Everyone knows that the Dakotas didn’t get the name Badlands for nothing. Harsh weather and rough living are a way of life. But single dad, Logan McKinnon, had seen more than his share of bad times after the death of his wife a year ago. The last thing he needs is Poppy Erickson, an old flame and his late wife’s best friend, showing up unannounced to help after devastating floods nearly washed away their hometown. With no place to stay in town, he has no choice but to offer her a bed at his house. But can he live under the same roof with a woman he’d once loved passionately without feeling he’s betraying his late wife?
Poppy Erickson had spent the year wondering how all their lives might have been different after hearing the death bed confession of her childhood friend. She’d left South Dakota years ago because she couldn’t bear to watch the man she loved loving another woman. But now she knows the truth. She’ll keep the promise she made to a friend, but will Logan understand when he learns the truth? More important, can they again recapture the passion that had been between them all those years ago?
One look on Logan McKinnon’s face told Poppy that his foul mood had very little to do with the devastating destruction all around the Badlands of South Dakota…and everything to do with her showing up in town after nearly ten years.
She didn’t have to be standing next to him to feel his anger simmering just below the surface of his composure. Sitting in her rental sedan was close enough. What the hell was she thinking coming back home? Why had she made that ridiculous promise to Kelly?
She parked the car next to his truck and took a deep breath, mumbling under her breath as she pulled the door handle, “This may just turn out to be the stupidest thing you have ever done, girl.”
Truth was, even as pissed off as Logan looked, he was still an amazing sight to see. Part of her had hoped that she was wrong. That she’d gotten over him a long time ago. That she’d take one look at him, make sure he and Keith were okay, and be able to get back in her car and drive right to the airport in Rapids City.
He turned to her, standing tall and proud. His thick dark hair blew in the March wind, fluttering around his face and making him all the more strikingly handsome.
He was taller than she’d remembered, and he’d long since lost that too-lean teenage body that had driven her crazy in her youth. He worked hard on his ranch and it showed in how much his arms and chest had filled with muscles.
Despite the cold, he’d taken off his jacket while he worked in the yard and Poppy had a clear view of just how much his male body had filled out in places she’d dreamed of touching.
Lord, help her. She was in trouble. And she hadn’t even stepped out of the car yet. She pushed the door open and stepped outside to get it over with. It was either going to be the shortest visit on record…or the life changing experience she’d been dreaming of ever since she was a teenager.
Logan starred at her for a long, agonizing moment. She read the emotional tug of war playing on his face as the sudden chill from the South Dakota winds bit into her exposed skin like a whipping.
Then his expression turned hard. “What are you doing here?”
He must have heard the car drive up. But Logan’s four-year-old son, Keith, remained so focused on the mud puddle he was poking a stick into to even notice anyone was around. That was good. The next few minutes would go easier for both of them if Keith weren’t aware of the tension.
Logan stared at her as if he’d been startled. Or maybe too focused on making sure his son was safely playing nearby to notice her car had driven up.
Or perhaps he’d been too pre-occupied with assessing the damage the recent angry South Dakota weather had done to his property. Poppy had seen just how Mother Nature had shown no mercy to her childhood town as she drove from the airport to the ranch. She couldn’t exactly blame Logan for being in a foul mood because of that.
Seeing her was just the icing on the cake.
“What the hell are you doing here, Poppy?” he repeated.
She took in a deep breath, smelled the muddy earth and decay all around her, and said, “I came to help.”
He took one long look at her, from her high-heeled boots, up the length of her legs, pausing at her hips. She could almost feel his eyes as if he were staring at the flesh beneath her fresh pair of blue jeans. When his gaze finally reached her face again, she slid her sunglasses to the tip of her nose and stared right back at him in challenge. A slow smile played on her lips. She could never last as long at this as Logan before caving into laughter. But she knew Logan was in no laughing mood.
“Poppy Ericksen. Rudolph was practically washed off the map from all that rain we had. After all this time, what makes you think I need anything from you?”
Even though his voice was even, she could tell he was still pissed. But he’d never show it. Keith was still poking at the mud and puddles on the driveway just a little ways away, completely unaware of present company.
“What’s the matter, Logan? You don’t look happy to see me,” Poppy said, pulling her sunglasses off her face with a wary smile.
