Excerpt from ALL THAT MATTERS

Chapter One

“Please let him be here.”

Whatever crazy stunts she’d pulled in the past, this one topped them all and Faith Morgan was scared Buddy Lee Walker wouldn’t answer his door. Wouldn’t help her this time.

Standing at the back door of the small tract house where Buddy Lee had lived since they were kids in high school, Faith experienced a déjà vu moment. The last time she’d been here, her daddy had come storming after her, horrified that his daughter was mingling with the town’s white trash. His words, not hers.

Like the good friend he was, Buddy Lee took the blame that time without ever revealing the real reason she was there. Now after six years, here she was at his door again, hoping with all her heart his friendship still held.

Balling her fist, she pounded again as hard as she could. As much as she hated to ask him for help, Buddy Lee was the only one she could turn to. The only one who understood the reasons behind her rebellious teen years. He’d been her stalwart champion, despite her father’s disapproval. The protective brother she’d never had.

But that was then. This was now. She was twenty-three, not seventeen. She was responsible for her own actions. Or should be. What would he think of her now?

“Buddy Lee, please answer the door!”

A heart-stopping thought hit her. What if he didn’t live here any longer? Or married? After all, she’d left Liberty right after graduation, determined to change her public image. Her infrequent visits to her parents’ home had been kept as brief as possible; her high school protector all but forgotten. Until now.

“Buddy Lee, I need you!” She raised her hand one more time. Just one more try, then she’d leave.

Buddy Lee Walker didn’t appreciate the late-night knock interrupting his favorite Gunsmoke rerun, especially since he suspected the unwelcome visitor was only Scooter Craddock on his way home from his shift at the GAS‘N GO. The persistent banging on the door grew louder over the noise of the marshal’s gunfight.

Even though he’d seen the classic TV Western many times, Buddy Lee punched up the volume even louder, so as not to miss any action when Miss Kitty came down the staircase in the Long Branch. He jogged down the hall to the kitchen, flipping on the light switch as he passed. “All right, all right, I’m on my way. Hold your horses, for cryin’ out loud.”

He yanked open the back door, ready to ask Scooter what his damn problem was, but nearly swallowed his tongue instead when he saw the shadowed figure standing there.

“What the...Faith?” Buddy Lee’s heart slammed against his ribs so hard he had to grab the door frame to keep from falling flat out when his legs suddenly went boneless. He had to be dreaming, because the girl in those dreams stood there with tears streaming down her face, gulping great big sobs between words Buddy Lee couldn’t make heads or tails of. And she was a full-fledged woman, for cryin’ out loud! The high-voltage charge that ripped through his body made the hairs on the back of his neck stand straight up. He shivered like someone had walked on his grave.

“I yelled and yelled, Buddy Lee. Didn’t you hear me? C...can I come in? Please? I don’t know where else to go.”

Faith Morgan was the last person Buddy Lee ever expected to see at his back door—or any door, for that matter, but the outright fear in her eyes told him this wasn’t a social call. Now, why did that tie his insides in knots?

“Hey...hey, don’t cry. C’mon in.” Puzzled, and more than a little shocked, he took her arm and drew her inside, giving the door a shove behind him with one bare foot, but not before he shot a cautious glance up and down the street.

“Tell me what’s wrong, Faith. Are you hurt?” His imagination conjured up a thousand reasons for her appearance, but they were all fantasies. Not a logical one in the bunch.

“I’m in trouble, Buddy Lee.” Tear-bright green eyes held him captive. “I can’t marry Royce and I need you to help me.”

Her plea hit the soft place in Buddy Lee’s heart. A place where he’d kept her memory hidden for oh, so many years. But her last statement threw Buddy Lee’s brain into shock.

“What do you mean you can’t marry him? You’re kidding, right?” He did a quick math calculation. “Today’s Monday. Your wedding is Saturday morning. What’s the problem?”

Even though he hadn’t seen Faith in a long time, he knew about her engagement to Royce Webb, her father’s right hand man at the bank. Their upcoming nuptials had been the main topic of gossip in the tight-knit community for the past couple of months. Oh, yeah, he knew, all right.

Buddy Lee kept asking her questions while he steered her down the hall toward the living room, kicking his discarded boots and socks out of the way as they went. He jerked a dirty work shirt off the doorknob, tossed it into the bedroom, and yanked the door shut. Shoot, he hadn’t expected company. Especially not her. Not in a million years.

