The first time I saw Remington Marshall, he stole my heart.
The last time I saw Remington Marshall, he’d just burned my family’s barn to the ground.
Arson usually complicated relationships.
Especially afterward, when Rem left our sleepy town of Butterpond in the dead of night without so much as a goodbye. He’d stayed gone for five long years.
Five years with no phone call. No visits. No explanations.
Even worse—no apology.
So, when my brother, Tidus, told me Rem was back in town, I had to make a decision.
Ignore Remington Marshall and forget he’d ever existed…
Or demand an answer for why he’d broken my heart.
I chose the latter, encouraged by the perspective I’d gained over the last couple years. As long as we stayed away from any flammable objects that might’ve torched what remained of my potential happiness, a conversation would bring me some much-needed closure. Besides, all that time had allowed me to douse the last few embers burning in my barn, heart, and loins.
But that still didn’t make confrontation a good idea, despite my brother’s insistence.
He came home to take care of his nieces, Tidus said.
Take him up a box of kids’ toys from storage, he said.
Pick me up a burger from Lou’s on the way home, he said.
Rem wasn’t a man who wanted to be found, even in the tiny town of Butterpond—a small cluster of dreams, prayers, and fatty liver disease. Butterpond was where the trees wanted in, the people wanted out, and my family’s farm accidentally lynch-pinned the whole place together.
To the town, my family was a fixture. The Payne’s farm. The Payne’s charity. The Payne’s pain in the ass boys who rolled over the town’s one streetlight like a plague of locusts. The Payne’s adopted daughter in a family of five boys—bless her heart.
But Rem? He no longer belonged in the town. Men like him kept to themselves, tucked away inside a cabin in the mountains, hidden from society by gravel roads, the occasional tick, and busted suspensions.
As much as I’d once loved Rem, risking Lyme disease and a punctured tire seemed a bad idea.
I did it anyway.
A box of old toys and children’s clothes was jammed in next to my suitcase.
This would be quick. In and out. Hand him the box stuffed with goodies from when my family had foster kids running all over the farm. Wish him well. Make the requisite small talk. And then pretend like my heart wasn’t held together with a roll of scotch tape and a smattering of pride.
I wasn’t about to let Remington Marshall shatter my barely rejuvenated dignity. Besides, the last I’d heard, he was the one crippled with guilt. Rumor had it—and by rumor, I meant the occasional conversation with his sister, Emma—he’d run away to the deepest forests of Canada to join a logging company.
If a heart broke in the forest, did it make a sound? The answer was yes, but it wasn’t a thud. More like the noise a sleepy woman yelped in the middle of the night when she stubbed her toe on the way to the bathroom. Less of a timber! More like son of a—
The box fit snugly against my hip, drawing the hem of my skirt up only an inch. I was fine with that. Showing a little leg would do me good. I’d grown up since the fire. Earned my curves. Managed to fill out my bra without two handfuls of wadded up toilet paper. Things were looking up.
I wound my way over a weed-choked cobblestone path and picked my steps up the rickety porch. The cabin was lost in the woods, and the forest wasn’t happy with the new occupant. The little space was so overgrown with brush and leaves that the trees would be grateful to be cleaned out of the gutters.
My knock clattered against the cabin door—almost loud enough to drown out the very irritated cry of a baby.
The wail might’ve belonged to a child. Could have also been a mountain lion with a toothache. Sometimes it was tough to tell, even with a degree in early education. Money well spent.
The door flung open. I expected Remington. Instead, a bright-eyed, blonde-haired, puffy-cheeked three-year-old peered up at me, scowled, and belted at the top of her precious little lungs to alert all within a square mile of my arrival.
I winced. “Hi. I’m Cassi. Is your Uncle—”
This alerted the baby—the real siren of the household who’d missed her calling as the dive alarm for a German U-Boat.
The chorus of screams rang in my ears. I shushed the three-year-old with a wave of my hand.
