatt.” She turned so Brooke could see him without moving.

Wyatt, being the man he was who was always good with kids, leaned closer. “Hi. Nice to meet you. What’s your name?”


“Hello, Brooke. Welcome to my house.”

Brooke still clung tight to the dragon and her arm squeezed Tara’s neck. “He’s tall,” she whispered. “My daddy’s tall, too.”

Tara figured almost everyone was tall from the little girl’s perspective, but she didn’t tell her that. “Wyatt knows your daddy.” Maybe that would help ease Brooke’s discomfort.

“He does?”

“Uh-huh.” Tara nodded. “Wyatt, you met Morgan the other night, remember?”

“Oh, yeah.” Wyatt eased onto the couch beside them. “You’re right, he is tall. I hear he has a big truck, too.”

That did the trick. Brooke sat up, still holding on to Tara and the dragon, but not leaning so tightly against her. “It’s really big. Makes a lotta noise, too.”

“We can do that here, too.” Wyatt smiled. “Did you two have dinner?”

“We did,” Tara told him. “But maybe there’re some stray cookies around?”

“I think we’ve got some, if Tyler hasn’t eaten them all.”

“Who’s Tyler?” Brooke asked.

“He’s our nephew. He likes cookies almost as much as I do,” Wyatt explained.

“Not as much as me.” Brooke smiled.

Wyatt smiled back. “Come on.” He stood and led the way to the kitchen.

Tara let Brooke slide down and didn’t say anything when the girl reached for her hand. “You’re coming with me?”

“Of course.” Tara stood. “I like cookies, too, you know.”

When they reached the wide doorway that led into the kitchen, however, Brooke stopped. Family and ranch hands sat around the big table. Nearly a dozen people in all. Juanita, the cook, stood at the sink, finishing the evening’s dishes.

Tyler slid off his chair. “Hi!” He came over to them. He put his hand out, like all the men on the ranch did when meeting someone. The fact that he was nine years old only made the gesture more adorable. “I’m Tyler.”

“Hi.” Brooke hugged Tara’s leg. “I’m Brooke.”

She probably didn’t know how to shake hands. Tyler didn’t seem to notice, shrugging and waving her to follow him. “You can sit by me. There’s lots of room over here.” He walked over to his seat and pulled it out.

Brooke looked at Tara, questioning.

“It’s okay,” Tara said. “I’m not going anywhere.”

Slowly, Brooke let go of her hand and crawled onto the chair. Her chin barely reached the table’s top, but she didn’t seem to mind. Tyler carefully pushed the chair in a couple inches. “Here.” He slid a small plate with a cookie on it toward her. “You want some milk?”

Brooke shook her head, her ponytails sliding back and forth. She took the cookie and nibbled on the edge. Her eyes were wide as she looked around at the room full of people.

The cowboys slid along the bench seat that ran the table’s length, giving Tara space next to the girl. She smiled her thanks.