“Here, sit right here.” Buddy Lee fumbled to rid the sofa of a pile of old newspapers, the last three issues of Classic Cars magazines and a couple of articles of clothing he didn’t particularly care to have Faith see. He tossed the whole mess on the floor behind the sofa and patted the faded, blue plaid cushion, the imprint of its last occupant still obvious in the way it dipped and sagged. Funny, he’d never noticed how worn-out the furniture looked until now.

The shock of seeing Faith in his living room was rendering him speechless. He couldn’t believe she was actually right here—right now. And that set his mind racing with a long list of reasons as to why. None of them made a lick of sense.

Faith finally sat and Buddy Lee hunkered down on one knee beside her. “Look, Faith, I hate to keep asking the same question, but what’s going on? Why aren’t you marrying Royce?”

Trying to keep his voice steady was almost impossible, since his heart kept pounding like an out-of-sync piston. He looked down to make sure the thing hadn’t jumped out of his chest, then zeroed in on Faith’s face. Big mistake.

She must’ve been crying for some time, because her eyes were all puffy and red and she kept sniffling until finally, he reached in his back pocket for his handkerchief, checked to make sure it was clean and handed it to her. “Here.”

“Buddy Lee,” Faith whispered between hiccups and sobs and wiping her nose with his handkerchief.

“Yeah, what is it, Faith?” He held his breath. Oh, man, if she didn’t tell him what was wrong pretty soon, he was gonna explode.

“I just didn’t...I mean, there’s no one else I can trust.” She blew her nose real loud, then gave him a pleading look that tugged at his unprotected heart something fierce.

A lock of cinnamon-brown hair fell across her cheek and stuck in the damp track of her tears. Without thinking, he reached up to tuck it behind her ear, caught off guard when the wayward strand’s silky texture rasped against his rough fingers. The seductive sensation made him want things he knew he shouldn’t. His knuckles skimmed across her soft cheek of their own accord as he withdrew his shaking hand.

“You can always talk to me, Faith. You know that.” He eased up and sat next to her, real careful not to sit too close.

Since Buddy Lee was a good deal taller than Faith, he had to hunch over to hear what she was saying. The urge to put his arms around her was eating him up. He’d never so much as hugged her in all the years he’d known her. Not that he hadn’t wanted to, because Buddy Lee reckoned he’d loved Faith Morgan for about two forevers. That was something he’d never told anyone, not even Scooter, and especially not Faith. Wasn’t going to, either. That’s what was making it so hard to keep from reaching for her now.

“Look, Faith, if you’re in trouble, I need to know what it is. Otherwise, how am I gonna help you?” He was slipping back in time, barely hanging on to his good sense. Knowing Faith had been the only good thing in his life when he was seventeen. Rescuing her from her daddy’s wrath so many times made him feel like he amounted to something besides white trash, but Faith left town after graduation, and Buddy Lee accepted the fact that those good feelings were a thing of the past.

Even though she’d been a rule-breaker as a teen, landing in hot water time after time, one significant fact of life never changed. Faith was fancy—the daughter of the town banker—and right up there in Liberty’s small, but oh, so proper society.

Buddy Lee was about as far from fancy as a man could get. He was Boyd Walker’s son, a fact that made him mad as hell. It set his teeth on edge when folks in town called him “Boyd’s boy.” He hadn’t been anybody’s damn boy since his mama died when he was six.

The thought that Faith’s daddy might be headed over here looking for her grabbed his attention right then. Having a set-to with the likes of Lionel Morgan sure wasn’t on his list of things he wanted for Christmas. Not that Buddy Lee believed in Santa Claus. Definitely not with Morgan’s bank holding the mortgage on his struggling auto repair shop. No way. Santa never came to this side of the tracks.

“C’mon, Faith, tell me what’s wrong so I can help you,” he pleaded, anxious to get on with solving whatever was causing her grief.

All the wild escapades he’d rescued her from during their high school years flashed through his confused brain like a movie trailer. Lord only knew what she’d gotten into now. He’d taken the blame for her pranks more than once to save her from her daddy’s wrath. Easy enough to do when your own daddy’s behind bars for robbery and a bungled shoot-out. Everyone expected the worst from that Walker kid.

Now here she was asking for his help again. Well, shoot. He’d always been a sucker for those soft green eyes and that “help-me-this-time-Buddy Lee-and-I-promise-I’ll-never-do-it-again” smile. But, they weren’t kids any longer. So why did he have the feeling he was about to do something stupid?

Then, without warning, she surprised the hell out of him by launching herself into his arms and he didn’t know where to put them, except around her. A groan of pure pleasure rumbled up from somewhere deep inside his body. Buddy Lee closed his eyes in surrender. He figured he’d landed smack in the middle of Paradise.