“I’m not a stranger—I’m a…” Was friend the right word? “I know your Uncle Rem…well, not know know. We grew up together. I mean, he grew up with my brother—I grew up later. But we were…I’d see him a lot—”
I cringed and went to Plan B. The box dropped to the porch. I debated on running, but the tape had loosened enough for me to rip the flaps. An old baby doll rested on a folded pile of clothes. I offered it as a sacrifice to appease the child.
“It’s for you!” My frantic words shushed her. “It’s PJ Sparkles. All the little girls loved PJ Sparkles!”
The child quieted. She bit her lip, scratched her leg with a foot clad in mismatched socks, and reached for the doll. She jumped as a husky voice caught her in the act.
“What do we have here?”
His voice was a blend of sticky marshmallow and crumbling graham cracker, and I melted like a chocolate bar squished near the fire.
I knew better than to get burned by Remington Marshall, but even the wisest girl sometimes took a big bite before blowing on it.
And, believe me, Rem would go to his grave wishing I had blown him.
Rem leaned against the door frame. His broad shoulders were clad in a warm, red flannel shirt. He scratched a wild, thick beard, and might have teased a smile. I couldn’t tell. Five years of isolation had obscured his face in dark hair.
A one-year-old baby wailed in his arms.
“Never expected to see you here, Cassia Payne.” He grunted as the three-year-old bashed the doll’s plastic head into a part of him that regretted meeting PJ Sparkles. He stepped aside and let her go play, but his stare pinned me in place. “Lost in the woods, little girl?”
What had happened to my Remington Marshall?
Gone was the teenage bad boy, strong enough to win his fights but lean enough to make a quick escape once Sherriff Samson flashed his lights. Now, Rem had become a terrifying beast of rugged strength. A lumberjack. A man like him could have punched down a tree. The Canadian forests never stood a chance.
Muscles packed on muscles. And the beard…oh, the beard. I didn’t know if he belonged in an ice fishing cabin or on a Harley, but this wasn’t the boy who’d left me behind.
This was a man.
And he was in trouble.
Rem struggled to bounce the little bundle of pink in his arms. The baby fussed, red-faced and probably wishing her Uncle hadn’t given her diaper a wedgie while rocking her. The three-year-old dropped the doll and instead raced over, around, and on top of his feet, tugging on his jeans with an urgent need to tinkle. She tripped over one of the four stuffed garbage bags piled in the entryway. One had already blown open, spilling dresses, shoes, socks, and toys into the cabin.
The three-year-old was wearing two shirts. The baby needed a pair of pants. Rem’s own belongings had tumbled into the hall—duffel bags and mountain boots.
Tidus wasn’t lying. Rem must have come home only hours before to take care of the kids.
The older girl somersaulted around his feet, somehow summoning and then spilling a glass of water. The TV blared cartoons from the den. The baby cried just to be louder than the show. Behind him, every chair had been toppled in the dining room. The cushions stripped off the couch. Something slimy dripped from the sink.
Chaos had descended upon a three-square-foot area of his life…
And a part of me really enjoyed the struggle.
“Everyone said you ran away to become a lumberjack,” I said. “But apparently you joined a circus.”
Rem was a great liar. I’d learned that long ago. He attempted to soothe the baby and accidentally smooshed her face into the wall of muscle that was his shoulder. His wink wasn’t fooling anyone.
“Brought the circus home too.” He reached down and lifted the little girl to her feet before she somersaulted into the wall. “Got my acrobat tumbling her way into preschool, and the prepubescent bearded lady doing shows before and after naptime.”
Cute. “And what’s your talent?”
“World’s sexiest uncle.”
“Ain’t no one buying tickets for that.”
The three-year-old demanded cookies. The baby, blood. I shook my head. “Guess again.”
He wished. I crossed my arms. “Better get a shovel. I think you’re mucking out stalls and diapers.”
