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Marry Me Book 4

A Stranger in His Own Town, to His Own Daughter

When the bad boy of Tobias, Wisconsin, returns home, the repercussions reach far and deep.

Handsome and charming Zach Corbett left the small town eight years ago to make his own way… and never looked back.

Not at the pregnant ex-girlfriend he left behind. Or at what his departure might mean for his brother Steve, whose wedding was put on hold to raise a baby.

Tensions are high, and there’s only one person who might be able to redeem the Corbetts’ troubled family reunion, a woman who has truly seen Zach since they were kids.

Fran Dalton has always seen beyond the bravado to the pain in those beautiful baby blues of Zach’s. Now, she can see he’s different. And, unlike when they were kids, now she’s grabbed his attention.

If only she can draw Zach into a loving relationship, and prove how much he’s changed, his fractured family might just find it in their hearts to forgive. And heal.

Can Zach and Fran escape the past’s hold to make a future?

Excerpt:

CHAPTER ONE

Nothing had changed in eight and half years.

Not on Lakeview Street in Tobias, Wisconsin.

The house he’d been raised in still rose like a secular cathedral from the town’s highest point, looking down on all. Too self-satisfied to realize that its precise and polished grounds paled beside the inviting warmth of the Daltons’ home next door.

Nope, nothing had changed here.

Zach Corbett recognized an odd reassurance in that.

Reassuring, he supposed, because so much else had changed. What he’d seen on his way through town, with its fresh buildings, unfamiliar roads, and new businesses. And what he knew of himself.

Odd, for damned sure, because Corbett House represented all his reasons for leaving. So how could not changing offer reassurance? Made no sense.

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Unless—letting his hopes run wild, here—it meant this might end up being a routine run, the way Doc said.

Yeah, right.

He stared across the Daltons’ yard to the house—the pristine architectural embodiment of the Corbett Ideal as expounded and practiced by his mother—where he’d grown up.

No, scratch that. He’d stayed a child there. He’d grown up after he left.

He had a life, far from Tobias in more ways than geography. He didn’t have anything to prove.

If it hadn’t been for the old man Miguel—

“Go ahead, someone will answer if you knock.”

Zach didn’t jolt or overreact to the unexpectedness of the voice.

Didn’t react at all. Just tried to pinpoint where the calm voice came from, because the faintest sound could make all the difference. Training and experience had taught him that lesson.

But it didn’t take training or experience to discover this sound’s source.

She must have been there all along.

A compact female in tan jeans and green shirt camouflaged by the bushes and flowers where the Dalton and Corbett yards met with the front sidewalk. She crouched, a trowel in one gloved hand, a clump of weeds in the other.

Movement would have given her away immediately. She’d been absolutely still. Because she hadn’t recognized him?

Or because she had?

Slowly, she straightened. Leaves rested on the crown of her shining hair, its waves drawn back in a short, loose braid.

Fran Dalton had been the quiet, plump girl next door all his life. She was no longer plump, though nicely rounded.

Very nicely.

She was a year younger than him, two years younger than their older brothers, who’d always been best friends.

Steve.

That was one good thing about this return. Once Zach got past Lana, he’d go find his brother.

“Is that the problem, Zach—that someone will answer if you knock?” she asked in that smooth voice.

She hadn’t grown much taller, but she’d definitely grown up.

Yeah, she’d definitely grown up.

So, there had been changes on Lakeview Street.

One thing hadn’t changed—she looked at him straight in the eyes with no bull.

Zach grinned. A minute ago he hadn’t thought a grin was in his immediate future. But there it was. “Hi, Franny.”

“Hello, Zachary.”

His grin widened, warmth spreading through his chest at the tartness in that. “Still don’t like that nickname, huh?”

“Still don’t like your given name, huh?”

The grin gone, he asked “How are you, Fran?”

“I’m very well. You look…” Her gaze skimmed his face, came back to his eyes and stayed there a long moment. “Good.”

“So do you. Real good.” That cut no ice with her, he saw—either she didn’t believe it or she wasn’t interested. “You back here visiting your family? How are they?”

“Not visiting. I live here. Dad got sick, so I moved back. The family’s Rob and me. Dad died two years ago.”

“Damn. Sorry about your dad. He was a good man.”

“Yes, he was.”

“No nieces or nephews? I thought Rob was marrying that girl from college. Jan? Janet?”