A big splash had them both quickly looking over at Keith, who’d apparently gotten sick of the noise the stick in water was making and had graduated to a rock in favor of something more dramatic. Even though Logan had outfitted his boy in a heavy jacket and rubber boots, Keith still managed to find every puddle in the yard. What was left of it. Yeah, this kid was a McKinnon through and through.
Turning back to Logan, she caught a fleeting smile aimed at his son before he brought his attention back to her.
As if just noticing a car had driven into the driveway, Keith paused just before testing another puddle and called over to his father, “Who's that, Daddy?”
Poppy's face brightened with Keith’s attention. “Hey, little big man! Remember me? Auntie Poppy?”
Keith gave a quick glance to Logan and then ran over to him, offering up his dirt-covered arms. Logan picked up his son without hesitation.
Logan's jaw tightened as he glared at Poppy. “What did you expect? He doesn't even know you.”
Poppy's smile faltered. “Well, of course he doesn’t know me to see me. But we talk on the phone all the time.”
Logan’s brow knit tight. “You talk… When?”
“Just about every day when he's at your Mom's house. Don’t we, Keith? I’m mommy’s friend from New York.”
Keith smiled with sudden recognition. “Auntie Poppy,” he said sweetly.
Irritation replaced the angry look. Apparently Kate McKinnon never told her son that Keith had a phone friend. Why, she didn’t know. But Kate McKinnon always had a reason for what she did.
“Mom didn’t say anything about it.”
Poppy shrugged. “It wasn’t a secret. I’m sure it just slipped her mind.”
Their gazes locked for a brief moment, but the connection was cut short as Keith wiggled in Logan’s arms, a signal he wanted to get down.
“Hey, little man,” Logan said, gently putting Keith back on the ground. “I need a big job done. Can you help me out?”
“I can give you big help,” Keith said, jumping up and down.
“I know you can. You're the best.” Logan pointed to a small pile of twigs a few yards down the driveway. “We're going to do some burning a little later and I'm going to need those little twigs put in that wheelbarrow over there. Can you do that big job for me?”
“I can pick up the big sticks.” Keith stretched his little arms wide and lifted on his toes for added emphasis.
Logan laughed. “I know you can. But I don't need the big ones. Just the little twigs. Can you do that big job for me while I talk for a bit?”
“Okay, Daddy.” Keith ran off and quickly moved into task as Logan turned his attention back to Poppy.
“He's doing good,” Poppy said quietly. “Getting big.”
“We're managing. You didn't answer my question.”
Her lips twitched. “I didn't think I needed an invitation to come home.”
“This isn't your home. Not anymore.”
His words hurt her more than he knew. Or maybe he did and that was why he said it. Regardless, Poppy refused to let her emotions show on her face and quickly added, “I, ah, didn’t mean this house. I meant back to Rudolph. I know this house isn't my home anymore.” She glanced quickly at Keith, and shifted her weight to one leg as she crossed her arms. A move she always did when she was nervous. “After all the damage the storm did around here, I thought you could use some help.”
“We had a bad few weeks, I'll give you that.”
“It was all over the news.”
“New York City news?”
“National news. But you forget I have connections here in South Dakota, Logan. I don't need the news to have me riveted to what's going on back home.”
“You could have fooled me,” he said under his breath.
He didn’t answer. Instead, he looked around at the devastation that had once been her home as a child. In some ways it was unrecognizable. Trees that had been standing in the pasture for over a hundred years were toppled over, their roots pulled from the ground by the softening soil from the rising water.
Poppy took a moment to take it all in, holding back emotion.
“The house was spared,” he said.
She nodded. “Thankfully.”
The rest of the place was a disaster. There was debris and run off from all the water that wind and icy rain had dumped on the Badlands over the past two weeks.
Yet, as upsetting as it was to see, they’d been blessed. Poppy knew from Logan’s mom that Logan and Keith had been at the house during the worst of it. They’d survived. Everything else could be replaced.
“Lot of folks close to the river lost everything.”
Kelly and Logan had been married for nearly eight years before she’d died last year. It had been over ten years since she’d stepped foot on this ranch. Kelly had convinced Logan to buy the property when it came on the market again the year Kelly had been pregnant with Keith. “The house always had good memories,” Kelly had told her. And yet standing there in front of Logan, the years between then melted away and Poppy felt as if she were still the young girl who’d dreamed of one day loving this man as passionately has she had in her teenage dreams.