Rem grinned, but that was a charmer’s smile, part of his bag of tricks. He’d always been the type to sweet-talk his way out of handcuffs just to use them in bed. But maybe he had changed. Maybe the wilderness had straightened him out? Perhaps…the hard work taught him responsibility? Was it possible the time apart had made him as miserable as it had me?
Or maybe that smile meant I should’ve left the box on the porch and ran.
“Do I have to charge admission, or are you coming inside?” he asked.
Dangerous question. “Depends. Got an elephant under this big top?”
“Nah. He’s on break. I’m standing in.”
“And what are you?”
Fair enough. I offered him the box. “This is some stuff from the farm—back when we had all the foster kids. Tidus said you could probably use it. Clothes and toys.”
Rem easily balanced the baby on his shoulder and the box in his arms. He left the door open. Inviting the little ones to escape or beckoning me inside?
I spoke from the entryway, a promise to myself. “Only for a minute.”
“Want something to drink?” he asked.
“That would take longer than a minute.”
“Good. I don’t have much to offer.”
The three-year-old circled the sofa with the doll, tripped over the logs that were once stacked neatly by a stone fireplace, and plummeted onto the hardwood. She whimpered, rolled, and revealed scraped knee. The crying began anew.
Rem brushed his hands through his shaggy, collar length dark hair and sighed.
“Are you bleeding? Again? Really?” He fumbled through a couple drawers. “All right. Here. No band-aids, but…”
Oh, this was a disaster.
Rem ripped a piece of electrical tape between his teeth, juggled the baby from one arm to the other, and slapped the silver strip over the girl’s knee.
“Good job,” I said. “Now she’s patched up, and she won’t conduct electricity.”
“She’ll be fine.” He patted the girl’s head. “Mellie, say hi to Cassi. Cas, this is Melanie. And this…” He flipped the baby outwards, finally letting her look around the room. She instantly stopped crying. The chubby cheeks and sniffling nose gave way to an adorable smile with three little white teeth poking out. “This is Tabitha—Tabby. They’re Emma’s kids.”
They looked like his sister—blonde and perky with the right amount of sass that got her in as much trouble as Rem.
I hated to ask the question, but a man like Rem wouldn’t volunteer to babysit without a genuine crisis. “What happened to Emma?”
Rem turned somber—a dark, serious glance broken with a forced shrug. “She’s…sick. Needed some help.”
“Is she okay?”
“Yeah. Just needs time. I came home to wrangle the kids.”
“I’m surprised to see you.” No harm in the truth.
“It’s been a while.”
I looked away. Somehow, under the heavy flannel, bushy beard, and shaggy hair was the Remington Marshall that still made my chest flutter. My options were to escape or find a defibrillator. My heart was broken, but it could still stop if he whispered the right words.
I shuffled towards the door, but Mellie plucked at the electrical tape banding her knee. The garbage bags of clothes, the injured child, and the quarter inch of dust over the cabin didn’t bode well.
“Are you sure you know…” How to phrase it without insulting him or completely terrifying the kids. “I had no idea you liked children.”
“They’re all right.”
“And…they’re still alive. So you must be doing…okay?”
Rem snorted. “They’re kids, Cas. I can handle ‘em.”
Right. “And…how long have you had them?”
Rem checked his watch. “It’s been five hours, and I haven’t lost my mind yet.”
Yet. “And you’re happy to babysit?”
“For how long?”
“As long as she needs.” Rem sounded confident. Or foolish. Probably foolish. “Don’t worry. It’s temporary. A week or two at the most. Shouldn’t be too hard. Keep an eye on them until Emma’s good, and then I’ll head back to the logging company.”
I laughed. Sweet Jesus, he was serious. I covered my mouth. “You…you’re keeping them here?”
“I was going to let them out at night like a cat, but I figured they’d rather get the lay of the land first.” He plopped the baby on the ground within range of both the wall outlet, fire place, and his penknife on the coffee table. “How hard can it be?”
And that was all I needed to hear.
I did not need to get involved.