Asking about her family, not his—delaying, Corbett. Definitely delaying. At least no one but him knew it.

“Janice. They married. No kids. Divorced. But now he’s found the right one.”

Her eyes brightened—there was more to Rob’s story than those bare facts, and it pleased her.

He’d like to hear about it later. If there was a later.

“How’s…?” He tipped his head toward Corbett House.

Her sweet face turned stern. He remembered the sweet. The stern was new.

How else had she changed?

“They’ve been so worried. Steve still puts ads—”

“Steve’s in Tobias?”

That jerked his attention back to why he was here.

He’d hoped his older brother had escaped this town, too.

But Steve had always thought he could be his own kind of Corbett, even in Tobias, and had envisioned a life outside Lana’s orbit, starting by planning to marry his hometown sweetheart. Not standing up as Steve’s best man, that had been his one regret from leaving months before the wedding.

“He and Annette live—” Fran started.

“They did it, huh” So, Steve had withstood Lana’s disapproval of marrying a girl from the wrong side of town. “Good for him, marrying his Annette.”

“Yes, they’re married. Now. But…” A frown pulled the smooth arch of her brows.

“What? Steve’s—He’s okay?”

“I can’t… No one can fill in the years between you and your family. You have to do this yourself.”

And that brought them back to: Someone will answer if you knock, Zach. … Is that the problem?

Maybe he wasn’t the only one who knew he was delaying.

He could walk away and Fran could tell them he was okay. Steve would believe Fran. That was the kind of girl she’d been and, looking into her eyes, it was the kind of woman she was now.

So Zach could go back.

Back where he belonged, where he’d made a life. And this—what? Pilgrimage? Penance?—would be enough to let him pick up that life again. Surely it would be enough.

Just because Taz thought he needed a break didn’t mean he had to do it here. He could take Verdi up on the offer of his place at the beach. Or help Waco build that cabin in the mountains.

He had other places to go. Places where he’d be welcomed as he was, not as anyone wanted him to be.

The old man’s hold so strong. His eyes bright and intense against the gray of his face.

And Doc’s voice. You need to deal with it, Zach. Now, before it gets worse.

“You’ve come this far, Zach,” Fran said. “You must have come for a reason.”

God, you’d think she and Doc were in cahoots.

He manufactured another grin. “Just to let them know I’m alive.”

“That’s a start. So go do it.”

“Yeah.”

He’d known this wouldn’t be fun. The reality, though…

It would be fun to talk to Fran more. Find out what she’d been doing, listen to her smooth voice, maybe tell her some of what he’d done. Would Fran believe he wasn’t the kid who’d left?

Not that it mattered.

He hadn’t come for redemption. He’d come because an old man’s grip hadn’t let go, even after three months.

The past will not stop speaking to you…

He cleared his throat. “I doubt I’ll be hanging around after … later, so I’ll say goodbye. It’s good seeing you, Fran. Real good.”

He reached toward her, intending to cup her shoulder, a gesture of long-time neighbors, old friends. Instead, his hand traveled toward her cheek, poised to brush his knuckles down the soft, cream slant.

He dropped his hand without making any contact.

That was something he’d learned—better to make no move than a bad move.

A faint voice deep inside asked why touching Fran like that would be a bad move. He ignored it.

“It’s been good seeing you, too, Zach.”

She looked at him as if she might read these past years in his face.

“Take care of yourself,” he said.

Something about that platitude ruffled the calm in her eyes and brought a hint of tartness to her, “I do.”

He turned away from her and toward Corbett House. That was harder than he’d expected, because he’d done a hell of a lot harder things than advance along a sidewalk and turn left up the front walk to Corbett House.

Hell of a lot harder.

There the house sat. Immaculate landscaping, broad stairs, wide porch, and inside, room after frozen room.

Halfway up the steps, he looked back.

Fran was nowhere in sight.

She’d meant it when she’d said it was up to him. He could walk away and there’d be no one to disapprove or applaud. No one but him.

He swore under his breath, then climbed the remaining steps to the oversized dark wooden door that stood out against white clapboards like the entrance to a cave.

As a kid, he’d rarely used this door. But he’d left by the front door and he’d be damned if he’d return any other way.

Ignoring the knocker, he drummed his knuckles against the wood.

Instead of thinking about what would happen next, his mind slid to Fran.