In his wildest dreams, he hadn’t imagined how soft she would feel or how naturally she would fit into the curve of his arms. Couldn’t have imagined it in a hundred years. If death claimed him right now, just two weeks shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, Buddy Lee figured he’d die a happy man, sitting right there with Faith curled up against his chest. It was such a fine feeling, he screwed up enough courage to rest his chin on the top of her head and lose himself in the scent of her apple blossom shampoo.

But when her lips moved against the sensitive skin right there where his neck met his collarbone and her whispered words reached his ears, Buddy Lee’s world crumbled like a clod of dirt under a boot heel.

“Say you’ll marry me, Buddy Lee. We have to tell them the baby is yours.”

“We what?” Buddy Lee’s eyes crossed like he’d been smacked upside the head with a two-by-four. His words struggled out at two octaves higher than normal. His ears started ringing louder than the bell down at the fire station. His breath bunched up in his throat so thick he nearly choked on it, so he whooshed it out, then dragged in fresh air until his lungs promised not to shut down on him. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.

“What baby, Faith? Whose baby? Tell who?”

He held her at arm’s length, searching her tear-streaked face for a sensible explanation to her very un-sensible announcement. When she flinched and looked away he realized he had a death grip on her arms and released them in such a hurry, she swayed back against the sofa. Shame stung him when he saw the faint red marks his fingers had left on her skin.

He mumbled an apology, still reeling from her words. Marry her? Maybe in his dreams. But, a baby? Never.

“Please, Buddy Lee, say you will. I promise this will be the last time I ask you for help. Honestly.”

“Now, wait a minute, Faith.” Buddy Lee’s mind was back-pedaling faster than he could keep up. “You’d better tell me about this baby first. And what about Royce? I thought your wedding was all set for Saturday.”

He’d been hearing about the coming event from everyone in town for the last two months. Cripes, didn’t those people have anything else to talk about?

She sat there hugging herself, looking at him in that heart-melting way she’d always had of making him feel like a jerk to even consider saying ‘no’ to anything she asked.

“Oh, it is. Daddy’s got all the arrangements made. Every single thing.” Faith fidgeted, glanced toward the front door, then back at Buddy Lee. Her eyes glistened with more tears ready to fall. “But...”

His heart plummeted to his feet. Uh-oh. That could only mean one thing. The thought of Faith and Royce doing it, even if they were engaged, caused a wallop of plain ol’ envy to butt heads with his good sense before he managed to speak.

“You’re not the first expectant bride to ever walk down the aisle, Faith. Is that your big problem?” He moved to curve his arm around her, drawing her closer. Tried to sound sympathetic when what he really wanted to do was let go with a flying fist into the wall.

“I’ll bet ol’ Royce is proud as a peacock about being a daddy,” he said, surprised he could even manage to talk with his jaws locked up like they were.

Something about the funny little noise she made in the back of her throat and the way she screwed up her face set off a warning bell in Buddy Lee’s head. “You did tell him, didn’t you?”

She shook her head, coppery curls swaying. “No,” she whispered. “I can’t let him find out. I don’t want to marry him. I won’t.”

When she turned her face upwards so that her green eyes met his, there was no mistaking the flash of defiance burning brightly in their depths. Oh, boy, he’d seen that warning spark on more than one occasion, right before she did something wild and crazy just to break her daddy’s rules. That streak of rebelliousness coupled with her innocent charm had beguiled him then and held him spellbound now. There was no accounting for the way his heart worked.

“I can’t explain everything to you yet, Buddy Lee, but I will soon. Just trust me for now, please?”

A queasy feeling suddenly roiled through his stomach in giant waves. This was not looking good.

“Trust you? Darlin’, if I remember right, every time I trusted you I landed up to my ass in alligators. Keeping you out of trouble with your daddy when we were in high school was a full time job. Those crazy pranks of yours nearly got me expelled more than once.” He rubbed a hand over his face as old memories kicked in. “I didn’t mind taking the blame back then, but this idea is waaaay too wild. Much as I’d like to, I can’t afford to fight those particular ‘gators anymore.”

He wasn’t about to give Lionel Morgan a reason to call in the bank note. He could just imagine the banker’s delight if that happened. But his resolve started slipping the minute Faith reached for his hand. Awww, hell.

“Maybe you’d better start at the beginning,” he said with a sigh, hoping there weren’t too many alligators lurking in this particular swamp.