Did not need to warm at his smile.
Did not need to wonder why my skin tingled in his presence.
Rem was a good-looking boy when we were kids, but at twenty-seven, he was absolutely gorgeous. A hard jaw from hard work. Toughened voice from a tough life. A strong back strengthened through manual labor. He might’ve tussled with a baby hell-bent on toddling into the fireplace, but he hadn’t left the wilds in the forest.
Rem looked as out of place in his own home as the kids did in the middle of the woods.
I had to help him.
Maybe I made this bad decision because it had been so long since I last saw him. Maybe I let my heart lead because the beard disguised him in a dark, tempting mystery. Or maybe I took pity on him because five years ago I had been hopelessly in love with our small town’s baddest bad boy.
Rem wasn’t a trouble-maker anymore, but he was still in trouble. Especially now that Butterpond had changed so much. We had cell phone reception. Community events. A giant Facebook group where all the busybodies kept in touch. Butterpond wouldn’t let him hunker down in the forest and hide forever.
And it must’ve terrified him.
“How’s the farm?” Even his words were jagged, briars in his throat. Either he was out of practice with small talk or he knew he shouldn’t have asked.
“It’s a warzone,” I said. “but no fires at least.”
“Is he ever?” I smirked. “Tidus hates this town as much as me.”
“What about everyone else?”
Well, they wouldn’t be happy to hear that Rem came back home. “Julian is…Julian. Trying to rebuild the farm like he has any idea how to manage it. Marius is overseas still—he can’t tell us where, and he likes it that way. Varius hasn’t been the same since the tornado. Quint... God only knows. Runs around like a puppy, but turns rabid the instant any of my brothers look his way.”
Rem rummaged through his fridge and offered me a beer. I shook my head. He popped the cap off but didn’t drink.
“About your dad…” he said.
So was everyone, but I still nodded and accepted the thoughts, prayers, and Bundt cakes.
“We knew it was coming,” I said. “His heart was bad.”
“Doesn’t mean it hurts any less.”
I’d done a fantastic job of smooshing that pain deep, deep down and suppressing the memories of the past few months when I’d taken care of him. My brothers understood, but it felt different for me—the one adopted girl in the family of biological sons.
They’d left me alone on the farm with Dad, and the family slowly tore itself apart. Fight after fight, even during Dad’s last days. Each of my brothers swore they’d never speak to the others again.
At least, until that phone call had to be made.
“The good news...well…news, I guess,” I said. “Everyone is home now. In Dad’s infinite wisdom, he left the farm to everyone. Every decision on the land must be made in unison, in person. No subdividing the farm. No selling our pieces to anyone else. It’s World War Three with pitchforks and chicken coops.”
“Bombs dropping like eggs.”
Tabby attempted to toddle with Rem’s wallet into the bathroom. Mellie giggled from inside. Rem excused himself, swore as the toilet flushed, and returned with a soaking wet wallet. He pitched it into the sink and shooed both kids away.
They stayed glued to him, wrapping their arms around his legs like they hadn’t been hugged in years. Rem knelt down and welcomed them into his thick arms.
It wasn’t a sight I’d expected to see from a man like him.
“So what…” His words mumbled over Tabby’s fingers as she clobbered him in the mouth. “What are you…doing?”
“Anything I can to get out of here.”
Mellie slid from his side and skipped back to her baby doll. He set Tabby on the counter. I rushed forward before he realized that the one-year-old was a bit hyper and likely to take a tumble. She eagerly offered me more of his possessions. I accepted the jingling keys and his cellphone, but I stopped her before she lunged for a sheathed bowie knife tucked inside a stack of paperwork.
Rem leaned against the sink, sipping his beer. “You’re leaving, huh? Where are you planning to go?”
“Been there, Sassy.” The nickname rolled off his tongue, like he’d never stopped using it. “Running doesn’t get you as far as you think.”
“Well, I need to get somewhere. I love my brothers too much to start hating them.”