They’d stood across from each other on summer nights hundreds of times. They'd been inseparable back then. Sometimes the three of them. Many times just her and Logan. Yet Kelly had been the one to love Logan the way that Poppy had dreamed. How it happened no longer mattered. Especially since Logan was glaring at Poppy as if she’d let Kelly down in the cruelest and most unforgivable way, not knowing it was actually the other way around.
She was a stupid woman! What had convinced her he’d care about the truth now?
For a fleeting second, Poppy wanted to climb back into her rental car and drive as fast as she could until she reached Rapid City. She didn’t belong here. To hell with the promise she’d made to Kelly. But she’d be damned if she spent her entire life wondering if things would have been different if Logan had only learned the truth. If she left, she’d never know.
“How’s this, Daddy?”
Logan’s attention turned to Keith, who was quite pleased with the pile of sticks he'd made in the middle of the driveway. Walking over to him, he said. “Little buddy, that's a fine pile you just started. I’m so proud of you. But we can't have the fire in the middle of the driveway. Do you think you can move these sticks over to big pile over there?”
“Okay!” Unaffected by Logan pointing out his error, Keith quickly went on his way of picking away at the pile a stick at a time and running over to drop it in another pile off the driveway. Poppy was grateful for the slight reprieve of talking with Logan.
Glancing back at Poppy, Logan sighed. He didn’t want her there. That much was evident. Her determination renewed, she lifted her chin and decided she was digging in if she had to dig a hole to do it. Logan was going to have to deal with her at some point, like it or not, so they might as well get it over with now.
As if he’d come to the same conclusion, he took a few long strides toward her. “Look, I can appreciate you wanting to come out and check on your family home and all. You lived here your whole life, so that's understandable. But as you can see, the house is still standing.”
“You can appreciate? Well, that's very dignified of you to say it that way.”
“In case you hadn’t noticed, I'm not feeling very dignified right now. So you can just get in your car and head back to New York if you don’t like it. I don't need you here.”
“You say that. But I know different, Logan McKinnon. You need me now more than ever.”
Logan watched Poppy’s expression collapse, saw the hurt on her face that he didn't want to acknowledge he'd caused with his words. There was a time when his sole purpose in a day was to make Poppy Ericksen smile. To hear her musical laugh. Not today. But despite his anger, hurting her didn’t make him feel any better.
In the distance, echoes of chainsaws and other equipment resonated from all the surrounding houses and across the fields. Now that the rain had stopped, everybody was outside trying to do their best with whatever resources they had at their disposal to try to get life back to normal.
The small town he'd grown up in wasn’t a stranger to floods or other natural disasters. Harsh Dakota weather was a way of life for the people in these parts. But they’d never seen anything like the floods that had swept through his town this past week. Ice, rain and the drought from last year had made the ground prime to nearly wipe some parts of South Dakota clean off the map. There had been little warning and scarcely any time to prepare for it.
Did he need help? Sure. Every single landowner around here was sorely lacking in resources despite the fact people were traveling from out of state to help. He'd be stupid to pass up help from anyone willing to pitch in and get dirty. But Poppy wasn't talking about the flood.
“Why now? You weren’t here when Kelly got sick. You didn't come back to see her when she'd spent those last months in the hospital dying. What makes you think anything you do now will make a difference?”
She looked at him directly. And damned he'd always admired the woman for that. Poppy had never been one to sink back from an argument. She'd always met it head on. And if she got caught in a wrong, she quickly owned up to it. Damn her. Logan didn't want to admire Poppy Ericksen for anything.
“Because Kelly asked me to.”
It was like he'd just been sucker punched in the gut. Kelly had asked her?
He chuckled sarcastically. “Those words are pretty easy coming from your mouth with Kelly not here to dispute them.”
“Say what you want about me, Logan. But when have I ever lied to you?” Poppy asked.
He was angry. He'd even go as far as saying he was disappointed in Poppy given the history the three of them had together. But a liar? No, she'd never been that.
He looked at her designer boots standing in the mud. Her blue jeans must have cost a small fortune and the tailored coat she was wearing probably cost as much as his mortgage payment. This wasn't the Poppy he remembered, the young girl who always turned his eye with the unexpected. That girl didn’t need designer threads.
“What makes you think I'd welcome any help you offered?”
Before he could even process the cruelty of that statement, she said, “Because right now there isn't a person in this county who doesn't already have too much work to do on their own property who is standing here offering help. So you're hardly in a position to turn me away.”