She hadn’t asked where he’d been, what he’d done.

She’d left town, but then she’d come back and settled in. Did she have Tobias Syndrome—like most people here thinking life outside of Tobias was just a rumor?

His mouth twisted as the door opened wide.

*

Fran caught herself watching Zach, turned, and hurried inside.

Those seconds had been long enough to confirm that she truly had recognized his walk.

Her heart rate had picked up from the surprise.

Hunched under a yellow lilac to dig out the clover trying to take over, she’d sensed someone approaching. At first, with the afternoon light behind him, she’d seen only a male outline and his walk.

Zach Corbett.

She’d known that instantly.

Which made no sense, because what had made his walk recognizable was its slouching swagger. And now the slouching swagger was gone. Yet she’d recognized him.

After more than eight years, for heaven’s sake.

She’d held still when he’d stopped a yard and a half from her to stare at his family home. She might have remained hidden if she’d had a good view of his face.

Curiosity and a sense that he was about to turn and leave prompted her to speak.

His eyes were still that sparkling baby blue that had often startled her. But she’d seen none of the burning anger that had been another Zach Corbett hallmark.

What was she doing? She didn’t have time for this.

Even if Zach didn’t reach Corbett House’s front door, Steve and Annette needed to know he was here. Needed to know he was alive.

Not only to clear the worry and pain Steve, especially, had carried all these years, but for Nell’s sake.

She sucked in a breath and grabbed the phone.

Oh, GodNell.

Would Zach’s appearance make it easier or harder for Steve and Annette’s young daughter? It certainly made everything infinitely more complicated.

Fran tried Steve and Annette Corbett’s house line first. No answer and this news was not the kind to leave in a message.

Steve’s cell phone didn’t go through. Annette’s went directly to voicemail. She left texts saying simply, Call me.

Steve’s assistant at Town Hall said he was at Bliss House. Miss Trudi Bliss had donated Bliss House, a crumbling nineteenth century mansion. In exchange, the town built her snug, modern quarters on the property and was turning the main building into a crafts center.

If Steve called, his assistant said, she would be sure to have him get in touch with Fran.

Fran looked at the clock. Nell should be home from school.

Mostly likely, she’d gone to Bliss House to meet Steve or to visit Miss Trudi, a retired art teacher who served as Nell’s guide in her many diverse interests. But on the chance Nell had gone home to tend to her dog, Pansy, Fran needed to check there before she drove to Bliss House.

She went through the back screen porch with no more than a wave to Chester and her pups yipping hello, then jogged across the deep back yard.

Like Corbett House, the Daltons’ yard was double depth, extending from Lakeview Street in the front to Kelly in back. Steve and Annette’s house faced her backyard from across Kelly Street.

She knocked and called out. Pansy barked inside. “Sorry, girl. I didn’t bring my key.”

She turned to go back across the street to get her car, then saw Steve’s SUV on Kelly Street, preparing to turn into the driveway. She was at the driver’s door as he got out. Annette emerged from the passenger side.

“Hi, Fran. Bonnie said you called. Sorry my cell wasn’t working. Must have been because the battery somehow ended up in Pansy’s water this morning.” Steve shot a look at Annette, and both grinned.

Fran had a fair idea why she hadn’t been able to reach them. She didn’t blame them, married just three months after eight years apart. But this was no time for implausible explanations.

“Steve, where’s Nell?”

“Mother’s. Part of our campaign to get Nell and her grandmother to spend more time together, and Mrs. Grier promised brownies, so—”

“Fran?” Annette interrupted as she came around the front of the SUV. “What is it?”

Fran looked from one to the other. She didn’t know how to make this easy or smooth. With Nell at Corbett House, fast was most important … unless Zach hadn’t knocked on the door after all.

“Zach’s here. He was heading for—”

“Zach?” Steve grabbed her arm, hard enough to hurt. “He’s—Are you sure? Somebody who looked like him—”

She answered the question he’d carried for eight years. “It’s Zach. He’s alive.”

“Thank God.”

Annette’s hands covered Steve’s, easing his hold on Fran. Tears came into her eyes as she looked at her husband.

Fran wished she could let them feel the relief, and only the relief. Just for a little while.

There was no time.

“He was going to Corbett House, Steve. The front door. I don’t know if he reached it, or if he left, but—”

Steve interrupted with one word. “Nell.”

COLLAPSE
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