“You know they need you, especially with your parents gone.”
The guilt was already suffocating me. “Jules says I remind them of Mom.”
“Yeah. I can see the family resemblance.”
As was the gentle joke which passed around the town. I brushed my dark fingers through the bouncing curls I’d swept away with the aid of a bubblegum pink scarf. Didn’t matter if my momma was blonde haired and green eyed or if she shared my mahogany skin and fawn eyes, people in Butterpond knew I was her daughter because she’d taught me how to be a lady.
And how to whoop my brothers into shape if they gave me a hard time.
But mostly how to be a good lady.
Also, a forgiving woman. She never thumped the Bible, only used it to swat our backsides when we acted out. What would she say about this? The man I swore never to forgive…and the kids tumbling around his house.
Mellie climbed the woodpile. Tabby unsuccessfully attempted to roll off the counter, falling into my arms.
And he thought it was going to be easy.
He wouldn’t last the night.
“Do you have everything you need for them?” I asked.
Rem nodded. “I got some of their clothes. They brought toys. I set them up in the spare bedroom.”
“Well, that’s good. But…do you know Tabby’s diaper is on backwards?”
He approached the child, picked her up under the arms, and gave her a quick once over.
“Is that why it keeps leaking?” He whistled in realization. “Thought she was an overachiever.”
Fantastic. “Okay, Rem…there’s like, six things I can see from where I’m standing that will seriously maim the very young children.”
He plopped Tabby on the counter and attempted to twist the diaper to the right position. When that didn’t work, he undid the tabs with so much force ripped the Velcro, removed the diaper, and left her tush on the cold counter. The diaper flipped, but he couldn’t fasten it.
He grabbed his handy electrical tape once more. “There. Now she’s got a racing stripe.”
If only he could feed, bathe, and entertain the kids with tape too. At least it wasn’t a staple gun.
I finally asked the question. “Do you need help, Rem?”
His lazy smile would’ve been cute if Mellie wasn’t heading for the axe he’d set near the backdoor. “You worried about me, Sassy?”
“Worried you’re going to end up on the news…” I pointed to the axe wielding Mellie—one blue ox short of a classic American tall tale. “And now I’ll be an accomplice.”
“Mellie, you chop my house down, you’re building the next one.” He took the axe from her hands and searched for a place to put it. The cabin was a mess, so he shrugged and stuck it on top of the fridge, clattering a couple pots and pans out of the way. “They’re kids. Sure, I need some time to fix the place up…” Rem batted at a spider web over the kitchen window. I cringed as the spider clamored to hide in the dusty curtains. “But they needed me. Emma asked, so here I am. Someone’s gotta help the girls. Just like what your family used to do for all those kids—including me.”
“You’re certain you can handle it?”
“Got no problems here.”
I should have left. The suitcase waited in my car. I had a full-tank of gas. I’d been threatening to head to Ironfield for two weeks now.
Rem had the box of supplies. The kids hadn’t set fire to the cabin yet.
They’d be fine.
But my feet didn’t move. “Do you have food for them?”
Rem took a swig from his beer. A liquid dinner might have suited him, but I doubted Mellie and Tabby wanted to lounge on the couch, knocking back a cold six-pack of Juicy Juice.
“I’ll find something,” he said. “I think it’s cute that you’re worried.”
“I’m not worried.” If I was worried, I’d have to stay. “I’m…making conversation.”
“Could have done that a long time ago,” he said. “Called me up.”
And let him know how twice in the past five years I’d actually tracked down a contact number for him in the middle of the Canadian wilds? No thanks.
“I didn’t hear from you either,” I said. “Not even a hey, sorry about the barn.”
“I am sorry about the barn. Sorry about a lot of things. Sorry I haven’t seen you since then.”
I stomped down a betraying warmth. No need to open that Pandora’s Box. “You were the one who left.”
“You didn’t want me around.”
“I never said that.”