Logan couldn't argue that point. The magnitude of the cleanup work that lay ahead of him was overwhelming. When he and Keith had emerged from the house yesterday and he saw just how bad the world outside around him was, it nearly leveled him. And he hadn’t even had the chance to survey the entire property.
Her chest rose and fell on a heavy sigh, then she walked to the back of the car and opened her trunk, pulling out a large designer suitcase. She kept the trunk open.
“Unless of course, you'd prefer I stay somewhere else.”
“There is no place else in this county that has space available,” he said quickly. “Hotels are all full up with people who lost their homes or workers from out of town who are here for the cleanup.”
“I was talking about your mother's house.”
She chuckled, shaking her head. “Don't look so shocked. I always got along with your family just fine. I've known Kate McKinnon since I was able to walk across the floor of her restaurant. When I stopped in town at the diner earlier today, she offered to put me up if you turned me away.”
“You talked to my mother about staying here?”
She laughed and looked up at the sky. “Men. Am I speaking a foreign language? I don't know what you're having such a hard time with, Logan. It’s not like we haven’t slept under the same roof before. Your mom thought maybe you could use some help with Keith while you cleaned up since she's going to be too busy feeding people doing cleanup to keep an eye on him.”
His mom had told Logan as much earlier in the day. Keith loved spending time with his mom at the diner, but too many other people were in need right now for him to monopolize her time or any of his relations. His brothers would be coming to help when they had spare time, but in truth, Hawk was too busy at the clinic, dealing with injuries and Ethan, his twin brother, was working down at the police station coordinating search and rescue efforts. His military training was too much of an asset to those in need for Logan to expect him to rush over here. Word had it Sam was on his way home from Colorado at some point, but he wasn’t sure when. And Wade… After four years missing, the notion of his older brother showing up in Rudolph was just a wish, not a likely reality.
And Keith was his responsibility alone. Truth be known, Logan didn't want Keith anywhere but with him after hearing stories of flash flooding that swept people right out of the arms of loved ones. It had been scary enough worrying about Keith with all that water coming in around them during that long night of heavy rains and river swells. The fact that the house was still standing the next morning was enough to put his brothers’ minds at ease for the time being.
And yet, here was Poppy. She’d come all the way here from New York City like she’d appeared out of a dream. Damn her. He didn’t want to think about Poppy as a dream at all. He’d let that go years ago.
Poppy reached up and slammed the trunk closed.
“So what's it going to be? Am I moving into your old bed at your mom's house or my old room here?”
Poppy's shoulders sagged as she nodded slowly.
“Keith has that room now. I moved him in there after Kelly died so he'd be closer to my bedroom. You can take the room down the end of the hall. It's bigger anyway.”
She picked up her bag and walked slowly toward him, a crooked smile playing on her lips, one that made him feel like smooth velvet rubbing against his skin.
“You afraid of what your mom would have said if you turned me away?” she said, quietly goading him. “Or are you afraid of people talking.”
People were talking already if Poppy Ericksen rolled into town and stopped by the diner. Rudolph was a small town and everyone knew everyone.
He rolled his eyes, then glanced down at her. She was incredibly close. And she smelled damned good. She always had, he remembered. She’d never been one to wear heavy perfume or makeup. And today wasn’t any different. It was just Poppy. He hated that he was reminded of that. He didn't want those memories, so he pushed them back where they belonged. In the past. He was only allowing Poppy to stay for one reason.
“As you pointed out, I could use help with Keith while I do some cleanup here. If you could do that for me...it'd be good.”
She smiled then and her eyes lit up. He'd forgotten just how much they twinkled when she smiled. Something deep in his gut tightened.
“Good.” She started walking away, then turned back. “I'll just bring these upstairs and get changed. Be back in a minute.”
Logan took a moment to steady himself while checking on Keith's progress. The little guy had managed to transfer all the wood, one stick at a time, to a pile about ten yards away from the one he'd made in the driveway. Logan smiled at his son's tenacity. “Great job, little man!”
Keith beamed with pride. Logan heard the screen door creak and saw Poppy standing on the porch holding the door open, one foot on the threshold and the other on the porch. Her wide smile was genuine as she gazed over at Keith. The look she gave him was one of pure affection and admiration.
“Awesome job, Keith,” she called out before walking inside.
He wanted to stay angry at Poppy. Deep down it was easier that way than dealing with the feelings stirring inside of him from seeing her again.
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