“Cause you were too polite. You’d let Julian’s fist do the talking.”
“He’s quite persuasive.”
“And if he knew you were up here, asking about my dinner plans?”
I smirked. “Asking about the kids’ dinner plans.”
Rem glanced over his shoulder. “Mellie, want some dinner?”
The little girl marched into the kitchen, dragging Rem’s boots on her feet. She stumbled as she walked, but she raised her little chin as if she wore a tiara instead of steel-toed mud buckets.
“I don’t like peas,” she said.
“Me either. See?” He winked. “We’re fine.”
This would be fun. I knelt to her level. “Mellie, what else don’t you like to eat?”
Her words bumbled in and out of intelligibility. “Chicken. Broccoli. Green. Yogurt. Cars. Dragons. Shoes!”
The answer became a rambling story about a kitten, dragon, and a spaghetti noodle, but she illustrated my point.
“Any ideas, Chef?” I asked.
Rem had attempted to memorize her preferences and got lost somewhere around worms and green. “I…have some beef jerky.”
“You’re going to feed beef jerky to some toddlers?”
“Got some trail mix too. A can of soup beans.”
“…How long are you keeping the kids?”
“As long as Emma needs.”
I raised my eyebrows. “How long do you think you can keep them alive?”
“At least through the night.”
Good enough for me. Now it was my turn to leave him. I’d already survived five years without speaking, without resolving anything, without…
Saying those words.
I’d last another five. Maybe by then, he’d be out of jail for child endangerment.
“Start small,” I said. “Do you have milk?”
“Do you want my advice?”
Rem braced himself on the counter, muscles flexing, eyes brightening with a roguish playfulness that made any game unwinnable.
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen you, Cas…I’ll take anything you’re willing to give.”
“Go into town—”
I sighed. “Why not?”
“I’ve gotten real good at avoiding Butterpond.”
“Who’s the real baby here? Get off this mountain. Take the girls into town. Buy some kid- friendly food.”
“Like…chew and whiskey?”
I scolded him. “Battery acid and horseradish.”
He grimaced, finally realizing the girls couldn’t survive on dried meats and wild onions.
“Okay,” he said. “This might be hard to believe, Cas…but I might need some help managing this circus. I mean…” His smile turned wicked. “I can pitch a hell of a tent, but beyond that…”
I didn’t need the visual. It’d taken years for me to stop fantasizing about it. “It won’t be that hard. Just…feed them. Make sure they don’t set themselves or the forest on fire. Put them to bed. Repeat.”
“Go with me,” he said.
“To the store.”
Nope. Nada. Not happening. “It’s right where you left it, Rem.”
“How will I know what to buy? Chicken nuggets or liver and onions? Red jello or red wine?”
“You’ll figure it out.”
He edged a little closer, grabbing Tabby before she tossed his phone against the wall. “Not asking for much, Sassy. Give me a couple pointers.”
“I’m on my way out of town.” And this time, I meant it.
That smile didn’t just slay me—it pinned me against the ropes, powerslammed me to the mat, then grabbed a metal folding chair from the crowd.
“How about one last favor for me?” he asked.
Not a chance. That well had emptied trying to put out the barn fire.
He read my reluctance. “Okay. A favor to the kids?”
Damn it. Tabby gave me a wave of her chubby fingers. Mellie continued to list things she liked, didn’t like, and some sounds the baby particularity enjoyed while shouted at the top of her lungs.
I surrendered. “Tell me you have a car seat.”
“No, the kids rode up here on top of a wild boar. Have a little faith, Cassi.”
“That’s the problem,” I said. “I don’t have much faith left in you.”
“Me either.” Rem’s voice had mellowed with honesty and time. “Just means I can’t disappoint you anymore, huh?”
“You’ve never backed down from a challenge.”
“That settles it.” His amusement thudded my heart like an axe missing a tree and striking a nearby boulder instead. “I got nothing else to lose, Cas.”
“Because I already lost you.”